Queen Elizabeth’s devotion to duty can inspire us in fulfilling our duties, both temporary and eternal.
Written Autumn 2020
In preparing to move from the USA to the UK to embark a new leadership role at Bhaktivedanta Manor near London, I started brushing up on English history. Over the last century, the person who stood out most for me was Queen Elizabeth II,
The current queen and the longest reigning monarch in British history. Queen Elizabeth has undoubtedly brought an unwavering sense of duty to her post. She has consistently put God and her country before personal considerations.
Although some call for further modernization of the monarchy, Queen Elizabeth is still widely appreciated for her steady and dutiful service.
This led me to think about duty and how it’s a central theme in the talks between Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna in the ancient Indian scripture Bhagavad-gītā. Although Arjuna’s duty was to fight, he found many good reasons not to: For one, his teachers, relatives, friends, and elders were on the opposing side; for another, he felt society would become chaotic due to many war deaths. When, like Arjuna, we forget that our duty is to serve Kṛṣṇa, we become bewildered, fall into material consciousness, and become implicated in personal sense gratification.
In Arjuna’s case, overwhelmed with confusion, he turned to Kṛṣṇa for relief, and Kṛṣṇa systematically dismantled Arjuna’s “good reasons” for not fighting, relieved him of confusion, and unequivocally established the priority of divine duty.
What is Duty?
The word “duty” comes from Old French deu, past participle of devoir, “to owe,” from Latin debere, “to owe.” Duty is something required of us as a legal or moral obligation. If we’re not clear about what our legal or moral obligations are, or, as in Arjuna’s case, if those obligations appear to conflict, we can become distressed and demoralized.
Like Arjuna, each one of us, at some point, has duties to our family, teachers, seniors, and society. Negligence in any of these areas will eventually lead to self-berating anxiety, yet at the same time there’s another, overriding consideration.
For duty to be fulfilling, it requires something more than an immediate purpose. It requires an ultimate purpose, a purpose that’s bigger than ourselves and rooted in the reality of who we are. Kṛṣṇa explained to Arjuna that although He Himself has no need to perform duties while in this world, He does so because if He didn’t, His bad example would be followed by others. The result would be societal havoc. Therefore Kṛṣṇa does His duty, and He wants all leaders and learned members of society to do theirs so that those who are not learned will in turn do their duty. In this way society will function well and all will benefit. In Śrīla Prabhupāda’s words, “A realized soul in Kṛṣṇa consciousness should not disturb others in their activities or understanding, but he should act by showing how the results of all work can be dedicated to the service of Kṛṣṇa.” (Gītā 3.26, Purport) For better or worse our behaviour affects others.
The Queen’s Example
Thus, a preliminary aspect of the refined art of duty is to be a good example to others. “Whatever action a great man performs, common men follow. And whatever standards he sets by exemplary acts, all the world pursues.” (Gītā 3.21) Or, put in other words: “Just for the sake of educating the people in general, you should perform your work.” (Gītā 3.20) How do those who are devoted to God exhibit a good example? One way is by controlling their mind and senses, for unless the mind and senses are controlled, one cannot make any advancement in spiritual life.
In 1947, when Elizabeth was a princess touring South Africa with her family, she addressed her people:
“On my twenty-first birthday, I welcome the opportunity to speak to all the people of the British Commonwealth and empire wherever they live, whatever race they come from, and whatever language they speak. I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and to the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong. But I shall not have strength to carry out this resolution alone unless you join in it with me, as I now invite you to do. I know that your support will be unfailingly given. God help me to make good my vow, and God bless all of you who are willing to share in it.”
She became queen a few years later. After vowing to maintain the laws of God and to execute all her judgments with justice and mercy, she then solemnly declared, “The things which I have here before promised, I will perform and keep. So help me God.”
In the Gītā Kṛṣṇa says that among people He is the monarch, which is called naradeva in Sanskrit. Naradeva means “God in human form,” for the monarch is the supreme citizen in the state and is responsible for the welfare of all others, just as God is the supreme living being in the creation and is the maintainer of all other living beings. By his or her example, the monarch is supposed to represent the Supreme Lord and help the citizens become God conscious, for this is the ultimate duty of every citizen. The late great saint and leader Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda explains:
“The part and parcel of this body – hand – what is it meant for? It is meant for serving the whole body. Similarly, if I am part and parcel of the Supreme Lord, then what is my duty? My duty is to abide by the orders of the Lord…”
Given that we are an integral part of God, each one of us is morally obliged to be accountable to Him. We owe it to ourselves to become aware of Him by following His directives and the directives of His devotees, for that awareness will bring us the fulfillment we seek. This is not to say that we neglect our many unavoidable duties to our family, teachers, friends, seniors, and society, but rather that through this vision we can see those duties in the light of accountability to God. Our multifarious duties need not obstruct our spiritual life but can be dovetailed to our spiritual life. Queen Elizabeth expressed this thought in her annual Christmas message broadcast to the Commonwealth in 2000:
“To many of us, our beliefs are of fundamental importance. For me the teachings of Christ and my own personal accountability before God provide a framework in which I try to lead my life.” Everyone has some particular type of duty or occupation. If we perform our duties in the worship and service of God, our life will be perfect.
In addition to accountability to God, Kṛṣṇa instructs us in the Gītā to become equipoised regarding the results of our activities. He says, “You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of action.” (Gītā 2.47). Bhaktivedanta Swami explains:
“Everyone has his proprietary right in regard to prescribed duties, but should act without attachment to the result; such disinterested obligatory duties doubtlessly lead one to the path of liberation. Arjuna was therefore advised by the Lord to fight as a matter of duty without attachment to the result. His nonparticipation in the battle is another side of attachment. Such attachment never leads one to the path of salvation. Any attachment, positive or negative, is cause for bondage. Inaction is sinful.” (Gītā 2.47, Purport)
Further emphasizing this point, Kṛṣṇa says, “Without being attached to the fruits of activities, one should act as a matter of duty, for by working without attachment one attains the Supreme.” (Gītā 3.19)
So another aspect of the art of duty is to do the best we can, knowing that ultimately the result of our effort is not in our control, and remain detached from that result. Queen Elizabeth voiced a thought similar to this in her 2002 Christmas address: “I know just how much I rely on my own faith to guide me through the good times and the bad. Each day is a new beginning, I know that the only way to live my life is to try to do what is right, to take the long view, to give of my best in all that the day brings, and to put my trust in God.”
A still more impelling reason to do our duty is to please God: “Work done as a sacrifice for Viṣṇu has to be performed; otherwise work causes bondage in this material world. Therefore, O son of Kuntī, perform your prescribed duties for His satisfaction, and in that way you will always remain free from bondage.” (Gītā 3.9)
Monarchs of Yore
Let us turn to the monarchs of previous ages, monarchs such as Yudhiṣṭhira, Ṛṣabha, Bharata, Pṛthu, and Gaya. Of Gaya, the ancient Indian scripture Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam (5.15.7) says:
King Gaya gave full protection and security to the citizens so that their personal property would not be disturbed by undesirable elements. He also saw that there was sufficient food to feed all the citizens. He would sometimes distribute gifts to the citizens to satisfy them. He would sometimes call meetings and satisfy the citizens with sweet words. He would also give them good instructions on how to become first-class citizens. Such were the characteristics of King Gaya’s royal order. Besides all this, King Gaya was a householder who strictly observed the rules and regulations of household life.
As a king he gave the citizens all facilities, and as a householder he executed all his duties so that at the end he became a strict devotee of the Supreme Lord. As a devotee, he was always ready to give respect to other devotees and to engage in the devotional service of the Lord. Due to all these transcendental activities, King Gaya was always free from the bodily conception.
Although he was perfect in all respects, he was not proud, nor was he anxious to rule the kingdom.
Though we should not directly compare the present British monarchy to the ancient Indian King Gaya, it is heartening to see that a pious, God-centered Queen can stir the sincere affection and appreciation of her people despite the rampant atheism, depression, scepticism, cynicism, pessimism, fatalism, and consumerism in these dire and distracted times. As said in the UK, “God save the Queen.” Or in the Queen’s words during her Christmas message of 2013: “For Christians, as for all people of faith, reflection, meditation and prayer help us to renew ourselves in God’s love, as we strive daily to become better people. The Christmas message shows us that this love is for everyone. There is no one beyond its reach.”
Written by Visakha Dasi