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- Self and svadharma
- Performing or Not Performing One’s svadharma
- Intention: sakAma (or with Desire) or niSkAma (or Without Desire)
The paths of bondage and liberation
dhAranAd dharma iti Ahur dharmeNa vidhratAH prajAH, yat syAd dhAraNa saMyuktaM sa
dharma iti nizcayaH
(mahAbhArata 12.110.11). dharma is said to be that which holds and supports
a person. Further, it is used to hold the descendents in one’s lineage together or future generations
of one’s family together. In addition, that which is endowed with the holding capacity is definitely
. By stating that dharma holds the future generations together, it is clear that dharma
encompasses one beyond one’s life, and includes one’s children, family members, and other people.
Verse 2.31: svadharmamapi cAvekSya na vikampitumarhasi; dharmyAddhi yuddhAcchreyo’
nyatkSatriyasya na vidyate
. While examining your duties as a kSatriya, you should not hesi-
tate to fight, since for a kSatriya there is nothing more auspicious than to take part in a just
Verse 2.33: athacetvamimaM dharmyaM saGgrAmaM na kariSyasi; tataH svadharmaM kIrtiM
ca hitvA pApamavApsyasi
. If you do not fight in this just battle, you will miss out on your duties,
acquire infamy, and earn demerit or sin.
varnAzram dharma was discussed in Chapter 4. Briefly, according to the varnAzram dharma
human life is divided into four Azramas or phases: the student phase (or brahmacarya Azrama),
the householder phase (or grihastha Azrama), the forest dweller phase (or vAnaprastha Azrama),
and the monkhood phase (or sannyAsa Azrama). The four castes of brAmhaNa, kSartriya,
Self and svadharma
same time neglecting one’s duties is equated to earning demerit or sin, thus presenting
a strong deterrent against the shirking of one’s duties.
The positive aspects of performing one’s duties are stated in verses 3.35a,
and 18.48. If we decide to do our duties, then we face another decision
point, whether we should perform our duties with the intention to achieve the fruits
of our work or to work without concern for the fruits of our work. If we decide to
pursue the work with the intention to enjoy the fruits of our effort, we follow Path
1, which leads to increased attachment to work and its consequences, or karmic
bondage. This is stated in verse 3.9a. The nature of Path 1 is described in verses
2.41b, 2.42-44, and 2.45a. If we intend to work without being concerned with the
fruits of our effort, or become detached from them, i.e., maintain equanimity in
achieving or not achieving them, then we are following Path 2, which leads to libera-
tion. Path 2 is described in verses 2.38-40, 2.45b, 2.48, 3.7b, 3.9b, 3.17, and 3.30.
Though not stated as such, it makes intuitive sense, and therefore, Paths 1 and 2 are
proposed as iterative processes. In verse 2.49, Path 1 is stated to be inferior to Path
2, and in verse 3.7, Path 2 is stated to be superior to Path 1.
When we follow Path 1, we set goals and achieve them. This leads to further
development of our social self, and we get more and more entrenched in our physical
and social self. On the other hand, when we follow Path 2, we detach ourselves
from the fruits of our action and slowly but definitely erode the social self and the
associated “I consciousness” and agency (karta bhAva or the sense of being an
agent, which has cognitive, affective, and behavioral aspects). In the long run, this
process leads to the realization of the real self, or Atman, which is described in
verses 2.17-29. It could be argued that, Ved Vyasa, the author of the bhagavadgItA,
which is a part of the mahAbhArata (6.23-40), had this counterintuitive insight, and
genius lies in counterintuitive thinking and developing ideas from such thinking,
that if intention to obtain the fruit was taken out of work, one could work in the
world and yet make progress on the spiritual path, because the consequences of
work and the entailing passion would be preemptively dissipated.
Self and svadharma
It was discussed in Chapter 4 how the Indian concept of self consists of physical,
social, psychological, and metaphysical elements. The physical self is used to define
the real self or Atman by negation, i.e., the physical self is categorically stated not to
, and zUdra have their prescribed duties of learning and teaching, protecting and fighting,
trade and crafts, and service of the janitorial type, but each is supposed to follow the four phases
of life. Thus, the caste bound work is only applicable to the first two phases of life when one
is learning the trade and performing the duties. The later two phases are for everyone to lead a
The first line of the verses in 3.35 and 18.47 is identical, word for word, emphasizing the value
of performing one’s duties or svadharma.
5 The Paths of Bondage and Liberation
be our real self. The physical self gets integrated with the social self in the social
system that prescribes duties according to one’s caste (or varNa) and phase of life
(or varNAzram dharma, see footnote 4 above). In this system, people are postulated
to be different from each other from birth, and they take the social identity provided
by their caste. With the caste comes the strong tie with work, and what is defined as
in the bhagavadgItA is primarily prescribed work for the four castes.
This is supported in the manusmRti
(10.97), where it is stated categorically that “it
is better to discharge one’s own appointed duty incompletely than to perform com-
pletely that of other; for he [or she] who lives according to the law of another caste
is instantly excluded from his [or her] own” (Buhler, 1969, p. 423). In accordance
with this principle, arjuna was exhorted to fight, since that was his duty (or
) as a warrior (or kSatriya), especially since all efforts to settle the dispute
peacefully had failed and the forces were already arrayed in the battlefield.
In verse 2.31, Arjun is asked not even to hesitate in his duties and is exhorted to
fight since there is nothing better than fighting in a rightful battle for a warrior (see
footnote 2 above). In verse 2.33, he is further reminded that if he did not perform
his duty, it would not only be sinful but also bring him infamy. In verse 3.8, two
interesting arguments are made. First, doing work is stated to be superior to not
performing one’s duty or work,
presenting the general principle that action is better
Second, it is argued that we cannot even continue the journey of life
or maintain the body without performing work. In this argument lies the strong
bond between the physical self, the social self, and work. These ideas are further
elaborated upon in verses 18.41 through 18.46.
In verses 18.41 through 18.44, the duties (or dharma) of the four castes are noted.
In verse 18.41, the caste system is described as having its foundation in the innate
aptitude of people in the four castes that are derived from the three guNas – satva,
, and tamas – which constitute the basic strands that make the world as well as
human behaviors according to sAGkhya philosophy.
In verse 18.42, it is stated that
manusmRti Verse 10.97: varaM svadharmo viguNo na pArakyaH svanuSThtaH; pardharmeNa
jIvanhi sadyaH patati jAtitaH
. It is better to perform one’s duties even if they are problematic
rather than doing the well-placed work of people of other castes. If one does not follow this, then
one loses his or her caste.
Verse 3.8: niyataM kuru karma tvaM karma jyAyo hyakarmaNaH. zarIrayAtrApi ca te na prasid-
Do your prescribed work as doing work is superior to not working. The
journey of life cannot be completed without doing work.
Don’t just stand there, do something, comes to mind as a close Western wisdom heard in the daily
life, and in organizations. This, a bias for action, was identified as one of the eight characteristics
of excellent companies by Peters and Waterman (1982).
Verse 18.41 states: brAhmaNakSatriyavizAM zUdrANaM ca paraMtapa; karmANi pravibhak-
tAni svabhAva prabhavairguNaiH
. The work for brAhmaNa, kSatriya, vaizya, and zUdra are
prescribed according to their innate nature derived from the three guNas (satva, rajas, and tamas).
In sAGkhya philosophy, prakriti is considered the original producer of the material world, and the
are its three ingredients, namely, satva (goodness or virtue), rajas (passion or foulness), and
(darkness or ignorance).
Self and svadharma
the Brahmins should do their prescribed duties
by adopting tranquility, control,
austerity, cleansing, tolerance, simplicity, knowledge, discriminating knowledge, and
belief in brahman, piety, or faithfulness. In verse 18.43, the qualities of kSatriyas are
noted as valor, glow, endurance, skill, noncowardice, giving, and leadership in
performing their work.
In verse 18.44, it is suggested that the vaizyas should
engage themselves in agriculture, trade, and the protection of cow, whereas the
should engage themselves in service-related work.
In verse 18.45a, it is said that people achieve perfection by engaging themselves
in their prescribed work.
This clearly encourages people to be committed to their
duties (or svadharma). In verse 18.46,
work is elevated to the level of worship,
much like the idea of “Calling” in Protestantism. The verse argues that brahman is
in everything, and that brahman gives the drive to living beings. Further, human
beings achieve perfection by worshipping brahman, and one worships brahman by
performing his or her work. This verse leaves no room for doubt, and we are
exhorted to perform our duties (or svadharma), for that itself is the highest form of
worship of brahman.
From the above, it is clear that the concept of one’s duties or work (svadharma)
is couched in the varNAzram dharma, which is an Indian emic system. To better
understand the concept of svadharma, let me offer myself as a subject for evalua-
tion. I am a Brahmin by caste. I was trained as a mechanical engineer, and I entered
the workforce right after I graduated at the age of 22, thus becoming a householder.
I got married at the age of 25 following the arranged marriage tradition and for-
mally became a householder. After working for 8 years as a training engineer and
manager in the airlines industry, I pursued an MBA degree in the USA. Following
this training, I became an entrepreneur and started my own training and consulting
company in Nepal. I worked for myself for 3 years and then pursued a Ph.D. in
organizational behavior in the USA, following which I became a professor in a
business school in Hawaii. I continue to work as a professor and teach management
from cross-cultural industrial-organizational perspectives.
I violated the varNAzrama dharma in more than one way. As a Brahmin, I
should not have pursued the studies of engineering. Since I was trained as an engi-
neer, my duty (svadharma) was to work as an engineer, but by acquiring MBA and
later Ph.D., I changed my profession again and again. And as I changed my profes-
sion, so did my work or duties. Though I have returned to the learning and teaching
Verse 18.42 states: zamo damastapaH zaucam kSantirArjavameva ca, jnAnaM vijnAnamAstikyaM
Verse 18.43 states: zauryaM tejo dhritirdAkSyaM yuddhe cApyapalAyanam, dAnamIzvarbhAvazca
Verse 18.44 states: kRiSigaurakSyavANijyaM vaizyakarma svabhAvajam, paricaryAtmakam
karma zUdrasyApi svabhAvajam.
Verse 18.45: sve sve karmaNyabhirataH samsiddhim labhate naraH; svakarmanirataH siddhiM
yathA vindati tacchRNu.
Verse 18.46: yataH pravRtir bhUtAnAM yena sarvamidaM tatam ; svakarmaNa tamabhyarcya
siddhiM vindati mAnavaH.
5 The Paths of Bondage and Liberation
profession prescribed for a Brahmin, I am not teaching about the vedas or philosophy,
and thus not following my traditionally prescribed duties. I also started working
3 years before the prescribed beginning of the householder phase of 25. And
although I got married at the prescribed age of 25, I violated the duties of a house-
holder by returning to school for graduate studies twice, once for 2 years and the
second time for 3 years.
I am sure there will be very few people in South Asia who would pass the test
of strictly following the prescribed varNAzrama dharma, especially because of the
creation of many new jobs that do not fit the classical typology, which makes the
model apparently irrelevant. However, despite such a misfit, one could argue that
the model might work if we redefine what our duties are. A poet from Nepal
resolved the issue of the definition of our duties in an ingenious way for our time.
Lakshami Prasad Devkota posed the question, “what is our duty,” in one of his
poems, and offered the answer, “look in the sky and ask your manas.” In other
words, there is a set of duties from which we can choose some, and clearly an indi-
vidual alone can decide what his or her duty is. Also, much like the stars change
their position in the sky, our duties may but naturally change with changing time.
Simply put, we have to decide what our duties are, and having decided upon it, we
must discharge it with equanimity
and to the best of our ability.
Having said that, we still have to deal with the modern work and the role of
managers in creating it. The morality of creating work that is dehumanizing,
humiliating, and devoid of any motivating potential due to lack of skill variety, task
significance, task identity, autonomy, and feedback (Hackman & Oldham, 1976)
has to be questioned. The right to work and the right to shape our work and work
environment could not be taken away from the workers under the guise of duties
prescribed by managers. The greed of exploitative organizations and managers do
not make it easy for our time to define our duties, and the dynamic global environ-
ment does constantly “move the cheese” (Johnson, 2000), requiring us to redefine
what our duties are. The model will still hold in that if we follow Path 1 after choosing
our duties, we will face work-bondage, whereas if we follow Path 2, we will pursue
liberation. However difficult, boring, excruciating the work may be, having chosen
it as our work, we must do it, for not doing our work will be inappropriate. That is
the spirit of the concept of svadharma.
Verse 2:48: yogasthaH kuru karmANi saGgaM tyaktvA Dhananjaya; siddhayasiddhayoH samo
bhUtvA samatvaM yoga ucyate.
O Dhananjaya, perform your duties by giving up attachment and
establishing yourself in yoga; be balanced in success and failure for such balancing is yoga.
Verse 2.50: buddhiyukto jahAtIha ubhe sukritaduSkrite; tasmAdyogAya yujyasva yogaH karmasu
The wise give up the fruits of both the good and the bad karma in this world itself;
therefore, engage yourself in yoga, which is being balanced in success and failure as stated in
Verse 2.48, for such balancing (i.e., yoga) is excellence in performing one’s svadharma or duties.
In other words, if one is balanced in success and failure when performing one’s duties, even the
tasks, functions, or works that naturally cause bondage give up their bonding nature because
of such balancing in the mind of the performer. Thus, Krizna exhorted arjuna to be engaged in
balancing the mind while performing his duties.
Performing or Not Performing One’s svadharma
Performing or Not Performing One’s svadharma
As shown in Figure
, one can respond with “Yes” or “No” to the question, “Are
you performing your svadharma or duties.” If the response is “Yes,” it takes one to
the next decision point, “Is your intention sakAma or with desire?” However, if the
response is “No” then the consequence of such a behavior is shown. In verses 3.35a
and 18.47a, one’s duties (svadharma) is praised to be better than others’ duties
(dharma), even if one’s duties are lowly, and one is encouraged to never give up
In 3.35b, one’s duties are praised to be so good that one should con-
sider dying for them, and others’ duties are described as scary. In 18.47b, one is
further encouraged to perform one’s natural duties, where nature is determined at
birth by the caste one is born in,
and it is stated that there is no sin in performing
one’s duties. Since work leads to bondage, one’s duties are clearly put in a special
category of work, which does not lead to bondage or sin. Finally, in verse 18.48,
is advised that one should not abandon one’s natural duties (or, sahajaM
) even if it has flaws since all work have some flaw much like there is smoke
associated with fire.
The bhagavadgItA is categorical about the consequences of not performing
one’s duties (shown by the arrow marked No in Figure
). In verse 2.33, arjuna
is told that if he did not take part in the just battle (or dharma yuddha) or the battle
supporting righteousness, which took place in kurukSetra,
he would accrue
infamy and sin. In light of the above reasons, it becomes quite clear that one is to
perform his or her duties at all times and that there are serious negative conse-
quences of not performing them. Thus, having decided to perform one’s duties, we
move to the next step in Figure
to examine the intention of performing one’s
Verses 3.35 and 18.47: zreyAn svadharmo viguNah pardharmAtsvanuSThitAt; sva dharme nid-
hanaM zreyaH pardharmo bhayAvahaH.
(3.35) zreyAn svadharmo viguNah pardharmAts-
vanuSThitAt; svabhAvaniyataM karma kurvannApnoti kilbiSam
I personally think that the caste system became a category at birth somewhere in the social
evolution process, and it is quite likely that the caste system was more aptitude based in the begin-
ning. This sounds logical to me, but it does not have historical evidence supporting it. First, the
Indian system of thought does not believe in evolution theory, the way we view in the West, and
the way many of us in the East have also come to accept it. It makes perfect sense to me that our
languages evolved over thousands of years, and it is difficult for me to subscribe to the idea that
created human languages. Therefore, to argue that the caste system evolved over thou-
sands of years necessarily requires adopting the Western worldview in analyzing the Indian system.
Second, the caste system is depicted as already existing from time immemorial, as can be seen in
the stories of dhruva, kapila, and others as narrated in the bhAgavatam and other purANas, which
again goes against the evolutionary perspective.
Verse 18:48 states: sahajam karma kaunteya sadoSamapi na tyajyet, sarvArambhA hi doSeNa
The battle of mahAbhArat was fought in kurukSetra, which lies in the state of Hariyana in
5 The Paths of Bondage and Liberation
Intention: sakAma (or with Desire) or niSkAma
(or Without Desire)?
Once we decide to perform our duties (svadharma), we arrive at another decision
point, where we have to decide whether we want to do our duties (svadharma) with
the intention of achieving the fruits of our action (sakAma), or we want to pursue it
with the intention of being indifferent about achieving or not achieving the fruits of
our actions (i.e., being niSkAma). If we chase the fruits of our actions with passion,
we follow Path 1 (see Figure
), which is the worldly or the materialistic path.
However, if we choose not to chase the fruits of our endeavors, then we pursue
Path 2. Since this decision falls in the material domain, to begin with, it is guided
by social psychological theories. Intention being the best predictor of human
behavior, this is a significant phase in decision-making and it affects how our self
develops further. Whether or not to pursue a material life seems to be a conscious
decision on our part.
Some argue that it is brahman’s grace that propels people toward the spiritual path
and that vairAgya or detachment, one of the foundations of leading a spiritual
life, is not achieved by the self through determination, but given by the grace of
. However, it is plausible that when we are born in a particular family, we
exhaust our past karma and start making decisions by interacting with the environ-
ment and people around us. We get exposed to spirituality at some point in our life,
and it is our choice to pursue a spiritual or a material path. Having said so, I have
often felt a push toward the spiritual path, which could simply be a socially constructed
idea, rather than a “true” divine push external to me!
It may be relevant to examine here what Raman Maharshi had to say about free
will and predestination. “The Ordinater controls the fate of souls in accordance
with their prArabdhakarma (destiny to be worked out in this life, resulting from the
balance sheet of actions in past lives). Whatever is destined not to happen will not
happen, try as you may. Whatever is destined to happen will happen, do what you
may to prevent it. This is certain. The best course, therefore, is to be silent (Osborne,
1954, p. 42).” Osborne noted that Raman Maharshi “refused to be entangled in a
discussion on free will and predestination, for such theories, although contradictory
on the mental plane, may both reflect aspect of truth (page 42).” Raman Maharshi
would say, “Find out who it is who is predestined or has free will. All the actions
that the body is to perform are already decided upon at the time it comes into exis-
tence: the only freedom you have is whether or not to identify yourself with the
body (Osborne, 1954, p. 42).” One who realizes his identity with the deathless Self
acts his part on the human stage without fear or anxiety, hope or regret, not being
touched by the part played.
Yet, Raman Maharshi constantly stressed the importance of making effort. He
said to a devotee, “As beings reap the fruit of their actions in accordance with God’s
laws, the responsibility is their, not His.” He also instructed that if we “strengthen
the mind that [spiritual] peace will become constant. Its duration is proportionate
to the strength of mind acquired by repeated practice.” In response to the contradiction
Path 1: Work as Bondage
between effort and destiny, he said, “That which is called “destiny,” preventing
meditation, exists only to the externalized and not to the introverted mind.
Therefore, he who seeks inwardly in quest of the Self, remaining as he is, does not
get frightened by any impediment that may seem to stand in the way of carrying on
his practice of meditation.” The very thought of such obstacles is the greatest
impediment (Osborne, 1954, pp. 43–44).” This is what is shown in Path 2 in
. Raman Maharshi referred to the bhagavadgItA: “As zR kRSNa told
, his own nature will compel him to make effort.” Thus, he demanded that
his students do make effort in their social context and not leave it for the shelter of
the azrama, and not presume that they knew what was predestined and therefore
not make effort. Making effort may be the role one has to play in the social
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