Most of us have faced situations in life when we are confused and unsure about how to proceed. We have wondered: “What is my duty in these circumstances?” Often we just muddle through the confusion and use whatever justifications the mind can think up to determine the best course of action. What if we yearned for scriptural guidance in this matter? Do our ancient books have any useful insights that may help us figure out what our duty is?
Arjuna had a duty-related dilemma on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, as we read in the Gītā. Thrust into a war with people who Arjuna saw as his own, he was confused about the right course of action. He sought Krishna’s counsel. Krishna’s advice to Arjuna was simple: Do your duty. Krishna went so far as to say that it was better to die doing one’s own duty, even if imperfectly, than to attempt to do someone else’s duty, however perfectly (3.35, 18.47).
The word that Krishna used repeatedly for “one’s own duty” was svadharma, literally, “my dharma” (2.31, 2.33, 3.35, 18.47). Derived from the root dhṛ, “to hold” or “to support,” dharma covers a large canvas, so it is difficult to find a one-word translation of it in English. Depending on the context, dharma can be translated as duty, virtue, justice, and even religion. In order to understand svadharma, we must first learn a little about dharma as duty.
A good starting point in the examination of dharma is to know that it can be divided broadly into two categories: generic (sādhāraṇa) and specific (viśeṣa). As the name suggests, generic dharma is meant for all. It includes virtues like non-injury (ahiṁsā), forbearance (kṣamā), sense-control (indriya-nigraha), compassion (dayā), charity (dāna), purity (śauca), truthfulness (satya), austerity (tapas). Everyone is expected to develop these qualities. The generic dharma is universal. It is dharma for all. It is dharma as virtue.
Dharma as Duty
Everyone has a specific dharma as well. This is dharma as duty. This usually includes duties associated with one’s stage of life (āśrama) and one’s position (varṇa) in the community. In the early stages of Indian society, there were said to be four stages in life: the student stage (brahmacarya), the married stage (gārhasthya), the retired stage (vānaprasthya), and the hermit stage (sannyāsa).
In our times, these have largely been reduced to three: the first part of life is the student stage, usually under the care of one’s parents. Then comes the married stage, when one launches into a career and starts one’s family. Finally, the retired stage, when it’s time to retire as the children grow up and start their own families. A few among those in the retired stage may eventually become hermits without taking formal monastic vows. Those who do take formal vows usually begin early in life, often during or immediately after the student stage. Every one of these stages has its own special set of duties called āśrama dharma.
In the student stage, for instance, the primary duty is to study. But students are at the same time also sons or daughters, so they have duties toward their parents as well. In the married stage, more duties are added—such as the duty towards the spouse and the children—and some of the old duties continue, the duty toward one’s aging parents, for instance. In this way, every new stage adds more duties while retaining a few from the earlier stages. The only exception to this is the last stage. Those who are in the hermit stage are exempt from all the earlier duties, but they have a special set of duties associated with the monastic life.
As to one’s duty toward the community (varṇa dharma), four fields in community life became the focus of attention early on: religion, administration, commerce, and service. Every community needed scholars and priests (brāhmaṇa), administrators and warriors (kṣatriya), farmers and traders (vaiśya), and help of nonspecialist workers (śūdra). Every one of these positions had a set of duties assigned to it. The nuts and bolts of this system evolved over a period of time, the natural way social structures have always taken shape.
How were the positions determined for community members? On the basis of the qualities (guṇa) they possessed to do the work (karma) that was required (Gītā 4.13). While this was a logical way to fulfill the needs of a community, it couldn’t have been easy centuries ago to implement it in practice. In many ways the world then was unimaginably different from the world today. For starters, these ancient communities were mostly isolated from one another and therefore had to be self-sufficient. Travel was rare and, in the absence of any meaningful mode of transport, didn’t take people far from their homes. Almost everyone grew up, worked, married, raised children, retired, and died in the area where they were born.
There were no schools to go to for professional training. The only way healing could be learnt, for instance, was as an apprentice to a physician (vaidya). The village physician’s assistant would usually be his own son, who would grow up and, when his father retired, take his place. There was no guarantee that the physician’s son was the best candidate for the job or even had interest in it. But he didn’t have much freedom to choose some other career. If there was only one physician in the village and he died, the community couldn’t go without a physician just because the apprentice wasn’t interested in the job. Similar was the situation for other skills and trades needed for an efficient functioning of the community. There were exceptions in extraordinary circumstances, but they were rare.
It clearly wasn’t an ideal situation, but there didn’t seem to be any better alternative. The idea was good but the infrastructure was not congenial. That is how these work-related obligations came to be inherited and stayed within the family, not so much earned through merit. Over the years, the positions hardened and came to be determined by birth (jāti) and identified by the work the people did. Swami Vivekananda referred to the arrangement as “a hereditary trade guild” (CW, 5. 311) and “a social institution” (CW, 1. 22). Fully aware of how it was being portrayed, Swamiji emphasized that it was a mistake to view it as “a religious institution” (CW, 2. 515, 5. 22). The varṇas are mentioned by name in the Puruṣa-sūkta of the Ṛgveda (10.90) and in the Gītā (4.13, 18.41-44), but that doesn’t make the social system that adopted the varṇa nomenclature a religious institution, any more than the many references to slaves and slavery in the Bible make that a religious institution.
What the groupings in the Indian society led to was a situation that pitted heredity against merit. People claimed a position because of heredity, which determined the work they did. In many instances, there were perhaps others who were better suited to the position because they had the qualities essential for it. But such people did not always get the job even when they yearned for it. Heredity and work were easier to identify objectively than interest and aptitude. The result was that one’s family affiliation and the inherited work became the socially accepted markers of one’s position and responsibility.
To be sure, qualities were not ignored. They were often recognized and utilized, but they could not dislodge the primacy of heredity. In the Mahabharata, for instance, Vidura was by birth a śūdra and maintained that position socially but, because he had qualities identified with the position of brāhmaṇa, functioned as a much-respected advisor to the king. On the other hand, Droṇa, who was a brāhmaṇa by birth, was skilled in archery and taught military arts, work that was associated with the kṣatriya position. These were not exceptions. It was not unusual to have one position claimed by birth and another earned through merit or imposed by circumstances. This has continued to be the case, though hereditary positions are increasingly becoming irrelevant now.
The original system was designed for a fair distribution of responsibility among community members. Every form of work that met the social need was necessary and important. There wasn’t any inbuilt sense of one work being higher or superior to any other work. There was no sense of hierarchy. The work was not meant to be an end in itself. It was a means. It could bestow bliss in heaven after death or, when done as yoga, it could lead to spiritual liberation (mokṣa). Every form of work, so long as it did not violate moral and ethical principles, had the ability to give us the highest (Gītā 18.45-46). It didn’t therefore matter what work people did, so long as they remained true to dharma as virtue.
In practice, though, things didn’t work out quite so ideally. We don’t know how long it was before hierarchies arose with everyone claiming themselves to be superior to others and hence more important than others. The problem was what it has always been throughout human history—greed and selfishness. What had begun primarily as an equitable distribution of duties for social upkeep changed over time into a politicized preservation of privilege for the powerful. The history of the world repeatedly shows us that we human beings are adept in the art of transforming anything good into something awful.
Every form of responsibility brings power and, along with it, the desperate desire to preserve privilege. The priests had knowledge gathered from ancient books and they used fear of retribution in the afterlife to keep the rest under their thumb. The warriors brandished the power of weapons and no one dared to refuse whatever they asked for. The traders used their commercial might to control and subdue others. The workers bore the greatest brunt, being oppressed in one way or another by the priests, the warriors and the traders. Eventually they too found their voice and discovered their own strength in numbers and used it to good effect through strikes and protests.
Not all of these things happened at the same time and to the same degree. Also, not everyone misused their positions. Some were indeed good and responsible people, but many others were not. At different times and in different communities, one or the other of these four power centers dominated and tried to control the rest. The emphasis shifted from duty (dharma) to rights (adhikāra). Duty required us to give our time, energy and skills. Rights were about receiving more power, more privilege. No wonder duties were ignored and there was a rush for rights, a trend that continues to this day, not only in the Indian society but also in the rest of the world.
The constitutions of democratic nations the world over list different kinds of rights that citizens have. It will be difficult to find any mention of duties. How can there be any rights without the corresponding duties? When President Kennedy said at his inauguration in 1961: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” he was hoping that his fellow Americans would redirect their attention to duties, not simply remain fixated on rights.
The world today is radically different from what it was in those ancient days centuries ago when the social order in India was evolving. The constraints of those early communities no longer exist. No longer is one community isolated from another to the extent it was in the past. On the contrary, we are more connected than ever—in person through easy jet travel and virtually via the internet. Global trade and commerce have not only brought people together but also made it possible to shop for talents and skills in every part of the world.
Oddly enough, the original intent of the varṇa-system to have responsibilities divided in a community on the basis of merit is easier to implement now than it was then. If a certain skillset is missing, we can now import it from elsewhere—or outsource the work some place else when possible. Today’s businesses try to employ the best talents suited for the job, for that’s the key to success and profits. Merit has a better chance today than it had in the past. Because a lot more choices are available, it is easier now to choose our careers and pursue our interests. There is more freedom in social matters than ever before. It would seem that things are finally falling in place. If you feel that this scenario looks too rosy to be true, you are right. It does represent truth, but only a half-truth.
The other half isn’t pretty. We have come far from the isolated but mostly homogeneous communities of the past to the closely connected but increasingly diverse world of the present. Inevitably, hurdles have cropped up. Merit is still recognized, but before it can assert itself, it has to battle the compulsions of poverty and the forces of racism, antisemitism, nationalism, and fundamentalism. These have spawned different kinds of power centers in societies the world over, keeping communities internally divided. The claims of merit take a backseat when a person is not of the right color or the right nationality or the right religion. More important than the needs of the community are the preservation of privilege of the group in power. The “group in power” is the dominant caste of the time.
When India came under the thousand-year rule of people from beyond its borders, its social structure had already undergone a sea change. The society was no longer being nourished by dharma as duty. Dharma did not disappear but it became weak. The masses were being controlled by those who had usurped power and privilege. Swami Vivekananda was unsparing in his condemnation of those who exploited the situation to their own advantage. The shell of the original system survived but its soul had vanished. This did more harm than good to the health of the community—and was one of the major reasons why India could not defend itself from external aggressions.
Arriving in India in 1498, the Portuguese were the first to apply the word “caste” (from Portuguese, casta) to the hereditary groupings in Indian society. Throughout history, the powerful—in India’s case, the colonial masters—have always had the privilege of defining and stereotyping the less powerful. Thanks to the Portuguese and then the British, the word “caste” got indelibly associated with India. Because the varṇa system by then had become a caricature of its original plan, “caste” remained as a taint on the Indian society and, oddly, also on Hinduism, the religion that majority of Indians practice. It is difficult to find today a textbook or a chapter on Hinduism that doesn’t treat caste as if it were the defining part of the tradition.
Isabel Wilkerson points out in her insightful study, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (2020), that the problems in today’s America—especially the ones faced by the black community—are better understood through the lens of caste than racism. A system of artificially constructed hierarchies exists not only in America but throughout the world and, even though it may not always be called by its true name “caste,” it continues to be the major cause of social discontent and suffering. The system takes different forms and manifests in different ways, discriminating against people on the basis of ancestry, color, class, faith, nature of work, and sexual orientation. The word “caste” may have been employed extensively with regard to the Indian society, but it is not merely an Indian problem. It is a global problem.
We have seen that the era in which the varṇa system emerged in India has long passed. The social arrangement, whatever good it may have achieved in the early days, fizzled out with the passage of time due to selfishness and greed. There was no conscious and collective effort to modify or revise the social structure periodically to keep in step with the rapidly evolving society. All social institutions that stagnate tend toward chaos and corruption. Reformers in every generation tried to stem the slide, but their efforts were clearly not enough. All of this has made the system untenable today and irrelevant to most Indians, especially those living in urban areas.
How does it still manage to survive? It has not survived in its original form obviously. What survives now is the empty shell that bestows privilege on the powerful and keeps the less powerful suppressed through political maneuverings. The underprivileged are nevertheless lulled into clinging to their group identities by the crumbs of “benefits” doled out to them by their political patrons. Each of these “castes” has become a special interest group and is kept alive by community leaders as “vote banks” to strengthen their political clout. The phenomenon is not limited to Indian politics. The caste structure in different guises exists all over the world and shows similar manipulations by the people in power.
So, what is “my duty”?
Keeping all of the above in mind, it’s time to ask: Does the Gītā teaching regarding dharma as duty have any relevance in the 21st century? How can I be sure that I am truly following “my dharma” (svadharma)? What is my dharma in today’s changed world?
As we have seen, “my dharma” includes two sets of primary responsibilities: one, depending on the stage of my life (student, family, retirement, monastic), and two, depending on my skills and work for the community. A group of ancient books called Dharma Śāstras deals with duties at different stages of life (āśrama dharma). These books haven’t been updated for centuries, so their practical utility is limited. They are generally of interest to theologians or to those who study history of religion. For the rest of us, no books are really needed. Common sense would be more than enough, if it is accompanied by a firm determination to follow dharma as virtue.
What is my varṇa dharma? Let us return to the Gītā idea (4.13) of varṇa dharma being determined by the qualities (guṇa) required to do every work (karma). In Arjuna’s case, he was a kṣatriya because he had the requisite qualities, not merely because he was born in a kṣatriya family. He was the preeminent archer of his time. Krishna reminded Arjuna that his varṇa dharma required of him to vanquish the oppressors and uphold justice (2.31, 11.33). Overwhelmed by his filial attachment to members of his family who were on the opposite side, Arjuna wanted to give everything up and live on alms (2.5), a monastic lifestyle for which he wasn’t qualified yet. His knowledge of who he was and where his duty lay got clouded by his confusion.
That is precisely the kind of confusion that can come upon me if I lack self-knowledge—“self” with the lowercase “s”—meaning, plain simple knowledge of who I am at this moment. In order to know myself, I should look within to examine what my inherent talents and qualities are. It is not easy to look at oneself objectively and assess one’s worth. Some amount of ego reduction is necessary in order to be able to do that well. Done clumsily, people either underestimate themselves or grossly exaggerate their worth.
Armed with the knowledge of my strengths and my weaknesses, my skills and my interests, I can choose my career and decide what else I should do in life. If my self-assessment is accurate, my varṇa dharma becomes obvious. If I am lucky, I’ll find the kind of work I love and am good at. All I need to do then is to work hard, be sincere and attentive. That will bring me joy and other rewards. I can also help those around me find work and activities that fit their profile and interests. The secret of happiness is to make others happy, especially those in my immediate circle. I cannot be happy if everyone around me is unhappy.
It’s also possible that, for whatever reason, I may not find the work that I love or the work I am qualified for. I may then have to settle for something less interesting. The work I am saddled with may not feel to be my svadharma at all. I may feel that my merit is not being recognized. When that happens, it is easy to feel frustrated and angry. But it doesn’t really help. When such impulses go unchecked, they can lead me into doing things that produce even more suffering. I need to find other ways to deal with my situation. One practical way is to do what work I can for the present while looking out for opportunities to do what truly matches my skills and aspirations. Patience and perseverance have never hurt anyone and usually are rewarded sooner or later.
Who wouldn’t want a work that is enjoyable and fulfilling? What if I am not so lucky to get it even after trying my best? If I am a devotee or a spiritual seeker, I will then view whatever work becomes mine as something that God wants me to do. I’ll remind myself that God has put me in this situation for a reason. It’s necessary for me to learn some lessons in life that I haven’t learnt yet. No matter how boring or uninspiring, I’ll try to do the work to the best of my ability, as skillfully as I can, in a spirit of karma yoga, recognizing that doing the work in this manner is my svadharma now. All of this applies not only to the work I do to earn my livelihood but also to every other activity of mine.
The truth is that when we do something in the spirit of karma yoga, it somehow becomes meaningful and joyful even if it wasn’t something we were originally thrilled about. Not many realize that all work is really done by God. This is not recognized because the ego gets in the way and appropriates all agency to itself. If we succeed in minimizing—and then eliminating—the ego, we will know that all efforts are powered by God, who pervades everything and everyone. Every duty stops being “duty” when done as karma yoga, it becomes a form of worship, and leads to perfection and spiritual freedom (Gītā 18.46).
We don’t know if there will ever be a time when everyone in the world will realize this. It sure feels unlikely. Be that as it may, no power in the world can stop me from thinking that every work that makes me unselfish is my duty. Every work that is powered through love and kindness is my duty. Every work that is based on truth is my duty. Every work done in a spirit of worship is my duty. Not only should I think this way, I should also live this way day after day, month after month, year after year. If I do this, nothing else matters. If I don’t do this, what does my life matter?