Swadharma, meaning one’s own Dharma, is derived from the words Swa meaning for oneself and Dharma. Swadharma has been explained as the lawful conduct of oneself based on one’s ability. It requires one to be aware of one’s strengths, abilities and weaknesses. The idea of Swadharma is emphasised in the Bhagavad Gita. The Bhagavad Gita states that if one accepts Swadharma, the actions that one performs becomes effortless. This is because the ability to perform these actions come naturally and the complexity of the task is not an impediment. The Bhagavad Gita also says that it is better to perish while performing Swadharma rather than perform actions that should be performed by others. This is because one will perform one’s Swadharma with great conviction but such conviction is not guaranteed when doing someone else’s Dharma.
Swadharma is often related to Swabhava or one’s innate tendencies and abilities. It is defined as one’s innate nature or personality that defines one’s existence. That is, one’s Swabhava is one’s real nature which dictates how one interacts with this universe. Actions determined by one’s Swabhava represents one’s Swadharma.
As inaction is not acceptable, performing actions is inevitable. The aim of Swadharma is to identify actions that have the right purpose. The right purpose for the action will direct individuals to their Swadharma. As noted earlier, this will result in the action being effortless. According to theories on conflict, problems arise because of the imbalance between one’s expectations and what occurs in reality. The choices one faces in real life is often influenced by unbalanced options or contradictory choices, disputes with both oneself and others will occur. This is not say that dispute with others will not arise if one does one’s Swadharma. Swadharma will ensure that there is no dispute with oneself. The Bhagavad Gita states that doing Paradharma (someone else’s Dharma) leads to disputes which ultimately results in ill-will leading to destruction.
The key point is that one’s true nature is captured by one’s Swabhava, and it is this Swabhava that guides one to what is one’s Karma (actions). However such actions should be guided by Dharma which will result in righteous living. When one chooses one actions based on Dharma based on Swabhava, one is on the path of Swadharma. Note that Swadharma, like Dharma, is not fixed and it is dependent on what is expected from the person by Dharma in the specific situation. For example, the Swadharma of a student is to study and when that student becomes a teacher the Swadharma is to teach. A teacher behaving like a student can cause problems both to the individual and to others.
The Bhagavad Gita defines conscious action as action performed after reflecting on the situation in accordance with one’s true nature. The Bhagavad Gita continues that performing conscious action will enable one to perform the chosen actions with diligence resulting in impactful work. Conscious action is what is consistent with Swadharma.
As with Dharma, there is no clear definition of Swadharma. There is also no definition of Swabhava. That is, who defines one’s current Swabhava and thus Swadharma? If everything is left to the individual, how does one handle people who are delusional? If society has a say, how can one prevent Swadharma being used as an instrument of oppression?
As noted by others, it is easy to define Swadharma when societal structures are rigid. This is because everyone has their place and people are not really mobile across different social levels. For instance, a rigid caste system defines a fixed role for everyone. Hence a person’s Swadharma is defined for them. This is clearly not the intention of Swadharma as people’s inherent qualities (Swabhava) had no role to play.
Similarly, when there are fixed expectations at each stage in life, Swadharma is easy to define. For example, a Brahmachari was expected to study while a householder was expected to have a family and work to support a family and could not really study. But this is not satisfactory as it disallows mature-age students to study.
Such rigid expectations were defined to maintain harmony in society. This is because, harmony in society can be achieved if all components in society can work together to carry out their obligations. When these obligations are pre-defined and there was no flexibility, the chances of things going wrong are small. The principle is that all members of society must think of the bigger picture and support each other for sake of harmony. This can be viewed as a re-statement of the Swadharma principle. But this does not take Swabhava into account as society decides each one’s Dharmic actions.
In general, if one is not given any opportunity to demonstrate one’s Swabhava, one’s Swadharma cannot be defined. Therefore, the notion of Swadharma is hard to define in the modern situation. Although there are many social restrictions, society is definitely not as rigid as it was in the past. While there are situations where one’s obligations are clear (e.g., one who has joined the army voluntarily must fight in the case of a war), it is not always the case that people’s obligations are well defined.
People need to be given the space to discover their Swabhava and hence their Swadharma. Others can give feedback, suggestions, but ultimately cannot impose their views. While one’s circumstances can limit what one can achieve, no one should prevent people to have aspirations to overcome their circumstances. While it is true that the sooner one realises one’s strengths and weaknesses (i.e., Swabhava), the sooner one can become happy, the process cannot be short-circuited by others. The individual has to develop the process of self-discovery. One can talk about Swadharma only if this process is permitted. Therefore, one needs to instantiate a definition for each situation.
I present a concrete example in the context of education. Towards this, I will try to answer the following set of questions which are by no means comprehensive. This should illustrate the complexity in describing Swadharma and its relation with Swabhava.
- What input should a parent have in their child’s education?
- What if parents cannot mentor their child in a field chosen by the child? How does this relate to the child’s Swabhava?
- What are society’s obligations to help someone who wants to really work in a particular field?
Parents demanding their children enrol only in certain educational programs is not allowing the child to follow their Swabhava. A young child should be encouraged to explore different areas so that they can decide what they like and dislike. Note that one’s interest can change as one grows older. One can attempt to correct delusional children by pointing out the difference between what is expected and what the children are exhibiting. But the onus is on the child to change course. A child’s options should not be restricted to areas where the parents can mentor. Reasons for this include the child’s interests may be different from their parents, the parents may not have had the opportunity to discover their Swabhava and hence follow their Swadharma, or society may have changed significantly. If parents cannot provide the necessary mentoring, society needs to develop mechanisms to help the children. In today’s world it is essential to have high quality public education that is paid for by society. The education system should be flexible to allow people who made choices that were not consistent with their Swabhava to switch to an alternate study path.
In summary, Swadharma is a nice principle which is very hard to implement in a fair fashion. Any use of Swadharma to deny others a fair-go is not acceptable. While social inequities will always exist, the aim of Swadharma should be to allow everyone to thrive to the best of their ability. It is important for a progressive society to enable people to leverage their strengths even if they face hurdles because of their personal situation. In theory Swabhava and Swadharma are inter-related. In practice, if Swabhava is ignored, Swadharma is easy to define and if Swabhava plays a central role, Swadharma is hard to define. This is like the Aussie idea of giving everyone a fair go (or fair shake of the sauce bottle); it is easy to state but hard to define and implement.
- I. Agung: The Challenge Faced by Hindu Women in Doing Their Swadharma in the Midst of Modernisation, 2018
- P. Dutt: The Concept of Swadharma And Effect on Leadership, 2018
- K. Rastogi: Exploring Swadharma: An Overview, 2018
- Swami Sarvapriyananda: What is Swadharma? (My own Duty) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PTOtyUTOWZY