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Svadharma Is Not Separate from Dharma
Marie Vaucher: Hello, Arlindo. I understand that I can send you a question for the pool of Vedanta teachers.
Mine would be about svadharma, understood as the dharma of following one’s nature.
I understand the concept but can’t grasp it so well in my own life. Also, I can imagine that this notion has a different value or meaning if you are exposed to it when you are young or when you are well over 60 years old.
I can’t see svadharma so clearly in my own life; it seems I just followed the pull of karmic patterns, or vasanas, that pull me in this or that direction, mostly in a kind of spiritual search, but could not say this is or was the svadharma of that particular jiva of mine.
How important is it to identify one’s svadharma when one’s life is on the decline slope and one is just now learning the teachings of Vedanta? Or does the svadharma change at different stages of life?
My point is, I understand the concept clearly but can’t really grasp it in my actual seeing.
The same actually goes for the teachings about the three gunas; I get the concepts all right, but to actually “see” them in action moment by moment, I am still far away from this goal. I hope this is clear.
Thank you so much, Arlindo, for your care and attention.
~ Marie Vaucher
Arlindo: Hello, Marie, I am highlighting what I believe to be the core of your question in the paragraph below.
“How important is it to identify one’s svadharma when one’s life is on the decline slope and one is just now learning the teachings of Vedanta? Or does the svadharma change at different stages of life?”
Dharma is a nuanced topic, Marie. The word “dharma,” which has no direct English translation, means “to hold, maintain and support.” Dharma, then, is the combination of all natural laws and rules underlying, maintaining and governing Creation. That is why scriptures sometimes refer to the “world” as the “dharma field.”
Svadharma, on the other hand literally means, “own-dharma,” and scripturally, it generally refers to one’s “own duty” and particular responsibilities.
So let us first look at svadharma “objectively.”
We all play different roles in our societies, and for the upholding of society’s values, stability and order, it is imperative that we all fulfill our duties and obligations according to the dharma shastra – which is based on common sense – which unfortunately seems to be the most “uncommon” thing, as I heard someone say. Svadharma means to act following one’s duty with reference to a particular situation.
For example, if you have children, it is your svadharma as a mother to bring them up with love and care. If you do not fulfill that responsibility, the child will suffer a sense of abandonment that will affect it greatly. Therefore you will incur papa karma – your mind will remain guilty and mental-emotional conflict will be the result. In this example, the mother will suffer, the child will suffer – and all because the mother did not fulfill her duty, her own situational svadharma. Having said that, we could add that svadharma almost invariably refers to “visesha” dharma, or “situational” dharma, depending on the role I am called to play.
One’s svadharma not only changes over the course of one’s life but it does so numerous times in one single day. In the morning you get up and see your husband, and you behave as the wife. An hour later you meet your mother before going to the office and you behave as a daughter. Later on, you meet your boss and you behave like a good and efficient employee. If you mix up those particular roles, you will not fulfill that situational svadharma and you will be in trouble.
But svadharma is often also related to our professions as a doctor, a carpenter, a cook, a professor, a builder, a painter, a dancer, etc. We all want to do something we really enjoy doing, otherwise we will not be happy. We all need to look at it and see what gives us the most joy as a profession or activity. But it often happens that I do not succeed in finding my dream job or activity, and I end up doing something I do not really like. If that cannot be changed, then we need to take whatever job Isvara gave us as prasad, and perform it in the spirit of karma yoga. That alone will make one’s job much more enjoyable.
From a broader view, we can also observe svadharma as the three stages in human life; during the “first stage” of life, during our youth, our main svadharma is that of a “student,” and as such our duty is to go to school, study, learn, get educated and grow in knowledge and maturity so that we can be ready to enter the “second stage” of our life, the one of a worker, a contributor to society. As workers, we not only contribute to society but we earn money so that we can exercise our svadharma as a “householder” or “provider” for the family.
The third stage is what we call in the West “retirement” from worldly affairs. It is a time to sit back and enjoy. It is a time to have something else to do, with what is left of my life, but what to do? Unfortunately, most people in modern societies do not know what to do with their retirement, and they suffer. They become so addicted to their roles as “providers” or “householders” that they feel as if they lose their purpose in life. They cannot enjoy the third stage of life according to the age-old life stages presented in the Vedas, the stage of study and contemplation of the scriptures on Self-knowledge.
You seem to say that you feel your life is declining, so I assume you may be close to the third stage of your life, and that is a blessing because you have the great merit to be in the Vedanta bus, as Ramji sometimes says. If that is so, use your retirement for your spiritual development first, and for few other things, second, like family, grandchildren, etc. Keep your mind in the teachings as often as possible and do not feel shy to ask help to a Vedanta teacher. This is a wonderful time to stay focused on your “most” fundamental svadharma, which is the pursuit of moksa.
But let us also look at svadharma “subjectively.”
From the psychological angle, svadharma can also be seen as our most fundamental “apparent nature.” It is our basic program or conditioning which shapes our disposition, character, personality, talents, etc. We are all born out of the “vasana load” from our past life. Vasanas are subconscious “tendencies” which manifest in our conscious mind as a desire to think, to express and to act in a certain way. It is often said that if we go against our jiva-nature, we suffer, but the fact is that it is better to go against it, if we happen to have an “adharmic” nature. What that means is that svadharma is not separate from dharma – it includes dharma as the very “word” denotes.
Therefore, to begin with, it is important that we accept our program – that we do not compare ourselves with others and try to imitate them – we should not live according to any role model, etc. We need to accept our natural tendencies and talents, not as a curse or punishment, but as “prasad” from Isvara. Whatever the Lord gave me as my “mental-emotional construct” is exactly what my soul deserves – only then I can work for the betterment of my personality, for the betterment of my talents, for the purification of my mind and intellect.
Yes, our roles in life change from one moment to the next. Our stages of life change as we grow, contribute and retire in sravana, manana, etc. And yes, from our psychological experience, our fundamental nature, our sense of identity as a human jiva also changes. Our values, desires and goals keep changing as we grow in maturity and wisdom. That is to say that from our subjective perspective our svadharma (our most fundamental apparent nature) keeps changing until it evolves to become “mumukshutva,” a burning desire to realize the Self within, which is the Self within all and everything in Creation.
I hope this helps, Marie Vaucher, and please, feel free to contact me if you feel inclined.
~ Much love and good luck, Arlindo Moraes