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What is Svadharma?

by Swami Sivananda

There is no proper equivalent in English for the Sanskrit term 'Dharma'. It is generally rendered as 'duty', 'righteousness'. Any action that is best calculated to bring Sreyas (liberation) and Abhyudaya (exaltation) is Dharma. That which brings well-being to human beings is Dharma. The word Dharma comes from the root 'Dhri' which means 'to support' or 'to hold on'. That which upholds is Dharma. By Dharma people are upheld. As it supports and holds together it is called Dharma. That which secures preservation of being is Dharma. 'Svadharma' means one's own duty in accordance with the Varnashrama or caste and order of life which are founded according to the Gunas or qualities born of the nature of man.

God, religion and Dharma are inseparable. Man evolves through the practice of Dharma according to his caste and order of life, and eventually attains Self-realisation, the ultimate goal of life, which brings infinite bliss, supreme peace, unbroken joy, highest knowledge, eternal satisfaction and immortality.

The mark of Dharma is Achara (good conduct). Achara is the mark of the good. Higher than all the teachings, is Achara. From Achara, Dharma is born; and Dharma enhances life. By Achara man attains fame, power and strength here and hereafter. Achara is the highest Dharma. Achara is the root of all Tapas.

Dharma tops the list of the four Purusharthas, viz., Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha. Dharma gives wealth, satisfaction of desires and liberation in the end.

"The Brahmana was Brahma's mouth; the Rajanya was made His two arms; His two thighs the Vaishya; the Sudra was born of His two feet." The four castes are Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Sudra. Self-restraint, serenity, patience, austerity, purity, belief in God, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, uprighteousness, truthfulness, wisdom, teaching and studying the Vedas, doing sacrifices, and also guiding others in offering sacrifices and gifts and receiving gifts are the duties of a Brahmana born of his own nature.

Courage, generosity, vigour, prowess, splendour, firmness, dexterity, not fleeing from battle, the nature of a ruler, protection of the people, gifts, doing sacrifices and study of the Vedas are the duties of a Kshatriya born of his own nature.

Ploughing, protection of cattle, trade, charity, doing sacrifice, study of the Vedas, engaging in commerce, finance and agriculture are the duties of a Vaishya born of his own nature.

To serve ungrudgingly all these castes is the duty of a Sudra born of his own nature.

Much of the evil has grown through men of one caste grasping at the work of the other castes, and thinking more of the rights his caste gives him than of the duties it imposes.

The Brahmana and Kshatriya have claimed their privileges ardently and have shrunk from the heavy burden belonging to their castes. Naturally their attitude has provoked opposition, and antagonism has replaced mutual goodwill and service. Consequently caste has become a social bitterness, instead of being a framework maintaining all in happy order. If people of different castes practise their Dharmas, caste confusion will pass away and abundant peace and joy will prevail.

The Ashramas or stages in life are four, viz., Brahmacharya, the stage of studentship, Garhasthya, the stage of householdership, Vanaprastha, the stage of forest-dwelling or seclusion, and Sannyasa, the order of total renunciation. Each order of life has its own duties. In none of these stages must a man grasp at the special duties of the other three. At the present moment it is difficult to maintain or observe the exact details of the ancient rules, as the conditions have changed very much. But, if we can have a clear idea of the fundamental duties of each, we shall still be able to shape the life to a regulated course of development and steady growth.

The life of the student starts with the Upanayana ceremony, his second birth. You will find in the Manu Smriti: "Let the student ever engage in the study of the Vedas and in doing service to his preceptor. Let the student refrain from wine, meat, perfumes, tasty dishes, garlands, company of women, and from injury to sentient creatures. Let him give up lust, anger, greed, dancing, singing and playing on musical instruments, dice play, gossip, slander and untruth."

"Let the student always sleep alone and let him not waste his seed; he who from lust destroyeth his seed, destroyeth his vow. He should develop the spirit of service, humility and obedience. He should mould his character properly. He should be chaste in thought, word and deed."

Then comes the stage of the householder. The student, after finishing his duties enters the order of Garhasthya, when he is ready to take up the duties and responsibilities of the householder's life. Of all Ashramas, that of the householder is the highest, as it verily supports the other three. As all the streams and rivers flow to rest in the ocean, so all the Ashramas flow to rest in the householder. This is the field for developing various virtues such as mercy, love, generosity, patience, tolerance, purity, prudence and right judgment. It is highly lamentable to note that the grandeur, solemnity and dignity of this stage of life is lost now owing to the confusion of its duties with those of the student, caused by the modern evil of child-marriage. There is no ideal in the life of the householder. That is the reason why the number of Sannyasins is now increasing. The central teaching of the Gita and Yoga Vasishtha is that Self-realisation should be attained in and through the world.

Let me remind you of one important teaching of the Gita which will give you peace of mind and bliss: 'Better one's own duty, though destitute of merit, than the duty of another well discharged. Better death in the discharge of one's duty; the duty of another is full of danger.'

There is another important point. You will clearly understand that the right performance of the duties of any station in life without attachment will bring Self-realisation and liberation. Just hear the following anecdote of a pious woman and a butcher with rapt attention:

A Sannyasin retired into a forest to practise Yoga. He remained in a cave for a period of twelve years. He practised Pranayama, Khechari Mudra and various Yogic Kriyas. He developed some powers through these practices. One day he was sitting under the shade of a tree. A crane was perched upon one of the branches of the tree. It passed excreta on the head of the Sannyasin. The Sannyasin became enraged. He glared at the crane. Some Yogic fire at once emanated from the crown of his head and burnt the crane to ashes immediately. The Sannyasin rejoiced at the marvellous power he possessed.

He now went into the city for procuring his usual alms. He called out 'Narayana Hari' at the door of a householder. The lady of the house was engaged in nursing her sick husband. She was a very chaste woman who was very much devoted to her husband. She observed Pativrata Dharma. She answered from within the room: "O Bhikshu, kindly wait a bit." The Sannyasin was very much annoyed. He reflected: 'Look at the arrogant nature of this lady. She has asked me to wait. She is not aware of my Yogic powers.' While he was thinking thus the lady said: "O Bhikshu! There is no crane here. Do not think too much of yourself. Do not be puffed up with your Siddhis." The Sannyasin stood in utter amazement. He had to wait quietly. At last the lady came outside with alms for the Sannyasin. The Sannyasin prostrated at her feet and asked: "O Devi, how did you manage to read my thoughts?" The lady replied: "O Swamiji! I do not know anything of Pranayama or any kind of Yogic Kriya. I made you wait because I was busy attending upon my sick husband. I am an ignorant woman. I am sincerely devoted to my husband. I regard him as my Guru and God. I worship him. I do not go to temples. I do not repeat Mantras. I serve my husband day and night. I obey his words implicitly. I shampoo his feet. I walk in the footsteps of Savitri, Nalayani and Anasuya. I sleep after he has slept. I get up in the morning before he arises. He is my all-in-all. Through such service, devotion and duty to my husband I have received illumination. I have a pure heart. I could read your thoughts. This is the secret of my Abhyasa. If you want to learn more, go to a butcher who sells meat in the big market. He will teach you something of absorbing interest and importance. You will be highly delighted indeed. You will be immensely benefited."

The Sannyasin went straight to the town where the butcher was living. He came direct to the market and found the butcher chopping meat. The Sannyasin thought within himself: 'O my Lord! Is this the man from whom I am going to learn something interesting and useful? He is the devil incarnate. He is a ruffian.' The butcher read the thoughts of the Sannyasin and said: "O Swamiji! Did that lady send you? Kindly take your seat here. I shall attend on you presently." The butcher finished his business with customers and then asked the Sannyasin to follow him to his house. He asked the Swami to wait outside and went in. He attended to his old father and mother. He gave them a bath and drank their Charanamrita. He fed them nicely and put them to bed. He then came to the Sannyasin and said: "O Swamiji, I am at thy feet now. Kindly order me any service." The Sannyasin asked him some questions on Vedanta. The butcher gave him beautiful, soul-stirring replies concerning the Atman, the nature of freedom, Sadhana, the state of a Jivanmukta, etc. The Sannyasin was astonished. Many of his doubts were cleared. He was highly pleased with the butcher. He asked him: "How is it that you are doing this dirty work? How did you manage to get such exalted knowledge?" The butcher replied: "Swamiji, you are mistaken. No duty or work is impure or degrading. Every work is worship of God. I do my duty well without any attachment or motive. I serve my parents day and night. They are my God on earth. I worship them daily. I do not know any Yogic practice. I am not a learned man. I discharge my duties satisfactorily. This is my religion. This is my Yoga. I obtained illumination, perfection, purity and freedom through the discharge of my duties as a householder and through the service of my parents. This is the secret of my Yoga and Self-realisation."

An ignorant worldly-minded man says: "I have to do my duties. I have to educate my four sons and three daughters. I have to please my employer. I have heavy duties in the office. I have to remit money to my widowed sister. I have a large family. I have six brothers and five sisters. Where is the time for doing Sandhya and Japa and the study of religious books? There is no time even to breathe. I have no leisure. Even during holidays I have to work. I bring office papers to my home and work at night till eleven. I do not want Sannyasa or any Yoga. The office work and the maintenance of my family is itself Yoga."

Do you call this duty? It is mere slavery. It is bondage. The man is afraid of his superior at every moment. Even in his dreams he meets his office-mates and the employer, and posts figures in the ledger. This is not sense of duty. The man cannot pray even for a second. He has no time to read a single Sloka of the Gita. There is not a single thought of God even in a month. He takes tea, eats food, sits at the table to write, sleeps and procreates. The entire life passes away like this. This is selfish work. This is not duty. This is work for gain and satisfaction of the lower appetite. Anything done under compulsion and expectation is not duty. You must not interpret slavery as duty. You must not take selfish works that are done through attachment, greed and passion as duty. You will be doing great injustice. This is self-created drudgery.

A clerk or an officer earns money by taking bribes and when his conscience pricks him, he feeds some Brahmins and says: "I have done a great duty today. I have fed fifteen Brahmins with Dakshina of four annas each." This is his idea of duty. He further adds: "Why should I take Sannyasa and practise Yoga? I will earn lots of money and do charity. This is the best kind of life." Poor deluded soul! May God give him good understanding!

Ahimsa Paramo Dharmah cannot be strictly practised by householders. It can be practised by Sannyasins who tread the path of Nivritti Marga. They will have to practise it. If a vagabond enters the house and tries to molest a lady, a householder cannot keep quiet. He will not say: "I will not resist evil now." He will immediately take a club and give the man a good thrashing. Suppose a lady is in danger. Someone wants to murder her to take away her jewels. She seeks the shelter of a young, strong man for protection. It is the duty of this young man to resist evil and defend her by attacking this cruel man. He cannot say now: 'Non-injury is the highest virtue'. It is his duty to save the life of the lady by resisting evil. Otherwise he fails in his duty.

Morality and duty vary according to circumstances. To resist evil becomes the duty of a man in certain circumstances. The king should always raise his rod of chastisement to keep peace and order in his country. He cannot say: "I will not resist evil. Ahimsa Paramo Dharma." He will fail in the discharge of his duty if he does not punish the wicked, and his country will be in a state of utter chaos. To hang a murderer or a dacoit is Ahimsa for a king. Himsa and Ahimsa are relative terms. To kill a man who is taking away the lives of many is Ahimsa. Have you understood the secret of Ahimsa now? A real Sannyasin should not defend himself even when his life is in danger. A Sannyasin is one who has no body and who identifies himself with the Atman. To shoot a dog or a horse that is suffering from acute agony that cannot be alleviated, is Ahimsa for a European. He wants to free the dog from pain. His motive is good.

Lord Krishna says in the Gita: "Better one's own duty, though destitute of merits, than the well-executed duty of another. He who doeth the duty laid down by his own nature incurreth not sin. Congenital duty, O son of Kunti, though defective, ought not to be abandoned. All undertakings, indeed, are clouded by defects as fire by smoke." Ch. XVIII-47, 48.

Then again Lord Krishna says:

Sarvadharman parityajya mamekam saranam vraja,
Aham tva sarvapapebhyo mokshayishyami ma suchaha.

"Abandoning all duties, come to Me alone for shelter, sorrow not, I will liberate thee from all sins." Ch. XVIII-66.

In the previous two Slokas He asks Arjuna to abandon all duties. Is this contradiction? Is the Lord blowing hot and cold with the same breath? No. This is not contradiction. Arjuna says to the Lord: "My heart is weighed down with the voice of faintness, my mind is confused as to duty. I ask Thee which may be better-that tell me decisively. I am Thy disciple, suppliant to Thee; teach me." Ch. II-7. Lord Krishna gives the reply in Sloka 66 of Ch. XVIII.

What is the right significance of the words 'Sarva Dharman-all duties'? Some people say: "Give up the Dharmas of the Indriyas." How could this be? Even a Jivanmukta sees, eats, walks, answers the calls of nature. According to Sri Sankara it means: 'Both righteous and unrighteous deeds, renouncing all works.' According to Ramanuja it means: 'Desire for fruit in action and attachment thereto and actor-mentality in action. Actions should be performed without attachment to action or its fruits. They should be dedicated to the Supreme by removing the idea of agency therein.' According to Madhva it means: 'Fruit of action-renunciation of fruit in action.' According to Tilak it means: 'Various duties like those of non-violence, truth, service of parents and preceptors, sacrifice, charity, renunciation, etc.' The passage means that Arjuna is to avoid the tangle of these duties and take refuge in the Supreme. In other words, whatever actions one has to perform, according to one's disposition and innate tendency, he may do, taking refuge in the Supreme. Krishna gives a command to Arjuna, an assurance and a consolation.

Sloka 66 is the most important verse in the Gita. If one can live in the spirit of this Sloka alone he can have Sreyas or highest bliss. Vedantins explain this Sloka as follows: 'Give up Jiva-bhavana and take up Brahma-bhavana by meditating on Aham Brahma Asmi Mahavakya. You will have liberation or Mukti. All sins will be destroyed.'

I wish to point out to you that morality and duty are relative terms. They are changing according to the state of life, stage of mental growth and evolution of the individual, time and circumstances, and the country in which one lives. To eat meat in Kashmir is perfectly moral for a Bengali Brahmin. In the eyes of a Madrasi Brahmin this is highly immoral. To have four wives (polygamy) is perfectly moral for a Muslim or a China-man, but for a Hindu this is highly immoral. A gentleman or a lady can have divorce of his wife or her husband very easily in the West. Marriage is a contract in the West, whereas in India it is a sacrament or holy act that is done before the sacred fire. Divorce is quite moral in the West, but it is highly immoral in the East. For an Arya Samajist widow-marriage is quite moral; for a Sanatanist it is highly immoral. Poliandry (one woman marrying several husbands, the opposite of polygamy) is quite moral in Tibet, but it is highly immoral in the eyes of people of other countries. It is perfectly moral for a Sikh to drink, but it is immoral for him to smoke. People of cold countries require meat and a little liquor to keep up heat and help digestion. A soldier needs meat to keep up his strength and martial spirit. A Brahmin or a Sannyasin wants vegetable food, milk and fruits to help his meditation and keep up his Sattvic mental attitude. Rishi Vishvamitra had to eat prohibited meat when his life was in jeopardy. Morality changes when one's life is at stake (Apat-Dharma). Ignorant people hate others when they see them doing something that they themselves are not doing. A Madrasi vegetarian Brahmin hates fish-eating Bengali Brahmin. This is a sad mistake. This retards his spiritual progress. A Madrasi is horrified when he sees a Hindustani eating with both his hands from the same plate with his children.

Similarly the idea of duty also varies among people of different countries. An African cannot do Agnihotra in his hot country in summer. A Kashmir Pundit cannot take morning bath in winter in his place. The duty of one class of people cannot be the duty of another class of people. The duty of a man of one stage of life cannot be the duty of a man of another stage. The duties of a Brahmin, Vaishya, Kshatriya and Sudra, the duties of a Brahmachari, householder, forest-dweller and a Sannyasin, are quite different. A Brahmin cannot do the duty of a soldier. To kill an enemy in the battlefield is the duty of a soldier or Kshatriya. To practise Ahimsa in thought, word and deed is the duty of a Sannyasin and a Brahmin. Man evolves quickly by performing rigidly his duties allotted to his station in life.

Nectar's sons! Children of immortality! Shake off all weaknesses. Stand up and gird your loins. Do your Svadharma satisfactorily in accordance with your caste or stage in life. Evolve quickly in spirituality. Eternal bliss, supreme peace, infinite knowledge and satisfaction can be had in the Atman only. Practice of Svadharma will surely lead to the attainment of God-consciousness. There is no happiness in finite objects. The Infinite alone is bliss. Understand the Truth through the practice of your Svadharma. This world is unreal. It is like a mirage. The senses and mind deceive you at every moment. Wake up! Open your eyes and learn to discriminate. Do not trust your Indriyas. They are your enemies. It is very difficult to get this human birth. Life is short, time is fleeting. Those who cling to unreal things of this world are verily committing suicide. Struggle hard to practise your Svadharma. Keep the ideal before your eyes always. Have a programme of life. Attempt to realise the ideal. Stick to Svadharma with leech-like tenacity and attain success. Practise it and realise the state of Satchidananda right now in this very second. May the blessings of the Lord be upon you all! May joy, bliss, immortality, peace and poise abide with you for ever!


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