Duty, Dharma, Swadharma, Swabhava (1997, The Mother’s Institute of Research, Delhi) - Session 2: Swabhava and Swadharma

Now we shall come to your question of swabhava. Actually this question is dealt with throughout the Bhagavad Gita. In the very step of Bhagavad Gita’s exposition, at one stage Sri Krishna tells Arjuna looking to his own swadharma of Kshatriya you should fight. That is one of the first statements. Then there are statements throughout Bhagavad Gita about prakriti, actions produced by prakriti, actions which are relevant to swabhava, and then in the last chapter 18th chapter the verses 40-48, the nine verses specifically refer this question of swabhava. The relevance of this question of swabhava arises when we put the question what specific action should I be doing. There can be a general question as to what is the right action, what is the wrong action. Then you distinguish between the two and you say you should do the right action. What is the right action? There can also be a general definition as to what is the right action and chapter 3 has discussed this question at length where it is said that action done as a sacrifice to the Lord is the right action.

And then the question arises if any action done as a sacrifice to the Lord is the right action? Is this answer sufficient? There can be three or four or five separate kinds of action which are equally good, all of them are equally offered to the Lord. Therefore can you take up any of them and do it? Here there is a special emphasis in Gita when it says that there is swakarma, you have swadharma, you have swabhava. So it goes into greater detail which tells us that there is further sophistication, further detail. Apart from general action that can be understood or proposed or prescribed, there is a further detail to be taken into account and Sri Krishna even goes to say that an action which proceeds from swadharma is much better than the action that proceeds from somebody else's dharma:

स्वधर्मे निधनं श्रेयः परधर्मो भयावहः ॥ 3.35

Bhagavad Gita 3.35

It is better while performing your own dharma to die, rather than resorting to paradharma to the action that proceeds from the dharma of another. Swadharama is also ordained by society, but also something deeper than that.

Now to understand the concept of swadharma Sri Krishna has delineated the concept of swabhava and said that you should look through swabhava and according to the swabhava, swadharma emerges out of it. So we are now concentrating upon this concept of swabhava. Now, with regard to swabhava, there are three related concepts: one is sahajam karma, swabhavajam karma and there is kartavyam karma. These three concepts are interrelated and these three terms have been defined differently by different people and therefore there is a good deal of confusion on this question.

So we shall try to first analyse the meanings of these three terms. Actually speaking, all the three terms should mean the same thing: sahajam karma is a karma which is spontaneous sahajam karma or that karma, which is born with saha-jam that which is born with you, you and your work are born together, so that is sahajam karma. Kartavyam karma is the work that is to be done. That is the right karma, that which is imposed upon you, imperative to be done by you, that is kartavyam karma. And then is the karma that arises from your swabhava.

Now the confusion arises because the word sahajam karma is very often interpreted as a karma, which is born with you in the sense that born with the conditions in which your family works, your clan works. If my father is a shoemaker and I am born in the shoemaker's house, then sometimes it says, sahajam karma is the karma of a shoemaker. So for me, sahajam karma is the work of a shoemaker. This is how it is interpreted, sahajam, that which is born with me.

Now kartavyam karma, also is not sufficiently understood in the right way, because there is a concept that doing havan or sacrifice every day is kartavyam karma. So it's a ritualistic interpretation of the word Kartavyam karma that we come across, so it is said that what is kartavyam karma is that you should always go to light the fire and offer the offerings in the fire and recite the mantras, invite the gods make a sankalpa and receive the fruits thereof. This is called kartavyam karma. This is what you should do. Swabhavam karma is very often understood as that it is natural to you, that which you are inclined to. So in this way we have got these three other interpretations and because these interpretations are given, we do not know what exactly is the message of the Gita in this respect.

Now to be able to understand more properly, we have to bring the question of karma, the karma that arises out of prakriti, and there is a distinction between the karma that arises from swabhava and the action that proceeds from prakriti, prakriti action is always trigunatmak, an action that has got three strands: the tamasic karma, rajasic karma and sattvic karma, and the idea is that, if you are tamasic, then for you an action is that which pulls you out a little from tamas and takes you to rajas. If you are rajasic, then it allows you to do rajasic action but pulls you off towards sattva, and if you are sattvic, then it pulls you up. You do the sattvic work, but also pulls you up a little above the sattva. This is the normal meaning that is attached to the karma that is related to prakriti.

Swabhava is different from prakriti. That is the main point. If you read the Gita properly, there is a distinction between prakritija action swabhavaja action. There is an interrelationship between the two, but there is a distinction. Now what is the distinction between swabhava and prakriti? Swabhava is basically something that proceeds from swa, from your deepest self. Prakriti is the action that proceeds from prakriti, that which arises from nature. The action that proceeds from swabhava is an action that process from your soul. The two have a relationship between the two, but the distinction is to be underlined.

The basic swa is above prakriti, i. Everyone of us has a swa, a self, which the Gita speaks of as jiva. Every individual, all that we call ourselves, the real self, what I am. This is the jiva. My jiva is at present entangled in prakriti, that is to say, it is entangled in a movement of nature, which is tamasic, rajasic and sattvic. So apart from this nature, which is threefold, there is also a becoming of my jiva. Jiva has his own action. It has its own energy, the nature of which is not sattvic, rajasic and tamasic, but it is above us. It may be called the soul-force as distinguished from nature-force. The soul-force is not sattvic, rajasic and tamasic. Therefore, as long as you do prakriti's work, you have not yet entered into swabhava. Now, what is that soul-force and what is the nature of that soul-force? If it is not sattvic, rajasic and tamasic, what is the nature of it? The nature of is fourfold: it is the force of knowledge; the force of strength, courage and heroism; the force of mutuality and love and harmony and exchange; and the force of skill, force which makes you do all kinds of activities, force of works, force of skill. Now these four forces are in each one of us. That is the very nature of jiva, but these forces are entangled into prakriti's movement of rajas, sattva and tamas.

Therefore, the complex in which we are living now is a kind of a web. There are threads of sattva, rajas and tamas; and there are four webs, four threads of knowledge, heroism, mutuality and skill. Now each one of us is a kind of a web and we find ourselves into some kind of a developed or undeveloped condition of these threads, which are entangled into each other. That is why it is so difficult for us to pick up and say this is my swabhava, and this is my real work. When you want to determine what is a specific work, you have to discover your four threads of knowledge, heroism, mutuality and skill. Then you have to see in what way these four threads in you are developed, in what way they are entangled with sattva, rajas and tamas, at which stage you've reached in this development and finally we have to go into a deeper analysis and that analysis brings the idea of swadharma.

There is swabhava and swadharma, swadharma means the law of action that proceeds from swabhava. Let us repeat it, because this is the most subtle concept in the Bhagavad Gita, the law of the being. What is the meaning of the law of the being? All dharma is what is a law. So the question is: what is the meaning of law? If you want, to put it very simply, law means a regular rhythm. This is the simple word, regular rhythm. If you want to expand it, it would mean a regular rhythm of action that contributes to the development.

Let me take one large example. You may ask the question: just as about one individual, you can ask the question about the whole nation. What is the swadharma of India? Just as we can ask the question, what is the dharma of x, y and z? You can also ask this question: what's the dharma of India? When the foreign influence came into India, you could see the work of India, swadharma, very clearly. When a foreign influence began to penetrate into India, how did the soul of India, the swabhava of India, react to it? Just as if a foreign element is introduced into the body, the law of the body is that it tries to throw it away. We all know that a foreign element in the body is always rejected. There are ways by which that rejection can be minimised. As presently many doctors are trying to implant somebody's heart into the other body, and then normally the body tries to throw it out. There are amazing means by which that throwing out becomes minimised, but you may say this is the law of the body, namely the law of the body is the rhythm of development, rhythm of movement. Whenever this happens, there's a rhythm and it immediately tries to throw it away. Whenever we speak of law, you can say the law means the rhythm of movement, rhythm of action leading towards development.

Now what Bhagavad Gita tries to tell us is that every individual has to observe the law that is the rhythm in which it acts and acts towards development. Now what is India's swadharma and how it acted towards a foreign influence? Now you will see that in Indian history in the 19th century, the condition being what it is. India absorbed the western influence, almost wholesale. A stage came when it was felt, particularly by the intelligentsia, that we have to borrow everything from the west, and we began to develop our thoughts, our institutions, our manners, our style of functioning on the lines of the British. We became anglicised, you might say.

One glaring example of this movement was Sri Aurobindo's father, KD Ghose. He himself was anglicised and he wanted his children to be completely anglicised right from childhood to such an extent that Sri Aurobindo did not learn in Bengali mother tongue until after the age of 21. When he came back from England, he knew English and Hindustani up to the age of seven. He was taken to Darjeeling school, English school, and then at the age of seven, along with his two elder brothers, he was taken to England and one Drewett, a missionary in whose hands Sri Aurobindo’s education was entrusted with strict instruction that he should have no Indian influence on him. The only influence there should be is British influence. He saw the specific, explicit instruction.

Now this is an example as to how an educated doctor, his father was a medical doctor, how he looked upon his life and the life of children and the future. Now this was the action of the soul of India when something came from outside. Now you might say this was not the soul of India reacting to the outside influence, but something that was a kind of prakriti, not a swabhava but the prakriti of India. But even this prakriti had behind it a force of the swabhava. The truth of the survivor of India is that India always absorbs, this is the swabhava. The law of the being of India, it is to absorb, but this absorption is always provisional. This is also the law of the being of India, it absorbs but absorbs provisionally. It does not outright reject, saying because it is foreign, I throw it away. This is the speciality of almost all Indians. In fact, if you consider India, anything coming from outside, our first tendency is to absorb it. Even if you want to reject it, it is a very mild rejection, but basically you absorb it but having absorbed, this is the first rhythm. Absorption is the first rhythm of India's reaction to anything that comes from outside.

Second rhythm of this movement is to go into the depth of whatever is absorbed. Absorption is provisional. Then it goes into the depth of it. Having gone to the depths, it examines its real swabhava, its own true, true soul. So there is a kind of introspection. A stage of introspection comes up. Now that stage of introspection is a comparative introspection. What has come from outside is examined in the depth. There is also examination of the true self swabhava, true soul, and comparing the two and then slowly, not rapidly, but slowly, this is also the third rhythm, it slowly emerges from its inward true soul and brings out from the soul some jewels, its own diamonds, something that is precious in itself and suddenly becomes aware that all that was absorbed is not right.

Now, because it has examined now into the depth before pronouncing that no, it is not right, it goes into the depth of it, depth also in its own true soul, and then slowly emerges and says no, no, this is not the right thing. Then it tries to impose upon that which is received from outside, its own. In doing so, it synthesises, it does not merely say no, it is wrong, it synthesises until the synthesis becomes so perfect that what is true in it is fully imposed upon what is received. It attains mastery and sovereignty over that which it received from outside and gives an altogether new turn to it.

Now this is the swabhava and swadharma of India. The swabhava is of India is to receive, in other words, its basic tendency, swabhava of India, is predominantly the tendency of knowledge, of wisdom out of the four threads that I have spoken of—the thread of knowledge, the thread of heroism, the thread of mutuality and the thread of skill. The predominant thread of India is knowledge and the natural tendency of knowledge is to receive, to be open, to be open-minded. This is the tendency of everyone in the world who has got a thread of knowledge predominant: he has a tendency to open up and to assimilate. If, however, your fundamental tendency is that of courage and heroism, the law of action or rhythm will be that of combat, wrestling. Anything that is received is wrestled with, if your tendency, if the thread of heroism is more predominant. If the thread of mutuality is more predominant, then there will be the tendency to accommodate, not to wrestle, not to open either, not to assimilate but to accommodate, 50:50, 50 of yours, 50 of mine, is a kind of accommodation. If your thread of skill is more predominant, then you will be ready to learn the skills from the others. Forget all other aspects but master the techniques, other things will not count with you, you will only be concerned with the mastery of the techniques which come from outside and for that purpose you might be even ready to become slave of those who teaches techniques.

Now, actually speaking, all the four are present everywhere. You cannot say India’s swadharma is only knowledge and nothing else, all the four. Therefore, when India had to react to the west, all the four tenancies were present— accommodation, wrestling, assimilation and becoming slave to learn the techniques; all the four are present. So you can't say that only one, but if you want to see the real swadharma of India, the real action that proceeds from its own swabhava, then you can say that the real swabhava of India is this swabhava with a predominance of knowledge. India represents wisdom in the totality of the world. The natural swabhava of India is that of wisdom, and the tendency of wisdom is never to reject anything because it wants to see the truth in everything. It’s a fundamental tendency of anybody who is a seeker of knowledge. He always wants to see the truth in the other's point of view. That is why this tendency arose in India that when the west came, we tried to assimilate, that was the rhythm that is called the law. India cannot be India if it does not assimilate. That is a fundamental tendency of India.

The second tendency, the second part of the law is, having assimilated it goes into the depth of what is assimilated. That is another aspect of it. It’s not really assimilation but going into the depth, total depth. So it takes a long time for India to react rightly and fully. Just as it is the law of the human body to take nine months to be formed before birth, they take several years to be able to walk and to talk and to be stable in his bodily action and then take several years to study and to learn and to grow into adulthood and then to be active for a number of years until the time comes when it becomes old and then worn out and then goes into the last stages, this is the law of the body. Its rhythm is this rhythm.

Now this rhythm is present in every movement ordinarily, but even there there are differences. It depends upon the freedom of it. In any case, anybody whose predominant thread of swabhava is knowledge. Then this will be the movement. You see the history of India, you'll find out the real swabhava of India. With anything that has come from outside, this has been the tenancy of India: it assimilates, it synthesises, goes into the depth, then it brings out its own basic thread, its own wisdom, enriches itself, synthesises itself, masters it and ultimately, it puts its own stamp on what has come from outside and changes it and it attains to its own selfhood. This is the swabhava of India and any one of us who comes nearer to the soul of India begins to participate in this action; even he may be any heroic man or he may be a man of mutuality or whatever the nearer he comes to the soul of India, the greater will be the tendency to impose this law of the development of the thread of knowledge. Again, it does not mean that other threads are thrown out, its only a question of the combination and the way in which one action is preferred, rather than other action.

Now, this is a simplified version in a certain sense so as to we may be able to get into the root of the essence of the matter, but in actuality, as I said, all the four threads are combined in the world together. These four threads are also mixed with sattva, rajas and tamas; and even sattva, rajas and tamas have got one of them predominant and another less dominant and which one will become dominant and which will become less dominant, it also depends upon the thread which is more predominant in respect of swabhava. If your swabhava is largely governed by pursuit of knowledge, then among the three gunas sattva will predominate, because sattva reflects more or less the swabhava of knowledge. If the tendency in your swabhava is to work with predominance of heroism, then rajas will be predominant in your prakriti, in your outer nature. If accommodation, mutuality is more predominant in you, then the lower rajas will be predominant in you, and if skill and other kinds of activities are more natural to you from the point of swabhava, then tamas will be more predominant.

That is how we can even examine an individual even from prakriti's point of view. If you examine prakriti, which tendency is more predominant, then you can imagine not absolutely accurately but more or less accurately as to which thread of swabhava is more predominant in you and then, if you want to give a guidance to yourself, then you can give a guidance to it, you emphasise your swabhava, your prakriti of sattva and through it you increase your thread of knowledge in swabhava, and the law of your development will be such that in your activities, the predominant part will be played by pursuits of knowledge. You may be doing any occupation of life, you may be a big businessman, you may be a skilled worker or you may be a very great hero and a warrior, but the moment sattva begins to predominate and the moment the thread of knowledge begins to manifest more and more powerfully, your life pattern will change and more and more time will be devoted by you to the pursuit of knowledge and therefore your swadharma at that time will be to follow the rhythm of knowledge movement.

Now this applies to all the four threads and all the three aspects of prakriti's nature. Now this should show how difficult it is for any individual at any given time to say this is my swabhava, this is my swadharma, and this is what I will do and there can be no fixed law, because this is a constant development. What is true at a given time in my life may not be true at another stage of my life, it depends upon which thread is now predominant at a given time.

Let us take another example: you are having the thread of knowledge as a predominant element of your swabhava. As a result, the sattva element in you is becoming predominant. Now, in the time when you are moving in the field of knowledge, an occasion arises and somebody comes to you and says, look so much injustice is going on in the society, you should combat it. Isn’t it right? Justice should be established in society. It means that you should raise your voice. You should protest, you should participate in abhiyan, some movement, some kranti must come about. A friend of yours gives you this message, and the friend is quite right. If injustice is being done by somebody against somebody, you must always intervene and do something about it. What is your dharma? What is your swadharma, what is your thing that you should do, nothing wrong if you do combating, but if at that time you are in the thread of movement of knowledge, your sattva is more powerful, very often, you will even find that your blood does not begin to boil. It happens in the sattvic temperaments and in the mood when you want to pursue knowledge, even when you are told so much injustice is going on before your eyes. You don't boil at that time. Your tendency is to understand why this is happening. You want to find out what is the truth behind the opponent, the tyrant, what is the truth behind him? Why is he doing this? Let me understand what is the truth behind it? Let me try to understand what is the right thing to be done. Is combat the only method? Can it not be converted? Why combat? Conversion, let it be converted. These arguments will come automatically to you, and yet you may be pressed further saying that you are impotent, you are doing nothing, accepting all these things in the world as they are, rise, fight, utthishta! This will be the command which will come to you from outside people. Sometimes you'll be even inundated by this kind of a cry. Very often you find that such people under this confusion, they don't know what is to be done. When he does know to himself what is the truth behind the opponent and he wants to give full justification to the truth behind the opponent, naturally he will try to understand, first of all, to observe, understand, make experiments.

Like India, if it was told when the British came, to rise and fight immediately, he did fight, but basically it was absorbed, trying to find out what was the truth behind the western influence. Even now we are doing it even today, we are still following the system of parliamentary government even today. Why? Because the Britishers established it and we are still trying to understand why they did it. What is the advantage of it? And still, you even now say: it is the right method, democracy is the right thing to be done because the westerns have embraced democracy, therefore we also accept it. We have still not come out of it. We are still trying to debate. We still try to advocate democracy with all our heart, without even trying to see whether there is in India some kind of a wisdom which can be parallel to democracy, which can be a rival to democracy, which can be a better form of government. Some people are thinking about it at the depth, but still it has not come to the surface, so we have not yet finished the cycle. We are still absorbing. We are still trying to understand. We want to justify even today, because the British parliament has got committees of a certain kind, therefore our parliament also should have committees of this kind, because in the British parliament such and such a procedure to defeat the government, therefore we should also have such a system of defeating the government. We are following all that which has come from the west and we are still advocating it. In other words, India is taking a lot of time to come to itself and to assert itself.

Further India has become tamasic, because there is another aspect of India. Whenever there is movement of knowledge, in the balance of nature, tamas always begins to become more predominant. To combine the pure movement of knowledge with the movement of heroism is very difficult to combine. The movement of knowledge towards inertia is much more easy because in tamas also there is that assimilation, that movement towards resting and trying to see whether I’m assimilating, so there may be a false movement of assimilation.

As Sri Krishna says, no human action is perfect and this is the reason why no human action is perfect, because, while you are moving on one line, the other lower movement may predominate in you, then what is the right action to be done? This is the meaning of swadharma. You should see what is your rhythm of action, what is your predominant nature and what is the rhythm in which you develop normally, even if your action while doing this is not as perfect as it would be. If you have to follow some other movement, Sri Krishna says there is परधर्मो भयावहः, if you are not by nature by your swabhava with a predominance of the thread of courage and heroism, simply because you are incited by somebody, combat, fight, if you take it up, first of all, you won't be able to fight properly and you will fight half-heartedly and you will fail—or even if you take it up and maybe that you will do successfully, ultimately you will come through great disappointments, saying, O I wrongly killed this person, I wrongly fought with that person, because your thread of knowledge will again start examining what you have done in the combat and you will feel enfeebled afterwards. It may have its own reaction.

Therefore, if you are working on the lines of your swabhava and swadharma, every individual should strive to determine what is his predominant thread, both in swabhava and in prakriti, balance them together properly, not kill all the others, they are also present. If somebody comes to you, when you're in the mood of knowledge with a combat message, don't reject it, say yes, I’ll come to you as soon as I’m ready for it. You don't reject it either, but don't plunge into it.

There is a very interesting story of two disciples of Sri Ramakrishna. They were both sitting in the boat together and among the people in the boat there was a lot of criticism of Sri Ramakrishna and one of them rose against it and began to combat and the other one kept quiet, and then the report was given to Sri Ramakrishna and he said both of you were wrong, that man should have combated, and this man should have kept quiet. What was true of a rajasic man, he had to rise into sattva, so he should have been able to bear the criticism of Sri Ramakrishna. Other was tamasic, he should have risen into rajas.

So it depends upon what is your level and where you are trying to strive to move upwards, that which gives you the right measure of your swabhava with the prakriti of sattva, rajas and tamas entwined with it. The level at which you have reached and the level to which you should rise next, take into account all this and then the result will be your action. What is the action? That is swabhavaja karma, action that proceeds from your swabhava.

Q: About the two disciples of Sri Ramakrishna?

One was tamasic and one was rajasic. So what Sri Ramakrishna said was that the rajasic man should have become sattvic, he should not have combated, he should have suffered it and should have been able to remain restrained. One was tamasic who remained aloof from it, he should have become rajasic and should have said what is this nonsense you are talking about my Guru, he should have risen in a combat. So that is why Sri Krishna says there is not one action for which you can say that this action is the action. In fact, the last six chapters of the Bhagavad Gita are devoted to the questions of this kind in detail. So the question that you are raised is actually anticipating the last six chapters.