The Reason For Being – Svadharma

There’s a term in Japanese – “Ikigai”, which roughly translates to “reason for being” which resonates very strongly with me.  There is a similar term in Sanskrit (and other Indian languages) – “svadharma”, which roughly translates to “personal dharma”. Now dharma as a word is very complex – its root is “dhr”, which stands for “Hold”. It has been explained to me as follows — “Dharma is dhr ma – Dhr is to hold, Ma is the mother or the source”. So dharma is that which upholds the source.

Svadharma then is one’s personal path to uphold the source. One could then look at svadharma as one’s “reason for being” (or Ikigai). But it is not always easy to know what one’s svadharma is. In the old world, in Ancient India at least, the roles within society were clearly articulated —

  • The Brahmins were the medium, mode, and vehicle of knowledge
  • The Kshatriyas were the warriors — protectors and governors/rulers.
  • The Vaishyas were the traders and artisans – they produced things that society wanted.
  • The Shudras were the working class — without them, nothing could ever happen.

Now, supposedly in ancient times, these were classifications based on individual predilection and aptitude. People were free to traverse back and forth across these categories.

Along with the above, were also guidelines about how to live in society, known as the varnāshrama dharma.

  • From childhood through early youth, the individuals were students (Brahmacharis). They acquired knowledge and skills.
  • After completing the knowledge and skill acquisition, the individuals transitioned into the householder’s life (grihastha). They raised families, propagated humanity through their progeny, contributing to society in one of the ways listed in the first category.
  • After the children of a couple came of age, the parents would retire (in middle age) to the forest, where they lived amidst nature, contemplating dharma and refining spiritual practices.
  • As they entered old age, they would then forsake their identities and take up sannyasa (asceticism) — this was the last push for spiritual liberation (moksha).

As that old saying goes, “that was then and now is now…”

Things aren’t as clear-cut (if they even were in ancient times) anymore — most of us have to work for a living till we are in old age, many even well into old age until we literally give up the ghost. What then would be the reason for being? How would one know?

Often people have to choose a profession based on survival/expediency rather than ability or interest. How can modern people navigate this world? There’s a saying that “if you love what you do, and do what you love, life becomes a joy”. However, if you can’t find that, life can become a struggle.

Is there a way to find one’s purpose in life? If so, what is it?

Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita 3.35 says —

श्रेयान् स्व-धर्मो विगुणः पर-धर्मात् स्वनुष्ठितात् ।
स्व-धर्मे निधनं श्रेयः पर-धर्मो भयावहः ॥ ३५ ॥

śreyān sva-dharmo viguṇaḥ para-dharmāt svanuṣṭhitāt |
sva-dharme nidhanaṃ śreyaḥ para-dharmo bhayāvahaḥ || 35 ||

It is far better to execute one’s prescribed duties, even though imperfectly, than to perform another’s duty perfectly. It is better to die discharging one’s own duty in accordance with the varṇāśrama system than to engage in another’s duty, for it is dangerous to follow another’s path.

Here’s where Ikigai might have an answer for us —

Can this Venn diagram show us the way to find our svadharma? So many questions arise —

How do we know if what we think is our personal dharma does not violate the larger dharma in general? A businessman, for instance, might be very successful at making money, and can perhaps even justify his profession as his reason to be, certainly because he can argue that he loves what he does, the world certainly might need what he produces or sells, he is good at his job and he’s making money (getting paid for it).

So then how can we unfold this scenario using the Bhagavad Gita as a guide?

It is important to understand the motivation for our actions. Why are we doing what we do? Is it for the sheer joy of doing something that we are good at? Is it for the greater good? Can we be totally honest with ourselves and face the truth about our motivations thereof?

Sri Krishna, in BG 3.25 says —

सक्ताः कर्मण्य् अविद्वांसो यथा कुर्वन्ति भारत ।
कुर्याद् विद्वांस् तथासक्तश् चिकीर्षुर् लोक-सङ्ग्रहम् ॥ २५ ॥

saktāḥ karmaṇy avidvāṃso yathā kurvanti bhārata |
kuryād vidvāṃs tathāsaktaś cikīrṣur loka-saṅgraham || 25 ||

O descendant of Bharata, ignorant people perform their duties with attachment. Those who are wise should also work, but without attachment, desiring to instruct the people in general.

BG 3.27 —

प्रकृतेः क्रियमाणानि गुणैः कर्माणि सर्वशः ।
अहङ्कार-विमूढात्मा कर्ताहम् इति मन्यते ॥ २७ ॥

prakṛteḥ kriyamāṇāni guṇaiḥ karmāṇi sarvaśaḥ |
ahaṅkāra-vimūḍhātmā kartāham iti manyate || 27 ||

All aspects of material activity are performed by the three binding forces of material nature, but a person whose intelligence is bewildered by false ego thinks himself to be the doer.

BG 3.28 —

तत्त्ववित् तु महा-बाहो गुण-कर्म-विभागयोः ।
गुणा गुणेषु वर्तन्त इति मत्वा न सज्जते ॥ २८ ॥

tattvavit tu mahā-bāho guṇa-karma-vibhāgayoḥ |
guṇā guṇeṣu vartanta iti matvā na sajjate || 28 ||

O mighty-armed Arjuna, a person who knows that the soul is aloof from the three binding forces of material nature, as well as from the laws of karma, does not falsely identify himself as the doer. This is because he understands that the senses are engaged in their respective sense objects and is aloof from them.

Here, the word “Soul” can be better translated to be the “Self”. What is the Self? I’ve discussed this in an earlier article.

BG 3.30 —

मयि सर्वाणि कर्माणि सन्न्यस्याध्यात्म-चेतसा ।
निराशीर् निर्ममो भूत्वा युध्यस्व विगत-ज्वरः ॥ ३० ॥

mayi sarvāṇi karmāṇi sannyasyādhyātma-cetasā |
nirāśīr nirmamo bhūtvā yudhyasva vigata-jvaraḥ || 30 ||

With your mind fixed in the Self, offering all your activities to Me and being free from desire, possessiveness and lamentation, fight.

BG 3.33 —

सदृशं चेष्टते स्वस्याः प्रकृतेर् ज्ञानवान् अपि ।
प्रकृतिं यान्ति भूतानि निग्रहः किं करिष्यति ॥ ३३ ॥

sadṛśaṃ ceṣṭate svasyāḥ prakṛter jñānavān api |
prakṛtiṃ yānti bhūtāni nigrahaḥ kiṃ kariṣyati || 33 ||

Even a man of knowledge acts in accordance with his natural disposition, for all beings follow their nature. What can be achieved by repression of the senses?

BG 3.34 —

इन्द्रियस्येन्द्रियस्यार्थे राग-द्वेषौ व्यवस्थितौ ।
तयोर् न वशम् आगच्छेत् तौ ह्य् अस्य परिपन्थिनौ ॥ ३४ ॥

indriyasyendriyasyārthe rāga-dveṣau vyavasthitau |
tayor na vaśam āgacchet tau hy asya paripanthinau || 34 ||

All the senses are helplessly controlled by one’s attachment and aversion to their respective objects. Therefore, one should never come under their sway because such attachment and aversion are impediments for the sādhaka’s progress upon the path of auspiciousness.

Arjuna then asks the Lord in BG 3.36 —

अथ केन प्रयुक्तोऽयं पापं चरति पूरुषः ।
अनिच्छन्न् अपि वार्ष्णेय बलाद् इव नियोजितः ॥ ३६ ॥

atha kena prayukto’yaṃ pāpaṃ carati pūruṣaḥ |
anicchann api vārṣṇeya balād iva niyojitaḥ || 36 ||

Arjuna said: O Kṛṣṇa, O descendant of Vṛṣṇi, what is it that seems to forcibly impel a person to engage in sinful deeds, even though he is unwilling to do so?

To which the Lord responds in BG 3.37 —

श्री भगवान् उवाच–
काम एष क्रोध एष रजो-गुण-समुद्भवः ।
महाशनो महा-पाप्मा विद्ध्य् एनम् इह वैरिणम् ॥ ३७ ॥

śrī bhagavān uvāca
kāma eṣa krodha eṣa rajo-guṇa-samudbhavaḥ |
mahāśano mahā-pāpmā viddhy enam iha vairiṇam || 37 ||

Śrī Bhagavān said: This lust, the desire to enjoy sense objects, which indeed transforms into wrath, is born of passion. It is all-devouring and extremely fearsome. Know it to be the primary enemy of the living entities in this world.

BG 3.38 —

धूमेनाव्रियते वह्निर् यथादर्शो मलेन च ।
यथोल्बेनावृतो गर्भस् तथा तेनेदम् आवृतम् ॥ ३८ ॥

dhūmenāvriyate vahnir yathādarśo malena ca |
yatholbenāvṛto garbhas tathā tenedam āvṛtam || 38 ||

Just as fire is covered by smoke, a mirror by dust, and an embryo by the womb, so the true knowledge of the living being remains covered by different degrees of lust.

BG 3.39 —

आवृतं ज्ञानम् एतेन ज्ञानिनो नित्य-वैरिणा ।
काम-रूपेण कौन्तेय दुष्पूरेणानलेन च ॥ ३९ ॥

āvṛtaṃ jñānam etena jñānino nitya-vairiṇā |
kāma-rūpeṇa kaunteya duṣpūreṇānalena ca
 || 39 ||

Arjuna, the true knowledge of the wise living entity is covered by his eternal enemy in the form of lust. This lust burns like fire and can never be satiated.

BG 3.40 —

इन्द्रियाणि मनो बुद्धिर् अस्याधिष्ठानम् उच्यते एतैर् ।
विमोहयत्य् एष ज्ञानम् आवृत्य देहिनम् ॥ ४० ॥

indriyāṇi mano buddhir asyādhiṣṭhānam ucyate etair |
vimohayaty eṣa jñānam āvṛtya dehinam || 40 ||

The senses, mind and intelligence are said to be the dwelling places of this lust. Through them, lust covers the knowledge of the living entity and completely bewilders him.

BG 3.41 —

तस्मात् त्वम् इन्द्रियाण्य् आदौ नियम्य भरतर्षभ ।
पाप्मानं प्रजहि ह्य् एनं ज्ञान-विज्ञान-नाशनम् ॥ ४१ ॥

tasmāt tvam indriyāṇy ādau niyamya bharatarṣabha |
pāpmānaṃ prajahi hy enaṃ jñāna-vijñāna-nāśanam || 41 ||

Therefore, O Arjuna, best of the descendants of Bharata, in the very beginning of your spiritual life, control your senses in order to completely slay this embodiment of evil (lust), which is the destroyer of both wisdom (jñāna) and realization of Me (vijñāna).

So, in order to find our true purpose in this world, it is important to get the senses under our control, so we can eliminate the primary cause of the derailment, namely, lust.


Can we, therefore, perform our actions, in full accordance with the conditions of Ikigai, without attachment to the results of our actions?

Can we give up our sense of doership?

Can we rise above the sense-desires created by the sense organs and the mind to operate from the core of our Being, the Self/Ātman?

Can we engage/disengage with our actions and the field of our actions in accordance to the different stages and prescribed ashramas outlined earlier?


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2 Replies to “The Reason For Being – Svadharma”

  1. My understanding is this…

    Sva-dharma means the dharma of the Self. Dharma are the Universal laws that change never. Sva-dharma are our own laws that we lay for ourselves. Para-dharma are the laws that others have defined for themselves.

    These laws that we lay for ourselves are the best when they are not afflicted by the Gunas which we acquire by sensory perceptions, as we grow/evolve. They are best when they are not colored by hates/dislikes that we acquire in between. They are the best when they are aligned to our original/innate nature (prakrti).

    Hence Krishna says Superior is the sva-dharma, when it is devoid of gunas and based on our innate prakrti.

    For eg. Arjuna’s sva-dharma ( laws arjuna followed by his innate nature) and Yudhistra’s sva-dharma are different. They remained different all through their life, though they fought for the same goals most of their life.

  2. Dharma is Sanatan. Karma or duties done to progress in that and finally attain moksa is sva-dharma. Related word svaha refers to immersing in yagya. Siva(Sva) is Agni. Svaha is his consort, or part of. Thus, svadharma can also mean S(i)va dharma. Imho.

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