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yadrcchayaa chopapannam swargadwaaram apaavrtam
sukhinah kshatriyaah paartha labhante yuddham eedrisham ll 2.32 ll
Happy are the kshatriyas called upon to fight a war of this kind unsought,
Arjuna. Open doors of heaven are beckoning them.”
I have taught young people in four of the top business schools of the country: Indian Institute of Management Lucknow, Xavier Institute of Management and Research Mumbai, XLRI School of Business Jamshedpur and Xavier School of Business Bhubaneswar, in the last two of which I had students from all over the world. I have been with executives of several hundred leading corporate houses of the country giving them training sessions on various subjects related to their professional life like leadership, emotional intelligence, stress management, communication, conflict management, achievement motivation, team building, influencing skills and so on. The MD of one leading corporate house of the country told me that I was the only corporate trainer who has trained all their officers. I have been with several groups of doctors and engineers and I have been with IAS, IPS, IRS and IFS officers, senior bureaucrats and businessmen, apart from training several thousand professionals in the educational field.
In my capacity as a teacher and as a trainer I have come across all kinds of people – happy, satisfied, unhappy, frustrated, people who are ecstatic with their jobs and life, people who feel they have been trapped in their miserable lives and jobs and were going insane, all.
Among the people I have come across, the people happiest with their professions and their lives were those who were born to do what they were doing. What you were born to do is what India calls swadharma, swa meaning one’s own and dharma meaning nature, the two words together meaning the life you were born to live as decided by your nature, the work you were born to do as decided by your nature. A painter painting is doing his swadharma, a singer singing is doing her swadharma, a dancer dancing is doing her swadharma, a writer writing is doing her swadharma, a teacher teaching is doing her swadharma; a farmer farming, a salesman selling, a driver driving, a leader leading, a soldier fighting, a cook cooking, a gardener gardening, a social worker serving people are all doing their swadharma – if they were born to do that. And if they are doing their swadharma, they would be people happy with what they are doing, with the lives they are living. To modify something Einstein said, a fish will be happy swimming in water, but it cannot be happy climbing trees. To live in water is the swadharma of the fish, climbing trees is not.
That is why Krishna says:
yadrcchayaa chopapannam swargadwaaram apaavrtam
sukhinah kshatriyaah paartha labhante yuddham eedrisham ll 2.32 ll
Happy are the kshatriyas called upon to fight a war of this kind unsought, Arjuna. Open doors of heaven are beckoning them.”
Truly an opportunity to live a life according to your swadharma, to study a subject according to your swadharma, to follow a profession according to your swadharma, to get a spouse according to your swadharma and to be able to do what you are truly passionate about, to do what you were born to do, is indeed a great good fortune. When that happens, the open doors of heaven are beckoning you. And imagine that happening yadrchhaya, on its own, unsought, brought by the powers of the universe and offered to you on a platter!
That is what Krishna is speaking about. Arjuna’s swadharma is calling him and the call of swadharma is always an invitation to heaven.
Philosophical enquiry in India is as old as this sacred land, as old as our amazing culture. There has never been a time when India was not interested in philosophy. One of the earliest Upanishads, the Kena Upanishad, begins with these questions:
keneshitam patati preshitam manah?
kena praanah prathamah praiti yuktah?
keneshitaam vaacham imaam vadanti?
chakshuh shrotram ka u devo unakti?
“By whose command does the mind reach out to the world? By whose command does the breath of life, the primal power, do its work? Directed by whom does speech do the speaking it does? And what is the power that unites the eyes and the ears with their objects?”
India, devoted to the study of life from the beginning, understanding that to live meaningfully life should be understood. We discovered the basic truth about swadharma at a very early stage of its philosophical progress and insisted that man should live the life he is born to live and do the work he is born to do. Our swadharma speaks of the driving passion of our life, India said, and conversely our driving passion speaks of our swadharma too. And we designed our entire life around this understanding so that man could live his life in tune with his swadharma – in ritam with his basic and passions, with his inborn drives.
Ritam is widely considered to be the most important Vedic principle. It is the word from which the English word rhythm comes – a word that means harmony, music, cadence, flow, etc. Ritam speaks of life in harmony with nature, in harmony with the flow of life, with changing nights and day, with changing seasons, with our own changing ages such as childhood, adolescence, youth and so on, so that the whole life becomes a beautiful poem. This principle of ritam speaks of the need for man to live not only with the outer rhythms of nature around us of which we are a part, but also with his own inner rhythms, with his inner nature, with his swadharma. The varna system, which subsequently deteriorated, decayed and putrefied into the highly exploitative caste system and the biggest curse on India, and the ashrama system in which life began with brahmacharya and ended in sannyasa, were both originally results of the Indian understanding that man has a need to live in harmony with his inner rhythms, or the ritam within him.
Just as water has a need to find its level and hence always keeps flowing until it finds that level, just as fire has a constant need to burn and consume things that feed it, living with our driving passions is a basic need for man, said India. And ancient India’s greatness in numerous fields including science, mathematics, astronomy, economics, literature, music, dance, architecture, medicine and so on from the time of the Vedas, the oldest books in the world, through several successive millennia was a result of this living in tune with man’s swadharma. We left the philosophers and intellectuals to be philosophers and intellectuals questing the meaning of life. We left the people preoccupied with power and managing people and society to live a life in harmony with their needs. We left those with a hunger for wealth to live producing and acquiring wealth. And we left the remaining people, the vast majority who wanted to live simple lives and had no great ambitions, to live the simple lives as they wished for, being useful to the society in their own ways and finding joy in what they wanted to do. Since the first three classes were considered ‘special’ people who would make great contributions to human progress, they were given lots of privileges. The first class, the intellectuals, for instance, was given privileges akin to those given to research scholars in universities today.
So long as swadharma was based on our gunas, our psycho-spiritual nature, drives and passions, everything was beautiful and India remained glorious. But soon a time came when swadharma ceased to be understood as based on gunas but on birth, and that too exclusively on birth with no connection with gunas. And people of the first three classes started calling themselves upper castes and began making claims on others based on it and demanding privileges for themselves.
With that India fell from its glory.
Though nurture does have a role in what we eventually become, though the surroundings in which we grow up and the profession of our family do have a role in deciding what we become, certain things just cannot be inherited through birth – for instance, your child does not inherit your spiritual nature. That is something each one of us brings into our life through our karmas and it cannot be transferred from one generation to the next through our genes and chromosomes.
A few years back a movie was made in Tamil based on the life of the great Zen master Bodhidharma, the 28th Indian patriarch of Zen Buddhism. It was he who took Zen to China some fifteen hundred years ago, from where it spread to Korea, Japan and numerous other countries. He thus became the first patriarch of Chinese Zen or Chan Buddhism. This prince of Tanjavur in Tamil Nadu is one of the greatest spiritual masters the world has known, in his own way as influential as the Buddha himself if not more. It was not only Zen he took to China but also Indian martial arts and healing systems where they both flourished. He truly changed the history of the world – there are thousands of temples built for him in China, Japan and other Buddhist countries, though he is practically unknown in India. This Tamil movie, known by different names such as Ezham Arivu, The 7th Sense, Chennai vs Chaina and so on, is based on the highly misleading assumption that wisdom and knowledge are transferred through the genes. So to counter an evil Chinese plan, they search out the contemporary descendent of Bodhidharma across one thousand five hundred years so that he can counter the Chinese evil using the wisdom, knowledge and skills he has inherited from Bodhidharma through his genes and chromosomes!
Ancient India made the same blunder when it allowed children of the privileged classes to have the same privileges because they were children of the privileged classes. But with a big, difference. The 7th Sense is a movie, and though as a movie it is influential, its influence is limited. But the consequences of India’s blunder had terrible consequences for millions of people in hundreds of generations across several millennia and we are still living that blunder.
Proverbs frequently contain great wisdom. A Malayalam proverb rhetorically asks: If the father rides an elephant, will the son get calluses?
But the wisdom behind the true understanding of swadharma still remains intact in the Gita and other works of wisdom that speak about it and can enrich our lives as it enriched life in ancient India, make meaningful our work that has today become for the vast majority of people in the world meaningless, leading to depression, ulcers, heart attacks, broken families, social aggression and a thousand other problems and to suicides the rate of which is growing by the day. Just this one understanding can change the world, transform it to heaven from hell.
Unhappy people create hell.
Paapi chennedam paataalam, so goes a Malayalam saying.
Hell is wherever the sinners reach.
It is not that some people go to hell;
wherever they reach they make hell.
While there are other reasons for it, our workplaces have become hell for a huge section of people working there today because they do not follow their swadharma in their professions. If you follow your swadharma, work will be a pleasure, a joy, as singing is for a singer, dancing is for a dancer. You will lose yourself in what you are doing and will work with a feeling of festivity. The Mahabharata shows us millions of warriors fighting in the spirit of festivity without even caring for death because war is their passion, what they live for, what they enjoy more than anything else, what they talk about all day among friends, what they dream about. It shows warriors in the throes ecstasies as they battle their enemies and face death or loss of limbs.
Whether you are born to be a painter or a dancer, or a writer or photographer, as the movie Three Idiots shows, and you end up in an engineering or medical college, or in a business school, you are not following the path of your swadharma. And that is a sure way that leads to dissatisfaction and unhappiness, to depression and grief, unless of course you subsequently discover passion for your subject and transform it into your swadharma.
I remember seeing a beautiful advertisement on TV sometime back. A young girl wants to be a social worker and her dad tells her to become a doctor and serve people as a doctor. She tells him she wants to be a writer and he tells her to become a doctor and write prescriptions!
What is happening with our education is true about our professions too. We have hardly any choice today when it comes to jobs because of the high unemployment rates and lack of opportunities. So the painter ends up as an engineer or a doctor, the singer ends up as a doctor or an engineer, the sportsman ends up as a doctor or an engineer, the writer ends up as a doctor or an engineer, the wildlife photographer ends up as a doctor or an engineer – the two most favoured professions today.
Recognizing what your swadharma is not very difficult. Watch yourself and find out what you enjoy doing most, that is your swadharma. Watch children and observe what they enjoy doing most, that is their swadharma. Find out what is that work in which you lose yourself, that is your swadharma.
For when you lose yourself in something, you cease to be what you are not. You become what you truly are.
Anagha, my daughter who works as a journalist with one of the leading newspapers in the country, sent me a strip cartoon some time back. The cartoon shows a little boy sitting in a chair and reading a book. A long time passes, his back must be tired, so he changes his position and throwing his legs over the back of the chair he continues reading lying on the seat of the chair. Next when we see him, he is still lying in the chair but his legs are now thrown over the left hand of the chair. Next we see him with his legs thrown over the right hand of the chair. Then he is back to his original position – but all the while he never once stops reading. That boy’s passion is obviously books or something related to reading – writing, study, editing, or something like that.
Anagha sent me this strip cartoon because she herself has always been like that. She was always passionate about reading as she is even today.
Choose a profession in sync with your passion and you will always enjoy it and grow through it.
Make happiness your guiding light.
Living swadharma does many wonderful things for us. It gives us immense job satisfaction, it makes performance excellence easy and it helps us grow through work. Apart from all these, it also heals us from our stress related ailments as well as our traumas.
Janet Frame is a famous writer from New Zealand who was twice considered as a possible winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. We do not know the exact reasons for her psychological problems, but some of the reasons definitely were the constant tension and violent outbursts between her father and her brother, which necessitated her spending a long time in mental asylums. The brilliant writer eventually healed herself through her writing, which had always been her basic passion, her swadharma.
Stress is the demon ruling the world today, particularly the world of work, in spite of the fact that in a not so far away past most work all over the world used to be done in utsava bhava, in festive spirit, joyfully, traces of which can still be found if you go to India’s paddy fields spread throughout the country or to kitchens and backyards where women grind spices, pound grains or do other household jobs. They continuously sing beautiful songs – years back I had made a collection of songs they sang while they did this and also wrote a few articles based on them, like Kaikeyi: Ram Ka Mangeela Banbas published on boloji.com.
There are several dimensions to stress management – the neurobiological dimension, the dimension of stillness, the dimension of movement, the breath dimension, the dimension of being, the relationship dimension and so on. One of the most powerful dimensions of stress management is the work dimension – work based on your swadharma, work that you enjoy thoroughly, work that helps you forget yourself and your world of worries and tensions, work that takes you beyond your ego into time transcendence and ego transcendence.
I used to know a senior executive from the corporate world who loved to forget every now and then that he was an executive. Deep in his heart he was a farmer, that is what he wanted to become, a farmer’s job is what he enjoyed more than anything, but circumstances made him an executive. So what he did was change every now and then into his farmer’s clothes and work on his small piece of land with his farming tools. That rejuvenated him and every time he did that, he came back happy and charged with energy.
Another friend of mine finds her swadharma in pottery. Pottery is what she wanted to do but social pressures led her to a very different profession, but this is where she truly relaxes and finds herself by losing herself in what she is doing.
Someone very close to me has a different story to tell about swadharma. When she completed her schooling, her father insisted that she should do her further studies in science but she insisted that she did not want to study science, she wanted to study humanities, she wanted to become a writer. Her father did all he could to change her mind, tearing her school certificates into tiny bits and flinging them away in anger being the least of them. “If everybody becomes a writer, who will read?” he shouted at her fuming. But she refused to bend before his violence and stuck to her stand. Today she is an authority on world literature and world cinema, addresses national and international seminars on these subjects and is a nationally known writer and critic who has a long list of published books under her name, all highly admired.
In one of my articles available online, called A Little Corner for Yourself, I refer to the example of a surgeon whose story one of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books quote. The essay is by Jim Cathcard.
“When my second daughter was born, it was an emergency caesarean operation. We were very worried and I was there at the hospital. I remember prior to going into the hospital talking with my wife’s doctor about what I did for a living. The doctor confided in me and said, ‘I wish I had been a musician because I love to play concert piano.’
“Later, after my wife had the delivery, the doctor came out with the good news that my wife was fine and I had a brand new healthy baby girl. While we’re standing there and I was receiving the good news, another doctor walked up to the physician who had just delivered my child and said, ‘Excuse me, Doctor, I just wanted to tell you that you performed brilliantly in there, and it was an honour to have assisted you.’ The doctor thanked his colleague and the colleague left.
“I just turned to the doctor and said, ‘Now tell the truth. You have just brought a new life into the world, saved another life, and you’ve had one of your colleagues tell you it’s an honour to be in your presence – for heaven’s sake, can you honestly say you wish you had been a musician?’
The doctor grinned, nodded his head and said, ‘I was pretty good in there.’ We both chuckled and then the doctor said, ‘I know exactly why, too – because this morning, I got up early and, for one hour, I played Chopin at the piano.’
So there it is. The doctor could not choose the profession that was his swadharma. But he does something beautiful. He finds a little corner for his swadharma in his life. He finds a little corner for himself in his life. And that corner enriches his entire life.
I believe the reason why Van Gogh went insane and had to spend years in an asylum was because he could not paint, which was his swadharma. He had so much talent, was so passionate about painting, but could not afford even paint and canvas, so poor was he, which drove him insane.
Some climb Mt Everest facing all kinds of dangers. Some raft down turbulent torrents. Some climb steep rocks where missing one single step could mean certain death. Each one of them is obeying the command of his swadharma. And the happiness they experience in what they do has no equal because they are listening to the call of swadharma.
Swadharma really opens the door to heaven.
While we are still alive.
Which is why Krishna says: sukhinah kshatriyaah paartha labhante yuddham eedrsham. “Happy are the kshatriyas called upon to fight a war of this kind unsought, Arjuna. Open doors of heaven are beckoning them.”
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