Svadharma: Balancing Our Unique Nature with Our Role in Society

billy_elliot_jamie_bell_71We’re all aware that we live in an age that places great emphasis on individuality – one that stresses the importance of finding our own unique path in life.  At the same time, we also know what it’s like to ask how we can honor that individuality while also remaining true to our obligations to family, friends, and to the world as a whole.

For that reason, in today’s article here at “The Living Yoga Blog,” we’re going to explore another valuable concept from Yoga philosophy, and that is the idea of svadharma, or “self-nature.”  By better understanding the Yogic view of how our individuality relates to both soul and society, we can learn to better honor both sides of this important equation, finding peace in ourselves as well as in our interaction with those around us.

Svadharma, Ego & the Soul

To begin once again with some etymology, the first part of svadharma is the root sva, which means “self.”  Importantly, in Yoga philosophy, sva is used to refer to the self with a small “s” – that is, the conditional and mutable self around which we build our sense of identity – as opposed to the words atman or purusha, which are used to designate the Self with a capital “S,” that is the unchanging and untouched witness within.

The second part is the root dharma, which means “nature,” “order,” or “law.”  Interestingly, dharma is etymologically related to the Chinese word tao, and refers to the unique temperament and “flavor” of each thing — much the like the unique grain of each piece of wood.  Just as sva refers to self with a small “s,” so dharma with a small “d” designates the current nature or way of an individual or thing, as opposed to Dharma with a capital “D,” which is used to refer to the deeper, eternal order of the world as a whole.

Combining the two, we can see that the term svadharma refers to our own, current unique manner of being.  Just like a sailor learns to work with and honor the patterns of current and wind, so the developing individual must learn to read and work with his or her own unique temperament and characteristics.  Or if you prefer, much like a master craftsman works with the grain and knots of a piece of wood, through learning to understand and honor our svadharma, we learn to work with rather than against the grain of our temperament.

Lessons from Svadharma, 1Embracing Personal Transience 

So far, svadharma might seem very much like our own concept of “individuality,” however there are a few valuable elements that set it apart from our contemporary understanding, and in turn provide some valuable insights often missing in our culture. The first of these involves the principle of transience.

As we’ve discussed in previous articles, one of the most important teachings Yoga offers us is the reminder of impermanence – not only of our physical capacity but also of our interests and aptitudes.  What we enjoy and are passionate about as a child alters, of course, as we transition into adolescence and young adulthood.  According to the Yogis, it is important for us to realize that this transformation naturally continues throughout our lives.

For this reason, when we talk about svadharma, the first thing to understand is that our temperament or nature changes over time – the things that give us joy or seem meaningful will inevitably vary, either subtly or significantly, as time goes by.  As a result, rather than choosing a life-long path and then sticking with it based on the assumption that we will never change, the Yogis believed  that honoring svadharma is an active process – one that involves checking in with ourselves on a regular basis to assure that our activities and occupations are still in harmony with our (current) disposition.

Of course, it’s important to note that some aspects of ourselves may prove life-long, and in turn, we may find a career or hobby that served us in youth continues to serve us throughout our lives.  The key is to stay flexible and to not presume – this way we can avoid the all-too-common challenge of finding our lives defined and restricted by a career or situation that no longer fits our hearts or our heads….

Lessons from Svadharma, 2Transcending Success

An equally important aspect of svadharma involves the issue of “success” or “talent.”  There is a common belief in the West that, when we find our “true calling,” we will naturally prosper.  In fact, we often tell one another that, if we are not successful, it is simply a sign that we are not doing what we are “meant to do.”

Yoga not only challenges this idea, it expressly speaks out against it.  According to the Yogis, honoring svadharma means doing what you feel called to do, even if you might not be seen by external standards to be skilled in that area.  In the Gita, Krishna expressly reminds Arjuna: “Better your own duty done poorly than the duty of another done well…” – in other words, stay true to what is in your heart, and don’t let external judgment or expectation pull you away from that.

Again, this is an especially valuable idea here in the West, where we often allow outside perspective and approval to draw us onto paths that don’t serve us.  A common example is when our skill at a job leads us to move “up the ladder” into management when our talent and passion in fact lies within the task itself, not the management of others in its completion.  Suddenly, we find ourselves coordinating the efforts of people while they do exactly what we wish we could be doing.

The Yogis realized that, by focusing on what we love and believe in rather than our perceived talents, we will experience far more joy in our work and in turn will be able to share that joy with those around us.  Ultimately, they realized this is far greater blessing to all involved than the “skilled performance” of a task that doesn’t truly suit us.

Lessons from Svadharma: Welcoming Our Variety of Roles

A further aspect of svadharma that it can be valuable to understand is the idea of multiplicity of roles.  The Yogis realized that we all have a wide variety of relationships in our lives, and that each brings out and requires different aspects of ourselves.  Clearly, we have a very different way of interacting with our boss than our co-workers, and a different way still with our partner and peers, and that means that we all have a wide range of “self-natures” to cultivate in order to honor each of these varying relationships.

The Yogis understood that this multitude of dynamics is completely natural in a healthy life.  Where tension can arise is when we either treat just one of these roles as our “true self” at the expense of honoring our other obligations, or when we consciously or unconsciously carry our role from one domain to another – for example, treating our children as we treat our employees or expecting our partners to act as our mother or father did.  This combined lack of awareness and lack of observing the role appropriate for us in a given situation can create considerable friction, both internally and externally.

For this reason, part of svadharma is staying conscious of the fact that we all have multiple relationships and in turn multiple roles to play.  When we accept this and remain aware of it, we are able to consciously and comfortably flow from role to role without a sense of conflict or hypocrisy.  The fact that you are a different person with your parents and with your children is not only okay, but in fact essential, and if we don’t consciously embrace it we will create tension for ourselves and for them.

In addition, this awareness helps us to accept the fact that the people around us will naturally do the same.  As a result, instead of being discomforted when we see those close to us adopting their various roles, we can embrace and support these varied parts of themselves, just as we accept our own.

Svadharma & Dharma — Honoring the Greater Balance

This last aspect of svadharma takes us into the greater topic of the link between svadharma and society, starting with the concept of sayva or “service.”  As discussed earlier, the Yogis believed it is crucial not to let the idea of “success” or approval guide our sense of proper activity.  At the same time, the Yogis believed that we all have a variety of roles to play in society, each of which is invaluable for the harmony and function of the world as a whole.

Much like the members of a small company, we all have a variety of tasks to perform that are essential to the success of the enterprise.  Some of these roles might be more “conspicuous” or glamourous than others, and in turn we might be inclined to fall into the mistaken belief that some are more important.  However, the Yogis remind us that each part is in fact fundamentally and equally indispensable for the success of society.

In this sense, while we should not be distracted by questions such as which of our talents might result in the greatest degree of prosperity or admiration, part of svadharma is realizing that we should constantly ask ourselves how our unique talents and passions can serve both our loved ones in particular as well as society in general.  In other words, while exploring and examining our particular abilities and interests, we should continually ask ourselves how they might serve our family, friends, and community.  By staying aware of the ways in which our unique areas of enthusiasm and investment might contribute not only to our own development, but also to the enrichment of the world as a whole, we can embrace the idea of svadharma without the conflict inherent in selfishness or solipsism….

In Conclusion…

Putting together these pieces, we can see that the idea of svadharma offers us a rich and integrated way of thinking about both self and society.  By honoring and respecting our unique passions, including their “mutable” nature and the variety of roles we are all meant to fill, while also staying in touch with the needs of the world as a whole, we can find a way of living that serves us in our growth while also supporting others.  In this way, we nurture and offer our unique talents, while also inspiring those around us with the powerful example of a life that is equally filled with the joys of staying true to self and to one’s invaluable place in community.


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