sreyan sva-dharmo vigunah
sva-dharme nidhanam sreyah
It is far better to discharge one’s prescribed duties, even though they may be faulty, than another’s duties. Destruction in the course of performing one’s own duty is better than engaging in another’s duties, for to follow another’s path is dangerous.
This is not only an oft quoted sloka (verse) but also often misinterpreted. Those who want to perpetuate the caste system quote this to suit their purpose. The meaning of the sloka, “one’s own duty, though devoid of merit is preferable to that of another, though more meritorious”, is often misconstrued to mean that one should stick on to the work or kind of life with which he is born and should not strive to come up in life. It really means the work suited to one’s own nature, which may change as the individual changes. It is not uncommon to find that a person qualified to be an engineer, for instance, turns out to be a successful businessman because he has the inborn talents to become one or a man giving up his successful profession and choose a less lucrative one because his attitude has changed. So ‘svadharma’ is what naturally comes to you and not something which others do, however tempting it may appear to be.
One would like to switch their duties for another’s but it is very risky. Engaging in one’s own duty one possesses the correct inner mentality to accomplish it; but for engagement in another’s duty the correct inner mentality would not be present even if the external action was performed perfectly. There might be worry or indecision and questions regarding some aspects of another’s duty and unresolved these would lead to inner conflict which is very detrimental for one’s consciousness and atma tattva or soul realisation. This is Lord Krishna’s meaning.
The duty of another person according to his profession, stage of life, etc., may outwardly seem full of merit, be easy to perform, be attractive, provide riches, comforts, honour and praise etc., and enable one to live with comfort throughout his life, yet is forbidden. On the other hand, one’s own duty, may be devoid of merit, be difficult to perform, not appealing and not providing riches, comforts, honour or praise etc., and may be painful, yet these should be performed without expecting any reward, as these leads to salvation. Therefore, a person should always perform his duty, without expecting any reward, without a sense of ‘mine’ and without attachment. Lord Krishna is convincing Arjuna that having taken birth in the warrior class and fighting is his duty he had to treat alike victory and defeat, gain and loss, and pleasure and pain. The body, senses, mind, intellect and matter etc., are meant for performing duty alone. Those who do not deviate from their duty in spite of suffering pain are admired and honoured. Patriots, who suffered tortures, went to jail and were hanged, in order to make the country independent, are praised and honoured even today. On the other hand, those who are sent to jail, because of their crimes are condemned and dishonoured.
Righteousness (Dharma), wealth (artha), desire (kama) and the Final Liberation (Moksha) are the four pursuits (purusharthas) of human life according to Bharatiya (Indian) culture.
In the ancient Indian tradition, life of 84+ years was considered, with each of the four stages being 21 years. Some have revised these into four stages of 25 years, seeking a life of 100+ years. The purpose for this life planning is to attain the direct experience of Self-realization, Yoga or enlightenment here, in this world, in this very life. While our lifestyles may have changed since then, the basic idea of these four stages is as sound today as it was then.
Age: Ashram or Stage:
0-25 – Brahmacharya/Student: The celibate student time of youth is for learning the foundation of lifestyle. The focus is on healthy, positive training and discipline, learning about spiritual, community, and family life. This is a period of formal education. It lasts until the age of 25, during which, the young male leaves home to stay with a guru and attain both spiritual and practical knowledge. During this period, he is called a brahmachari, and is prepared for his future profession, as well as for his family, and social and religious life ahead.
• To be celibate and live a simple life, free from sense pleasure and material allurement.
• To serve the guru (spiritual teacher) and collect alms for him.
• To hear, study and assimilate the Vedas.
• To develop all the appropriate qualities: humility, discipline, simplicity, purity of thought, cleanliness, soft-heartedness, and so on.
25-50 – Grahasta/Householder: The householder phase of life is when one lives with spouse and children, fulfilling worldly interests and duties. It is a time of giving, living, learning, and loving in family and community. Religious or spiritual practices are done in the context of worldly life and service to others. This period begins when a man gets married, and undertakes the responsibility for earning a living and supporting his family. At this stage, Hinduism supports the pursuit of wealth (artha) as a necessity, and indulgence in sexual pleasure (kama), under certain defined social and cosmic norms. According to the Laws of Manu, when a person’s skin wrinkles and his hair greys, he should go out into the forest. However, in real life, most Hindus are so much in love with this second ashrama that the Grihastha stage lasts a lifetime!
• To make money and to enjoy sensual pleasure according to ethical principles.
• To perform sacrifice and observe religious rituals.
• To protect and nourish family members (wife, children, and elders) and members of the other ashramas such as brahmachari, vanaprastha and sanyasi.
• To teach children spiritual values.
• To give in charity, and especially to feed holy people, the poor, and animals.
50-75 – Vanaprastha/Hermitage: This is a time for shifting focus more towards inner spiritual practices of meditation, contemplation, and prayer. Relationships with grown children and community are more in the role of a matured mentor. Lifestyle is more simplified, and the couple may retreat to a quieter place for deeper practices. This stage of a man begins when his duty as a householder comes to an end: He has become a grandfather; his children are grown up, and have established lives of their own. At this age, he should renounce all physical, material and sexual pleasures, retire from his social and professional life, leave his home, and go to live in a forest hut, spending his time in prayers. He is allowed to take his wife along, but is supposed to maintain little contact with the family. This kind of life is indeed very harsh and cruel for an aged person. No wonder, this third ashrama is now nearly obsolete.
• To generally devote more time to spiritual matters.
• To engage in austerity and penance.
• To go on pilgrimage.
75-100+ – Sanyasa/Renunciate: The elder person now retreats from active involvement in all worldly goals, seeking only spiritual goals in this final phase. No longer having political, professional, or social engagements, there is a further shift towards being an elder teacher of spiritual knowledge. At this stage, a man is supposed to be totally devoted to God. He is a sanyasi, he has no home, no other attachment; he has renounced all desires, fears and hopes, duties and responsibilities. He is virtually merged with God, all his worldly ties are broken, and his sole concern becomes attaining moksha, or release from the circle of birth and death. When he dies, the funeral ceremonies are performed by his son and heir.
• To fully control the mind and senses, and to fix the mind on the Supreme.
• To become detached and fearless, fully dependent on God as the only protector.
• To teach and preach the importance of self-realisation and God-consciousness, especially to the householders, who often become distracted from their spiritual duties.
This applies to all of us: While we are a diverse world of cultures, religions, philosophies, and attitudes, this simple framework of life planning has great value for all of us. Regardless of how we may have lived the stages of life that are already behind us, being aware of, and committed to the current and later stages of life can bring great comfort and clarity as we progress on the path of Self-realization.
Peace and order will prevail in society, only if and when all people do their respective duties efficiently. The students of schools, and colleges should lead a life of purity and simple living. The householder should lead the life of an ideal Grihastha. He should practise self-restraint, mercy, tolerance, non-injury, truthfulness and moderation in everything. Those who find it difficult to lead the life of the third and the fourth Asramas should, remaining in either of the other two Asramas, gradually withdraw themselves from worldly life and practise selfless service, study and meditation.
However what is the real situation in our country these days?
• How many youngsters below the age of 25 can claim to be virgins and learning and practicing spirituality?
• Householder stage has to be devoted to earn wealth (arth) only through rightful means (dharma). However the events we notice these days is highly disappointing with the news of rampant corruption in every section of our society whether it is Government departments or business.
• Above the age of 50 or when you become a Grandfather, one should realise that it is time to retire and slowly start delegating responsibilities to the next generation. But what we observe today is people clinging on to their jobs or positions even beyond 60 years of age by whatever means they can adapt to.
• Can you guess the age of many of our ministers today? Half the cabinet of our current Prime Minister, including himself is far beyond the age for sannyasa. There is a chief minister in our country who is above 90 and have no plans to handover the reign to the next generation.
When people do not follow the ashrama dharma, then adharma or injustice prevails. We have many such examples from Mahabharata to illustrate this important point. Generally it is considered that the Pandavas represent the side of ‘dharma’ and Kauravas the side of ‘adharma’. How come this happen when we have great teachers and scholars in their side.
• Bhishma was the great Grandsire for both Pandavas and Kauravas. Even though he took an oath never to be the king, essentially ruled the kingdom throughout his life. Considered a great scholar and an expert on ‘rajadharma’ he kept quiet on many occasions when voice should have been raised particularly when the daughter-in-law Draupadi was being disrobed in public. There are many such incidents that can be quoted which clearly depict all the injustice happened during Bhishma’s period. Why such heinous events took place in the presence of a stalwart like Bhishma? Because he was not following the ashrama dharma. Bhishma would have been past his 100th birthday when the Kurukshetra war started and it was way past his time to retire and lead a life of renunciate. Instead he was leading the war as Supreme commander, a clear indication of the violation of established practices by the scriptures.
• Drona was the preceptor for both Pandavas and Kauravas. A great teacher who taught them ‘dhanurvidya’ (weapon and warfare training) and responsible for teaching the young princes traditions and moral values. He was the commander of the Kaurava forces when Bhishma retired hurt for the next 5 days of the war. However most unfortunately he was not following the ‘varnasrama dharma’, hence breaking the traditions and practices set forth by the great lord Krishna. As a Brahmin his ‘dharma’ was studying the Vedas, performing Vedic rituals and practicing dharma. His duties include teaching the insights of the Vedic literature which deals with all aspects of life including spirituality, philosophy, yoga, religion, rituals, arts and culture, etc. or being a priest. By not performing his prescribed duties and taking part in war – job of a Kshatriya, Drona violated the principles of Dharma.
• Similar violations could be assigned to his brother-in-law Kripacharya as well as Ashvatthama, his son.
Even in our society we see such anomalies these days which are a clear reflection of deterioration of moral and ethical principles and must be corrected if we have to attain the so called ‘ramarajya.