Adapted from The Fall of the Human Intellect (Ch.7) and Vedanta Treatise: The Eternities (Ch.5), by A. Parthasarathy.
Life is growth. Our observation of the world reveals this to us. Growth of the inner self encompasses increased self-sufficiency or autonomy, and increased empathy or compassion for other beings.
However, growth is not possible unless there is an atmosphere of freedom within. When we feel inhibited, we do not feel free to express our individual nature. If our nature is not freely expressed we feel a frustration or ennui, a lack of enthusiasm for life, or that we lack direction or meaning. As a result, growth is stifled.
Human Composition – Vasanas & Svadharma
Consider all animals of a given species: They have the same basic nature, their mode of activity is the same from one member to the next, and does not change over time. That is, they have a collective nature. E.g. All cows are basically the same in temperament, and there is no development of 'cow culture' over time.
However, humans differ. Each person has their own specific nature, no two people have the same personality. Also, human nature (both individually and collectively) can develop over time, evolve or devolve. Each personality expresses as likes and dislikes, interests and inclinations, inherent tendencies; as thought, desire, and action.
In deep-sleep (i.e. dreamless sleep) there is no manifestation or expression of the personality. Deep-sleep is the state of nothingness. And yet, each person awakes as the same personality that retired. By analogy, code programmed into a computer has zero expression when the computer is off, and then springs to 'life' as we run the machine. When we awake, our nature continues its expression. This implies a continuity of the personality through deep-sleep, in a state of dormancy.
This state of dormancy is indicated in the Vedantic philosophical tradition by the Sanskrit term vāsanās. As the underlying 'code,' vāsanā is therefore “the primary cause or source of thought, desire and action.”[The quality and nature of vāsanās determines the quality and nature of thoughts, desires, and actions.
One's own, specific tendencies and inclinations that arise from vāsanās is known as one’s svadharma.
Sva = One’s own
Dharma = Nature
Our vāsanās express just as seeds germinate in conducive soil. In choosing a field of study, vocation, or career in life, it is therefore important to choose one that is conducive to the free expression of our own vāsanās, i.e. one that is in accordance with our svadharma.
Choice of Action
“Better is svadharma (one’s own duty) though devoid of merit than paradharma (duty of another) well discharged; better is death in svadharma, paradharma is fraught with fear.”
(Bhagavad Gītā, III.35)
Choosing a field of activity according to one’s svadharma is a primary duty and responsibility in life. Opposed to svadharma is paradharma, which means alien nature. Para = Alien. Every person has the freedom to choose a field of action that is in line with one's inherent nature or against it.
Consequences of Choosing Activity
Choosing a field of activity that is against one's nature will create frustration and mental distress. This is because paradharmic activity suppresses one’s inherent nature from expressing itself. Whereas, any activity that is congruent with your inner nature will promote the smooth and peaceful expression of your nature. Getting into so-called 'flow states' is nothing other than the harmonious, unimpeded expression of who you are. Such states promote mental peace and success in the action itself, but are far less likely to occur when the environment or activity inhibits the expression of our predominant vāsanās. Choosing a field that is in line with your nature will thus promote success in the field of activity and contentment within.
It is better to choose svadharmic activity even if you fail to achieve external merit in that field. Paradharmic activity works against the individual’s basic nature. Even if one does find external accomplishment, it will eventually create mental agitation or tension. All mental agitations can be harmful to the personality, and prevent material success, harmonious relationships, and self-development.
Parents and Children
The biggest mistake that parents make is pushing their children into paradharmic activities because it suits the parents. Parents may push children into the family business because it is convenient, or into a socially acceptable profession because of other people’s opinions, without consideration for the inherent tendencies and talents of the child. Forcing a child into an unnatural (though convenient) course of action would prove detrimental. The child would become bored and frustrated in a paradharmic field, and would find success more difficult to achieve. The difference between acting in svadharmic or paradharmic fields of activity can be likened to riding with a tailwind or a headwind. Therefore, parents and teachers are obligated to identify a student’s svadharma at an early age, and gently encourage pursuit of that field of activity.
How to Identify your Svadharma
Through analysis into one’s tendencies and inclinations since birth, one’s basic nature can be determined. Practically, this is done at a time when the mind is relatively calm and the intellect alert. Thus it is advised to be done in the early hours of the morning, just after rising. It is the examination of the likes and dislikes, preferences and aversions, natural inclinations and predispositions that have been present since childhood. We simply ask ourselves questions such as, 'What am I like? What activities do I like doing? What areas of life do I find fascinating? What is a worthwhile and valuable use of my time and energy?'
Mental tools can also help us to do this. For example, a useful question to ask might be, 'If money were no object, what would I choose to do with the rest of my life?' We imagine this scenario to temporarily dispel any influence that the pressure to make money has on our decision of study or vocation. You can replace 'money' with any other distorting factor: parental expectations, peer pressure to succeed, inner desire for fame or relevance, etc.
On a clean sheet of paper write down these observations. Put the paper aside, and repeat the process over the course of a number of days. Do not refer back to previous days’ lists. When you feel that the investigation is complete, look at all the lists you have created.
We may immediately recognize a repeated vocation or area of interest. However, it is also likely that you will need to analyze deeper to identify recurring ideas, themes, or patterns. A number of ostensibly different items may reveal an common underlying theme. This gives a more focused or pointed area for further investigation. For example, you may have noted down:
Starting a local organization to feed homeless people;
Establishing a local permaculture garden;
Joining an environmental protection group.
What can we tell from these three items? Firstly that there is a tendency for service to others, to engage in activities that are beneficial for the community. Second, that the natural world is an area of interest, growing food, protecting the environment. Thirdly, that there is a spirit of entrepreneurship - creating or establishing one's own organization or group.
Interestingly, although we are advised against acting merely on likes and dislikes, in this context, since our vāsanās conform to our likes, identifying our vāsanās is possible by understanding our likes. However, once we have entered a field of activity, we choose individual actions based on our reasoning's recognition of our obligations rather than likes/dislikes.
1 Vedanta Treatise, Ch. 5, ‘Chronology of Action’