The Inner Spiritual Meaning of Swabhava and Swadharma

The Gita consistently holds that the true source and reality of our existence is the supreme divine spirit, the Purushottama and that all of manifested Nature is the action of the Purushottama. The ego and the outer Nature are not our true selves but an outer shell. The true Self, a “portion of the Purushottama” is the Jiva. Sri Aurobindo describes the Jiva: “He represents in Nature the power of the supreme Spirit, he is in his personality that Power; he brings out in an individual existence the potentialities of the Soul of the universe. This Jiva itself is spirit and not the natural ego; the spirit and not the form of ego is our reality and inner soul principle.”

This brings us to the meaning of Swabhava: “The spiritual Nature which has become this multiple personality in the universe, …, is the basic stuff of our existence: all the rest is lower derivation and outer formation from a highest hidden activity of the spirit. And in Nature each of us has a principle and will of our own becoming; each soul is a force of self-consciousness that formulates an idea of the Divine in it and guides by that its action and evolution, its progressive self-finding, its constant varying self-expression, its apparently uncertain but secretly inevitable growth to fullness. That is our Swabhava, our own real nature; that is our truth of being which is finding now only a constant partial expression in our various becoming in the world. The law of action determined by this Swabhava is our right law of self-shaping, function, working, our Swadharma.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 20, Swabhava and Swadharma, pg. 502


The Inner Spiritual Principle Underlying Swabhava and Swadharma

Sri Aurobindo reminds us that our struggles to understand our existence and raise up our human nature seem impossibly confusing and difficult primarily because we are rooted in the standpoint of the ego-consciousness. In reality the Gita’s teaching is based on the spiritual reality of the divine truth of existence, not the illusory consciousness of the fragmented and separated individual. From this deeper standpoint, we see that the question of our own inner intrinsic nature, Swabhava, and our own right action in the world, Swadharma, is resolved by the recognition that it is the Divine Master of all existence that resides in all, that is manifesting according to His determination, and who is actually using the apparent “machinery” of Nature as a tool to shape, sculpt and develop the entire manifested universe.

“The Gita’s philosophy of life and works is that all proceeds from the Divine Existence, the transcendent and universal Spirit. All is a veiled manifestation of the Godhead, Vasudeva, …, and to unveil the Immortal within and in the world, to dwell in unity with the Soul of the universe, to rise in consciousness, knowledge, will, love, spiritual delight to oneness with the supreme Godhead, to live in the highest spiritual nature with the individual and natural being delivered from shortcoming and ignorance and made a conscious instrument for the works of the divine Shakti is the perfection of which humanity is capable and the condition of immortality and freedom.”

This becomes possible when we realise the deeper truth: “A Godhead is seated in the heart of every man and is the Lord of this mysterious action of Nature….”

“This machinery of ego, this tangled complexity of the three Gunas, mind, body, life, emotion, desire, struggle, thought, aspiration, endeavour, this locked interaction of pain and pleasure, sin and virtue, striving and success and failure, soul and environment, myself and others, is only the outward imperfect form taken by a higher spiritual Force in me which pursues through its vicissitudes the proressive self-expression of the divine reality and greatness I am secretly in spirit and shall overtly become in nature. This action contains in itself the principle of its own success, the principle of the Swabhava and Swadharma.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 20, Swabhava and Swadharma, pp. 500-501

The Gita’s Three Principles For Spiritual Action

Sri Aurobindo summarizes the essence of the Gita’s teaching regarding spiritual action, by identifying 3 propositions that underlie this teaching: “First, all action must be determined from within because each man has in him something his own, some characteristic principle and inborn power of his nature.” This is what is meant by the term Swabhava, and it signifies that the individual must act from that inner truth of his own being, not because of some external compulsion or habit imposed on him by the social or economic order.

“Next, there are broadly four types of nature each with its characteristic function and ideal rule of work and character and the type indicates the man’s proper field and should trace for him his just circle of function in his outer social existence.” This concept is the inner essence of what became the outer caste system. The caste system turned what was intended to be a truth of the inner nature into just such a compulsion of the outer being that the first principle indicates should not be the driving force!

“Finally, whatever work a man does, if done according to the law of his being, the truth of his nature, can be turned Godwards and made an effective means of spiritual liberation and perfection.” The Gita is quite clear that it is better to follow the law of one’s own nature to carry out one’s work, the concept known as Swadharma, than to follow an apparently better or higher path that is not an expression of one’s inner true essential being.

Sri Aurobindo points out that the entire weight of the social and economic organization of humanity works against the attempt to live out these inner truths. “Life, State, society, family, all surrounding powers seem to be in a league to lay their yoke on our spirit, compel us into their moulds, impose on us their mechanical interest and rough immediate convenience.”

The individual must be able to develop freely according to his inner being. “The individual who develops freely in this manner will be a living soul and mind and will have a much greater power for the service of the race.” It is these individuals who actually lead the advance of society. Following the inner truth of the being, and carrying out the work that results from that inner truth, and applying it in a field of action most suited to the nature, the individual “…can …turn it into a means of growth and and of a greater inner perfection. And whatever it be, if he performs his natural function in the right spirit, if he enlightens it by the ideal mind, if he turns its action to the usees of the Godhead within, serves with it the Spirit manifested in the universe or makes it a conscious instrumentation for the purposes of the Divine in humanity, he can transmute it into a means towards the highest spiritual perfection and freedom.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 20, Swabhava and Swadharma, pp. 499-500

The Gita’s Intention In Describing the Four Orders Of Life

Had the intention of the Gita been to justify and support the caste system in its socio-economic form, we would have seen it in the way the Gita describes the natural work of each of the four orders; however, we see just the opposite, as the Gita focuses on the internal status more than the external function.

Sri Aurobindo describes this as he itemizes the true role and action of the Brahmin: “Calm, self-control, askesis, purity, long-suffering, candour, knowledge, acceptance and practice of spiritual truth would not ordinarily be described as a man’s function, work or life occupation. Yet this is precisely what the Gita means and says,–that these things, their development, their expression in conduct, their power to cast into form the law of the sattwic nature are the real work of the Brahmin….” The actual outer form that this action takes may find its easiest manifestation in roles reserved in the caste arrangement for the Brahmin, but the Gita clearly enunciates the principle of the inner status, not the outer role, as being the true “work” of the Brahmin.

Similarly for the Kshatriya, the Gita does not focus on government, warfare or political action, but on developed qualities that need to find their expression regardless of the outer role: “but his real work is the development, the expression in conduct, the power to cast into form and dynamic rhythm of movement the law of the active battling royal or warrior spirit.”

Sri Aurobindo underlines the fact that the description of the roles of Vaishya and Sudra, the trading and service orders, are defined by the Gita, on the contrary, by their outer roles and he indicates that this is so because those who are focused on economic and service work generally are highly focused on the external world, not the inner development, and thus, would tend to identify more closely their inner and outer being with their outer function. “That too is the reason why a commercial and industrial age or a society preoccupied with the idea of work and labour creates around it an atmosphere more favourable to the material than the spiritual life, more adapted to vital efficiency than to the subtler perfection of the high-reaching mind and spirit. Nevertheless, this kind of nature too and its functions have their inner significance, their spiritual value and can be made a means and power for perfection.”

Regardless of the role and inward competency, each individual, by identifying with and carrying out his true destined role in fulfillment of his own inner being’s force, can achieve liberation and perfection. Each individual “…can by this road rise at once towards the highest inner greatness and spiritual freedom, towards perfection, towards the liberation and fulfilment of the divine element in the human being.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 20, Swabhava and Swadharma, pp. 497-498

The Relation of Man’s Outer Life To His Inner Being

The Gita consistently takes up concepts that were current in its day and integrates them into an inclusive standpoint. The integrating principle is based on the inner spiritual life and knowledge, not the outer form. The same approach can be seen in the way the Gita addresses the four orders of life, which was turned into a fixed outer social and economic order over time in India. The Gita is not attempting to support or justify this outer system, but rather, trying to express an inner truth that guides the seeker to the Swabhava, the true inner being that the individual is born to express and fulfill, and from there to the Swadharma, the “work to be done” according to the inner law of one’s being.

Sri Aurobindo takes up this point: “And from this emphasis on the inner truth and not on the outer form arises the spiritual significance and power which the Gita assigns to the following of the Swadharma.”

As to the caste system, “In fact it lays very little stress on the external rule and a very great stress on the internal law which the Varna system attempted to put into regulated outward practice. And it is on the individual and spiritual value of this law and not on its communal and economic or other social and cultural importance that the eye of the thought is fixed in this passage.”

As with other principles, “…here too and in the same way it accepts the theory of the four orders of men, but gives to it a profound turn, an inner, subjective and universal meaning, a spiritual sense and direction. And immediately the idea behind the theory changes its values and becomes an enduring and living truth not bound up with the transience of a particular social form and order. What the Gita is concerned with is not the validity of the Aryan social order now abolished or in a state of deliquescence,–if that were all, its principle of the Swabhava and Swadharma would have no permanent truth or value,–but the relation of a man’s outward life to his inward being, the evolution of his action from his soul and inner law of nature.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 20, Swabhava and Swadharma, pg. 497

Understanding the Inner Foundation of the Four Orders of Society

The four orders of society and the functions they carry out are easily recognisable necessities for any functioning society. The development of an hereditary basis for assigning these roles and functions came about because there was no easily identifiable and certain way to ascertain inner capacity and temperament, and thus, external factors became primary in creating this system. Sri Aurobindo points out that this may not have been the initial phase: “A man’s social function and position were no doubt determined originally, as they are still in freer, less closely ordered communities by environment, occasion, birth and capacity; but as there set in a more fixed stratification, his rank came practically to be regulated by birth mainly or alone and in the later system of caste birth came to be the sole rule of status. The son of a Brahmin is always a Brahmin in status, though he may have nothing of the typical Brahmin qualities or character, no intellectual training or spiritual experience or religious worth or knowledge, no connection whatever with the right function of his class, no Brahminhood in his work and no Brahminhood in his nature.”

Searching back through time, we find the true inner, psychological and spiritual basis of these distinctions: “The ancient law-givers, while recognising the hereditary practice, insisted that quality, character and capacity were the one sound and real basis and that without them the hereditary social status became an unspiritual falsehood because it had lost its true significance. The Gita, too, as always, founds its thought on the inner significance.”

The essence of this concept is that each individual has an ongoing development in past lives and brings into the current life an evolutionary status. “…a man’s inborn nature and course of life are essentially determined by his own past lives, are the self-development already effected by his past actions and mental and spiritual evolution and cannot depend solely on the material factor of his ancestry, parentage, physical birth, which can only be of subordinate moment, one effective sign perhaps, but not the dominant principle.”

“the work or function of a man is determined by his qualities, karma is determined by guna; it is the work born of his Swabhava…and regulated by his Swabhava…. This emphasis on an inner quality and spirit which finds expression in work, function and action is the whole sense of the Gita’s idea of Karma.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 20, Swabhava and Swadharma, pp. 495-497

The Four Orders of Society

To understand the point that the Gita is making regarding an individual’s own inner law of being and action, it is important to first understand the general classes of the four orders of society, which relate to the predominant Guna that then leads to characteristic ways of understanding and acting, and thus, distinguishes the different roles and types that develop with this underlying basis.

Sri Aurobindo therefore describes the “ancient system of the four orders”, as he points out that this understanding developed, not just in India, but widely throughout the ancient world: “The ancient system of the four orders had a triple aspect; it took a social and economic, a cultural and a spiritual appearance. On the economic side it recognised four functions of the social man in the community, the religious and intellectual, the political, the economic and the servile functions. These are thus four kinds of works, the work of religious ministration, letters, learning and knowledge, the work of government, politics, administration and war, the work of production, wealth making and exchange, the work of hired labour and service. An endeavor was made to found and stabilise the whole arrangement of society on the partition of these four functions among four clearly marked classes.”

Despite the artificial and mechanical way this was implemented, and despite the breakdown of many of these traditional roles and modes of organisation, the underlying functionality and the capacities needed to achieve each of them still remain operative today. “The old system everywhere broke down and gave place to a more fluid order or, as in India, to a confused and complex social rigidity and economic immobility degenerating towards a chaos of castes.”

“Along with this economic division there existed the association of a cultural idea which gave to each class its religious custom, its law of honour, ethical rule, suitable education and training, type of character, family ideal and discipline.” The attempt to instill such ideals and thus, to encourage the development of higher capacities at all levels of society was an important aspect that was very much lost over time.

“Finally, wherever this system existed, it was given more or less a religious sanction…and in India a profounder spiritual use and significance. This spiritual significance is the real kernel of the teaching of the Gita.” This essential spiritual underpinning of the four orders of society can be reclaimed by a deeper review of the Gita’s teaching in this regard.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 20, Swabhava and Swadharma, pp. 494-495

Understanding and Critique of the Caste System

The Gita devotes several of its verses to discussion of the four-fold order of society. which has been mixed up with what we have seen come down through time as the rigid and stultifying caste system which has created enormous confusion and obstacles to the modern-day development of India. Caste as it has been practiced has forced hereditary positions and ranking in society on everyone, has prevented in many cases the most suited from taking up roles for which they were most capable, and has held back progress generally. The Gita’s discussion actually has very little, if anything, to do with this historical ossification of societal roles.

Sri Aurobindo points out that even the roles that the Gita assigns to the 4 orders of society do not match up with the historically developed caste system, making it clear that the meaning as understood by the Gita varies from what we know of as the caste system today. Further, “And if the economical divisions of function have been confounded beyond any possibility of rectification, the law of the Guna or quality is still less a part of the later system. There all is rigid custom…, with no reference to the need of the individual nature. If again we take the religious side of the contention advanced by the advocates of the caste system, we can certainly fasten no such absurd idea on the words of the Gita as that it is a law of man’s nature that he shall follow without regard to his personal bent and capacities the profession of his parents or his immediate or distant ancestors, the son of a milkman be a milkman, the son of a doctor a doctor, the descendants of shoemakers remain shoemakers to the end of measurable time, still less that by doing so, by this unintelligent and mechanical repetition of the law of another’s nature without regard to his own individual call and qualities a man automatically farthers his own perfection and arrives at spiritual freedom.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 20, Swabhava and Swadharma, pp. 493-494

One’s Own Law of Action According To One’s Own Nature

The subject of following one’s own law of action, svadharma, is connected with an understanding of one’s own inner nature, svabhava. The Gita acknowledges the individuality, while at the same time showing that, based on the predominance of the action of the Gunas, there are four basic frameworks of action within which individuals generally can be included, based on their own inner nature.

There follows a discussion of the characteristics of what has been generally known as the “caste” system, but this carries with it unfortunate connotations due to misapplication and misunderstanding of it. The true meaning of the 4 types of individuals and their characteristic action in the world was meant to convey the different capacities, interests and focus due to the predominant balance of the Gunas working in that individual. It was not, therefore, intended to become a rigid hereditary system to lock individuals into place regardless of their own characteristics.

Sri Aurobindo explains: “In other words, there are four distinct orders of the active nature, or four fundamental types of the soul in nature, svabhava, and the work and proper function of each human being corresponds to his type of nature.” The Gita holds that it is better to follow the law of action corresponding to one’s own inner nature, however apparently defective or maligned by society, than to artificially impose on the individual another external rule that does not suit the nature.

The specifics of the four types as described by the Gita are outlined by Sri Aurobindo: “Calm, self-control, askesis, purity, long-suffering, candour, knowledge, acceptance of spiritual truth are the work of the Brahmin, born of his Swabhava. Heroism, high spirit, resolution, ability, not fleeing in the battle, giving, lordship…are the natural work of the Kshatriya. Agriculture, cattle-keeping, trade inclusive of the labour of the craftsman and the artisan are the natural work of the Vaishya. All work of the character of service falls within the natural function of the Sudra. A man, it goes on to say, who devotes himself to his own natural work in life acquires spiritual perfection, not indeed by the mere act itself, but if he does it with right knowledge and the right motive, if he can make it a worship of the Spirit of this creation and dedicate it sincerely to the Master of the universe from whom is all impulse to action. All labour, all action and function, whatever it be, can be consecrated by this dedication of works, can convert the life into a self-offering to the Godhead within and without us and is itself converted into a means of spiritual perfection.”

“All action in the three Gunas is imperfect, all human work is subject to fault, defect or limit; but that should not make us abandon our own proper work and natural function. Action should be rightly regulated action…but intrinsically one’s own, evolved from within, in harmony with the truth of one’s being, regulated by the Svabhava….”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 20, Swabhava and Swadharma, pp. 491-493

The Question of the Role of the Individual in the Universal Creation

Sri Aurobindo raises a question of considerable interest and importance in the context of determining the causes of action. He sets the terms of the discussion as follows: “All action on the normal level is determined by the Gunas; the action which is to be done, kartavyam karma, takes the triple form of giving, askesis and sacrifice, and any or all of these three may assume the character of any of the Gunas. Therefore we have to proceed by the raising of these things to the highest sattwic height of which they are capable and go yet farther beyond to a largeness in which all works become a free self-giving, an energy of the divine Tapas, a perpetual sacrament of the spiritual existence.”

The general terms of action apply across the board to all, but we nevertheless see that there is an element of individuality, which still must be considered and put into its right place in the order of things.

“But this is a general law and all these considerations have been the enunciation of quite general principles and refer indiscriminately to all actions and to all men alike. All can eventually arrive by spiritual evolution to this strong discipline, this large perfection, this highest spiritual state. But while the general rule of mind and action is the same for all men, we see too that there is a constant law of variation and each individual acts not only according to the common laws of the human spirit, mind, will, life, but according to his own nature; each man fulfills different functions or follows a different bent according to the rule of his own circumstances, capacities, turn, character, powers.”

Throughout human history we have seen attempts to either raise up and glorify the individual or the collective development, generally to the exclusion of the other term. The Gita attempts to find the appropriate balance whereby the uniqueness of the individual is incorporated into the larger framework of the divine manifestation. Sri Aurobindo states the question for the seeker after liberation and perfection: “What place is to be assigned to this variation, this individual rule of nature in the spiritual discipline?”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 20, Swabhava and Swadharma, pg. 491