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