This paper was presented at
Psychology: The Indian Contribution
National Conference on
Indian Psychology, Yoga and Consciousness
organised by the Indian Council of Philosophical Research
at the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education
Pondicherry, India, 10-13 December 2004

(click to enlarge)

Swabhava & Swadharma of students and educators,
its implications in individualized and value oriented education

Shanti Auluck

The twentieth century has witnessed vast changes in all the fields all over the world including India. The last decade has particularly been marked by the acceleration in the pace with which changes are taking place in our society. It is interesting to note that on one hand economic liberalization and global influences are affecting the way we live including the patterns of our relationships; on the other hand an awareness and interest is growing in the spiritual traditions as they promise to provide better understanding to deal with the conflicts and tensions in one’s life. However the fact, that these traditions and knowledge systems have sustained themselves for thousands of years despite vast changes with time, is a pointer to their deep significance to human life. They carry the message that has remained and will always remain relevant for life, therefore called SANATAN DHARMA. It is in the backdrop of this profound spiritual knowledge that the present paper is discussing one of the very important issues in the field of education i.e. Swabhava & Swadharma of students and educators and its implications for individualized and value oriented education.

The field of education is facing immense challenge in the present times. It is an age of mass education, education with utilitarian and commercial interests. Excessive stress on achievements and mindless competition is reducing it to a commodity, a tool for power and upward mobility. Sensuality and materialism never got as much legitimacy and acceptability as in the contemporary Indian society. The power of electronic media is being used to the hilt in furthering this cause. Perhaps the assertion of spirituality not only in India but all over the world is a reflection of this conflict between the message arising from materialism and spirituality. The search for joy and happiness promised by material comforts and luxuries remains elusive. Profound spiritual wisdom of various religio-philosophical traditions in India does not condemn any of the human pursuits. It shows proper place for each one of them i.e. dharma, artha, kama but points out that none of them can bring freedom from sorrow and suffering. It declares that everlasting joy, peace and freedom requires a different pursuit called Moksha. It is not in the form of achieving something; it is in the form of the knowledge of the true reality of our existence including the entire creation. It offers the most profound understanding of human life, unsurpassable in its exhaustiveness, depth and glory.

The wisdoms of these spiritual traditions offers a direction for the choices that one can make and it is most relevant to the field of education because man-making is the aim of education. Any kind of change that is required in any system, must begin first at the level of individual minds and education can play an extremely important role in it.

The theme of the present paper is, Swabhava and Swadharma its implications for individualized and value oriented education. Swabhava and Swadharma, as it is analyzed and understood in Indian Thought, has important message for the people working in the field of education. In order to see its relevance, first we need to examine the true goals of education. We also need to understand the concerns and compulsions of the present system of education before we can think about the ways in which this process of change can be initiated in our education system.

What is the goal of Education?

Confusions among ideologies that guide our planning and actions in any given field demand a re-look at the goals so that our decisions and actions take us towards the stated goals. We need to do the same in the field of education which is increasingly getting digressed from its true goals. We need to ask some basic questions. What is the goal of education? Do our planning and actions make us move towards that? What are the impediments on the way? What needs to be done? Swami Vivekananda stated a very precise and simple answer to this question. He said “we want that education by which character is formed, strength of mind is increased, the intellect is expanded and by which one can stand on ones own feet”.

Thus education aims at threefold development of a person:

  • Development of mind, sharpening the analytical faculties of mind
  • Dissemination of knowledge, understanding the order in which physical, mental and social world operates
  • Fostering development of the person, inner growth and excellence of character

The first two objectives are obvious to most of us but the third one often lacks clarity though it is of far reaching significance to human life. Development on the first two dimensions without the third often leads to conceit and arrogance. The education that overlooks character development can produce literates but not educated persons. Inner growth is a gradual process which increasingly gets us in touch with deeper meaning of our lives unfolding the new dimensions of consciousness within us. It slowly liberates us from egocentric and impulsive forces within, providing true richness to life. Sri Aurobindo said “ it is by a constant inner growth that one can find a constant newness and unfailing interest in life. There is no other satisfying way”.

Education must be able to create this awakening towards inner growth. A huge challenge facing the Education system is how to create conditions for facilitating inner development. If education has to serve its real purpose and contain the erosion of time tested values, it must be taken with utmost urgency. It is from this larger concern that the topic of my presentation “ Swabhava & Swadharma and its implications in individualized and value oriented education” derives its direction.

Swabhava & Swadharma

Though both these terms are part of our everyday language, they have much deeper meaning than what is ordinarily thought. Bhagwatgita brings out an exhaustive meaning of these two terms in the following verses:

"Sreyanswadharmo vigunah paradharmatsvanusthitat
Svadharme nidhanam sreyahparadharmo bhayavahah" III-35

"better is one’s own imperfectly performed dharma than the well performed dharma of another. Death in one’s own dharma is better. the dharma of another is fraught with fear”.

"Sreyansvadharmo vigunah paradharmatsvanusthitat
Svabhavaniyatam karma kurvannapnoti kilbisam." XVIII-47

“One’s own duty devoid of merit is better than the duty of another well done. Doing action enjoined according to one’s nature, one does not incur fault”.

Like all the slokas in Gita, these two verses have several layers of meaning. Swabhava means one’s inclinations or dispositions towards one’s likings and dislikings. In other words it refers to our inherent nature which makes us feel interested in certain activities and not in others. According to Indian thought, everyone is born with one’s own dispositions which itself arises from the accumulated Karmas (actions) from previous lives. The most conducive way for inner growth is when we choose our field of activity and live life in tune with our Swabhava as Swami Dayananda said “if one’s karmas are chosen according to one’s disposition one avoids conflict and Satva becomes predominant, as the mind free from conflicts becomes tranquil. All the qualities of a mature mind will be there if a person follows what is enjoined for him according to his disposition”.

Swadharma means one’s duties arising from one’s own roles and responsibilities in life. Dharma also means right conduct guided by humanistic values. Taking care of ones roles and responsibilities provides order and stability to our lives as well as others around us. Similarly following universal human values (truth, nonviolence, love, kindness, honesty etc.) makes our mind peaceful and creates harmony in society.

Thus Swabhava and Swadharma highlights the importance of three guiding forces in our lives i.e. (1) choosing activities in tune with our inclinations, (2) fulfilling one’s roles and responsibilities adequately and (3) humanistic values. All of them are necessary for efficient functioning of an individual and stable social order. There are greater chances of excellence and satisfaction in doing those activities that absorb our interest and attention. Similarly if every one does their duties well, the social systems will work better and there would be less conflict in interpersonal relationships. Besides, it makes our mind peaceful if we are doing our duties well. However, sometimes Swabhava and Swadharma may pull us in different directions and generate conflict in our mind. We may like to do certain things but call of duty demands something else. In such situations it is Dharma (humanistic values) that can provide direction to our choices. We need to constantly examine our priorities and judge the demands of the situations. If choice is made after careful thinking, there would be greater acceptance for our situations. The principle of Karmayoga helps in resolving such conflicts where Dharma plays an important role in guiding our choices and actions.

Following one’s Swabhava and harmonizing it with one’s Swadharma facilitates maturity and inner growth also called Antahkarnashudhi in Indian Thought. The term is illustrative of its meaning i.e. getting rid of all polluting elements of mind that rob us of peace and happiness. Inner growth does not happen on its own, one has to work towards it. The first and foremost condition for it is to become introspective. Sri Aurobindo has given an exhaustive analysis of the need for becoming inward oriented “ we are conscious of only an insignificant portion of our being; for the most part we are unconscious. It is this unconsciousness which keeps us down to our unregenerate nature and prevents change and transformation in it. It is through unconsciousness that the undivine forces enter into us and make us their slaves. You are to be conscious of your self, you must awake to your nature and movements, you must know how and why you do things or feel or think them; you must understand your motives and impulses, the forces hidden and apparent, that move you; in fact, you must, as it were, take to pieces the entire machinery of your being. Once you are conscious, it means that you can distinguish and sift things, you can see which are the forces that pull you down and which help you on”.

There is an exhaustive analysis of certain attitudes that one slowly needs to imbibe for this inner purity or growth as mentioned in the following table:


1. Vivek = discernment, discrimination between transient and non-transient.

2. Vairagya = dispassion for transient things of life, growing beyond the likes and dislikes.

3. Shatsampat ( six qualities):

  • Sama = control of mind
  • dama = control of body including senses
  • Uparati = observance of ones duties and eliminating the redundant
  • Titiksha = endurance of pleasures, pains, praise, criticisms etc.
  • Sradha = faith in the veracity of the words of the teacher and scriptures.
  • Samadhana = deep concentration and single- pointedness of mind.

4.Mumukshatvam = earnest desire for knowledge/ liberation

One gradually cultivates these qualities as one examines and reflects on the experiences of life.. Bhagwadgita analyses in great length ‘Karmyoga’, a method to acquire a relatively peaceful mind. It presents a very sound method to cultivate forbearance in oneself.

A searching analysis of oneself is a must for acquiring this inner culture which modern psychology knows as fully integrated functioning of personality. Vivek, vairagya, shatsampat and mumukshatvam are necessary for a seeker of truth. Upanisads claim that ‘Knowledge leads to liberation’ ( sa vidya va vimuktaye ). It  is the sublime truth stated by the rishis and the sages in the upanisads, tested and verified by the seekers of truth at all times. It is the liberation not of ‘I’, but from ‘I’(individuality).


According to Indian Thought, inner growth is not an end in itself. It is a preparation towards the ultimate goal of life i.e. Moksha, liberation from all limiting forces of life and establishing in the ultimate Reality called Atman or Brahman. It is discovering the supreme reality behind life, mind and the universe and that is the inmost truth of our being. According to this supreme vision of Indian Thought, the source of all this apparent diversity is one alone i.e. Brahman, all pervading all knowing pure consciousness untainted by sorrows and miseries. Upanishads call it Satyam Gyanam Anantam Brahman. This is the most profound discovery ever made and has the potential for complete transformation of life. Thus every effort and all sacrifices in life has a meaning as it fosters inner growth, a preparation of our mind and intellect for deeper plunge into the supreme truth; the ultimate truth of all creations, extolled by rishis and sages of all times.

Thus Indian Thought provides the larger vision of life which can provide a solid foundation for directions in life. It is not an utopian idea; it is tested and confirmed by rishis and sages of all the times. It highlights the value of inner development for attaining true happiness, peace and harmony in life. The real challenge before us is to find ways to integrate this knowledge in our education system and that requires an understanding of its strengths and limitations, its concerns and compulsions.

Present Education system, its concerns and compulsions

The present education system is in fact a legacy of the colonial rule. Most of us are unaware that India had a strong forma and non-formal system of education. As quoted by Pawan K. Gupta, Mahatma Gandhi made a statement at Chatham House, London in October 1931 stating “ today India is more illiterate than it was fifty or hundred years ago, and so in Burma, because the British administrators, when they came to India, instead of taking hold of things as they were, began to root them out. They scratched the soil and left the root exposed and the beautiful tree perished”. Subsequently researchers and writers went into the records, mainly British, to reconstruct the history of education in the 18th and 19th century. Quoting Pawan Gupta “ the picture that emerges from the research work in recent years is a resounding confirmation of what Gandhiji said in London. We now learn, with almost a sense of disbelief, that a large part of the country did have a sustainable education system, as late as even the early years of the 19th century, and this was systematically demolished over the next 50 years or so”.

We are a generation, which has been fed on the notion that our society is and has been backward, superstitious, ignorant, illiterate ridden with poverty and divisions of various kinds. We, specially those who have gone through the formal education system, are alienated from our society. We were unable to see its strengths and have lost pride and respect in our social and cultural identities and therefore understand little about our society and culture. We need education that gives information about self, society and environment so that it helps in building a harmonious relationship among these three elements.

We always had and still have large system of non-formal system of education. It was in the form of folk traditions, epics, religious stories, music, dance, theatre, art, festivals and rituals etc. it is amazing to discover that the spiritual wisdom that forms a solid foundation of Indian culture, has been communicated to the common man in the most ingenious and practical ways. All forms of non-formal education carries the imprint and message of this wisdom. It had reached to every household through various folk traditions. Some of these traditions may have become rigid leading to conflicts in the society.  They require reinterpretation and perhaps reintegration, with the changing needs of the times. In the last two decades we see a phenomenal rise in various groups with mass following spreading the message of great scriptures of India, Upanisads and Bhagwat-Gita. Voluntary organizations have emerged as yet another form through which awareness as well as services are being provided. Thus it is important to realize the strengths of our non-formal system of education and encourage and strengthen it. It is a flexible system responsive to the changing needs of the society. It is the formal system of education, which responds slowly to the changing realities of the society as it is organized and structured therefore less flexible. Let us examine the limitations and strengths of our formal system of education.


  • Alienation from the larger realities of our culture and society and lack of pride and respect for them
  • Declining faith in ethics and morality
  • Lack of role models in teachers and elders of the society including education, political, media, judiciary and government functioning
  • Unprecedented emphasis on sensuality and its unhindered legitimacy dictated by market forces
  • Working under immense pressure of class differences e.g. social hierarchy of schools and institutions of learning
  • Increasingly education is seen as a means of employment, earning and upward mobility
  • It has come under the influence of market forces of supply and demand
  • Mindless race of achievements and competitions, more and more emphasis on tangible results. Students have become faceless entities, there is a lack of interest and concern for them as persons.

Education which has not facilitated and encouraged character development is bound to suffer from these limitations. Many of these issues arise from pragmatic concerns, but they become cancerous if unguided by some of the most vital values that should guide human life.


Despite serious problems plaguing our education, one can see many strengths also as stated below:

  • Knowledge revolution: technology has brought vast resources for learning and knowledge within the reach of common man
  • People’ aspirations are rising and they are willing to put any amount of hard and disciplined work
  • There is an increasingly felt need, though in small number of people, to search for something more substantial and meaningful in life. Many of these persons are taking up issues of larger concern to the society.

The daunting task facing all of us is how to bring desirable changes in the system which are in consonance with the goals of education. Could we derive certain guidelines from the wisdom of Indian Thought. There is a discussion on some of these issues in the following section.

Swabhava and Swadharma : its implications for Education

Understanding the role of Swabhava and Swadharma in guiding one’s actions has immense implications for education. It is clear from the earlier discussion that both play an important role in inner growth and that is the foremost goal of education along with other pragmatic concerns. No amount of material and technological advancement can free man from his sorrows and despair, though they can eliminate certain sources of pain and discomfort. Last century has seen unprecedented advancements in material and technological field, but it has not made man happier. It has an important lesson for all of us, in fact the whole mankind. The task before us is twofold:

  • Presentation of the profound wisdom of Indian Thought in a most rational manner as the modern mind is more tuned to logical thinking
  • Imbibing this wisdom as an important aspect of education.

We have vast literature available at very affordable cost in India, which deals with the first issue. These are spoken or written words by great sages and rishis who devoted their entire life to single minded pursuit in search of truth, to unravel the mysteries of the inner as well as outer world. It is the second task that is most difficult and challenging. It needs change in the emphasis from outer to inner development, from competition to co-operation, from racing ahead of others to growing within. It needs respect for differences rather than forcing uniformity in thinking. It needs stress on understanding oneself through habit of introspection. It needs respect, attention and concern for every student, irrespective of his / her achievements, class and creed. Change in oneself can be initiated only by the person himself, we only need to create right conditions for that to happen. One can flourish according to one’s Swabhava in an atmosphere of acceptance, respect and freedom. Sensitization towards the needs of other people in the society can create better awareness about our duties and responsibility towards others around us. It is the personal conduct and actions that are more effective in communicating and reinforcing the faith in Dharma or humanistic values.

The question arises as how this process of change can be effected by education system and what kind of changes are required. Some of the thoughts, in this regard, are stated below.

  • There has to be a wider debate involving teachers, students and other concerned community over the goals of education, strengths and limitations of the existing system of education and need for change as well as types of changes required.
  • Better awareness in teachers and students about the process of learning and significance of motivational and inspirational factors particularly self-motivation in one’s learning.
  • Curriculum and evaluation process should be designed keeping in mind the long term and short term goals of education.
  • Open choices should be available at every level of education from school to college and university.
  • Scope for personal interaction between teachers and students should be provided by the system
  • Selection and training of the teachers is a very important issue. Academic achievement is only a small indicator for success and efficiency of a teacher. Love for knowledge and concern and interest for the students are very important factors in making of a good and effective teacher.
  • Understanding about the self, society and one’s environment is important to keep us in touch with the ground realities and making our planning and actions more relevant to the needs of the people.
  • Disparities in the salaries should be minimized
  • There is a need to move towards a universal philosophy as M. K. Kaw ,secretary MHRD in his Kothari memorial leacture said “ today, philosophy has embroiled itself in the petty concerns of epistemology and lost sight of its larger task, namely, the guidance of humanity across the sea of existence------- this universal philosophy will be a science of spirituality which will try to harmonize the findings of all other sciences. It will also take the essence of the findings of all religions and teach a common, universal philosophy to the whole humanity.-------. As in all other branches of knowledge, humanity will be equally benefited by the scientists and practitioners of spirituality, wherever they might emerge on the face of the globe------- the science of spirituality that will thus be born will provide a credible basis for the propogation of human values. It is my firm belief that mere ethics can not stand on its own feet, without the foundation of spirituality”.

All this is not easy to happen. It requires a strong will and clear understanding of the human nature and goals of education. Mass education is the reality of our times yet we need to create spaces for everyone to grow in tune with one’s Swabhava. It is also unrealistic to forget that people need to earn their living and education plays a significant role in it. I do not see any contradiction here. The most important thing is what we are as persons whichever field we are working and that makes all the difference in rekindling the spark around us. Swami Vivekanand said “ if you have assimilated five ideas and made them your life and character, you have more education than any man who has got by heart a whole library”.