A model of self, work, and spirituality from the Bhagavad-Gita: Implications for self-efficacy, goal setting, and global psychology

Dharm P. S. Bhawuk1

What we study and how we study the problem is influenced to a substantial degree by our cultural values (Bhawuk, 2000), to the extent that cultural values and beliefs direct the geniuses in a culture to the behavioral domain that is valued (Bhawuk, 2003). For example, the Indian culture values spirituality, and it is no surprise that the classical texts are replete with concepts that can help us model the process of spiritual growth. For example, the Bhagavad-Gita is full of insights, and many psychological models can be derived from it. Bhawuk (1999) derived a model of personal peace and harmony, which is closely linked to the Indian worldview and concept of self, and raised some questions for western psychology.

In this paper, a method for indigenous research is presented (see Bhawuk, 2000 for details). Following the method a model is derived from the Bhagavad-Gita that shows how our physical self is related to social self and work. The model shows how doing the work with the intention to achieve the fruits of our labor leads to an entrenched development of social self, but letting go of the passion for the reward for our actions leads us toward the real self. These two distinct paths are discussed in detail, and then I show how western psychology deals with the first path by focusing on various aspects of intentional work only, thus missing out on the immense possibility of leading a spiritual life that the second path has to offer. Following this, the implications of the model on such key concepts as self-efficacy and goal setting are discussed in some detail. The paper is concluded with a discussion of how indigenous psychology can help us in the development of a global psychology.


Research grounded in theory is touted as superior than the research that lacks theoretical basis, however much empirically sophisticated it may be. Since psychology has emerged as a well-developed field of research, theories abound. However, starting with a theoretical position invariably leads to the pseudo-etic approach in which theories are necessarily western emics. To avoid this Procrustean bed of western-theory-driven research it is necessary to start with insights offered by indigenous cultures and texts and the supporting anecdotal evidence, qualitative observations, and data from the target indigenous culture (Bhawuk, 1999, 2000). These insights could come from folk wisdom or from classical texts in non-western cultures. Models developed from such insights need to be informed or moderated by the existing western and cross-cultural theories and empirical evidence from western cultures as well as cross-cultural studies (See Figure 1).

This process is likely to result into emic-embedded or culturally rich knowledge, which could be used threefold by the three consumers of research (Brinnberg & McGrath, 1988), the theoreticians, practitioners, and empiricists. First, emic-embedded theory and models could be developed to study indigenous social issues by theoreticians and other researchers who are more theoretically inclined. Second, practitioners could use these models to solve practical problems in the culture where the idea originated. This would avoid the blind importing of solutions from the west, which often do not work because they are counter-cultural (Bhawuk, 2001a). And finally, researchers who are more empirically inclined could use these models to guide indigenous and cross-cultural empirical research. Of course, theories could drive practice and empirical work, empirical work could lead to refinement of theories and models, and practitioners' experience could lead to empirical research or theory building when the accumulated experience warrants such efforts (See Figure 1).

Starting with cultural insight, examining existing theories, data, and other evidence, and developing emic-embedded theories and models should help us develop global theories for psychology, management, and other fields of human endeavor. Such an approach can expand the scope of research for western and cross-cultural theories, and in the long run will help us in the search of universals (Bhawuk, 2000).

This methodology is similar to following a strategy of using inductive approach in the beginning, and then following a deductive approach, which is often used in exploring new areas of research. However, the strength of the method lies in using an inductive approach grounded in indigenous ideas even in domains where rigorous western theories already exist. Another clear strength of this method is that it avoids the pseudo-etic approach, which is often dependent on western theories, without completely discarding the western theories and empirical findings. Finally, this method allows us to use insights in theory building beyond mere speculation, and thus puts insight at the center of research endeavors and in knowledge creation. Figure 1 is a graphic representation of this method.

Toward real self through work: A process model

Following the above methodology, a model connecting self and work is derived from the Bhagavad-Gita. The model (see Figure 2) shows a strong tie between Self and one's duty (or Svadharma), which is enumerated in verses 2.31, 3.8, and 18.41-46. One has a choice to do or not to do his or her duty, or work prescribed by one's caste and phase of life (Varnashrama dharma2). In verse 2.33 the negative consequences of not doing one’s duties are stated, and thus one is encouraged to perform one’s worldly duties. The positive aspects of performing one’s duties are stated in verses 3.35a, 18.47a,3 and 18.48. If we decide to do our duties, then we face another decision point, whether we should perform our dutieswith the intention to achieve the fruits of our work, or to work without concern for the fruits of our work. If we decide to pursue the work with the intention to enjoy the fruits of our effort, we follow Path 1, which leads to increased attachment to work and its consequences, or Karmic bondage. This is stated in verse 3.9a. The nature of Path 1 is described in verses 2.41b, 2.42-44, and 2.45a. If we intend to work without being concerned with the fruits of our effort, or become detached from them, i.e., maintain equanimity in achieving or not achieving them, then we are following Path 2, which leads to liberation. Path 2 is described in verses 2.38-40, 2.45b, 2.48, 3.7b, 3.9b, 3.17, and 3.30. Though not stated as such, it makes intuitive sense, and therefore, I propose Path 1 and 2 as iterative processes. In verse 2.49, Path 1 is stated to be inferior to Path 2, and in verse 3.7 Path 2 is stated to be superior to Path 1.

When we follow Path 1, we set goals and achieve them. This leads to further development of our social self, and we get more and more entrenched in our physical and social self. On the other hand, when we follow Path 2, we detach ourselves from the fruits of our action, and slowly but definitely erode the social self and the associated “I consciousness” and agency. In the long run this process leads to the realization of the real self, or atman, which is described in verses 2.17-29. It could be argued that, Ved Vyasa, the author of the Bhagavad-Gita, which is a part of the  Mahabharata, had this counter intuitive insight, and genius lies in counter-intuitive thinking and developing ideas from such thinking, that if intention to obtain the fruit was taken out of work, one could work in the world and yet make progress on the spiritual path, because the consequences of work and the entailing passion would be preemptively dissipated.

Self and real self

Compared to the western perspective, self is defined in a rather unique perspective in the Indian worldview. Bharati (1985, p. 185) suggested that self has been studied as "an ontological entity" in Indian philosophy for time immemorial, and "far more intensively and extensively than any of the other societies" in the east (Confucian, Chinese, or Japanese) or the west (either secular thought or Judeo-Christian-Muslim traditions). However, he also criticized the Indian study of self as limited to the traditional approach, lacking a critical scientific analysis of the empirical self. He went on to say that "none of the scholastics of the Hindu tradition was concerned with the empirical self in any manner resembling that of psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists, and even poets in the west (Bharati, 1985, p. 189)." This is quite inaccurate since psychology was imported to India from the West (Gergen, Gulerce, Lock, & Mishra, 1996), and psychologists have studied the empirical social self in various contexts in India, much like their western counterparts (Sinha, 1994; Pandey, 1988, 2000, 2001).

The evolution of cross-cultural psychology has also helped change this “look to the West” thinking and researchers are seeking local conceptualizations, insights, and understanding. For example, Sinha and Tripathi (1994) questioned the western findings and theory that people have either an independent concept of self or an interdependent concept of self, and that cultures are either individualistic or collectivist (Triandis, 1989, 1995; Marcus & Kitayama, 1991). They demonstrated that Indians were both individualistic and collectivist in their cognition. Thus there is some evidence that the social self can be examined in the Indian context, and may have some uniqueness compared to the western cultures.

A review of the study of self in India reveals that indeed the core of Indian self is metaphysical, and it has been the focus of study by philosophers as well as psychologists (Dasgupta, 1922-1955; Sinha, 1933, Paranjpe, 1984, 1998). There is a general agreement about this self, the atman, being the real self, which will be discussed shortly. This metaphysical self is embodied in a biological self and through the caste system right at birth the biological self acquires a social self. In the treatment of the biological self, Indian doctors, much like their western counterparts, make the same assumptions about how the human body works. However, with the increased awareness and understanding of mind-body connections, and the success of Ayurveda, acupuncture, and other traditional healing systems even in the west, there is some discourse to go beyond the western notion of physical self as the only self. Similarly, psychologists have been following the western research tradition in understanding the Indian social self, which has produced mixed results, and some researchers have been attempting to understand the social self in the Indian context (Bhawuk, 1999; Sinha, 1965; Sinha, 1999). Paranjpe's monumental work (1984, 1998) is an example of a synthesis of biological, social, and metaphysical self. Figure 3 is a schematic representation of this conceptualization of the Indian self.

Real self is defined in the Bhagavad-Gita as the atman or soul.4 In verses 2.17 through 22, the characteristics of atman are presented. Atman is that which is not susceptible to destruction, something that does not go through modification, unfathomable or unknowable and eternal.5 In verse 19, it is stated that the atman does not kill or get killed.6 The atman is never born, nor does it ever die; and it transcends time.7 The atman is unborn, eternal, permanent, and ancient, and it does not die with the body.8 In verse 2.22, the metaphor of clothes is used, and the human body is viewed like the clothes of the atman. As we get rid of old clothes, so does the atman leave the human body.9 The atman is characterized as one that cannot be cut into pieces by weapons (i.e., it is unbreakable or that which cannot be pierced), burned by fire, soaked by water (i.e., it is insoluble), or dried by wind.10 In verse 2.24, the atman is further characterized as all pervading, stable, immobile, and eternal.11 In verse 2.25 it is stated that the atman is unmanifest, beyond perception, and unmodifiable.12 In verse 2.29, the atman is concluded to be simply amazing to see, amazing to talk about, and amazing to listen to; so amazing that most of us do not understand it.13

These verses categorically state that there are two aspects of human existence -- we have the body and the atman. The body is temporary, and the atman is eternal. The purpose of human life is to get to know the atman, which can be done by following Path 2 through our duties (or svadharma), but we have to perform our duties without hankering after the fruits of our efforts.

We find support for the model presented in Figure 3 in the literature (Bhawuk, 2004). For example, the Shivoham stotra written by Shankaracharya clearly alludes to the metaphysical, physical, and the social self. Shankaracharya starts the first verse by negating the physical self -- I am not the mind, wisdom, ego, ear, tongue, nose, or eyes. Then he negates the social self -- I am not ether, earth, fire, or air,14 and he ends the verse by declaring the real self to be the metaphysical self -- I am happiness (chidananad), I am Shiva, I am Shiva. Similarly, in verse two he negates elements of the physical self (i.e., the five types of prana vayu, the seven elements that make human body, the five sheaths of human body, voice, hand feet, and generative organs15, and declares himself to be the metaphysical self.

In the third through the fifth verses he negates many aspects of the social self. For example, in the third verse he negates such emotions associated with the social self as hatred, passion, greed, delusion, pride, and jealousy, and then goes on to even reject the pursuit of duty, wealth, desires, and liberation, which have traditionally been accepted as broad duties of human beings. In the fourth verse he denies such socially constructed concepts as merit, sin, happiness, sorrow, sacred chants, visiting of holy places, studying of the Vedas, and performance of spiritual rites (yajna). He further asserts in the fourth verse that the self has nothing to do with the action of consuming, is not something to be consumed, and is not that which consumes. In the fifth verse he disassociates the self from such social relations as father, mother, brother, friend, teacher, and student. These relationships are clearly associated with the social self. He also asserts that the real self is beyond death, doubt, and caste structure.

In the final verse he describes the real self as one without an alternative, formless, as the power everywhere, and as the power of all the physical organs. He further defines the metaphysical self as something immeasurable or non-discernable, and negates even non-attachment and the desire for ultimate freedom. All the six verses end with -- I am happiness, I am Shiva, I am Shiva. Thus we can see that the Indian concept of self does include physical, social and metaphysical self, but the metaphysical self is considered the real self, and the objective of human life is to realize the real self.

Self and one’s duties (or svadharma)

It is clear from the above that the physical self is embedded in the discussion of the real self. The physical self is used to define the real self or atman by negation, i.e., the physical self is categorically stated not to be our real self. The physical self gets integrated with the social self in the social system that prescribes duties according to one's caste (or varna) and phase of life (or varnashram dharma, see footnote 1 above). In this system, people are postulated to be different from each other from birth, and they take the social identity provided by their caste. With the caste comes the strong tie with work, and what is defined as svadharma in the Bhagavad-Gita is primarily prescribed work for the four castes. This is supported in the Manusmriti (10.97), where it is stated categorically that "it is better to discharge one's own appointed duty incompletely than to perform completely that of other; for he [or she] who lives according to the law of another caste is instantly excluded from his [or her] own" (Buhler, 1969, p. 423). In accordance with this principle, Arjuna was exhorted to fight, since that was his duty (or dharma) as a warrior (or kshatriya), especially since all efforts to settle the dispute peacefully had failed and the forces were already arrayed in the battlefield.

In verse 2.31, Arjun is asked not even to hesitate in his duties,16 and is exhorted to fight since there is nothing better than fighting in a rightful battle for a warrior.17 In verse 3.8, two interesting arguments are made. First, doing work is stated to be superior to not performing one’s duty or work,18 presenting the general principle that action is better than inaction.19 Second, it is argued that we cannot even continue the journey of life or maintain the body without performing work.20 In this argument lies the strong bond between the physical self, the social self and work. These ideas are further elaborated upon in verses 18.41 through 18.46.

In verses 18.41 through 18.44 the duties (or dharma) of the four castes are noted. The Brahmins are supposed to do their prescribed duties21 adopting tranquility, control, austerity, cleansing, tolerance, simplicity, knowledge, discriminating knowledge, and belief in God, piety, or faithfulness. The kshatriyas should adopt22 valor, glow, endurance, skill, non-cowardice, giving, and leadership in performing their work. The vaishyas are to engage themselves in agriculture, trade, and the protection of cow, whereas the shudras are to engage themselves in service related work.23

In verse 18.45a it is said that people achieve perfection by engaging themselves in their prescribed work.24 This clearly encourages people to be committed to their duties (or svadharma). In verse 18.46, work is elevated to the level of worship, much like the idea of "Calling" in Protestantism. The verse argues that God is in everything,25 and that God gives the drive to living beings.26 Further, human beings achieve perfection27 by worshipping God, and one worships God by performing his or her work.28 This verse leaves no room for doubt, and we are exhorted to perform our duties (or svadharma), for that itself is the highest form of worship of God.

From the above it is clear that the concept of one's duties or work (svadharma) is couched in the varnashram dharma, which is an Indian emic system. To better understand the concept of svadharma let me offer myself as a subject for evaluation. I am a Brahmin by caste. I was trained as a mechanical engineer, and I entered the workforce right after I graduated at the age of 22, thus becoming a householder. I got married at the age of 25 following the arranged marriage tradition, and formally became a householder. After working for eight years as a training engineer and manager in the airlines industry, I pursued an MBA degree in the USA. Following this training I became an entrepreneur, and started my own training and consulting company in Nepal. I worked for myself for three years, and then pursued a Ph. D. in organizational behavior in the USA, following which I became a professor in a business school in Hawaii. I continue to work as a professor, and teach management from cross-cultural industrial-organizational perspectives.

I violated the varnashram dharma in more than one way. As a Brahmin, I should not have pursued the studies of engineering. Since I was trained as an engineer, my duty (svadharma) was to work as an engineer, but by acquiring the MBA and later the Ph. D. I changed my profession again and again. And as I changed my profession, so did my work or duties. Though I have returned to the learning and teaching profession prescribed for a Brahmin, I am not teaching about the Vedas, and thus not following my traditionally prescribed duties. I also started working three years before the prescribed beginning of the householder phase at twenty-five. And although I got married at the prescribed age of 25, I violated the duties of a householder by returning to school for graduate studies twice, once for two years and the second time for 3 years.

I am sure there will be very few people in South Asia who would pass the test of following the prescribed varnashrama dharma, which makes the model apparently irrelevant. However, despite such a misfit, one could argue that the model might work if we redefine what our duties are. A poet from Nepal resolved the issue of the definition of our duties in an ingenious way for our time. Lakshami Prasad Devkota posed the question, "what is our duty," in one of his poems, and offered the answer, "look in the sky and ask your heart."  In other words, there is a set of duties from which we can choose some, and clearly an individual alone can decide what his or her duty is. Also, much like the stars change their position in the sky, our duties may but naturally change with changing time. Simply put, we have to decide what our duties are, and having decided upon it, we must discharge it to the best our ability29 and with equanimity.30

Having said that, we still have to deal with the modern work, and the role of managers in creating it. The morality of creating work that is dehumanizing, humiliating, and devoid of any motivating potential due to lack of skill variety, task significance, task identity, autonomy, and feedback (Hackman & Oldham, 1976) has to be questioned. The right to work, and the right to shape our work and work environment could not be taken away from the workers under the guise of duties prescribed by managers. The greed of exploitative organizations and managers do not make it easy for our time to define our duties, and the dynamic global environment does constantly "move the cheese" (Johnson, 2000), requiring us to redefine what our duties are. The model will still hold in that if we follow Path 1 after choosing our duties, we will face work-bondage, whereas if we follow Path 2, we will pursue liberation. However much difficult, boring, excruciating, the work may be, having chosen it as our work, we must do it, for not doing our work will be inappropriate. I think that is the spirit of the concept of svadharma.

Performing or not performing one’s duties (or svadharma)

In verses 3.35a and 18.47a, one’s duties (svadharma) is praised to be better than others’ duties (dharma), even if one’s duties are lowly, and one is encouraged to never give up one’s duties.31 In 3.35b one’s duties are praised to be so good that one should consider dying for them, and others' duties are described as scary.32 In 18.47b one is further encouraged to perform one’s natural duties, where nature is determined at birth by the caste one is born in,33 and it is stated that there is no sin in performing one’s duties.34 Since work leads to bondage, one’s duties are clearly put in a special category of work, which does not lead to bondage or sin. Finally, in verse 18.48, Arjuna is advised that one should not abandon one’s natural duties35 even if it has flaws since all work have some flaw much like there is smoke associated with fire.36

The Bhagavad-Gita is categorical about the consequences of not performing one’s duties. In verse 2.33, Arjuna is told that if he did not take part in the battle for duty37 or the battle supporting righteousness in the battlefield of Kurukshetra,38 he would accrue infamy and sin. In light of the above reasons, it becomes quite clear that one is to perform his or her duties at all times, and that there are serious negative consequences of not performing them. Thus having decided to perform one’s duties, we move to the next step in Figure 2, to examine the intention of performing one’s duties.

Intention: with desire (or sakama) or without desire (or niskama)

Once we decide to perform our duties (svadharma), we arrive at another decision point, where we have to decide whether we want to do our duties (svadharma) with the intention of achieving the fruits of our action (sakama), or we want to pursue it with the intention of being indifferent about achieving or not achieving the fruits of our actions (niskama). If we chase the fruits of our actions with passion, we follow Path 1 (see Figure 2), which is the worldly or the materialistic path. However, if we choose not to chase the fruits of our endeavors, then we pursue Path 2. Since this decision falls in the material domain, to begin with, it is guided by social psychological theories. Intention being the best predictor of human behavior, this is a significant phase in decision making, and it affects how our self develops further. Whether or not to pursue a material life seems to be a conscious decision on our part,39 or it could be a western perspective creeping into the model through my "colonized mind."

Path 1: Work as bondage

In verse 3.9a, it is stated that any work other than sacrificial rite (yajna) or work done for the mercy of God, leads people to bondage.40 Arjuna is categorically instructed in 3.9b to do his duties with a balanced conduct and without attachment to the fruits of his actions.41In verse 2.41b, those people who perform their duties while thinking about the fruits of their work are said to have an irresolute mind (Prabhupad, 1986), and they are said to desire many passions. In verses 2.4242 and 2.43,43those people who pursue the fruits of their actions are said to claim that nothing except the material world exists, and are called unwise. Heaven is said to be the ultimate goal for those who have desires, and they are depicted as people who do many activities for pleasure and wealth.

In verse 2.44, people engrossed with pleasure and pursuit of wealth are said to be preoccupied with these aspects of the material world, and are characterized as people who are not able to understand the atman. And finally, in verse 2.45a, Krishna tells Arjuna in no uncertain terms that all that the Vedas (even the Vedas!) deal with are the three ingredients of the original producer of the material world (gunas44) and their consequences. He, therefore, exhorts Arjuna to strive to rise above these three ingredients of nature and their other aspects. In other words, even the Vedas and its associated ceremonial acts and sacrificial rites45 lead one to bondage. Thus clearly Path 1 is depicted as one that leads to work or karmic bondage, life after life, and necessarily to birth and death cycle (see Figure 2).

As mentioned earlier Path 1 is iterative. Every task or element of our work when completed following this path adds something to our social self. We develop confidence or self-efficacy in performing certain tasks, we learn certain skills, we develop self-esteem for what we can do and have done, we develop a personality or a way to perform tasks efficiently, and we develop a social network of people to be effective in the society. All these add to our social self that can be measured using the 20-item "I Am Scale (Kuhn & McPartland, 1954)." The findings of the "I Am Scale" clearly show the multiplicity of our social self (Bhawuk, Lo, & Munusamy, 2004), which is captured in Figure 4.

The social self not only consists of physical or psychological traits sampled more often by individualists who have an independent concept of self, but also the social relationships and identity descriptors sampled more frequently by collectivists who have an interdependent concept of self. Besides these there are other "Elements of the Growing Self" (See Figure 4) that get added to our identity box as we advance in our careers and acquire wealth, house, special equipment, and professional success. There are many ecological factors that also affect the development of our social self. For example, while pursuing a materialistic life we are often motivated to do what our neighbors or colleagues do, aptly expressed in the expression "keeping up with the Jones.” We also indulge in conspicuous consumption to gratify our various needs, and add to our social self in the process. Finally, we are constantly drawn toward the ego-enhancing objects or products that are aggressively advertised by companies like Louis Vuitton ("Vuitton Machine," 2004) that manufacture luxury goods. All these lead to an endless, perhaps infinite, growth in our social self. This explosive growth of social self is much like the expansion of the universe captured in the entropy principle (i.e., entropy of the universe is constantly increasing). Figure 4 is a schematic representation of this expanding social self and its relationship with self-efficacy will be discussed later (See Figure 4).

Path 2: Liberation through work

The second path originates when a person makes a conscious decision not to passionately pursue the fruits of his or her endeavors. In verse 2.38, Krishna tells Arjuna that if he fought by maintaining equanimity in happiness or sorrow, victory or defeat, and loss or gain, then fighting the battle for its own sake, and killing his relatives in the process, would not accrue any sin to him.46 In verse 2.39, Krishna starts to explain to Arjuna how Karmayoga (or yoga through work) leads one to get rid of the bondage of karma.47 In verse 2.40, Krishna tells Arjuna that in doing one's duties there is no loss, disappointment, offence, diminution, or sin,48and if done properly even doing a little bit of one's duties protects one from great fear.49

In verse 2.45, Krishna not only encourages Arjuna to go beyond the Vedas and the three qualities of nature that they deal with,50 but also to transcend all perspectives of duality (e.g., happiness-sorrow, gain-loss, etc.). He asks Arjuna to anchor in that which is always unchanging (i.e., God), to go beyond rest and exertion or enjoying and acquiring, and to become one who has realized the atman.51 In verse 2.48, Krishna again exhorts Arjuna to do his work by being engaged in yoga, by giving up attachment and by maintaining equanimity in success and failure,52 and calls this approach of doing work as the balanced way.53

In verse 3.5, work is said to be natural to human being. We are driven by our nature, and cannot live even for a moment without doing some work.54 And in verse 3.7, two steps of how to engage in karmayoga (yoga through work) are suggested. First, we should regulate our senses by our mind,55 and then we should work with our organs without getting attached to whatever we are doing or the results of our endeavor.56 Later, in verse 3.30, Arjuna is advised to fight with a spiritual awareness, without any expectation, without any ego or sense of possession, and without any anxiety or distress of mind.57 And, a final, and perhaps the most unequivocal method, is suggested in verse 3.30a (see the previous footnote). Arjuna is asked to surrender all his actions to Krishna. Thus in these verses we are provided a method to engage in karmayoga, which is depicted in Path 2 as leading to the real self or atman. Further, in verse 3.9b, the idea of working without attachment and with equanimity58 is again buttressed.

In verse 3.17, it is stated that when a person works by becoming pleased with the inner self, is content with himself or herself, and is satisfied in the self only,59 then for such a person work does not exist. Thus this verse gives behavioral measures of how following Path 2 leads to a state when there is no outside reference for pleasure and satisfaction, and the person derives all his or her joy from inside. The social roles are merely to keep one occupied, and lose their burdensome binding effect for such a person.60

As with Path 1, I suggest that Path 2 is an iterative process. When one stops worrying about the fruits of one's efforts, performs one's duties by controlling the senses with the mind, and allow the work organs to perform their tasks without any anxiety, then slowly one begins to withdraw from the hustle-bustle of the world, and begins to be inner centered. Thus the social self starts to lose its meaning for the person, for it is an external identity, and the person begins to be anchored inside, on the inner self, following this path. The arrow going back to the self shows this inner journey (See Figure 2), and the physical self and social self starts to slowly melt, and when the intellect of the person becomes stable61 then one realizes the atman or the real self. This melting of the self is just the opposite of the explosive growth of the self (See Figures 3 and 4, and note arrows showing how social self is ever expanding) that happens when one follows Path 1.

The superiority of path 2

In verse 2.49, Path 1 is said to be much inferior to Path 2, as those who pursue the fruits of their endeavor are said to be pitiable or wretched.62 In this verse, Arjuna is exhorted to take shelter in Path 2 since work done with the intention of consuming its fruits is immensely inferior to doing it otherwise. In verse 3.7b, Path 2 is said to be much superior to Path 1, as those who work without attachment by employing the work organs into work are said to practice karmayoga (yoga through work), and are superior than those who do otherwise.63

Here it is relevant to note that karmayoga (yoga through work), which is often referred to in daily conversation among people in South Asia, and the Diaspora, refers to Path 2 and not Path 1. Among the many definitions of karmayoga, two should be noted. First, in verse 2.48, karmayoga’s outcome or standard is defined as excellence in or mastery of one’s work.64 This is relevant to the relationship between self and one's duties and the performing of one's duties, for without performing one’s duties again and again one cannot master it. Second, in verse 2.48, karmayoga’s process is defined as performing one’s work with equanimity or with a balanced mind, without attachment to successes or failure, loss or gain,65 which was discussed earlier.


The model presented in this paper is clearly grounded in the socially constructed worldview of India, and is necessarily a culture specific or emic model. It is derived from a classical text, the Bhagavad-Gita, which is a popular source of knowledge and wisdom for the global community since much has been written about it (Lipner, 1997) and translation of this text is available in 47 languages of the world. The importance of this text today can be seen in many daily activities. For example, it is used not only in the courts in India to take oath before making statements (much like the Bible is in many parts of the world), but also as a part of one's prayer where people read some verses from the text everyday. It is not unusual to hear citations from this text in daily conversations in South Asia. Thus this is not only a text to be found in the library, but also in a majority of the homes in India. This paper provides an example of how psychological models can be developed by using insights from such texts.

To claim the universality of the model will be a mistake. However, to neglect it because of its emic content will be a bigger mistake. The model raises many questions for western psychology, and has clear implications for global psychology. I will first examine the construct of self-efficacy, which is a key concept related to the concept of self, in the context of this model, and then examine the model's implications for goal setting. Further, I will also explore the independent and interdependent concepts of selves, an important contribution to cross-culture theory, in the light of this model for the Indian self.

Self-efficacy is couched in the broader social cognitive theory in which human beings are viewed as agents who are responsible for their development, adaptation or change (Bandura, 1997). An agent is one who acts with the intention to achieve some end outcome as a result of the action. According to Bandura, self-efficacy is a central and pervasive belief, i.e., an etic, and without it human beings cannot act. The idea of self-efficacy is perhaps best captured in the Nike philosophy, the "can do attitude," which is expressed in their many advertisements. Clearly, "the can do attitude" or the related self-efficacy is closely associated with the physical and social concept of self. An athlete's feats are clearly associated with the physical ability and the regimen of rigorous practice (i.e., the mental ability) they subject themselves to. Similarly, a musician's achievement is associated with his or her physical and mental abilities, and the years of practice provide them the self-efficacy that they can perform at a certain level. It even applies to researchers who do non-repetitive creative work, who know that they can conduct studies (action) and publish papers (outcome). Therefore, the "can do attitude" or efficacy is associated with the concepts of our physical and ever expanding social selves (see Figures 3 and 4), and thus is necessarily an outward process in the context of the model presented here. Whether the concept is generalizable to the inward process discussed in the model remains to be examined.

The model also raises the question if there is a spiritual component to self-efficacy, since the spiritual journey is not outward but inward. If the inner journey requires the dissolution of the social self, as the model posits, then to advance on the spiritual path one has to get rid of these elements of self-efficacy. In other words, the self-efficacy that makes us so effective in the material world may become a burden on the spiritual journey. In the Indian philosophy ego has been considered a major hurdle in one's spiritual advancement, and part of the challenge in making spiritual progress is to be able to get rid of the sense of agency, and self-efficacy is nothing but innumerable aspects of that ego and being an agent. In the context of self-efficacy theory or social cognition theory, therefore, the model is perhaps an impossibility, a theoretical conjecture. By the same token, in the context of this model, self-efficacy is only relevant for people pursuing Path 1. We could also ask how self-efficacy would be conceptualized for people who believe that they have a metaphysical self over and above the physical and social selves. Would their self-efficacy be divided into two categories, one set for the outer world (for the expanding social self), and the other for the inner world (the shrinking social self)? Also, how do such people develop this type of self-efficacy?

Applying self-efficacy theory to people following Path 2 raises some other interesting questions. According to self-efficacy theory (Bandura, 1977), though self-efficacy can be altered by bogus feedback unrelated to one's performance or by bogus normative comparison, performance accomplishment is the most reliable way of boosting self-efficacy. Therefore, those following Path 2 must have necessarily acquired their self-efficacy through the practice of "not paying attention to the fruits of their effort.” But this skill is not readily available to model in the society, since most people follow Path 1. Therefore, it is plausible that this mindset is acquired vicariously first, by simply getting the concept cognitively, and then through self-experimentation with the idea. Path 2 may therefore, offer some interesting insights to the process of self-efficacy development, especially as it pertains to spiritual self-growth, which has not been hitherto thought about.

Another issue related to self-efficacy deals with social learning theory (Bandura, 1986). The self-efficacy that we can perform a task or act in a certain way is developed through actively performing a task or modeling a social behavior, which is applicable to human behaviors while following Path 1 (see Figure 2). It makes intuitive sense that as people make progress on Path 2, they are also likely to develop a self-efficacy in performing their duties without pursuing the fruits of their effort. But this efficacy is developed by constantly watching oneself, and in that sense it cannot be considered social learning. An experienced guru or mentor could provide insightful feedback when one is confused, but still the decisions have to be made by people based totally on their personal experience. The link between self-efficacy and social learning theory, which is so well established for Path 1 does not seem to work for Path 2, and questions the generalizability of the theory to the domain of spiritual learning and growth.

Finally, according to self-efficacy theory, the higher the perceived self-efficacy, the longer the individuals persevere on difficult and unsolvable problems before they quit. Also, the stronger the perceived self-efficacy, the higher the goals people set for themselves and the firmer their commitment to them. Path 2 is intuitively more difficult than Path 1, as the spiritual path has been compared to "walking on the razor's edge (Maugham, 1944)." Therefore, those pursuing Path 2 are likely to have a much higher self-efficacy in letting go of the fruits of their effort than those following Path 1. One of the attributes of spiritually inclined people Pursuing Path 2 is the higher degree of detachment (Vairagya) from material entities around them. Therefore, it is quite likely that detachment from material entities is closely associated with spiritual self-efficacy. It is also plausible that perhaps it is this higher level of self-efficacy, a form of spiritual self-efficacy, that spiritual leaders like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Mother Teresa persist to fight chronic and serious social problems that are extremely challenging. These leaders with higher spiritual self-efficacy are clearly much more persistent than the garden variety of politicians whose job it is to solve social problems.

The model also raises questions about what we know about goal setting. It is not easy to visualize how one may proceed to perform one's work without concern for the fruits of his or her effort, since the findings in the goal setting literature are quite categorical about the motivating potential of goals (Locke, 1986). If we believe the strong findings of the research on goal setting, we may simply reject the model as impossibility. However, on introspection it seems plausible to set goals to plan one's day, week, or year, and then to reschedule the next day, week, or year based on how much gets done, without either celebrating the success or expressing frustration about the failure. If we buy into the possibility of working with the intention not to chase the fruits of our efforts, then we enter a zone where goals are not important, and they lose their motivating potential. We are in a situation where the person does not have to be an agent setting goals and taking actions to meet those goals.

I suspect that it is going to be easier for people in the Asian cultures than those in the western cultures to visualize such a scenario where people could be leading a harmonious life without setting life goals and being agents in achieving them. It is likely that the above situation may sound quite alien to the western mind. But in fact we can see a similar state of mind among tenured professors in US universities, who often do research that interests them, but are not overly concerned about where they end up publishing the paper. Unlike them, untenured assistant professors feel the pressure to publish a number of papers in some journals recommended by their departments. One does not need to become either lazy or less productive. One simply trains oneself not to allow the affect of joy or sorrow to manifest in oneself, or sublimates it. Following this approach even assistant professors can work hard and do their best to publish papers in the prescribed journals, but basically learn to take the success or failure in their stride. In the worst scenario they may not get tenure, and may have to reorient themselves to a new position at another university, or find a non-academic job. This they can view as "not the end of the world," and thus be more detached from the outcomes of their effort. Clearly, this approach will cause less stress to them.

The model also has consequences for the concept of independent and interdependent concepts of selves (Markus & Kitayama, 1991), which have come to shape major theories like individualism and collectivism (Triandis, 1995; Bhawuk, 2001b). In light of Figures 3 and 4 it is quite clear that the social self includes both interdependent and independent concepts of selves, and as predicted individualists would have an independent concept of self and collectivists would have an interdependent concept of self. As collectivists, Indians are likely to have an interdependent concept of self. However, in the Indian conceptualization of self, the self also extends to the metaphysical self (i.e., atman), beyond the social self, and so an Indian is likely to also have an independent concept of self. Interestingly though, since all atmans are a part of the divine, they are construed as being actually identical. When atman meets with the supreme being, the Brahman, it supposedly becomes a part of the supreme being. In that paradigm, when one experiences the real self, one becomes a part of the infinite supreme being. In other words, much like the social self has potential to grow infinitely, the real self has the potential to become a part of the infinite being. Thus the Indian concept of self expands to be infinite socially, and contracts to be infinite metaphysically (Bhawuk, 2004). This conceptualization cannot be addressed if we only adhere to the independent and interdependent concepts of selves.

Let us also explore the value of the model for practice. The model proposes how we can continue our engagement in the world and yet strive toward liberation. Since Indian thinkers have been introspective, the model's strength lies in its insight, but more research is needed to determine whether it is empirically testable and valid cross-culturally. Despite the lack of empirical support for the model, since this theory does find support in the cultural tradition of India and Nepal, it may be safe for people to test it in their personal life, much like we take ideas from self-help books to improve ourselves. People can use the model for their personal growth, and test its validity for themselves by reflecting on changes in their life in terms of reduced attachment to various social selves, increase in felt calmness and peace, and a clear reduction in work and social stress. As a practitioner, based on my personal experience, I am comfortable stating that the model does seem to work.

To conclude, I attempted to distill an indigenous model in this paper from the philosophical traditions of India building on the insights from the Bhagavad-Gita. Since Indian culture has a long tradition of spiritual pursuit, and work is a necessary part of our life, it is meaningful to derive a model of how to progress in our spiritual life while still keeping engaged in the world. It is hoped that in future others would develop such indigenous models of how people can lead a spiritual life, which will enrich our understanding of cross-cultural similarities and differences in the pursuit of spirituality. This paper contributes by attempting to show how for global-community psychology useful psychological models can be derived from indigenous psychology, and further bolsters the idea that models can be derived from classical texts (Bhawuk, 1999). It also contributes to advance research in indigenous psychology by starting with a non-western model, instead of starting with the existing literature, because the later often ends up in the imposed etic or pseudo-etic approach, where the etic is necessarily derived from Western models and worldview. The paper does not provide answers to the questions raised, but we cannot approach global-community psychology without building indigenous models and asking such questions. Theory and models should not be used only to predict and explain behaviors. Quality cross-cultural research demands that we welcome models and theories that question our contemporary values and beliefs, and this paper contributes toward that goal by presenting such a model.


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1This paper is dedicated to Professor Anand Paranjpe, Professor Emeritus, Simon Fraser University, Canada, for inspiring me and supporting me to do research in indigenous psychology. I am also grateful to Professor Ramanath Sharma, Professor of Sanskrit, University of Hawaii at Manoa for being a kind mentor, for teaching me the nuances of Sanskrit, and for explaining the difficult philosophical constructs whenever I needed his help. An earlier draft of this paper was presented at the conference on Self and Personality in Yoga and Indian Psychology, December 9-10, 2003, Visakhapatnam, India

2According to the varnashram dharma human life is divided into four ashrams or phases, the student phase (or brahmacarya ashram), the householder phase (or grihastha ashrama), the forest dweller phase (or vanaprastha ashrama), and the monkhood phase (or sanyasa ashrama). The four castes of brahman, kshartriya, vaishya, and shudra have their prescribed duties of learning and teaching, protecting and fighting, trade and crafts, and service of the janitorial type, but each is supposed to follow the four phases of life. Thus the caste bound work is only applicable to the first two phases of life when one is learning the trade and performing the duties. The later two phases are for  everyone to lead a spiritual life.

3The first line of the verses in 3.35 and 18.47 are identical, word for word, emphasizing the value of performing one's duties or Svadharma.

4Some scholars argue that the translation of atman as soul is inaccurate, and should be avoided (Bharati, 1984). Though most Indian psychologists that I know use the word soul as a translation of atman, to be consistent with the scholarly tradition I use the word atman instead of soul in this paper. The western reader is stuck with an emic construct that at best is "somewhat similar" to soul in their cognitive framework, or at worst is a totally alien construct without translation.

5avinashi or anashin, avyaya, aprameya, and nitya.

6Verse 2.19b: nayam hanti na hanyate

7Verse 2.20a: nayam bhootva bhavita va na bhooyah

8Verse 2.20b: ajah, nityah, shashvatah, puranah

9Verse 2.22: vasamsi jirnani yatha vihaya navani grihnati naro aparani, tatha sharirani vihaya jirnany anyani samyati navani dehi.

10Verse 2.23: nainam chindanti sastrani nainam dahati pavakah, na cainam kledayanti apo na shosayati marutah.

11Verse 2.24: acchedyo ayam adahyo ayam akledyo ashoshya eva ca, nityah sarvagatah sthanura ca achalah ayam sanatanah.

12Verse 2.25a: avyaktah ayamachintyah ayam avikaryah ayam ucyate.

13Ashcaryavat pasyati kascid enam ashcarya vat vadati tathaiva canyah, ashcarya vat ca enam anyah shrinoti shrutva api enam veda na caiva kashcit.

14In the Indian social construction of self, self is argued to be made of five elements, ether, earth, fire, air, and ego. Since this in not a physiological fact, I am positing that it is the part of the Indian social self.

15The typology of air we breathe (prana vayu) , the elements that make the human body, and the five sheaths of human self are clearly Indian emic typologiesof physical self, whereas voice, hand, feet, and generative organs would fit an etic typology. Since typologies are the beginning of theoretical thinking, the Indian emic typology of human physical self reflects the deep thinking that has gone on for centuries on this topic in this culture.

16svadharmamapi chavekshya na vikampitumarhasi.

17dharmyaddhi yuddhacchreyoanyat kshatriyasa na vidyate

18niyatam kuru karma tvam karma jyao hyakarmanah

19Don’t just stand there, do something, comes to mind as a close western wisdom heard in the daily life, and in organizations. This, a bias for action, was identified as one of the traits of excellent companies by Peters and Waterman (1987).

20shareeryatrapi ca te na prasiddhyedakarmanah

21Verse 18.42 states: shamo damastapah shaucam kshantirarjavameva ca, jnanam vijnanamastikyam brahmakarma svabhavajam.

22Verse 18.43 states: shauryam tejo dhritirdakshyam yudhe capyapalayanam, danameeshvarbhavashca kshatram karma svabhavajam.

23Verse 18.44 states: krishigorakshyavanijyam vaishyakarma svabhavajam, paricaryatmakam karma shudrasyaapi svabhavajam.

24sve sve karmanyabhiratah samsiddhim labhate narah

25yena sarvam idam tatam

26yatah pravritih bhootanam

27siddhim vindati manavah

28svakarmana tam abhyarchya

29yoga karmashu kaushalam

30samatvam yoga uchyate

313.35a and 18.47a: shreyan svadharmo vigunah pardharmat svanushthitat.

323.35b: sva dharme nidhanam shreyah pardharmao bhayavah.

33I personally think that the caste system became a category at birth somewhere in the social evolution process, and it is quite likely that the caste system was more aptitude based in the beginning. This sounds logical to me, but it does not have historical evidence supporting it. First, the Indian system of thought does not believe in evolution theory, the way we view in the west, and the way many of us in the east have also come to accept it. It makes perfect sense to me that our languages evolved over thousands of years, and it is difficult for me to subscribe to the idea that God created human languages. Therefore, to argue that the caste system evolved over thousands of years necessarily requires adopting the western worldview in analyzing the Indian system. Second, the caste system is depicted as already existing from time immemorial, as can be seen in the stories of Dhruva, Kapila, and others as narrated in the Bhagavatam and other Puranas, which again goes against the evolutionary perspective.

3418.47b: svabhavniyatam karma kurvannapnoti kilbisham

35sahajam karma

36Verse 18:48 states: sahajam karma Kaunteya sadoshamapi na tyajyet, sarvarambha hi doshena dhoomenagnirivavritah.

37dharma yuddha

38The battle of Mahabharat was fought in Kurukshetra, which lies in the state of Hariyana in modern India.

39Some argue that it is God’s grace that propels people toward the spiritual path, that vairagya or detachment, one of the foundations of leading a spiritual life, is not achieved by the self through determination, but given by the grace of God. However, the way I view the theory of Karma, and I am only a beginner in thinking about such complex theories, when we are born in a particularly family, we exhaust our past karma, and start making decision by interacting with the environment and people around us. We get exposed to spirituality at some point in our life, and it is our choice to pursue a spiritual or a material path. Having said so, I have often felt a push toward the spiritual path, which is quite likely to be my social construction, rather than a “true” divine push external to me! This is clearly not a topic of discussion of this paper, but I felt obligated to state my emerging worldview.

40yajnarthat karmano anyatra lokoayam karmabandhanam

41tadartham karma Kaunteya muktasangah samacara

42Yamimam pushpitam vacam pravadantyavipascitah, vedavadaratah Partha nanyadasteeti vadinah (2.42). Oh, Arjuna, those people who are not wise take delight in Vedic discussions (in contrast to those who practice the Vedic precepts) and speak in flowery words. Such people claim that there is nothing beyond these discussions, or that pleasure is the ultimate goal of life.

43kamatmanah svargapara janmakarmaphalapradam, kriyavisheshabahulam bhogaeshvrryagatim prati (2.43). Those who pursue desires passionately (kamatmanah) think that there is nothing beyond the heaven (svargapara), and that birth is a consequence of past karma. Such people pursue various activities and strive for pleasurable consumption and opulence.

44In Samkhya philosophy Prakriti is considered the original producer of the material world, and the gunas are its three ingredients, namely,sattva (goodness or virtue), rajas (passion or foulness) and tamas (darkness or ignorance).


46Verse 2:38 states: sukhduhkhe same kritva labhalabhau jayajayau, tato yudhyay yujyasva naivam papamavapsyasi.

47budhaya yukto yaya partha karmabandham prahasyasi.

48nehabhikramanashoasti pratyavayo na vidyate

49svaplpamapyasya dharmasya tryate mahato bhayat

50traigunyavishaya Veda nistraigunyo bhavarjuna

51nirdvando nityastvastho niryogakshema atmavan. According to Sanskrit-English Dictionary by Sir M. Monier-Williams (1960, p. 332)), Kshema and yoga means rest and exertion, enjoying and acquiring. However, kshema by itself means safety, tranquility, peace, rest, security, any secure or easy or comfortable state, weal, happiness as used in the Riga Veda, the Atharva Veda, the Manusmriti, and the Mahabharata. It is plausible to interpret becoming niryogakshemah as giving up the desire to achieve that peace of mind or happiness (kshema) that comes with the union with God (Yoga). In effect, Arjuna is being exhorted to give up even the most sublime of desires, union with God, implying that any desire leads to Path 1. This is also reflected in the Shiva Stotram written by Sankaracharya where he negates dharma, artha, kama, and moksha, to impute that the real self is beyond the pursuit of these things, which was discussed above.

52yogasthah kuru karmani, sangam tyaktva Dhananjaya, siddhayasiddhayoh samah bhutva.

53samatvam yoga uchyate

54Verse 3:5 states: Na hi kashcit kshanamapi jatu tishthatyakarmakrit, karyate hyavashah karma sarvah prakritijairgunaih.

55manasa indriyani niyamya

56asaktah karmendriyaih karmayoga

57Verse 3.30: mayi sarvani karmani sannyasya adhyatmacetasa, nirashee nirmama bhutva yudhyasva vigatjvarah.

58muktasangah samachar

59atmaratih atmatriptah atmani eva santushta

60I have found many mellowed full professors in the last few years before their retirement to be much like this even in the US universities. However, there are many more for each of them who are egotistical, vain, and full of themselves.

61Sthitaprajna or balanced mind is something that is a construct discussed in great detail in the Bhagavadgita, and deserves a paper unto its own.

62Verse 2:49 states: Durena hyavaram karma buddhiyogaddhananjaya, buddhau sharamanviccha kripanah phalhetavah.

63Verse 3.7b: karmendriyaih karmayogamasaktah sa visihishyate

64yogah karmashu kaushalam

65samatvam yoga uchyate