Svadharma and Business

To Fix Our Bureaucracy, Commissar Must Become Yogi
October 3, 2020

Svadharma and Business

सुखस्य मूलं धर्मः , धर्मस्य मूलं अर्थः

अर्थस्य मूलं राज्यं , राज्यस्य मूलं इन्द्रियजयः

sukhasya mūlaṃ dharmaḥ , dharmasya mūlam arthaḥ

arthasya mūlaṃ rājyaṃ , rājyasya mūlaṃ indriyajayaḥ

The root of all happiness is Dharma, Dharma prevails with the support of Wealth.Wealth, in turn, is facilitated by the State, State responds best to self-controlled consumption.

Paraphrased from Kautilya’s Arthaśāstra (circa 300 BC), this nugget is derived from the wisdom of the Upaniṣads, the philosophical part of the Vedas. This last part of the Vedas is known as the Vedānta.

Background of Dharma

Any time we seek to visualize how modern living can be made more equitable, balanced, harmonious and joyful, our search ends at the Vedas. It is in the epiphanies and insights contained there that we find universal and timeless principles that beam rich pictures of the wondrous and true potential of humanity.

The Vedic vision of life is captured in the Vedantic framework of Puruṣārtha, `Dharma-Artha –Kāma-Mokṣa’. When we connect this Puruṣārtha with the opening lines of the Arthaśāstra aphorism above, what jumps out is the interplay of the three material pillars. This speaks the language of modern engineering root-cause analyses. It illuminates a holistic yet integrated approach to the human condition.

Dharma, at a meta-level, is the `law of being’ (Swami Chinmayananda, Chapter 18:66 of the Śrimad Bhagavad Gītā).Dharma (from the root Dhr or that which holds), a word that has no parallel in any other language, provides the existential, directional and balancing forces of nature. It can be visualized as a flower with many petals where each petal comes alive gloriously when applied to context:

  • that which sustains
  • principles of ethics/values/conduct/righteousness
  • essential quality of a person or thing
  • raison d’être or reason for being
  • a set of duties starting with the self and then extending out in concentric circles of humanity.

The fragrance of this flower is expressed in `Dharmo rakṣati rakṣitaḥ’ or Dharma, when upheld, protects (the one who upholds it) (Mahābhārata, Vana Parva, Yakṣa Praśna).

While Artha represents the material dimension of wealth, health and the means to fulfil the elements of life, Kama represents the enjoyment and consumption dimension that Artha enables. Mokṣa, the non-material pillar of Puruṣārtha, provides the path for personal evolution and fulfilment while adding impetus for Dharma to flourish.


Applying Dharma to oneself leads to identifying one’s Svadharma. As individuals, we seek to align ourselves to our essential core (where the raw material is our Svabhāva) and here we discover our personal path of evolution. This Svadharma, in turn, drives and directs all our karmas or actions.

Just as individuals need to align with their Svadharma to maximize their potential, so do institutions. Institutions, after all, are composed of people and it’s the collective Svadharma that anchors the Svadharma of an institution.

In this symbiotic relationship between the individual and the institution, lies the vital, existential motivation to discover, nurture and align the Svadharma of a business with its elements.

The Modern Concept of Business and the Firm

The modern idea of business is to maximize returns for its stakeholders. This simple notion has evolved into maximizing returns while minimizing risks.

In modern capitalist constructs, the `means’ is constrained by ecosystem (resources, demand, supply, competition) limitations, and compliance with the law. These are external constraints and hence the firm is constantly under stress to maximize its performance based on externalities. This becomes a fight for scarce resources at the lowest cost and, often, the continuous search for regulatory loopholes that can be exploited.

When we inject the idea of Svadharma into a firm, it takes us in the opposite direction. Dharma provides the integral balancing force which then leads the firm to engage differently with external constraints, not as `boxes to be ticked’ but `doing the right thing’ that must be embraced for the sake of the greater good. While the current idea of Sustainability, as in the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development goals or SDGs, is urging firms to discover their wider responsibilities, this does not provide a clear path to becoming a conscientious and self correcting entity.This view can be represented in a layered way with Svabhāva as the passive core and Svadharma as the active covering.

Svabhāva, or core persona, of the firm is determined by its nature of business. Svabhāva, in turn, is a composite mix of Guṇas or attributes. Sattva represents pure energies, Rajas represents the passionate energies and Tamas represents the baser, negative energies. Applying this principle, if the firm is fundamentally dependent on exploitation of resources, it is predominantly Tāmasika in nature. If the firm is fundamentally able to add value through passionate hard work and intellectual inputs, it is predominantly Rājasika in nature. If the firm is fundamentally designed to impact the wellbeing of the universe and harnesses passion and intellect toward positive outcomes, it is predominantly Sāttvika in nature.

There are two key aspects to note here. One, the notion of predominance rooted in the nature of the business itself. The second aspect, more important, is how the business conducts itself and its operating model. For example, a business can be in mining that by its very nature exploits natural resources. However, by ensuring that Dharma is balancing the Artha, the business can shape and redefine its Svadharma in a meaningful way.

Svadharma of the firm

If we apply the manifold dimensions of Dharma to a firm to help it identify and fulfil its Svadharma, we arrive at a rich framework that can be captured in the following 5Ps.

  • Profits. Necessary for organizational discipline and to ensure a fair reward for shareholder risk.
  • Planet. Environment dimension that a firm must respect. This dimension of a firm has been clearly described in Kautilya’s Arthaśāstra. The śāstra even specifies the type of forest that can be used for business i.e. Dravya forest, a source of forest produce.
  • People. Employees and people who are part of the extended ecosystem of the firm must be treated with respect and provided fair return on their contribution.
  • Purpose. Innate purpose of the firm must elevate the purpose of the People associated with it. The firm must provide an environment that enables individuals’ Svadharma to be discovered and nurtured.
  • Potential. Similar to shaping Svadharma through stages of growth and Svadhyaya or transformative introspection, the firm must continually introspect and shape itself to set and fulfil its higher potential.

These 5Ps can be viewed as the Dhārmika dimensions of the ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) construct used to describe Sustainability.

Svadharma at work at a firm in today’s business environment:

  1. Helps even the most evolved Sustainability/Impact oriented business move to the next level by directing it to fulfil its true potential.
  2. Has guardrails that guide and control risk and volatility. This is the shareholders’ top  concern.
  3. A safety net helps avoid behaviours driven by Greed. This avoids dramatic bankruptcies and threats to survival that come from rogue employees.
  4. Strategic direction ensures focus on core strengths and culture. It helps avoid distraction and misadventures that threaten culture and survival of the firm.
  5. Operating framework via ethics, values, policy, process across all functions.

Micro to the Macro

The need for Dharma in the workplace is no longer a `nice to have’ but a dire necessity. I invite you to picture a world where, as each firm aligns with its Svadharma, we will collectively experience the magic of Dhārmika Capitalism.

The author, Sampath Iyengar is the founder of Applied Vedanta Institute, a platform dedicated to transmitting Vedanta insights for modern relevance. He is a former entrepreneur and Global CEO and has held leadership positions in Tech, Consulting and Financial Services. He is an active change agent, advisor and investor focused on Innovation and Impact. He started his journey with the Vedanta in 2008 under his guru Swami Shantananda-ji of Chinmaya Mission, Princeton. His gratitude extends to all the acharyas of the various sampradayas for the treasures of Sanatana Dharma.


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