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Posted by wmmbb in Australian Politics, Environment, Life Experience, Philosophy.

Reviewing medical problems, and the response of doctors, puts me in mind of our purpose, potentials and education. More specifically it puts me in mind of the notions of vocation and swadhrama, from the Bhagavad Gita. I will try and explain.

Our political culture, at least, has become largely subsumed by the conceptions and methods of market economics.I have no problems with costing provided we do our sums both accurately and conceptually correctly. The nature of medicine is that of a service. I am inclined to suggest that medicine is a vocation, the lack of which, aside from questions of education, is a major source of alienation in contemporary culture, and is a problem, so it seems to be wrapped up in the application of economics to public policy.

The etymology of vocation derives from a calling, originally to the priesthood, so it is the a form of the outward expression of the inner spirit or inner light. The notion of vocation was then extended to other occupations, and its meaning was separated from its religious origins, until it has in modern culture, it might be suggested it has become a source of profound alienation. Not always, of course, but in many instances.

People now are subject to an institutional and mass manufacturing process called education and training. Very much like Henry Ford, and I am not disparaging him, far from it, you are careful to select the best materials and the best workmen, or where that is not possible reduce jobs down to their rudiments. The process is amplified by for example computer technology and by organizational structures and social structures, so that general education becomes secondary to elite education. Any social wreckages that ensues is of no consequence because people can be dragooned into their imprisonment by economic needs and the expansion of fanciful economic wants, such as infotainment. Outcomes can be further mitigated by a vicious and violent ideological application of individual responsibility, which curiously applies to some and not others. As soon as that is said, it is immediately obvious how social structures build on structural violences, such as racism, work.

Switching gears lets see things from the frame of the Bhagavad Gita. Hindunet has an allegory, which relates to medicine:

Let us say that Mr. Wood is a doctor. His duty (swadharma) is to treat patients. Mr. Wood may be making money in the process. But, his primary intention and whole energy is directed in taking care of sick people. Now, his modifiers (mind, intellect and ego) want him to become a businessman. Mr. Rock now starts looking at how he can make money from his skills. He has a needle and he can re-use this needle on twenty patients. He saves twenty dollars. Who is going to notice it and who cares about ethics? Now, Mr. Rock is neither a good doctor nor is he a good businessman. A smart businessman will never put his reputation at stake. He might cut production cost of the needle and he may charge two dollars for each needle, but he will not compromise on quality of product. A doctor at heart will never compromise the quality of care for his patient. Mr. Rock has already exposed his twenty patients to the risk of serious illnesses by sharing of the needle.

In this instance vocation has been effectively transformed into duty, which I take it has the implication that every person has an obligation to express his or her talents, putting me in mind of the strained glass windows of the biblical story endlessly repeated by my old Headmaster. Maybe, just to drive you nuts, but saving you linking there, I will quote the whole set of references to the BG:

Swadharma (3:33 – 3:35)

sadrsam cestate svasyah
prakrter jnanavan api
prakrtim yanti bhutani
nigrahah kim karisyati
Everyone gets to his own innate nature
That is his inherent potential
That is his swadharma
The wise one also tries to
Do karma according to his swadharma
How can anyone’s opinion
Or renouncing (nigrahah) anything
Make a difference in this situation? ||3:33||

raga-dvesau vyavasthitau
tayor na vasam agacchet
tau hy asya paripanthinau

The indriyas have potential energy
There is always a momentum
One should know of the ragas and dweshas
That resides in every indriyas
Ready to hijack the person as a whole
And take him away from the
Path that leads to the center
(raga = attachments, dwesha = aversion, jealosy). ||3:34||

sreyan sva-dharmo vigunah
para-dharmat svanusthitat
sva-dharme nidhanam sreyah
para-dharmo bhayavahah

Know and follow your swadharma
That is your aptitude
It is always better to die
Following your own dharma

Following someone else’s path
And someone else’s dharma
Is against the very personal nature of our being
This is against the very aptitude (swadharma)
And can potentially lead to fear inside.
(Fear of the unknown and
The fear of being against one’s nature) ||3:35||

I take it the reference system is pretty straightforward eg 3:35 – Chapter 3, verse 35. Check on my first reference to BG and the verses can be heard sung in Sanskrit.


I have no basis for talking about any of this stuff, from vocation to education, but you might consider if you have the time listening to the relevant lectures on the Metta Website by Professor Nagler (refer blogroll – Mettacenter for Nonviolent Education).

POSTSCRIPT: 13 January 2008

It is useful sometimes to have definitions, which like dates in history help to provide an orientation. Vocation is a relatively straightforward word for English speakers, even like most words it has an interesting etymology, and more interesting I suspect than its root meanings, since I suspect, but cannot prove, that it can its conceptual force in Medieval Culture in Europe.

Swadharma may be as strange to use as it is to me. So I will quote a definition from The Metta Center:

Svadharma: ‘One’s own dharma.’ The articulation of your capacities with the needs of the world in which you find yourself.. Gandhi realized his svadharma when he was thrown out of the train at Pietermaritzburg station for being an Indian riding in the first-class carriage even though he held a valid ticket. He realized that it was his path to find the underlying causes of racial discrimination so that he could put a stop to it in South Africa – a path that developed into the struggle for a Free India.

I am quite confident that my swadharma and yours will be somewhat more modest in scope, but it is interesting that the discovery was made in reaction, in unpacking the responses to a set of ordinary behaviors.

Postscript: 03 February 2008.

What is clear that both Gandhi and Martin Luther King had very clear ideas about the purpose of their lives. For example, King said in his Riverside Church speech of 1967 his calling was to be a preacher. I am not sure the difference, or rather the connotation, of preacher as distinct from minister or priest. He spoke from his pulpit in the Afro-American church and spoke to a wider audience. I suppose I should not ignore The Letter from Birmingham Jail. The legacy of Gandhi is now transmitted by what he wrote, for example, his thoughts on “Constructive Programme”.

King and Gandhi are exceptional people, but the lesson is that purpose was clear to them, and that made their achievements possible. The corollary is that people like me who blunder along without conscious purpose have, in effect, chosen not to be contributors, and whether we like it or not that was a moral choice. The image of Arjuna hiding at the bottom of his chariot seems very pertinent.



1. Coll - January 7, 2008

I entered the field of medical nursing in the year 1972.. which means I have been doing this work for nearly 36 years.. hard to believe. Anyway.. I do believe that my decision to enter this career was based on a personal sense of vocation.

All this to say that the passage of many years has had me witness to many changes with in the Canadian health care system. The most striking changes have taken place related to those controlling the purse strings. Believe me when I say.. to them.. medicine is all about the money.

The front line workers, many whom I do believe, even in this day, (and that includes both doctors and nurses) have “a calling” to the profession, are left feeling the stress and pressures and doing their best to provide the best care possible, the best way they can, in a era where the focus of medicine is metamorphosing from caring to big business.

2. wmmbb - January 7, 2008

Very interesting response Colleen.

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