Merit or Duty Part 2: Breaking out of the imaginary caste system at work

In the last post I briefly outlined how believing in “merit” shapes the way we look at the world. How the moment we start comparing ourselves with the people around us can create a deep sense of anxiety. What if we would believe in our dharma, our duty? Would this help to look at work and life with more compassion? Be more forgiving towards us, if things don’t turn out as expected? Let’s find out.

Dharma can be understood as the principle or law of the universe, as a driving force, which uplifts and supports us. Something that if followed will make us happy. Sounds promising. But how does this dharma thing work?

Imagine a typical situation at work:

One morning you sit at your desk. You are thinking hard about a problem, which kept bothering you for years. All of the sudden you have a beautiful insight. You start to work like a driven lunatic, words and pictures, diagrams just flows out of you. Some days later you decide to share your ideas. Your superiors, many of the colleagues you present the idea to, look at you with empty eyes. No comprehension whatsoever. No support. No interest in trying to understand what you are desperately trying to tell them.

Crushed you go back to your desk. Your inspiration, motivation, energy, all gone. Disintegrated into nothingness. After a weekend and some good sleep you realize that your first idea wasn’t that good. Inspiration hits you again. You get back on your feet and think: “I’m sure that THIS time they will LOVE my proposal!”

And the cycle starts again.

In this story believing in merit means, that the failure to convince colleagues and superiors about your idea, is experienced as a personal failure. It’s considered a failure, because this particular work environment accords status to people, who are successful in selling their ideas to their superiors. A situation often found in product development companies.

How can you put an end to the endless cycle of inspiration and desperation? By giving up? Not if you believe in your dharma. Dharma is this driving force, which uplifts, supports you. If having good ideas, trying to push boundaries, creating beautiful things, is what keeps you going in the first place, giving this one thing up won’t help you. This magic ability you have makes you unique, is your present to the world, to yourself, to the people around you. This might be your dharma.

In his interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita, E. Eswaran uses the following story to explain the concept of dharma: A sage, living on the shores of river Ganges, notices a scorpion has fallen into the water. He reaches down, rescues it, only to be stung. A bystander, observing this, exclaims: “Holy sage. Why are you doing this? Don’t you see, that this wretched creature will only sting you in return? “ “Of course,” the sage replied. “It is the scorpion’s dharma to sting. But it is the dharma of a human being to save.”

So what will bring more happiness? Believing in dharma or believing in merit?

Being stung by a scorpion at work does not sound like a healthy road to happiness. There are only so many stings we can survive. Perfecting our skills to become the “best” in order to get all the merit we deserve, will probably end in a burnout.

I believe the answer lies somewhere in between. Thanks to meritocracy we gained more freedom how we want to live our lives. But this freedom comes with a price. We have to find our dharma on our own. In Hinduism dharma also means duty and is closely linked to the caste system. When Krishna tells Arjuna that he is a warrior and should behave like one, he is also telling him that he should accept the caste he was born into. A concept I have difficulties to accept, having grown up in a society with tons of freedom.

Maybe it’s like this:

Through meritocracy we managed to get rid of the caste system of aristocracy. Then, again through meritocracy, we created an imaginary caste system based on status. A system, which to a large extend influences how we act and feel at work.

Only if we manage to connect to our true, individual dharma, will we be able to change our work environment, our selves.

But while trying to find our dharma, we have to stay alert, take small steps. Because following the wrong dharma will probably create an even worse caste system.



  1. Pingback: Dharma «

  2. Amarnath S

    The caste system, in India, though criticized to a large extent, is designed like this: I feel.

    Take any system – be it a small company, a large company, a village, a city, or a country, or the entire society. You’ll find four categories of people, based entirely on the duties they perform:
    1. The thinkers, the visionaries, who look at strategy; try to strategize and find new directions for the system’s survival and progress.
    2. The defenders, who protect the system from external attacks or influences.
    3. The financial force, who engage in collecting revenue, and disbursing payments.
    4. The workers, who work as directed by the earlier three categories of people.

    This is basically the caste system in India; call them by any names, but these are the types of people. Now, Arjuna belongs to the defender category (warriors) and protecting the people when Dharma is in danger is his duty. This is why he has to wage the war against Adharma, and that’s what Krishna is trying to make him do via the Bhagavad Geetha.

    • Hi Amarnath,
      I agree that in any society you will find the categories of people you describe. For the system to thrieve, these groups need to work together, supporting and protecting each other. Arjuna needs to fulfill his duty so that society as a whole can survive. I hope I understood that point of th Gita correctly.
      But what can I do if I’m not sure what group I belong to? What if no one tells me: “You’re a worrier – don’t forget that!” What if there is an imbalance between the groups? One group thinking that they are superior to the others, forgetting that all groups need to support each other for society to thrive?
      I believe that we can find answers to those question in our heart and by interacting with people around the globe. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom.


      • RC

        Namste Phillip
        In my understanding the various Varnas(caste) in society in the earlier days were based on the Gunas of the person.( Sattva, Rajas,Tamas) according to your gunas you were assosiated with a particular type of job. Unfortunately nowadays this concept has been misunderstood and people treat each other differently . The Old Indian wisdom in unfortunately misinterpreted.

  3. Dinesh Rawal

    Hi philipp,
    Accidently, while continuing my search for “truth” in life, I came across this site today. The reason being that the name to this (“balancedAction”), kind of attracted me. And see, I have reached here, reading all the posts till now from Bhagavad Gita.

    A very nice interpretation, you have added, of how you understand it. I especially, really like the drawings & examples used to support it.

    While I continue to read the posts further on your study of Gita, please tell me, something about yourself. I am eager to hear more about you, as it seems to me, you are a truly philosophical person!!! Awaiting your reply… 🙂

    • Hi Dinesh, thank you so much for your kind feedback. My name is Philipp, I live in Switzerland. Through Yoga I came in contact with Eastern philosophy and travelled a little bit through India. In these articles I try to reflect how to use what I learn, to lead a happier, more balanced life.

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