How do I know that I’m doing “my” sva-dharma (personal duty), and not someone else's. How do I know it’s “mine”?
There is relative and absolute svadharma.
Absolute svadharma is the quest for discovering one's absolute inner freedom – or freedom from dependence on objects for one’s sense of wellbeing. Absolute is called moksha.
Moksha is the essential end underlying all human pursuits, which can be broadly categorized as the pursuits of security (artha), pleasure (kāma), and virtue (dharma).
Upon analysis, moksha is a choiceless choice for every human being in the past, present and future.
Because we are “wired” in such a way that we cannot NOT seek freedom from discomfort, irritation, pain, or any other sense of limitation.
The statement is evidenced by the fact that our every action (be it as small and immediate as scratching an itch or big and long-term as earning a master’s degree), is executed with the intention of alleviating some degree of discomfort and limitation — thereby establishing a greater sense of comfort and freedom.
One who knows this, has purushartha nishchaya (puruṣārtha niścaya) — clarity with regard to his or her purpose in life.
This clarity is the key factor that enables one to consciously embrace and act in accordance with his or her svadharma.
In general terms, svadharma refers to one’s personal duty, which is an every-changing synergy made up of ever-changing parts. Such as…
Responsibility or obligation toward one’s nature, class and social position.
Habits or latent tendencies/proclivities (vasanas).
Proficiencies or talents/skills.
Likes and dislikes in reference to self, others, world, own country, family members, colleague, neighbors.
Even place and time will modify one's relative svadharma.
Given the litany of influences — svadharma is more complex than simply “doing one’s own duty.”
Within the context of ancient Vedic culture and the Varna (caste system), along with ashrama (duties pertaining to stages of life) — served as the basis for social organization and personal duty. Meaning it was easy to identify one’s role and associated responsibilities.
Because we don’t live within the context of such a prescriptive system, nor is any standard followed — many in the modern world are uncertain about what their svadharma is.
Those who enjoy freedom of choice concerning which career path to follow, are especially prone to this quandary.
Why it's important to act out your svadharma…
It is important to act in accord with your personal nature in order to give expression to the vasanas obtaining in and lending character to your subtle body — both in order to remain contented and to allow for the expression of those vasanas as a means of fostering your spiritual growth.
If you don’t express the vasanas associated with your subtle body, you will prohibit the experience and eventual recognition of the limitations of object-oriented pursuits — and thereby prevent yourself from neutralizing the binding nature of the desires that compel such pursuits.
Vasana exhaustion should be guided by morality; considering the well-being of the whole.
If morality is stripped out, then each action re-enforces the vasana — eroding one's innate capacity to say “no” even more. Thereby becoming a prisoner of vasanas.
This is why it's important to get out of the house. To be involved. Engaged in the real world. Attending live events; not video recordings. Making mistakes, opening yourself up to embarrassments, vulnerabilities, “silly questions”.
Svadharma is a product of samanya-dharma and vishesha-dharma…
Your svadharma is what is to be done within the context of any given circumstance or in the face of any given challenge.
Meaning your duty is to deal with whatever life presents you in a manner that is in keeping with the universal ethical law (samanya-dharma).
Because universal ethical laws are actually impossible to adhere to 100% of the time, you will most certainly have to interpret them according to the theme of any situation.
For instance the universal ethical norm of non-injury precludes one from physically harming another living being.
But if a robber were to break into a home and threaten the owner's life and their family — if an opportunity arises, would it not be permissible for the owner to wound or even kill the robber?
It's also a universal ethical norm to refrain from inflicting harm by means of hurtful words.
But would it not be permissible to hurt someone’s feelings if a strong verbal rebuke was the only means to call their attention to some inappropriate or self-destructive behavior?
This subjective interpretation of universal ethical norms is called vishesha-dharma.
Meaning interpretation of universal ethical norms will be colored by (a) your unique personality and values, (b) any fresh situation that elicits a different response.
But generally speaking, there is an innate sense of right and wrong with which we are all endowed, that lets us know what we should and should not do in any given situation.
So again, your svadharma involves following this innate moral-compass in a manner that accords with your personal demeanor — and to the extent that it is appropriate (IE: serves our own best interests as well as those of the total).
How to know it's MY svadharma, and not someone else's?
Actually, you cannot do someone else’s svadharma. Your life is your life.
You've actually never followed anyone's svadharma, but yours.
Because any situation is always unique to the one whose experiencing it — which can only be you.
Even to ask “what is my svadharma?” — that very question IS your svadharma, because the experience belongs to you and not someone else.
Moreover, your vasana load is unique as well, and so you will respond to situations in line with your personality and set of values.
The bottom line is that your heart will tell you what to do. Most often, we are drawn to activities and professions related to our particular skill set.
While we may dream of being a professional athlete or a famous movie star, we usually find that we are happy with the circumstances of our life as they are.
Svadharma in work environment…
If you have an artistic temperament, you will probably not be fulfilled working in the pragmatic-minded corporate world, and vice versa.
So it's advisable that we seek employment in an arena that befits our proclivities.
But as self-inquiry reveals, joy is not in the object. Or in the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn, “wherever you go, there you are”.
Whatever you are doing, you are still going to have to deal with yourself. And for this reason, no set of circumstances is ever going to be free of challenges.
Moreover, because of its dualistic nature, life is a perpetual play of opposites, and so there are bound to be things you don’t like within the context of any situation.
In any case, any role we assume, or even a role that's thrust upon us — it'll come with responsibilities.
Svadharma is essentially about taking care of whatever responsibilities you happen to bear in a manner that your conscience tells you most accords with universal ethical norms.
Making this determination and enacting it through your words and deeds requires courage and honesty.
You have to be willing to set aside your personal agenda in service of what you know is both morally right and appropriate to the role you are playing.
In this way, svadharma is quite similar to karma-yoga and thus is the means by which you can neutralize the binding vasanas that agitate the mind and prevent it from recognizing and abiding in one's true nature.
In short, svadharma is not so much WHAT you do, but HOW (attitude with which it's done).