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I'm reading the Bhagavad Gita.

As far as I understand, in chapter 3, the importance of right action / good work is highlighted.

Krishna says something along the lines of, whatever great people do, others will follow them, so, one ought to work in order to set a good example to others:

3.22 For me, Arjuna, there is nothing in all the three worlds which ought to be done, nor is there anything unacquired that ought to be acquired. Yet I go on working.

(this translation and the next by Swami Adidevananda)

Krishna explains to Arjuna what action he should be taking earlier in the text; that's clear.

What I'm wondering about is how a person studying the text should tell what the right work for them is.

This verse especially troubles me, because it suggests that the right work is not necessarily the thing one happens to be good at:

3.35 Better is one's own duty, though ill-done, than the duty of another well-performed. Better is death in one's own duty; the duty of another is fraught with fear.

Moreover, action should be taken without attachment to the fruits of action (discussed in chapter 2 also, but for the sake of keeping things contained):

3.19 Therefore do thy duty perfectly, without care for the results, for he who does his duty disinterestedly attains the Supreme.

(translation by Sri Purohit Swami)

So considering which work is likely to have the best direct results seems unhelpful too.

So, how do I know what work is right for me?

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    It depends on one's station in life. For e.g., the right work for a student is to study. Now if you are thinking about choosing a profession - as long as it is dharmic (not criminal, not sinful, does not harm others etc.) most choices should be ok. Provided one executes it ethically and diligently. – user1195 Oct 9 '17 at 16:02
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    @moonstar2001 thank you for commenting! I'm new here, but to me your comment looks quite answery. Maybe you would like to post it as an answer... Of course, it's completely up to you – Zanna Oct 9 '17 at 16:07
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    I can look for exact sources and supplement my comment if i find it but here is what I have read related to your question... one's work shall be derived based on one's 'Guna' (think of it as one's primary personality type). If a person is ferocious, he/she should be a warrior (Khastriya) and if a person is passionate about knowledge, he/she should be a scholar (Brahmin) and so on and so forth. When one finds his/her work based on their passion and dose it perfectly, the work (karma) itself will bring the satisfaction and not the material outcome of the work. Hope this helps. – WeShall Oct 9 '17 at 18:05
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    @SwamiVishwananda "I" is just the reader. It's not meant to be personal. I haven't given any personal details so I think it would be impossible for anyone to give me personal advice! – Zanna Oct 10 '17 at 5:43
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    @Zanna, most times if I don't have verses or references from the scriptures I avoid posting it as an answer. A little hesitant to sell my opinions or understanding as wisdom of the Vedas :) – WeShall Oct 10 '17 at 16:53
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The confusion comes from the translation and the interpretation you are giving to the English words 'duty' and 'work'. Lets take the 2 verses in order. First 3.19. The Sanskrit word used in the text is karma. the part of the relevant text says 'samacara satatam karyam karma' - which means 'perform always the obligatory daily duty'. It refers to the duties of your station in life - your station in life being where you find yourself now - not where you 'think' you should be. For instance, if upon reading the Gita and you are a soldier on a battlefield, then you don't throw down your arms - you do your duty as a soldier but do it in an unattached manner and as an offering to the Lord. See where you are now.

3.35 In Swami Gambhirananda's translation of The Bhagavad Gita with the commentary of Sankaracharya, he notes in verse 3.35 that 'duty' refers to "Customary or scripturally ordained observances of different castes and sects." The Sanskrit word in this verse is svadharmah. You can see that although the English word duty is used in both verses, the Sanskrit words are different and refer to two different aspects of duty.

  • Thank you for the helpful disambiguation! I guess the text is much more complex than I'm able to understand on first reading. – Zanna Oct 10 '17 at 13:47
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So, how do I know what work is right for me?

My answer is only for this question. I have not taken into account the Bhagavad Gita verses your question contains.

In Hinduism, one's occupation (the kind of work one is adept at) are prescribed depending on one's Varna.

For the Brahmins (the priestly class) it is conducting sacrifices, teaching etc. For Kshatriyas (the ruler class) it is protecting people, ruling etc. For the Vaishyas (the traders) it is mainly trading. And, for the last caste, i.e the Sudras (the working class), its mainly service.

10.75. Teaching, studying, sacrificing for himself, sacrificing for others, making gifts and receiving them are the six acts (prescribed) for a Brahmana.

10.79. To carry arms for striking and for throwing (is prescribed) for Kshatriyas as a means of subsistence; to trade, (to rear) cattle, and agriculture for Vaisyas; but their duties are liberality, the study of the Veda, and the performance of sacrifices.

10.80. Among the several occupations the most commendable are, teaching the Veda for a Brahmana, protecting (the people) for a Kshatriya, and trade for a Vaisya.

1.88. To Brahmanas he assigned teaching and studying (the Veda), sacrificing for their own benefit and for others, giving and accepting (of alms).

1.89. The Kshatriya he commanded to protect the people, to bestow gifts, to offer sacrifices, to study (the Veda), and to abstain from attaching himself to sensual pleasures;

1.90. The Vaisya to tend cattle, to bestow gifts, to offer sacrifices, to study (the Veda), to trade, to lend money, and to cultivate land.

1.91. One occupation only the lord prescribed to the Sudra, to serve meekly even these (other) three castes.

Manu Smriti verses.

These are the prescribed occupations in times when they are free from distress. In times of distress or emergencies, however, they are allowed to behave like the ones belonging to lower castes. That is, a Brahmin can then take jobs meant for a Kshatriya or those meant for a Vaishya.

  • The question that arises in my mind, although it may not be a helpful thought, is, what about readers who aren't able to put themselves in any of those categories, or perhaps don't know which one applies to them? – Zanna Oct 10 '17 at 13:44
  • @Zanna Yes then i don't know how to answer from the perspective of Hinduism. Also , in today's time most of us are basically mixed caste. We can never know when and how our castes has been lost. Because losing one's caste is quite easy in Hinduism and sometimes caste once lost is lost for ever too. So, things are complex, better not to think about castes now. – Rickross Oct 10 '17 at 14:42
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    "better not to think about castes now". Then what's the meaning left of your given answer? – Rishabh Oct 10 '17 at 15:55
  • My answer simply says what Hindu scriptures prescribe, that's all.. Even though we say that we are Brahmins, we are Kshatriyas but we can not be sure if many thousands years back our ancestors did not do any thing that made them outcast.. and once they lose their castes that is lost for ever So all their descendants will be namesake Brahmins, namesake Kshatriyas etc but in the true sense they are not. So, that's why i said its futile to talk about varnasrama now. Its back-bone is broken long back. @Rishabh – Rickross Oct 10 '17 at 16:11
  • If one don't know what actually(cast) he/she is... Even then he/she has choice to be whatever they want to be. For ex. Vishwamitra was a kshatriya(son of King), But he decided to be Brahman/Rishi instead of kshatriya. His dedication towards becoming a brahman is too much strong and only because of his dedication we all knows Vishvamitra as Brahma Rishi, not as Kshatriya. By this ex. we can conclude that even if we don't know Or we know what actually we are (Brahman or anything else), still we can be whatever we want to be(brahmana, kshatriya ect.) by showing our dedication like Vishwamitra :) – Rishabh Oct 10 '17 at 16:50
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"So, how do I know what work is right for me?"

You have already quoted the verses for Swa-Dharma (self duty), hence not quoting them again. Whatever is defined in "scriptures" is the right work. Ignoring them, is not right.

BG 16.23 - Ignoring the precept of the scriptures, the one who acts under the impulsion of passion -- neither attains perfection, nor happiness, nor the supreme Goal.

A meaning of "scriptures" is "Veda" & "Smritis". That's limited to Indian or Hindu culture. In general "Scripture" means "law of land [& society]".
e.g.

  • If a Muslim country has imposed "Sharia", then irrespective of one's agreement or disagreement, one is ought to follow it, when applicable
  • Similarly, for democratic countries, their "constitutions" are their scriptures -- be it social or political.
  • In ancient India, various "Manu smriti"-s were the followable scriptures.

Suppose, if you meant "right work" as "which profession", then that depends on your nature. Typically it would match your overall family lineage. Even before this Qn, you will already be having skills & interest towards such profession. As quoted above, if one acts towards a job/work without giving way to "passion", then it's right.

i.e. if fascinated by movies, I want to become an actor or being fascinated by football, I want to become a player then that mostly may Not be right choice. Even if I develop skill with hard work, it will fall under "para-dharma" and Not "swa-dharma".

Rule of thumb is, choose a profession where success or failure, i.e. results -- don't matter.

BG 18.9 - O Arjuna - When the usual work is performed, just because it's to be performed; Association with its result is renounced, then such is illuminated (sattva) renunciation

And also you neither love or hate such task. You do it naturally:

BG 18.23 - The action which is usual, without attachment, without liking/disliking, without aiming on results -- are said to be illuminated (sAtvika)

  • Thanks! This answer is very interesting. What I worry about then is the quality of the authority appealed to. Certain scriptures are said to be revealed, but even in these cases, we are human and must interpret. Sharia (if I remember correctly), is derived largely from a body of medieval legal documentation and has to be reinterpreted for each case... The constitution or law of the land may be unjust, because it's been written by ill-motivated people, or it may fail to account for currently prevailing circumstances, etc. But these reflections are beyond the scope of my question, perhaps. – Zanna Oct 10 '17 at 14:09
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    @Zanna, so Sharia etc were just examplea to show on how the scripture has to be followed even if we find it unjust. Many social systems also offer tools to oppose so called unjust rules. If they don't offer any such then one also can oppose it in own way. Best example is Krishna himself! He wasn't happy with the taxation of milk products set by his own uncle. He started igniting people in opposing it in their own ways. Which eventually drew attention of the evil king. In general, when a scripture is fairly written, one doesn't have genuine scope to differ. So better to follow it in most cases. – iammilind Oct 10 '17 at 14:56
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    Thanks for responding & especially for sharing the story about Krishna :) – Zanna Oct 10 '17 at 15:00
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    Adding to @iammilind's answer - This is one of the most fundamental difference between most Abrahamic religions and Dharmic religions. The former tend to have a set of of do's and dont's (doctrines) whereas the later is fairly open to one's own faith and understading. Here's an actual text from Bhagavata Gita, 'यथेच्छसि तथा कुरु' the verse means (having given you all the knowledge, hey Arjuna) 'now do what you think is right'. – WeShall Oct 10 '17 at 17:03
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This is a great question, for any saadhaka (Hindu practitioner). It has received some depth-touching answers.
But I have a different one, so I am contributing this late.

Some concepts are inter-dependent systems (अन्योन्याश्रित व्यवस्था). For example, Newton's laws are valid in inertial frame of reference. And Inertial frame of reference is defined as the frame of reference where Newton's laws apply.
Let us agree to call such inter-dependent cases as dual systems. In a dual system, one can not define a single entity independently of others.

The doer-action (कर्त्ता-कर्म) is also a dual system. One can not define action, without identifying doer.
In life, a human being assumes multiple hats (roles) simultaneously. For example, you may be a database admin, a mother, a wife, a sister, daughter, citizen, student, teacher etc.
All these roles have different responsibilities (obligations). Observing those obligations/duties is your rightful work.

Thus, when you ask what is rightful work for you, also ask further what role are you assuming for yourself ?
The moment you fix the role, the corresponding rightful work will become clear.

Additionally, BG asks you to perform your rightful work, without attachments.

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