Photograph of Anil Chawla

Vocational Education -
A Philosopher's Perspective

Presentation to National Seminar on
Value Inculcation through Vocational Education
(7th - 8th November, 2000)

Author - Anil Chawla

An analysis of the concept of vocation based on Protestant Christian theology, with reference to 'Varna' of Hinduism.


Engineer by qualification
Philosopher by vocation
Entrepreneur by profession
Manager by occupation

The above introduction of the author surprises most people, since in India vocation, profession and occupation are treated as synonyms. More often than not, in common parlance as well as for many educationists, vocational education is another word for skill learning and work experience. In India vocational education is ranked at a level lower than professional education. It is often assumed that vocational education is something that ought to be given as part of school education. The Background paper circulated for the Seminar says "Eminent educationists are being invited as resource persons to discuss the Why?, What?, How? and Where? Of value education along with the vocational education at various stages of school education such as Work Experience, Pre-Vocational Education at secondary stage and Vocational Education at higher secondary stage" (Emphasis added by author) The assumption is obvious that vocational education is something that is at best to be imparted at higher secondary stage and cannot extend to anything beyond. This is in sharp contrast to the way the world understands the concept of vocation.

This paper takes a philosophical-historical-theological view of the concept of vocation. The paper is primarily based on Protestant Christian worldview since the concept of vocation has found its present status due to the Protestant thinkers and theologists. The paper also attempts to link vocation with "Varna" of Hindu philosophy. The author seeks to elaborate on the concept of vocation as a life value and thereby treat all vocational education as value inculcation.


The word vocation comes for the Latin vocare, to call. Its usage originates in the biblical calling of God to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and to the New Testament calling of disciples by Christ. The subject of vocation has a strong place in theology.

A key theme of the Christian thought is the dialectic between love for God and love for others as the foundation for Christian ethics. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus reduces the Ten Commandments to two: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." (Matt 22:37-40)

In the ethics of Socrates and Plato, the improvement of the soul by contemplation of virtue was the ultimate goal toward which all men should strive. These ideas, and their implications for vocation, were incorporated into Christian thought by Augustine, who devotes much space in The City of God to a discussion of Greek philosophy. In the Augustinian synthesis of Christ and Plato, the classical triad of virtues - truth, beauty, and goodness - become part of the Christian ethic. It may be interesting to note that this triad of virtues is exactly the same as the Hindu triad of Satyam, Shivam and Sundaram.

In his book Fact, Value, and God, Arthur F. Holmes writes that, for Augustine, "God is truth, as well as beauty and good. The love of truth, beauty, and goodness, then, all draw the soul toward God. " The classical triad of virtues becomes an expression of God and of love. "Love for God is the inclusive, unifying, virtue that brings life into proper balance and harmony. The other virtues are functions of love." [2]

Here we see the emphasis on the first commandment, love for God. In Augustinian thought, love for God subsumes all other virtues. . In his Basic Christian Ethics, Paul Ramsey emphasizes Augustine's views with a quotation from On the Trinity: "Neither let that further question disturb us, how much of love we ought to spend upon our brother, and how much upon God: incomparably more upon God than upon ourselves, but upon our brother as much as upon ourselves; and we love ourselves so much the more, the more we love God." [3]

Augustine's view of love provides a strong vocational ethic for clergy, teachers, and, perhaps, scientists. In The City of God, he writes,

"But as this divine Master inculcates two precepts - the love of God and the love of our neighbor - and as in these precepts a man finds three things he has to love - God, himself, and his neighbor - and that he who loves God loves himself thereby, it follows that he must endeavor to get his neighbor to love God, since he is ordered to love his neighbor as himself."[4]

Plato's student and successor Aristotle expanded the contemplation of virtue into a systematic contemplation of God, Nature, and humanity. His writings formed the basis of Western science until the Enlightenment some two thousand years later. They had a profound impact on theology and ethics. Incorporated into Christianity by Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle's hierarchy of being formed the medieval hierarchy of stations in relation to God. Contemplation of God became the highest occupation.

The Reformation shifted the emphasis from God-love to Other-love. In place of the classical triad of truth, beauty, and goodness, Protestants placed self-sacrificing love, agape, at the crux of moral virtues. Ramsey writes, "Whose good? Is the main, perhaps the only, concern of Christian ethics."[5] With a shift in the focus of one's love comes a shift in vocational ethics.

Ramsey faces squarely the relative standing of the two commandments of love (for God, for others) in a section entitled, "Is love for God part of the meaning of Christian love?" He writes,

"Standing as they are, these two formulations of the love commandment threaten to divide Christian loyalty if ever there is a difference, let alone contrast, between love for God and love for neighbor. If Christian love itself is divided into two sorts of love or love for two different objects, disunity in obligation results, and frequently Christians have spoken of religious duties due to God different from ethical values owed to man. Christian ethics thus imitates Don Quixote dashing off at once in at least two directions."[6]

Protestant theology resolves this question in favor of love for others.

According to Luther, the church was no longer needed to mediate between the sinner and God for salvation, with profound consequences for vocation as well as theology. In the Catholic Church of Luther's time, "calling" or vocation referred to the ascetic life of monks, nuns, and priests, who withdrew from the world in order to gain justification for themselves and those who remained working in the world without a holy calling. Luther squarely rejected this distinction. He resigned his own monastic orders and he taught that all vocations rank the same with God.

A study guide for a freshman honors seminar at Augsburg College summarizes Luther's doctrine of vocation:

"If we are saved by grace through faith and not works, then the world becomes an entirely different place. It is no longer the realm where we try to placate a demanding God. Moreover, 'vocations' are not limited to a special class of Christians who by the supposed holiness of their lives have placed themselves closer to their Creator. Instead the world is now the network of relationships where Christians become instruments or vessels of the love that God has bestowed upon them. Thus all Christians have callings or vocations whereby they live out their lives in the world."[7]

In Reformation thought, love for others becomes the purpose of vocation. The ethics of vocation is based on loving one's neighbor as oneself. The focus is on worldly needs, not contemplation of God. However, this does not eliminate the place of reason:

"Vocation properly locates the role of reason in the Christian faith. Reason cannot be used to comprehend a God who would die on a cross. As Paul says, this is foolishness to the world. However, once one has come to faith, reason must be used in service of neighbor and culture. The worlds of science, literature, arts and commerce are the proper realms of reason."[7]

We see how vocation follows ethics. We do what we value. What we love, and how we love, are the foundation of the ethics of vocation.

Luther's doctrine of stations was expanded into a practical philosophy of vocation by John Calvin. As in the Protestant doctrine of salvation, the new thinking was based on the New Testament writings of St. Paul, who advised the Christians in Corinth, "Let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you." (1 Cor 7:17) In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin wrote,

"The Lord commands every one of us, in all the actions of life to regard his vocation He has appointed to all their particular duties in different spheres of life . Every individual's line of life is, as it were, a post assigned him by the Lord, that he may not wander about in uncertainty all his days."[8]

This passage illustrates two essential features of Calvinism. First, God has predetermined everyone's position in life; it is up to each individual to determine God's calling. This reflects the doctrine of predestination present in Calvinistic theology. Second, vocation is raised to the level of a command to industrious work for everyone, no matter how high or low the position. Indeed, because good works follow from Christ's redemption, Calvinists felt driven to perform good works to show themselves that they were predestined to be saved!

Imported into England, Calvinism became Puritanism, where it imbued what has come to be known as the Puritan work ethic. Transported from England to North America, the Puritan way of life contributed to the rapid development of the New World. It also fostered the development of empirical science, and therefore to the Enlightenment era, according to a widely-accepted thesis advocated by historian of science Robert Merton.

The development of capitalism in England and North America has often been ascribed to the Protestant work ethics that emphasized work in one's vocation as a means to serve the God.

(Note: This section is based on the essay by Edmund Bertschinger[1])


Hindu concept of 'Varna' is almost identical to the concept of vocation as defined by Protestant theologians. 'Varna' has often been wrongly confused with caste. Shrimad Bhagwad Gita discusses the concept of 'Varna' in detail. As per Gita, a person is born into a 'Varna' but it never says that only a Brahmin's son can be a Brahmin. Some of the greatest sages of India were born to non-Brahmin's. For example, Ved Vyas was the son of the daughter of a fisherman. 'Varna' is related to 'Guna' and 'Swabhav' which mean the essential characteristics of the person. One's aptitude and basic nature is what one is born with and these determine one's 'Varna' or vocation.

The discourse given by Lord Krishna in Shrimad Bhagwad Gita is essentially a call to Arjun to act in accordance with his duties as determined by his 'Varna' or vocation. Hindu worldview accepts the concept of salvation through work as per one's 'Varna'.


One lives 'for' a vocation, while one lives 'off' a profession and one keeps oneself busy with an occupation. Vocation, profession and occupation the three terms are not synonyms though for most people in thought as well as practice the three are the same.

Vocation denotes a life-purpose for which one devotes oneself completely. Making of money or pursuit of status become trivial goals when one realizes one's vocation and gives oneself completely to it. Work according to one's vocation becomes the means to one's salvation. Vocational work becomes a source of pleasure and fulfillment. One's vocation is what one loves and is not based on job prospects and market forces. Following one's vocation one follows one's heart rather than mind. From love flow enthusiasm, passion, drive and perseverance, all qualities that contribute to success in a demanding vocation. Of course one also needs particular talents, but love usually turns elsewhere if the talents are insufficient.

Profession is what one does for money. Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines profession as "1. a paid occupation, especially one involving training and a formal qualification ". The emphasis is one being paid for the job done and there is no element of love or higher purpose in a profession. Working in a profession is like the love-less work done by a prostitute albeit with formal qualifications and training. Devoid of love, profession offers no self-satisfaction or self-fulfillment or self-actualization. Profession offers money and that becomes an end in itself for someone who follows a profession with complete devotion. Needless to say that ethics has a different meaning for a professional than for someone who is following a vocation.

Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines occupation as "1 - the action, state or period of being occupying or being occupied. 2 - a job or profession. 3 - a way of spending time" It is obvious that for an occupation neither love nor money is a pre-requisite. Occupation is concerned with just the spending of time and there is no reference to it being useful for either the doer or the society. An occupation need not even be productive.


In India, professional education has been emphasized and vocational education has been downgraded to a level of imparting of manual skills, due to an absence of understanding about the concept of vocation.

Any attempt at vocational education must start with an understanding on the part of educators about vocation as a life-purpose. Vocational education must move away from just skill learning to developing a sense of vocation in students. Instead of emphasizing professional goals in terms of placement opportunities, vocational education must aim for the heart and teach students to look at their inner self.

The first step in vocational education should start with helping students to see their own hearts and to decide what their own life-purpose is. This is not an activity like career counseling or placement centres. It is an exercise to help an individual find his feet in the world and also to inculcate in him the concept that his life is not a meaningless exercise. Any person seeing himself as a creation of the Almighty or the Cosmos with a specific purpose in the world attains a communion with the Almighty or the Cosmos and will hence have a higher sense of ethical values.

Unfortunately, vocational education in India has been equated with petty manual skills. It is still more unfortunate that fields like medicine that must be treated only as a vocation are converted to profession. It is not surprising that nowadays the only values that a medical student learns is the value of money. Most doctors see themselves as a money-making-machine that makes money by the minutes. The distortions caused by this are obvious. A total loss of values and ethical life in all such professionals often leads to serious problems at the personal level. The social problems caused by such professionals are too well known.

Vocational Education, if it is correctly understood and practiced, is a value inculcation process by itself. Anyone who follows a vocation needs no discourses on values. Such a vocational (if the term may be used) has a direct link to the Almighty or the Cosmos and he is more likely than anyone else to lead an ethical life which will lead to his good as well as to the well-being of the society as a whole.


  1. Edmund Bertschinger, MIT, The Call of Science: Theological Reflections on the Ethics of Vocation, Presentation to the 5th Annual Symposium on Humanity and the Cosmos, Brock University, St. Catherines, ON, Canada L2S 3AI, January 22, 2000,

  2. Arthur F. Holmes, Fact, Value, and God (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1997), p. 53.

  3. Paul Ramsey, Basic Christian Ethics (Scribner, New York, 1950), pp. 119-20.

  4. Augustine, City of God, Book XIX, Chap. xiv.

  5. Ramsey, p. 114.

  6. Ibid., pp. 116-7.

  7. Augsburg College, "A Reader's Guide to the Commission's Dialogue on Faith and Reason" (Honors 101 freshman seminar)

  8. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. III, x, 6, quoted in Ramsey p. 154.


10th November, 2000

Please write to me your comments about the above article.

ANIL CHAWLA is an engineer by qualification but a philosopher by vocation and a management consultant by profession.

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