The Four Orders of Society

To understand the point that the Gita is making regarding an individual’s own inner law of being and action, it is important to first understand the general classes of the four orders of society, which relate to the predominant Guna that then leads to characteristic ways of understanding and acting, and thus, distinguishes the different roles and types that develop with this underlying basis.

Sri Aurobindo therefore describes the “ancient system of the four orders”, as he points out that this understanding developed, not just in India, but widely throughout the ancient world: “The ancient system of the four orders had a triple aspect; it took a social and economic, a cultural and a spiritual appearance. On the economic side it recognised four functions of the social man in the community, the religious and intellectual, the political, the economic and the servile functions. These are thus four kinds of works, the work of religious ministration, letters, learning and knowledge, the work of government, politics, administration and war, the work of production, wealth making and exchange, the work of hired labour and service. An endeavor was made to found and stabilise the whole arrangement of society on the partition of these four functions among four clearly marked classes.”

Despite the artificial and mechanical way this was implemented, and despite the breakdown of many of these traditional roles and modes of organisation, the underlying functionality and the capacities needed to achieve each of them still remain operative today. “The old system everywhere broke down and gave place to a more fluid order or, as in India, to a confused and complex social rigidity and economic immobility degenerating towards a chaos of castes.”

“Along with this economic division there existed the association of a cultural idea which gave to each class its religious custom, its law of honour, ethical rule, suitable education and training, type of character, family ideal and discipline.” The attempt to instill such ideals and thus, to encourage the development of higher capacities at all levels of society was an important aspect that was very much lost over time.

“Finally, wherever this system existed, it was given more or less a religious sanction…and in India a profounder spiritual use and significance. This spiritual significance is the real kernel of the teaching of the Gita.” This essential spiritual underpinning of the four orders of society can be reclaimed by a deeper review of the Gita’s teaching in this regard.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 20, Swabhava and Swadharma, pp. 494-495

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