Understanding the Inner Foundation of the Four Orders of Society

The four orders of society and the functions they carry out are easily recognisable necessities for any functioning society. The development of an hereditary basis for assigning these roles and functions came about because there was no easily identifiable and certain way to ascertain inner capacity and temperament, and thus, external factors became primary in creating this system. Sri Aurobindo points out that this may not have been the initial phase: “A man’s social function and position were no doubt determined originally, as they are still in freer, less closely ordered communities by environment, occasion, birth and capacity; but as there set in a more fixed stratification, his rank came practically to be regulated by birth mainly or alone and in the later system of caste birth came to be the sole rule of status. The son of a Brahmin is always a Brahmin in status, though he may have nothing of the typical Brahmin qualities or character, no intellectual training or spiritual experience or religious worth or knowledge, no connection whatever with the right function of his class, no Brahminhood in his work and no Brahminhood in his nature.”

Searching back through time, we find the true inner, psychological and spiritual basis of these distinctions: “The ancient law-givers, while recognising the hereditary practice, insisted that quality, character and capacity were the one sound and real basis and that without them the hereditary social status became an unspiritual falsehood because it had lost its true significance. The Gita, too, as always, founds its thought on the inner significance.”

The essence of this concept is that each individual has an ongoing development in past lives and brings into the current life an evolutionary status. “…a man’s inborn nature and course of life are essentially determined by his own past lives, are the self-development already effected by his past actions and mental and spiritual evolution and cannot depend solely on the material factor of his ancestry, parentage, physical birth, which can only be of subordinate moment, one effective sign perhaps, but not the dominant principle.”

“the work or function of a man is determined by his qualities, karma is determined by guna; it is the work born of his Swabhava…and regulated by his Swabhava…. This emphasis on an inner quality and spirit which finds expression in work, function and action is the whole sense of the Gita’s idea of Karma.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 20, Swabhava and Swadharma, pp. 495-497

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