Understanding and Critique of the Caste System

The Gita devotes several of its verses to discussion of the four-fold order of society. which has been mixed up with what we have seen come down through time as the rigid and stultifying caste system which has created enormous confusion and obstacles to the modern-day development of India. Caste as it has been practiced has forced hereditary positions and ranking in society on everyone, has prevented in many cases the most suited from taking up roles for which they were most capable, and has held back progress generally. The Gita’s discussion actually has very little, if anything, to do with this historical ossification of societal roles.

Sri Aurobindo points out that even the roles that the Gita assigns to the 4 orders of society do not match up with the historically developed caste system, making it clear that the meaning as understood by the Gita varies from what we know of as the caste system today. Further, “And if the economical divisions of function have been confounded beyond any possibility of rectification, the law of the Guna or quality is still less a part of the later system. There all is rigid custom…, with no reference to the need of the individual nature. If again we take the religious side of the contention advanced by the advocates of the caste system, we can certainly fasten no such absurd idea on the words of the Gita as that it is a law of man’s nature that he shall follow without regard to his personal bent and capacities the profession of his parents or his immediate or distant ancestors, the son of a milkman be a milkman, the son of a doctor a doctor, the descendants of shoemakers remain shoemakers to the end of measurable time, still less that by doing so, by this unintelligent and mechanical repetition of the law of another’s nature without regard to his own individual call and qualities a man automatically farthers his own perfection and arrives at spiritual freedom.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 20, Swabhava and Swadharma, pp. 493-494

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One’s Own Law of Action According To One’s Own Nature

The subject of following one’s own law of action, svadharma, is connected with an understanding of one’s own inner nature, svabhava. The Gita acknowledges the individuality, while at the same time showing that, based on the predominance of the action of the Gunas, there are four basic frameworks of action within which individuals generally can be included, based on their own inner nature.

There follows a discussion of the characteristics of what has been generally known as the “caste” system, but this carries with it unfortunate connotations due to misapplication and misunderstanding of it. The true meaning of the 4 types of individuals and their characteristic action in the world was meant to convey the different capacities, interests and focus due to the predominant balance of the Gunas working in that individual. It was not, therefore, intended to become a rigid hereditary system to lock individuals into place regardless of their own characteristics.

Sri Aurobindo explains: “In other words, there are four distinct orders of the active nature, or four fundamental types of the soul in nature, svabhava, and the work and proper function of each human being corresponds to his type of nature.” The Gita holds that it is better to follow the law of action corresponding to one’s own inner nature, however apparently defective or maligned by society, than to artificially impose on the individual another external rule that does not suit the nature.

The specifics of the four types as described by the Gita are outlined by Sri Aurobindo: “Calm, self-control, askesis, purity, long-suffering, candour, knowledge, acceptance of spiritual truth are the work of the Brahmin, born of his Swabhava. Heroism, high spirit, resolution, ability, not fleeing in the battle, giving, lordship…are the natural work of the Kshatriya. Agriculture, cattle-keeping, trade inclusive of the labour of the craftsman and the artisan are the natural work of the Vaishya. All work of the character of service falls within the natural function of the Sudra. A man, it goes on to say, who devotes himself to his own natural work in life acquires spiritual perfection, not indeed by the mere act itself, but if he does it with right knowledge and the right motive, if he can make it a worship of the Spirit of this creation and dedicate it sincerely to the Master of the universe from whom is all impulse to action. All labour, all action and function, whatever it be, can be consecrated by this dedication of works, can convert the life into a self-offering to the Godhead within and without us and is itself converted into a means of spiritual perfection.”

“All action in the three Gunas is imperfect, all human work is subject to fault, defect or limit; but that should not make us abandon our own proper work and natural function. Action should be rightly regulated action…but intrinsically one’s own, evolved from within, in harmony with the truth of one’s being, regulated by the Svabhava….”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 20, Swabhava and Swadharma, pp. 491-493

The Question of the Role of the Individual in the Universal Creation

Sri Aurobindo raises a question of considerable interest and importance in the context of determining the causes of action. He sets the terms of the discussion as follows: “All action on the normal level is determined by the Gunas; the action which is to be done, kartavyam karma, takes the triple form of giving, askesis and sacrifice, and any or all of these three may assume the character of any of the Gunas. Therefore we have to proceed by the raising of these things to the highest sattwic height of which they are capable and go yet farther beyond to a largeness in which all works become a free self-giving, an energy of the divine Tapas, a perpetual sacrament of the spiritual existence.”

The general terms of action apply across the board to all, but we nevertheless see that there is an element of individuality, which still must be considered and put into its right place in the order of things.

“But this is a general law and all these considerations have been the enunciation of quite general principles and refer indiscriminately to all actions and to all men alike. All can eventually arrive by spiritual evolution to this strong discipline, this large perfection, this highest spiritual state. But while the general rule of mind and action is the same for all men, we see too that there is a constant law of variation and each individual acts not only according to the common laws of the human spirit, mind, will, life, but according to his own nature; each man fulfills different functions or follows a different bent according to the rule of his own circumstances, capacities, turn, character, powers.”

Throughout human history we have seen attempts to either raise up and glorify the individual or the collective development, generally to the exclusion of the other term. The Gita attempts to find the appropriate balance whereby the uniqueness of the individual is incorporated into the larger framework of the divine manifestation. Sri Aurobindo states the question for the seeker after liberation and perfection: “What place is to be assigned to this variation, this individual rule of nature in the spiritual discipline?”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 20, Swabhava and Swadharma, pg. 491

The Process of Liberation From the Gunas

Before taking up the next subject of the Gita, Sri Aurobindo provides a summary conclusion of the spiritual process that has been recommended. With a clear understanding of the qualities and characteristics of each of the three Gunas, it is now possible for us to examine our own lives and actions and begin systematically to encourage and develop a predominant balance emphasizing Sattwa. This step helps free us from the bondage of the instinctive and desire-bound drives of the animal nature which are clearly active in all human beings, particularly in the physical and vital parts, and thereby prepare the human instrument for the succeeding step of transcending even Sattwa by moving into the divine standpoint and becoming purely an occasion or nexus of the divine action in the world.

“It is then by a liberating development of the soul out of this lower nature of the triple Gunas into the supreme divine nature beyond the three Gunas that we can best arrive at spiritual perfection and freedom. And this again can best be brought about by an anterior development of the predominance of the highest sattwic quality to a point at which Sattwa also is overpassed, mounts beyond its own limitations and breaks up into a supreme freedom, absolute light, serene power of the conscious spirit in which there is no determination by conflicting Gunas.”

The result: “The sattwic mind and will change into that spiritual knowledge and dynamic power of identical existence in which the whole nature puts off its disguise and becomes a free self-expression of the godhead within it. The sattwic doer becomes the Jiva in contact with his source, united with the Purushottama; he is no longer the personal doer of the act, but a spiritual channel of the works of the transcendent and universal Spirit….What was sattwic action becomes the free activity of the perfected nature in which there is no longer any personal limitation, any tethering to this or that quality, any bondage of sin and virtue, self and others or any but a supreme spiritual self-determination. That is the culmination of works uplifted to the sole Divine Worker by a God-seeking and spiritual knowledge.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 20, Swabhava and Swadharma, pp. 490-491

The Gunas and the Qualities of Happiness

The “pursuit of happiness” is considered by many to be one of the primary directives of human life, and is even enshrined as a guiding principle in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Happiness, however, is not something that can be understood universally, as there are different forms and definitions of happiness. To the Upanishadic sages, true happiness was determined to be a state of bliss, achieved by overcoming the force of desire! For most of humanity however, happiness is a much more qualified state of consciousness, and its character is determined by the predominance of one or another of the three Gunas.

Sri Aurobindo describes these differences: “…the tamasic mind can remain well-pleased in its indolence and inertia, its stupor and sleep, its blindness and its error. Nature has armed it with the privilege of a smug satisfaction in its stupidity and ignorance, its dim lights of the cave, its inert contentment, its petty or base joys and its vulgar pleasures. Delusion is the beginning of this satisfaction and delusion is its consequence; but still there is given a dull, a by no means admirable but a sufficient pleasure in his delusions to the dweller in the cave.”

“The mind of the rajasic man drinks of a more fiery and intoxicating cup; the keen, mobile, active pleasure of the senses and the body and the sense-entangled or fierily kinetic will and intelligence are to him all the joy of life and the very significance of living. This joy is nectar to the lips at the first touch, but there is a secret poison in the bottom of the cup and after it the bitterness of disappointment, satiety, fatigue, revolt, disgust, sin, suffering, loss, transience.”

“What the sattwic nature seeks, therefore, is the satisfaction of the higher mind and the spirit and when it once gets this large object of its quest, there comes in a clear, pure happiness of the soul, a state of fullness, an abiding ease and peace. This happiness does not depend on outward things, but on ourselves alone and on the flowering of what is best and most inward within us….it has to be conquered by self-discipline, a labour of the soul, a high and arduous endeavour.”

“The self-exceeding of the sattwic nature comes when we get beyond the great but still inferior sattwic pleasure, beyond the pleasures of mental knowledge and virtue and peace to the eternal calm of the self and the spiritual ecstasy of the divine oneness. That spiritual joy is no longer the sattwic happiness…, but the absolute Ananda. Ananda is the secret delight from which all things are born, by which all is sustained in existence and to which all can rise in the spiritual culmination. Only then can it be possessed when the liberated man, free from ego and its desires, lives at last one with his highest self, one with all beings and one with God in an absolute bliss of the spirit.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 19, The Gunas, Mind and Works, pp. 487-489

The Sattwic Intelligence and Will

Each of the 3 Gunas, while acting throughout all levels of activity, has its own primary seat and strength in different parts of the being. Thus, Tamas is most active in the physical being, Rajas in the vital and emotional being, and Sattwa comes into its own natural sphere most effectively in the higher Reason and Intelligent Will, the Buddhi. When the Reason is heavily influenced by Tamas or Rajas, it is either cloudy, deluded or misled through the impulsion of desire. When there is a clear action of Sattwa, the higher Reason takes on its own true character and can guide and uplift the working and the consequent results.

Sri Aurobindo describes the sattwic intellience and will: “The sattwic understanding sees in its right place, right form, right measure the movement of the world, the law of action and the law of abstention from action, the thing that is to be done and the thing that is not to be done, what is safe for the soul and what is dangerous, what is to be feared and shunned and what is to be embraced by the will, what binds the spirit of man and what sets it free. These are the things that it follows to the degree of its light and the stage of evolution it has reached in its upward ascent to the highest self and Spirit.”

The sattwic intelligence not only uplifts the action of the human individual but also prepares and supports the eventual transcendence of the Gunas through the movement that leads to achievement of the divine standpoint. “There the soul is enshrined in light and enthroned in firm union with the Self and Spirit and Godhead. Arrived upon that summit we can leave the Highest to guide Nature in our members in the free spontaneity of a divine actino: for there there is no wrong or confused working, no element of error or impotence to obscure or distort the luminous perfection and power of the Spirit. All these lower conditions, laws, Dharmas cease to have any hold on us; the Infinite acts in the liberated man and there is no law but the immortal truth and right of the free spirit, no Karma, no kind of bondage.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 19, The Gunas, Mind and Works, pp. 486-487

The Rajasic Intelligence and Will

The influence of Rajas on the determinations of the reasoning intelligence is a major cause of the distortion that occurs in human life and action. The rajasic reason has the ability to justify the promptings of desire and ego, and thus, creates a self-reinforcing loop for understanding and action that misleads while maintaining its own internal logic to prove that it is “right”. Clearly many instances in history illustrate the risk of rajasic distortion as we see, for instance, religions justifying torture or warfare, or even barbaric enslavement or rapine in order to bring about the “victory” of a particular religion for the “benefit” of those victimised. In our own lives we can see similar justifications brought forward by the rajasic reason. Quite a number of seekers over the years have fallen into indulgence in sex or other practices in the name of “tantric yoga” without necessarily understanding the deeper issues and considerations involved to truly transform those practices into something that is spiritually beneficial rather than a distortion or distraction. It is one of the serious spiritual problems the seeker has to identify and resolve to truly be able to let go of the ego and the desire-soul and have a pure, surrendered action take place.

Sri Aurobindo explores this question in more depth: “The rajasic understanding, when it does not knowingly choose error and evil for the sake of the error and evil, can make distinctions between right and wrong, between what should or should not be done, but not rightly, rather with a pulling awry of their true measures and a constant distortion of values. And this is because its reason and will are a reason of the ego and a will of desire, and these powers misrepresent and distort the truth and the right to serve their own egoistic purpose…. But the rajasic will fixes its persistent attention on the satisfaction of its own attached clingings and desires in its pursuit of interest and pleasure and of what it thinks or chooses to think right and justice, Dharma. Always it is apt to put on these things the construction which will most flatter and justify its desires and to uphold as right or legitimate the means which will best help it to get the coveted fruits of its work and endeavour. That is the cause of three-fourths of the falsehood and misconduct of the human reason and will. Rajas with its vehement hold on the vital ego is the great sinner and positive misleader.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 19, The Gunas, Mind and Works, pg. 486