Vital Defects: the Oppression of Women and the Subjugation of a Servant Class

While early societal forms had their advantages, they also suffered from certain major and essential defects.  Sri Aurobindo took up these issues:

“That early life had vital defects which it could not cure.  In the case of the Mediterranean nations, two most important exceptions have to be made to the general participation of all individuals in the full civic and cultural life of the community; for that participation was denied to the slave and hardly granted at all in the narrow life conceded to the woman.  In India the institution of slavery was practically absent and the woman had at first a freer and more dignified position than in Greece and Rome; but the slave was soon replaced by the proletariate, called in India the Shudra, and the increasing tendency to deny the highest benefits of the common life and culture to the Shudra and the woman brought down Indian society to the level of its Western congeners.  It is possible that these two great problems of economic serfdom and the subjection of woman might have been attacked and solved in the early community if it had lived longer, as it has now been attacked and is in process of solution in the modern State.  But it is doubtful; only in Rome do we glimpse certain initial tendencies which might have turned in that direction and they never went farther than faint hints of a future possibility.”

It must be noted that while there has clearly been progress with regard to both of these issues, the development of women’s suffrage, for instance, and the entry of women into educational and career opportunities, and leadership roles for them in various corporate and political institutions, we remain far from a complete solution of this vital defect, as there remain societies around the world where women are totally oppressed, and in most all the others, they are harassed, discriminated against and paid a sub-standard wage compared to their male counterparts.

With respect to slavery, while humanity today may accept in principle the outlawing of slavery, there remain also dark remnants of slavery, not only in the developing world, but even in the developed world.   In the most highly developed Western societies, the use of stratified access to the levers of power and financial opportunity, the unequal access to education, failure to pay a “living wage” for workers to support their families, and systematic discrimination have led to a form of slavery which may be called “economic slavery”, which imprisons people into relatively hopeless circumstances through the leverage of the societal machinery and social custom rather than through formal bondage and chains.  Those who try to survive or escape from this system are also frequently imprisoned and made to work as prison labor (slaves) under the control of the State.

We see here that the higher aspirations and ideals of humanity have begun to embrace and try to implement equality for women and the servant or worker classes, but that these changes have not been fully implemented as of this time.  Thus, there is progress but not a final result that can be called success.  This defect continues to undermine humanity today as it did in earlier times.

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part One, Chapter 11, The Small Free Unit and the Larger Concentrated Unity, pp. 91-92