The Symbolic and Psychological Basis of the Customary Law of Traditional Societies

Since we have determined that the first developments of societal rule of law was a codification of the habits developed in response to needs of the societal aggregate, and not through a conscious and organised process of the intellect to determine rational lines along which a body of law should be developed to optimize the benefits to human society and the individuals who make up that society, we can look to the traditional or historical record to try to understand how these customary habits were converted into a body of law to govern the social order.

Sri Aurobindo describes the process, after first noting that the attribution to a traditional lawgiver may, or may not, have a factual basis in various societies.  “In fact, if we examine the profound legendary tradition of India, we see that its idea of the Manu is more a symbol than anything else.  His name means man the mental being.  He is the divine legislator, the mental demi-god in humanity who fixes the lines upon which the race or people has to govern its evolution.   In the Purana he or his sons are said to reign in subtle earths or worlds or, as we may say, they reign in the larger mentality which to us is subconscient and from there have power to determine the lines of development of the conscious life of man.  His law is … the science of the law of conduct of the mental or human being and in this sense we may think of the law of any human society as being the conscious evolution of the type and lines which its Manu has fixed for it.  If there comes an embodied Manu, a living Moses or Mahomed, he is only the prophet or spokesman of the Divinity who is veiled in the fire and the cloud, jehovah on Sinai, Allah speaking through his angels.  Mahomed, as we know, only developed the existing social, religious and administrative customs of the Arab people into a new system dictated to him often in a state of trance, in which he passed from his conscient into his superconscient self, by the Divinity to his secret intuitive mind.  All that may be suprarational or, if you will, irrational, but it represents a different stage of human development from the government of society by its rational and practical mind which in contact with life’s changing needs and permanent necessities demands a created and codified law determined by a fixed legislative authority, the society’s organised brain or centre.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part Two, Chapter 20, The Drive towards Economic Centralisation, pg. 177