The Stifling Pressure of the Conventional Phase of Society and the Rise of the Phase of Individualism

The focus on the outer forms at the expense of the inner truth and spirit that underpins those forms eventually leads to a rigidity in society that becomes intolerable to those who are moved by the inner spirit or whose intellect or hearts are awake and who therefore suffer under the formal limitations in the society.  Thus, eventually reform or awakening movements take place when a particularly powerful personality arises to take on the conventional powers that be.  Unfortunately, they tend to be swallowed up in the larger conventional framework until the society reaches what might be seen almost as a breaking point due to the obvious dislocation between form and spirit, and this then ushers in the next phase, an age of individualism, an age of freedom, an age of reason.  We can trace several such periods in European history, when reformers took on the established powers of the Church or the State and, for a time, brought about a fresh wind up change, only to see them subside within the overall conventional framework.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “For always the form prevails and the spirit recedes and diminishes.  It attempts indeed to return, to revive the form, to modify it, anyhow to survive and even to make the form survive; but the time-tendency is too strong.  This is visible in the history of religion; the efforts of the saints and religious reformers become progressively more scattered, brief and superficial in their actual effects, however strong and vital the impulse.  We see this recession in the growing darkness and weakness of India in her lat millennium; the constant effort of the most powerful spiritual personalities kept the soul of the people alive but failed to resuscitate the ancient free force and truth and vigour or permanently revivify a conventionalised and stagnating society; in a generation or two the iron grip of that conventionalism has always fallen on the new movement and annexed the names of its founders.  We see it in Europe in the repeated moral tragedy of ecclesiasticism and Catholic monasticism.  Then there arrives a period when the gulf between the convention and the truth becomes intolerable and the men of intellectual power arise, the great “swallowers of formulas”, who, rejecting robustly or fiercely or with the calm light of reason symbol and type and convention, strike at the walls of the prison-house and seek by the individual reason, moral sense or emotional desire the Truth that society has lost or buried in its whited sepulchres.  It is then that the individualistic age of religion and thought and society is created; the Age of Protestantism has begun, the Age of Reason, the Age of Revolt, Progress, Freedom.  A partial and external freedom, still betrayed by the conventional age that preceded it into the idea that the Truth can be found in outsides, dreaming vainly that perfection can be determined by machinery, but still a necessary passage to the subjective period of humanity through which man has to circle back towards the recovery of his deeper self and a new upward line or a new revolving cycle of civilisation.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 1, The Cycle of Society, pp. 13-14

Tendencies of the Conventional Stage of Societal Development

The conventional phase of societal development places primary importance on the forms and modes, rather than on the originating inner sense or spirit.  Rules, customs, traditions, fixed ways of action and pre-defined roles for people based on outer criteria are the norm.  This phase works to create a society in which there should be little social friction as everything stays in its own place and the rules keep things functioning without disruption.  In such a society, those who attempt to create some new direction or relationship within society are generally avoided, scorned or suppressed, as they represent a threat to the established order.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “The conventional period of society has its golden age when the spirit and thought that inspired its forms are confined but yet living, not yet altogether walled in, not yet stifled to death and petrified by the growing hardness of the structure in which they are cased.  That golden age is often very beautiful and attractive to the distant view of posterity by its precise order, symmetry, fine social architecture, the admirable subordination of its parts to a general and noble plan.  Thus at one time the modern litterateur, artist or thinker looked back often with admiration and with something like longing to the mediaeval age of Europe; he forgot in its distant appearance of poetry, nobility, spirituality the much folly, ignorance, iniquity, cruelty and oppression of those harsh ages, the suffering and revolt that simmered below these fine surfaces, the misery and squalor that was hidden behind that splendid facade.  So too the Hindu orthodox idealist looks back to a perfectly regulated society devoutly obedient to the wise yoke of the Shastra, and that is his golden age, — a nobler one than the European in which the apparent gold was mostly hard burnished copper with a thin gold-leaf covering it, but still of an alloyed metal, not the true Satya Yuga.  In these conventional periods of society there is much indeed that is really find and sound and helpful to human progress, but still they are its copper age and not the true golden; they are the age when the Truth we strive to arrive at is not yet realised, nor accomplished, but the exiguity of it eked out or its full appearance imitated by an artistic form, and what we have of the reality has begun to fossilise and is doomed to be lost in a  hard mass of rule and order and convention.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 1, The Cycle of Society, pg. 13

The Conventional Phase of Societal Development and its Form of Expression of the Caste System

Sri Aurobindo, as an illustration of the transformations that take place in the social order through the various stages of societal development,  has been following the transformation of the fourfold order of the manifestation of the Spirit as understood in the symbolic age, through the typal phase and now to the conventional phase of societal development.  In the conventional phase, we see that the outer form takes precedence over the inner sense and spirit; it becomes more important to honor the forms than to understand and express the essence that is trying to manifest through those forms.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “Thus in the evolution of caste, the outward supports of the ethical fourfold order, — birth, economic function, religious ritual and sacrament, family custom, — each began to exaggerate enormously its proportions and its importance in the scheme.  At first, birth does not seem to have been of the first importance in the social order, for faculty and capacity prevailed; but afterwards, as the type fixed itself, its maintenance by education and tradition became necessary and education and tradition naturally fixed themselves in a hereditary groove.  Thus the son of a Brahmin came always to be looked upon conventionally as a Brahmin; birth and profession were together the double bond of the hereditary convention at the time when it was most firm and faithful to its own character.  This rigidity once established, the maintenance of the ethical type passed from the first place to a secondary or even a quite tertiary importance.  Once the very basis of the system, it came now to be a not indispensable crown or pendent tassel, insisted upon indeed by the thinker and the ideal code-maker but not by the actual rule of society or its practice.  Once ceasing to be indispensable, it came inevitably to be dispensed with except as an ornamental fiction.  Finally, even the economic basis began to disintegrate; birth, family custom and remnants, deformations, new accretions of meaningless or fanciful religious sign and ritual, the very scarecrow and caricature of the old profound symbolism, became the riveting links of the system of caste in the iron age of the old society.  In the full economic period of caste the priest and the Pundit maquerade under the name of the Brahmin, the aristocrat and feudal baron under the name of the Kshatriya, the trader and money-getter under the name of the Vaishya, the half-fed labourer and economic serf under the name of the Shudra.  When the economic basis also breaks down, then the unclean and diseased decrepitude of the old system has begun; it has become a name, a shell, a sham and must either be dissolved in the crucible of an individualist period of society or else fatally affect with weakness and falsehood the system of life that clings to it.  That in visible fact is the last and present state of the caste system in India.”



Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 1, The Cycle of Society, pp. 11-12

Understanding the Key Principles of the Typal Phase of Human Societal Development

The symbolic stage begins to take a form or shape that creates various activities and roles in society.  This eventually transitions to what has been termed the “typal” stage.   Just as there are “ages” of humanity that undergo change and transition and then represent certain characteristics on a macro-level, human society also goes through similar transitions from symbolic to typal, from typal to conventional, etc.

The primary characteristics of the typal stage begin to set the roles played by certain segments of society into a more formalized form, and take on an independence from the living interaction with the divine Reality that defines the symbolic stage.

Sri Aurobindo describes the typal stage with respect to the four primary aspects described in the symbolic stage:  “This typal stage creates the great social ideals which remain impressed upon the human mind even when the stage itself is passed.  The principal active contribution it leaves behind when it is dead is the idea of social honour; the honour of the Brahmin which resides in purity, in piety, in a high reverence for the things of the mind and spirit and a disinterested possession and exclusive pursuit of learning and knowledge; the honour of the Kshatriya which lives in courage, chivalry, strength, a certain proud self-restraint and self-mastery, nobility of character and the obligations of that nobility; the honour of the Vaishya which maintains itself by rectitude of dealing, mercantile fidelity, sound production, order, liberality and philanthropy; the honour of the Shudra which gives itself in obedience, subordination, faithful service, a disinterested attachment.  But these more and more cease to have a living root in the clear psychological idea or to spring naturally out of the inner life of the man; they become a convention, though the most noble of conventions.  In the end they remain more as a tradition in the thought and on the lips than a reality of the life.”

It should be noted that these psychological types are not necessarily tied, in the original sense, to family, clan or birth; rather, they are an expression that may relate to an individual regardless of birth family or class.  The development of a rigid and fixed societal class system does not actually do justice to the original root of these distinctions in symbolic expression and psychological development of the individual, and in fact, in many instances, disregarded clear capacity and character traits expressed in an individual simply because of outer circumstances.  Historically the texts provide examples that show that individuals could overcome the limitations of “birth caste” and express their varying capacities.  In the modern age we are even seeing that individuals actually have within themselves the capacity for each of the four major character types and expressions and an integrated development may eventually create a balanced individual who can express the highest and best of each of the psychological types within his own being.

Sri Aurobindo, in his book The Mother  describes these psychological capacities as the four powers of the Mother and implies that each of them can and should find expression in individuals undertaking a conscious inner evolution through the yogic process.

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 1, The Cycle of Society, pg. 11

A Review of the Vedic View of Psychological Types or Roles Between the Symbolic and the Typal Stages of Society

Another example cited by Sri Aurobindo is what is called in today’s language the caste system of India.  He has clarified that in the symbolic stage of human development, as recognized in the Vedic period, the 4 classifications were actually real symbols of the expression of a universal Divine into a world of forms, forces and actions.  This was not set up to rigidly categorize people into fixed castes based on birth–that is a later development, or we may say, regression.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “From this symbolic attitude came the tendency to make everything in society a sacrament, religious and sacrosanct, but as yet with a large and vigorous freedom in all its forms, — a freedom which we do not find in the rigidity of “savage” communities because these have already passed out of the symbolic into the conventional stage though on a curve of degeneration instead of a curve of growth.  The spiritual idea governs all; the symbolic religious forms which support it are fixed in principle; the social forms are lax, free and capable of infinite development.  One thing, however, begins to progress towards a firm fixity and this is the psychological type.  Thus we have first the symbolic idea of the four orders, expressing — to employ an abstractly figurative language which the Vedic thinkers would not have used nor perhaps understood, but which helps best our modern understanding — the Divine as knowledge in man, the Divine as power, the Divine as production, enjoyment and mutuality, the Divine as service, obedience and work.  These divisions answer to four cosmic principles, the Wisdom that conceives the order and principle of things, the Power that sanctions, upholds and enforces it, the Harmony that creates the arrangement of its parts, the Work that carries out what the rest direct.  Next, out of this idea there developed a firm but not yet rigid social order based primarily upon temperament and psychic type with a corresponding ethical discipline and secondarily upon the social and economic function.  But the function was determined by its suitability to the type and its helpfulness to the discipline; it was not the primary or sole factor.  The first, the symbolic stage of this evolution is predominantly religious and spiritual; the other elements, psychological, ethical, economic, physical are there but subordinated to the spiritual and religious idea.  The second stage, which we may call the typal, is predominantly psychological and ethical; all else, even the spiritual and religious, is subordinate to the psychological idea and to the ethical ideal which expresses it.  Religion becomes then a mystic sanction for the ethical motive and discipline, Dharma; that becomes its chief social utility, and for the rest it takes a more and more other-worldly turn.  The idea of the direct expression of the divine Being or cosmic Principle in man ceases to dominate or to be the leader and in the forefront; it recedes, stands in the background and finally disappears from the practice and in the end even from the theory of life.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 1, The Cycle of Society, pp. 10-11

Avoiding the Trap of Using Our Modern Intellectual Approach in Trying to Comprehend the Meaning of the Seers of the Symbolic Age

When we read ancient texts that have come down to us through the ages, such as the Vedic texts which, in some cases, go back 5000 years or more, it is essential to not overlay our modern intellectual, logical, reasoning approach over those texts.  The result would certainly be gross misunderstanding.  We can see something of the mismatch when a mathematician tries to interpret an emotion-driven piece of art.  Similarly the age of reason, as the last several centuries have sometimes been designated, cannot possibly appreciate the true sense of an age of wonder, mystery an symbolism, where life is part of an intricate matrix that expresses, in every direction, a oneness and a sense of awe and meaning.

Thus, when we try to appreciate the sense of the Vedic texts, we must try to approach it without the intellectual baggage of the current age, and insert ourselves fresh without preconceptions or even predilections to the extent possible, and even then, we must guard against any intellectual pride of understanding, when we obviously cannot be a blank slate to absorb and respond.

Sri Aurobindo points out that where we see a poetic device, the symbolic age sees an expression of a reality that had deep and very evident meaning.  Where we see an intellectual explanation that struggles to fulfill itself, we are likely simply misinterpreting the truth that is being expressed by the seer of that former age.

“Or let us take, for this example will serve us best, the Vedic institution of the fourfold order, caturvarna, miscalled the system of the four castes,– for caste is a conventional, varna a symbolic and typal institution.  We are told that the institution of the four orders of society was the result of an economic evolution complicated by political causes.  Very possibly, but the important point is that it was not so regarded and could not be so regarded by the men of that age.  For while we are satisfied when we have found the practical and material causes of a social phenomenon and do not care to look farther, they cared little or only subordinately for its material factors and looked always first and foremost for its symbolic, religious or psychological significance.  This appears in the Purushasukta of the Veda, where the four orders are described as having sprung from the body of the creative Deity, from his head, arms, thighs and feet.  To us this is merely a poetical image and its sense is that the Brahmins were the men of knowledge, the Kshatriyas the men of power, the Vaishyas the producers and support of society, the Shudras its servants.  As if that were all, as if the men of those days would have so profound a reverence for mere poetical figures like this of the body of Brahma or that other of the marriages of Surya, would have built upon them elaborate systems of ritual and sacred ceremony, enduring institutions, great demarcations of social type and ethical discipline.  We read always our own mentality into that of these ancient forefathers and it is therefore that we can find in them nothing but imaginative barbarians.”

“The image was to these seers a revelative symbol of the unrevealed and it was used because it could hint luminously to the mind what the precise intellectual word, apt only for logical or practical thought or to express the physical and the superficial, could not at all hope to manifest.  To them this symbol of the Creator’s body was more than an image, it expressed a divine reality.  Human society was for them an attempt to express in life the cosmic Purusha who has expressed himself otherwise in the material and the supraphysical universe.  Man and the cosmos are both of them symbols and expressions of the same hidden Reality.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 1, The Cycle of Society, pp. 8-10

The Indian Ideal of the Relation Between Man and Woman

To attempt an understanding of the symbolic stage of human society, it may be helpful to look at some concrete examples.  Sri Aurobindo has chosen several, the first being the manner and mode of relationship envisioned for man and woman.  The modern age has a very confused outlook, as in some cases, woman is put up on a pedestal, while at the same time, woman is frequently suppressed, controlled, demeaned, abused, harassed, and virtually enslaved.  Yet in the ancient symbolic age, the relationship of man and woman was supposed to embody an ideal relation found in the divine relation of Purusha and Prakriti.  The two principles represented and symbolized the consciousness and force of creation and were equally important in the manifestation of the universal existence.  They could not exist without one another and neither one, nor the other, was therefore supreme and totally dominant.  Over time, the relation of Purusha and Prakriti underwent changes which impacted the way the relationship of male and female was understood in the social order.

Sri Aurobindo explains:  “…the Indian ideal of the relation between man and woman has always been governed by the symbolism of the relation between the Purusha and Prakriti …, the male and female divine Principles in the universe.  Even, there is to some degree a practical correlation between the position of the female sex and this idea.  In the earlier Vedic times when the female principle stood on a sort of equality with the male in the symbolic cult, though with a certain predominance for the latter, woman was as much the mate as the adjunct of man; in later times when the Prakriti has become subject in idea to the Purusha, the woman also depends entirely on the man, exists only for him and has hardly even a separate spiritual existence.  In the Tantrik Shakta religion which puts the female principle highest, there is an attempt which could not get itself translated into social practice, — even as this Tantrik cult could never entirely shake off the subjugation of the Vedantic idea, — to elevate woman and make her an object of profound respect and even of worship.”


Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 1, The Cycle of Society, pg. 8

The Vedic Age in India Represents a Symbolic Stage of Civilisation

It is difficult, if not virtually impossible, for someone from an intellectual and mechanistic age to enter into the spirit of, or even reach an understanding of the mind and insight of someone from another age, when the logical intellect did not play the same role that it plays in our society.  An attempt to interpret, therefore, symbolic utterances or written texts from today’s viewpoint is therefore bound to lead to considerable misunderstanding and misinterpretation.  Sri Aurobindo, using his yogic experience as a foundational power of understanding, undertook considerable work in making the symbolic sense of the Vedic Age available to the modern intellect.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “If we look at the beginnings of Indian society, the far-off Vedic age which we no longer understand, for we have lost that mentality, we see that everything is symbolic.  The religious institution of sacrifice governs the whole society and all its hours and moments, and the ritual of the sacrifice is at every turn and in every detail, as even a cursory study of the Brahmanas and Upanishads ought to show us, mystically symbolic.”

“Not only the actual religious worship but also the social institutions of the time were penetrated through and through with the symbolic spirit.  Take the hymn of the Rig Veda which is supposed to be a marriage hymn for the union of a human couple and was certainly used as such in the later Vedic ages.  Yet the whole sense of the hymn turns about the successive marriages of Surya, daughter of the Sun, with different gods and the human marriage is quite a subordinate matter overshadowed and governed entirely by the divine and mystic figure and is spoken of in the terms of that figure.  Mark, however, that the divine marriage here is not, as it would be in later ancient poetry, a decorative image or poetical ornamentation used to set off and embellish the human union; on the contrary, the human is an inferior figure and image of the divine.  The distinction marks off the entire contrast between that more ancient mentality and our modern regard upon things.  This symbolism influenced for a long time Indian ideas of marriage and is even now conventionally remembered though no longer understood or effective.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 1, The Cycle of Society, pp. 7-8

The Symbolic Stage Governs the Early Phases of Human Civilisations

Humanity has evolved to the present stage where we apply scientific methods of knowledge, systematic thinking and development of mechanical and, nowadays, digital forms of understanding the world around us, but we can look back at the historical basis of various ancient civilisations and see that today’s stage is not the actual and consistent mode of understanding employed by earlier humanity.  When we did not have science to explain to us the workings of the cosmos, the patterns of the weather, and the movements of sun, the earth and the planets, humanity frequently treated the apparent causative factors as personified beings, or else, forces brought into play by some greater beings than we could conceive.  This led to a religious mentality which looked upon events as symbolic of some message that was being provided.  Those who could interpret such messages held roles of great importance and power in their communities, whether they were known as Shaman, Priest or some other intermediary to help the community understand what those higher beings or powers were trying to communicate.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “Undoubtedly, wherever we can seize human society in what to us seems its primitive beginnings or early stages, — no matter whether the race is comparatively cultured or savage or economically advanced or backward, — we do find a strongly symbolic mentality that governs  or at least pervades its thought, customs and institutions.  Symbolic, but of what?  We find that this social stage is always religious and actively imaginative in its religion; for symbolism and a widespread imaginative or intuitive religious feeling have a natural kinship and especially in earlier or primitive formations they have gone always together.  When man begins to be predominantly intellectual, sceptical, ratiocinative he is already preparing for an individualist society and the age of symbols and the age of conventions have passed or are losing their virtue.  The symbol then is of something which man feels to be present behind himself and his life and his activities, — the Divine, the Gods, the vast and deep unnameable, a hidden, living and mysterious nature of things.  All his religious and social institutions, all the moments and phases of his life are to him symbols in which he seeks to express what he knows or guesses of the mystic influences that are behind his life and shape and govern or at least intervene in its movements.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 1, The Cycle of Society, pg. 7

A First Attempt at a Psychological Understanding of Human Society and Evolution

Eventually scientists and researchers reach the point where they begin to recognise that Matter cannot explain everything, and they start to search for other ideas and forces which provide a deeper insight into the workings of the universal creation and in particular the developments which directly affect mankind, including the development and organisation of societal forms.   Thus, the idea that humanity develops through a series of different types of society based on different psychological principles was developed.   This theory held that humanity at various stages has different ways of understanding and relating to the world, and that these stages follow a coherent principle of development, one after the other.  Sri Aurobindo recognised the power of this paradigm and used it as the basis for the current study.

“…there is the beginning of a perception that behind the economic motives and causes of social and historical development there are profound psychological, even perhaps soul factors…”

This first attempt, formulated by the German Lamprecht in the period prior to World War I, had its own serious limitations.  “Nevertheless, its basic idea formulated a suggestive and illuminating truth, and it is worth while following up some of the suggestions it opens out in the light especially of Eastern thought and experience.”

“The theorist, Lamprecht, … supposed that human society progresses through certain distinct psychological stages which he terms respectively symbolic, typal and conventional, individualist and subjective.  This development forms, then, a sort of psychological cycle through which a nation or a civilisation is bound to proceed.  Obviously, such classifications are likely to err by rigidity and substitute a mental straight line for the coils and zigzags of Nature.  The psychology of man and his societies is too complex, too synthetical of many-sided and intermixed tendencies to satisfy any such rigorous and formal analysis.  Nor does this theory of a psychological cycle tell us what is the inner meaning of its successive phases or the necessity of their succession or the term and end towards which they are driving.  But still to understand the natural laws whether of Mind or Matter it is necessary to analyse their working into its discoverable elements, main constituents, dominant forces, though these may not actually be found anywhere in isolation.”

“The suggestive names he has offered us, if we examine their intrinsic sense and value, may yet throw some light on the thickly veiled secret of our historic evolution, and this is the line on which it would be most useful to investigate.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 1, The Cycle of Society, pp. 5-6