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