The Relation of Man’s Outer Life To His Inner Being

The Gita consistently takes up concepts that were current in its day and integrates them into an inclusive standpoint. The integrating principle is based on the inner spiritual life and knowledge, not the outer form. The same approach can be seen in the way the Gita addresses the four orders of life, which was turned into a fixed outer social and economic order over time in India. The Gita is not attempting to support or justify this outer system, but rather, trying to express an inner truth that guides the seeker to the Swabhava, the true inner being that the individual is born to express and fulfill, and from there to the Swadharma, the “work to be done” according to the inner law of one’s being.

Sri Aurobindo takes up this point: “And from this emphasis on the inner truth and not on the outer form arises the spiritual significance and power which the Gita assigns to the following of the Swadharma.”

As to the caste system, “In fact it lays very little stress on the external rule and a very great stress on the internal law which the Varna system attempted to put into regulated outward practice. And it is on the individual and spiritual value of this law and not on its communal and economic or other social and cultural importance that the eye of the thought is fixed in this passage.”

As with other principles, “…here too and in the same way it accepts the theory of the four orders of men, but gives to it a profound turn, an inner, subjective and universal meaning, a spiritual sense and direction. And immediately the idea behind the theory changes its values and becomes an enduring and living truth not bound up with the transience of a particular social form and order. What the Gita is concerned with is not the validity of the Aryan social order now abolished or in a state of deliquescence,–if that were all, its principle of the Swabhava and Swadharma would have no permanent truth or value,–but the relation of a man’s outward life to his inward being, the evolution of his action from his soul and inner law of nature.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 20, Swabhava and Swadharma, pg. 497


The Four Orders of Society

To understand the point that the Gita is making regarding an individual’s own inner law of being and action, it is important to first understand the general classes of the four orders of society, which relate to the predominant Guna that then leads to characteristic ways of understanding and acting, and thus, distinguishes the different roles and types that develop with this underlying basis.

Sri Aurobindo therefore describes the “ancient system of the four orders”, as he points out that this understanding developed, not just in India, but widely throughout the ancient world: “The ancient system of the four orders had a triple aspect; it took a social and economic, a cultural and a spiritual appearance. On the economic side it recognised four functions of the social man in the community, the religious and intellectual, the political, the economic and the servile functions. These are thus four kinds of works, the work of religious ministration, letters, learning and knowledge, the work of government, politics, administration and war, the work of production, wealth making and exchange, the work of hired labour and service. An endeavor was made to found and stabilise the whole arrangement of society on the partition of these four functions among four clearly marked classes.”

Despite the artificial and mechanical way this was implemented, and despite the breakdown of many of these traditional roles and modes of organisation, the underlying functionality and the capacities needed to achieve each of them still remain operative today. “The old system everywhere broke down and gave place to a more fluid order or, as in India, to a confused and complex social rigidity and economic immobility degenerating towards a chaos of castes.”

“Along with this economic division there existed the association of a cultural idea which gave to each class its religious custom, its law of honour, ethical rule, suitable education and training, type of character, family ideal and discipline.” The attempt to instill such ideals and thus, to encourage the development of higher capacities at all levels of society was an important aspect that was very much lost over time.

“Finally, wherever this system existed, it was given more or less a religious sanction…and in India a profounder spiritual use and significance. This spiritual significance is the real kernel of the teaching of the Gita.” This essential spiritual underpinning of the four orders of society can be reclaimed by a deeper review of the Gita’s teaching in this regard.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, Second Series, Part II, Chapter 20, Swabhava and Swadharma, pp. 494-495

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