The Limitations of a Ruler in Any Attempt at Developing and Defining the Dharma of a Society

Powerful rulers through the ages have, in many instances, tried to identify the needs, direction and development of the society through their own predilections and ideas.  They look upon the society as simply an appendage of themselves and they believe that they can fix the programme followed by the society.  Given the complexity and size of the societal groupings, it is clear that this is akin to the idea of the “tail wagging the dog”.  It clearly would be impossible for any ruler to determine the exact nature and progress of the economic, social, administrative, legal, executive, religious and cultural directions any society may take.  These things come from the innate force of the people constituting the society and in their complexity and varying focus and needs, we can identify attempts to suppress the naturally arising directions and tendencies as a hopeless and counter-productive task.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “he can only in great flowering times of that culture help by his protection in fixing for it the turn which by its own force of tendency it was already taking.  To attempt more is an irrational attempt which cannot lead to the development of a rational society.  He can only support the attempt by autocratic oppression which leads in the end to the feebleness and stagnation of the society, and justify it by some mystical falsity about the divine right of kings or monarchy a peculiarly divine institution.  Even exceptional rulers, a Charlemagne, an Augustus, a Napoleon, a Chandragupta, Asoka or Akbar, can do no more than fix certain new institutions which the time needed and help the emergence of its best or else its strongest tendencies in a critical era.  When they attempt more, they fail.  Akbar’s effort to create a new dharma for the Indian nation by his enlightened reason was a brilliant futility.  Asoka’s edicts remain graven upon pillar and rock, but the development of Indian religion and culture took its own line in other and far more complex directions determined by the soul of a great people.  Only the rare individual Manu, Avatar or prophet who comes on earth perhaps once in a millennium can speak truly of his divine right, for the secret of his force is not political but spiritual.  For an ordinary political ruling man or a political institution to have made such a claim was one of the most amazing among the many follies of the human mind.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part Two, Chapter 21, The Drive towards Legislative and Social Centralisation and Uniformity, pp. 187-188


Laws and Institutions of a Society Provide a Framework for Realizing its Dharma

Societies go through a series of phases of development with respect to the creation of a formal body of laws and forms through which the society expresses its essential nature and goals.  The earlier phases are generally not consciously determined, but rather come about through the vital interactions of the participants in the society and their response to external concerns and internal needs for organisation and efficiency of action within the group.  At a later stage, an intellectual component develops, and one can see an attempt to codify and organise laws along sensible lines to achieve certain aims.  This represents the input of the mental evolution into the vital life of the society.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “For the laws and institutions of a society are the framework it builds for its life and its dharma.  When it begins to determine these for itself by a self-conscious action of its reason and will within whatever limits, it has taken the first step in a movement which must inevitably end in an attempt to regulate self-consciously its whole social and cultural life; it must, as its self-consciousness increases, drive towards the endeavour to realise something like the Utopia of the thinker.  For the Utopian thinker is the individual mind forerunning in its turn of thought the trend which the social mind must eventually take.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part Two, Chapter 21, The Drive towards Legislative and Social Centralisation and Uniformity, pg. 187

The Legislative Function Should Embody and Express the Dharma of the Society

Sri Aurobindo distinguishes between the executive function, with the ruler or executive charged with upholding the law or dharma of the society, while the function of developing a formal body of law and ordering of the life and economic activity of the society is to be left to a legislative function for which the executive is not ideally suited.  He clarifies:  “But legislation, social development, culture, religion, even the determination of the economic life of the people are outside his proper sphere; they constitute the expression of the life, the thought, the soul of the society which, if he is a strong personality in touch with the spirit of the age, he may help to influence but which he cannot determine.  They constitute the national dharma…”

Sri Aurobindo introduces the concept of Dharma in terms of the development of a body of law in the organisation of society.  He clarifies that there is no easy term that translates Dharma into English.  He defines it as “the law of our nature and it means also its formulated expression.”  Applied to a society, it represents the collective expression for which that society was constituted.  “Only the society itself can determine the development of its own dharma or can formulate its expression; and if this is to be done not in the old way by a naturally organic and intuitive development, but by a self-conscious regulation through the organised national reason and will, then a governing body must be created which will more or less adequately represent, if it cannot quite embody, the reason and will of the whole society.”

“A governing class, aristocracy or intelligent theocracy may represent, not indeed this but some vigorous or noble part of the national reason and will; but even that can only be a stage of development towards a democratic State.  Certainly, democracy as it is now practiced is not the last or penultimate stage; for it is often merely democratic in appearance and even at the best amounts to the rule of the majority and works by the vicious method of party government, defects the increasing perception of which enters largely into the present-day dissatisfaction with parliamentary systems.  Even a perfect democracy is not likely to be the last stage of social evolution, but it is still the necessary broad standing-ground upon which the self-consciousness of the social being can come to its own.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part Two, Chapter 21, The Drive towards Legislative and Social Centralisation and Uniformity, pp. 186-187

Control of the Legislative Function by the Executive Is the Real Mark of Absolutism

The executive in society attempts to accumulate power to not only carry out the laws, but to interpret and make them as well.  The power of the executive is kept in check by the robust functioning of an independent judiciary on the one side and an independent legislative power on the other.  This was the original concept behind the form of government envisioned in the constitution of the United States with three separate branches of government providing checks and balances to one another.  Regardless of the theoretical balance between executive, judicial and legislative functions, there is the reality in operations that must be viewed and understood to appreciate when the executive is gaining excess power and creating an imbalance in the societal framework.  Even if the executive does not create laws by fiat, if it controls, de facto, the legislative function, it can cause laws to be adopted that cater to its desires for more control and autocratic power, or prevent laws that would circumscribe that power.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “The king may get rid of the power of the priesthood, he may reduce his council to an instrument of his will or the nobility which they represent to a political and military support for his actions, but until he has got rid of the assembly or is no longer obliged to convoke it, … he cannot be the chief much less the sole legislative authority.  Even if he leaves the practical work of legislation to a non-political, a judicial body like the French Parliaments, he is bound to find there a centre of resistance.  Therefore the disappearance of the assembly or the power of the monarch to convoke it or not at his pleasure is always the real mark of his absolutism.  But when he has succeeded, when his decrees are laws, when he has got rid of or subordinated to himself all the other powers of the social life, there at that point of his highest success his failure begins; the monarchical system has fulfilled its positive part in the social evolution and all that is left to it is either to hold the State together until it has transformed itself or else to provoke by oppression the movement towards the sovereignty of the people.”


Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part Two, Chapter 21, The Drive towards Legislative and Social Centralisation and Uniformity, pg.. 185

Defining Who Holds the Power of the State in the Exercise of Legislative Functions

The executive, whether king, monarch, dictator, emperor, president or prime minister, is charged with carrying out the laws of the State and undertaking external protection actions as may be required.  The question arises, however, as to where the legislative power resides; in other words, “who is the representative of the State” for purposes of developing and making laws.  The more authoritarian the regime, the more this legislative power is concentrated in the executive or at least under the control and direction of the executive.

Sri Aurobindo explores the issue:  “Is the embodiment of the intellect, will and conscience of the society to be a king and his counsellors or a theocratic, autocratic or plutocratic governing class or a body which shall at least seem to stand sufficiently for the whole society, or is to be a compromise between some or all of these possibilities?  The whole course of constitutional history has turned upon this question and to all appearance wavered obscurely between various possibilities; but in reality, we can see that throughout there has been acting the pressure of a necessity which travelled indeed through the monarchical, aristocratic and other stages, but had to debouch in the end in a democratic form of government.  The king in his attempt to be the State — an attempt imposed on him by the impulse of his evolution — must try indeed to become the fountain as well as the head of the law; he must seek to engross the legislative as well as the administrative functions of the society, its side of efficient thought as well as its side of efficient action.  But even in so doing he was only preparing the way for the democratic State.”

As modern society extends the reach of education, and provides the entire society with the ability to obtain and respond to information about their lives, needs and society, it becomes theoretically possible to develop a society that relies on a large and diverse citizenry, awake and grappling with the issues, to create a democratic governing form that can succeed.  Obviously, the transition from a central control to a distributed system of control (monarchy to democracy for instance) involves some serious issues to be resolved, not least of which is the initial power held by the central control and the ability (and vested interests) of that control to withhold meaning education or information, or to manipulate it so as to mislead or otherwise control the populace; eventually however, any system that imbalances the access, and benefits provided to  all members of the society will be called upon to embrace change or face disruptive action to catalyze that change.  The American Revolution, the French Revolution, the liberation of nations formerly controlled by imperial powers, all represent movements in this direction.

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part Two, Chapter 21, The Drive towards Legislative and Social Centralisation and Uniformity, pp. 184-185

The Evolution of Intelligent Development and Implementation of Law Over Custom

The development of a body of formalised laws in a society mirrors, generally, the development of the mental intelligence and its resetting and restructuring of the vital reactions, habits and customs in the individual human being.  When the higher mental processes become active, they act as a focusing and restraining force on the impulsive vital nature.  Similarly in a societal setting, we see the initial basis of law in the vital principle of reaction to circumstances and an attempt to balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the society, through the creation of rules, habits of response and frameworks of taboo which all rely on the vital force working through the community of individuals.  As with any evolutionary step, the transition from the vital process to the planned intellectual based process involves a series of phases or steps along the way.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “The first marked sign of a rational evolution is the tendency of code and constitution to prevail over custom.  But still there are codes and codes.  For first there are systems that are unwritten or only partly written and do not throw themselves into the strict code form, but are a floating mass of laws, decreta, precedents, and admit still of a large amount of merely customary law.  And again there are systems that do take the strict code form, like the Hindu Shastra, but are really only an ossification of custom and help to stereotype the life of the society but not to rationalise it.  Finally, there are those deliberately ordered codes which are an attempt at intelligent systematisation; a sovereign authority fixes the cadres of the law and admits from time to time changes that are intelligent accommodations to new needs, variations that do not disturb but merely modify and develop the intelligent unity and reasonable fixity of the system.  The coming to perfection of this last type is the triumph of the narrower but more self-conscious and self-helpful rational over the larger but vaguer and more helpless life-instinct in the society.  When it has arrived at this triumph of a perfectly self-conscious and systematically rational determination and arrangement of its life on one side by a fixed and uniform constitution, on the other by a uniform and intelligently structured civil and criminal law, the society is ready for the second stage of its development.  It can undertake the self-conscious, uniform ordering of its whole life in the light of the reason which is the principle of modern socialism and has been the drift of all Utopias of the thinkers.”


Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part Two, Chapter 21, The Drive towards Legislative and Social Centralisation and Uniformity, pg. 184

The Flexibility of Law Based on Societal Custom

When we observe traditional societies, prior to the development of a systematised body of regulations and laws, we find that there may be certain basic similarities within a culture, but that the actual application may vary from group to group, tribe to tribe, clan to clan.  There is considerable discretion to take into account varying circumstances, needs and backgrounds.  Thus, law is a fluid concept, applied by the people of a community on their own community.

As law becomes more formalized and organized, this fluidity and variation begins to disappear until finally there is a codified system that gets applied across all people within the society in a more or less uniform fashion, dependent primarily on the vagaries of the specific legal system, the amount of control or influence exercised by the executive in that society, and the discretion permitted to judges in terms of interpreting and applying that law.

Sri Aurobindo observes:  “In its beginning, law is always customary and where it is freely customary, where, that is to say, it merely expresses the social habits of the people, it must, except in small societies, naturally lead to or permit considerable variety of custom. …  This spontaneous freedom of variation is the surviving sign of a former natural or organic life of society as opposed to an intellectually ordered, rationalised or mechanised living.  The organic group-life fixed its general lines and particular divergences by the general sense and instinct or intuition of the group-life rather than by the stricter structure of the reason.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part Two, Chapter 21, The Drive towards Legislative and Social Centralisation and Uniformity, pp. 183-184