The caste system in India has been a subject of much controversy. It was supposed to be an identification of man’s inbuilt inclinations and capacities, but gradually this truth was lost and it morphed into a mechanical system for slotting people into various social categories based on their birth in a certain family. It thus became a vehicle for stigma and discrimination. In the following selections from various works, Sri Aurobindo points out the true origin of the caste system – how the four castes are actually four latent powers (caturvyuha) within Man which must be perfected by every person on the spiritual path. The Brahmin represents the faculty of knowledge, ethics and learning, the Kshatriya represents valour, the Vaishya represents commerce and relationship of harmony, while the Shudra represents perfection in work.
In contemporary terms:
- Brahmin = intelligentsia.
- Kshatriya = people involved in governance.
- Vaishya = capitalists.
- Shudra = labour.
Sri Aurobindo on the four powers within Man
We must realise that the ancient Aryan Rishis meant by the Chaturvarnya (four castes) not a mere social division, but a recognition of God manifesting Himself in fundamental Swabhava(individual nature), which our bodily distinctions, our social orders are merely an attempt to organise in the symbols of human life, often a confused attempt, often a mere parody and distortion of the divine thing they try to express. Every man has in himself all the four Dharmas, but one predominates, in one he is born and that strikes the note of his character and determines the type and cast of all his actions; the rest subordinated to the dominant type and helps to give it its complement. No Brahmana is a complete Brahmana unless he has the Kshatratejas in him, the Vaishyashakti and the Shudrashakti, but all these have to serve in him the fullness of his Brahmanyam. God manifests Himself as the four Prajapatis or Manus, catvāro manavah of the Gita, and each man is born in the amśa of one of the four; the first characterised by wisdom and largeness, the second by heroism and force, the third by dexterity and enjoy- ment, the fourth by work and service. The perfected man develops in himself all four capacities and contains at once the god of wisdom and largeness, the god of heroism and force, the god of skill and enjoyment, the god of work and service. Only one stands dominant and leads and uses the others.
Sri Aurobindo, Supplement: Shakti-Chatushtaya
The fourfold personality
The Divine Mother here is the female form of the Infinite Power which has manifested the Universe.
|Four powers of the Divine Mother||Attribute
||Manifests in human nature as|
|Maheshwari, goddess of the supreme knowledge||brings to us her vision for all kinds and widenesses of truth, her rectitude of the spiritual will, the calm and passion of her supramental largeness, her felicity of illumination||Brahmana|
|Mahakali, goddess of the supreme strength||with her are all mights and spiritual force and severest austerity of Tapas and swiftness to the battle and the victory and the laughter, the attahāsya, that makes light of defeat and death and the powers of the ignorance||Kshatriya|
|Mahalakshmi, the goddess of the supreme love and delight||her gifts are the spirit’s grace and the charm and beauty of the Ananda and protection and every divine and human blessing||Vaishya|
|Mahasaraswati, the goddess of divine skill and of the works of the Spirit||and hers is the Yoga that is skill in works, yogah karmasu kauśalam, and the utilities of divine knowledge and the self-application of the spirit to life and the happiness of its harmonies||Shudra|
Sri Aurobindo’s commentary on the Gita.
The fundamental truth is not this outward thing, but a force of our inner being in movement, the truth of the fourfold active power of the spiritual nature. Each Jiva possesses in his spiritual nature these four sides, is a soul of knowledge, a soul of strength and of power, a soul of mutuality and interchange, a soul of works and service, but one side or other predominates in the action and expressive spirit and tinges the dealings of the soul with its embodied nature; it leads and gives its stamp to the other powers and uses them for the principal strain of action, tendency, experience. The Swabhava then follows, not crudely and rigidly as put in the social demarcation, but subtly and flexibly the law of this strain and develops in developing it the other three powers. Thus the pursuit of the impulse of works and service rightly done develops knowledge, increases power, trains closeness or balance of mutuality and skill and order of relation. Each front of the fourfold godhead moves through the enlargement of its own dominant principle of nature and enrichment by the other three towards a total perfection. This development undergoes the law of the three gunas. There is possible a tamasic and rajasic way of following even the dharma of the soul of knowledge, a brute tamasic and a high sattwic way of following the dharma of power, a forceful rajasic or a beautiful and noble sattwic way of following the dharma of works and service. To arrive at the sattwic way of the inner individual Swadharma and of the works to which it moves us on the ways of life is a preliminary condition of perfection. And it may be noted that the inner Swadharma is not bound to any outward social or other form of action, occupation or function. The soul of works or that element in us that is satisfied to serve, can, for example, make the life of the pursuit of knowledge, the life of struggle and power or the life of mutuality, production and interchange a means of satisfying its divine impulse to labour and to service.
Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita: Swabhava and Swadharma
Sri Aurobindo in the Synthesis of Yoga
The Godhead, the spirit manifested in Nature appears in a sea of infinite quality, Ananta-guna. But the executive or mechanical Prakriti is of the threefold guna, sattwa, rajas, tamas, and the Ananta-guna, the spiritual play of infinite quality, modifies itself in this mechanical nature into the type of these three gunas. And in the soul-force in man this Godhead in Nature represents itself as a fourfold effective Power, caturvyūha, a Power for knowledge, a Power for strength, a Power for mutuality and active and productive relation and interchange, a Power for works and labour and service, and its presence casts all human life into a nexus and inner and outer operation of these four things. The ancient thought of India conscious of this fourfold type of active human personality and nature built out of it the four types of the Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra, each with its spiritual turn, ethical ideal, suitable upbringing, fixed function in society and place in the evolutionary scale of the spirit. As always tends to be the case when we too much externalise and mechanise the more subtle truths of our nature, this became a hard and fast system inconsistent with the freedom and variability and complexity of the finer developing spirit in man. Nevertheless the truth behind it exists and is one of some considerable importance in the perfection of our power of nature; but we have to take it in its inner aspects, first, personality, character, temperament, soul-type, then the soul-force which lies behind them and wears these forms, and lastly the play of the free spiritual Shakti in which they find their culmination and unity beyond all modes. For the crude external idea that a man is born as a Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya or Shudra and that alone, is not a psychological truth of our being. The psychological fact is that there are these four active powers and tendencies of the Spirit and its executive Shakti within us and the predominance of one or the other in the more well-formed part of our personality gives us our main tendencies, dominant qualities and capacities, effective turn in action and life. But they are more or less present in all men, here manifest, there latent, here developed, there subdued and depressed or subordinate, and in the perfect man will be raised up to a fullness and harmony which in the spiritual freedom will burst out into the free play of the infinite quality of the spirit in the inner and outer life and in the self-enjoying creative play of the Purusha with his and the world’s Nature-Power.
See Also :
- The Fourfold order of society
- Chaturvarna in the Karmayogin
- Plato had proposed a somewhat similar division of society in his tripartite theory of the soul.