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At the Feet of The Mother

Sri Aurobindo and the Sanatana Dharma 7: Rebirth and Chaturvarna

These four fundamental truths, the One Omnipresent, Omniscient, Omnipotent Reality, Dharma as the law of true living, Karma as the mechanism of individual evolution and, the Gods as the cosmic Powers assisting the evolutionary unfolding of the Divine Will in creation, are the core of Sanatan Dharma. Its promise is not some heaven of human aggrandizement or exaggerated pleasure but the state beyond pleasure and pain, the state of eternal Peace and Delight, the state of inner Freedom called Moksha. But there are several other aspects that complete the picture in all its details. These are the idea of punarjanma or Rebirth, chaturvarna or the fourfold order of Society, the four purusharthas or the four aims and corresponding efforts and finally Yoga or achieving fullness through union with the Divine Source. All these ideas are based on the central conception of the soul’s evolutionary journey. The soul, in the Sanatan Dharma is like a seed of the Divine, an ansha or portion of the Divine that is here upon earth to bring out its full divine possibility latent in it. To realise this fullness the immortal soul needs to go through a number of experiences and challenges that the earthly life because of its composite nature provides. What the ego sees as reward and punishment, success and failure, happiness and suffering, gain and loss, the soul regards simply as challenges and opportunities for progress and growth. This cannot be possible in one life because very soon our mind draws a fence around the soul with all its ifs and buts and fixes grooves of habitual thought and feeling thereby delaying and retarding the progress. Hence the occult spiritual necessity of death, the dark door and the stumbling stride through which we pass towards new possibilities of growth and new adventure trails for further journey. The moment we admit the soul’s evolution towards its divine possibility, rebirth becomes a necessity. That is why one cannot step out of the journey once it begins until one has the complete experience of all that is needed for our growth. Each birth is like a stage or a classroom through which we pass towards higher and higher curves of growth. This evolutionary progression from life to life, from form to form, from birth to birth, from scale to scale, from degree to degree is the real reason and the spiritual logic for rebirth. All the rest is a human reading into a Wisdom that transcends the human mind. 

It is this same idea of evolutionary progression that lies at the root of the four varnas and the four purusharthas. As the soul evolves from scale to scale it takes its station progressively in the physical, vital and mental sheaths or planes. When it experiences the world through purely the physical bodily consciousness, as it must in its first few births, its Varna is of Shudra or the physical man whose life is centered around the bodily needs and the physical world. Rising further, the same soul acquires a vital mode of operation shedding it’s tamasic attire and becomes a Vaishy Varna, the vital humanity engaged in a larger commerce and sees the world as a means of production and the satisfaction of its legitimate desires. Still further it changes into a Kshatriya mode, the warrior soul with its acute sense of right and wrong, justice, honour, chivalry and sacrifice. Thus it begins to live for larger purposes than merely its little self-interest. Finally it ascends further and takes its stand in the world of thought, Brahmin, whose aim is neither wealth nor fame, neither riches nor honour, neither the commerce nor kingship but knowledge for the sake and joy of knowledge. It is this progressive ascension that created the hierarchy through which every soul would pass. The Shudra of today would be the Brahmin of tomorrow. The Brahmin of today was the Shudra yesterday. Western World -view governed by a single linear view of life cannot understand this. But to a dynamic evolutionary view it is only natural that it be so. Surely the later or the more modern Hindus have lost this understanding under the impact of foreign domination. They lost the deeper vision of the soul that regards all things and creatures as equal in the secret divine essence as well as different in degrees of evolution. Hence its outer form became distorted and hence has been broken by the Time-Spirit but its inner truth cannot be broken as it would mean breaking off the evolutionary rungs of the ladder of evolution through which the soul rises from life to life.

The same idea of progressive evolution from the natural physical man to the developed spiritual man underlies the concept of the four successive aims of human life, artha or wealth and all that is necessary for our physical survival, Kama or desire and all that satisfies our vital longings and pleasures, dharma or all that teaches us discernment between the right and wrong, true and false and thereby grow by making conscious choices in the great battle of life within and without, moksha or the state of freedom that comes through a pursuance of true knowledge. Corresponding to these four purusharthas there was the idea of four ashramas (literally labour) such as the brahmacharya ashram through which we learn to gather and use our energies rightly thereby laying the foundations of good health and strength, grihastha ashram or the stage when we deal with material and other possessions, vanaprastha where we dwell in the larger vision of things preparing ourselves for the highest and finally the Sannyas ashram where we are ready to renounce our inner and outer achievements and attachments to discover the pearl of the great price called knowledge and freedom or rather the freedom that comes from true knowledge. 

‘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, catur-vyūha, 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.

The most outward psychological form of these things is the mould or trend of the nature towards certain dominant tendencies, capacities, characteristics, form of active power, quality of the mind and inner life, cultural personality or type. The turn is often towards the predominance of the intellectual element and the capacities which make for the seeking and finding of knowledge and an intellectual creation or formativeness and a preoccupation with ideas and the study of ideas or of life and the information and development of the reflective intelligence. According to the grade of the development there is produced successively the make and character of the man of active, open, inquiring intelligence, then the intellectual and, last, the thinker, sage, great mind of knowledge. The soul-powers which make their appearance by a considerable development of this temperament, personality, soul-type, are a mind of light more and more open to all ideas and knowledge and incomings of Truth; a hunger and passion for knowledge, for its growth in ourselves, for its communication to others, for its reign in the world, the reign of reason and right and truth and justice and, on a higher level of the harmony of our greater being, the reign of the spirit and its universal unity and light and love; a power of this light in the mind and will which makes all the life subject to reason and its right and truth or to the spirit and spiritual right and truth and subdues the lower members to their greater law; a poise in the temperament turned from the first to patience, steady musing and calm, to reflection, to meditation, which dominates and quiets the turmoil of the will and passions and makes for high thinking and pure living, founds the self-governed sattwic mind, grows into a more and more mild, lofty, impersonalised and universalised personality. This is the ideal character and soul-power of the Brahmana, the priest of knowledge. If it is not there in all its sides, we have the imperfections or perversions of the type, a mere intellectuality or curiosity for ideas without ethical or other elevation, a narrow concentration on some kind of intellectual activity without the greater needed openness of mind, soul and spirit, or the arrogance and exclusiveness of the intellectual shut up in his intellectuality, or an ineffective idealism without any hold on life, or any other of the characteristic incompletenesses and limitations of the intellectual, religious, scientific or philosophic mind. These are stoppings short on the way or temporary exclusive concentrations, but a fullness of the divine soul and power of truth and knowledge in man is the perfection of this Dharma or Swabhava, the accomplished Brahminhood of the complete Brahmana.

On the other hand the turn of the nature may be to the predominance of the will-force and the capacities which make for strength, energy, courage, leadership, protection, rule, victory in every kind of battle, a creative and formative action, the will-power which lays its hold on the material of life and on the wills of other men and compels the environment into the shapes which the Shakti within us seeks to impose on life or acts powerfully according to the work to be done to maintain what is in being or to destroy it and make clear the paths of the world or to bring out into definite shape what is to be. This may be there in lesser or greater power or form and according to its grade and force we have successively the mere fighter or man of action, the man of self-imposing active will and personality and the ruler, conqueror, leader of a cause, creator, founder in whatever field of the active formation of life. The various imperfections of the soul and mind produce many imperfections and perversities of this type,—the man of mere brute force of will, the worshipper of power without any other ideal or higher purpose, the selfish, dominant personality, the aggressive violent rajasic man, the grandiose egoist, the Titan, Asura, Rakshasa. But the soul-powers to which this type of nature opens on its higher grades are as necessary as those of the Brahmana to the perfection of our human nature. The high fearlessness which no danger or difficulty can daunt and which feels its power equal to meet and face and bear whatever assault of man or fortune or adverse gods, the dynamic audacity and daring which shrinks from no adventure or enterprise as beyond the powers of a human soul free from disabling weakness and fear, the love of honour which would scale the heights of the highest nobility of man and stoop to nothing little, base, vulgar or weak, but maintains untainted the ideal of high courage, chivalry, truth, straightforwardness, sacrifice of the lower to the higher self, helpfulness to men, unflinching resistance to injustice and oppression, self-control and mastery, noble leading, warrior-hood and captainship of the journey and the battle, the high self-confidence of power, capacity, character and courage indispensable to the man of action,—these are the things that build the make of the Kshatriya. To carry these things to their highest degree and give them a certain divine fullness, purity and grandeur is the perfection of those who have this Swabhava and follow this Dharma.

A third turn is one that brings out into relief the practical arranging intelligence and the instinct of life to produce, exchange, possess, enjoy, contrive, put things in order and balance, spend itself and get and give and take, work out to the best advantage the active relations of existence. In its outward action it is this power that appears as the skilful devising intelligence, the legal, professional, commercial, industrial, economical, practical and scientific, mechanical, technical and utilitarian mind. This nature is accompanied at the normal level of its fullness by a general temperament which is at once grasping and generous, prone to amass and treasure, to enjoy, show and use, bent upon efficient exploitation of the world or its surroundings, but well capable too of practical philanthropy, humanity, ordered benevolence, orderly and ethical by rule but without any high distinction of the finer ethical spirit, a mind of the middle levels, not straining towards the heights, not great to break and create noble moulds of life, but marked by capacity, adaptation and measure. The powers, limitations and perversions of this type are familiar to us on a large scale, because this is the very spirit which has made our modern commercial and industrial civilisation. But if we look at the greater inner capacities and soul-values, we shall find that here also there are things that enter into the completeness of human perfection. The Power that thus outwardly expresses itself on our present lower levels is one that can throw itself out in the great utilities of life and at its freest and widest makes, not for oneness and identity which is the highest reach of knowledge or the mastery and spiritual kingship which is the highest reach of strength, but still for something which is also essential to the wholeness of existence, equal mutuality and the exchange of soul with soul and life with life. Its powers are, first, a skill, kauśala, which fashions and obeys law, recognises the uses and limits of relations, adapts itself to settled and developing movements, produces and perfects the outer technique of creation and action and life, assures possession and proceeds from possession to growth, is watchful over order and careful in progress and makes the most of the material of existence and its means and ends; then a power of self-spending skilful in lavishness and skilful in economy, which recognises the great law of interchange and amasses in order to throw out in a large return, increasing the currents of interchange and the fruitfulness of existence; a power of giving and ample creative liberality, mutual helpfulness and utility to others which becomes the source in an open soul of just beneficence, humanitarianism, altruism of a practical kind; finally, a power of enjoyment, a productive, possessive, active opulence luxurious of the prolific Ananda of existence. A largeness of mutuality, a generous fullness of the relations of life, a lavish self-spending and return and ample interchange between existence and existence, a full enjoyment and use of the rhythm and balance of fruitful and productive life are the perfection of those who have this Swabhava and follow this Dharma.

The other turn is towards work and service. This was in the old order the dharma or soul-type of the Shudra and the Shudra in that order was considered as not one of the twice-born, but an inferior type. A more recent consideration of the values of existence lays stress on the dignity of labour and sees in its toil the bed-rock of the relations between man and man. There is a truth in both attitudes. For this force in the material world is at once in its necessity the foundation of material existence or rather that on which it moves, the feet of the creator Brahma in the old parable, and in its primal state not uplifted by knowledge, mutuality or strength a thing which reposes on instinct, desire and inertia. The well-developed Shudra soul-type has the instinct of toil and the capacity of labour and service; but toil as opposed to easy or natural action is a thing imposed on the natural man which he bears because without it he cannot assure his existence or get his desires and he has to force himself or be forced by others or circumstances to spend himself in work. The natural Shudra works not from a sense of the dignity of labour or from the enthusiasm of service,—though that comes by the cultivation of his dharma,—not as the man of knowledge for the joy or gain of knowledge, not from a sense of honour, nor as the born craftsman or artist for love of his work or ardour for the beauty of its technique, nor from an ordered sense of mutuality or large utility, but for the maintenance of his existence and gratification of his primal wants, and when these are satisfied, he indulges, if left to himself, his natural indolence, the indolence which is normal to the tamasic quality in all of us, but comes out most clearly in the uncompelled primitive man, the savage. The unregenerated Shudra is born therefore for service rather than for free labour and his temperament is prone to an inert ignorance, a gross unthinking self-indulgence of the instincts, a servility, an unreflective obedience and mechanical discharge of duty varied by indolence, evasion, spasmodic revolt, an instinctive and uninformed life. The ancients held that all men are born in their lower nature as Shudras and only regenerated by ethical and spiritual culture, but in their highest inner self are Brahmanas capable of the full spirit and godhead, a theory which is not far perhaps from the psychological truth of our nature.

And yet when the soul develops, it is in this Swabhava and Dharma of work and service that there are found some of the most necessary and beautiful elements of our greatest perfection and the key to much of the secret of the highest spiritual evolution. For the soul powers that belong to the full development of this force in us are of the greatest importance,—the power of service to others, the will to make our life a thing of work and use to God and man, to obey and follow and accept whatever great influence and needful discipline, the love which consecrates service, a love which asks for no return, but spends itself for the satisfaction of that which we love, the power to bring down this love and service into the physical field and the desire to give our body and life as well as our soul and mind and will and capacity to God and man, and, as a result, the power of complete self-surrender, ātma-samarpaṇa, which transferred to the spiritual life becomes one of the greatest most revealing keys to freedom and perfection. In these things lies the perfection of this Dharma and the nobility of this Swabhava. Man could not be perfect and complete if he had not this element of nature in him to raise to its divine power.’

It was needed to understand this at length since it has been one of the most misunderstood and misused idea to denounce Sanatan Dharma. It is true that in the later years it degenerated into inheritance by birth and hence its outer moulds had to be broken and cast aside as it was practiced eventually in more recent times. But the inner truth remains, the truth of the soul’s evolution through lives assuming different stations in the course of its ascension creating an ascending order or hierarchical arrangement necessitated by the very evolutionary nature of creation and a progressive unfolding of life. This however was not a denial of equality, rather its enrichment. This idea of flattening all in the same mould, of expecting all to be the same in every way is to actually rob creation not only of its diversity but of the individuals of their own true possibility that can only manifest rightly by recognizing each soul-type and its natural law of unfolding, swabhava and swadharma. Its implications in education and work, its importance in our contribution to society and the world at large is obvious. Surely we must strive for the best but the best of each one is different. In a fair and just society the worth of a good shoemaker should be the same as the worth of a good king. Yet it is truism that the decision of a king impacts much more than that of a shoemaker. Each creature in its own place ordained by nature creates a wonderful concord and harmony in the world-concert. That place unique to each one has to be discovered within. More importantly, when we take the logic of rebirth into account then it is not a place fixed forever but a constant movement upwards until we have discovered the true Self where we find the true secret of Unity in Diversity.      

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