Research, Essays, Commentaries – Inspired by the Social-Cultural-Political Thought of Sri Aurobindo (PLUS a bit of photography too!)
We shall now identify some of those elements which belong to the less internal layers of the social-religious culture which grew around Hinduism. It may be argued that many of the social practices and conventions that emerged in India have nothing really to do with the core of the faith system or ‘way of life’ popularly known as Hinduism. And in a sense this is correct. We have already said that it is important to first understand the fundamentals of Hinduism before we begin any analysis of its relevance for India’s future.
Yet, when we recognise that Hinduism accepts the principle of graduality for an individual’s slow evolution over the course of many lifetimes and also over the course of different stages of life (chaturashramas) in one lifetime pursuing different objects of life (purushartha), we find that this ‘way of life’ (or ‘religion’ as some would like to call it) accepts the need for an appropriate social organisation (varnashram vyavastha) that would allow appropriate opportunities for such progress for the individual. This system of social organisation has been called as ‘triple quartette’ by Sri Aurobindo.
The frame of its system was constituted by a triple quartette. Its ﬁrst circle was the synthesis and gradation of the fourfold object of life, vital desire and hedonistic enjoyment, personal and communal interest, moral right and law, and spiritual liberation. Its second circle was the fourfold order of society, carefully graded and equipped with its ﬁxed economic functions and its deeper cultural, ethical and spiritual signiﬁcances. Its third, the most original and indeed unique of its englobing life-patterns, was the fourfold scale of the successive stages of life, student, householder, forest recluse and free supersocial man. This frame, these lines of a large and noble life-training subsisted in their purity, their grand natural balance of austerity and accommodation, their ﬁne effectiveness during the later Vedic and heroic age of the civilisation: afterwards they crumbled slowly or lost their completeness and order. But the tradition, the idea with some large effect of its force and some ﬁgure of its lines endured throughout the whole period of cultural vigour. However deﬂected it might have been from its true form and spirit, however mutilated and complicated for the worse, there was always left some presence of its inspiration and power. Only in the decline do we get the slow collapse, the degraded and confused mass of conventions which still labours to represent the ancient and noble Aryan system, but in spite of relics of glamour and beauty, in spite of survivals of spiritual suggestion and in spite of a residue of the old high training, is little better than a detritus or a mass of confused relics. Still even in this degradation enough of the original virtue has remained to ensure a remarkable remnant of the ancient beauty, attractiveness and power of survival. (CWSA, Vol. 20, p. 217)
We have quoted the above passage in detail because it speaks of the slow degradation of the external social organisational system of triple quartette, particularly the chaturvarna, while emphasising that the ideal of the truth behind the system may still hold relevant and significant truth. This brings us to our next point.
We shall see how some of the external layers of social-cultural practices that are bound to become mechanical and conventional, often devoid of any real inner meaning and truth, can be and must be changed, adapted and even removed where necessary to suit the new conditions of the modern world and its values. And all this has to be done without compromising on the fundamental values of Hinduism.
As an example, let us take the chaturvarna, the fourfold varna system, a social organisational system from the ancient times that is often confusingly conflated with the corrupted caste system that we see today. There is no doubt that the caste system as it has been practised for the last century or more is a great obstacle to human progress and an insult to human values. However, regardless of all the degradation that has taken place today, it cannot be denied that the original chaturvarna was a fine system in the earlier times. In the words of Sri Aurobindo:
…it was a well-devised and necessary scheme in its time; it gave the community the firm and nobly built stability it needed for the security of its cultural development,—a stability hardly paralleled in any other culture. And, as interpreted by the Indian genius, it became a greater thing than a mere outward economic, political and social mechanism intended to serve the needs and convenience of the collective life. (p. 172)
…this profoundly conceived cycle gave a scheme which kept the full course of the human spirit in its view; it could be taken advantage of by all according to their actual growth and in its fullness by those who were sufficiently developed in their present birth to complete the circle.
On this first firm and noble basis Indian civilisation grew to its maturity and became a thing rich, splendid and unique. While it filled the view with the last mountain prospect of a supreme spiritual elevation, it did not neglect the life of the levels. It lived between the busy life of the city and village, the freedom and seclusion of the forest and the last overarching illimitable ether. (pp. 175-76)
However, with the passage of time, this great institution became degraded and lost its inner meaning. The treatment of outcastes by some sections of Hindu society was one such example, a practice which can never be defended – both in the light of modern ideals of social equality as well as the fundamental truth of Hinduism which recognises the essential equality of all human beings at the level of soul (and yet accepts the differences in the evolutionary stage of each being). The following passage from Sri Aurobindo is worth serious reflection:
Apart from all phenomena of decline or deterioration, we should recognise without any sophistical denial those things in our creeds of life and social institutions which are in themselves mistaken and some of them indefensible, things weakening to our national life, degrading to our civilisation, dishonouring to our culture. A flagrant example can be found in the treatment of our outcastes. There are those who would excuse it as an unavoidable error in the circumstances of the past; there are others who contend that it was the best possible solution then available. There are still others who would justify it and, with whatever modifications, prolong it as necessary to our social synthesis. The contention is highly disputable. The excuse was there, but it is no justification for continuance. A solution which condemns by segregation one sixth of the nation to permanent ignominy, continued filth, uncleanliness of the inner and outer life and a brutal animal existence instead of lifting them out of it is no solution but rather an acceptance of weakness and a constant wound to the social body and to its collective spiritual, intellectual, moral and material welfare. A social synthesis which can only live by making a permanent rule of the degradation of our fellowmen and countrymen stands condemned and foredoomed to decay and disturbance. The evil effects may be kept under for a long time and work only by the subtler unobserved action of the law of Karma; but once the light of Truth is let in on these dark spots, to perpetuate them is to maintain a seed of disruption and ruin our chances of eventual survival. (pp 89-90, emphasis added)
Similarly, we can take the example of the role and place of women in the society. By all records that are available, it appears that in ancient India during the Vedic times, man and woman were considered equal. One example of such equality is that the Rishipatnis were given the same stature as the Rishis. We also have evidence of many important women Rishis and sages, as well as women who made their mark in other spheres of human activity. But in the course of time due to a general degradation the women’s place in the society as well as their role and status in the religious practices declined significantly. We now have to bring back the old glory where man and woman are given their full rights to grow according to their own inner nature, their swadharma.
We can similarly look at many other external layers of the social-religious culture that goes by the name of Hindu culture. But here it must be emphasised that extreme care and caution is necessary when we begin to work with the external forms of any religion, such as rituals, religious practices, and forms. It needs to thoroughly understood and fully accepted that for most human beings, rituals and some form of external worship is indispensable in their religio-spiritual paths. This is beautifully explained in the following words of Sri Aurobindo:
The highest spirituality indeed moves in a free and wide air far above that lower stage of seeking which is governed by religious form and dogma; it does not easily bear their limitations and, even when it admits, it transcends them; it lives in an experience which to the formal religious mind is unintelligible. But man does not arrive immediately at that highest inner elevation and, if it were demanded from him at once, he would never arrive there. At first he needs lower supports and stages of ascent; he asks for some scaffolding of dogma, worship, image, sign, form, symbol, some indulgence and permission of mixed half-natural motive on which he can stand while he builds up in him the temple of the spirit. Only when the temple is completed, can the supports be removed, the scaffolding disappear. The religious culture which now goes by the name of Hinduism not only fulfilled this purpose, but, unlike certain credal religions, it knew its purpose. It gave itself no name, because it set itself no sectarian limits; it claimed no universal adhesion, asserted no sole infallible dogma, set up no single narrow path or gate of salvation; it was less a creed or cult than a continuously enlarging tradition of the Godward endeavour of the human spirit. An immense many-sided many-staged provision for a spiritual self-building and self-finding, it had some right to speak of itself by the only name it knew, the eternal religion, sanatana dharma. It is only if we have a just and right appreciation of this sense and spirit of Indian religion that we can come to an understanding of the true sense and spirit of Indian culture. (p. 179)
In our haste to ‘reform’ and ‘modernise’ Hinduism we should not blindly advocate for getting rid of all outer forms such as religious practices or rituals. We must not remove the scaffolding before the temple is complete. Dead conventions that have lost their inner truth must go, but this has to be an inner evolutionary change. We must recognise that any externally imposed ‘modernisation’ of a religious practice is futile and potentially dangerous unless there is an impulsion from within the minds and hearts of the adherents of the particular practice to get rid of all that is hindering their further inner progress. Whatever changes are to be made should be made by the practitioners and keeping in consideration the demands and needs of the modern mind, without touching the inner core.