The Caste System Of India

The Growth of Communities and its influence on castes

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The Growth of Communities and its influence on castes:
It is also important to understand the communal structure that supported the Caturvarna. Sri Aurobindo points out that variants of the Caturvarna was also evident in other ancient and medieval countries at a certain stage of social evolution. With the progress of social evolution, the character of communal life changed accompanied by changes in the value-system which in turn devalued and diluted the essence of Caturvarna. An ideal Caturvarna could only be practiced in communities pursuing a free growth. In fact, one of the key facets of early Indian collective life was a complex system of self-determining and self-governing communal bodies capable of spontaneous and free growth along several lines. Such communities grew when the agricultural and pastoral life began to be supplemented by a rich superstructure of commerce and industry and arts and crafts and a smaller superstructure of specialized military and political and religious and scholastic occupations. ‘The village continued to remain the unit of the social body but groups of villages began to conglomerate by conquest or coalition into confederated republics or nations and these again constituted the outer rings of larger kingdoms. The central authority did not function as an absolute monarchy but instead tried to harmonise the functioning of the communal bodies which had their own established laws. Between the central authority and the self determining communal units at the grass root level, were free institutions like councils and assemblies where all the four orders of the Caturvarna were represented giving the impression of a mixed polity. (7),(8)

This classical social organization of ancient India marked by the free and spontaneous growth of communities in accordance with the Dharma idea and harmonized by a non-interfering central authority had one great deficiency—it could not serve for the national and political unification of India and failed finally to counter foreign invasion. Sri Aurobindo stresses that the political system of a society has to be assessed not only on the basis of prosperity and internal freedom of the people but also by the security it erects against disruptive forces. It is here that the ancient social organization of India did not outwardly succeed (outwardly, for otherwise India continued to survive because of an underlying spiritual commonality). (9) As a result the Time-spirit forced the transition from the free-growing Aryan communities through may transient formations to the complicated monarchical state and as the central autocratic tendency began to grow, the free growth of the communities suffered and the regional autonomies broke down at the cost of a better administration and a stronger military force. Later with the stabilizing of a Mahomedan rule, the evils of an artificial Unitarian regime became more pronounced. The free institutions that stood between he royal government and the self determining communal life of the people tended to disappear. This was contrary to the spirit of Indian policy which had always favoured a synthesis of communal autonomies (as is evident even today in the fag end of the twentieth century in the resurgence of interest in the Panchayat Raj). Sri Aurobindo describes that with the growth of a centralized autocracy, the free peoples of the ancient Indian world began to disappear, their broken materials serving afterwards to create the now existing Indian races.’ (10) The Caturvarna underwent many subdivisions giving rise to the decadent institution of caste, Jati. This is the caste system as we find today. The Brahmins got subdivided into many castes while the Kshatriyas remained comparativively united through divided into Kulas. The Vaishya and Sudra orders underwent many subdivisions under the necessity of a subdivision of economic function on the basis of the heredity principle. The hereditary principle became all-pervasive and served as a basis of social organization. Sri Aurobindo also points to another interesting feature of this decadence. In the early Aryan Society, the bulk of the common people belonged to the Vaishya order and comprised besides merchants and traders, the craftsmen and artisans and agriculturists. In fact, the Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Sudras were later social growths and comparatively fewer in number. ‘It was only after the confusion created by the Buddhist upheaval and the Brahminic reconstitution of the society in the age of cultural decadence that the mass of the cultivators and artisans and small traders sank in the greater part of India to the condition of Surdras with a small Brahmin mass at the top and in between a slight sprinkling of Kshatriyas and of Vaishyas.’ (11) (Sri Aurobindo’s observation is validated by contemporary census reports where the upper classes constitute less than 20% of the Indian population.) The caste system became a caricature of the Caturvarna and passively obstructed any attempt at a social reconstruction of a free and actively united life.
The socio-economic and political perspective, though very important does not suffice to explain the origin of Caturvarna. Sri Aurobindo also examines the problem in the context of social evolution. The Human Cycle moves through successive psychological stage of social development – a Lamprechtian concept elaborated by Sri Aurobindo and utilized by Him to initiate His own views on the subject. Karl Lamprecht (1856 –1915), the distinguished German historian made a radical departure from the economic – materialistic view of history and social development by adopting a psychological and subjective stand-point. Lamprecht named the psychological stages of the social cycle as:

  1. symbolic

  2. typal and conventional

  3. individualistic and

  4. subjective.

Sri Aurobindo accepted this nomenclature and added a spiritual cycle though He concomitantly warned that it was an over – simplification to classify men and societies. Nevertheless, these terms suited Sri Aurobindo so as to describe the Human Cycle in His own way that differed entirely from Lamprecht. As an illustration, Sri Aurobindo demonstrated how Caturvarna progressed through different psychological stages of the social cycle.(12)

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