The Individualist Age and The Caste System : When the gap between Truth and Convention becomes intolerable, individuals wake up to question and to reject by reason the symbol, type and convention so as to seek the truth of things. Thus the Age of individualism (17) burst forth in Europe through the Renaissance and Reformation and challenged the dogmatism of the church and the ‘Sanctified tyrannies’ of the politicians. This revolt culminated in the eulogisation of science and in the triumph of Reason. In the collective life, this impulse translated itself in the attempt to establish social justice through universal fundamental rights.
The age of individualism rose primarily in Europe – The East awakened to it only through contact and influence of the West. However, there were important differences. Whereas in Europe, religious freedom was divorced from social and political freedom, in the East such movements found spiritual leaders who advocated a new set of values to rejuvenate the spirit of India. Despite such attempts the conventional stage has not come to an end in India and obsolete institutions like the caste system continue to exist.
It would be judicious to examine why the caste system could not be broken by the Western impact of the Age of Individualism, even in this era of globalisation. Some possible reasons would be --
(a) Sri Aurobindo points out that. any new constructive force must be aided. by a destructive critical reasoning.(18) There have been recurrent attempts in India to break conventions following the Buddhist upheaval but could not succeed because they were conducted by a wide and tolerant reason that was insufficiently militant -- a typical Indian attitude that contributes to the persistence of decadent institution.
(b) It is a psychological fact that the root powers of human life have their non-rational sources too. Despite accepting Reason as a Governor of life, man continues to be subject to the tyranny of needs, desires, prejudices , cultural taboos, dogmatic ideas‑- a condition described by Sri Aurobindo as the irrationality of human existence. (19) Thus it is a psychological fact that this tendency of conventions to return back again and again persists and cultures which have existed for a long time are more prone to such attacks. An analogous movement in the Western world is the recent renewal of 'academic' interest in witch‑craft.
Even if a rational age of Individualism could firmly establish itself in India, it is doubtful if it could solve the problem of caste because:
(i) Science had to discover universal laws to establish verifiable truths. This was all right in the domain of physical sciences but when this view was extended to the realm of behavioral sciences, certain complications set in. The universal laws by which science sought to explain human life were heavily biased towards the individual. As a result science could only replace existing social systems by newer variants. Sri Aurobindo describes that even in caste system could be recast in an age of science (20) The Brahmin law enforcer could be replaced by the scientific, economic ad administrative expert. The autocratic king could be replaced by an equally powerful collectivist state. An initial equality of education and opportunity would be latter supplemented by a delineation of function by vocational experts. The Vanaprastha and Sannyasa Ashramas of the elderly would be replaced by enjoyment of leisure. Such a novel variant of the ancient caste system would be more rigid and dehumanising.
(ii) Our life‑nature yearns for diversity and variation. To tackle this impulse, Reason favours standardisation, organisation and uniformity. The Age of Individualism tends to use Reason to justify the socialisation of individuals so as to construct an organised uniformity. It is psychologically more important to adopt reason to the psychic needs of the individual. (21 ) This necessitates the human cycle to move from an individualist to a subjective phase.
(iii) The progress of the social cycle has to be pari passu accompanied by an individual effort to be self‑conscious instead of being only self-critical. The individual has the capacity to continually exceed himself. To do so, he has to integrate his personality around a centre that on one hand surpasses the ego and on the other hand denotes a higher level of consciousness than the ordinary mentality. Such an integrated personality can then ascend the hierarchies of consciousness. Only then can man succeed in freeing himself from the burden of his atavistic conventions.