Sri Aurobindo's Four Stage Cycle of Society

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From Auroville's student guide to Aurobindo's The Human Cycle (excerpted from chapter 1):

"in pre-war Germany, a first psychological theory of history was conceived. The theorist (Lamprecht) supposed that human society progresses through certain distinct psychological stages: symbolic, typal and conventional, individualist and subjective.

We will leave aside the Western thinker’s own dealings with his idea and keep the suggestive names he has offered us.

The symbolic stage

Predominantly spiritual and religious (and actively imaginative in its religion). A strongly symbolic mentality pervades its thought, customs and institutions. The symbol is of something which man feels to be present behind himself and his life and his activities— the Divine.

All his religious and social institutions, all the moments and phases of his life are to him symbols.

Ex: Vedic age

• The religious institution of sacrifice governs the whole society (as a study of the Brahmanas and Upanishads shows us)

• The social institutions penetrated with the symbolic spirit. Ex: The hymn of the Rig Veda = marriage hymn à the whole sense of the hymn turns about the successive marriages of Surya, daughter of the Sun, with different gods and the human marriage is quite a subordinate matter. The human is an inferior figure and image of the divine.

• The ideal of the relation between man and woman governed by the symbolism of the relation between the Purusha and Prakriti, the male and female divine Principles in the universe. In the earlier Vedic times when the female principle stood on a sort of equality with the male in the symbolic cult, woman was as much the mate as the adjunct of man; in later times when the Prakriti has become subject in idea to the Purusha, the woman also depends entirely on the man. In the Tantrik Shakta religion which puts the female principle highest, there is an attempt which could not get itself translated into social practice, to elevate woman.

• the institution of the fourfold order, caturvarna, miscalled the system of the four castes.

The four orders are described as having sprung from the body of the creative Deity from his • head à Brahmins = men of knowledge • arms à Kshatriyas = men of power • thighs à Vaishyas = producers and support of society • feet à Shudras = servant

This symbol of the Creator’s body was more than an image, it expressed a divine reality. Human society = an attempt to express in life the cosmic Purusha. Man and the cosmos are both of them symbols and expressions of the same hidden Reality.

From this symbolic attitude came the tendency to make everything in society a sacrament, religious and sacrosanct, but as yet with a large and vigorous freedom in all its forms.

• The spiritual idea governs all; • the symbolic religious forms which support it are fixed in principle; • the social forms are lax, free and capable of infinite development.

First, the symbolic idea of the four orders… …expressing the Divine in man as: …answering to 4 cosmic principles: knowledge power production, enjoyment and mutuality service, obedience and work

  • the Wisdom that conceives the order and principle of things
  • the Power that sanctions, upholds and enforces it
  • the Harmony that creates the arrangement of its parts
  • the Work that carries out what the rest direct

Next, out of this idea there developed a firm but not yet rigid social order based upon

1. temperament and psychic type with a corresponding ethical discipline

2. the social and economic function.

The typal stage

Predominantly psychological and ethical; all else, even the spiritual and religious, is subordinate to the psychological idea and to the ethical ideal which expresses it. The idea of the direct expression of the divine Being or cosmic Principle in man ceases to dominate and finally disappears.

This stage creates the great social ideals.

Ex: idea of social honour :

• of the Brahmin: purity, piety, high reverence for the things of the mind and spirit and disinterested possession and exclusive pursuit of learning and knowledge.

• of the Kshatriya : courage, chivalry, strength, a certain proud self-restraint and self-mastery, nobility of character and the obligations of that nobility.

• of the Vaishya: rectitude of dealing, mercantile fidelity, sound production, order, liberality and philanthropy.

• of the Shudra: obedience, subordination, faithful service, disinterested attachment.

But these cease to spring naturally out of the inner life of the man; they become a convention… à the typal passes naturally into the conventional stage.

The conventional stage

The external supports, the outward expressions of the spirit or the ideal become more important than the ideal.

Ex: the outward supports of the ethical fourfold order,— birth, economic function, religious ritual and sacrament, family custom,—each began to exaggerate.

At first, birth not of the first importance, for faculty and capacity prevailed; but afterwards, as the type fixed itself, its maintenance by education and tradition became necessary à hereditary groove.

Birth and profession were together the double bond of the hereditary convention.

This rigidity once established, the maintenance of the ethical type passed from the first place to a secondary importance. Once ceasing to be indispensable, it came inevitably to be dispensed with.

Finally, even the economic basis began to disintegrate àbirth, family custom and remnants, deformations, new accretions of meaningless or fanciful religious sign and ritual (caricature of the old profound symbolism) became the riveting links of the system of caste. The unclean and diseased decrepitude of the old system has begun; it has become a name, a shell, a sham… (= present state of the caste system in India).

The tendency of the conventional age is to

• fix, arrange firmly, formalise, • erect a system of rigid grades and hierarchies, • stereotype religion, • bind education and training to a traditional and unchangeable form, • subject thought to infallible authorities

It has its golden age when the spirit and thought that inspired its forms are confined but yet living but still: the Truth we strive to arrive at is not realised, not accomplished, and what we have of the reality has begun to fossilise and is doomed to be lost in rule and order and convention.

For always the form prevails and the spirit recedes…

It attempts to return, to revive the form but the time-tendency is too strong à ex:

• history of religion: the efforts of the saints and religious reformers become progressively more scattered, brief and superficial in their actual effects.

• India in her last millennium: the constant effort of the most powerful spiritual personalities kept the soul of the people alive but failed to resuscitate the ancient free force and truth and vigour.

The individualistic age

Arrives a period when the gulf between the convention and the truth becomes intolerable and the men of intellectual power arise, who, rejecting symbol and type and convention, seek the Truth that society has lost.

The Age of Protestantism has begun, the Age of Reason, the Age of Revolt, Progress, Freedom (a partial and external freedom betrayed by the conventional age into the idea that the Truth can be found in outsides).

A necessary passage to the subjective period of humanity."