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August 2004

Sri Aurobindo on the nature of true democracy

- by Paulette

There are two striking examples of democracy in its pure form: that of ancient India , which streamed from the intuitive plane and originated from the Rig Veda; and that of Pericles' Athens , which emanated from the sattvic plane of clear reason. The following essay deals first with the Indian and then with the Western development of democracy.

Sri Aurobindo in Pondicherry around 1917
Sri Aurobindo saw history as unfolding cycles. The earliest age, religious-spiritual, was essentially symbolic, imaginative and intuitive. God, the deities and other numinous principles were experienced as omnipresent; the institutions, religious or social, were symbols of this mode of consciousness to which ethical, psychological and economic factors were subordinated. The symbolic age was succeeded by the typal, a fixed though not yet rigid social order. Predominantly psychological and ethical, it nurtured great social ideals; the ideal of social honour remains its main legacy. The conventional age followed, based upon unquestionable authorities and hierarchies. The interdependence between the ethical and social functions vanished, being replaced by order of birth and heredity, determining the function, family customs and rituals. Thus, the caste system was born.

Ancient India considered individuals not as social, but as spiritual beings undergoing an evolutionary process. This is the key to that dharma-based society, for which its unique form of democracy streamed from the high planes of the intuitive mind. The symbolic age corresponded to that of the Vedas. Its fourfold order of society, caturvarnya, was comprised of the head (the brahmana, being of knowledge and spirituality), the arms (the ksatriya, being of honour and power), the thighs (the vaisya, being of trade and production) and the feet (the sudra, being of dedication and service). They constituted the four limbs of the virat purusa or purusasukta, the Rig Veda's Cosmic Being.

The ethical age that followed corresponded to that of the Upanishads. An age of bold seeking, it gave birth to grand philosophical systems and versatile literature, marking the inception of art as well as science. Complex social systems, large kingdoms and empires were its feature. No longer reserved for initiates, the quest for the One in its myriad of aspects took the popular form of the Divine dwelling in the secret heart of every being, hradye guhayam. Even outcasts had saints revered by all.

Society as quest for self-perfection

The evolutionary principle of the sanatana dharma fashioned the whole Indian civilisation for two millennia. Polity and society, art and philosophy, science and mathematics, surgery and astronomy, economics and the military rule, all fields of knowledge and investigation, all activities and aspects of life revolved around the dharma or law of ideal living – embracing yet going beyond all religions. The rishis translated the sacrosanct dharma into shastras – authoritative codes encompassing the whole of life, determining both the highest order of life and particulars with the same care. The law and custom of society were thus sanctioned by the rishis and the gods. Belonging to any of the varnas, the rishi or Vedic seer was often the advisor and preceptor of the king. The monarch and emperor, the people, the larger and lesser polities were all bound to maintain the dharma, preserving both the right law of human existence and the universal one. The aim of life was the pursuit of perfection, intellectual and physical, ethical and aesthetic, empirical and spiritual, social and political. The broad lines were universal but each human conglomerate as well as each individual was considered to have a nature and a law, a svabhava and a svadharma of its own, to which corresponded detailed rules, as outlined in the shastras, leading to perfection via the various disciplines.
According to the Bhagavad Gita, one canon of the Upanishadic age, the system of caturvarnya corresponded to a divine power. The four varnas, each endowed with its own ethical discipline or svadharma, determined the social functions on the basis of one's nature (svabhava), temperament and inner predisposition (adhikara). The three gunas: sattva (clarity); rajas (dynamism); tamas (inertia) are the primal qualities of being. Not only society was to be constituted by all the four types, but individual perfection demanded integration of each of the four varnas. This was intended to be a stage of self-development within one's single soul; the predominant varna leading the others. The hereditary principle was recognized, but character and capacity were the real basis of social organisation. All action was determined from within; if this was in harmony with the truth of one's being, svadharma, to serve society was a means to attain to self-perfection, turning life into a sacrifice of works and worshipping the Divine with all of one's inner and outer activities. Society provided the framework for one's integral fulfillment and was instrumental to attaining moksha: liberation in life and serving one's fellow beings. This was the one aim and foundation of society, its dharma. The aim was the same regardless of one's varna or ashrama (period of life): brahmacarya (student), grahastha (householder), vanaprasta (forest-dweller), sannyasa (wandering ascetic or recluse). By embracing the dharma of one's social type the individual also surrendered to the collective self. Transcending even the supreme social law of the sanatana dharma, he grew into the Spirit's freedom, the ultimate dharma.


The binding role of Dharma in self-governed polities

Ancient India was the repository of the highest form of democracy: the Sacred determined the political and social order. The Vedic age saw the people (visah) sitting in urban councils, empowered to impose their will even on the monarch. This continued in successive ages, down to the time of the larger kingdoms and empires. Dharma commanded respect for the autonomy and self-determination of the villages, city-states, republics and constitutional kingdoms; a true unity in diversity of a multitude of ethnicities and people. The villages and townships were neither mere geographical units nor conglomerates for electoral, administrative or other purposes, but real communities functioning on their own power and will, constituting the most stable foundation of the collective being.

The villages were governed by their elected panchayats and officers. Self-sufficient, they were auto-nomous, self-governing units managing their own education, tribunals, police, economic and other needs. Thus were the townships ruled by their own assemblies and committees by the force of an elective system, which included voting so as to register the common will of the people. Metropolitan governments administered police and the magistrature, public works, registration, collection of municipal taxes, trade and industry, the management of sacred and public places and so on. The villages and townships sent their representatives to the kingdom's general assembly. The village communities were like small village republics and the townships, larger urban republics. The guild governments and the metropolitan polities even enjoyed the astounding privilege of striking coins, customarily exercised only by the king or the republics.

Heredity instead of merit

The set-up of the monarchic institution evoked the constitutional monarchy. The king's executive powers rested upon his respect for the dharma, of which he was the executor and servant; depending on the assent of the people, he was not allowed autocratic interferences. If he betrayed his royal svadharma, Manu's law acknowledged the people's right of insurrection and regicide. Through conquest or coalition a kingdom of confederated republics later evolved. Before the sixth century B.C there were republican states as well, contemporary to the Greek city-states; those with a strong organisation lasted until the beginning of the Christian era. Afterwards these too were replaced by the monarchical state. In the simpler as in the complex polities none of the social orders was predominant; nor was uniformity needed. The social, political and economic dharma and its artha shastra harmonised the pre-existent patterns with newly evolved ones. The State stood for co-ordination, with no right of infringing on the autonomous functioning of the varnas (social classes), kulas (clan families), sanghas (spiritual communities) or any polity. From king to servant, all were bound to maintain the dharma.

At a latter stage the rishis envisaged a unifying political rule by a universal emperor (cakravartin), yet without destroying the self-governance of the autonomous polities; although there is no evidence of its application. Caturvarnya, the fourfold order of the vedic age, continued throughout the ethical-philosophical upanishadic age; it began to vanish during the conventional age, replaced by the caste-system established on heredity rather than individual merit. Also, the empire and the imperial monarchy tended to undermine the autonomy of the lesser polities, turning them into factors of division. The decline of a society that had lost the thread of life – and with it, of renewal – had commenced. Intellectual and artistic pursuit, the scientific and critical intelligence, creativity and intuition were numbed. Social functions became artificial, and the dharma so strict that it hampered the freedom of the spiritual quest; moksha (liberation) was sought in opposition to the sacredness of life. Partial truths were enhanced, others denied, the grand spiritual synthesis waned. When the British Empire took over not much was left of a society run for two millennia on the basis of intuitive democracy and self-government as dharma, intended as the quest for self-perfection of all the classes of society. The gates to foreign invasion were fully open.


The Western way: from the infra-rational to the rational age

Sri Aurobindo introduced a major distinction between the infrarational and rational ages. In the former the people acted out of instinct, obeying tradition mechanically. Although crude, this age had elements of reason and spirituality and could soar to lofty ideals, as in the early Greek civilisation and prehistoric, mystic India ; the masses, however, remained infra-rational and infra-spiritual. As reason and spirituality expanded, the solitary avant-gardes were replaced by legions of thinkers, writers, poets, scientific enquirers, etc. In Europe this was the age of the Greek sophists, contemporary with Socrates and Plato. In India , it corresponded to the Upanishadic age with its philosopher-mystics; opening to the masses, the barriers between initiates and lay people collapsed and society as a whole searched for enlightenment.

Reason was developed first by exceptional individuals in exceptional communities or nations. Greece and Rome led in Europe ; India , China and Persia in Asia . But civilisation is not safe if limited to a small minority; the Greco-Roman civilisation was undermined by inner causes as severely as by outer ones; surrounded by infrarational multitudes, the other civilisations perished as well. Moreover, the ruling classes were obliged to cast religion and spirituality into moulds acceptable to the masses, diluting their original force. When intellectual or spiritual movements rose in reaction to fossilized habits, the rational age was born, at first as individualism. It was a typically European phenomenon, a questioning and rejection of dogmas and conventions, of unmovable privileges, authorities and theocratic hierarchies. Popes and kings responded with crusades, massacres and the stake; knowledge and science were repressed. The religious -heretical drive led first, the socio-political followed; atheism was the final outcome. In the East this movement, socially and politically divested of iconoclastic significance, produced religious reformers, new creeds and philosophies.

Philosophy and ethics, science and art, politics and economics are the ordering principles of homo sapiens, the mental being. Instead of rising above all contraries where all is one, reason deals in opposites. Sri Aurobindo stressed the necessity, though, of a temporary reign of the critical reason by avant-gardes questioning everything – affirming and simultaneously denying; setting a rule, disposing of it. By this evolutionary drive progress unfolds. Intelligence has to be turned inward and upward, attaining knowledge, albeit indirect, of the universal principles of existence, where knowledge and freedom are one. Great idea-forces such as liberty, equality and fraternity, a religion of humanity, were given form. This will reach fruition only when the masses too learn to use their intelligence; until then society is a mixture and often infrarational forces takes over. It ensues that universal education is an utmost necessity; in terms of mental, but also ethical and aesthetic capacity. This implies a return to the Hellenic ideal, although there is an emphasis on utilitarianism – as is typical of the contemporary age – rather than the search for beauty and ethical refinement.


Reason as social creator

Democratic freedom and equality are inborn in small communities, where all take an active part. Among history's most fruitful periods are the Greek, Roman and Italian Renaissance city-states. The civic and cultural participation of the Greek cities is the foundation for the political ideals of modern Europe as well as its intellectual, philosophical and artistic ideals. The Athens of Pericles, where living itself was education, was the summit. The Roman Empire , with its momentous organization, enjoying both peace and prosperity, gave to Europe its political and military science, along with the notion of empire and colonization. As in Europe , India 's most creative age had also been that of small kingdoms, republics and city-states: free societies whose democratic self-governance survived even under the bureaucracies of the great monarchies and empires.

Moulded by Hellenism and Christianity, sharpened by free thinking and science, the Western mind has elaborated an ideal of human progress revolving around both intellectual and material freedom, equality and comradeship. In Sri Aurobindo's vision real democracy depends on three postulates: universal education, transition from infrarational to rational and character building. If any of the three is lacking the true democratic order cannot manifest. To rationalize human society through universal education seems to be the ideal remedy; yet because of the system's intrinsic contradiction this too may fail. Sri Aurobindo warned:

“But a rational education means necessarily three things, first, to teach men how to observe and know rightly the facts on which they have to form a judgment; secondly, to train them to think fruitfully and soundly; thirdly, to fit them to use their knowledge and their thought effectively for their own and the common good. Capacity of observation and knowledge, capacity of intelligence and judgment, capacity of action and high character are required for the citizenship of a rational order of society; a general deficiency in any of these difficult requisites is a sure source of failure. Unfortunately, – even if we suppose that training made available to the millions can ever be of this rare character, – the actual education given in the most advanced countries has not had the least relation to these necessities” (The Human Cycle, p.198)

Façade of the house of the 19th century social philosopher Auguste Compte in Paris, France.

A religion of humanity

One idea-force of democracy, accepted by all progressive nations, is the political equality of all citizens in ordering government and society. In socialism, equality is social too. Democratic nations, organised into a body politic truly representing all tendencies of society, determine their dharma through the reason and will of all individuals. If not we regress to the irrational age, which is ruled by a dominant class. In Greece , along with great personal freedom and all-encompassing education, the democratic ideal stood for all citizens sharing in the government, legislation and administration of the community's affairs. In contemporary democracy, run by party government, this no longer happens; although in the United States the tendency survived for some time. Freedom and equality, if solely political as in the Western concept of democracy, are unable to eliminate clashing ideologies and vested interests, ruthless economical struggles, the ceaseless war of classes.

The age of individualism commenced as a revolt of reason and culminated with the triumph of science; gifting society with that Sri Aurobindo called a ‘religion of humanity'. Politically, it is the advent of ‘reason as a social creator', unfolding, according to him, in three stages that he foresaw as democracy, socialism (followed eventually by ‘governmental communism') and anarchism. The transition from the infrarational (to which all the past political orders belong) to the rational age is thus complete, heralding the transition from the objective to the subjective, spiritual age. Then only the ideal of communistic anarchism can reach its full status: not just an ethical but also a spiritual perfection and the end of the quest. Yet democracy remains the starting point.


God in Humanity: Humanity in God

In humanity's evolution towards the ideal society the democratic order of ancient India, run on the principle of autonomous, self-governed polities, stands as an experiment splendid and unique. Sri Aurobindo considered caturvarnya to be a socialistic institution; inequality was external and accidental. He wrote that socialism (the solution to the economic impasse designed to concentrate on the inner progress of individuals) is essentially Asiatic and particularly Indian, and that democracy will never be fulfilled without it. Sri Aurobindo trusted that, by rediscovering the way to attune the world to Spirit , India will find the secret order for which socialism struggles. Turning humanity's most precious energies to its highest development, each member of the community exists for the welfare of all. Sanatana dharma is the creed, God in humanity, humanity in God. He asked for ‘the eternal religion' to be applied to contemporary politics, reshaping them into an ethical and spiritual pursuit.

Humanity's inner being toils towards a higher life through the varied cultures of its people. While insisting on the democratic distribution of functions at which socialism aims, Sri Aurobindo called for the advent of divine unity where all individuals are one and equal. He called for breaking of the half-theocratic, half-aristocratic feudalism of the age, so as to realize the democratic spirit of Vedanta and, from within its inner law, a new social and political organization. He wished for an assimilation of Europe 's democratic principle – while eliminating its shadow components, individualism and materialism – calling for a true spiritualisation of the irresistible urge for liberty, equality and brotherhood. He called for a remoulding of society into the Vedantin gospel of equality that recognizes the Divine in every being, in the true spirit of the sanatana dharma irrespective of birth, class, creed or country. The Self in one creature is identical to the Self of all; God is the sum of this illimitable variety.


Vedantin oneness

A fundamental postulate of Western democracy is the equal right of freedom and mutual respect of all individuals, living a liberal and rationalised existence. This leads to a profounder truth, repressed in the past or limited to the spiritual domain, the right to live according to one's own reason and will. Freedom of thought and consciousness, space for the individual soul is, in Sri Aurobindo's vision, the most powerful idea-force of the rational age. In harmony with the Asiatic experience, it has a prominent role in shaping the future. This is where East and West ultimately meet. Millennial experiences, at times apparently antithetic, ultimately lead to the satyayuga or golden age that is the crown of the human cycle; the harvesting of unity in diversity. Through endless experimentations this leads to the ultimate consummation, the ideal society of the Gnostic being.

The Lord's supreme teaching in the Bhagavad Gita rises beyond nationalism and cosmopolitanism, beyond humanitarianism and collectivism, beyond service to society, even beyond a religion of humanity – these are preliminary stages only – to divinised human beings who, having lost the smaller self, have found the greater self. Unity with all beings is the all-embracing Vedantin oneness – and dharma, the uplifting of the whole community into Brahmic consciousness. The supreme power of knowledge and action is God-love – and humanity the real sangha or spiritual fellowship, towards which all beings on earth move according to their evolutionary capacity. In the golden age or satyayuga there is no need for an external government: the self-determining individual and community live spontaneously according to their free, divine svadharma. This is the ultimate condition.


There are two striking examples of democracy in its pure form. One is that of ancient India 's, which streamed from the intuitive plane and originated from the Rig Veda – the first sruti or directly revealed scripture received by seers in a state of divine consciousness, around the sixth millennium BCE. The other is that of Pericles' Athens , which emanated from the sattvic plane of clear reason, and is the lighthouse of Western democracy. Both types nurtured character building, beauty and refinement, pursuit of an ideal of which all individuals were the indispensable cells. Thus the body politic was built involving self-government of both the individual and collective being. The democracy of ancient India was prevalently intuitive and spiritual, while Athens 's was rational and aesthetic


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