Dharma and Fourfold Social Order
An important feature of the organization of Indian life was the complex and subtle arrangement of human life through four orders of communal life and four stages of individual life.
The human life was conceived as a process of gradual growth, and provisions came to be made in each stage of growth so as to stabilize that stage and to lead it gradually to the next higher stage. Thus, four major stages came to be recognized and each stage was presented with a set of ideals to be pursued and fulfilled. Each stage had its own dharma. These four, namely, brahmacharya (continence of student life), grihastha (balance of enjoyment and performance of duties appropriate to the householder), the vanaprastha (the preparation to leave ordinary life by enlargement, by travel, and by detachment, symbolized by dwelling in the forest), and sanyasa (final renunciation of ordinary life for the exclusive pursuit of spiritual life), were conceived as psychological stages of a large and flexible framework for the growth of the individual. And the general conditions of social life were so organized as to provide to each individual the necessary help needed by him at a given stage of his growth. This was further facilitated by the recognition of four types of temperaments among people with corresponding social functions, resulting in four divisions of the people in a composite social life. These four, the Brahmin (with the temperament that seeks knowledge and fulfills itself in the function of the teacher), the Kshatirya (with the temperament of power, courage, action and heroism which fulfills itself in the function of the ruler and the administrator), the Vaishya (with the temperament of mutuality, harmony and inter-change that fulfills itself in the function of commerce and inter-relationships), and Shudra (with the temperament of technical skill, service and physical labor), were the recognized types, each one requiring a stable field of education, experience and expression. Each type had its own dharma, and each had the suitable means of growth not only
within its own limits, but also beyond to rise higher to the next ascending type of temperament and function. This was the original idea of varna, and at a certain stage of human civilization, this system provided not only psychological satisfaction but also some kind of a harmonious functioning of the social whole.
At the root of all this lay the original distinction made by the Vedic Rishis between the initiate and the non-initiate, between the one who was fit to receive the secret knowledge and revelation and the one who was too gross to receive the secrets of initiation. The Vedic Rishis recognised that the human being needs preparation before he can bear higher knowledge and culture. To prepare the individual was itself a subtle art of education, and the educator himself has to be the one who is not only an initate but also the accomplished, the Siddha, the Rishi. The important idea that developed in Vedic system of education was that of adhikara. Adhikara meant a special qualification to receive education and training at a given stage of development which would also be appropriate for the preparation to rise to the next higher stage of development. Thus the higher knowledge could be imparted only to those who had the necessary qualification or adhikara for it. But there was also a recognition of the possibilities for each individual to obtain higher and higher stages of adhikara by means of self-development and self-culture. In the original Vedic concept, there was no rigidity and no final prohibition against any one in the pursuit of the highest knowledge. It only underlined the need for gradual development, balanced development, and comprehensive development.
The original concept of the chaturvarna (four orders) was in the Veda symbolic and spiritual. The Purusha Sukta of the Veda speaks of the four orders as having sprung from the body of the creative Deity (Purusha), from his head, arms, thighs and legs. In the Vedic idea, the four orders represented the Divine in four aspects, the Divine as knowledge, the Divine as power, the Divine as production, enjoyment and mutuality, and the Divine as service, obedience and work.
In later times, however, there did enter rigidities and prohibitions and the whole system ultimately declined into rigid classifications and into codes of privileges and prohibitions. The Ashram system (the system of stages of life) broke down much earlier, the varna system (the system of classification in society) continued a
little longer, but it began to crystallise itself and gradually degraded itself into a rigid caste system.
The caste system is still persistent. It is true that this system has come to be regarded as pernicious and injurious to the individual and to the society, and attempts have been made to get rid of this system, but there has been much failure.
Attempts are sometimes made to replace the caste system by the original and flexible system of varnas, but they too do not seem to hold out any promise of success.
Modern times are fast and there is in every field an accelerated speed of development. The society has, therefore, to be developed on lines on which accelerated growth as also integrated growth are facilitated to the maximum. This requires a new social organisation not developed at any time in human history. The survival or revival of the past is neither desirable nor practicable. Even according to the Indian theory, the system of varna (classification of society into fourfold order) does not belong either to the periods of man's highest attainment or to the eras of his lowest possibility. It is neither the principle of his ideal age of the perfected Truth nor of his iron age (called in Indian terminology Kaliyuga). In other words, the varna system is appropriate only to the intermediate ages of man's cycle in which he attempts to maintain some imperfect form of his true law. There are at least two such intermediate ages recognised by the Indian sociologists. They are called the Treta and the Dwapara. In the former, the social order is maintained by will power and force of character, and in the latter, by law, arrangement and fixed convention. In both these ages, man is developed and educated by fixing and emphasising the general prominent part of his active nature. But this does not aim at the education and development of the integral man. And as soon as those intermediate ages are crossed, as in the present age, there is-a constant pressure for the accelerated and integrated growth of man. It is true that the present age makes upon man this demand by creating states of disorders Or anarchy of our being. Nonetheless, the demand is clear and it can be fulfilled only by an attempt at a new order in which each individual is given opportunities and facilities to develop on his own line of development towards his integral fullness.
It is clear, therefore, that what is needed today, not only in India but everywhere else too, is a radical attempt at a new order.
In any case, Indian culture has reached a stage where what is needed is not a revival of the past, but a radical renewal.
In this process of renewal what was pre-figured in the Vedic wisdom of the need to perceive the Spirit in Matter and Matter in Spirit can and will undoubtedly play a major role. But what was pre-figured in the Veda needs not only to be rediscovered but also experimented upon by a new and potent wisdom, if there is to be a new birth of Indian culture. There is thus the imperative need to seek deeper and newer wisdom. And this seems to be the inevitable line of the immediate development of Indian culture.