by Paulette Auroville Today August 2004
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...
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. 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.