Humanity: Today & Tomorrow|Mar 18, 2013 5:02 AM| by:

Indian Democracy – Part 4

In Part 3, we continued our study of ancient Indian polity, examining the role of the King, the Courts and the over-arching influence of Dharma. In this article, we take up the roots of modern democracies – the idea of representation, of a collective ‘reason’, and its shortcomings.

The modern democratic system took a distinct shape in the eighteenth century in England; it developed gradually into the parliamentary democratic system and has been adopted by many countries with some minor adjustments. India is one of those countries which based its constitution and model of governance on the British model.

The historical background

However, it is important to understand the psychological roots of this development for it is only then that one can truly understand its functioning, its strengths, its limitations and the changes that need to be made. History tells us that after the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century AD, Europe was more or less dominated by the Church. The Christian religion through the organisation of the Church dominated the life of almost the whole of Western Europe. Even kings and powerful feudal lords had to pay some sort of allegiance to the Church. The power of the Church was based on the Faith; The people and almost the whole community had full faith in the Christian religion. Consequently almost all decisions both in the individual and collective life of the society were taken by the Church or priestly class.

In this process, many good things happened even though it is sometimes referred to as the Dark Ages. Some kind of peace was maintained among the warring lords, education was taken care of by the Church, the old manuscripts were preserved and hospitals were built to look after the sick and injured. There surely were many more benefits during this period. However, two important forces that strongly motivate the Western mind were suppressed. The first one was Reason – the inquiring, defining, effective practical reason and the second was the cult of Life. The Church did not allow any free thinking and suppressed the urge to a full life; these forces were not allowed to grow and quite inevitably after a few centuries, there was a revolt demanding a free room for these two forces. This revolt was aided by the rampant corruption that was then prevalent in the Church. This led to the two great movements of the Reformation and the Renaissance.

One of the consequence of the Reformation was to split the Church into two groups, the Catholics and the Protestants, thus weakening the influence of the Church considerably. The Renaissance on the other hand released the power of Reason and the flowering of the aesthetic development. The free play and development of Reason led to momentous changes in the life of Europe. There was first an Intellectual Revolution followed by the Industrial Revolution, which was essentially the application of Reason to life. Europe progressed by leaps and bounds and soon became the dominant power of the world. One of the most important consequences of these movements was the belief and conviction that Reason was the highest instrument of Knowledge and that Faith must bow down to the dictates of Reason.

The psychological roots of the Democratic system

But we also see that when Reason becomes the dominant power in human life, its role cannot be restricted to only a few areas; it is but natural that it must be applied to all of life, in all its details. Consequently when man starts becoming reasonable and makes reason his chief instrument of knowledge, he inevitably starts questioning everything and expects rational answers. In the words of Sri Aurobindo:

Man may for a time, for a long time even, live by the mere tradition of things whose reality he has lost, but not permanently; the necessity of questioning all his conventions and traditions arises, and by that necessity reason gets her first real chance of an entire self-development. Reason can accept no tradition merely for the sake of its antiquity or its past greatness: it has to ask, first, whether the tradition contains at all any still living truth and, secondly, whether it contains the best truth available to man for the government of his life. Reason can accept no convention merely because men are agreed upon it: it has to ask whether they are right in their agreement, whether it is not an inert and false acquiescence. Reason cannot accept any institution merely because it serves some purpose of life: it has to ask whether there are not greater and better purposes which can be best served by new institutions. There arises the necessity of a universal questioning, and from that necessity arises the idea that society can only be perfected by the universal application of the rational intelligence to the whole of life, to its principle as to its details, to its machinery and to the powers that drive the machine.” 1

The question that inevitably follows is: Whose Reason is to be applied to solve the problems of society?

In the words of Sri Aurobindo:

“This reason which is to be universally applied, cannot be the reason of a ruling class; for in the present imperfection of the human race that always means in practice the fettering and misapplication of reason degraded into a servant of power to maintain the privileges of the ruling class and justify the existing order.

It cannot be the reason of a few pre-eminent thinkers; for, if the mass is infrarational, the application of their ideas becomes in practice disfigured, ineffective, incomplete, speedily altered into mere form and convention. It must be the reason of each and all seeking for a basis of agreement.

Hence arises the principle of individualistic democracy, that the reason and will of every individual in the society must be allowed to count equally with the reason and will of every other in determining its government, in selecting the essential basis and in arranging the detailed ordering of the common life.” 2

This is the psychological root of Democracy; man starts to govern his individual and collective life by reason and this gradually led to the system of Parliamentary Democracy; it took shape first in England and then spread to other nations in the world. This system leads to what may be called representative democracy as opposed to direct democracy practised in ancient Athens. In modern times it is impossible to have direct democracy because of the size of the population. In representative democracy it is claimed that the members of Parliament are the representatives of the people and their aspirations. We will soon examine the validity of this claim.

To sum up, the rational age distinguished between the common ends of society and individual life

“common judgment should be effectively organised only for the indispensable common ends of the society, while in all else men must be left free to govern their own life according to their own reason and will and find freely its best possible natural adjustment with the lives of others.” 3

It was a deep conviction of this age that in this way,

“by the practice of the free use of reason men can grow into rational beings and learn to live by common agreement a liberal, a vigorous, a natural and yet rationalised existence.” 4

The problems and the causes of failure

However, this did not work out in the actual practice.

In the words of Sri Aurobindo:

“In practice it is found that these ideas will not hold for a long time. For the ordinary man is not yet a rational being; emerging from a long infrarational past, he is not naturally able to form a reasonable judgment, but thinks either according to his own interests, impulses and prejudices or else according to the ideas of others more active in intelligence or swift in action who are able by some means to establish an influence over his mind.

Secondly, he does not yet use his reason in order to come to an agreement with his fellows, but rather to enforce his own opinions by struggle and conflict with the opinions of others. Exceptionally he may utilise his reason for the pursuit of truth, but normally it serves for the justification of his impulses, prejudices and interests, and it is these that determine or at least quite discolour and disfigure his ideals, even when he has learned at all to have ideals.

Finally, he does not use his freedom to arrive at a rational adjustment of his life with the life of others; his natural tendency is to enforce the aims of his life even at the expense of or, as it is euphemistically put, in competition with the life of others. There comes thus to be a wide gulf between the ideal and the first results of its practice. There is here a disparity between fact and idea that must lead to inevitable disillusionment and failure.” 5

Consequences of the democratic system

“The individualistic democratic ideal brings us at first in actual practice to the more and more precarious rule of a dominant class in the name of democracy over the ignorant, numerous and less fortunate mass.

Secondly, since the ideal of freedom and equality is abroad and cannot any longer be stifled, it must lead to the increasing effort of the exploited masses to assert their down-trodden right and to turn, if they can, this pseudo-democratic falsehood into the real democratic truth; therefore, to a war of classes.

Thirdly, it develops inevitably as part of its process a perpetual strife of parties, at first few and simple in composition, but afterwards as at the present time an impotent and sterilising chaos of names, labels, programmes, war-cries. All lift the banner of conflicting ideas or ideals, but all are really fighting out under that flag a battle of conflicting interests..

Finally, individualistic democratic freedom results fatally in an increasing stress of competition which replaces the ordered tyrannies of the infrarational periods of humanity by a sort of ordered conflict. And this conflict ends in the survival not of the spiritually, rationally or physically fittest, but of the most fortunate and vitally successful. It is evident enough that, whatever else it may be, this is not a rational order of society; it is not at all the perfection which the individualistic reason of man had contemplated as its ideal or set out to accomplish.” 6

We have shown the psychological roots of the modern democratic system as it is practised all over the world. As it should be clear, the system is based on the following premises:

Reason is the highest instrument of knowledge at the disposal of man. Therefore the perfection of life comes by the application of reason to both individual and collective life. In the individual life, each man is expected to govern his life by his own reason without interfering with the same right in the life of other individuals. In the collective life. the collective reason has to be applied only to the indispensable common ends of the society. The question is now what is meant by the collective reason? As already explained earlier, it cannot be the reason of the intellectual elite nor can it be the reason of the ruling power; it has to be the reason of each and every individual member of the society who has developed a capacity for reasoning.

Here is what Sri Aurobindo writes about modern democracy.

“For that is what the modern democracy at present is in fact; the sole democratic elements are public opinion, periodical elections and the power of the people to refuse re-election to those who have displeased it. The government is really in the hands of the bourgeoisie, the professional and business men, the landholders, —where such a class still exists,—strengthened by a number of new arrivals from the working-class who very soon assimilate themselves to the political temperament and ideas of the governing classes.” 7

These were profound insights from almost a century ago, and we see their truth amply in countries everywhere. What is particularly interesting in our day and age is the growing recognition of the fatal shortcomings of modern democracies. As a British commentator wrote recently :

“Unfortunately, democracy is broken. There’s a hidden failure mode, we’ve landed in it, and we probably won’t be able to vote ourselves out of it…The range of choices available at the democratic buffet table have therefore narrowed until they’re indistinguishable..Overall, the nature of the problem seems to be that our representative democratic institutions have been captured by meta-institutions that implement the iron law of oligarchy by systematically reducing the risk of change.” 8

This system has failed almost universally, for the following reasons: firstly, a large proportion of societies have not yet developed the faculty of reason and secondly, because even those who have developed these powers use it to justify their interests and preferences or to justify their intellectual points of view. The problem is in the aggregate, as well as in the individual, and brilliant exceptions or those with great sincerity have been unable to change this.

It would seem that the corrective to this is the introduction of universal rational education. While there is much to appreciate about countries that have achieved near 100% literacy, we can see that these figures have not led to the real goals of education. We may even ask: where do we see, anywhere in the world, a great mass of people who are able to think rationally, soundly, free from preference or bias? Achieving this kind of education, in the mass of humanity and not just in a select few, would require a strong political will, substantial investments, and a radical improvement in the methods of education.

In the meanwhile, all modern nations have devised some kind of a democratic system. In India we have adopted the parliamentary democratic system based more or less on the British model. In Part 5 of our series, we take a look at the Parliamentary system in India. We will try and closely examine the essential features of this system, its claims, its assumptions, and eventually, the validity of these assumptions.


Prof. Kittu Reddy

(series edited by Uday Arya)

Other articles in this series

Part 1   |   Part 2   |   Part 3   |   Part 4   |   Part 5   |   Part 6   |   Part 7


“All political ideals must have relation to the temperament and past history of the race.”  –   Sri Aurobindo



  1. Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle, Ch 19, ‘The Curve of the Rational Age’
  2. ibid
  3. ibid
  4. ibid
  5. ibid
  6. ibid
  7. Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Ch 23 – ‘Forms of Government’
  8.  Charlie Stross, ‘Political failure modes and the beige dictatorship’