Indian spiritual teacher and social activist P.R. Sarkar (1921–1990) and American futurist Lawrence Taub (1936–2018) had one rare thing in common. They both shed new light on the ancient notion of Varna, the foundation of Hinduism’s social structure. Sarkar based his socio-economic program (PROUT) on Varna cycles, and Taub, in his book The Spiritual Imperative: Sex, Age, and Caste Move the Future, relied on the Varna cycle to explain the current shift from West to East and the turbulence it creates. Importantly, Sarkar and Taub help us to understand the ancient notion of Varna and how to look at the world through a different prism.
The Origin of Varna
The role of Varna in the history of India is comparable to that of Confucianism in China but is much older. It developed at the dawn of civilization. Some 12,000 years ago, during the neolithic period, hunter-gatherers turned to farming, initially wild varieties of crops like peas, lentils, and barley, and then herded wild animals like goats and wild oxen. Agriculture led to the first settlements, towns, and cities. The organic emergence of large, structured communities led to a “division of labor,” a requirement in the development of larger social structures.
As these larger social structures emerged, Indian sages concluded that the development of societies evolved around activities that could be classified into four distinct types. Some people became administrators or religious teachers; some became soldiers providing protection; others became merchants who sold food produced by farmers and merchandise produced by craftsmen; and some became workers, employed by merchants, farmers, and craftsmen.
Translating the four generic types from Sanskrit is problematic, especially the term Brahman, which is translated as both spiritual and intellectual type (see also below). Generally, the four Varna types are broad categories, just like the yin and yang are broad, generic categories.
The identification of the four types can be interpreted as an early form of psychological profiling. Taub referred to the Varna as “probably the deepest psychological profile of the human race.” Even more remarkable, Taub points out, is that the sages used this generic classification as the basis for a prophecy that resembles the prophecies we also find in monotheistic religions.
The Indian sages predicted that humanity as a whole goes through four cycles. Each of the four types — spiritual, warrior, merchant, and worker — after which the cycle returns to the first, spiritual phase to start the cycle again. The coming of a new spiritual era has its equivalence in the prophecy of the Promised land and the return of Jesus in the Bible, the Ingathering in the Talmud, and the return of the Mahdi (the “divinely guided one”) in the Quran.
Like their contemporaries elsewhere in the world, the Indian sages were mythologizers. They conceived of the cycle in astronomical terms. They spoke of ages (Kalpa and Yuga) lasting hundreds of thousands and even over a million years. Sarkar, apparently the first to associate the cycle to actual history, believed that humanity was now in the merchant cycle, which he equated with capitalism, and which required a response to get humanity to the next cycle.
The Sarkar Game
In 1961, Sarkar published his book Ananda Sutram that outlined his Progressive Utilization Theory (PROUT), an economy that was cooperative and decentralized, and focussed on collective welfare rather than on profit, while not neglecting individuals and their merits. “Progressive utilization” means optimizing the use of natural, industrial, and human resources on a sustainable basis for the entire ecosystem.
Showing its Tantric (pre-Vedic) inspiration, PROUT encompasses the whole of the individual and collective existence for all beings, including physical, educational, mental, cultural, and spiritual. In 1968, Sarkar founded the organization “Proutist Block of India” (PBI) to advance the ideals of his theory through political and social action. PROUT has centers in countries around the world.
Sohail Inayatullah, one of the world’s leading Sarkar scholars, is the author of Understanding Sarkar as well as numerous books and articles about Sarkar and PROUT. He inspired Australian scholars Peter Hayward and Joseph Voros to develop the so-called Sarkar Game. Inayatallah reasoned that if humans have a psychological profile in which one of the four types is predominant, role-playing can foster mutual understanding, collaborations, and empathy. He wrote:
“By ‘creating’ the experience of the Social Cycle in the classroom, the students learn of their own social constructions and roles. They experience the frustration of how these roles and constructions limit the effectiveness of their actions. They can also recognize the qualitative difference in the potential of actions that arise from adopting an ‘integral’ stance in participating in social change.”
The Sarkar Game experience, says Inayatullah, taps into the ‘deep’ scripts that we all have, scripts that cover role, power, and relationship. “Our societal processes have programmed those scripts into us and they continue to operate unconsciously until an experience draws them into consciousness, thereby making them accessible to inquiry and examination… The game, therefore, is a serious one. While we ‘play’ at learning, the consequences of not learning are serious indeed. Sarkar’s social cycle at its heart is revolutionary…”
Participants of the Sarkar Game receive written instructions, including a description of the worker, merchant, warrior, and spiritual types developed by Hayward and Voros:
Group 1 — Workers
You want safety, security, and reasonable comforts. You want inspiration and faith to alleviate suffering and the fear of death. You usually leave complicated political and economic decisions to leaders you trust. When inspired, you loyally follow leaders of the other classes. But if your needs are not met, you can disrupt, create chaos, or even bring the system down.
Group 2 — Warriors (soldiers, policemen, etc.)
Your physical strength and courage are your greatest assets. You embrace challenge and struggle. You value honor, discipline, and self-sacrifice. Your will, patience, and work are your strengths. You protect society from danger and chaos by enforcing order. Sports and martial arts are your hobbies. You obey and expect others to obey authority and follow orders, no matter what.
Group 3 — Intellectuals (thinking, seeking, contemplative types)
Your developed mind is your greatest asset. The search for truth, removing errors and confusion, is your purpose. Some of you have knowledge of science, while others have knowledge of spiritual reality. You protect everyone by making rules and laws and ordering the warriors to enforce them. You debate hard so that the best ideas win. You create enlightenment. You lead others by establishing your religion, your science, or your political system as the Truth.
Group 4 — Entrepreneurs (merchants)
You excel in administration and organization. Efficient and effective, you manage large numbers of people to produce new products and accomplish difficult tasks. Through wealth and power, you can help everyone. You reward loyal service with higher salaries. Efficiency is very important.
In Sarkar’s model, the order of the cycles differs from the original cycle mentioned in the Vedas. Sarkar starts with the worker cycle, the Vedas start with the spiritual cycle. He also notes that the four generic types are not fixed in any one person. A merchant can also display worker or warrior characteristics. Most people have features of two or more generic types, but one type usually predominates within each individual. For Sarkar, the order is evolutionary. Each typology can be progressive and deeply regressive, chaining humans to the past.
The Harvard Dropout
In the early 1960s, Lawrence Taub dropped out of Harvard Law School to go “on the road.” He lived in Scandanavia and France before making his way to India. In Bihar State, he attended a lecture at Sarkar’s Ananda Marga Center, where he first heard about the orthodox version of the Varna prophecy. Taub initially discarded the idea as a typical Indian-Hindu form of myth-making, but a seed was planted.
From India, Taub traveled to Japan, exposing him to yet another cultural sphere. One day in April 1975, he picked up a copy of the Japan Times, which reported that Saigon had fallen to the North Vietnamese. Taub thought of the Varna cycle. A communist country based on “worker values” defeating the army of a capitalist country based on “merchant values” had all the hallmarks of a change in the Varna cycle. Taub would write in his book: “Spontaneously, I made what seemed to be the elusive connection between everyday history as we know it and study it in school and the Hindu philosophy of history.”
Studying the origin of Varna in more detail, Taub realized he could map the cycle in the ancient Varna prophecy to actual human history, both in terms of historical periods and geographical regions. He showed that populations in specific cultural regions have traditionally matched the psychological profile of the four generic types. Figure 4 shows how Taub applied the four generic types to the modern era, and in Figure 5 he maps the Varna cycle to actual history.
The mapping of the Varna cycle to actual history led Taub to conclude that East Asia (the Confucian countries) would dominate the peak stage of the worker cycle. Its psychological profile most closely corresponded with the generic worker type. Similarly, the West dominated the preceding merchant cycle, because its psychological profile most closely corresponded with the merchant type.
Taub argued that the transition from the merchant cycle to the worker cycle explained much of the upheaval in the present worldin all its facets: economic, political, social, ideological, cultural, geographic, and psychological.
The Role of Women
Taub was one of the few male students of macrohistory who took the role of women into account. In nearly all historical models — whether Toffler’s Future Shock, Fukuyama’s The End of History, or Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations — women are virtually invisible. In Taub’s model, equality is a feature of the worker cycle. It makes room for women to contribute, rejig the male-dominant psyche, and reconnect with nature. He argued that the future would be androgynous.
In the Varna model, cycles get progressively shorter. The worker cycle will be only half the length of the preceding merchant cycle. In both the Varna and in Taub’s sequence, the end of the worker cycle means the beginning of a new spiritual cycle. In the Varna model, it is the beginning of a new complete cycle, in Taub’s model, it is the last cycle that humanity goes through. Taub predicts the worker cycle to peak mid-century, leading to the next and last spiritual cycle.
The center of gravity of the next spiritual cycle will be in what Taub calls the “religious belt” from the Indian subcontinent to the Middle East, the region where religion and daily life were never fully separated. The Indian subcontinent will be the first among equals; it has the deepest reservoir of religious-spiritual knowledge.
Taub’s model differs from Sarkar’s theory in several ways. Sarkar refers to spiritual types as sadvipras, who combine the best of the Varnas; they serve, they protect, they use ideas to challenge and create, and they innovate through the financial system. The sadvipras ensure the Varnas do not exploit the weak. They challenge the entire system and see to transform the cycle into a progressive spiral where humans can find their dignity.
Sarkar, like Marx, limited the workers to those doing manual labor, while Taub included white-collar workers and the managerial class (the technocrati, and all those working for a wage). Sarkar’s cycle started with the workers, followed by warriors, the spiritual-intellectuals, and the merchants. Taub, like the original Hindu version, started with the spiritual type (Spiritual-Religious Age I), followed by the warrior, the merchant, and the worker cycle, culminating in the new spiritual cycle (Spiritual-Religious Age II).
Caste cycles overlap. The world is still dealing with the remnants of the merchant cycle (excessive wealth concentration, profits before people, neglect for the environment, etc.) but most of the developed world is firmly in the worker cycle. Taub identified three stages in the emergence of a new cycle. The pioneering stage occurs in one region, and its peak stage in another region.
In Taub’s model, the worker cycle has yet to peak, but the first signs of the new spiritual cycle are already visible. Taub mentioned the New Age and Integral movements and the growing interest in yoga and spirituality, disillusionment with the worker cycle rat race, and the search for meaning, but also rising fundamentalism in all the world’s main religions.
Developing countries with a strong religious bend and countries with religious hereditary rulers from the warrior cycle (many countries in the Middle East) could try to skip the worker and merchant cycles and jump from the warrior cycle to the spiritual cycle, as the first Taliban government of Afganistan tried to do. Taub would tell Afganistan’s new government to draw a lesson from the experience with communism. Orthodox Marxism in China and the Soviet Union failed because it suppressed the merchants and the spiritual intellectuals. Orthodox Islam will fail if it suppresses the merchants and the workers.
Regression in Progression
Japanese Futures researcher Takuya Murata reviewed Taub’s book for Futures Magazine in 2007. He wrote: “As today is the Worker Age, in Taub’s view, the Spiritual-Religious Age should follow next. By this logic, events relating to religion and spirituality should be currently emerging issues. This does seem to be happening globally in different ways. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 occurred against the secularizing trend of both Capitalism and Communism.”
Murata points at specific events that confirm Taub’s cycle: “In the 1990s, the collapse of the secular Soviet Union was followed by the return of Muslim practices to Central Asia. We are indeed seeing the emergence of religious-political groups, for instance, the Christian Right in Europe and the US and the BJP in India. Islamic Fundamentalism has become a household word post-9/11; but there are many varieties of religious Fundamentalism. Taub’s prediction fits at the intersection of the global re-emergence of religion and the social search for meaning in this increasingly consumerist world.”
Return of the Commons
Various movements have sprung up in recent years working toward alternative social and economic systems. Among them are the global peer-to-peer and commons-oriented movements that are partly inspired by Sarkar. Michel Bauwens, the world’s leading theorist in p2p/commons principles and practices, sees the emergence of the “brahmin-worker” phase of the next cycle. Bauwens says the P2P/Commons takes the form of self-organized productive communities that use digital technologies to achieve cosmo-local effects, i.e. materially re-rooting productive systems in sustainable bioregions while obtaining all the advantages of global technical, scientific, and cultural collaboration.
“The new peer production practices.” says Bauwens, “implies not only forms of self-governance by all contributors, i.e. workers, but also systems that are governed by collective intelligence, hence a Brahmanic aspect. This is visible in what is called makerspaces where a new type of worker designs, makes, and reflects on making and designing i.e., she has integrated the Brahmanic and productive qualities in one person, a return from the cartesian split between mind and body.”
The vision of P2P/commons aligns with the Varna cycle. The new cycle builds on the former cycle but is augmented by the arrow of time (accumulating inventions and expanding knowledge). The transition to a new cycle necessarily includes a progressive element. Bauwens notes that “the new human being, or rather the new mode of human consciousness that emerges in the regeneratively oriented makerspaces, has its heart firmly in the local community while its mind is plugged into the global network, constantly learning from the interaction with global peers.”
Spiritualizing the Economy
In Taub’s interpretation of the Varna cycle, we see humanity making steady progress. In each of the cycles, humanity increased its ethical and spiritual sensibility. The warrior cycle introduced the horrors of war, brutality, and sexual and class oppression on a scale previously unknown, but it also made the world smaller. The conquests of warrior emperors like Constantine and Ashoka spread advanced spiritual consciousness to the masses through Christianity and Buddhism.
Similarly, the merchant cycle ushered in the evils of capitalism, consumerism, urban industrial blight, European colonialism, and imperialism. Yet the merchant caste also raised the level of material wellbeing of the masses, accelerated science and technology.
The worker cycle rejected war and imperialism, embraced solidarity, and sexual, racial, and ethnic equality. It was the first to demand the right for all to basic needs like food, housing, education, and medical care.
In Taub’s model, the worker cycle is building on the progress made during the merchant cycle while trying to discard the last vestiges of the merchant cycle that clash with the worker world view and ethos: extreme wealth concentration and the influence of business on governments. Taub would point out that China has lifted millions of people out of poverty in recent decades and that India, South-East Asia, and Africa are on track to do the same. The UN and other international bodies expect the world will have eradicated poverty, (which is defined as an income of two or less dollars a day), before mid-century.
Unlike Taub, Sarkar believed the world is currently in the merchant cycle, but they agreed that the merchant and worker cycles are rooted in economic determinism and materialism. Current developments suggest they were right. In countries with high standards of living, we are seeing a growing backlash against materialism and a corresponding need to fill a “spiritual void.”
The US was the first to reach material abundance and gave birth to “consciousness-raising” movements and lifestyles like the hippies, New Age, and the Integral movement. In recent years, Indian-inspired practices like meditation, mindfulness, and integral thinking have found their way into the mainstream of society, academia, and corporate training. Modern-day gurus (dispellers of darkness), among them Jagadish Vasudev or Sadhguru, teach the integration of social and ecological concerns with spiritual wellbeing, attracting millions of followers around the world.
Both Sarkar and Taub foresaw a spiritualization of the economy. While their views of the sequence of the cycle differed, their aims were the same. Sarkar believed the Varna cycle can spur people into action, and that each individual can help move the cycle forward. Taub believed the Varna model enables us to make better choices, whether on a personal level, as policymakers, or as business leaders. They both wanted to repair the future, starting with the way we look at the past and the present.