The Fourfold Personality Inventory is a personality test based on Sri Aurobindo’s description of the four varnas, or soul-types. Sri Aurobindo has written about them mainly in two places: a chapter in his Essays on the Gita entitled “Swabhava and Swadharma” and a chapter in The Synthesis of Yoga entitled “Soul-Force and the Fourfold Personality.” The chapter of Essays on the Gita is available as a separate web-page. Extracts from the descriptions given in The Synthesis of Yoga are available at the end of this note.
If a group of students has finished a study in software engineering, those with a high score on B might prefer to work in software related research; K as manager of a software team; V in the sales department of a software company; and S in software service or maintenance.
Certain jobs might require specific combinations of qualities: high scores on K and B might work well for managing research; K and V for managing a commercial venture; B and S for fulfilling the service-needs of a research project. Combinations could also work the other way around: a person with high scores on B and S might also be happy doing research in a service-oriented field.
Sri Aurobindo describes the varnas as soul-types, and as such knowledge about them can be considered an essential element of one’s understanding of oneself.
Since they were traditionally related to one’s profession, knowing the predominant varna(s) of a person might also help in career counselling and personnel selection.
The initial items of the Fourfold Personality Inventory were derived from the chapter "Soul-Force and the Fourfold Personality" in Sri Aurobindo's The Synthesis of Yoga. Criteria for the inclusion of inventory items were that each item should describe only one issue, and that duplicates (two statements with the same or a closely similar meaning) should be avoided. An attempt was made to cover all aspects mentioned by Sri Aurobindo.
Interestingly, the experts had least difficulty with B and most with S: of B-items only 6% were rejected because of disagreement between the experts; of S-items 24%. Assuming that the experts were likely to belong to category B, could it be that B was the varna they understood best, and S least?
The resulting 82 statements were given to 7 people considered experts about Sri Aurobindo’s work. We asked each of them to indicate to which of the 4 varnas each item applied according to Sri Aurobindo’s definitions. One of the subject-experts gave answers that differed considerably from those of the other experts as well as from Sri Aurobindo’s own texts. We removed his statements from consideration. After this, we kept only those items for which there was a consensus between at least 5 of the 6 remaining experts. The result of this was a set of 59 items, within which the experts agreed in 96% of their attributions.
As with all such inventories, the individual items for each varna are measuring different sub-traits. As a result, people who score extremely high (or low) for a varna will have a similar set of character traits, while people with less extreme scores can have entirely different combinations of the various sub-traits under that category. In other words, while extreme scores can be expected to have a clear, unambiguous meaning, medium level test-results will be difficult to interpret.
Knowledgeable interviewees my may not find it too difficult to guess which varna is addressed by each item. As a result, it may not be possible to distinguish between what someone wants to project and what he actually is.
The test outcomes on the ffpi don’t say anything about the scale or the quality of someone’s work: a person with strong K could manage 3 colleagues badly or a multibillion company well; a person with a high S could service a household or a huge enterprise.
Whatever spiritual and psychological meaning the varnas may have, there can be no doubt that over time they fossilised into a highly contentious socio-economic system of “castes”. As a result, psychologists tend to be extremely wary of getting involved with the varnas. While many psychological studies have been published about the gunas, I’m not aware of a single study that has been published about the varnas. Though understandable, this is unfortunate as the varnas may actually have a wider applicability.
Everybody is understood to have elements of all four soul-types. As each varna is not a single quality but a cluster of related yet different sub-qualities, the number of ways these can be combined is near infinite.
We live in a very different time, than the one in which the differentiation in these four varnas originated. Our society is infinitely more complex and virtually all jobs and social positions are more intellectually demanding than they used to be. Our entire culture is, moreover, dominated to an extreme degree by the Vaishya disposition: almost all jobs require specialised know-how, and more and more work is done for the sake of money. Neither complex know-how, nor money has ever played as big a role for as large a percentage of the population as it does at present.
In the context of career counselling, it might be useful to divide the four varnas up into more specific sub-domains. One could for example consider distinguishing between the technical and commercial aspects of the Vaishya quality; between the hard and human sciences for the Brahmin; between commercial and socio-political leadership in the case of the Kshatriya; and between physical/ technical and human domains for the Shudra’s quality of service.
Another useful distinction is that each varna has a positive and a distorted, negative side. Typical examples are that the Kshatriya disposition could form the basis of noble leadership or egotistic despotism; the Shudra quality could lead to service or inertia and indolence. To make a varna-based inventory more useful, items for the positive and negatives sides should probably be scored separately.
Related to this, it is good to realise that without the positive side of the Shudra disposition, the other three dispositions all become harmful. Sri Aurobindo points this out in the last paragraph quoted from the Synthesis (at the very end of this article) and this is perhaps the single most important "message" of the varna-based fourfold personality inventory.
The FFPI is no more than an informal attempt at studying the varnas as psychological dispositions. Anecdotical evidence supports the idea that people have found taking this test more helpful in understanding themselves than the more commonly used modern inventories of the same territory. Whether a more serious varna based inventory could benefit career guidance, employee selection or work assignment would obviously need much further research.
We hope that this informal inquiry will inspire a more solid, multidisciplinary study of the varnas and of the similarities and distinctions between varnas, gunas, cakra(s), doshas and other Indian typologies. To do justice to the depth and subtlety of the ancient concepts, it may be useful to look very carefully at the sub-qualities of the different typologies and see what roles each one of them plays in our extremely complex contemporary existence.
"The psychological fact is that there are these four active powers and tendencies of the Spirit and its executive Shakti within us [Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya or Shudra] and the predominance of one or the other in the more well-formed part of our personality gives us our main tendencies, dominant qualities and capacities, effective turn in action and life. But they are more or less present in all men, here manifest, there latent, here developed, there subdued and depressed or subordinate, and in the perfect man will be raised up to a fullness and harmony…"
"The turn is often towards the predominance of the intellectual element and the capacities which make for the seeking and finding of knowledge and an intellectual creation or formativeness and a preoccupation with ideas and the study of ideas or of life and the information and development of the reflective intelligence. According to the grade of the development there is produced successively the make and character of the man of active, open, inquiring intelligence, then the intellectual and, last, the thinker, sage, great mind of knowledge. The soul-powers which make their appearance by a considerable development of this temperament, personality, soul-type, are a mind of light more and more open to all ideas and knowledge and incomings of Truth; a hunger and passion for knowledge, for its growth in ourselves, for its communication to others, for its reign in the world, the reign of reason and right and truth and justice and, on a higher level of the harmony of our greater being, the reign of the spirit and its universal unity and light and love; a power of this light in the mind and will which makes all the life subject to reason and its right and truth or to the spirit and spiritual right and truth and subdues the lower members to their greater law; a poise in the temperament turned from the first to patience, steady musing and calm, to reflection, to meditation, which dominates and quiets the turmoil of the will and passions and makes for high thinking and pure living, founds the self-governed sattwic mind, grows into a more and more mild, lofty, impersonalised and universalised personality. This is the ideal character and soul-power of the Brahmana, the priest of knowledge. If it is not there in all its sides, we have the imperfections or perversions of the type, a mere intellectuality or curiosity for ideas without ethical or other elevation, a narrow concentration on some kind of intellectual activity without the greater needed openness of mind, soul and spirit, or the arrogance and exclusiveness of the intellectual shut up in his intellectuality, or an ineffective idealism without any hold on life, or any other of the characteristic incompletenesses and limitations of the intellectual, religious, scientific or philosophic mind. These are stoppings short on the way or temporary exclusive concentrations, but a fullness of the divine soul and power of truth and knowledge in man is the perfection of this Dharma or Swabhava, the accomplished Brahminhood of the complete Brahmana."
"On the other hand the turn of the nature may be to the predominance of the will-force and the capacities which make for strength, energy, courage, leadership, protection, rule, victory in every kind of battle, a creative and formative action, the will-power which lays its hold on the material of life and on the wills of other men and compels the environment into the shapes which the Shakti within us seeks to impose on life or acts powerfully according to the work to be done to maintain what is in being or to destroy it and make clear the paths of the world or to bring out into definite shape what is to be. This may be there in lesser or greater power or form and according to its grade and force we have successively the mere fighter or man of action, the man of self-imposing active will and personality and the ruler, conqueror, leader of a cause, creator, founder in whatever field of the active formation of life. The various imperfections of the soul and mind produce many imperfections and perversities of this type, — the man of mere brute force of will, the worshipper of power without any other ideal or higher purpose, the selfish, dominant personality, the aggressive violent rajasic man, the grandiose egoist, the Titan, Asura, Rakshasa. But the soul-powers to which this type of nature opens on its higher grades are as necessary as those of the Brahmana to the perfection of our human nature. The high fearlessness which no danger or difficulty can daunt and which feels its power equal to meet and face and bear whatever assault of man or fortune or adverse gods, the dynamic audacity and daring which shrinks from no adventure or enterprise as beyond the powers of a human soul free from disabling weakness and fear, the love of honour which would scale the heights of the highest nobility of man and stoop to nothing little, base, vulgar or weak, but maintains untainted the ideal of high courage, chivalry, truth, straightforwardness, sacrifice of the lower to the higher self, helpfulness to men, unflinching resistance to injustice and oppression, self-control and mastery, noble leading, warriorhood and captainship of the journey and the battle, the high self-confidence of power, capacity, character and courage indispensable to the man of action, — these are the things that build the make of the Kshatriya. To carry these things to their highest degree and give them a certain divine fullness, purity and grandeur is the perfection of those who have this Swabhava and follow this Dharma."
"A third turn is one that brings out into relief the practical arranging intelligence and the instinct of life to produce, exchange, possess, enjoy, contrive, put things in order and balance, spend itself and get and give and take, work out to the best advantage the active relations of existence. In its outward action it is this power that appears as the skilful devising intelligence, the legal, professional, commercial, industrial, economical, practical and scientific, mechanical, technical and utilitarian mind. This nature is accompanied at the normal level of its fullness by a general temperament which is at once grasping and generous, prone to amass and treasure, to enjoy, show and use, bent upon efficient exploitation of the world or its surroundings, but well capable too of practical philanthropy, humanity, ordered benevolence, orderly and ethical by rule but without any high distinction of the finer ethical spirit, a mind of the middle levels, not straining towards the heights, not great to break and create noble moulds of life, but marked by capacity, adaptation and measure. The powers, limitations and perversions of this type are familiar to us on a large scale, because this is the very spirit which has made our modern commercial and industrial civilisation. But if we look at the greater inner capacities and soul-values, we shall find that here also there are things that enter into the completeness of human perfection. The Power that thus outwardly expresses itself on our present lower levels is one that can throw itself out in the great utilities of life and at its freest and widest makes, not for oneness and identity which is the highest reach of knowledge or the mastery and spiritual kingship which is the highest reach of strength, but still for something which is also essential to the wholeness of existence, equal mutuality and the exchange of soul with soul and life with life. Its powers are, first, a skill, kauśala, which fashions and obeys law, recognises the uses and limits of relations, adapts itself to settled and developing movements, produces and perfects the outer technique of creation and action and life, assures possession and proceeds from possession to growth, is watchful over order and careful in progress and makes the most of the material of existence and its means and ends; then a power of self-spending skilful in lavishness and skilful in economy, which recognises the great law of interchange and amasses in order to throw out in a large return, increasing the currents of interchange and the fruitfulness of existence; a power of giving and ample creative liberality, mutual helpfulness and utility to others which becomes the source in an open soul of just beneficence, humanitarianism, altruism of a practical kind; finally, a power of enjoyment, a productive, possessive, active opulence luxurious of the prolific Ananda of existence. A largeness of mutuality, a generous fullness of the relations of life, a lavish self-spending and return and ample interchange between existence and existence, a full enjoyment and use of the rhythm and balance of fruitful and productive life are the perfection of those who have this Swabhava and follow this Dharma."
"The other turn is towards work and service. This was in the old order the dharma or soul-type of the Shudra and the Shudra in that order was considered as not one of the twice-born, but an inferior type. A more recent consideration of the values of existence lays stress on the dignity of labour and sees in its toil the bed-rock of the relations between man and man. There is a truth in both attitudes. For this force in the material world is at once in its necessity the foundation of material existence or rather that on which it moves, the feet of the creator Brahma in the old parable, and in its primal state not uplifted by knowledge, mutuality or strength a thing which reposes on instinct, desire and inertia. The well-developed Shudra soul-type has the instinct of toil and the capacity of labour and service; but toil as opposed to easy or natural action is a thing imposed on the natural man which he bears because without it he cannot assure his existence or get his desires and he has to force himself or be forced by others or circumstances to spend himself in work. The natural Shudra works not from a sense of the dignity of labour or from the enthusiasm of service, — though that comes by the cultivation of his dharma, — not as the man of knowledge for the joy or gain of knowledge, not from a sense of honour, nor as the born craftsman or artist for love of his work or ardour for the beauty of its technique, nor from an ordered sense of mutuality or large utility, but for the maintenance of his existence and gratification of his primal wants, and when these are satisfied, he indulges, if left to himself, his natural indolence, the indolence which is normal to the tamasic quality in all of us, but comes out most clearly in the uncompelled primitive man, the savage. The unregenerated Shudra is born therefore for service rather than for free labour and his temperament is prone to an inert ignorance, a gross unthinking self-indulgence of the instincts, a servility, an unreflective obedience and mechanical discharge of duty varied by indolence, evasion, spasmodic revolt, an instinctive and uninformed life. The ancients held that all men are born in their lower nature as Shudras and only regenerated by ethical and spiritual culture, but in their highest inner self are Brahmanas capable of the full spirit and godhead, a theory which is not far perhaps from the psychological truth of our nature."
"And yet when the soul develops, it is in this Swabhava and Dharma of work and service that there are found some of the most necessary and beautiful elements of our greatest perfection and the key to much of the secret of the highest spiritual evolution. For the soul powers that belong to the full development of this force in us are of the greatest importance, — the power of service to others, the will to make our life a thing of work and use to God and man, to obey and follow and accept whatever great influence and needful discipline, the love which consecrates service, a love which asks for no return, but spends itself for the satisfaction of that which we love, the power to bring down this love and service into the physical field and the desire to give our body and life as well as our soul and mind and will and capacity to God and man, and, as a result, the power of complete self-surrender, ātma-samarpaṇa, which transferred to the spiritual life becomes one of the greatest most revealing keys to freedom and perfection. In these things lies the perfection of this Dharma and the nobility of this Swabhava. Man could not be perfect and complete if he had not this element of nature in him to raise to its divine power."
— Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga, pp. 740-752