30 Oct 2008

Commentary on the book ‘The Lives of Sri Aurobindo’
The purpose of this commentary is to provide to the readers a possibility, that the book The Lives of Sri Aurobindo written by Peter Heehs, is informed more by the author’s personal prejudices and opinions which he has disguised in the format and mask of objectivity, an objectivity, he claims, that is completely untouched by his personal views. In fact even this claim is spurious, because as most esteemed people in the academic circles know that however objective a researcher or analyzer tries to be, his life-story influences his view of any data or document.

Commentary on the book ‘The Lives of Sri Aurobindo’
The purpose of this commentary is to provide to the readers a possibility, that the book The Lives of Sri Aurobindo written by Peter Heehs, is informed more by the author’s personal prejudices and opinions which he has disguised in the format and mask of objectivity, an objectivity, he claims, that is completely untouched by his personal views. In fact even this claim is spurious, because as most esteemed people in the academic circles know that however objective a researcher or analyzer tries to be, his life-story influences his view of any data or document.
His hostility for Sri Aurobindo though disguised and couched in academic jargon does not remain concealed for long, and is visible for any unbiased reader to see for himself.
This book has already generated a great deal of bad-blood in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and outside, and many academically oriented people (which includes, well-known medical practitioners, psychologists, and educators) have raised objections with regard to this book and its portrayal of Sri Aurobindo and his literary works.
When these above mentioned well-qualified people wrote to him regarding their reservations about the book, they have been labeled as fundamentalists and irrational by him, though they are more qualified than Peter Heehs, who without any professional qualifications has analyzed Sri Aurobindo’s personality psychoanalytically and clinically and his writings as a literary critic.
“…The language of Aurobindo’s dialogue is heavy and pedantic, the characters shallow and unconvincing …” [PH’s literary analysis of Sri Aurobindo’s writing of the Upanishad].
“…In the outer world of action, Aurobindo never sought help from anyone. In the imaginative world of his dramas, his protagonist was never without a partner.” [Psychoanalytic analysis of Sri Aurobindo’s plays by PH]
The above are just two examples of the many in the book, quoted to show the unsavory bias of the book. Student; Son; Employee; Revolutionary; Husband; Writer, Philosopher; Guide and Yogi, outwardly, these are some of the roles that Sri Aurobindo played from 1872 to 1950. PH has tried to demolish bit by bit and chip by chip, the giant that Sri Aurobindo is today not only in India but world over.
This rebuttal is formulated on a few major themes, where PH has used unpublished and many times unverifiable documents to say things about Sri Aurobindo, which leave aside a devotee, no Indian would be pleased to read.
1. Conspiracy of the Western mind to denigrate and destroy Indian culture:
The manifest purpose and motives of PH for doing this heinous act towards the country and Ashram, he has been living in for the past nearly 30-40 years by denigrating a revolutionary of India and the creator and the very foundation of Sri Aurobindo Ashram, is unknown but one can draw some inferences when one starts reading the acknowledgements of the book. Two people stand out in the acknowledgements of the book (p. xv) Michael Murphy of the Esalen Institute and Jeffrey Kripal.
Jeffrey Kripal, now notorious for his ‘painstaking’ and extremely painful work on Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa, has authored a book called Kali’s Child, where he has psychoanalyzed Sri Ramakrishna (mind you he is not a qualified psychoanalyst only a scholar in religious studies) and come to a conclusion at the end that Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa sexually abused Swami Vivekananda, was a pedophile and that his spiritual experiences were a result of childhood trauma. This by misquoting and mistranslating and misinterpreting historical documents. Strangely, when many scholars raised objections against this book, Jeffrey seems to have played the same cards as PH (rather vice-versa) of ‘intolerance towards a different view point, irrational emotions and of course the trump card of communal forces trying to curb his freedom of expression.’
One wonders why PH would thank such a person in his book. Another point is that this very Jeffrey Kripal is the first reviewer of PH’s book and has praised PH’s book highly, claiming it to “humanize and problematize” Sri Aurobindo. With such a person praising the book, the first step itself becomes shaky.
It is well known in academic circles, that Wendy Doniger and her many students and followers (Jeffrey Kripal being one of them) have taken up the cudgels against the “uncivilized” Hindu culture and over the years published materials with the sole purpose of poisoning the Western mind through the medium of academics against India and its culture.
One is left wondering why is PH thanking such a person in the acknowledgements of his book.
Lets come to Michael Murphy of the Esalen Institute. Quoted below are excerpts from an article on an official website of ITP:
After 50 years, Michael Murphy revisits a source of thought and action that helped inspire the birth of Esalen Institute and ITP (the author is referring to Sri Aurobindo Ashram here in an article titled A Passage to India)
…His military service done, Murphy returned to San Francisco. More than ever, he found himself drawn to the life and works of one of the most remarkable East Indian spiritual leaders in world history, Aurobindo Ghose. …
…In June of 1956, Michael Murphy, still immersed in spiritual studies, decided that nothing would do other than go to India for an extended stay of practice at the Aurobindo Ashram. He was there until October of 1957. He read, meditated, and anchored his practice in Aurobindo's belief that human nature's deepest destiny is to manifest its latent divinity…
An American Ashram
… Early in 1962, however, inspired by Aurobindo but no means based entirely on his works, what would become Esalen Institute gave its first seminar
A new discovery
In recent years, descriptions of a great many siddhis have been discovered in Aurobindo’s voluminous unpublished papers. These discoveries whetted Michael’s desire to revisit India……
…Early in February 2007, Michael and his wife Dulce traveled to India, where they visited the Aurobindo Ashram, then Auroville. Michael had adequate time to find previously ignored material in the Ashram archives. Michael's trip has reinforced his intention to advance the transformative practice revealed by a record Sri Aurobindo kept for some twenty years of his day-to-day practice of yoga. He will work to this end with Jeffrey Kripal, an American professor of religious studies who is the author of a recently published scholarly study of Esalen Institute, and with two American researchers who live and work at the Ashram, Peter Heehs, whose monumental biography of Aurobindo will be published this year by Columbia University Press, and Richard Hartz, who has compiled a definitive bibliography of Sanskrit terms used by Aurobindo to describe the supernormal powers and higher states of consciousness he was exploring.
N. E. Sarawak
[Source: http://www.itp-life.com/media/articles/michael-india.html]
Strangely, nowhere on the official site of Esalen or biography of Michael Murphy is the influence or the inspiration of Sri Aurobindo mentioned. It reads completely like Michael Murphy’s personal idea!! Thus, it looks like Michael Murphy, has started his own brand of Integral Yoga in the form of Esalen Institute, borrowing many ideas from Sri Aurobindo though “by no means entirely based on his works!” without acknowledging it. (does one raise patent and property and copyright issues here?)
Another difficult to answer question raises its head, how does Michael Murphy get hold of as yet unpublished material or have access to read the unpublished material which is the sole property of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. If he got it through Peter Heehs and Richard Hartz, was is done by the explicit permission of the Ashram, one would like to see the permission papers and MOU.
So, the point being, why is PH thanking JK and MM??? MM because he financed this denigrating book on Sri Aurobindo, and JK for praising this deficient and biased book on Sri Aurobindo!! Or are there some other intentions that PH carries in associating with such people?
2. Faith. vs. Objectivity:
The toss up between faith and objectivity is something PH has done from the start of the book i.e. from the preface onwards. The preface claims the book to be completely objective and hence a biography, where as all other books written till date on Sri Aurobindo have been hagiographies. He also puts in a word couched very subtly that his book will not be flattering towards Sri Aurobindo, because it will question many of his statements, published in many of books authored by Sri Aurobindo himself and hence as in his previous articles which questioned Sri Aurobindo on many things, this book is designed on the same pattern and may cause a similar response from the ‘group identity’ of people.
“…anything that cast doubt on what he had said was taboo, even if the statement was based on incomplete knowledge of the facts…”
p. xii.
What this statement seems to be addressing is the incompleteness of Sri Aurobindo’s knowledge about facts and hence the possibility of doubting his statement. First of all, any person (need not be qualified at all) knows, that every person lives in a particular situation, circumstances and milieu of his own other than the gross universal milieu which is private and known only to him. And any person is the his own best spokesman because he knows his internal state and response to situations best. But if the person’s statements are doubted because he didn’t know the facts well is a bit difficult to digest. Also, the analysis of these statements are being done more than half a century to nearly a century later.
Are the circumstances and world-situation the same today? Will it be possible to relive and understand the era that has passed away so completely by another man from another country who doesn’t even know what the Indian freedom struggle and the life of the people at that time was like? Is it possible for Peter Heehs to put himself in Sri Aurobindo’s shoes in the late 1890s and early 1900s and really dispute or confirm Sri Aurobindo’s life and statements??? Does he (Peter Heehs) have a better understanding of the facts of the bygone era just because he dug out some papers, but no occurrence should be viewed independent of the social, political and psychological milieu!
The whole book is bereft of any contextual placement in the then current social, political and psychological milieu. Thus, the book is not so much a biography but more of Peter Heehs interpretation of the lives of Sri Aurobindo, and since no interpretation is absent of personal motives and personal subjective agendas, this book is as much doubtable and as much questionable as he has doubted and questioned Sri Aurobindo.
“Almost as bad was anything that challenged an established interpretation, even one that was clearly inadequate….”
p. xii.
If the toss up is between Sri Aurobindo’s interpretation and Peter Heehs interpretation, how does one decide whom to believe! On the one hand is Sri Aurobindo, because he lived in those times, experienced those times of the bygone era and was part of the happenings not as an artificial outsider trying to live in a particular setting to study it (ethnographer) but a person living a particular life at a particular time, on the other hand is PH, because he claims to be objective, has dug out documents and papers and is trying to understand them by placing them chronologically; papers that were written by humans, who may be trying to be politically correct or having personal agendas (who knows). Understanding something from the outside that you can’t possibly live and living something because you are present in that place and situation are two different things. Whose interpretation do you believe???
In this preface, he compares two photographs of Sri Aurobindo, which seem to have been clicked around the same time but one is touched up by the photographer before printing and the other untouched. Using these photographs as his support, he says he is an objective man because he prefers the untouched photo of Sri Aurobindo, which he describes as:
“…dark pockmarked skin, sharp features, and undreamy eyes…”
p. xii.
The touched up photograph, he claims
“falsifies the ‘real’ Aurobindo. It is the task of the retoucher to make the photograph accord with the reality that people want to see.”
p. xiii.

First and foremost, the 2 photographs compared are not of the same year, but in fact, the so called untouched photo was clicked a year or so earlier and the Ashram is in possession of the touched up and untouched version of the said photo. Hence, the authenticity of the interpretation is itself dubious, if the two photographs under comparison are different .
Secondly, can a retouched photo “falsify the real Aurobindo?” Is Sri Aurobindo the reality that exists in the photograph, does a photograph tell us about a person more than his life, that it can ‘falsify some real person’? And this he has again taken out of context from the era, PH says, the photograph was clicked around 1915-1916. The quaint method of photography and the yet underdeveloped methods of developing photographs, can they be relied on completely, to give the real picture of Sri Aurobindo. If not, then what is “real”?
Why has Sri Aurobindo’s pictures of late 1940s not been taken into account, where eye witness accounts say, that Sri Aurobindo’s complexion had become fair, almost golden and his skin and hair would shine constantly. Isn’t that as much a real Sri Aurobindo as the one clicked in 1915-16?
3. Questioning Sri Aurobindo’s mental stability:
Through out the book there are various instances, covert and overt where PH has raised questions about Sri Aurobindo’s mental stability, starting from the preface itself.
“…what about mystical experiences? In trying to trace the lines of Aurobindo’s sadhana, a biographer can use the subject’s diaries, letters, and retrospective accounts. There are also, for comparison, accounts by others of similar mystical experiences. But in the end, such experiences remain subjective. Perhaps they are only hallucinations or signs of psychotic breakdown. Even if not, do they have any value to anyone but the subject?”
p. xiv.
This statement in the preface shows, PH’s motives and intentions, without properly introducing Sri Aurobindo, His yoga and His works, he has raised a question about the mental stability and the “value” of the experiences Sri Aurobindo had.
In the introduction, before he properly introduces Sri Aurobindo, he describes in detail (almost 2-3 pages long, interspersed with incidents in Sri Aurobindo’s life) the insanity of his mother (Swarnalotta) quoting an incident where his mother beat his elder brother with the candlestick. Unfortunately, there are no references given for this incident and we don’t know where he got the details of this incident. After a two page description of Swarnalotta’s insanity and the children’s alienation from their father and hence their going away to a hostel in Darjeeling, he describes in a few lines an experience of Sri Aurobindo when he was between five or seven years old and Sri Aurobindo had experienced a great darkness rushing into him and enveloping him and the whole universe.
When writing a biography, the placements of the experiences and incidents are of great importance because the coherent picture is gained not in isolation but in context with what has been described before and after. By placing this experience in the middle of the description of Swarnalotta’s insanity, the children’s alienation from their father and his father’s extremely high ambitions for them, PH has created an unhealthy atmosphere for Sri Aurobindo’s growth and subtly laid the grounds for the possibility of Sri Aurobindo’s insanity or at the very least an eccentricity.
This is followed by in the later pages, outright accusations of madness by quoting Hemendra Prasad. One wonders the authority Hemendra Prasad has to be quoted as an authority over Sri Aurobindo’s mental stability:
“His ‘voluntary self-effacement’ was put to the test on December 12 when an officious secretary printed his name where Pal’s name used to be.
Peter starts this observation with a line of personal interpretation , trying to show as if Sri Aurobindo claimed to be self-effacing and that he failed to fulfill the claim because he got angry over something that reads further as:
Aurobindo was furious when he saw it. It gave him publicity he did not want , and also ran counter to an earlier decision that the editor of the paper would not be named. He spoke to the secretary “pretty harshly” about it. Hemendra Prasad, who witnessed the outburst, thought that Aurobindo was more than just harsh. “Well if you take the clothes away there remains little to distinguish one human radish from another. A day later, he was more explicit: “Babu Aurobindo Ghose is an extremely strange man. And I suspect a tinge of lunacy is not absent in him his mother is a lunatic. And it is not at all strange”
and completes this observation with a line of his own interpretation:
“(And it is not at all strange) - not strange, that is, that the madness in Aurobindo’s family might express itself in him as an intensity that exceeded the norm”
p. 112.
Firstly, it needs to be clarified, that Hemendra Prasad a contemporary revolutionary, had a love-hate relationship with Sri Aurobindo, one of admiration mixed with hostility. So anything he says needs to be understood as a personal perception and not as a statement of fact and also that a person feeling even a bit of hostility for another is likely to perceive the slightest of things in an exaggerated fashion.
Secondly, the episode ends with a line of interpretation by PH justifying Hemendra Prasad’s stand by saying that Sri Aurobindo if not mad was at the very least was extremely eccentric. If PH is convinced about this at the outset, it is natural that he will look at everything from that light and present it so. Further along in the book he becomes more explicit about his stand:
“…But those familiar with the literature of psychiatry and clinical psychology may be struck by the similarity between Aurobindo’s powers and experiences and the symptoms of schizophrenia.
The question of the relationship between mysticism and madness has been discussed since antiquity. In the folklore of many cultures, a man or woman of exceptional ability has often been thought closer to the lunatic than to the ordinary mortal. Indian tradition offers hundreds of examples of yogis, mystics, and sufis whom others regarded, at least sometimes, as out of their minds. India assigns an honored place to the divine madman and madwoman once their spiritual credentials have been accepted. In the West, someone who acts eccentrically and claims divine influence is more likely to be considered a psychotic with religious delusions. Recent psychiatry has barely amended Freud’s idea that “religious phenomena are only to be understood on the pattern of the individual neurotic systems familiar to us.”91 A defender of mysticism would argue that the truth value of mystical experience is so much greater than the truth value of psychiatry—a discipline based on dubious assumptions—that any attempt by the latter to explain the former is absurd. But unless the defender was an experienced mystic, this would just be substituting one set of unverified assumptions for another. When I speak of Aurobindo’s experiences, my aim is not to argue for their veracity or for their delusiveness; I simply present some of the documented events of his inner life and provide a framework for evaluating them.”
p. 245-246.
Following this is a paragraph of discussion of William James’ writing, then Anton Boisen and Sudhir Kakar. William James and Freud are considered to be the father of psychology and psychotherapy respectively. But this psychology, psychotherapy took birth in 1890s, and to continue to use them in the 21st century is an insult to psychology. But, this trend of calling Indian mystics mad or their experiences as schizophrenic, and of course psychoanalyzing the Indian culture and Indian mystics is in vogue in the USA, and in the fore front is Wendy Doniger and her followers and students. PH seems to be much enamored by this approach as he maintains that Freud and psychoanalysis still rule the roost in psychology even today, though most practicing psychologists would beg to differ. Sudhir Kakar is a well-known psychoanalyst, who is well-known for psychoanalyzing mystical experiences and famous people. Why are the other well-known practitioners of psychology not quoted, like many well-known transpersonal psychologists who are much more contemporary to our times, and who will validate the fact that spiritual experiences are not any more considered a sign of psychopathology.
Secondly, to call someone schizophrenic and his experiences as hallucinations, certain criteria need to be fulfilled. The way a common man uses these terms loosely, is not adequate in a book that claims to be a scholarly work. The DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) - IV is used by psychiatrists and psychologists world over to diagnose mental disorders, and until a person fulfills the criteria he/she cannot be called schizophrenic or his experiences as hallucinations.
It is gross untruth and mishandling to nullify the development that has occurred over the years in the field of psychiatry and psychology and say that psychiatry and psychology has not moved beyond Freud. And then, on the basis of this wrong assumption, say that Sri Aurobindo may be called as schizophrenic by practitioners of mental health medicine.
Though, PH softens the blow of these very harsh and “objective” and “scientific” statements by quoting some more, yet he does this in a very mixed fashion, first by examining the quotes of two well-known individuals who called Sri Aurobindo mad,that his contemporary revolutionaries thought him eccentric, but over all his utter calmness and lack of self-assertion after he discussed his spiritual experiences in the jail in a public meeting, convinced people the he was “anything but unbalanced”. It is a very strange way of saying somebody may not be mad:
Indeed, virtually everyone who met him found him unusually calm, dispassionate, and loving – and eminently sane. The reports to the contrary are so rare that they can be examined individually. The reports to the contrary are so rare that they can be examined individually. As noted earlier, while working as editor-in-chief of Bande Mataram, Aurobindo was sometimes severe and occasionally angry. After witnessing a tongue-lashing Aurobindo gave to another, Hemendra Prasad Ghose wrote in his diary that he thought Aurobindo might have inherited “a tinge of lunacy” from his mother. R.C. Dutt, asked by the government for information about Aurobindo, also mentioned Swarnalata’s madness and suggested that her son was “eccentric”. After Aurobindo had spoken of his vision of Krishna in the Uttarpara speech, a few of his associates murmured that he had lost his balance. These scattered reports by people out of sympathy with him are hardly significant in themselves; viewed together with every other known report of Aurobindo’s character, they stand out as exceptions. A few months after noting down the outburst that had surprised him, Hemendra Prasad wrote to Aurobindo that he would “always look with pleasure on the period of my life during which I had the privilege of working with you for a cause.”94 That someof Aurobindo’s political opponents considered him eccentric or unbalanced is not surprising. When people asked him about his claim to have seen Krishna, the calmness and lack of self-assertion of his answer convinced them that he was anything but unbalanced”
And if PH is so objective, how about having done some research to give a clear idea about what mental illness is and why Sri Aurobindo may not fulfill the criteria. If PH even though an historian (though unqualified) wanted to venture into the field of mental illness and psychiatry, should he not have invested a little time and energy into research in the above mentioned field, before trying to covertly defame Sri Aurobindo in this manner. All this PH has discussed while describing Sri Aurobindo in Pondicherry when he had started on the Yoga in earnest and in almost exclusivity, as trying to remind the writer, don’t forget, he could be mad.
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22 Oct 2008

Manasi Pahwa's correspondence: Letter #3 from Manasi

[This is the third of three letters exchanged between Manasi Pahwa and Peter Heehs. The first is Manasi's letter to the Ashram Trustees here. The second is Peter's reply here. Please read them both in sequence before you read the following reply by Manasi.]

To The Trustees, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry.

Respected Manoj da and other trustees,

I received a mail from Peter as a reply to the 1st letter I had written to the trustees and forwarded to him when Manoj da asked me to. I am sending a reply and rejoinder to his mail to you. The portions in italics and underlined are quoted from his letter and then is my reply statement by statement to him.

Statement 1

My presentation is neutral, though most readers will see that by presenting Sri Aurobindo's experiences uncritically and at length, I consider them valid and interesting…

Answer 1. My reply to this statement: The discussion is cunningly neutral. True, he doesn't take a personal stand, yet by presenting at length, the views that negate the validity and veracity of Sri Aurobindo's experience, he has very subtly and covertly taken a stand.

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Manasi Pahwa's correspondence: Letter #2 from Peter

[This is the second of three letters exchanged between Manasi Pahwa and Peter Heehs. The first is Manasi's letter to the Ashram Trustees here. Please read it before you read the following response from Peter.]

21 September 2008

Dear Manasi Pahwa

Thank you for forwarding a copy of your letter to the Trustees to me. Since you clearly are qualified to write about the subject, and since you, for the most part, keep to the tone of civil discourse expected of a scholar, I am happy to write a brief reply.

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Manasi Pahwa's correspondence: Letter #1 from Manasi

[This is the first of three letters exchanged between Manasi Pahwa and Peter Heehs. This letter was originally written to the Ashram Trustees and was passed on by them to Peter for his comments.]

Subject: Gross errors in Peter Heehs' book: 'The Lives of Sri Aurobindo' from the point of view of psychology, science and objectivity.

The book by Peter Heehs has made itself open to the possibility that

"… those familiar with the literature of psychiatry and clinical psychology may be struck by the similarity between Aurobindo's powers and experiences and the symptoms of schizophrenia…. When I speak of Aurobindo's experiences, my aim is not to argue for their veracity or for their delusiveness" [quoted from PH's book]

Since, Peter claims that he is a historian and yet prefers to use psychological terms and even quotes a psychologist or two, it became inevitable that I address him. As Peter 'claims' he is a historian, so can I 'claim' to be a psychologist, since I have been a student of psychology and a scientific researcher like him, for the past 8 years now.

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9 Oct 2008

Background to this Book

The first impression that Peter’s book gives is one of a meticulous, scholarly and authoritative work. It deals minutely with many factual aspects of Sri Aurobindo’s life and suggests some new interpretations of Sri Aurobindo’s motives. Most statements seem to be backed with references, and for every viewpoint, an opposite view is presented giving the book an appearance of balance and objectivity.

But when we look deeper into the references we find that many quotations are used out of context. And when we look at the balance of viewpoints, we find that there is a deliberate bias to quote those who are critical of Sri Aurobindo, and to suppress the much larger body of facts and quotations that praise him. The author justifies his bias by disclaiming any praise of Sri Aurobindo as not objective or as hagiographical. Sometimes the author uses a clever mix of facts and speculation, so tightly woven that you cannot distinguish one from the other unless you personally verify the referenced sources and think for yourself. On the whole the balance is consistently tilted to harm Sri Aurobindo’s reputation, and more seriously, to misrepresent his message, his work and his teaching.

Numerous examples of analysis on this site will reveal that the bias is deliberate and defamatory. The complete List of Categories under which posts on this site are organised can be used as a starting point for study. Some of the least controversial passages of this book are found, on closer scrutiny, to be perversely deceptive.

The kinds of deceptions consistently utilised throughout the book include:

  1. deliberately concealing the much larger body of information which is contrary to the author's defamatory thesis;
  2. presenting as quotations what are Peter Heehs’ own speculations;
  3. deliberate misrepresentation and distortion of context; distortion of quotations;
  4. defamation of Sri Aurobindo’s character by use of innuendo, speculation, exaggeration and outright falsehood;
  5. bias to quote extensively from people who question Sri Aurobindo’s credibility and sanity; outright rejection of any person or quotation offering appreciation or praise of Sri Aurobindo
  6. preferring speculation against Sri Aurobindo’s own affirmations to the contrary;
  7. crude application of Freudian analysis to Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.

To the informed scholars of Sri Aurobindo's life and teaching, the book is found to be full of twists -- on an average of at least one per page. The entire book sustains a deliberate slant aimed at defaming Sri Aurobindo, but cunningly couched in a play of words to hide the author's bias.

The messages and conclusions that he develops across the book include the following:

  • that Sri Aurobindo does not hold integrity as a person,
  • that he was morally of loose character,
  • that his claims to spiritual powers are questionable and irrelevant,
  • that his spirituality emerges from a streak of inherited madness,
  • that there is nothing new in his writings and thoughts,
  • that his poetry is expressive of sexual frustration, and its style outdated,
  • that his relationship with the Mother was of a romantic nature.

Anybody with respect for spirituality, for Sri Aurobindo, Indian culture, or even for pure objectivity and scholarship, will be disappointed at the least, and deeply hurt for the most part.

The book has been publicised as a scholarly, authoritative and comprehensive work by its publishers who themselves have a high reputation. It will surely be quoted by mal-intentioned scholars to justify their agendas. To ignore it without refuting its falsehood would be to condone it. Its contents and conclusions will be used by interested groups to deliberately hurt and provoke devotees and genuine scholars of Sri Aurobindo for years to come. This pattern and strategy of vilification of India’s spiritual traditions is not new.

Global Pattern of Attacks

Recently there have been similar “scholarly” attacks on the integrity of Ramakrishna Paramahansa, Paramahansa Yogananda, Dalai Lama, Shivaji, Sai Baba, various Hindu deities, and others.

Jeffrey Kripal is the author who published a Freudian analysis of Ramakrishna Paramahansa and declared him a homosexual with perverse relationship with Swami Vivekananda. Kripal himself is a student of Wendy Doniger who specialises in Freudian analysis of Puranic stories and is described as “rude, crude and very lewd in the hallowed portals of Sanskrit Academics. All her special works have revolved around the subject of sex in Sanskrit texts”. The same Kripal is now showering high praise for Peter’s book. Kripal is prominently listed as the first of four reviewers on the back of the book and on the publisher’s website. He has written the longest and most prolific praise for it. He is a strong supporter of Peter’s thesis and was given the manuscript of the book by Peter long before its formal publication so that his comments may be used for publicity.

The choice of Jeffrey Kripal, a known right-wing Christian and a notorious anti-Hindu and anti-Indian writer, as primary reviewer reveals the darker intentions behind Peter Heehs’ defamation of Sri Aurobindo. It puts Heeh in the lineage of Kripal and Doniger, and puts his book in the same category as their writings in the public eye. It suggests the influence of well-funded international groups that are behind increasing academic attacks on Indian culture, spirituality and Hinduism.

Kripal has now joined Michael Murphy in financing Peter Heehs and Richard Hartz to analyse Sri Aurobindo’s Record of Yoga for the Esalen Institute. Kripal ’s intentions here can be inferred from the fact that his only fields of specialisation are “comparative erotics and ethics of mystical literature”. Kripal himself describes Esalen as a “metaphysical synthesis of sensuality and spirit”, and a review of Kripal ’s book on Esalen criticises him for being “too intent on seeing everything that happens at Esalen through the mystical lenses of tantra”. The danger emphasised here is not so much of Esalen’s intentions but of Kripal ’s perverse mind now targeting Sri Aurobindo with Heehs' help.

Kripal’s fawning review of Heehs' book declares that:

“His text humanizes and problematizes a historical figure whose complexity has been more or less lost to us via hagiography, piety, and now Hindutva apologetics.”

Note his inbuilt biases. Note also his glee at humanising and problematising Sri Aurobindo, as well as his need to complexify. The word problematising means “to propose problems”, “to pose problems”, “to make into or regard as a problem”. This is the intention of Peter in writing this book as revealed through his chosen reviewer, close personal friend, financier and partner in research on Sri Aurobindo!

Heehs' statements have larger ramifications and are part of a wider strategy of certain global interests to misrepresent and discredit Sri Aurobindo along with other spiritual giants of our age.

When Kripal's book appeared, he was an unknown small-time scholar seeking cheap publicity. In this case the Heehs emerges from the heart of Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives and falsely claims authority on the grounds of being one of the "founders" of the Archives. This gives the distortions in this book an aura of authority and the implied sanction of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram itself. This is the main reason why it is so important to expose the distortions in this book.

There have been other "scholars" who also have distorted Sri Aurobindo's teaching to suit their own agendas, but they have little authority and do not claim to represent the Sri Aurobindo Ashram's views, and hence can be ignored and allowed to fade into academic irrelevance.

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8 Oct 2008

Page 054: Romantic interludes

Peter spends much time and energy in speculation on Sri Aurobindo’s relationship with his wife Mrinalini Devi. On reading the entire book, his objectives become clear. He is preparing grounds for a Freudian analysis of Sri Aurobindo’s poetry and plays to prove that he was looking for an ideal wife. Still later he ties this in with his speculation of romantic relationships with the Mother. The following passages represent the kinds of speculative backgrounds on which he builds his later thesis:

Page 54: It is often cloudy in Nainital during summer, and the honeymooners may have been denied a glimpse of the peaks of Trishul and Nanda Devi and Snow View, but they doubtless enjoyed strolling by the lake and wandering through the town’s bazaar. Aurobindo spent money freely….

It sounds charming and even sweet. But the entire passage is built entirely out of speculation and fantasy. Only one factual detail follows this passage in listing some items bought by Sri Aurobindo as noted in his personal financial records, but they do not indicate that he “spent money freely”. Notice the detailed descriptions emerging from Peter’s fertile imagination, but presented as factual and followed by a footnote utterly irrelevant to the fantasy just woven, but creating the impression of a scholarly reference. He imprints in our mind the picture of Sri Aurobindo’s relationship with Mrinalini Devi as that of two modern American teenagers on a honeymoon.

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Page 246: Freudian Analysis of Spirituality

Peter deliberately ignores the numerous examples of Sri Aurobindo’s experiments from the Record proving many of these powers. He dismisses as “hagiography” and “hero-worship” the thousands of documented records and objective verifications by numerous first-hand and contemporary observers. He reduces all of Sri Aurobindo’s experiences and realisations to mere “claims”. Then on Pages 245-248 he presents these spiritual experiences as the result of psychological instabilities. Here I will analyse not so much the details of his text but the background of his justification for the discussion.

After showing the sadhana in the Record as unstable and inconclusive through selective quotations, Peter offers as mere “claims” a long list of magical “powers and experiences” of Sri Aurobindo. By misrepresenting quotations on the one hand and offering no proof for the powers on the other hand, he compels the reader to disbelieve these “claims” and almost forces us to accept instead his “rational” and Freudian explanation of mental imbalance. For this purpose he quotes lengthily from reductionist and Freudian psychoanalysts, ignoring the numerous developments in modern psychology that not only accept the reality of mystical experience, but also use them successfully in modern psychotherapy. He relies heavily on Varieties of Religious Experience by William James to justify his thought process. He tries to deceive us by referring to the 1961 edition of the book, when in fact this book was first published in 1902 and represents an outdated psychological thinking. In developing his perverse agenda, Peter throws quotations and references at us without concern for the quality and relevance of the authorities he relies upon.   ...full text...

Page 245: Record of Yogic Failures

Pages 242-245 is a long section on Sri Aurobindo’s early yogic experiences as noted in his diary notes called the Record of Yoga. The first half gives examples of their wide scope and lists samples of successes and setback largely drawn from one entry dated December 6, 1912. The second half constitutes what is presented as a summary of Sri Aurobindo’s final accomplishments of sadhana as reflected in the Record. Quotations used here are not entire sentences but only short phrases woven into Peter’s own interpretation and mostly listing failures and illness. The casual reader is given the impression that this is all. But the informed reader familiar with the more than 1500 pages of the Record will be struck by the obvious negative bias!   ...full text...

Page 199: Fanatical, dangerous, mad

Several innocent-sounding quotations are used by Peter throughout the book to build his thesis of mental imbalance. One such in passing:

Page 199: Critics of Aurobindo could be as zealous in detraction as Jitendra Lal was in praise. Annie Besant again proclaimed him dangerous, even fanatical on account of “his refusal to work with any Englishmen.” Members of government used the same terms to describe the man they were trying to imprison. Some added that they thought he was slightly off his head: “There is madness in his family,” wrote the Viceroy to the secretary of the state, “and he probably has a bee in his bonnet.” Minto seems to have picked up this notion from R.C. Dutt, a onetime friend of Aurobindo’s, who had been asked for information by the political agent of Baroda. “Arabindo’s mother was off her mind,” Dutt volunteered, “and Arabindo himself was eccentric.” Other Moderates spoke privately in terms similar to Dutt’s. Publicly they charged Aurobindo with being an impractical dreamer, an “impatient idealist. About this epithet Aurobindo wrote….”

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What You Can Do

Many have felt the need to act to minimise the damage that Peter Heehs' book has caused to scholarly understanding of Sri Aurobindo. Here are some suggestions for action.

If you feel that the book

  • is deceptive in its contents
  • misrepresents Sri Aurobindo
  • or is academically unsound (and in parts at least even fraudulent)
you can do any or all of the following:

  1. Refuse to buy the book and discourage its sales
  2. Write to the publishers and tell them what you feel. You can write to James D. Jordan, Director, Columbia University Press, at cup_book@columbia.edu
  3. Write to the author and tell him what you feel at: peterheehs@yahoo.com and peter.heehs@auromail.net.
  4. Write to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust and send them a copy of your letters to the above. You can email saat@sriaurobindoashram.org or better still mail the printout to: The Board of Trustees, Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, Pondicherry 605002, India.
  5. Submit your letter to the Editor of this website for inclusion under the Opinions category of posts. Send your email to rtlosa@gmail.com.
  6. Familiarise yourself with the criticisms on this website so that you can academically refute anyone representing the perversions that this book promotes.
  7. If you come across a copy at a local library, mark its pages to expose the errors so that future readers are better informed. This option may be constrained by local library regulations. Consult them first.

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1 Oct 2008

Narad's Letter to the Ashram Trust

[Editorial note: This is the letter written by Narad, an American disciple who had close contact with the Mother and has been closely associated with the foundaction of Auroville.]


Oct. 1, 2008
Respected trustees,

I have known some of you for nearly 50 years and I am saddened that I must write this letter. You are well aware that I have never spoken out concerning anything but the adeshes given to me by Mother, namely, to bring down a New Music, to care for the Service Tree for the duration of my life and to build the Gardens of the Matrimandir.

I am saddened, therefore, to write to you today concerning the book The Lives of Sri Aurobindo by Peter Heehs.

Let me begin with these words from Mother as they form the basis of my letter to you.

“I was painfully shocked when I heard the translation of the leaflet you are distributing here in the Ashram. I never imagined you could have such a complete lack of understanding, respect and devotion for our Lord who has sacrificed himself totally for us. Sri Aurobindo was {not} crippled; a few hours before he left his body he rose from his bed and sat for a long time in his armchair, speaking freely to all those around him. Sri Aurobindo was not compelled to leave his body, he chose to do so for reasons so sublime that they are beyond the reach of human mentality. And when one cannot understand, the only thing to do is to keep a respectful silence.” 26 December 1950

"It is not a question of disobedience. I know nothing about your additions to the Life Sketch of the sources from which they were taken. My point of view is this, that anything written by a sadhak about Sri Aurobindo which brings him down to an ordinary level and admits the reader to a sort of gossiping familiarity with him is an unfaithfulness to Him and His work. Good intentions are not sufficient, it is necessary that this should be understood by everybody." 3 June 1939

Sri Aurobindo had written:

" I see that you have persisted in giving a biography--is it really necessary or useful? The attempt is bound to be a failure, because neither you nor anyone else knows anything at all of my life; it ha snot been on the surface for men to see."

"It would be only myself who could speak of things in my past giving them their true from and significance."

I was visiting one of the Sri Aurobindo Centers in the U.S. for a week of Karma Yoga, offering my help as I do at all His Centers in America. I saw the book by Peter Heehs on the table and asked the person in charge for his thoughts about the book. He praised it highly citing the meticulous scholarship, the years of detailed and dedicated research and its unbiased reporting. He mentioned further that Peter had no formal education and had always desired acceptance by the academic community and had now achieved it through the publication of his book and the efforts of Michael Murphy and the Esalen Institute and others in America to endorse and publicize it.

I picked up the book and immediately my strong inner feeling was, “This is something dark.” I began to scan through some sections and the feeling was more than borne out. What I clearly felt was an attack on Sri Aurobindo couched in pseudo-intellectual terms positing seemingly innocuous and carefully scripted comments that are in essence derogatory, disrespectful and undermining. I scanned through some pages, going first to the section on poetry, then to a few other areas. The feeling that came over me was that this was a book done for one's ego, a work lacking sensibility, bordering on blasphemy and interspersed with sensationalized comments to bring the author fame. Though I have read many pages I find that I cannot and will not read any more for its darkness is pervasive. Since then I have read the letters of Ananda Reddy, Alok Pandey and Sraddhalu Ranade and agree with all they have written.

I know that there are a number of people in the U.S. who champion the book as an honest portrayal of a great sage who was also human and had numerous failings, but for me, a disciple initiated by Mother, it is an abomination, castigating Sri Aurobindo, the Lord who descended into human form to bring down the Supramental. Essentially it is an effort to bring Sri Aurobindo down to a low human level. How can we begin to offer a critique of Sri Aurobindo’s life? Do we need to read more than that which Mother has said of Him?

“Sri Aurobindo came upon earth to teach this truth to men. He told them that man is only a transitional being living in a mental consciousness, but with the possibility of acquiring a new consciousness, the Truth-consciousness, and capable of living a life perfectly harmonious, good and beautiful, happy and fully conscious. During the whole of his life upon earth, Sri Aurobindo gave all his time to establish in himself this consciousness he called supramental, and to help those gathered around him to realise it.”

“What Sri Aurobindo represents in the world's history is not a teaching, not even a revelation; it is a decisive action direct from the Supreme.”

“Sri Aurobindo has come on earth not to bring a teaching or a creed in competition with previous creeds or teachings, but to show the way to overpass the past and to open concretely the route towards an imminent and inevitable future.”

“Sri Aurobindo belongs to the future; he is the messenger of the future. He still shows us the way to follow in order to hasten the realisation of a glorious future fashioned by the Divine Will.”

“All those who want to collaborate for the progress of humanity and for India's luminous destiny must unite in a clairvoyant aspiration and in an illumined work.”

“Sri Aurobindo came upon earth to announce the manifestation of the supramental world and not merely did he announce this manifestation but embodied also in part the supramental force and showed by example what one must do to prepare oneself for manifesting it. The best thing we can do is to study all that he has told us and endeavour to follow his example and prepare ourselves for the new manifestation.”

I feel certain that you are all aware of the above and mine is only the small voice of one whose surrender to Mother and Sri Aurobindo has been woefully inadequate. I have no personal grudge or animosity towards Peter and hardly know him, having spoken to him on only a few occasions, but I believe this book can do great damage to the spiritual aspirations of Westerners by instilling in them the doubts and criticisms of Sri Aurobindo that PH so subtly interposes in his biography.

I would ask that the following be done for the Lord’s work upon earth.

  1. The Ashram disavow the work, in writing, as misleading and erroneous and defamatory towards Sri Aurobindo and forbid its distribution in the Ashram.
  2. Deny Peter Heehs all future access to the Archives and demand the return of any materials belonging to the Ashram that he may presently have in his possession.
  3. Request Penguin Books not to publish the book in India due to the above. I am certain that many scholars have already exposed the falsehoods throughout the work.
  4. Forbid Peter Heehs to use any copyrighted Ashram material in the publication of any future book on The Mother or Sri Aurobindo.

In these turbulent days when the forces of negation are acting to delay or disrupt the work of Mother and Sri Aurobindo, we must stand for the Truth of all They have sacrificed for us.

Sri Aurobindo, the Avatar of the Supramental, cannot be judged or written about from our low human perspectives. We have so far to go on the path He has blazed, making it not only easier but possible for those who are called to tread the way of Light.

The least we can do is kneel ever humbly at His feet.

In Their Love,
Narad (Richard Eggenberger)

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