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.

1 comment:

  1. I believe Swarnalata's mental imbalance happened much later in her life, but did it happen before or after Sri Aurobindo's birth? Can the historian tell us something about it?