6 Nov 2008

The Lives of Sri Aurobindo by Peter Heehs—a Controversial Biography

Peter Heehs’s Lives of Sri Aurobindo is a recent arrival in the thriving genre of biographies and professes itself to be founded on researched material. It essentially treats the subject as a human person and not really as a yogi or a spiritual stalwart, and in the least as an incarnate. The book has been recently published by the Columbia University Press and appears to be rough on the sentiments of the devotees of the Mother and the Master. The author claims himself to be a meticulous professional historian and wants to present the subject strictly as it should emerge from the documentary material.

The approach is, holds the author, strictly rational and is grounded in the principles of research, eschewing goody-goody emotionalism of the hagiographic presentations of such themes. This may have certain merit but there are things that lie far beyond the reach of such scientification of occult and spiritual matters. In fact, it should be axiomatically understood that it is not possible for reason to grasp the issues connected with them, although to some extent it could open to its intuition; this is simply true, for the obvious reason that “things occult and spiritual are never on the surface for men to see them”. On the other hand, with a degree of spiritual experience and realization, there is a chance of presenting them to the rational mind also. This spiritual experience and realization should come first before one attempts to speak about those who live in the richness of the spirit, in its multi-dimensionality. If this basic fact is not recognized, then the work will fail to carry in it the substance or essential conviction of the higher principles. Not only that; such a work should be at once dismissed as an inchoate or garbled attempt, dismissed without any further consideration—because of the wrong premises with which it begins, because it smacks more of “I’m wiser than you all, the gullible, that you utterly lack rational faculty and capacity to detach yourself from your object of adoration."

Such unfortunately seems to be the case of the much touted Lives of Sri Aurobindo brought out with great fanfare, which is of course a part of the modern publication dynamics where the author is commissioned to write what the publisher wants him to write. Truth, the spiritual truth then gets sacrificed on the altar of promotionalism. And it is a peculiar game, a very bad queer game in which the more the writer becomes diabolical the more gets promoted promotionalism. But we need not fall prey to all this full-size ballyhooing if we are established in the spiritual principles that guide and govern our aspiration and that bring fulfilment to it, the decisive factor being transparent sincerity and devotion in the sense of commitment to one’s persuasive or compelling ideals. So without getting impressed by the “gunny-sack” scouring of facts of pseudo-rationalism we could depend more upon the intuition and the inner conviction in matters of spiritual personalities. This need not carry any guilty feeling in us; rather it is that which will strengthen our refined perceptions and subtleties of understanding…

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. ~ The Mother
(14 February 1961)

The Technology of Promotionalism
Peter Heehs’s Lives of Sri Aurobindo is a recent arrival in the thriving genre of biographies and professes itself to be founded on researched material. It essentially treats the subject as a human person and not really as a yogi or a spiritual stalwart, and in the least as an incarnate. The book has been recently published by the Columbia University Press and appears to be rough on the sentiments of the devotees of the Mother and the Master. The author claims himself to be a meticulous professional historian and wants to present the subject strictly as it should emerge from the documentary material.

The approach is, holds the author, strictly rational and is grounded in the principles of research, eschewing goody-goody emotionalism of the hagiographic presentations of such themes. This may have certain merit but there are things that lie far beyond the reach of such scientification of occult and spiritual matters. In fact, it should be axiomatically understood that it is not possible for reason to grasp the issues connected with them, although to some extent it could open to its intuition; this is simply true, for the obvious reason that “things occult and spiritual are never on the surface for men to see them”. On the other hand, with a degree of spiritual experience and realization, there is a chance of presenting them to the rational mind also. This spiritual experience and realization should come first before one attempts to speak about those who live in the richness of the spirit, in its multi-dimensionality. If this basic fact is not recognized, then the work will fail to carry in it the substance or essential conviction of the higher principles. Not only that; such a work should be at once dismissed as an inchoate or garbled attempt, dismissed without any further consideration—because of the wrong premises with which it begins, because it smacks more of “I’m wiser than you all, the gullible, that you utterly lack rational faculty and capacity to detach yourself from your object of adoration."

Such unfortunately seems to be the case of the much touted Lives of Sri Aurobindo brought out with great fanfare, which is of course a part of the modern publication dynamics where the author is commissioned to write what the publisher wants him to write. Truth, the spiritual truth then gets sacrificed on the altar of promotionalism. And it is a peculiar game, a very bad queer game in which the more the writer becomes diabolical the more gets promoted promotionalism. But we need not fall prey to all this full-size ballyhooing if we are established in the spiritual principles that guide and govern our aspiration and that bring fulfilment to it, the decisive factor being transparent sincerity and devotion in the sense of commitment to one’s persuasive or compelling ideals. So without getting impressed by the “gunny-sack” scouring of facts of pseudo-rationalism we could depend more upon the intuition and the inner conviction in matters of spiritual personalities. This need not carry any guilty feeling in us; rather it is that which will strengthen our refined perceptions and subtleties of understanding.

The Aspect of Avatarhood
The very first thing, though difficult for the modern mind, that we must properly understand and recognize and acknowledge regarding Sri Aurobindo is the very aspect of his Avatarhood without which it will be a frustrating effort to speak anything worthwhile about him. If it is too much for the modern mind to accept this, it can then as well leave him aside, though dazzled it might get with his remarkably vast achievements in the intellectual or creative fields. The Mother proclaimed a number of times Sri Aurobindo coming as an Avatar, and she had no hesitation about it. Unlike Sri Krishna, he wouldn’t declare himself to be one, simply because of our tendency to sentimenalise or romanticize the matter. We know how many times, and in how many ways, Nirodbaran wanted to extract it from him, but he always dodged it—finding an escape route from the nature of the questions put to him. So also Nagin-bahi could not succeed in his attempts—although to him he made a little greater revelation than that.

Young Nagin once asked him: “We believe that both you and the Mother are Avatars. But is it only in this life that both of you have shown your divinity? It is said that you and she have been on the earth constantly since its creation. What were you doing during your previous lives?” In response to this direct question Sri Aurobindo simply replied: “Carrying on the evolution.” In answer to another question he said: “The Avatar is necessary when a special work is to be done and in crises of evolution. The Avatar is a special manifestation while for the rest of the time it is the Divine working within the ordinary human limits as a Vibhuti.”

Did Sri Aurobindo come to do any “special work”? If yes, it should settle the matter. In the case of Sri Aurobindo “as a decisive action direct from the Supreme”, as the Mother revealed to us, his coming is in the context of this dark and dumb inconscient creation opening itself for the supramental manifestation, the arrival of the new race, the gnostic or supramental race. He—and of course she—came for that and whatever he and she did they did for that.

The Mother describing Sri Aurobindo’s Avataric Work
Let us quickly gather a few quotations from the Mother describing the nature of Sri Aurobindo’s Avataric work:

Sri Aurobindo came to tell the world of the beauty of the future that must be realised. He came to give not a hope but a certitude of the splendour towards which the world moves. The world is not an unfortunate accident, it is a marvel which moves towards its expression. The world needs the certitude of the beauty of the future. And Sri Aurobindo has given that assurance. (27 November 1971)
Sri Aurobindo came to tell us how to find Thee and how to serve Thee. Grant that in this year of his centenary we may truly understand what he has taught us and in all sincerity put it into practice. (6 December 1971)
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. This gives life its real sense and will help us to overcome all obstacles. Let us live for the new creation and we shall grow stronger and stronger by remaining young and progressive. (30 January 1972)
Sri Aurobindo came on earth from the Supreme to announce the manifestation of a new race and the new world, the Supramental. Let us prepare for it in all sincerity and eagerness. (15 August 1972)
Man is the creation of yesterday. Sri Aurobindo came to announce the creation of tomorrow: the coming of the supramental being. (15 August 1972)
From the spiritual point of view, India is the foremost country in the world. Her mission is to set the example of spirituality. Sri Aurobindo came on earth to teach this to the world. This fact is so obvious that a simple and ignorant peasant here is, in his heart, closer to the Divine than the intellectuals of Europe. All those who want to become Aurovilians must know this and behave accordingly; otherwise they are unworthy of being Aurovilians. (8 February 1972)

The Difficulty of the Rational Mind
There is a tendency in the rational mind to dismiss these utterances as sheer myths which have no verifiable basis, these utterances meant for the credulous and the gullible. It is maintained that there is abundant devotionalism in them, bordering on the stereotyped religion and religious practices, and therefore these could be, in fact should be unceremoniously set aside. Even if coming from the Mother, these are considered by this rational mind not only to be patronizing but are treated as an utter act of faith-religion-fundamentalism-politics. In the sequel, quickly enough, fundamentalism gets linked up with Sri Aurobindo himself, something that unpardonably accuses him for what he never was. This mind goes even further and says conceitedly that the whole business of patronization was initiated by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother themselves, they working together. They gave darshans, they gave blessings, they encouraged disciples bowing to them—and the disciples stupidly succumbing to al that as if they had nothing of their own.

But a terrible confusion arises when we mix up matters of the individual’s spiritual growth and progress with the aspects of wider collective or organizational growth and progress, its intricate issues in their own dynamics. For instance, an individual’s faith is an individual’s faith and nothing can be said about it, nothing perhaps need also be said or done in that respect which otherwise will amount to the rationalist’s fundamentalism. And the beauty is, a true seeker of the spirit will always get the right guidance and will step forward depending upon the sincerity and intensity of his aspiration, and there is no doubt about it. The collective,—that has been ever a difficult charge. If the individual’s faith and belief are imposed on the collective, then it amounts to fundamentalism. Has Sri Aurobindo ever done that?

There are certain cosmic fundamentals and they come into operation in one way or the other through the history of entire time. Man as an evolved being in his fullness always strives for Wisdom-Strength-Harmony-Perfection and, as long as the balance is maintained, he acquires the collective gain. But quite often that gain proves precarious, Nature perhaps wanting him to move from gain to gain. The opening paragraph of The Life Divine sets the tone: “The earliest preoccupation of man in his awakened thoughts and, as it seems, his inevitable and ultimate preoccupation,—for it survives the longest periods of scepticism and returns after every banishment,—is also the highest which his thought can envisage. It manifests itself in the divination of Godhead, the impulse towards perfection, the search after pure Truth and unmixed Bliss, the sense of a secret immortality. The ancient dawns of human knowledge have left us their witness to this constant aspiration; today we see a humanity satiated but not satisfied by victorious analysis of the externalities of Nature preparing to return to its primeval longings. The earliest formula of Wisdom promises to be its last,—God, Light, Freedom, Immortality.”

Can Integral Yoga become a Religion?
It is with this brief background we could perhaps look into Richard Carlson’s otherwise excellent paper on Integral Ideology: An Ideological Genealogy of Integral Theory and Practice posted at http://www.integralworld.net/carlson.html. It covers the following topics: Fundamentalism, Neo-Liberalism, Neo-Conservatism, Gebser’s Sociology, and Integral Theories. In the course of his discussion he raises an important question vis-à-vis the Integral Yoga, if it has become a religion. Perhaps this question is irrelevant for a spiritual practitioner and it could simply be ignored. However, to consider it as a part of the regular Hindu rites and rituals is rather becoming unfair to it. But the queer amazing aspect of it, the suggestion that it was Sri Aurobindo himself who encouraged it is preposterous! Let us look into the relevant part of the Integral Ideology-article, the part referring to Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. Here it is:

… Although Sri Aurobindo, the founder of Integral Yoga formally eschewed couching his yoga in religion nevertheless, religious practices crept into the practices of its followers. It is in fact the transference of Hindu religious practices on to Integral Yoga which has facilitated a fascination of some of his followers with the fundamentalist rhetoric of today’s militant Hindu nationalism (Hinduvta).

Some of his writings from the period in which he was a revolutionary leader of the Indian Independence movement have been historically decontextualized and appropriated by various fractions of Hindu nationalist in support of their ethnically cleansed view of India. These writings usually referenced by Hinduvta authors, or even Leftist critics of the Hindu Right, are generally those of an early period in his work “between 1901 to 1913” (Heehs 2006 para 7) in which Sri Aurobindo discovered and immersed himself in the text and practices of Hinduism.

In many respects Hinduism for Sri Aurobindo was an indigenous resistance practice to the foreign occupation and value systems of the Raj. In his writings from this early period one finds the identification of the Hindu concept of sanātana dharma—eternal religion—with the self-determination of India itself. Although Sri Aurobindo, as one of the first leaders of the Indian Independence movement, had been put on trail for his life by the British for sedition, his practice of yoga allowed him to view his jailers, judge, and jury as divine actors rather than as enemies. His response to his prosecution was one of equanimity and peace rather than hated and distress. After release he advocated non-violent resistance to colonialist occupation, his yogic practice even reinforcing the secular values of the Enlightenment in which he was schooled at Cambridge.

If there are distinct themes in his socio-political writing, concerning the current epoch, one of the strongest is the call for Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. It can be said that in matters of Liberty, Sri Aurobindo was Jeffersonian, of Equality, he was Marxist, and although certainly not an ardent pacifist, in matters of Fraternity, the author of The Ideal of Human Unity, could even be called a Gandhian.

Sri Aurobindo advocated a secular democratic government which would allow the infinite diversity of the nations voices to be heard. After 1913 until his death in 1950 he renounced sectarian religious practice and no longer associated his yoga with Hinduism, claiming its practice transcended any conventional religion.

In fact a close reading of his major socio-political works such as The Human Cycle and The Ideal of Human Unity demonstrates his abhorrence of theocracy and fundamentalism. In some places he fervently exclaims that it is better to be an atheist than a fanatical follower of religion.

Sri Aurobindo's life was in many ways heroic, his knowledge was both complex and encyclopedic. He viewed his own accomplishments as the result of the efforts of a man aspiring for transformation and transparency to the grace received from above. He did however, speak of his yogic consort Mirra Alfassa (the Mother) as an incarnation of the Divine in its form of Shakti. For her part the Mother referred to Sri Aurobindo as an Avatar (divine incarnation). While it can be said that they both did not actively seek worshipers and were kind to their followers, it can also be said that they did not reject the worship and deification of their devotees.

It is one thing to believe that in a universe in which consciousness is delineated by various graduations, that on some planes of consciousness, expressions of devotion through the articulation of feelings (bhakti) are entirely proper, it is quite another not to comprehend—especially when one otherwise advocates for secular polity and eschewing religious dogma—that some followers will become attached to the forms of worship and inevitably confuse levels of consciousness, as well as secular and sacred, subcultural and cultural, theocratic and democratic values.

While claiming to disassociate his yoga from Hinduism many of the practices of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram during his lifetime (and certainly today) in fact mimic traditional forms of Hinduism. These practices include performance of an audience with the Guru (darshan) and prostration at the feet of the Guru. Moreover, it appears that these practices were deliberately cultivated to satisfy the psychological needs of Indian followers by preserving their religious traditions, because in the words of the Mother: “It gave them the fullness they needed”. (Heehs’s Lives of Sri Aurobindo 2008, p. 356). Even if uttered with the best of intention this statement is absolutely patronizing. The fact that the Mother was French makes matters somewhat more problematic. Couldn't Indian followers also adapt to a yoga that eschewed religious practice or were they too unsophisticated?

In short, while the rituals cultivated in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram are indeed indigenous religious practices of India they seem out of place in a yoga which claims to renounce religion and sectarianism. Although a genealogy tracing Integral Yoga to today's Hindu nationalist politics can not be established, one can certainly find certain affinities with Hindu religious practices. It is this allegiance to Hinduism and the transference of its sectarian values system on to political discourse that no doubt facilitates the embrace of some Integral Yogis of reactionary Hindu nationalism.

In general fundamentalism of any kind may also include fascistic orientations, chief among these is blind allegiance to a charismatic leader. Participation in an authoritarian culture also involves certain psychological orientations which favor hierarchical structures, linear paradigms of causality, and hegemonic gradients of power which are often expressed militantly. …

Richard Carlson further adds: “In the belief of Avataric (Incarnate) action taking up terrestrial burdens in an act of spiritual transformation has structural similarities with a host of other myths and legends given to us in the worlds spiritual traditions. To believe in this action is itself an action. It is an act of faith… Historically, faith has proven itself an unworthy vehicle for harmonizing the world's ten thousand divisions which unfortunately are facilitated in large part by acts of faith. When one refers to an originating action inevitably certain dates in history are provided, be they in 1961, 1956, 1926 and specific days take on a sacred nature that allows them to be honored annually as a reminder of a sort of eternal return of the same. These become Holidays, Darshan Days, or whatever... Inevitably then what becomes important is the historical record, the date such and such happened, the time an originating presence appeared on the scene. The date of the Event implies that one then looks back at the past to confirm the future it promises. With the study of a text however, things seem to me to be just reversed… It is my belief that when one heralds the coming of L'Avenir and the new forms of a promised future in which the guru is located in ones heart, it is a contradiction (not simply a paradox) to hold on to the forms and ceremonies of past ages that externalizes the Guru for adoration. It is this central contradiction between heralding a new future while holding on to the rituals and the forms of the past which however unintended, in my opinion is responsible for the religion associated with integral yoga.”

It looks really odd that when one talks of the Integral Yoga one is not able to reconcile Faith and Reason. These are aspects of our whole and wholesome personality and are inevitably present in each one of us in different degrees and in different proportions, and it must be the business of the Integral Yoga to give them full value in our spiritual pursuits. If one’s mind is active it does not mean that one dismisses one’s heart, and vice versa. The whole discussion therefore boils down to the question: Has Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga become a Religion? Perhaps the more basic, more appropriate question is: Can at all Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga become a Religion? This also assumes that we understand precisely what is meant by the word ‘Religion’ in its several ramifications, a thing which has not really been defined anywhere in these grandiose formulations, religion meaning different things to different people.

Perfection in Work
Apropos of Religion, let us recollect an instance which occurred in 1954. This was when the Russian gymnasts visited the Ashram. In their interview with the Mother they told her that they didn’t believe in God. She replied that it was not necessary; instead she asked if they believed in perfection. They responded in the affirmative and the Mother said that it was enough, if followed sincerely it would lead them to the goal. Whatever our inner being believes, that will be sufficient for us to go on the wonderful path of growth and progress. Where’s the religion here? But it isn’t there at all. Perfection in work, says the Gita loudly and distinctly, is Yoga; if we follow it consciously, then it’s wonderful—as even otherwise our being sincere to ourselves, to our inner urging, is a sufficient guarantee to be on the right path. During the 1950s the Mother was very active in the Playground and this is what we have from one of her talks, dated 17 April 1957:

I don’t know if there ever were beings on earth who had partially realised this, but in a very small way there have been partial instances of one thing or another, examples which go to prove that it is possible. And following up this idea, one could go so far as to conceive of the replacement of material organs and their functioning as it now is, by centres of concentration of force and energy which would be receptive to the higher forces and which, by a kind of alchemy, would use them for the necessities of life and the body. We already speak of the different “centres” in the body—this knowledge is very widespread among people who have practised yoga—but these centres could be perfected to the point where they replace the different organs by a direct action of the higher energy and vibrations on matter. Those who have practised occultism well enough, in its most integral form, it could be said, know the process of materialisation of subtle energies and can put them in contact with physical vibrations. Not only is it something that can be done, but it is something which is done. And all that is a science, a science which must itself be perfected, completed, and which will obviously be used for the creation and setting in action of new bodies which will be able to manifest the supramental life in the material world.

But, as Sri Aurobindo says, before this can be done, it is good to utilise all that we have in order to increase and make more exact the control of physical activities. It is very obvious that those who practise physical culture scientifically and with coordination acquire a control over their bodies that’s unimaginable for ordinary people. When the Russian gymnasts came here, we saw with what ease they did exercises which for an ordinary man are impossible, and they did them as if it was the simplest thing in the world; there was not even the least sign of effort! Well, that mastery is already a great step towards the transformation of the body. And these people who, I could say, are materialists by profession, used no spiritual method in their education; it was solely by material means and an enlightened use of human will that they had achieved this result. If they had added to this a spiritual knowledge and power, they could have achieved an almost miraculous result… Because of the false ideas prevalent in the world, we don’t usually see the two things together, spiritual mastery and material mastery, and so one is always incomplete without the other; but this is exactly what we want to do and what Sri Aurobindo is going to explain: if the two are combined, the result can reach a perfection that’s unthinkable for the ordinary human mind…

As he goes on to say… first one has to fight against a formidable mass of stupid prejudices which create an irreconcilable antagonism between material and spiritual life. And it is something so deep-rooted in human consciousness that it is very difficult to eradicate it, even in those who think they have understood Sri Aurobindo’s teaching! And many people said, when for altogether different reasons I began to hold meditations again, “Ah! At last! We are returning to spiritual life....” This was indeed what prevented me from holding them for a long time. It was in order not to encourage this stupidity. But for other reasons it was necessary to do it and so I did. So long as this foolishness is not uprooted from human consciousness, the supramental force will always find it considerably difficult not to be engulfed in the obscurity of a human thought which understands nothing. That’s all. All the same, we shall succeed.

Are there Religious Practices in the Ashram?
But Carlson insists: “The problem of religion and sectarianism in the Ashram is famous. Let me quote from a New York Times article of a book review of a book from Gregor von Rezzori”. And what do we have there? “After Bucharest comes a visit to Pondicherry, India, where he is enraged by the mindless devotion he witnesses to the deceased guru Sri Aurobindo and the ‘cult of personality’ surrounding ‘the Mother’ Aurobindo's companion and the co-founder of the ashram there. Given that he spends only three days in Pondicherry, his 50-page rant against spiritual enslavement does go on a bit too long, for even the author recognizes that ‘in Pondicherry I lost my ability to laugh’.” But what is the value we should attach to Gregor von Rezzori rant? Do we accept him simply because he writes articles in New York Times? That would be strange.

”The reason religious practices began in the ashram,” continues Richard Carlson in his critique, “are cross culturally and epochally complex. These practices are certainly not congruent with the Enlightenment inspired values of renouncing religion that Sri Aurobindo and Mother also championed. So what are we to do?” What should he do? He should first define Religion and then check if Integral Yoga can become a Religion. But let us see it differently.

In his little but seminal book The Mother Sri Aurobindo makes a key statement about his Integral Yoga in terms of the triple formula of aspiration-rejection-surrender:

…an aspiration vigilant, constant, unceasing—the mind's will, the hearts seeking, the assent of the vital being, the will to open and make plastic the physical consciousness and nature; rejection of the movements of lower nature—rejection of the mind's ideas, opinions, preferences, habits, constructions, so that the true knowledge may find free room in a silent mind,—rejection of the vital nature's desires, demands, cravings, sensations, passions, selfishness, pride, arrogance, lust, greed, jealousy, envy, hostility to Truth, so that the true power and joy may pour from above into a calm, large, strong and consecrated vital being,—rejection of the physical nature's stupidity, doubt, disbelief, obscurity, obstinacy, pettiness, laziness, unwillingness to change, so that the true stability of Light, Power, Ananda may establish itself in a body growing always more divine; surrender of oneself and all one is and has and every plane of the consciousness and every movement to the Divine Shakti.

And there are “the conditions of Light and Truth, the sole conditions under which the highest will descend; and it is only the very highest supramental Force descending from above and opening from below that can victoriously handle the physical Nature and annihilate its difficulties… There must be a total and sincere surrender; there must be an exclusive self opening to the divine Power; there must be a constant and integral choice of the Truth that is descending, a constant and integral rejection of the falsehood of the mental, vital and physical Powers and Appearances that still rule the earth-Nature. The surrender must be total and seize all parts of the being. It is not enough that psychic should respond and higher mental aspect or even the inner vital submit and the physical consciousness feel the influence. There must be no part in the being, even the most external, anything that makes a reserve, anything that hides behind doubts, confusions and subterfuges, anything that revolts or refuses.”

If this is not followed then it is immaterial whether we do this or we do that. We may call it Integral Yoga, we may call it Religion, we may call it Spirituality, Stupidity, and what not; but it will not satisfy the soul’s deepest urge seeking the Divine within us, and everywhere. If our concern is this single objective then all talk about rationality, faith in science, faith in logic, blind faith, seeing faith—seeing faith is an extremely rare commodity—pale into insignificance. We go to a spiritually accomplished person to seek his help in this regard and endeavour to follow it if we are centrally alert to its assuring methodology, sincere to our own deepest yearning. If I am in the Ashram, for instance, I must always remember the purpose for which I am here in the Ashram—the rest becomes inconsequential. And the beauty is, this is true in every walk of life. If I can follow my path,—and that path can be by whatever faculty in me is most open, most developed,—what else is required? That path can be the opening of the mind or the emotional being or the perfection in the physical work or the acts of nobility,—to put in the technical parlance as Jnana Yoga, Raja Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga. All are equally superior and going by any one of them will the Guide or the Divine give whatever is necessary for the fulfilment of the soul’s deepest longing. In that situation all comparisons become meaningless.

The supreme operative truth is: “There are two powers that alone can effect in their conjunction the great and difficult thing which is the aim of our endeavor,—a fixed and unfailing aspiration that calls from below and—a supreme Grace from above that answers.” That is all that matters.

A Cardinal Error in the Modern Insistence
It is then altogether immaterial whether one calls it religious or mythological or secular or worldly or mundane or plain earthly or historical or scientific, or even spiritual life; Sri Aurobindo’s life is indeed Sri Aurobindo’s life—“a decisive action direct from the Supreme”. We may not be aware of it, but then nor can we deny the scope for its happening. What is not exactingly historical the trenchant rational mind would prefer to call mythological. Well, it’s up to it to decide. But these are spiritual matters and must be seen in that way. There is absolutely no question of imposing this view on others, as one goes entirely by one’s own authentic perceptions—and it is these which must count in this kind of reckoning. In any case, it must be recognized that spirituality means a many-faceted Possibility and the rational is only one small arc of this wide-stretching spectrum. If for his own reasons the strict rationalist sticks to this small arc only, and dismisses everything else, perhaps then he is missing the opportunities that can enlarge his own fond and cherished rationality; but the choice is his.

When one goes to a spiritual person, one goes with the intention of making spiritual progress, and accepts what is conducive for it, rejects what stands in its way, trusts in the guidance and help coming from such a person, expresses his gratitude for it. It is according to one’s own free volonté that one follows what is necessary for it. Something deep within him prompts him to do that. It means, we approach Sri Aurobindo with that intention, which is not to deny that his philosophy, his interpretations of the scriptures, his poetry, his aesthetics, his political thought, his great considerations of social issues, any one of them or several of them cannot attract us towards him. Nor can we make a fetish of one single aspect of his personality, rationality alone for instance. If one feels that, for making spiritual progress, one is getting help from a spiritual Master, then one should be grateful to him; but if the inner being is not happy with it, has reservations, even objections, then one should just forget him and be on a newer quest, the unfettered quest. These are the spiritual etiquettes and a spiritual seeker knows the importance of observing them. There is no doubt that the inner sincerity will guide him on the right path, and there is no doubt it giving him the well-sought realizations. In that case there is neither the question of frustration creeping in anywhere. It is very aptly put as follows: If spirituality meant nothing more than rationality, then it goes without saying that all spiritual seeking is superfluous and the seekers deluded fools. But there is the question of action as it relates to a spiritual being.

Sri Aurobindo himself writes in a latter: “There is, it seems to me, a cardinal error in the modern insistence on the biographical and historical, that is to say, the external factuality of the Avatar, the incidents of his outward life. What matters is the spiritual Reality, the Power, the Influence that come with him or that he brought down by his action and his existence. First of all, what matters in a spiritual man's life is not what he did or what he was outside to the view of the men of his time (that is what historicity or biography comes to, does it not?) but what he was and did within; it is only that that gives any value to his outer life at all. It is the inner life that gives to the outer any power it may have and the inner life of a spiritual man is something vast and full and, at least in the great figures, so crowded and teeming with significant things that no biographer or historian could ever hope to seize it all or tell it. Whatever is significant in the outward life is so because it is symbolical of what has been realised within himself and one may go on and say that the inner life also is only significant as an expression, a living representation of the movement of the Divinity behind it.”

The Lives of Sri Aurobindo
Richard Carlson makes reference to the latest biography of Sri Aurobindo presented by Peter Heehs. With a great deal of research done over a long period of time and marshalling the collected historical documents connected with the life of Sri Aurobindo, it is claimed that we have here in The Lives of Sri Aurobindo a “factually dependable and correct” account. The book was recently published by the Columbia University Press (May 2008) which has the following note from the publishers: “Since his death in 1950, Sri Aurobindo Ghose has been known primarily as a yogi and a philosopher of spiritual evolution who was nominated for the Nobel Prize in peace and literature. But the years Aurobindo spent in yogic retirement were preceded by nearly four decades of rich public and intellectual work. Biographers usually focus solely on Aurobindo's life as a politician or sage, but he was also a scholar, a revolutionary, a poet, a philosopher, a social and cultural theorist, and the inspiration for an experiment in communal living. Peter Heehs, one of the founders of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives, is the first to relate all the aspects of Aurobindo's life in its entirety. Consulting rare primary sources, Heehs describes the leader's role in the freedom movement and in the framing of modern Indian spirituality. He examines the thinker's literary, cultural, and sociological writings and the Sanskrit, Bengali, English, and French literature that influenced them, and he finds the foundations of Aurobindo's yoga practice in his diaries and unpublished letters. Heehs's biography is a sensitive, honest portrait of a life that also provides surprising insights into twentieth-century Indian history.”

Posted at the Columbia University Press in CUP Peter Heehs himself gives the following summary introduction to us:

How do you write about a man who is known to some as a politician, to others as a poet and critic, to still others as a philosopher, and to a not inconsiderable number as an incarnation of God? This is one of the problems a biographer of Sri Aurobindo (Aurobindo Ghose, 1872-1950) has to face. Known in the West mostly to specialized audiences (people interested in South Asian history, literature, philosophy, and spirituality), Aurobindo is renowned in his native India as one of the most outstanding, and most many-sided men of the twentieth century. This has not prevented his legacy from being bitterly disputed.

Some historians and politicians see him as one of the forerunners of Mahatma Gandhi, others as a precursor of today’s aggressive Hindu nationalists. Admirers of his writings see his epic in iambic pentameter as the harbinger of a new kind of poetry, but most contemporary poets and critics dismiss it as a throwback to the Victorian era. The opinions of amateur and professional philosophers are polarized along the same lines. There is general agreement among students of religion that Aurobindo was a remarkable mystic, but few are willing to swallow the claim of some of his followers that he was an avatar, like Krishna, Chaitanya or Christ.

In The Lives of Sri Aurobindo I made Aurobindo’s many-sidedness the foundation of the structure of the book. Each of the five parts deals with one of his “lives”: the family man, the scholar, the revolutionary, the yogi and philosopher, and the spiritual guide. The first three go together pretty well, since the conventions of literary and political biography are similar. The writer is expected to present the significant events of a notable life in a chronological narrative, supporting the story with a scholarly apparatus based on primary sources. It was easy for me to do this when I wrote about Aurobindo’s life in politics. Discussing his role at the Surat Congress of 1907, for example, I was able to draw on government files, police reports, newspaper stories, Aurobindo’s reminiscences, and the reminiscences of others in English, Bengali, and Gujarati. But what was I to do with the information that a few days after the Congress, Aurobindo sat with a guru who taught him a meditation technique, and that, as Aurobindo later put it, “In three days—really in one, my mind became full of an eternal silence”—by which he meant the mental stillness and freedom from ego known as Nirvana.

It certainly is legitimate to cite Aurobindo’s own statements about this and other inner experiences. But personal reminiscences don’t count for much in scholarly biographies unless they are backed up by objective data and analysis. But what sort of objective data was I to look for? (Nobody knew what was going on in Aurobindo’s head.) If I wanted to discuss this inner event, did I have to switch (in mid stream) from the conventions of scholarly biography to the conventions of spiritual biography, that is, hagiography? Or could I get beyond the conventions of both genres?

Hagiography in its original sense, writing about the lives of saints, has been practiced since the first century CE (the Gospels, the Buddhacarita). What distinguishes the hagiographic from the critical approach is not that hagiographers are sympathetic to their subjects, but that they base their accounts on unverifiable assumptions that are likely to be accepted only by members of the discursive community that they belong to. Few modern non-Catholic readers are likely to take seriously the claims of Angelo Pastrovicchi that Joseph of Cupertino could fly. On the other hand, Pastrovicchi’s eighteenth-century work remains a vital source for any anyone wishing to write about the Italian saint. A scholar may reject levitation as inconsistent with what we know about gravity but still accept that Joseph had visions, as Pastrovicchi claims.

Aurobindo spent the last forty years of his life immersed in the practice of yoga. He wrote about his yogic experiences in a diary, the Record of Yoga, and in letters to his followers. Are these the sort of sources that a scholarly biographer can cite? It certainly would be uncritical to accept at face value all that Aurobindo wrote about his inner life; but it would be a different sort of negligence to refuse to consider accounts of inner experience a priori grounds, or to explain them away according to the assumptions of one or another social-scientific orthodoxy.

I think that William James had the right approach to this sort of material. “One cannot criticize the vision of a mystic,” he wrote in “A Pluralistic Mystic,” “one can but pass it by, or else accept it as having some amount of evidential weight.” I couldn’t simply close my eyes to Aurobindo’s accounts of his mystical experiences, so I accepted them as evidence of a vivid, if sometimes enigmatic inner life. I wonder however whether James got it right when he said we “cannot criticize the vision of a mystic.” Many spiritual traditions—the Catholic Christian and Tibetan Buddhist, for example— recognize a distinction between true and misleading visions. I don’t have the necessary discernment to criticize Aurobindo’s visions as visions; but I recognize—as Aurobindo himself did—that inner visions and experiences are open to different interpretations.
What about the assertion that Aurobindo was an avatar? I can’t say that the question interests me very much. Aurobindo never claimed the distinction for himself, and I don’t think anyone alive is in a position to say one way or the other. The Aurobindo that interests me is the one who turned from a life of hectic action to a life of contemplation, but was able, during his forty-year retirement, to write a shelf full of books on philosophy, political theory, and textual criticism, along with thousands of letters and, yes, that epic in iambic pentameter. People will continue to differ about the significance of his work, but its very mass is there for all to see. His life as a yogi and spiritual leader is more difficult to quantify, but it certainly will not be forgotten soon. I tried to do justice to all sides of this versatile man, but to do so I had to be unconventional in more ways than one.

Our author writes about Sri Aurobindo that “his life as a yogi and spiritual leader is more difficult to quantify, but it certainly will not be forgotten soon.” Perhaps it will be the other way round, that is, what can be quantified will be forgotten soon.

The posting can be accessed at:

The too Righteous a Mind
But coming to some specifics, how dependable can we find this approach of the historian dealing with a spiritual personality? Obviously the first important question to be answered in this regard is: Can matters spiritual come under scrutiny of the research methodologies of history? Much of our way of looking at biographies of the spiritual persons will depend upon the answer to it. But that is precisely what a professional historian would like to maintain in order to ‘rationalise’ even the biography of a Yogi, one whose life is never “on the surface for men to see”, that the life of a spiritual person should come under the close inquiry and examination of a stringent and tight historical scholarship. And, then, granting that there is a possibility of Avatarhood or divine Incarnation upon earth, we have the baffling question of writing an accurate biography of such a one, a stupendous question. There is one particular kind of a mind which considers itself too righteous and all that which does not come under its keen or zealous purview is, to it, trivial, inconsequential, worthless, credulous, bagatelle, and that which must be disregarded brusquely. Nothing much can be done about it, this zealous arrogant purview; nothing can be said about this “squat godhead artisan” mind, and perhaps nothing need also be said or done about it. Very often these prickling irksome ‘intellectuals’ who lack perception come and go, making not more than a moment’s impact,—that is, one could just ignore them. “Belief there shall be not till the work is done.” The deeper truth is the quiet work that continues to be done—in spite of them. Yet at times it might become interesting, and perhaps sufficiently rewarding also, if with it one could see the deeper truth behind things; it might come as another sort of complementary help.
Let us take an example of Peter Heehs scripting an event in the early life of Sri Aurobindo in which matters spiritual have been funnily knotted with the issues that appeal to the audacious western mind going by its quick rational faculty, though I would have preferred a cultured and refined Russellian faculty than this fleshless or scratchy faculty. Not that it is there everywhere so, certainly not in that churlish-boorish manner, even as we witness not unoften vastly observant, insightful and intuitive writers also seeing things with some other vision, some other responsiveness opening in them. Georges van Vrekhem’s Beyond Man and Satprem’s The Adventure of Consciousness are very remarkable in that respect. But what do we have here, in The Lives of Sri Aurobindo? It is asserted that if we start without preconceptions “armed with an open truth and a total confidence in the integral possibilities of man, we shall perhaps have a chance to arrive at an integral knowledge and so at an integral life. Seen from the point of view of an evolution of the consciousness, reincarnation ceases to be the futile round with a clarity typical of the West, Sri Aurobindo rids us of this spiritual romancing, as the Mother calls it, into which so many serious learnings have degenerated since the Age of the Mysteries.” It is a novel theory that the ancient spirituality considered reincarnation a futile round of our coming and going; not even the Illusionists thought it that way. A thousand difficulties of life are there and solutions are also offered, solutions of various brands; but never reincarnation considered futile.

If we see man “armed with an open truth and a total confidence in his integral possibilities,” needing nothing else, he in the full richness of human potential à la Huxley, then there is really no necessity for any higher or superior intervention, no necessity of the coming down of an Avatar. But is there anything of the sort in man that he can proceed without any outside help? Is there any scientific theory, or any rational basis, or spiritual foundation to assume so? Without logically going into those details, if one makes statements of this nature, then they lose all their credibility. In fact, one begins to wonder if this truth and confidence are not an eyewash.

Actually, it seems patent enough that Peter Heehs has nothing to do with Sri Aurobindo as an Avatar, the incarnate Divine. He writes: “There is general agreement among students of religion that Aurobindo was a remarkable mystic, but few are willing to swallow the claim of some of his followers that he was an avatar, like Krishna, Chaitanya or Christ.” What is the credibility of those who are not willing to swallow such a possibility? Are they street urchins or people with authentic spiritual experiences and realizations? And on what grounds our author the rationalist would like to consider Krishna, Chaitanya or Christ as Avatars? We are told nothing about it, about them. One may not care about the followers,—why should one?—but what about the Mother? What Peter Heehs says is in spite of the Mother’s oft repeated statements, that he was a direct action straight from the Supreme, that, to paraphrase Savitri, “his was a spirit that stooped from larger spheres into our province of ephemeral sight, carrying with him the strength of the original Permanence.” What else is an Avatar then? When this is forgotten and, more unpardonably set aside almost with a kind of inept deliberateness, we land ourselves into clumsiness of history. Prejudices these all, without base, without the touch of spirituality. That’s the pity.

The Adesh: “Go to Pondicherry”
In his Aspects of Sri Aurobindo, KD Sethna (Amal Kiran) points it out with his characteristic journalistic incisiveness, with his clarity and forthrightness to dispel misgivings about the whole thing. The incidence is of Sri Aurobindo receiving a divine command, ādeśa, to go to Pondicherry, when he was in Chandernagore. Amal writes: “In the issue of Sri Aurobindo: Archives and Research for December 1987 the Archives Notes are partly aimed at settling certain queries raised by statements of the writer [Peter Heehs] two years earlier in the same periodical. His new statements too have come in for criticism. It may be that his true drift has failed to be caught, but the cause of the failure, if any, must lie at his own door. For, whatever his intentions, a persistent trend in his way of putting things has led to an impression of inaccuracy and of hazing the real posture of some extraordinary events. … We are now concerned only with one particular theme of his, which call for serious reconsideration: ‘What role did the man named Parthasarathy Iyengar play in Sri Aurobindo’s connection with Pondicherry?’ Parthasarathy was the secretary for the Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company which the Iyengar family was financially supporting for patriotic reasons. During his tour in Northern India in that capacity he met Sri Aurobindo in Calcutta and discussed the nationalist and cultural activities in which both the parties were engaged. … Sri Aurobindo’s meeting with Pathasarathy is confirmed by his own diary note of Tuesday 20 July 1909, which was meant to remind him of the appointment.”

Some time later when Sri Aurobindo was in Chandernagore, he received an unmistakable inner order, ādeśa, instructing him to go to Pondicherry. This is what we see in the above. The political situation in India was pretty dangerous for the freedom fighters, such that the British rulers of the time were hell-bent upon arresting Sri Aurobindo and deporting him to the far away and dreaded Andamans, the Black Waters, kālā pāņi, from where no return was expected, of which history is full. Sri Aurobindo immediately sent a letter, through his young colleague Suresh Chakravarti, to Parthasarathy at Pondicherry, requesting him to make arrangements for his stay. This brings into focus their earlier meeting in Calcutta, on 20 July 1909. The connection is striking, but in a different way. But it is obvious that Sri Aurobindo was operating in the parameters of the known data, in the realism of life.

Amal Kiran continues. Peter Heehs’s note in the Archives says the following: “We have seen that Sri Aurobindo came to Pondicherry at the suggestion of no one, but the obedience to a divine command [ādeśa]. But by speaking to Sri Aurobindo about Pondicherry, Parthasarathy may have played an instrumental role in his coming.” He further maintains that, as a professional historian, his acceptance of the ādeśa as the cause of Sri Aurobindo’s coming to Pondicherry does not oblige him “to suspend all considerations of the political and other circumstances surrounding his departure” from British India. In order to strengthen the interpretation, he bolsters his view from Sri Aurobindo’s writings that the divine Force does not act independently of cosmic forces. “I think it at least plausible that the ādeśa that directed Sri Aurobindo to go to Pondicherry operated within a nexus of forces that included the attempts of the British to have him arrested, and the recently established contact between him and the revolutionaries of Pondicherry.” But there are the divine pragmatics also, the divine ways which could defy all rationalisation.

The ādeśa or the divine command is always “clear and irresistible”, an imperative and not going by it could be disastrous, which perhaps had happened prior to his arrest in the famous Alipore Bomb Case, on 5 May 1908. But our wonderful historian writes: “I have no difficulty in accepting that Sri Aurobindo came to Pondicherry as a result of an ādeśa and at the same time accepting that there were political factors behind his departure.” But the undeniable fact is, Sri Aurobindo did come to Pondicherry under the clear and compelling injunctions of the ādeśa, and that’s all; that’s the occult aspect which one may accept or just discount depending upon one’s own predilections,—but in these matters the deeper truth is always the occult. Political or other operational factors surely get arranged in the sequel of this higher working, and it is not the other way round. In actual fact, if Sri Aurobindo was a Yogi, and a Yogi par excellence at that, then in his case such occult factors cannot be disregarded. If the minds of professional historians fail to recognize these occult imperatives, then so much the worse for the professional history. To recapitulate the sequence of events: Visit of Parthasarathy Iyengar to Sri Aurobindo on 20 July 1909 in Calcutta, Sri Aurobindo’s receiving the ādeśa to go to Chandernagore in early February 1910, his receiving another ādeśa towards the end of March 1910 to go to Pondicherry, and prior to that Sri Aurobindo’s sending a letter through Suresh Chakravarti to Parthasarathy Iyengar in Pondicherry to make arrangements for his stay there are facts of history. But their relationships, correlations, interpretations can be varying. Peter Heehs has his own interpretation which is not necessarily binding on others. It is obvious that with regard to spiritual persons a faculty other than the cut-and-dry professional history must come into play, another luminous and intuitive discernment, another elevating perception or sensibility in touch with the higher truth.

The impression one gets from Peter Heehs’s interpretation is that, in the case of Sri Aurobindo’s coming to Pondicherry, political factors were so overriding, so powerful that they even caused the arrival of the ādeśa itself, that they prompted the ādeśa-giver himself to issue out those instructions. Such is then the authority of political factors! Such will be the topsy-turvy miracle wrought by the purists of crudified history. And there are plenty of people to buy it at tens of dollars. If this is true then, it would amount to saying that political factors were kind of solely or primarily responsible or instrumental in initiating Sri Aurobindo into his avataric work, the unfoldment of his life governed by external factors rather than by the compelling truth-force of his being itself, of his soul and his spirit in oneness with the One, his identity with the Divine. Who shapes whom?—that’s the question; the nexus of forces here forcing the divine issue or the divine issue working out the nexus of forces? Sri Aurobindo says that he had to obey it, the command from Sri Krishna. In that case we will be told that he did not exercise his own mind but subjected himself to somebody else who was in turn driven by the political factors operating here. That’s what the historian’s interpretation would plainly amount to. But let us leave it at that and go by our own perceptions of things in the strength and purity of the cognition in contact with the higher truth and not by the mental ideas and formulations when it comes to authentic spiritual matters. Sri Aurobindo went to Pondicherry on “the afflatus of a divine injunction”—and to speak of Parthasarathy being “instrumental” is a misconception. Let’s ignore it.

Instead of this doubtful Lives of Sri Aurobindo let us read The Adventure of Consciousness. After the ādeśa “Go to Pondicherry” Sri Aurobindo recollected his meeting with Parthsarathy and set himself to make the necessary arrangements for his stay there. Parthasarathy formed a “link between the ādeśa at Chandernagore and Sri Aurobindo’s finding a suitable residence in Pondicherry among solicitous friends.” Sri Aurobindo was now working in the acceptable data and parameters of this world and that is the only practical aspect behind the epoch-making command, the divine ādeśa; the rest is connected with his work as the incarnate Divine.

“He heard the Voice, suddenly, which spoke directly three words: Go to Chandernagore. Ten minutes later Sri Aurobindo took the first boat down the Ganges and was gone. This was the end of his political life, the end of the integral yoga,” writes Satprem, “and the beginning of the supramental yoga… He found the Secret at Chandernagore in 1910 and worked on it for forty years; he gave up his life for this. The Mother continues. Sri Aurobindo never told us the circumstances of his discovery; he was extraordinarily silent about himself, not through reserve, but simply because the “I” did not exist. ‘One felt,’ reports his host at Chandernagore with the naïve surprise, ‘one felt when he spoke as if somebody else was speaking through him… He appeared to be absorbed even when he was eating; he used to meditate with open eyes.’ … At the moment Sri Aurobindo began his ascension towards the overmind, his consciousness descended, simultaneously, into what is conventionally called hell… This was the starting point of Sri Aurobindo’s discovery.” This was the secret found by him at Chandernagore.

Possibly such is the meaning of the divine ādeśa which is totally beyond our comprehension. If that is the case, trust then no historian. One has to simply go by one’s own inner promptings and dependable insights—and there is always the bright opportunity, the full joyous scope, of these promptings and insights becoming wide and conscient and agreeable. In it is the true spiritual progress. That is what Sri Aurobindo had come to give to us, to the aspiring soul in its full divine possibilities. Let us prepare ourselves to receive it, let us grow in it, let us progress in it.

In the present biography, The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, Peter Heehs writes about the earlier ādeśa as follows: “Years later Aurobindo explained that when he heard Ramchandra’s warning, he went within and heard a voice—an adesh—that said ‘Go to Chandernagore.’ He obeyed it without reflection. Had he given it any thought, however, he would have found good reasons to comply.” (p. 204) That rather looks Heehsish, not even rational. One just goes by the ādeśa, the divine command, or else one simply ignores it; there is no question of giving any thought to it.

Personal Reminiscences don’t Count in Scholarly Biographies
Peter Heehs says that personal reminiscences don’t count in a scholarly biography, a strange assumption indeed. The assumption is strange because it does not set at the beginning the criterion for the biography of a spiritual person, does not examine the possibility of the tools of scholarship at all being capable of dealing with matters spiritual. Let us read again his statement: “It certainly is legitimate to cite Aurobindo’s own statements about this and other inner experiences. But personal reminiscences don’t count for much in scholarly biographies unless they are backed up by objective data and analysis. But what sort of objective data was I to look for? (Nobody knew what was going on in Aurobindo’s head.) If I wanted to discuss this inner event, did I have to switch (in mid stream) from the conventions of scholarly biography to the conventions of spiritual biography, that is, hagiography? Or could I get beyond the conventions of both genres?” It is good the stand has been made clear, but the arguments are gawky.

If something is not a scholarly biography, then does the spiritual biography automatically become hagiography? Obviously not. As an example, I don’t consider Georges van Vrekhem’s Beyond Man as hagiography at all. And mark the phrase personal reminiscences don’t count for much in scholarly biographies unless they are backed up by objective data and analysis. But what are these objective data? Records in government files? Things dug out from gunny sacks? Scraps of papers with droppings of bats? If there aren’t such objective data, then do we dismiss all spiritual experiences narrated in one way or the other, through letters, through poetry, during private conversations, for instance? When the Mother says that Sri Aurobindo’s coming was a direct action from the Supreme, do we ask her, “but Madame, where are the data?” Otherwise was she simply telling us stories and that we the gullible were believing in them? Ultimately, it looks as though each one to his own liking, and so one need not really argue about these matters.

An Extraordinarily Complex Individual
As a part of systematic promotionalism of The Lives of Sri Aurobindo we have in the August 2008 issue of Auroville Today, Peter Heehs being interviewed by Alan. The author maintains that his is a biography based on enormous amount of archival material, on “authentic documents”, something which the earlier works totally lacked. “It wasn't always easy,” informs the biographer, the records of Baroda College, for instance, were stored in “gunny sacks covered with bat droppings, heaped up in an unused”. While fact collection is an important aspect of the work, much has yet to be done in presenting them in a coherent understandable manner, often comparing several sources. In the process certain subjective elements also enter in, something which is inevitable in this kind of a job. However, the author maintains that “the Sri Aurobindo that emerges from the new biography is much more lifelike, more unpredictable, more complex, than the Sri Aurobindo of earlier biographical writing, including my own.” But then there is a puzzling statement also: “If spiritual experience is something which is not merely subjective but represents a human capacity, one would expect to find such accounts.” Although such a stand might be perfectly justifiable for a book to be written for people “in the academic world”, it at once spells doom as far as the representation of the subject is concerned. Never in the case of a spiritual person should come any consideration that is not spiritual, and therefore the argument that “a certain priority to the academic approach” be given turns out to be fallacious.

So, what the Mother called “a direct action straight from the Supreme” has to prove itself right in the eyes of the academicians, they sitting in the lofty judgement seats. The fallacy becomes particularly glaring when the interview comes to the deep occult matters, for instance the passing away of Sri Aurobindo. Peter Heehs replies: “You correctly put your finger on a special difficulty of dealing with a life like Sri Aurobindo's. When, as historians, we speak of physical events, there's an established way of dealing with them, using documents to corroborate what we say. When we talk about a person's spiritual experiences, we have that person's own account of what took place. But when we talk about occult workings and effects, we are talking about spiritual things having an impact on physical events. But the influence of the inner world on the outer is not verifiable in ordinary terms. I could have used the Mother's accounts of his death etc. as she is certainly an authority in these matters; but the kind of the biography I wanted to write had to be based upon verifiable facts. When I think about things like Sri Aurobindo's death, I certainly take what the Mother said about them into consideration. But I didn't put everything I think into this book.” But has any criteria been spelt out as to what should be put and what be not? We have no idea from the interview.

In conclusion the biographer says: “All in all, Sri Aurobindo stands up very well to the critical approach. Devotees think they have to be protective of him, that any criticism will destroy him and all his work. This is ridiculous. His accomplishments in various fields are so strong and lasting that he emerges firmer and stronger from a critical treatment that deals squarely with difficult questions.” But this statement itself is ridiculous, as it fails to recognize the foundational basis of the spiritual work. It will of course be grossly ridiculous for the Ashram to consider Sri Aurobindo as its property, but to speak of “an extraordinarily complex individual” with multiple spiritual dimensions only in terms of facts found in the gunny sacks lying in the attic is sheer falsification, certainly it is perversion. And the fact is that facts are not always presented. The whole approach therefore displays complete lack of sensitivity; in it spiritual perceptions are unfortunately absent. This becomes more astonishing when the author also claims himself to be the follower of Integral Yoga. He proclaims: “I am, after all, a practitioner of Sri Aurobindo's yoga, and I take what he has written about his own practice of yoga, and the yogic discipline he recommends to others, quite seriously.” But who is going to decide the “quite serious” aspect of the matter? In any case, it need not be our concern, it need not concern us here.

But it seems we have to go by the bazaar talk and dismiss even what the Mother says: “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.”

RY Deshpande

17 September 2008

The Lives of Sri Aurobindo—Three Comments

A: Comment by Sachidananda Mohanty
Critical Method
Mr. Heehs's reading of the narrative of Sri Aurobindo is in keeping with a currently accepted practice of reading against the grain. Fair enough! However, his claim of an overriding “objectivity” must also be seen carefully against the prevalent view on the subject. The very choice of a subject of research, for instance, the selection and arrangement of “facts” and “evidence”, all come invariably through the prism of the subjective self of a researcher. Words and comments themselves, including those used by Heehs in his latest book, are not value neutral. The decision to rely on one set of evidence to form one's judgement rather than on some other, is also a deeply subjective act. Rather than claiming the high-moral ground of objectivity, the current practice, especially in the post-colonial context, is to be upfront about one's approach and unpack one's ideological predilections in a self reflexive manner at the outset for the reader to see. This is absent in Peter Heehs's biography of Sri Aurobindo, although he seems to indicate some of his preferences now and then. On the whole, however, one finds that evidence is not offered in a neutral a manner for the readers to judge. Quite the contrary, Mr. Heehs interprets events quite constantly while claiming objectivity. Clearly; he cannot have it both ways.

As a counterpoint, one can see the interesting and insightful manner spirituality, ethics and politics intersect in Chicago-based, post-colonial critic Leela Gandhi's fine and nuanced study of colonialism and the politics of friendship in her path-breaking work: Anti-Colonial Thought: Affective Communities and Politics of Friendship, Duke University, 2006; Permanent Black, 2006. We may contrast this study, part of which deals with the creative encounter between Mirra Alfassa (the Mother) and Sri Aurobindo, with the somewhat prurient account offered by Heehs (pp. 326-327) and come to our own conclusions.

Textual Traditions
Every genre (and the biographical mode is one such) must deal with the textual tradition of a given work. And thus, in dealing with a biography of a primarily spiritual figure such as Sri Ramakrishna, Ramana Maharshi or Sri Aurobindo, one can legitimately use approaches and modes of analysis that are innate and integral to that particular genre. This by itself does not turn the work in question automatically into a hagiographic account. For instance, the distinction between faith and dogma, religion and spirituality that Sri Aurobindo makes in his world view is fundamental to understanding his oeuvres. Peter is thus far off the mark when he asserts as a generalization, “matters of faith quickly become matters of dogma” in deciding about the entire question of Avatarhood. As a general proposition, this seems to be valid, although, in the Aurobindonian context, the distinction is of vital importance. Sri Aurobindo, it must be noted, devotes considerable space in his writings to explain the centrality of faith as distinguished from regression and obscurantism. We may see the truth of this aspect in his essay “True and False Subjectivism” in The Human Cycle. Peter adduces no convincing reasons for dismissing alternative approaches to what is generally considered a purely “secular” or non-hagiographic reading. For instance, there could well be a non-secular and non-hagiographic reading of a spiritual figure. Why are we ruling these out?

Absolute Freedom of a Writer
Clearly, this is a myth. While book banning and book burning are abhorrent acts and are counterproductive, every author/editor, it is well known, is bound by trade disciplines, contractual agreements and obligations and copyright regulations. Further, a writer writes in a cultural and political context. His/her affiliations to communities and organizations are often cited as “authoritative” or “authentic” texts by publishing houses. Peter's affiliation with the Ashram's archive, as evidenced in the jacket covers/back page blurbs of his published books, or fliers/ promotional literature, are cases in point. For the very same reason, sentiments of a given community, whether one likes them or not, are also important factors that authors and publishers must take into account. As an insider, one must write with care and sensitivity, and not in a spirit of disdain and dismissal. As a custodian of Sri Aurobindo archive, one is surely expected to uphold the trust bestowed upon one self by the institution.

The Archival Systems
Every archive has documents which are categorized: e.g. as sensitive, very sensitive, with public access, with limited public access, or, occasionally, with no access at all. In the present instance at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives, no system seems to be in operation. Mr Peter Heehs seems to have treated the Archival holding as personal property. Was specific permission obtained, for instance, while using Purani's diary notes, to cite one example? Not likely.
B: Commednt by Anand Kumar
I, on my first visit to Sri Aurobindo Ashram in early nineties, was impressed by a rule on the notice board which read, if you do not have anything good to say about a fellow Ashramite, the least you could do is to keep silent. That would be a service to the divine.

Criticism is the autobiography of a critic; Oscar Wilde wrote somewhere. Evolved beings, who experience Divine, write hagiography; the beings of night can muster their own darkness only. The writing reflects the inner nature, dispensation and consciousness of the writer. An event rewritten by Peter Heehs out of the book of AB Purani, illustrates this difference. The original source creates a feeling of divinity and reverence, while the retelling of the same event by Peter Heehs gives a sense of degradation to the reader. In one, you experience the meaning of divine surrender, the other is mawkish. Great beings can only see greatness in others.

I felt shocked to see the excerpts from a book by an Ashramite, by implication a follower of The Mother and Sri Aurobindo. In navadhā bhakti, hatred for the divine is also a means for salvation. But the hatred of Peter Heehs for The Mother and Sri Aurobindo, Aurobindo in his language, has no such thought in it. PH seems to be a split personality who is a devotee and an enemy at the same time. He could be many more things.

The carry home message from his recent book is as follows:
1. He questions the mystical experiences of Sri Aurobindo. “Perhaps they are only hallucinations or signs of psychotic breakdown? Even if not, do they have any value to anyone except the subject?”
He has quoted a few persons at several places to show that Sri Aurobindo had a tinge of lunacy. Even his spiritual vision of Krishna in jail, was rubbished by his associates in Uttarpara speech. What does PH want to communicate?
2. Sri Aurobindo, “was a coward and liar … by his own account.” How deviously PH misquotes Sri Aurobindo. The statement was obviously the mannerism of a self-effacing personality. PH further writes to prove his intent, “Aurobindo failed to pass his medical examination the first time on account of ‘something found wrong with his urinary organs’. … Aurobindo told a series of lies. … He was rejected because he did not pass the riding examination.”
He questions the truthfulness of Sri Aurobindo in a letter that he wrote to a disciple. I quote PH, “Years later Aurobindo observed in a letter that his advise was in effect, “the order that led to the breaking of the congress.” This gives too much importance to a single factor in a complex chain of events. .. Even without Aurobindo’s “order”, Tilak’s stance and the attack against him would have led to a free-for-all.”
PH suggests in his book that Sri Aurobindo had not much impact on India’s freedom struggle. This is in contravention to the address of Sri Aurobindo on the Independence of India. Has he not read India Wins freedom By Maulana Azad who writes that he was inspired by leaders like Sri Aurobindo, and the famous statement of CR Das in the court? Subhas Chandra Bose too admitted that he drew inspiration from Sri Aurobindo. Tagore wrote an inspired poem on him. Many other revolutionaries in later days were influenced by him.
He insinuates that Sri Aurobindo was for Hindu communalism, and that he did not do enough for Hindu Muslim unity. He says, “Still, partition and the bloodletting that accompanied it were the movement’s principal failings, and Aurobindo and his colleagues have to take their share of the blame.” I really wonder!
At a place PH clubs Sri Aurobindo with Extremist.
3. Sri Aurobindo married for “The usual desire for gratification…” PH implies that Sri Aurobindo’s knowledge of ordinary maithuna ananda was experiential. Sri Aurobindo has somewhere, I do not exactly remember where, has said that he lived as a brahmachari in his wedlock.
PH creates distorted scenes on the basis of his own imagination quoting Nolini Kant, AB Purani and Romain Rolland. He suggests that Sri Aurobindo was willing to marry Mirra, had she wanted that. He holds that Sri Aurobindo’s interest in Mirra was responsible for the break-up of her marriage with Paul Richard.
I have mentioned above the difference between the visions of a hagiographer and a pornographer.
Paul Richard’s statement to Romain could hardly be accepted as sufficient proof to justify PH’s conclusions. Was Paul more truthful than the Mother and Sri Aurobindo? Granted his suggestion, what evidence has he produced regarding PR’s truthfulness? Are subjective and emotional statements of piddlings sufficient proof for an objective researcher? What the men of eminence and character and the personal attendants of the Masters say, holds no water for PH. That is not objective. Gullible will be misguided by PH’s book. They may believe him to be truly objective. That is my fear.
Regarding academic vs nonacademic approach, research etc, I must say that even hard and experimental sciences are gripped with the problem of bias and confounding influences. Theories keep changing with newer paradigms. Research Methods in Psychology and Consciousness are on worse footing. Therefore till the time their Research Methodology is refined and defined and freed of individual bias, we must not attempt to demolish faith and phenomenon which surpass human comprehension, lest we destroy a great movement in our pettiness and ignorance.
At another place PH calls The Mother in a very ordinary sense a “partner” of Sri Aurobindo.
PH comments on the Viziers of Bassora, “In the imaginary world of his dramas, his protagonist was never without a partner.” It is not difficult to understand his insinuation.
Let us remember that Sri Aurobindo was the first to call Mirra, The Mother. She fended Him as Her own Child. Sri Aurobindo described in his letters, that sometimes his meditation was to become a baby in the lap of The Mother.
PH is a good case study for a psychoanalyst. I am reminded of a psychopath. When he was shown a square and asked what did it remind him of? He said, “sex.” He said the same for a circle, a triangle, a hexagon and the picture of a goat. When the doctor was perplexed by his single word answer, he asked the patient if the latter was a maniac. The patient was annoyed. He barked back, “What else you expect me to say when you show me such lewd images?” 4. PH ridicules Sri Aurobindo throughout. Sri Aurobindo was an ugly man (PH found that in his photographs), lusting after girls in youth (comments on Song to Myrtilla), was looking for a life partner (Sri Aurobindo was psychoanalysed on the basis of his translation of Vasavadatta) a less than mediocre poet (PH quotes one Ranjee Shahani in TLS) and a sort of philosopher whom members of philosophical profession “would loath to admit him to their club.”
His description of The Defence of Indian Culture by Sri Aurobindo as “a polemic from start to finish” is hurting.
5. He calls pranams and darshans as “theatrical” and compares the commonplace godmen of India with Them in his objectivity. He ridicules Indian customs as did his predecessor, William Archer.
Is it for the Ashramites to compare their Master and objectively evaluate Sri Aurobindo and the Mothers in the light of the statements of a few unsympathetic outsiders? What signal will it send to the outsiders? It will only give them a wrong feeling that the things here are murky from the beginning to end. The message that this Ashram was started by psychopaths who claimed mystical experiences, will diminish the respect for the Ashram and Ashramites in public eye. History, psychology, philosophy, spirituality are the subjects which are read and understood by lay people with the ease of a specialist.
PH has only studied the Appearance and not the Reality. Despite his claim of objectivity, he has no method at hand. Therefore his study of appearances could prove to be a damaging influence on serious academicians, it may permanently bias them. It is only an attempt to pull down and humanise suprahuman lives. It is easy to describe one’s surface life and misinterpret it. That was why Sri Aurobindo had warned about the attempts to write his biography. He lived beyond appearances.
I feel that the people working in the Archives should sign a legal bond for a million dollars to the effect that they will never publish a book on their name or any other name. They will do the job as selfless sadhana. Only those with such purity and dedication should be allowed in the portals of the Archives.
PH in his ambition to win some award had earlier belittled the role of Sri Aurobindo in India’s freedom struggle. He won that award. I fear still worse from him. Why did he not publish his work in India? Because he leads a double life: one, as a sadhak of integral yoga to gain access to materials in the Archives, and the other as an ambitious worldly man to earn fame and money.
The book has demolished the divine persona of The Mother and Sri Aurobindo, and all what they stood for.

I am certain that PH has written his book with full preparation to bid farewell to the Ashram and gather fame and money outside. He should be allowed that.
C: Comment by Alok Pandey
Some Questions for Mr. Objective from a Friend
The author’s claim to ‘objectivity’ is not only invalid, it again carries an under-current which means; ‘the other biographies have been more of a sentimental devotee type’. Apart from this logic denigrating some well-known biographers whose sincerity cannot be questioned, this statement implies two things: First, the devotee biographers simply exaggerate certain qualities which are not really there. Now, our Mr. Objective will show us through his objectifying lens how they are wrong, that Sri Aurobindo is really not as great (read as divine) as they make him to be. It also implies by default that his words do not necessarily carry the same absolute authority as it did, that he can be flawed, mistaken and err as most of us human beings do! Well, this strikes the very foundation of yogic life wherein a disciple is supposed to have an implicit trust in the Guru’s words. But our Mr. Objective does not feel comfortable with it. So he must measure the Master’s stature with his scale and rod with exactness and thoroughness of a tailor and re-stitch his attire for us to see. He must tell us his true size and stature which is less than what the devotee ignorantly believes! Second, what is meant by the word ‘objective’ here,—studying ‘dispassionately’, ‘without any preconceived ideas/beliefs etc’, ‘as someone who studies from outside as one studies an object!’ In any case, it means taking into note and highlighting the most objectively verifiable details. The rest is left to the readers to conclude, whether things like self-realisation, Supermind, etc ‘claimed’ by Sri Aurobindo are true or delusive. He almost stops short of suggesting that they could be considered ‘schizophrenic’ by some. Who are these some, one may ask? It means focusing much more on the external outer life rather than inner. It means seeing the Illimitable with the small physical mind rather than with the psychic feeling and vision. Here too, our Mr. Objective is quite selective. He seems to be much more interested in producing stray letters, diary notes, some odd comments and questionable observations or reports as ‘objective facts’ and lays much less stress on the much more obvious and glaring facts of the massive correspondence, Savitri, The Life Divine and many many other things. And how about the countless devotees and their testimonies,—blind faith, superstition, sentimentality,—or the historians willful blindness? Is it simply a case of ignorance or a deliberate mischief to underplay few things and insert certain footnotes that would colour the perceptions and give a different hew and taste to the whole thing. Such a misrepresentation of truth taken out of context or half-quoted and misplaced is one of the standard strategies of the asura in man who falsifies things very subtly and craftily. It is also interesting that this man had already written a brief biography of Sri Aurobindo which did raise a few eyebrows… So, should we wait for a third, even more ‘objective’ biography micro-analyzing (read psychoanalyzing) Sri Aurobindo?

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