11 Nov 2008

A Question of Hagiography and Biography

Related to Rationalism and Devotion is the question of Biography and Hagiography, in fact here they are just two representations of the same. If hagiography is biography revering its saint, then any non-hagiographic biography of a saint will deprive him of his sainthood. This is precisely what the author of The Lives of Sri Aurobindo is doing in his presentation of a Saint and a Rishi and a Yogi. Posted at the Columbia University Press in CUP the author himself gives the following summary introduction to us. He poses a question to himself and sets to answer it: “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 has to face.”


Related to Rationalism and Devotion is the question of Biography and Hagiography, in fact here they are just two representations of the same. If hagiography is biography revering its saint, then any non-hagiographic biography of a saint will deprive him of his sainthood. This is precisely what the author of The Lives of Sri Aurobindo is doing in his presentation of a Saint and a Rishi and a Yogi. Posted at the Columbia University Press in CUP the author himself gives the following summary introduction to us. He poses a question to himself and sets to answer it: “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 has to face.”

The answer is simple: ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to the sainthood of Sri Aurobindo. If he is not a saint or spiritual guide then it is absurd to speak of being a practitioner of his path, the Path of Integral Yoga given by Sri Aurobindo, which is precisely what the author of the Lives mantains. But if he is a saint, then any denial of sainthood in the biography will give rise to abundant irrationality of the author as much as of the publishers also who didn’t look into these details carefully enough, it seems. Not presenting the aspect of sainthood of a saint will thus amount to falsehood.

The author is puzzled about Sri Aurobindo sitting with a guru in the last week of January 1908, “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.” Does “mental stillness” mean “eternal silence”? But they are two different things. What this experience meant was that the mind had fallen totally silent, a state in which he could see thoughts not rising from the brain but coming from outside, from the cosmic field. He could stop them entering into him or allow them in. This is the state in which he would receive the higher knowledge directly, without mental interference, and all his Arya and later writings came in that state. It is not a state of Nirvana, nor does the ego really disappear in it. It is an experience of the Vedantic Passive Brahman. This is one of the major realizations he had just within three days. The other realization, within months of this one when he was in Alipore jail as an undertrial prisoner, was that of Active Brahman; there he witnessed the all-pervasive presence of Vasudeava. Can one ignore these master-experiences to satisfy the demands of a rational mind? These are spiritual realizations which come after lives of yogic effort and here’s Sri Aurobindo who got within months. What does that mean? But it is this Silent Mind that the Mother received as the first gift from Sri Aurobindo when they met on 29 March 1914.

But let us see further what our author has to say. “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.” He adds: “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.”

As far as spiritual experiences and realizations are concerned, by saying so it is as good as trying to bring what is transcendental into the domain of the limited, mundane or rational, a thing which is simply impossible. You accept them or you just forget about them. Not seeing the difference between the two is sheer inanity of the rational mind and such inanity has no value in spiritual matters, perhaps nowhere.

And there’s yet another brave statement: “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.” But “different interpretations” by whom? Of course by one who has the “necessary discernment” not to criticize, but to perceive things that are absolutely spiritual. In such a case the best thing should have been to keep quiet and not throw careless assertions around.

Even if we assume the best intentions of the author to bring the rational mind to Sri Aurobindo, he must first understand both. His method instead is by cutting up the uncleavable to one-fourth of its size. That is the absurdity of the entire approach and it’s a pity there are wise folk who applaud it—not recognizing what the Integral Yoga really is. After all, the solution to rationality is by transcending rationality and seeing it from that higher location. That is the solution for every problem and, if we are earnest, our endeavour should be to transcend all limitations to which we are tied. That needs great inner spiritual preparation and unless that is done one does not talk of biography and hagiography, least in the disparaging manner.


RY Deshpande

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