25 Dec 2008

Frequently Asked Questions

Quick answers to some frequently asked questions:

1. Peter Heehs has written a “scholarly biography” of Sri Aurobindo intended “for the Western mind”. What is wrong with that?

2. PH has written for the Western mind and Western scholars. Sometimes it may be necessary to present things differently to make Sri Aurobindo more acceptable and accessible to the West!

3. But isn’t there a clear vertical split between the views of Eastern and Western disciples of Sri Aurobindo? Isn’t the response to the book in India more sentimental and emotional?

4. Why was there a campaign to malign PH? Should there not be a respectful intellectual debate on differences in viewpoints?

5. Why is it so important to provide academic refutations to PH’s book? Why has not such a detailed response been offered so far to other writers who also have misrepresented Sri Aurobindo?

6. What can be so harmful in the long run, after all this is merely a book. How can a book ever harm Sri Aurobindo or his work? Should we not simply ignore its distortions and let them fade away in time?

7. Isn’t the very effort to refute the book giving it more publicity? Would it not have been better to ignore it and allow it to fade away?

8. But PH’s book on Sri Aurobindo is nowhere nearly as damaging as Jeffrey Kripal’s book on Ramakrishna Paramahansa. Is the comparison justified?

9. PH has claimed that the controversy has been created by a selection of quotations taken out of context from his book. Further he says that one must read the entire book to be able to properly understand and judge these quotations.

10. When placed in the proper context, are not the critical sentences balanced out equally by praise? PH claims that he uses a style of argument “similar to the purvapaksha-uttarapaksha form of argument of Sanskrit rhetoric” which he says is “a form of argument used [by] Sri Aurobindo in The Life Divine.”


Frequently Asked Questions

Regarding The Lives of Sri Aurobindo by Peter Heehs

Q 1. Peter Heehs has written a “scholarly biography” of Sri Aurobindo intended “for the Western mind”. What is wrong with that?

There would be nothing wrong with that if the book was truly an honest and scholarly biography. Unfortunately it is full of misrepresentations and deliberate distortions regarding a) facts surrounding important events, b) their historical context, c) the teaching of Sri Aurobindo, d) the nature of his own yogic practices, e) life in the Ashram, and f) the Mother. Naturally these also lead to false interpretations and wrong conclusions. On reading the entire book, the pattern that emerges is that PH has distorted facts to force them to fit the Freudian view of spirituality.

Such a book cannot be accepted as “scholarly” since standards of scholarship demand honesty, accuracy and completeness in presenting facts. All three elements have been seriously compromised in this book.

Q 2. But PH has written for the Western mind and Western scholars. Sometimes it may be necessary to present things differently to make Sri Aurobindo more acceptable and accessible to the West! At least that is what PH and his apologists claim.

Certainly different styles of presentation are needed, and not just for the Western mind. But are we to believe that the Western mind needs to read falsehood in order to better understand Sri Aurobindo and accept him? Are we required to distort his teaching and his yoga to make him more easily accessible to a certain mindset? Surely this has nothing to do with the Eastern or the Western minds. This has more to do with truthfulness, integrity, honest representation and accurate portrayal -- or the lack of it in this case.

By justifying the need to distort facts in order to address the Western mind, PH and his apologists are is in fact dishonouring Western cultures, values and their integrity. The argument of mindsets is intended only to deflect attention from the real issue.

Q 3. But isn’t there a clear vertical split between the views of Eastern and Western disciples of Sri Aurobindo? Isn’t the response to the book in India more sentimental and emotional?

The split in the critical viewpoints is not between the East and the West. There are Eastern disciples who found nothing wrong with the book, and there are Western disciples who found it obnoxious. In fact the split has little to do with culture and more to do with awareness. The split is between those who have read Sri Aurobindo thoroughly and those who have not; it is between those who have read other biographies of Sri Aurobindo and are familiar with the context of historical events and those who have not; it is between those who are sensitive to the perverse nuances and suggestions in PH’s book and those who are not.

At present there are enormously more disciples of Sri Aurobindo in India than there are in the rest of the world; there are also many more people in India who have read Sri Aurobindo thoroughly. These, being so many and so diverse in nature, have responded each in their own way. There are many who have expressed deep hurt and anguish on reading the kinds of distortions that PH has printed. Equally, there are many who have responded in academic refutation and intellectual discussion. PH seems to want to deliberately obfuscate issues by clubbing all the different responses in India under one category of “sentimentality” in order to justify his fantasy of an Eastern vs Western divide.

Q 4. Why was there a campaign to malign PH? Should there not be a respectful intellectual debate on differences in viewpoints?

There has not been any campaign to malign PH. There has been academic criticism of the contents of his book from academics. There have also been letters of hurt and anger from devotees and admirers of Sri Aurobindo criticising PH’s action and intentions. If PH has the right to publish a book (even if based on falsehoods), the public also has a right to tell him that it is unhappy with such a book -- all within accepted ethical and legal frameworks of response. PH and his supporters have unfortunately been applying double standards of conduct.

In any matter of differences of viewpoints or interpretations, the right way forward would be to hold discussions and debates. But these should ideally have been started by PH himself before he published the book with full knowledge of what its consequences would be. Now that the book is out, he should at least be willing to discuss and debate rather than misdirect the debate into imagined cultural differences.

Those who have opposed the book have focused their criticism on the contents of the book in an academic refutation and have not directed any criticism on the personality of PH. On the contrary, PH and his supporters are conducting a vicious campaign on the internet to malign anyone who criticises the book. They have not, so far, responded to academic criticisms in honest intellectual debate.

Q 5. Why is it so important to provide academic refutations to PH’s book? Why has not such a detailed response been offered so far to other writers who also have misrepresented Sri Aurobindo?

There have been many writers in the past and there will be many in the years to come who will misunderstand and misrepresent Sri Aurobindo, some from simple incapacity or ignorance, and others out of spite or to serve their interests. It is not necessary to refute all of them. But this book by PH is being promoted as the most scholarly, authoritative and comprehensive so far, outdating all others which have been declared by him as being merely hagiographical. Further, the book is being promoted on the false authority of PH as being founder of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives and editor of Sri Aurobindo’s works. The book misuses the goodwill and trust that readers have in the Ashram and abuses the strength and authority of the Ashram itself. Readers and scholars will blindly trust its contents as being representative of the Ashram’s views and as acceptable scholarly conclusions.

It is therefore imperative that the Sri Aurobindo Ashram itself should publicly declare the book as not representative of its authority or its views. It is equally important that scholars immediately expose the distortions and the mischievous intentions prevalent in this book and refute them in detail. Allowing these false statements to go unchallenged now would be tantamount to accepting them, which will lead to great harm in the long run.

Q 6. What can be so harmful in the long run, after all this is merely a book. How can a book ever harm Sri Aurobindo or his work? Should we not simply ignore its distortions and let them fade away in time?

In the long run surely nothing can harm Sri Aurobindo or his work. But in the short term, misrepresentation can mislead those who seek his guidance, and can distort his message among those who seek to understand his teaching and his yoga.

This book by PH alleges that Sri Aurobindo’s writings have little originality and nothing much that is new. It further declares that the little that is new is quite incomprehensible in its language and presentation. On reading such conclusions, most new seekers would be discouraged from approaching Sri Aurobindo in the first place.

The book also alleges that Sri Aurobindo lied about his supramental experiences. This conclusion is made based on a complete misrepresentation of Sri Aurobindo’s descriptions of his spiritual experiences and his progress in the supramental yoga. Any reader or spiritual seeker who goes purely by the statements given in this book will be seriously and dangerously misled in this respect.

These are only two examples of how the book can mislead. Clearly such statements can and will do great harm to Sri Aurobindo’s work, especially when seen in the context of the authority of the Ashram itself that the author has claimed. To ignore such distortions and wish them away is to accept them and promote them in academic discourse. If accepted even once in academia, it would take decades of effort and debate to clarify and remove them. The publication of this book in the USA has already caused significant damage. Interested groups who seek to bring disrepute to great spiritual leaders are already using its statements to their advantage. An early academic refutation will minimise this damage and at the very least make people aware that statements in this book are controversial, need verification, are not supported by the Ashram, and cannot be relied upon.

Q 7. Isn’t the very effort to refute the book giving it more publicity? Would it not have been better to ignore it and allow it to fade away?

It is true that the attempt to inform people that this book is unreliable gives it more publicity by creating controversy. But to ignore would not in any way reduce the publicity for two reasons: a) the author and his promoters are themselves publicising it in an unusually forceful campaign (unmatched by any other biography or biographer of Sri Aurobindo so far), b) eventually some scholars or readers would point to the distortions and raise the controversy in the public domain in any case. It is therefore best that the distortions are exposed as soon and as clearly as possible without fear of negative publicity.

We can also learn from the example of Jeffrey Kripal’s similar vilifying biography of Ramakrishna Paramahansa which declared him a homosexual and paedophile by mistranslation, misquotation and distortion of context. At first the Ramakrishna Mission thought it best to ignore it hoping it would fade away. Meanwhile the promoters of Kripal arranged for the book to receive a prominent award that automatically put it on the bestseller list ensuring its delivery to all universities and colleges in the USA. It was then listed as the only suggested reading in the Encyclopedia Brittanica for years. Subsequently the promoters of Kripal went to these very educational institutions and asked for books by Ramakrishna Paramahansa to be removed from their libraries to protect children from the writings of a known paedophile!

All the while the Ramakrishna Mission did nothing hoping the problem would fade away on its own. The only refutation which was written by a senior monk appeared in an independent website unconnected with the Mission. We are now informed that the Mission will publish a refutation in the near future (mid-2009) – this is ten years after Kripal’s damaging book was first published.

The lessons for us are many and should be painfully obvious considering that one of PH’s promoters in writing this book is the very same Jeffrey Kripal. We should not be surprised if PH’s book is used in exactly the same way and follows exactly the same trajectory of an award to publicise followed by formal rejection of Sri Aurobindo and his teaching on the very grounds of the misrepresentations in this book.

Q 8. But PH’s book on Sri Aurobindo is nowhere nearly as damaging as Jeffrey Kripal’s book on Ramakrishna Paramahansa. Is the comparison justified?

The difference is that Kripal states his conclusions forcefully and clearly, while PH creates a mix of viewpoints which are both for and against Sri Aurobindo. In many cases he offers a watered down positive conclusion on some minor aspect of the discussion leaving the reader with an overall negative impression from the facts (mis)represented earlier. He gets away with not stating the negative conclusions directly but leaving them as innuendo or as open issues (which they in fact are not when all facts are placed in context). He “problematises” and “complexifies” (as Kripal gleefully declares in his promotional review) things which were very clear and simple non-issues to begin with.

A detailed reading of Kripal’s books and his central Freudian thesis regarding the nature of spirituality exposes the patterns in PH’s own book -- PH is trying hard to portray all facts from Sri Aurobindo’s life in exactly the framework required to justify Kripal’s Freudian framework. It appears as if he has put together the base material upon which Kripal or another such writer will build the final declared conclusions. This kind of layering of raw materials and conclusions is the normal pattern used by many evangelical groups when trying to academically discredit or defame spiritual or intellectual giants. Let us also remember that PH and Kripal are already working together on their next project for studying Sri Aurobindo’s Record of Yoga for which Kripal’s only declared field of competence is “comparative erotics and ethics of mystical literature”. It appears as if the worst attacks are yet to come for which the present book by PH is meant to be only a stepping stone.

Q 9. PH has claimed that the controversy has been created by a selection of quotations taken out of context from his book. Further he says that one must read the entire book to be able to properly understand and judge these quotations.

Can a factually false statement become true in any change of context? Moreover, in any well-written book a sentence should become clear in context within the paragraph, or at best within the section or chapter. If a single sentence requires the entire 500-page book to be understood in context then clearly the book would have to be structurally defective and logically flawed.

When the selection of quotations was first circulated, PH responded by circulating the very same selections but now placed in what he himself decalred to be the proper context. These he circulated as vindication of his stand that the quoted sentences were not wrong when placed in context. His own chosen context was to extend the offensive selection by one sentence before or after. He did not need to quote the entire paragraph, much less the entire book to show proper context!

The constant refrain from PH and his supporters that it is necessary to read the entire book is only a device meant to promote the book’s sales! This is only one more example of how he has been deceiving readers and deflecting debate.

Q 10. When placed in the proper context, are not the critical sentences balanced out equally by praise? PH claims that he uses a style of argument “similar to the purvapaksha-uttarapaksha form of argument of Sanskrit rhetoric” which he says is “a form of argument used [by] Sri Aurobindo in The Life Divine.”

The “purvapaksha-uttarapaksha form of argument” is relevant only when there is an argument involved. Opinions or incidents cannot form a base for purva/uttarapaksha (PU) since there is no structure of logic involved in them. PU form of argument is relevant when the first (purva) party (paksha) places its logical argument and the responding (uttara) party refutes with another logical argument. In most cases PH is quoting opinions from people who criticize or praise mixed with his own opinions. Placing a positive viewpoint against a negative viewpoint does not in any way make for a PU form of argument. PH is only trying to confuse the reader with technical terms.

On the contrary, in most of the offending passages PH lists negative comments (often out of context) in detail and follows them with vague positive observations which do not in any way neutralise the earlier negative views. The overall impression created in the reader’s mind is one of a general negative background with some positive streaks in the foreground. The real crime is the deliberate suppression of the all the positive data which is not mentioned in the book but which is commonly available in most other biographies! This is why those who are familiar with the facts from other biographical reading are shocked at the distortion while those with no background get carried away by the list of references and believe PH is right and convince themselves that they have learnt something new. In most such examples PH’s crime is more of omission than of commission, and the crime is real because the book is promoted as the “most comprehensive” biography so far, which obviously makes such serious lapses deliberately intended.

Q 11. Some people have greatly enjoyed reading the book and have been benefited. I also heard that many who had not known of Sri Aurobindo got interested in him after reading the book. Are these not positive signs that the book has served its purpose in bringing more readers to Sri Aurobindo?

There are several issues involved here:

a) Enjoyable: The questions is not whether the book was an enjoyable reading or not. The question is whether what is written here is accurate and representative of Sri Aurobindo and his life. There are many parts of the book which read like a novel and they surely could be enjoyable, if only they were historically accurate!

b) Benefit: Surely many readers who have not read any other biography of Sri Aurobindo would be greatly benefited from having finally read one (even if it was the present controversy that attracted them). Sadly they would also be left with wrong impressions on several matters of serious importance, but would remain oblivious to the deception unless they took the trouble to read other biographies and widened their perspective and set right their facts.

c) New interest kindled: There is the example quoted by an American disciple in support of the book. He writes, “Another scholar who had not read Sri Aurobindo in depth was eager to know after reading Lives if he had attained the Supramental Consciousness before his passing. She became engaged not in history or biography, but his spiritual life in a positive way from reading this book.” This is an excellent example of how PH’s book has misled readers. The fact is that Sri Aurobindo had already reached the supermind before 1920, but this scholar came away with the impression that he never reached it!

d) New readers: PH’s declared intention in writing this book is to address it to scholars and not casual readers. Has the book attracted any scholars to Sri Aurobindo by speculating on his sex life and declaring his writings as “frequently obscure”? If it has attracted casual readers, then it certainly has not served the author’s intentions. The one scholarly reader referred to above came away with the impression that Sri Aurobindo never reached the supermind.

One truly wishes that these readers or “scholars” had read some other biography first! They would certainly have enjoyed more, benefited more and come away with a truer understanding of Sri Aurobindo’s life and message. Surely the same time and energy and money would have been better spent to promote Satprem’s masterpiece Sri Aurobindo or the Adventure of Consciousness.

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