31 Mar 2009

A Review by Raman Reddy of The Lives of Sri Aurobindo by Peter Heehs

Peter Heehs has a crisp and racy style; he comes straight to the essential points and there is a skilful weaving of historical data which hitherto has never been done in a biography of Sri Aurobindo. But that is about all that can be appreciated in this book, for he sets the ball rolling in the wrong direction right from the Preface. The reader is soon stunned at the innate hostility behind his clever presentation, or rather, misrepresentation of facts.

He says in his Preface that he is against hagiography and expresses a strong dislike for the literature produced by his disciples in admiration for Sri Aurobindo; the result is that he swings to the other extreme and often indulges in open or covert hostility towards him. He takes the example of two photographs of Sri Aurobindo, one dated circa 1915-1916 (this is the beautiful photograph of Sri Aurobindo placed in the Meditation Hall downstairs in the Ashram main building) and the other dated 1915, and compares the retouching of the first with hagiography, which, he says, always distorts historical truth. He finds that “the dark, pockmarked skin, sharp features, and undreamy eyes” of the second one make it “more true to Sri Aurobindo” than the first one, which has been heavily retouched with “the result that the face has no character”.[1] Now these are tough statements to digest and one wonders why he is so delighted at the pockmarks! But then, you find out later that this is part of the methodology he follows, finding first the most damaging, negative evidence on Sri Aurobindo and the Mother and then weighing it half-heartedly against flimsy positive evidence in the name of objectivity. In doing so, he carefully avoids the highly positive evidence which has been used until now by the devotees of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. You might not even notice this clever balancing of evidence in favour of the so-called academic view of spirituality, which generally considers Sri Aurobindo’s experiences to be hallucinations or psychotic delusions. Or the so-called academic view of Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy which finds it not logical enough, so that “most members of the philosophical profession … would be loath to admit him to their club.”[2] And before you realise the insidious poison he is injecting through these harmless discussions, he has given a certificate of sanity to Sri Aurobindo! After discussing at length the possibility of Sri Aurobindo inheriting a tinge of lunacy from his mother, he says, that all said and done, Sri Aurobindo was “eminently sane”.[3] It is clear enough that plain devotion and sincere admiration for Sri Aurobindo and the Mother is anathema to Heehs, who is at heart a rebel. In order to steer clear of hagiography, he has replaced it with hostility. Objectivity is a mere pretence to discuss only the “pockmarks” visible in Sri Aurobindo’s outer life, and he uses even a magnifying glass to discover the hidden warts and moles.   ...full text...

28 Mar 2009

Alok Pandey's comment on Heehs (27.03.2009)

Heehs may be good at collecting data but is not a good writer

But it is not from European scholars that we must expect a solution of the Mahabharata problem. They have no qualifications for the task except a power of indefatigable research and collocation; and in dealing with the Mahabharata even this power seems to have deserted them. It is from Hindu scholarship renovated and instructed by contact with European that the attempt must come. Indian scholars have shown a power of detachment and disinterestedness and a willingness to give up cherished notions under pressure of evidence which are not common in Europe. They are not, as a rule, prone to the Teutonic sin of forming a theory in accordance with their prejudices and then finding facts or manufacturing inferences to support it.

When, therefore, they form a theory on their own account, it has usually some clear justification and sometimes an overwhelming array of facts and solid arguments behind it. The German scholarship possesses infinite capacity of acuteness, labour, marred by an impossible and fantastic imagination, the French of inference marred by insufficient command of facts, while in soundness of judgment Indian sane scholarship has both.[1]

Yes, so very true, though one may substitute the word European for a mind bound to material forms and heavily dependent upon sense data for its conclusions – the physical mind perhaps, a part of which is there in all of us but becomes a real trouble when we deal with spiritual things. Certain persons – Indians, Europeans, Americans, Asians – have it prominent in them. And while it is good within its limits and for the purpose of organising outer things, it can become a serious difficulty when we turn to spiritual things. That is why one needs both types of human beings in any group activity, not just organisers but also thinkers, not only those who can think dispassionately but also those who can feel deeply. It is a lack of this balance that is reflected in the collectivity mentioned.

Also the problem is that people confuse one kind of brilliance for another and think that, if an individual is good at one activity, he must necessarily be good at another. Or else, they simply don't bother and let things run their course taking shelter under the Mother's Name as if it were a shield for complacency. Thus, for example PH [Peter Heehs] may be good at collecting data and filing it, but to believe that he can be, by that virtue, a good or even an honest writer is so absurd. Unfortunately this is exactly what got into his head as one can see so very clearly from the book [The Lives of Sri Aurobindo]. He seems to be judging everything, from English prose to English poetry, to Psychology and Philosophy, on to Yoga and Spirituality and God knows what!!!! It is one thing to collect data from dusty files and quite another to make sense out of them and give each a just place. A mind too much dependent upon the externalities of life is too crude and gross to understand, let alone comment and opine about subtler things:

A pigmy Thought needing to live in bounds
For ever stooped to hammer fact and form.
Absorbed and cabined in external sight,
It takes its stand on Nature's solid base.
A technician admirable, a thinker crude [2]

Yes, Sri Aurobindo's works seems to be handled by technicians and academicians rather than by responsible men who can think and feel deeply and have care and concern for spiritual life. But this is what happens when truth is seen only as an outer fact and not an all-encompassing Reality.

Alok Pandey
27 March 2009


[1] Sri Aurobindo, The Harmony of Virtue, SABCL, Volume 3, Pages 180-181

[2] Sri Aurobindo, Savitri, CWSA, Volume 33, p 245
  ...full text...

25 Mar 2009

In Defence of the Extracts

In Defence of the “Extracts from The Lives of Sri Aurobindo by Peter Heehs”

Part 1

[I start by giving a brief history of the Extracts for the benefit of the reader who is not familiar with the circumstances in which they were compiled.

The Lives of Sri Aurobindo by Peter Heehs was published by the Columbia University Press in New York in April 2008. A couple of months later, a few copies of the book turned up at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, of which Peter Heehs is a long standing inmate. Heehs, who works as an editor at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives and Research Library, had taken many years to write this biography. But the book could hardly be said to have been written in the spirit of a disciple and inmate of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, which is a spiritual institution and not a debating centre where you can question its very founder. A murmur of protest arose when a review of the book was published in Auroville Today in August 2008. Soon there was a demand and curiosity to know what exactly was objectionable in the book. There was the practical question of whether the book could be put up for sale in the Ashram’s official bookshop and the more serious consideration of taking administrative action against the author. It was under these circumstances that the Extracts were compiled, so that the reader at once knew the worst that Heehs had written. The compiler never intended them to be representative extracts of the book in order to get a brief introduction to it.

The Extracts caught on and before long most of the Ashramites were seething with anger, for, all said and done, they were Heehs’s own words, and he had dared to denigrate Sri Aurobindo in his own Ashram. Had he written the same book as an outsider and not as a member of the Ashram, nobody would have cared for it. But Heehs had written in his position as a senior editor and researcher of the Ashram Archives, which is the repository of the most valuable documents written by Sri Aurobindo. Not only was there a lack of basic allegiance to the institution that had fed him for 37 years and facilitated his research in every way, but his cursory dismissals of Sri Aurobindo’s works and denigrating statements on him were detrimental to the very spiritual well-being of the Ashram. People began circulating the Extracts by making Xeroxes, sending emails and posting them on the Net, and soon the whole Sri Aurobindonian community was convulsed with waves of anger. Thenceforth the discussions that followed between Heehs’s critics and supporters often referred back to the Extracts, as still not many copies of the book were available.

Around this time a strange theory was put forward by Heehs’ supporters who said, “Yes, if you read only the Extracts, you get a bad impression of the book. But read the whole book, and you will not feel that the book is so bad. In fact, you will not only start appreciating it, but find it wonderful.” Heehs himself argued that the Extracts were decontextualised and provided a corrected version of them. He filled in the footnotes, phrases and sentences passed over in the Extracts and claimed that he had restored the original content to its full glory. The objectionable portions suddenly became unpalatable but true statements on Sri Aurobindo and his denigration came to be termed as the human side of the Avatar. Heehs’s unwarranted criticism became academic objectivity and Sri Aurobindo’s disciples had to be taught the superiority of his intellectual assessment over what they felt deeply in their hearts about the greatness of their Master. It is then that I felt it was necessary to write a defence of the Extracts, which have so well exposed the mischief behind Heehs’s biography. For mischief it is, and there is no point in saying that he insulted the Master only a few times, or arguing that there is plenty of good research in his book in order to spare him the severe reprobation he deserves.
]   ...full text...

19 Mar 2009

Hail to "Angiras"!

[Editorial Note: "Angiras" is the pseudonym under which Richard Hartz has been writing on the SCIY website.]

The Science, Culture and Integral Yoga Website (SCIY: http://www.sciy.org/) has started serialising the letters of those who first brought to the attention of the Trustees of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram the highly controversial biography of Sri Aurobindo by Peter Heehs, The Lives of Sri Aurobindo. One writer and commentator on the SCIY, under the pseudonym of Angiras, is determined to tear to shreds all criticism unfavourable to this biography. The first letter of complaint to the Trustees that he takes up for a point by point rebuttal begins with the following introductory note:

A document, headed “The Role of Peter Heehs in the Archives,” was circulated anonymously and is undated. It has been attributed on some websites to Ranganath Raghavan. Ranganath is reported to have given a letter (presumably this one) to the Trustees around the beginning of September 2008 along with Raman Reddy, the compiler of the “Extracts,” who is also a member of the Archives; “we” in the letter probably includes Raman. Ranganath and Raman are referred to below as R&R. The comments… are intended to correct misstatements and present an alternative viewpoint.

Now the first question I would like to ask Angiras is, “What was the necessity of coming down to such a personal level of argument? Why take names and target particular persons?” I can anticipate the knee-jerk reaction to my question, “Because you guys have attacked Peter Heehs in the same way!” I would then answer, “We attacked Heehs because he was the author of a book which went into the public domain on highly sensitive issues. And may I know why do you hide behind a pseudonym, as if you do not have the courage to reveal your identity to your readers on the Net?”

I begin to wonder who this Angiras could be, hiding such irrepressible virulence under the beautiful name of a Vedic Rishi. It has to be first of all someone interested in the Veda to have chosen this name. Secondly, he has to be a close colleague and a diehard supporter of Heehs at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives. Thirdly, he has to have access to entries in Cold Storage registers (which he mentions later in his rebuttal) to be able to allege that Ranganath and me are liars. Now I cannot think of anybody else but Richard Hartz! If I have indeed made a mistake, may God bless his soul! If it is him, which is more likely the case, I would advise him not to meddle with this controversy and be dragged down to this low level of argument, which can continue till the end of Time and Space. Barring a few points, most of them can be easily brushed aside and are the kind of “tit for tat” arguments, which you do not want to waste your precious time on. But what I would like to tell Angiras (or Richard Hartz?) is that this thankless industry hardly befits his scholarship, which until now has produced admirable articles in the Ashram’s monthly magazine, The Mother India.   ...full text...

17 Mar 2009

Ranganath's reply to Angiras

[Editorial Note: "Angiras" is the pseudonym under which Richard Hartz has been writing on the SCIY website. The following is the reply of Ranganath Raghavan to “Angiras”. It may be recalled that Ranganath had written to the Trustees of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in September 2008. Richard Hartz, aka "Angiras", wrote a detailed commentary of this note in defence of Peter Heehs on the SCIY website. This is Ranganath's reply. The indented text in italics is from Angiras' article where each quote from Ranganath’s letter is followed by his comments. This is now followed by Ranganath’s reply to Angiras, which are in normal type (except when he again quotes Angiras) and without any indentation.]

Before I embark on the refutation of Angiras’ contentions, let me point out that I am not inclined to engage in long drawn-out arguments and counter-arguments, because it is a useless and fruitless exercise with no end to the process. This is therefore a one-time reply to straighten the twists in the article by Angiras. There will be no follow up on this.

The author of the “The Role of Peter Heehs in the Archives” stands firmly his ground without hesitation and can declare confidently that Angiras’ arguments are wrong in logic as well as in the interpretation of quotations from Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.

It is to be noted that all that follows in my reply applies only to a person who has opted to join a spiritual institution on his own free will, after having accepted as Guru the spiritual leader of the institution. By joining this institution, he voluntarily submits himself to its rules, regulations and conventions. It is a well known accepted principle of spiritual life that once having opted for a Guru, one accepts him as a representative of the Divine. If this psychological attitude is not possible for the aspirant, he then leaves the institution on his own and goes elsewhere. But opposition, disagreement, criticism of the Guru, even while living in the organisation and enjoying all its facilities, is not only unacceptable but can lead to spiritual hara-kiri.
  ...full text...

14 Mar 2009

Orissa Govt tells High Court to ban Heehs' book

Orissa Govt. told HC to ban publication of biography on Aurobindo
Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Report by Orissadiary correspondent, Cuttack:
In a significant development Orissa Government told the Orissa High Court that they would take immediate steps to ban the publication and circulation of the controversial book titled ’The Life of Sri Aurobindo’ written by US writer Peter Hasse. Along with State Government, Central government on Wednesday told the High Court the same in affidavit. In their respective counter affidavits filed in HC, the State and the Union governments admitted that the biography contains defamatory and perverse comments on Sri Aurobindo’s character, life, writings and thoughts, which are bound to affect the sentiments of lakhs of the spiritual leader’s followers. The affidavits came in the wake of a PIL filed in HC by a Balasore-based woman Gitanjali Bhattacharya seeking ban on the publication and circulation of the book in India.

Express News Service
First Published : 05 Mar 2009 03:58:00 AM IST
Last Updated : 05 Mar 2009 04:12:31 PM IST

CUTTACK: The Orissa Government is all set to ban the controversial biography ‘The Lives of Sri Aurobinda’, by Peter Heehs. The Government would invoke Section 95 of CrPc declaring the book, published by the Columbia University Press in USA and to be released by Penguin in India, forfeited on charges of containing defamatory content on the revolutionary and spiritual leader.

This has been informed to the Orissa High Court by Deputy Secretary of Home on the basis of an investigation conducted by the Crime Branch, CID wing of the State police. The CB after examining the content has suggested for action under Section 95 of CrPC to prevent circulation of such defamatory material. The publication and circulation of the book would outrage the religious feelings of the citizens of India and also attract several penal provisions under Sections 153 A, 292 and 295 A of Indian Penal Code, the Government submitted before the Court.

The HC earlier had imposed restrictions on publication of the book on the basis of a petition filed by one Gitanjali JB of Balasore. The division bench comprising Justice IM Quddusi and Justice SC Parija has now allowed withdrawal of the writ as the Government was taking action to prevent publication and circulation of the book. Gitanjali had alleged that the book was blasphemous and cast aspersions on the character and integrity of Sri Aurobinda, who is revered by billions in the country. Heehs, a founder of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives, has allegedly made defamatory comments on the personality of Sri Aurobinda pointing that his claims to spiritual experience and relations were questionable and irrelevant.
  ...full text...