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.

Regarding Cold Storage Access

I will now take the trouble to answer the allegations regarding my access to the Cold Storage. I quote the relevant portions from Angiras’s rebuttal:

Ranganath: Extremely private, confidential and sensitive material is at his disposal long before others, even in the Archives, have access to it.

Angiras: R&R know that this is a lie. The Archives Manuscript Issue Register reveals that most of the manuscripts removed from the Archives Cold Storage in recent years were taken by Raman Reddy, who has had free access to letters and private diaries. During the same period, Peter Heehs took no manuscripts out of Cold Storage. The records showing this have been made available to the Trustees. Raman has also published articles making use of information found in Purani’s notes, the most controversial source cited in Heehs’s biography.

Ranganath: And he is using all these letters, diaries of sadhaks for his own personal commercial use. The availability of such sensitive documents to him must be put an end to.

Angiras: The allegation of “commercial use” is false. In any case, new rules restricting access to such materials (not only “to him” but in general) have been adopted by the Archives in the last few months. This has been one of the few constructive outcomes of the present controversy.

First of all, this whole issue regarding the use of the Cold Storage documents is totally irrelevant to the main objections regarding Heehs’s biography. It is simply diversionary tactics to obfuscate the main issue. Ranganath’s letter was written specifically to the Trustees, expressing a certain legitimate concern regarding the use of manuscripts at the Archives. So to refute it in the public domain as a lie is somewhat unintelligent, because the general reader will neither understand the intricacies of the particular situation, nor will he ever be interested in these side issues.

Next, Ranganath did not refer only to material in the Cold Storage, where only the original documents of Sri Aurobindo, the Mother and their disciples are kept, but also a whole lot of secondary but important biographical material, especially cards and databases, without which the same material is unusable. Any historian of some calibre would know their importance. He suspects that this latter type of material, apart from plenty of Xeroxes of all sorts of documents, are still in the custody of Heehs, who will now surely say that they are his personal research notes. This is only partially true! So many of us have collected data for him in the past under the impression that we were contributing to the Ashram Archives collection! Moreover, even the fruits of his own labour belong to the Ashram and not to him personally, as all work done by the sadhaks of the Ashram in its departments is supposed to be dedicated to the larger interests of the institution. In fact, Heehs used to boast at one time that he did not make any distinction between public and private use because his own interests converged with the work entrusted to him at the Archives. What finally happened was that he treated the public collection of the Ashram Archives as his private one. No one else but he had any clue or free access to the material under his care, even if it was kept at the Archives main office. This is precisely the reason why his colleagues are now at a total loss to go ahead with the pending publication of Sri Aurobindo’s Collected Works.

As for my frequenting the Cold Storage when Heehs himself had stopped going to it, I may inform the readers that I never sneaked in without anybody’s permission, as our wise (or not so wise) Angiras gives the impression. I was actually one of the officially authorised persons taking care of a certain section of the original manuscripts since many years. My Cold Storage work was that of a storekeeper of manuscripts and consisted of endless search errands to find out the right manuscripts for specific purposes. Even physically, it meant climbing ladders in the stack rooms and diligently shuttling to and fro with big boxes of manuscripts in my hands.

Coming now to my own usage of the material at the Cold Storage, I admit freely that I have indeed done some useful and absolutely harmless research work with regard to the Ashram main building after obtaining permission from the Trust. Incidentally, the Ashram Trust itself has published the output of my research in the form of a book which is now being sold through SABDA, the official book distributing agency of the Ashram. Besides this and other research projects, I have also done some work on when and how exactly the name “Sri Aurobindo” was used instead of “A.G. or Aurobindo Ghose”. Heehs himself has acknowledged me for this information which I published in the Mother India, after taking due permission from the Trust. Until date, nobody has raised any objections to my articles.

Finally, if Ranganath’s allegation of “commercial use” is false, then it is obligatory that Angiras should come out with the full facts and figures relating to the publication of Heehs’s book—the copyright permission, the arrangements with the publishers, the royalties in one form or other offered to the author, the payments or donations made by him to the Ashram, etc. Instead of answering these important questions, why does he divert the reader’s attention to non-issues, such as my access to the Cold Storage? Moreover, the constitution of a new committee to manage the affairs of the Ashram Archives is totally an internal matter of the Ashram and bringing it to the public forum by saying that “new rules restricting access to such materials… have been adopted” is a betrayal of the code of conduct its members are expected to follow. In any case, it seems to be the classic case of locking the stable after the horse has bolted!

Finally, the real question is not about who had access to the original documents in the Cold Storage but as to how they have been used. A biography which has created such an emotional and intellectual storm among the followers of Sri Aurobindo is proof enough of the utterly irresponsible way Heehs has used the above-mentioned material.

Regarding Cultural Differences

I would now like to point out that most Indian members of the Ashram have never developed any phobia against Westerners in general, and Americans in particular, which is what Angiras seems to be projecting — an East-West divide, cultural differences, religious reactions, etc. So many articles have been written by Westerners from the last few decades in the numerous magazines of the Ashram and related institutions, but rarely have they produced any commotion of the kind and magnitude that Heehs has caused. You could even attribute this to an exceptional talent he seems to have to make so many people unhappy at the same time. The Ashram itself has been running for more than half a century and I don’t know of a single instance of a Westerner trumpeting the uniqueness of his identity as is being done now. It is almost like a band going through the streets of Pondicherry and on the digital highways of the Internet creating a loud fanfare of “American identity”, announcing to everybody, “We are different from Indians”, “We are intellectuals”, “We are not senseless devotees”, etc. I would therefore request my Western (and Westernised Indian) friends not to be carried away by this ridiculous argument. The objections are only against Heehs’ book, not even Heehs the individual and only because he has vilified Sri Aurobindo in his own Ashram and projected the illegitimacy of his views into the public domain. Had Heehs been an Indian, he would have been evicted from the Ashram long ago without any hesitation or delay. It is only out of sheer consideration for the feelings of other Westerners who are genuine spiritual seekers that strong action seems to have been eschewed and great restraint exercised.

If Heehs’s committed supporters do not see anything wrong with the biography, then they should at least try to understand why a whole lot of people have been offended by it. After all, Indians have a right to be understood and respected in their own country! This is the least that they can demand! The problem with Heehs and his defendants is that they are not even aware that Indians have understood them far better than they have understood Indians. We, the English educated Indians, have mostly understood, enjoyed and imbibed other cultures not only due to the inbuilt catholicity of our minds, but also by the sheer force of historical circumstances. Several factors have contributed to the almost compulsory assimilation of Western culture, such as the British colonisation of India which gave the English language and culture, the lack of a viable alternative national language after the rejection of Sanskrit, tremendous economic backwardness because of which our best brains have migrated Westwards, and centuries of world-negating Yoga which has made our best men go away to the forests and mountains in search of their souls. Yet we have no regrets about it and consider ourselves lucky, because it has forced us to progress towards a more synthetic and global culture. At present, we, as a nation, stand at the cultural crossroads trying to figure out what to accept and what to reject, and on what basis to accept or reject! Whereas most Westerners, and Americans in particular (not the genuine seekers who have understood or assimilated Indian values and risen beyond) are pretty ignorant about other cultures. To them, “culture” means American culture and they assume others to accept what seems natural to them, because they do not even know, or rather refuse to know, that other “cultures” exist, cultures which are far different from theirs if not superior, especially in spiritual matters. So when a few Americans insist vociferously on their “cultural values” right in the heart of Tamilnadu and assert that the freedom to criticise the Guru in his own Ashram is one of the most cherished values of America, all that we can politely tell them is, “We generally don’t do that because fidelity to the Guru is one of the most cherished values of India. But if indeed you have to criticise Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, then why don’t you simply start your own Ashram?” We will definitely pay you a visit after it gets well-established and you can certainly count on us not to criticise you further.

Raman Reddy

1 comment:

  1. Angiras speaks of Cold Storage entries in his article. My puzzle is, how does he get information about these internal records unless he is a member of the Ashram Archives or else he has intimate contacts with them? In any case, are the Ashram authorities aware of these inside details being put on non-official websites? If they are not, should they not be made aware of these facts? It will be then up to them to act in whatever manner they might find it fit to act in this regard, might like to take cognisance of the matter in a suitable way. In my opinion the issue must be viewed seriously.