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.

There has been some ongoing debate over the “Extracts from The Lives of Sri Aurobindo by Peter Heehs”. It has been contended by the author and his earnest supporters that the Extracts are a deliberate misrepresentation of his book, which actually deserves much praise for its scholarship. The Extracts shock you, they say, – I am glad that at least this is acknowledged – because they are malevolently decontextualised. Had they been presented in their proper context, that is, (1) with the missing footnotes which give references to the sources that Heehs has quoted, and, (2) with the deleted text before, in between and sometimes after the selected portions of the Extracts, they would not have been reprehensible at all. On the contrary, one would have marvelled at the objectivity of the presentation. Someone even dared to suggest the example of the Life Divine, reading portions of which one might get the impression that Sri Aurobindo supported the materialist or the Mayavadin. Now this very comparison deeply pains me, especially after what the author has written in this very book, which we can take as an example for discussion:

How does Aurobindo rank as a philosopher? Most members of the philosophical profession – those who have read him at all – would be loath to admit him to their club.[1]

Let us consider some of the arguments presented by Heehs and his defendants to the spontaneous objections of most admirers and disciples of Sri Aurobindo to the above passage. Their first line of defence is that the above is not the author’s own assessment, but that of “most members of the philosophical profession”. It is not what Heehs thinks, but what others think, and Heehs is simply presenting their views, so that he is absolved of any personal involvement with the opinion expressed. Now, no man with some common sense is going to believe in this argument. When Heehs quotes, or for that matter, when anybody quotes, be it a writer, an administrator or a politician, there is a definite purport behind the quoting of authorities. In politics, for example, this aspect comes out as clearly as daylight. Politicians hide behind quotations, statistics and reports to convince the public, and, as so often happens, take them for a ride. You quote in order to prove more effectively your point of view, and you necessarily quote only those authorities that buttress it. One has simply to pay a visit to the courts to see how lawyers file numerous documents in order to win their clients’ cases. Selectivity of material is thus a basic fact of life, which overrides all pretensions to objectivity. Even in the realm of historiography it is well-known that pure objectivity does not exist. Thus the argument that Heehs’ presentation is objective without any personal involvement is an insult to common sense. His book is going to be indisputably taken as a reflection of his personal understanding and assessment of Sri Aurobindo and his philosophy, and Heehs, not others, will get the credit or discredit of the readers’ reaction and judgment.

Another argument presented by the followers of Heehs in favour of this so-called objectivity is that he has quoted the whole gamut of opinions on Sri Aurobindo, both negative and positive, and ended always on a positive note. He should thus be cleared from the blame of the initial and unavoidable damage that he perpetrates on Sri Aurobindo’s reputation by raising questions regarding, say, his mental sanity, or the logical inadequacies of his philosophy. But then Heehs has to take the responsibility of the final balance of all the evidence put together, after the negative and positive statements are carefully weighed and counterbalanced against each other. One sees that this final balance invariably tilts towards the negative side. Heehs’ account generally begins with a good dose of negative and shocking statements on Sri Aurobindo and ends with grudging admiration for him. It is perhaps a technique to force some admiration from the hardcore academics of the materialistic and Freudian school, but it leaves the admirers and disciples of Sri Aurobindo cold and angry. Now Heehs has every right to express his freedom of speech and has surely the right to denigrate Sri Aurobindo, but does he want to publicly admit it? He cannot disown the final impression of denigration that he passes to a large number of readers and, at the same time, say he is free to write whatever he wants. Freedom of speech goes hand in hand with bravely acknowledging one’s expressed opinion, especially when it has gone into the public domain. Neither can he say that he wrote in this way to please the academics and that, in the near future, he would recast the same book to please the devotees of Sri Aurobindo. First of all, one does not expect that of a serious author who has spent thirty years researching his subject. Secondly, the devotees are not so foolish that they would not see through the game. They would immediately realise that he has toned down his book because he does not deem them intellectually fit to know his true opinion.

Let us then take for granted that Heehs stands by the final balance of his statements, and let us come back to the passage that we were discussing,— that of Sri Aurobindo not being a philosopher at all because his methods “simply do not fit in with the discipline as it is currently practised”. There is at once a need to clarify basic definitions, which Heehs deliberately does not discuss. It is true that Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy is not logically thought out as most Western philosophy is, and that he uses the intellect to expound the truth of his spiritual experience rather than to arrive at it. The logical intellect plays a secondary role not only in Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy, but in all Eastern philosophy which is based on spiritual experience. Truth contains logic, but is not contained by it, explains Sri Aurobindo in an essay on Philosophy.[2] Logical conclusions necessarily depend on the premises you begin with, and one can logically arrive at different and even contradictory conclusions by assuming different premises. Spiritual experience is given the primary place in Indian philosophy because it is the fundamental experiential premise, or rather, the foundation that the philosophical superstructure is built on. Materialism and other philosophies of the West build in the same way by accepting Matter or Mind as the fundamental premises, which are very much in the domain of man’s present sensory or mental experience. The fact that spiritual experience needs an extraordinary inner opening or long yogic training does not place Indian philosophy on an inferior level. Neither the fact that the intellect plays a secondary role in it makes it logically unsound.

Now all this is common knowledge for scholars who have read Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy. So why did not Heehs discuss these basic issues before passing his cursory judgments? Especially in this era of global acceptance or clash of different cultures, he should have first focussed on these fundamental differences between Eastern and Western philosophies. He seems to assume (without analysing!) the intrinsic superiority of Western analytical philosophies to Eastern spiritual philosophies, and Sri Aurobindo seems to be no exception to it. Now even from the point of view of sheer logic and structural complexity, I wonder how one can remain unimpressed by the breath-taking world-view that Sri Aurobindo presents us in the Life Divine. One stands aghast at Heehs’ curt dismissal of Sri Aurobindo as merely “a spiritual preceptor in a long tradition of intellectual, but hardly academic gurus”[3]. One starts doubting his knowledge of Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy in particular and Indian philosophy in general, for his confident dismissal only shows a superficial study of them. Is he sufficiently familiar with the world-views of the great scholar-saints of Indian philosophy, such as Shankaracharya, Madhvacharya and Ramanujacharya, where the same bias would apply? The one authority he quotes on Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy is an obscure American scholar who happens to be his friend and mentor in this particular field. I wish Heehs had more respect for the more well-established scholars such as Amal Kiran, Arindam Basu and S.K. Maitra, especially the last who has probably done the best comparative study on Sri Aurobindo and Western philosophers.

In short, Heehs deliberately and systematically leaves us ignorant of the deeper aspects of the subject he is dealing with, be it philosophy, psychology, poetry, politics, or the personalities of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. In the realm of psychiatry and spiritual experience, his ignorance has been exposed by a young Ph.D. scholar of Delhi University. With a little effort, the same can be done in other subjects. One of Heehs’ worst misrepresentations is that of the relationship of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. I need not go into the details of it, but any disciple of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother will immediately notice the complete lack of the spiritual dimension in the narration on pages 326-327 of the book. In the Extracts, the passage begins “Sometimes when they were alone”. In the Extracts corrected by Heehs, it begins, “After dinner those present”, and is in fact more painful to read. But to somebody who is not familiar with the spiritual personalities of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, the passage would appear quite harmless, and he would walk away with the impression of an ordinary romantic affair in which the Frenchman Paul Richard loses his wife to the Indian saint. And why not, he would say, what is so wrong about it? But introduce the spiritual dimension into the narration of the same events, that is, mention, (1) that during the Mother’s first meeting with Sri Aurobindo, she had experienced the complete silence of the mind, which is supposed to be one of the great achievements in Yoga; (2) that she considered Sri Aurobindo to be the Lord himself who had come on earth to bring down the truth of the Supermind; (3) that Richard was an emanation of the Lord of the Nations, one of the four big Asuras yet to be conquered by the Divine power; (4) that later, in his confession to Dilip Kumar Roy in France, Richard deeply regretted to have left Sri Aurobindo in 1920; — and you get a very different picture. Strangely, even the same outward gesture such as the Mother taking Sri Aurobindo’s hand into hers, puts on an altogether different meaning, a spiritual meaning this time, unlike in the Hollywood style presentation of Heehs, which has dragged down an extraordinary spiritual relationship to the level of an ordinary one

Now Heehs has every right to select his material and refuse to bring up the deeper issues of life in the treatment of his subject. But then he has to take a public stand which will necessarily be unsympathetic to Sri Aurobindo. He has also to explain why he thinks these deeper aspects of life are not worth mentioning in his biography. He cannot simply hide behind the excuse that a historian has to record only external events, for if he had actually done that, he would not have passed so many easy judgments on one of the greatest figures of the twentieth century. In fact, the whole problem with Heehs is that of a historian going awry with value judgements, instead of sticking to the strict narration of facts, which, in this case, should be facts, both material and spiritual. For how can you write the biography of a spiritual man overlooking the inner events of his life? Heehs has thus deliberately neglected the spiritual context of the life of Sri Aurobindo, thus decontextualising him in the eyes of his admirers and disciples. It is not the Extracts that have decontextualised his book, but the book itself that has decontextualised Sri Aurobindo. His accusation that the Extracts have been mischievously compiled to denigrate his scholarly work can actually be turned back at him. It is he who has denigrated Sri Aurobindo by writing on him in such a one-sided way. In short, if the Extracts are a misrepresentation of Heehs’ scholarly work, then they are a misrepresentation of his misrepresentation of Sri Aurobindo. The only concession that can be made to his frustration as to how a few harmless extracts brought down the house of cards is that they could have been given a different title by the compiler. The word “extracts” generally suggests “good extracts” which are representative of the author’s work, which is not the case here. Therefore it should have been qualified by the word “objectionable” and the title changed to “Objectionable Extracts from The Lives of Sri Aurobindo by Peter Heehs”. If that offers any solace to him, then so be it, but no further regrets need be expressed about this compilation that has so thoroughly exposed him.

Part 2

I would like to present here one argument which Heehs and his supporters have never cared to consider, — the “argument against intellectual argument”. Any sadhak who has followed a spiritual path will accept that sadhana is best done when you base yourself on something higher or deeper than the mind. In fact, you try to quieten the mind in order to come into contact with this part of the being, which Sri Aurobindo called “the psychic being” or more loosely termed as “the soul”. We begin the Yoga by “a psychic call” and we try to bring forward the psychic being into the outer activities of our life. It is true that most disciples can hardly claim themselves to be guided by it, but most of them develop what I would call “a sacred space” within the deeper precincts of their heart, to which they refer in order to resolve the deeper issues of life. In fact, not only the disciples of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram but most Indians constantly refer to this deeper aspect of the being, and this is perhaps the greatest strength of our nation. Intellectual development has nothing to do with it, though it can play a very useful secondary role by giving reasons for what this inmost part of the being automatically knows or feels to be right or wrong.

Now the disciples who have been deeply pained by reading the Extracts have reacted spontaneously with this part of the being, though the anger and revulsion which have followed in its wake need not be taken as such. They have lost sleep the day they have read these passages, or have been terribly disturbed for a few days, and, in a few cases, have taken ill. For the information of Heehs and his supporters, some of them have not even read them and have merely heard about them from others, yet there was no dearth of emotional suffering caused to them. The Extracts have in fact hit the life of the common uneducated disciple harder than the more vocal intelligentsia, who have put up a mental defence and have countered them with logical arguments. But why, one could ask, such mindless anguish for something they have not even read? It is because Heehs has dared to break into that “sacred space” of their hearts and malign the one whom they adore and have surrendered their lives to – Sri Aurobindo. If this is supposed to be only emotion, so be it, but then I would call it “spiritual emotion”, and it is our bounden duty to respect it and not dismiss it as mere religious sentiment.

I may at this point remind Heehs and his supporters the reason for the very existence of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and why around 1500 disciples have dedicated their lives to it. Ask any new entrant to the Ashram and he will tell you at once that this is the place where he inwardly feels at ease, as opposed to the restless and egoistic life in the ordinary world. Sri Aurobindo’s force and ideals permeate the atmosphere in Pondicherry and he is happy to do any work that is assigned to him by the authorities, regardless of its nature. But why does he come here and not go anywhere else? It is because he has chosen Sri Aurobindo and the Mother as his Gurus. He need not, and generally does not, discuss the various arguments for and against his choice, though he may justify himself later with good reasons. He simply feels that this is the place he wants to spend the rest of his life and this is the Yoga he wants to follow. A certain unity is felt with the other disciples of the Ashram because they are also trying to fulfil the Yogic aim of the institution. Every disciple, be it sweeper or scholar, mechanic or manager, clerk or computer programmer, is thus linked with the life of the community he serves, whether he meets them daily or not. Any spiritual institution functions in this way. People join it voluntarily with great good will and gratitude for the founder of the institution who has shown them a spiritual path. If, after some time, they do not find the Yoga congenial to their nature, they voluntarily leave it and are encouraged to do so for their own good. Many have gone back to the ordinary life or to other Ashrams with other aims and ideals, where they have settled comfortably for the rest of their lives. But people generally do not criticise the founder and his Yoga, and yet expect to remain in the very institution that sustained them both materially and spiritually.

Is there any scope for questioning the views of the very founder of a spiritual institution? If you say “No” to this question, you could be branded as a religious fundamentalist. If you say “Yes”, you are destroying the very purpose for which the institution was formed. But it is essentially a practical question, which has more to do with the occupation of “limited physical space or territory in the real world” than of competing ideas in the abstract world of theories. In the intellectual world of universities, there is room for every kind of discussion, because at the end of the day, it makes hardly any difference to anybody’s life, especially to the inner life.[4] In the world of spirituality (and even in business or politics)[5], a definite choice has to be made between various alternatives offered to you, which makes all the difference. A community such as the Sri Aurobindo Ashram works on a common aim and a common way of life. Every member of the Ashram, from the most humble sweeper to the teacher of philosophy, is united in a common purpose, which is the practice and fulfilment of Sri Aurobindo’s Yoga. This does not mean there is no individual liberty, but the liberty is in the details of the practice, not in the essential principles of his Yoga. It would be therefore absurd for an inmate of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram to bring in, for example, Materialism or Freudian principles in the exposition of Sri Aurobindo and his Yoga. Freud and Materialism should be judged and evaluated in terms of Sri Aurobindo’s world-view, and not the reverse, at least, in his own Ashram. Sri Aurobindo cannot be judged from their point of view, which is essentially contrary to his spiritual philosophy. So when somebody trips in saying that Sri Aurobindo may have inherited a streak of madness from his mother and that perhaps his spiritual experiences could be hallucinations, it is a serious breach of collective discipline. Or when he says that bowing down before the Gurus (now in front of their Samadhi) is a theatrical ritual, it cuts the very ground under the disciple’s feet, and makes him stop the work he was so diligently doing. Neither can you simply laugh it off as a joke when the same person justifies his stand and wants to be taken seriously as an objective researcher. Intellectual research has and had always a secondary place in the Ashram. The primary stress has been on Yoga, mainly through work, though intellectuals, artists and poets formed part of the multitudinous life of the Ashram.

When Heehs went against the very grain of Ashram life by criticising and evaluating the Guru, very few members thought of evaluating his book like literary critics do. The primary concern was whether he had written anything against Sri Aurobindo in his own Ashram, whether there was anything inimical to the spiritual life of the Ashram, whether the book was spiritually beneficial to the new readers, and could it be prescribed to the children of the Ashram School without sending them the wrong message. The Extracts proved it with a thumping “No”! That is why they caught on, not only in the minds of the disciples of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, but even outside of it. For, after all, there are lakhs of devotees and admirers of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother living both in and outside Pondicherry, in India and abroad, who look towards the Ashram as the beacon of their lives. So there was a ripple effect of revulsion and anger spreading out from the Ashram as its epicentre, a kind of psychological tsunami which has been as rarely witnessed as the physical one in this part of the world.

But the strange thing about this phenomenon is that not many would have cared to protest had Heehs written the same book outside the Ashram. There have been far worse publications in the past on Sri Aurobindo, which showed no understanding whatsoever of his greatness. Sri Aurobindo has been called a coward because he “ran away” to Pondicherry at the height of the freedom struggle. His Yoga has been deemed impractical and his Ashram a total failure. His poetry has hardly been appreciated and literary critics have even desisted from reading the Savitri. These so-called authoritative opinions only show the dense ignorance of his critics, and most disciples and admirers of Sri Aurobindo are familiar with this attitude. They know that it needs a small psychic spark to bridge this gap of incomprehension, and it is only the Grace that grants initiation into the higher knowledge that Sri Aurobindo and the Mother represent. So they have never raised a rumpus over these publications, except in a few cases. But when somebody tries to question and evaluate Sri Aurobindo in his own Ashram, which until now has been so carefully preserved for the exclusive fulfilment of his ideals, and when that person even justifies his criticism in the name of objective interpretation, he is certainly asking for trouble. You surely cannot expect Sri Aurobindo’s disciples to take it lying down and be meek pacifists or nod their heads in intellectual agreement and discuss the finer points of his book. They will naturally say, “Look here, Mr Intellectual, the world is wide, there are plenty of materialists and hedonists out there, please join their blissful and argumentative company and fight each other till the end of time. But leave us alone, for God’s sake! Do not disturb this peaceful community which wants to dedicate its life to Sri Aurobindo’s ideals in the way Sri Aurobindo himself and the Mother (who was authorised by Sri Aurobindo) showed them, and not as interpreted by a few nutty scholars without an iota of spiritual experience. If you still insist on your own scholarly opinion, then you are free to start your own Ashram, where you can lay down the rules of your interpretation of Yoga. You will perhaps one day realise the damage you have done after a similar “Peter Heehs” under a different name raises his voice of dissent in your Ashram — assuming that it ever takes off. At that point of time, let us see if you still talk of competing interpretations and other world-views.”

Raman Reddy


[1] Lives of Sri Aurobindo by Peter Heehs, p 277

[2] Collected Works of Sri Aurobindo, Volume 12, Essays Divine and Human, pp 8-13

[3] Lives of Sri Aurobindo by Peter Heehs, p 277

[4] Even in universities and intellectual forums, there is always a struggle for superiority of one set of ideas over the other, and there is a tendency to capture the available media space by one group of like-minded thinkers over other groups in opposite camps. This ends up often in the whole university or forum gradually obtaining, say, a left-wing or right-wing slant in its intellectual activity. Free thinking mostly does not exist in practice, though everyone pays a good deal of homage to it in theory. The reason is that very few theories survive in practice and people hesitate to change their allegiance unless they are absolutely convinced. Great ideas which are worth following in life are generated by great men, who come once in a while in the life of a nation. Thus very few take seriously the ideas that are regularly churned out by academic scholars and intellectuals.

[5] The example of business or politics might be useful for those who are not familiar with life in spiritual communities. Is it possible for a manager of the Microsoft to publicly speak against the business strategy of Bill Gates? Generally differences, if any, are sorted out within closed doors and public statements are carefully drafted, so that the company does not send wrong signals to its shareholders. Prestige and business are at stake and the company can hardly afford to make any mistakes in this respect. In the world of Indian politics, can you imagine the Congress Home Minister criticising the President of his own party, or siding with the opposition leader? Institutional allegiance is an absolute necessity for the success of any practical work. All implementation, once the initial theorising is done, needs an unquestioning subordination for its success. Spirituality too is a very practical proposition once you get into the nitty-gritty of the practice of the sadhana propounded by the founder of the institution. The mind has to fall silent, the heart purified, the lower nature quietened, so that the being can concentrate on the Yoga you are practising. In the case of Sri Aurobindo’s Yoga, there is great freedom left to the disciple in how he works it out in life, but he never questions the very principle of the Yoga of transformation. Sri Aurobindo has laid down the supramental path of Yoga after an unprecedented spiritual effort, the kind that will not be repeated for a very long time to come. The disciple of the Ashram thus simply takes full advantage of it and tries to fulfil it in his life instead of mulling over the pros and cons of the Guru’s world-view with his ignorant mind.

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