11 Jun 2009

Are We Religious Fundamentalists? -- by Raman Reddy

The SCIY (Science, Culture and Integral Yoga) internet forum is so worried about religious fundamentalism gripping the Sri Aurobindo Ashram that it seems to have forgotten what religion means. Everyone in the forum shies away from this word as if it is the worst calamity that could ever happen to humanity in general and the Integral Yoga community in particular. One gets the impression that in their anxiety to avoid ritualism and fanaticism, they have thrown away the baby with the bathwater and replaced it with highfalutin intellectualism. Let me therefore first define what religion means before going further with my critique of this forum, which has been so insensitive to the feelings of the majority of the disciples of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. But, I suppose, we are committing a serious error by even calling ourselves “disciples of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother”!

Religion, as I have understood from the writings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, is not something fundamentally wrong, but a diminution of spirituality into mere belief and a set of rituals and practices. It has played a beneficent role in the life of the common man, explains Sri Aurobindo in the Life Divine, his magnum opus, though it has often blocked the human soul from further progress. It is also not necessarily un-spiritual, as most intellectuals consider it to be. In fact, these intellectuals generally replace spirituality with intellectuality, so enamoured are they with their own abstract mental formulations. Every religion has produced great spiritual seekers, though not all spiritual seekers come from existing religions. In fact, new spiritual leaders find new paths to the divine realisation in man, which eventually become new religions after the demise of their founders. In short, religion reflects man’s basic tendency to follow the form rather than the spirit of the new pathfinders. Man generally wants to clutch at existing formulations and that too in their outermost aspects, because of his sheer inability to find out for himself the corresponding truths in his own being. This does not mean that one should therefore flout all existing formulations as outdated truths in order to be free from them, but rather rise above them when one can, if one can, and when one is spiritually convinced of the necessity to do so. Otherwise, one can, as most of us lesser mortals do, use them, take help of the readily available wisdom and apply it successfully to our life, instead of trying to be over-smart and condemn past formulations on the mere basis of their belonging to the past! One needs therefore sufficient spiritual maturity and inner growth in order to go beyond religions, which are basically past formulations of inner life and spirituality expressed at a certain point of time, and which will remain valid until they have been overpassed by the general spiritual progress of humanity.

But how do we distinguish religion from spirituality? Let us take the practise of bowing down or folding one’s hands in front of the figure that one adores and contemplates upon. When the action is sincere and reflective of the spiritual truth within, it should not be considered religious; otherwise one will end up condemning all external expression of the spirit. Sri Aurobindo never said that external manifestation is contrary to the spirit within. [1] On the other hand, he encouraged it in the form of Pranam and Darshan during his own lifetime. An action becomes religious only when it becomes routine and mechanical and does not correspond to any deeper psychological truth. In other words, the more the spirit withdraws from the external form, the more religious the form becomes. Thus one has a whole range of truth, a spectrum of the spirit, so to say, starting from the free spontaneous expression of the spirit to the half mechanical routine which most disciples get into, to the totally senseless rituals that are followed out of sheer habit or fear of breaking the convention. The last should be broken by the enlightened intellect, the second and the various degrees of truth ending in the third, should be replaced either by a re-awakening to the half-lost spiritual truth within the existing form or by the discovery of a new truth. Most iconoclasts break the temple along with the spirit behind that built it. In rising above religion, one should therefore replace it by “a higher aspiration” as the Mother said, and not by mere intellectuality and disbelief in divinity. Spirituality is essentially a matter of experience and no amount of abstract thought can replace it.

I come now to the SCIY forum’s current accusation of religious fundamentalism overcoming the disciples of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. First of all, has not this religious card been overplayed, and played at the wrong time for the wrong reasons? This kind of anti-religious rhetoric could draw applause in the context of the Middle Ages – in India, we never had anything comparable to the persecution and inquisitions of the Middle Ages in the West, because there were always so many religions that Truth never became a monolithic monster. Freedom was given even to the Carvakas, the God-denying, pleasure loving materialists of those times, and nobody bothered them as long as they did not bother the others. Each Ashram had its own tradition, its own Guru, its customs and obligations, and if an inmate did not follow them, he was quietly told by the Mathadhipati [2] to pack up, go to another Ashram if he felt that path more congenial, or have a stint of the ordinary life before renewing his spiritual pursuit. It was as plain and simple as that!

It is true that over a period of time each Ashram became more and more rigid in its formulation and prescription of the spiritual path, and that is why Sri Aurobindo and the Mother have decried religion. That is why, in their own Ashram, they made the minimum number of outer rules and left each disciple free to follow the Yoga in his or her own way. The Yoga itself was broadly explained, in principles rather than in practical programmes. Collective meditations were there in the Ashram but never compulsory, even when the Mother was presiding them. Spiritual discourses were limited to such an extent that newcomers were often puzzled as to what they were supposed to inwardly practise, apart from the standard prescription of “Do the Mother’s work and she will do your sadhana.” The only thing insisted upon was work for the community, and here too, every worthwhile activity, ranging from washing dishes in the Dining Room to painting and writing poetry, was considered work. In fact, if anything has been followed with almost a religious fervour even though it was not imposed, I would say it is physical education, having myself grown up at the Ashram with an overdose of basketball, running and swimming, with the result that I suffer, like so many of my colleagues, from sports related injuries. Now which diehard secular fundamentalist would call these activities religious?

But I can already hear the protests of these “intellectual fundamentalists” of the SCIY, who recoil with disgust at the very mention of feeling and emotion: “What about the daily bowing down at the Samadhi? What about the sacred and special occasions which have been institutionalised in the Ashram – the Darshans and the Puja decorations of the Mother’s chair, and, yes, the march-pasts and the salute in front of the Mother’s symbol? Finally, what about the deification of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother into Avatars? ” Actually, most of what we do is replicated in secular institutions. Special days are also celebrated there to mark long-forgotten events, monuments are erected and collective gatherings take place in memory of the founders. In fact, our Ashram fares better than them, because there is total freedom here not to attend these special occasions, whereas you will be surely pulled up for non-attendance in the latter case for breaking protocol.

Secondly, this anti-religious diatribe would have been appreciated had Religion stood in the way of Science, as it did in the Middle Ages when the Inquisition persecuted Galileo. But this is no longer the case now. Sri Aurobindo has made spirituality as scientific as any secular science. Moreover, the limitations of science and rationality have become too obvious in modern times. We are no more trapped in “the science versus spirit” paradigm and are moving towards a greater synthesis of Spirit and Matter. Sri Aurobindo has provided this vast framework where everything has its due place. Faith in the Divine can go hand in hand with science and intellectuality – he even recommends this until the higher faculties can replace the mind. Avatarhood and worship of the Guru can co-exist with the freedom of the human individual. There is no essential contradiction between the Personal and the Impersonal Divine: for example, when the Overmental Consciousness descended in Sri Aurobindo on the Siddhi Day, he termed it the descent of Krishna. He had no qualms about declaring the Mother as the Avatar and instructing his disciples to submit themselves to her for spiritual growth and guidance. At the same time, in his public statements he spoke of the Divine Shakti as if it were an impersonal force. Now, in such a context, I wonder how one can be overly anxious to condemn religion. When Galileo said that the earth was not the centre of the universe and the high-priest of the Inquisition made him recant for his blasphemy, it was pretty clear on which side was the Truth! But here comes spirituality in a big way into modern life commanding our respect and attention, without denying the truth of Science and Matter. Truth has donned such a wide framework that it is impossible to condemn either religion or science!

When the Mother condemned religion, it was different. She urged us to go above it, and not below. Saying that Truth was always beyond mental formulas, she abhorred codifying Sri Aurobindo’s Yoga in intellectual terms and making a system out of it. Now what happens to lesser mortals that most of us are, when Sri Aurobindo and the Mother are no more on the earthly scene to constantly revivify the Truth that was manifesting through them? The natural tendency for us is to fall back on whatever they have said or done and try our best to apply it in our lives. Given our basic human limitations, we cannot hope to do any better, far from exceeding what our Gurus have achieved. As it is, the knowledge that Sri Aurobindo and the Mother have imparted in the realm of spirituality will keep us busy for the next thousand years, without any need for an upgraded version! If anybody thinks otherwise, let him prove it by his spiritual experience and growth rather than mental arguments. The attitude of these over-confident intellectuals on the SCIY forum is to question everything without realising that their very questioning is foolish, because there is no spiritual foundation to it. Has anybody there sufficient spiritual development to be able to question the fundamentals of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother’s Yoga? Has anybody found his or her psychic being or has some awareness of the various levels of consciousness above the mind that Sri Aurobindo has written about? Even admitting a legitimate need for questioning, is Yoga only a matter of debate and comparative study of spiritual disciplines without prior spiritual experience? And what is wrong with those who would rather confine themselves to what Sri Aurobindo has written and not give credence to the Freudian interpretations of a dishonest researcher? How do they suddenly become blood-thirsty fundamentalists?

Another point that the SCIY forum has raised is, “Why not allow dissent within the system? Sri Aurobindo and the Mother’s framework of Truth is wide enough to permit other views into it. All is a question of interpretation, so why limit ourselves only to a certain positive and hagiographic interpretation of Sri Aurobindo’s life and philosophy and not squarely face the objective truth as the academic world sees it? He himself was so much against mental rigidity and institutionalisation; we should not therefore commit the same error and trap ourselves in his own formulation of spirituality.” The argument sounds convincing but on a closer scrutiny reveals its inherent contradiction and underlying deceit. First of all, we are using Sri Aurobindo’s own words to destroy the Truth that he represents, like the devil quoting the scriptures, or more like a cheeky high school kid quoting the teacher’s words in order to cover up his own mischief. Secondly, if we contest the basic yogic values and principles as enunciated by Sri Aurobindo, where do we land ourselves? Let us take a simple example – the necessity of overcoming the lower nature in the Integral Yoga. Now we can take this as one theory among many others and end up justifying the lower nature, partly because of our inability to surrender ourselves to the Divine, which is the only way to overcome and transform it. Or we can simply and unquestioningly accept the yogic principle, as most of us do, having full faith in Sri Aurobindo and the Mother’s knowledge. If we fail or advance with great difficulty, as it mostly happens, we don’t start doubting the principle itself. In fact, the more we silence the mind, the easier it becomes for the higher force to descend in us and do the needful. In other words, Truth is tested out practically and not theoretically, and it is long practise and experience that eventually vindicates it. In the above-mentioned case, you run the risk of rejecting Sri Aurobindo even before giving him a fair and full trial.

I come now to the issue of locus standi in the Heehs affair, which has been obfuscated from the very beginning by his supporters. Peter Heehs was one of the chief editors of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives, which is the repository of the most precious manuscripts that Sri Aurobindo and the Mother have left for posterity. He took advantage of his position not only to flout the primary spiritual rule of not denigrating the Guru in his own Ashram, but went against the basic norms of institutional allegiance. No institution, whether secular or spiritual, would have allowed such a breach of trust! The mobilisation of public opinion that happened at the Ashram was genuine, for 95% of the disciples found the Lives of Sri Aurobindo highly objectionable, to the extent that some of them even wanted to close down the Archives. The authorities of the Ashram kept silent out of sheer catholicity and not because they appreciated the book. The best proof of it is that it is still not up for sale on the shelves of the Ashram bookstore. But the fact that most disciples would not have cared to object had the book been written by an outsider, has been deliberately overlooked by Heehs’ defendants, because that itself is sufficient proof against their accusation of “religious fundamentalism” in the Ashram. For how can objecting to a serious violation of the basic discipline of the Ashram by an inmate be termed religious bigotry? What thus happened was not a “rise of fundamentalist forces”, as is so glibly pronounced by these ruffled spokesmen of Heehs, but a spontaneous public outcry, the scale of which the Ashram has never witnessed.

The next point that I want to mention is the utter lack of good public relations by Heehs’ defendants. Instead of trying to understand why so many Ashramites have been deeply hurt, they (most prominently Richard Hartz who writes under the pseudonym of Angiras) put the blame on the distressed disciples instead of the guilty writer! When the disciples became angry after reading the Extracts, [3] Hartz immediately accused them of fundamentalism, one of the worst accusations you can make nowadays, because the very word conjures up visions of blood-thirsty crowds out to kill a non-believer. Now for many people who live in the West and who have never had any experience of life in spiritual communities, this bait worked, as we see from the responses of more and more Westerners, especially from the U.S.A. Then, as if to thrust the dagger deep into the festering wound, he concluded that Indians do not have good English reading skills, because of which they have misunderstood Heehs. All this, mind you, he says after enjoying for more than thirty years the hospitality of the Ashram, where there is no dearth of English speaking disciples. I surely expected him to have a better assessment of his own fellow members. Even assuming them to be dumb asses (which they are certainly not!), he should have tried to put his point across a little more gently to his fellow Ashramites, and prevail by good sense rather than by the virulent criticism of those who were brave and articulate enough to openly criticise Heehs!

As for the politics behind this whole affair, it is probably for the first time in the Ashram that the “intelligent Westerner versus the stupid Indian devotee” card has been so successfully used. In India, we are so familiar with politicians playing such cards in order to catch votes that we immediately see through the game and wait for truth and common sense to prevail. I hope those Westerners, whose national or racial sense has been whipped up, will one day realise this in the same way as we do. For the overall message that is conveyed through all this furious defence and counterattack by the SCIY forum is: (1) No disciplinary action should be taken against “a white scholar” no matter what he does. (2) Westerners, because they come from a different cultural background, need not bother about the sensibilities of the less-cultured “natives”. Now, this attitude is reminiscent of the colonial days and the British Raj rather than reflective of the mind of a globalised spiritual community. In fact, I suspect that part of the fury of Heehs’ friends is due to the fact that they have found themselves on the losers’ side of globalisation. Instead of gracefully accepting that their colleague was in the wrong and letting him face the consequences of his actions without thinking in terms of colour or race, they had to make so much noise to cover up his arrogant mistakes. The matter was after all individual and never racial; the objections were to Heehs’ scholarship in particular and not to Western culture in general.

Finally, if there is one area where Indians need not learn from the West (barring a few exceptions), it is spirituality. Just as the West has a significant advantage over present day India in the field of material organisation, so also India has the undeniable superiority of an age-old spiritual tradition, which has percolated down to every man on the street. This ethos is sadly missing in the West, even among those who are well-acquainted with Sri Aurobindo’s books and deliver lectures on them, which explains their lack of sensibility to the obvious defects of the book. An Indian disciple of Sri Aurobindo will generally read and judge the book in the context of its spiritual implications, which are far more important to him than the mere literary value of it. For example, the Guru is a representative of the Divine in India and becomes a means and channel for you to come in contact with the Divine Force. So once you accept him, not only tradition but the fundamental dynamics of the relationship itself demands that you don’t criticise him with impunity. A Westerner, who is not familiar with this tradition, will hardly react when you tell him that Heehs should be censured for denigrating his Guru.

Another example of this difference of reaction is with regard to Heehs’ shoddy portrayal of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother’s relationship. Now many Westerners think that there is nothing objectionable in showing a romantic relation between them, because even if you accept Sri Aurobindo and the Mother as divine personalities, you can expect a human side of the Divine. So why make such a big fuss about the human side when most of us have not exceeded that level of relationship in our own lives. An Indian disciple would not even dream of this suggestion, because his life is so linked with the daily reality of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother’s Force that the slightest tinge of doubt in this matter would make him extremely uncomfortable. Heehs not only goes against this basic spiritual sense but also dishonestly misrepresents the relationship as romantic. I say, dishonestly, because both Sri Aurobindo and the Mother had gone far beyond this human level of relationship when they met for the first time in 1914. Sri Aurobindo had left Mrinalini, his wife, and the Mother had already divorced Morisset, her first husband. Her marriage with Paul Richard was, as we all know, a marriage de convenance. The deeper reason that lay behind the marriage, she explains in the Agenda, was her endeavour to transform the Lord of the Nations, whose emanation was no other than Paul Richard himself. When the Mother came to Pondicherry for the second time in 1920 (the period which Heehs describes in his book on pages 326-327), there was no question of any romantic relationship with Sri Aurobindo. On the contrary, they came together for the stupendous work of the supramental transformation. The descent of the Overmind that followed within a few years of her second coming and the establishment of the Ashram are more than ample proof of this joint endeavour. Moreover, Heehs depends on tertiary documents to perpetrate his damage. He relies on what A.B. Purani had noted down of what Nolini Kanto Gupta told him – A.B. Purani himself was not present in Sri Aurobindo’s house during this period. The final picture that emerges is therefore twice decontextualised, first by A.B. Purani in recounting what Nolini Kanto Gupta told him, and further by Heehs with a multiplying effect in his book. We should also remember that both Nolini Kanto Gupta and A.B. Purani did not care to mention this juicy gossip in their own books. [4]

Among the other passages which an Indian psyche would look askance at is the casual way in which Heehs has dismissed Darshans as “theatrical” ceremonies.[5] Now this shows his utter insensitivity with regard to what thousands of people have felt inwardly at the physical touch of their Gurus. If he himself never had this deeply edifying experience, he should have at least kept silent instead of making fun of it. I wonder what kind of thick skin (or hide) makes him write in this way after staying in that very Ashram for the best part of his life! I hope his supporters will soon realise that they are defending a person whose behaviour they should be ashamed of and make the necessary amends to those who have been deeply offended by his book.

I end with a final note of clarification in case my defence of the stand taken by most Indian disciples is termed racist, and worse, misconstrued as hatred of Western culture. Most of us have grown here with plenty of Western culture in our college days, when we soaked ourselves in Western literature, admired its frankness and liberality, and even enjoyed its pop music. English and French being the mediums of instruction, many of us are actually weak in our regional languages. It is only of late that we have been exposed to the bad side of it and abruptly realised that we cannot take everything lying down! But I suppose this too is a necessary process of globalisation when you grow through confrontation than meekly accept the assumed superiority of the Western culture. According to the Mother, the best of every nation should emerge victorious in the spiritual synthesis of the future. God forbid, if, under the garb of freedom of speech, it is the victory of the worst of every nation! One such wrong combination would be a weakened Indian spirituality bending down to unbridled Western hedonism and materialism. I would of course hope for the reverse to happen – a strong Indian nation integrating the best of Western culture without losing its spiritual core. I am sure everybody, both Westerners and Easterners, will benefit by it.

Raman Reddy

[1] An interesting anecdote comes to mind about an orangutan which spontaneously folded its hands as soon as it saw the Mother. See The Mother’s Agenda, Volume 8, Conversation of 13 May, 1967.

[2] Head of the Ashram or Math.

[3] The Extracts were selected passages from The Lives of Sri Aurobindo which were found to be highly objectionable by the disciples of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. Heehs tried to vainly defend himself by saying that they were decontextualised in their presentation. For more on this topic, read my article In Defence of the Extracts published on this website.

[4] For more information on this topic, read my review of The Lives of Sri Aurobindo published on this same website. In fact, much more additional documentation can be provided on this topic, which most disciples are familiar with.

[5] The Lives of Sri Aurobindo by Peter Heehs, pp 399-400

[Originally posted at 5/31/2009 03:10:00 PM]

1 comment:

  1. Excellent exposition and defense. That our writing skills are improving is one welcome aspect of the Heehs imbroglio. [TNM]