2 Jul 2009

On Misinterpreting the Adesh -- by Raman Reddy

I would like to add a few points to Amal Kiran’s brilliant article in the Mother India issue of May 1988 on Peter Heehs’ misinterpretation of Sri Aurobindo’s Adesh, published in the Archives & Research issues of April 1985 and December 1987. The following were the main points of Heehs’ argument:

(1) Sri Aurobindo met in Calcutta on 20, July 1909, one Parthasarathy Iyengar belonging to the India group of revolutionaries in Pondicherry. Parthasarathy told Sri Aurobindo about the advantages of the French India territory, where one could be free from harassment by the British police.

(2) When Sri Aurobindo sent Moni (Suresh Chakravarty) to make arrangements for his stay in Pondicherry, he sent him with a letter addressed to Parthasarathy, which means that he remembered the Pondicherry contact when he decided to go there from Chandernagore.

(3) Sri Aurobindo came to Pondicherry “in obedience to a divine command” (Adesh), but “by speaking to Sri Aurobindo about Pondicherry, Parthasarathy may have played an instrumental role in his coming”.

(4) Heehs quotes from a letter of Sri Aurobindo written in 1936, “The Force does not act in a void and in an absolute way.... It comes as a Force intervening and acting on a complex nexus of Forces that were in action and displacing their disposition and interrelated movement and natural result by a new disposition, movement and result.” It is plausible that an Adesh similarly operates within the same complex nexus of forces. Applying this to the particular case in point, it is plausible that “the Adesh that directed Sri Aurobindo to go to Pondicherry operated within a nexus of forces that included the attempts of the British to have him arrested, and the recently established contact between him and the revolutionaries of Pondicherry”. Conclusion: “I have no difficulty accepting that Sri Aurobindo came to Pondicherry as the result of an Adesh, and at the same time accepting that there were political factors behind his departure.”

This apparently harmless conclusion not only belittles the divine nature of the Adesh Sri Aurobindo received, but lends support to the false rumour that he escaped to Pondicherry fearing a second arrest by the British police. First of all, it is a self-contradiction to accept that Sri Aurobindo came to Pondicherry in obedience to the Adesh and, at the same time, say that there were political factors behind his departure. Sri Aurobindo’s decision to go to Pondicherry was determined by the Adesh in the context of an adverse political situation, but the decision itself was not due to political factors. Sri Aurobindo himself said he did not question the Adesh when he received it – he simply obeyed it, which means he would have obeyed whatever the Divine commanded him to do. There were several courses open to him at that point of time. He could have bravely faced the prospect of another trial and possible conviction had the Adesh ordered him to do so, or he could have simply gone underground in Calcutta, or perhaps even made arrangements to go abroad. The fact that he suddenly went to Chandernagore at the dead of night and sought refuge from Charu Chandra Roy, who, in fact, refused to help him because of his fear of the British police, and the further event of Motilal Roy (whom Sri Aurobindo never knew) giving him shelter in his own house, shows the unplanned nature of Sri Aurobindo’s action. It hardly demonstrates a well-thought out plan to counteract adverse political factors!

Coming now to Parthasarathy’s “instrumental role”, Sri Aurobindo’s intention to come to Pondicherry was determined by the Adesh and not by the information provided six months ago by the former that the French town was a safe haven for revolutionaries. Surely, Parthasarathy was only one of the several contacts that Sri Aurobindo had, residing in different parts of British and French India and even perhaps abroad. As a matter of fact, when Sri Aurobindo received the first Adesh to go to Chandernagore, he tried to use one such contact, Charu Chandra Roy, whom we have already mentioned above. To therefore say or even remotely suggest that Parthasarathy made Sri Aurobindo come to Pondicherry is as absurd as for a resident of Pondicherry to say, “I went to Chennai (formerly Madras) because there is a bus going there at 9 o’clock in the morning.” The decision to go to Chennai is obviously taken before you choose the means of transport. Applying the same logic here, Sri Aurobindo remembered the contact in Pondicherry when he received the Adesh to go there. He did not go to Pondicherry because he had a contact there. One can concede then only a secondary “instrumental role” to Parthasarathy – that of being simply a helpful contact and definitely not an equally determinant role, on par with the Adesh, as Heehs presents it.

Moreover, Sri Aurobindo received two distinct divine commands from within. The first Adesh in Calcutta directed him to go to Chandernagore, where, after a month, he received the second Adesh to go to Pondicherry. Assuming for the sake of argument the possibility of the Adesh working in tandem with what normally anyone else in Sri Aurobindo’s place would have done only for political reasons, how do we explain the first impromptu decision to go to Chandernagore? And what about the second and final decision to go to Pondicherry with all the bungling that happened in the execution? [1] If the Adesh provided only a final seal of authority on the number of political considerations which might have prompted him to escape to Pondicherry, was the Chandernagore interlude necessary or was it a mistake? And who committed the mistake, was it the Divine behind the Adesh, or was it a case of mistaken judgment of political factors? Surely, the intelligent consideration of only political factors would have taken Sri Aurobindo directly to Pondicherry, instead of risking the sudden and unplanned flight to Chandernagore. The Adesh, in fact, put Sri Aurobindo in trouble rather than ensured a smooth flight to Pondicherry. How many times he had to change houses in Chandernagore and there were so many problems on the final day of his departure from Calcutta, not to mention Charu Chandra Roy’s refusal to give him refuge at the very outset. We actually see the Divine Grace intervening at every point and bailing out Sri Aurobindo from difficulties, which may not have happened had there been cool rational planning and advance thinking.

Most important of all, the Adesh that Sri Aurobindo received did not have anything to do with politics. As a matter of fact, it distanced him from politics and gave him the necessary freedom to pursue the greater aim of the supramental yoga, which, we can now say in retrospect, was certainly more important than the liberation of India. Therefore, to say that the Adesh and political considerations can merrily go together is to indulge in a contradiction, which distorts the truth of the matter and gives additional fodder to the already existing misunderstanding that Sri Aurobindo fled from the revolutionary scene out of fear of a second arrest by the British police. Incidentally, this kind of misrepresentation is a regular feature of Heehs’ research and I can give a number of similar instances from his articles in the Archives & Research magazine,[2] leave alone the present biography which literally thrives on it.

How does Heehs present the same event in The Lives of Sri Aurobindo? I quote below the relevant portion:

“Years later Aurobindo explained that when he heard Ramchandra's warning, he went within and heard a voice—an adesh—that said "Go to Chandernagore." He obeyed it without reflection. Had he given it any thought, however, he would have found good reasons to comply. Chandernagore was a French possession, one of five scattered enclaves that made up the French settlements in India. Outside the jurisdiction of the British police, it had become an important center of nationalist activity. For a man with a British warrant against him, it was the best place near Calcutta to go. The adesh also came at an opportune moment. Aurobindo had written ten days earlier that he would "refrain from farther political action" until a "more settled state of things supervenes"—something that was unlikely to happen very soon. This period of political paralysis coincided with his own wish to retire from politics and spend more time practicing yoga. In December, he had looked into the possibility of buying land outside Calcutta to found a spiritual ashram.

Nothing came of this idea, but his urge to leave politics remained. It was only his awareness that his party depended on him that kept him in the field. But the return of Shyamsundar and the other deportees meant that the movement would not be leaderless if he left: In addition, the arrival of his uncle Krishna Kumar Mitra meant that his last family duty—looking after his aunt and her children—had come to an end.

This is not to suggest that he thought all this through when he decided to leave Calcutta. By his own account, his "habit in action was not to devise beforehand and plan but to keep a fixed purpose, watch events, prepare forces and act when he felt it to be the right moment." The moment for his departure had come. As he sailed up the Hooghly in his little wooden boat, he probably was not looking further ahead than the next few days.”

The first thing you notice is that he has abandoned the Parthasarathy connection in favour of a number of secondary reasons he has dug out from dusty archival records to belittle the divine nature of the Adesh. Mark the words, “Had he given it any thought, however, he would have found good reasons to comply”, the import of which very few will catch on their first reading. There is in the sentence a clear taunt aimed at Sri Aurobindo for not having used his mind instead of obeying unquestioningly the Adesh, as if to say, “Why did he have to give the excuse of an Adesh (which we historians of external events don’t understand) instead of simply saying that there were anyway very good reasons to do what the Adesh dictated inwardly!”

Note that he has also brought up as additional evidence a few internal reasons that could have also played a role in the event: (1) Sri Aurobindo’s wish to retire from politics; (2) the return of Shyamsunder which ensured the movement would not be left leaderless, and (3) the arrival of Krishna Kumar Mitra, which meant that his last family duty of looking after his aunt and her children had come to an end. But are these various factors compatible with each other? For example, the intention of buying land in Calcutta for an Ashram hardly goes well with political factors forcing him to flee from the same city. Yes, one could argue that it evinced his desire to practise Yoga, but then, he could have done his Yoga in Calcutta as well, by publicly declaring his retirement from politics, which the British Govt would have been so happy to hear.

Next, the phrase “last family duty” with reference to his aunt and her children implies that the other family duties had already been taken care of, which was certainly not the case. What about his own wife he left behind and whom he loved deeply? He could have arranged for her flight too had he known about his departure. And what about his mother to whom he used to send money? In fact, his act could be misinterpreted as neglectful of his family duties rather than fulfilling them. For the Adesh seemed to have caught him totally off guard without giving him any time to make the necessary arrangements for his family members, and it was certainly not with the profound satisfaction of having fulfilled all his family duties that he left Calcutta.

Lastly, to say that the return of Shyamsundar and other deportees gave Sri Aurobindo freedom to leave the revolutionary scene implies that he would have waited for them had they not returned. Was the escape so pre-planned and well-timed that it happened only after their return? Or it just happened that way like so many things in life over which we have no control? Moreover, if Sri Aurobindo had been so concerned about the nationalist movement, why did he at all leave it? In fact, the loss of a leader of Sri Aurobindo’s stature was never really compensated by any other statesman and the first wave of the nationalist movement subsided soon after he left for Pondicherry.

But does not Heehs exonerate himself at the end of the quoted passage by saying,

This is not to suggest that he [Sri Aurobindo] thought all this through when he decided to leave Calcutta. By his own account, his ‘habit in action was not to devise beforehand’.

But then, why state precisely those reasons which could suggest that Sri Aurobindo indeed “thought all this through when he decided to leave Calcutta” instead of being impelled by the Adesh from within? Why mention all this historical data which is dismissed in the concluding paragraph? The presentation of historical data is necessarily interpretative, unless one is ready to state the most contradictory data like an Archives curator, who is least bothered about their cogent presentation. But, I suppose, Heehs is basically an archivist with scholarly pretensions. He has collected a lot of data over the years, including plenty of second-hand negative evidence, without really knowing how to use it in the proper manner. That is why his presentation of Sri Aurobindo’s departure from Calcutta is indeed negative in spite of the few good words at the end, as if he were patting Sri Aurobindo on his back and saying, “Look, I believe what you say, but don’t make such a big fuss about your Adesh!” This is “brand Heehs”, consistently repeated throughout his book, born from that infamous “critical theory” – deliver a few hard punches in the beginning and end with a patronising pat on the back, so that the most hardened opponent condescends into uttering a few words of praise.

Lastly, how does it all reflect on the author, for the book indicates more his personality than that of his subject? As somebody put it so aptly, one can see in it a constant inner tussle between his admiration and sarcasm for Sri Aurobindo, which has resulted in a state of confusion and indecision with regard to his final assessment. One can admit that he has some respect for the Master as evinced by the oft-repeated strategy of setting the record straight after the damage he perpetrates, but he performs this act with a deep-seated grudge. Though this attitude partly stems from his adverse reaction to the over enthusiastic disciple gushing with superlatives, it is also due to the superhuman greatness of Sri Aurobindo himself. When he cannot measure up to the greatness of the Master, he attempts to downgrade him in order to make him acceptable to his puny mind. It is like someone standing at the foothills of the Himalayas and crying out in disgust that the mountain ranges cannot rise higher than those which are visible to him, because he cannot mount further. It would have been so much better had he, with a little humility and faith in his guide, given the benefit of doubt to the existence of the invisible heights rather than what he can only see with his limited vision. For, lending credence and scope to what is beyond oneself can certainly be part of good writing, especially in spiritual matters. So also admiration of the truly great can be measured and yet convincing without having to go overboard into hagiography. I wish the author had explored more this line of approach than the one he has unfortunately chosen.

Raman Reddy


[1] Read "Documents in the Life of Sri Aurobindo", Archives & Research, April 1985, pp 81-108.

[2] Read Jugal Kishore Mukherji’s two letters to the Trustees in 1986 & 1987 in which he has exposed these contradictions of Heehs. Both the letters have been posted on this site.

[Originally posted: 6/28/2009 04:30:00 PM]


  1. A comment from anon sent to me for posting:


    On Page 226 first paragraph, Sri Aurobindo describes to Bharati and Srinivasacharya how he arrived at his decision to break away from politics and come to Pondicherry under Divine Guidance. "speaking with Bharati and Srinivasacharya about his vision of a divine life, he added that when he had divine illumination he found within himself ...."

    Our historian immediately distorts the presentation by adding Srinivasacharya's view that Sri Aurobindo made this decision influenced by two individuals, Paul Richard and Rangaswami Iyengar, who were offering help. "A rationalist, Srinivasacharya noted certain circumstances that might have helped Aurobindo arrive at his decision (to quit politics and move to Pondicherry)... meeting with Richard...Iyengar's interest in Aurobindo".

  2. I checked out this reference. The paragraph does not refer to Sri Aurobindo's departure from Calcutta to Pondicherry (via Chandernagore), but to his decision to continue to stay in Pondicherry for "the divine work" after going there. Still the twist is discernible in the author's mentioning (through Srinivasachari -- he has to always do that through somebody) of external factors being responsible for Sri Aurobindo's decision to stay on instead of the yogic purpose impelling him from within.

  3. Thanks to Raman Reddy for setting matters right.
    Truth is known through consciousness -not through intellect. Quite elementary -not sufficently known to intellectuals!!!!!!!!!!!!