9 Jul 2009

Comments on the Preface -- by Varuna Mitra

The Preface is full of personal opinions and sets the tone for the rest of the book.

I FIRST ENCOUNTERED Aurobindo in 1968 in a yoga center on 57th Street in Manhattan. The teacher was an elderly Polish Jew with a suitably Indian name. He gave instructions in postures and breathing for a fee, dietary and moral advice gratis. Between lessons, he told stories about his years of wandering in India. Among the artifacts he brought back were photographs of people he called "realized beings," which covered the walls of his studio. One of them was of Aurobindo as an old man. I did not find it particularly remarkable, as the subject wore neither loincloth nor turban, and had no simulated halo around his head.

A few months later, after a brief return to college and a stopover in a wild uptown "ashram," I found myself living in another yoga center housed, improbably, in a building on Central Park West. Here there were just three pictures on the wall, one of them the standard portrait of Aurobindo (figure i). I was struck by the peaceful expanse of his brow, his trouble-free face, and fathomless eyes. It would be years before I learned that all of these features owed their distinctiveness to the retoucher's art.

Nasty and unwarranted comment upon the photograph. It means that the distinctive features such as the peaceful expanse of Sri Aurobindo's brow, trouble free face and fathomless eyes are due to the retoucher’s art. Incidentally, this photograph is kept in many people’s rooms as a symbol of divinity and a source of strength for them.
The center had the most complete collection of Aurobindo's writings in New York. I started with a compilation of his philosophical works, which I could not understand. Undeterred, I tried some of his shorter writings, which seemed to make a lot of sense to me. By then I had read a number of books by "realized beings" of the East and West. Most of them consisted of what I now would call spiritual cliches. This is not to suggest that bits of advice like "remain calm in all circumstances" or "seek the truth beneath the surface" are not valid or useful. But if they do not form part of a coherent view of life, they remain empty verbiage.

“Words of realised beings mostly consist of spiritual clichés … empty verbiage” is dismissive right from the start about what realised beings say.

Most of the documents I found in public archives dealt with Aurobindo's life as a politician. They confirmed that he had been an important figure in the Struggle for Freedom, but fell short of proving what his followers believed: that he was the major cause of its success. Nevertheless, his contribution was significant and, at the time, not very well known. Accounts that had been written to correct this deficiency were so uncritical that they undermined their own inflated claims.
Hurting sentiments through unconfirmed statements claiming that the devotees' claims are inflated.
The most remarkable discovery was a diary he had kept for more than nine years, in which he noted the day-to-day events of his inner and outer life. Most biographies of Aurobindo have made his sadhana, or practice of yoga, seem like a series of miracles. His diary made it clear that he had to work hard to achieve the states of consciousness that are the basis of his yoga and philosophy.

Adverse comment on other biographers thereby promoting himself while belittling others. Sowing seeds of doubts in people’s minds about any miraculous statements that may be alluded to Sri Aurobindo. Creating doubts about his divinity. Casting aspersions on Sri Aurobindo’s own statements.

Miracle or not, this statement is factually inaccurate and contradicts some of Sri Aurobindo’s own statements. For example, some of the major experiences of Sri Aurobindo came spontaneously and one may say quite effortlessly (miraculously). These include, among others, major experiences such as the sense of a vastness and calm on touching the Indian soil, the sense of the infinite while walking on the ridge of Solomon in Kashmir, the vision of the Godhead while on a carriage, the presence of the World Mother while gazing at the image of Kali, and of course Nirvana in three, actually one day, and finally the vision of the One Divine everywhere. These are not ordinary achievements. The diary he is referring to was much later, from 1912, when Sri Aurobindo’s personal realisations of the traditional paths were already over and he had started working on the earth nature for its transformation. It is then that the process slowed down, as he had to tackle the difficulties of universal nature one by one and take them to their ultimate perfection, a task that was never attempted before. But PH’s statement makes it appear as if the disciples were exaggerating his achievements and everything came with great difficulty and hard labour for him. Cited below for reference:
‘Now to reach Nirvana was the first radical result of my own yoga (this was in 1907). It threw me suddenly into a condition above and without thought, unstained by any mental or vital movement; there was no ego, no real world- …There was no One or many even…only just absolutely That, featureless, relationless, …yet supremely real and solely real. This was no mental realisation…I lived in that Nirvana day and night…it was the spirit that saw objects…and the Peace, the Silence, the freedom in Infinity remained always, with the world or all worlds only as a continuous incident in the timeless eternity of the Divine. …Nirvana in my liberated consciousness turned out to be the beginning…a first step…It came unasked, unsought for, though quite welcome…without even a “May I come in”…’ (SABCL : LOY Pages 49-50}

By making the above statement, PH is not only casting aspertions on the honesty of the disciples but also on Sri Aurobindo himself!
The genre of hagiography, in the original sense of the term, is very much alive in India. Any saint with a following is the subject of one or more books that tell the inspiring story of his or her birth, growth, mission, and passage to the eternal. Biographies of literary and political figures do not differ much from this model. People take the received version of their heroes' lives very seriously. A statement about a politician or poet that rubs people the wrong way will be turned into a political or legal issue, or possibly cause a riot. The problem is not whether the disputed statement is true, but whether anyone has the right to question an account that flatters a group identity.

Casting aspersions on Indians as hagiographers as if all the biographies of saints are hagiographies. This also falsifies the position of many previous biographies of other heroes. Too sweeping a statement giving the impression that Indians are untrue and flatter their group identity at all costs. It clearly shows that the author was completely aware as to what he was doing and its possible consequences. He is simultaneously building a defence for himself as an exponent of truth that is not flattering, though hidden beneath this concern for truth is merely an overcritical attitude.
Aurobindo has been better served by his biographers than most of his contemporaries have. But when I began to write articles about his life, I found that there were limits to what his admirers wanted to hear. Anything that cast doubt on something that he said was taboo, even if his statement was based on incomplete knowledge of the facts. Almost as bad was anything that challenged an established interpretation, even one that clearly was inadequate.

Casting aspersions on previous biographers and doubting their honesty. Casting aspersions on the admirers. Again the author is almost finding an excuse to be critical. The fact is that whenever Peter has tried to give alternate explanations, he has shown how his alternate explanations were wrong and how he has been twisting the data to fit into his doctrine.


Bogey of an example used to commit mental disfigurement and hurt sentiments again, as these photographs are associated in people’s minds with the sense of divinity.
Figure I. Aurobindo, circa 1915-16 (the "standard portrait").

Figure 2 is a photograph of Aurobindo that was taken around the same time as figure 1. Note the dark, pockmarked skin, sharp features, and undreamy eyes.

Indicates a kind of perversity in taking pleasure in vilifying beauty.
I sometimes wonder why people like figure 1. …The sparkling eyes have been painted in; even the hair has been given a gloss. As a historical document it is false. … It is the task of the retoucher to make the photograph accord with the reality that people want to see.

How does he know this? First of all, he is comparing two different photographs. This is an unfair comparison, scientifically incorrect. If he is so particular about it, he should have compared the original untouched with the same photograph touched up. If not, this comparison was unnecessary given the fact that during those days photography did not reproduce the image so well and retouching was quite necessary to bring some resemblance to the original. Moreover, the shine of the eyes can differ even from day to day. So how does he assert that the eyes have been retouched and therefore it is a false document?

Hagiographers deal with documents the way that retouchers deal with photographs. Biographers must take their documents as they find them. They have to examine all sorts of materials, paying as much attention to what is written by the subject's enemies as by his friends, not giving special treatment even to the subject's own version of events. Accounts by the subject have exceptional value, but they need to be compared against other narrative accounts and, more important, against documents that do not reflect a particular point of view.

Justifying his actions by making false statements. The fact is that he has neither indicated who was the enemy whose statement he has taken and who was a friend. In fact there are plenty of personal opinions and often unwarranted and illogical, unsupported by any document. The claim of objectivity is false and is used only as a cover to justify his own hostile intentions. We shall see that later in abundance.
…But what about mystical experiences? In trying to trace the lines of Aurobindo's sadhana, a biographer can use the subject's diaries, letters, and retrospective accounts. There are also, for comparison, accounts by others of similar mystical experiences. But in the end, such experiences remain subjective. Perhaps they are only hallucinations or signs of psychotic breakdown. Even if not, do they have any value to anyone but the subject?

Belittling mystic experiences. Shows his leanings even before he has started writing the biography.

Special thanks to the late Jayantilal Parekh of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives and to Michael Murphy of the Esalen Institute.
Thanks to Ashok Acharya, Rukun Advani, Duncan Bazemore, Francis Bertaud, Anuradha Bhattacharya, Liviu Bordas, Ratan Lai Chakraborty, AK. Dutta, PL. Dutta, Leela Gandhi, Aloka Ghosh, Ela Ghosh, Medha Gunay, Leslie Kriesel, Jeffrey Kripal, Marcel Kvassay, Julian Lines, Wendy Lines, Wendy Lochner, Raphael Malangin, Alka Mishra, Arup Mitra, the late Joya Mitter, Janine Morisset, Ajit Neogy, Neela Patel, Ramesh Patel, Madhumita Patnaik, Shanti Pillai, Olivier Pironneau, Stephen Phillips, Jacques Pouchepadass, Raman Reddy, Lalita Roy, Niharendu Roy, the late Ratnalekha Roy, Dhir Sarangi, the late Ambapremi Shah, Maurice Shukla, Brian Slattery, Chaitanya Swain, and Bob Zwicker.

Thanks also to the librarians, archivists, and staff of the Archives Nation-ales, Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Baroda Record Office, India Office Library and Records, Institut Français de Pondichéry, National Archives of India, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives, Sri Aurobindo Library, West Bengal State Archives, and the other institutions listed in the bibliography; and to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry; Sri Aurobindo Ashram Branch, New Delhi; Sri Aurobindo Bhavan, Kolkata; Sri Aurobindo Institute of Culture, Kolkata; and Sri Aurobindo Society, Vadodara.

Apologies to any individual or institution whose name I have inadvertently omitted from the above lists.

No Comments. Read the highlighted names and draw your own conclusions.

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