27 Jul 2009

Dr Sachidananda Mohanty's letter to the Trustees


Dr. Sachidananda Mohanty
Professor and Head
17 September 2008

The Trustees of Sri Aurobindo Ashram
Pondicherry 605 002

Sub: Peter Heehs’ book: The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, Columbia
University Press, 2008.

Dear Sirs:

I do not quite know in what capacity I am writing this letter. Technically, I am an “outsider”, but ideologically and spiritually, I consider myself a member of the larger Ashram community. I had the good fortune to be admitted by the Mother into the SAICE, and my career there spanned from 1966-1975. Currently, I am the Professor and Head, at the Hyderabad Central University. As some one who sees his life deeply connected with the upbringing he received at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, allow me to share my thoughts regarding the sense of dismay many have felt following the publication of the above mentioned biography by Peter Heehs. Perhaps as an academician, my comments may be germane to the discussion at hand.

I shall divide my response to the present issue into three parts. I shall avoid what other correspondents have already said in their letters to the trustees. In Section I, I shall respond briefly to the academic side of the question since this seems to constitute the main line of defense of Peter Heehs , and his apologists. In Section II, I shall suggest some correctives to the impasse, and finally, I shall offer some reflections for the future well being of our community. I believe the last is a collective responsibility.

Section I

I am aware of Peter Heehs’ work in Sri Aurobindo: Archives and Research. I have read his authored and edited volumes. I have also gone through some of his articles in professional journals. Most of these are on Sri Aurobindo and related subjects. I have liked some aspects of his work and benefited from them, while I have had reservation about some others. Some of these I had pointed out to Manoj Das, Vijay Poddar and Manoj Das Gupta as far back as 1996. There was no action taken. At any rate none of the three whom I hold in high esteem got back to me.

I have had some experience in the area of textual and archival research. I worked, for example, at The Humanities Research Centre, Texas, Austin and Beineke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, Yale University, on a Fulbright Scholarship. Nearer at home, I carried out archival research that resulted in two pioneering studies Early Women’s Writing: A Lost Tradition, New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2005 and Gender and Cultural Identity in Colonial Orissa, Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 2008.

In addition, I have edited three volumes dealing with the vision of Sri Aurobindo. My most recent work in this area, Sri Aurobindo: A Contemporary Reader, New Delhi: Routledge, 2008, attempts to offer a reading of Sri Aurobindo’s international vision. Incidentally, both Sage and Routledge are international publications.

I am thus broadly aware of the current scholarship in this area. I am basically a literary and cultural critic. I believe, I am in a position to offer critical comments on some of the key assumptions of Peter Heehs in his latest book.

The modest familiarity I had with archival research gave me a valuable perspective, namely that critical judgement of men and matters is an extremely difficult task. The editor/biographer’s comments have to be balanced, nuanced and tempered, and not sweeping or opinionated. After all, the dead cannot come back to defend their honor or point of view. One must approach the study of the lives of great personalities in a spirit of modesty and understanding. There is a big difference between subservience and sympathy and every scholar worth his/her salt knows the difference. To cite one example, Aldous Huxley’s introduction to the Life of Sri Ramakrishna is marked by such a critical temper. He remains therefore for me, a good role model in this sense.

(1) Critical Method: Mr. Heehs’ reading of the narrative of Sri Aurobindo is in keeping with a currently accepted practice of reading against the grain. Fair enough! However, his claim of an overriding “objectivity” must also be seen carefully against the prevalent view on the subject. The very choice of a subject of research, for instance, the selection and arrangement of “facts” and “evidence”, all come invariably through the prism of the subjective self of a researcher. Words and comments themselves, including those used by Heehs in his latest book, are not value neutral. The decision to rely on one set of evidence to form one’s judgement rather than on some other, is also a deeply subjective act. Rather than claiming the high-moral ground of objectivity, the current practice, especially in the post-colonial context, is to be upfront about one’s approach and unpack one’s ideological predilections in a self reflexive manner at the outset for the reader to see. This is absent in Peter Heehs’ biography of Sri Aurobind, although he seems to indicate some of his preferences now and then. On the whole, however, one finds that evidence is not offered in a neutral a manner for the readers to judge. Quite the contrary, Mr. Heehs interprets events quite constantly while claiming objectivity. Clearly; he cannot have it both ways.

As a counterpoint, one can see the interesting and insightful manner spirituality, ethics and politics intersect in Chicago-based, post-colonial critic Leela Gandhi’s fine and nuanced study of colonialism and the politics of friendship in her path breaking work: Anti-Colonial Thought: Affective Communities and Politics of Friendship, Duke University, 2006; Permanent Black, 2006. We may contrast this study, part of which deals with the creative encounter between Mirra Alfassa (the Mother) and Sri Aurobindo, with the somewhat prurient account offered by Heehs (pp. 326-327) and come to our own conclusions.

(2) Textual Traditions:

Every genre (and the biographical mode is one such) must deal with the textual tradition of a given work. And thus, in dealing with a biography of a primarily spiritual figure such as Sri Ramakrishna, Ramana Maharshi or Sri Aurobindo, one can legitimately use approaches and modes of analysis that are innate and integral to that particular genre. This by itself does not turn the work in question automatically into a hagiographic account. For instance, the distinction between faith and dogma, religion and spirituality that Sri Aurobindo makes in his world view is fundamental to understanding his oeuvres. Peter is thus far off the mark when he asserts as a generalization, “matters of faith quickly become matters of dogma” in deciding about the entire question of Avatarhood. As a general proposition, this seems to be valid, although, in the Aurobindonian context, the distinction is of vital importance. Sri Aurobindo, it must be noted, devotes considerable space in his writings to explain the centrality of faith as distinguished from regression and obscurantism. We may see the truth of this aspect in his essay “True and False Subjectivism” in Human Cycle. Peter adduces no convincing reasons for dismissing alternative approaches to what is generally considered a purely “secular” or non-hagiographic reading. For instance, there could well be a non-secular and non-hagiographic reading of a spiritual figure. Why are we ruling these out? I have for instance, in my book on Sri Aurobindo, by Routledge (2008) attempted such an alternative (non-devotee) approach.

(3) Absolute freedom of a Writer: Clearly, this is a myth. While book banning and book burning are abhorrent acts and are counterproductive, every author/ editor, it is well known, is bound by trade disciplines, contractual agreements and obligations and copyright regulations. Further, a writer writes in a cultural and political context. His/her affiliations to communities and organizations are often cited as “authoritative” or “authentic” texts by publishing houses. Peter’s affiliation with the Ashram’s archive, as evidenced in the jacket covers/back page blurbs of his published books, or fliers/ promotional literature, are cases in point. For the very same reason, sentiments of a given community, whether one likes them or not, are also important factors that authors and publishers must take into account.

As an insider, one must write with care and sensitivity, and not in a spirit of disdain and dismissal. As a custodian of Sri Aurobindo archive, one is surely expected to uphold the trust bestowed upon one self by the institution.

(4) In case Peter Heehs wishes to write against the grain, the logical and honorable course for him would be to severe his institutional linkages that he has had so far, and write as an independent scholar, something which many writers do. It must be said that most institutions in the modern world are guided by written and unwritten regulations. This is as true in writing the institutional history of the Ford Foundation, the Fulbright Commission or the Central Sahitya Akademi, as the history of the Ashram or its Founders. I have had direct experience of this as a

(5) writer and a critic. There is no such thing as absolute freedom in life. Neither is there in literary creativity.

Section II

In the light of the above discussion (I have refrained from repeating arguments already advanced by others) I would suggest the following:

(1) Professionally and ethically, Mr. Peter Heehs should dissociate himself voluntarily from Sri Aurobindo Ashram and its Archives if he feels convinced about the correctness of his approach. There are fundamental differences between his approach and world view and that of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram as an institution. Again, his view clashes essentially with that of a philosopher whose vision, in the final analysis, rests upon faith and transcendence, on the reality of the inner world and the mystical domain rather than on the touchstone of empirical reason. This will be an honorable course for Mr. Heehs the author to adopt. This will also be perfectly in line with his cherished beliefs and world view.

In the first instance, therefore, the Ashram authorities ought to offer such an option to Mr. Heehs.

(2) Institutionally, as a corollary, the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust would be justified in distancing itself from Peter Heehs, his present book and its publisher(s). The proper line to adopt is to maintain that Heehs’ book is one more reading of Sri Aurobindo but that it has no backing of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram as an institution.

Next, since archives are a crucial storehouse of institutional memory, and contributes vitally in determining its future, it would be logical and ethical for the Sri Aurobindo Ashram as an institution to demand the withdrawal of Peter Heehs as a professional from the Archives. Free speech and anarchism ¾ what ever their appeal to utopian and idealistic thinking-- are always balanced in real life by a carefully constructed self-image that a community has for itself. As I have argued so far, in the present case, this self-image must be anchored vitally and substantially to Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy of terrestrial evolution, which remains, in the final analysis, an Ideal.

Section III

What are the lessons?

First, we need to strengthen the academic/intellectual side of the Sri Aurobindo International Centre for Education. We must fashion out a way of intellectual training of the young students and critics that fits into Sri Aurobindo’s injunction about the office and limitation of Reason, expounded in Human Cycle and elsewhere. The Mind, Sri Aurobindo says, most emphatically, has to be developed as an instrument, and open itself to higher Truths of Life. If we do not do this, we cannot blame others who are not attuned to this approach, from taking over and filling the void, as it has regrettably happened now. In this regard, we must be prepared to take the help of the ex-students of the Ashram who have had considerable training in this regard in the outside world. We must remember that either we move forward or go backward. There is no third alternative.

Clearly, as spirituality enjoins upon us, the best way of living within in our context, is to immerse ourselves in the writings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. While dogma and religiosity are to be shunned at all costs, we must internalize the Aurobindonian view of life which alone can safeguard us against aberrations and pitfalls. When a sufficiently large number of a community practise an ethical and spiritual life (ethics is not a bad word), then they would generate a force that alone can act as an effective antidote to darkness and ignorance.

Conclusion: Clarity of vision leads to a clarity of action. Those that are at the helms of affairs of a community must have a larger vision and discharge their responsibilities without fear and favor. The Sri Aurobindo Ashram was founded upon spiritual Realizations. As ordinary mortals, we can at least have conviction in the basic Truth of the Founders!

Is this too much to expect!

Sachidananda Mohanty

1 comment:

  1. I just came across this and I must say, this is the single best, most intelligent, balanced comments on Peter Heeh’s book that I’ve ever seen.