Writing a Spiritual Biography: Some General Considerations
Biographies, especially of great men, are written so that men of later generation can derive inspiration from it. Though sometimes professional psychologists and sociologists discuss the various forces that may have gone in the moulding of a great man, the prime objective is not a voyeuristic curiosity into the petty personal details of his life. If this is true of a great figure of repute and honour, we need to be even more careful when we touch the life of a saint or sage, of a national hero in whom not only the present but future generations will take pride and draw inspiration from. In India, at least, we draw the necessary distinction between the sacred and the profane, the sublime and the commonplace. We do not, and for good reasons, mix up the two in an indiscriminate manner. We do not, for example, discuss the reason behind the marriage of a great spiritual Master and, after much tortuous deliberation, end up with the commonplace statement that “it must be due to the usual desire for physical gratification”. We do not, to give another example, discuss whether he was a madman or genius of the spirit, but leave that for the coming generations to decide. True disciples, those whom the biographer of The Lives of Sri Aurobindo calls hagiographers, may exaggerate sometimes the achievements and qualities of a great Master. But it is also true that critics do just the same, but with a bias and a swing on the opposite side. They minimise and belittle the actual importance, because it threatens their own smallness and invites them to undertake an adventure which attracts and frightens them at the same time. To reduce the Master to the same level as they are, to bring him down to the littleness of our mortal state gives to these critics a vicarious and perverse pleasure.
27 Oct 2009
Writing a Spiritual Biography: Some General Considerations
26 Oct 2009
Dear biographer of the “Lives …”
You seem to have completely missed the point that the devotees and disciples are trying to make.
The point is not merely the “technicality” of what you have written, whether it is “factually” correct or not, the “reliability “of the sources you have quoted, the “balance” of appraisal and criticism that you have leveled! All these, though important, are not the central issue at all, even though, as pointed out by “several experts” in their own fields, there are glaring flaws in these areas as well. Yet, even if your work were flawless by some fluke, there would still remain the unanswered question, rendering the entire exercise futile.
The point is not whether the details of Sri Aurobindo’s outer life are historically correct or not. The point is whether the image and the picture of Sri Aurobindo that you portray and must bring out (as any worthwhile biographer should) is psychologically and spiritually correct or at least closely corresponds to the inner reality of Sri Aurobindo. And for this you do not have to pick up newspaper cuttings from the dustbin of office records or go through pages of written documents but learn and educate yourself to see and feel with the psychic vision, to experience and understand life and persons with the spiritual sense. What you have hastily “dismissed” as mere “faith” and “sentiments” are not what you “believe” it to be.
20 Oct 2009
[One of the silliest rumours that went around after Alok Pandey wrote his first letter to the Trustees of the Ashram (published on this site), was that he (and later whoever took a stand against the deceptive book) wanted to “dislodge the Trustees”. Alok had to write the following letter of clarification to say that “nothing was farther from the truth” than the above allegation. I myself wondered how the administration would run if all the complaints were met with this accusation. Secondly, who would enjoy taking the brickbats the Trustees get from all sides, despite all our grouses? Alok had to therefore clearly state that he had no such ambition to replace them and he felt it was his duty to caution the Trustees against the book. His word of caution proved to be prophetic. He had written exactly a year back in this very letter that if no firm action were taken with regard to Peter Heehs, it would result in a trail “of dust and cloud and smoke”. This indeed happened in the form of numerous court cases filed by devotees in Orissa out of sheer frustration and even a signature campaign was conducted for the first time in the history of the Ashram. All this collective heartburn could have been so easily avoided by the concerned authorities making one truly public statement denouncing the book and distancing the Ashram from it! The book would have lost all public credibility and the right to freedom of speech maintained without hurting the Ashram’s interests.]
14 Oct 2009
[Alok Pandey was one of the first to prick the balloon of Heehs’s bogus scholarship. When most of us were reeling under the awesome pretence of objective research that the historian claimed and were wondering whether our hearts had belied us, Alok took P.H. head on, and stung him a few quick blows like a well practised boxer. His pugilism is what really made the supporters of Heehs fume with rage, for how could a devotee dare to speak back in their own language, and that too in straight and tough terms, without mincing his words? They had not expected this kind of spirited defence from the land of passive spirituality! Devotees until now were supposed to be stupid and mindless and intellectuals necessarily untouched by devotion; therefore the West and the East, representing the mind and the heart respectively, had to be at loggerheads! Alok proved the contrary. He asserted that this was a false dichotomy created by a small-minded person dominated by the physical mind, that Westerners were not bereft of the deeper feelings of the soul, and that Indians devotees could equally fight with their minds for what they felt to be right with their hearts.]
I read your biography of Sri Aurobindo, and I have come to truly appreciate your “intellect” that everyone seems to hold in such awe. Truly, one has to be only an “intellect” and nothing else, a robotic brain-machine, so to say, to write with such heartless ingratitude and subtle mischief a biography of someone who gave you spiritual and material refuge, despite all your doubts and resistance. Surely, you must be a great intellectual to so deftly weave your doubts in a story of faith and even make them look like guiding stars that the blind God-lover does not see. And yes, it does need all your ingenuity and cunning to put forth your subjective judgments in a way that they seem to stem from non-committal objectivity. And what shall one say about your claim to be able to objectively find the facts of human life, — a claim that even Heissenberger dealing with the inside of hard concrete matter would not make? Why historians, the world of psychologists should hail you as the new avatar, the prophet and the guru who can know and write about another avatar, prophet and guru! For only the “like knows like” and by that logic you yourself must be a great Master to be able to analyse, discern and know the facts of another great Master, “possibly” the greatest in recent times.
Oh no, I forgot, you do not “really” believe in Masters and yogis and their “claims”, for you do not know whether what they claim is delusive or true or whether they are schizophrenic or real and authentic. Nevertheless, you still are an equal to them though by another logic. Me human — you human — we human — we all human = you and me are basically the same; the difference is only in degree and measure and not in any essential quality. Oh yes, I am sorry, you do not say this in so many words, objectively, I mean. And, unlike your “misfortunate” self, we do not have the privilege of digging into private diaries with voyeuristic “displeasure”. But, you see, that’s where your logic leads or will lead those who would read your book. Oh yes, I am sorry again, you are not so famous that anyone will bother to find out about your sex-life or your ability to lip-sync to someone else’s song.
But that may be presumptious on my part, for with this new book you may indeed become famous! After all, it takes guts for a mole to dig a hole in the mighty mountain and bring out a few strands of hair of some buried carcass and declare proudly to the world, “Here is my find, my exhibit! Come, come, I will tell you the secret of the mountain. You deluded jnanis, the mountain’s snow-summit may be doubted, as “I do not see it”; you sentimental bhaktas, the purifying streams of the mountain heart may be delusive as “I, the mole, have never bathed in them”, and you foolish seekers, the rich bounty of flora and fauna you speak of is equally suspect as it “may be or may-be-not” to my objective eyes, for I do not believe in the books that have been written on it by others. Come, I will tell you something you do not know.” And one can fancy rats and moles gathering around you and bandicoots and lizards and serpents hailing your find as the result of wonderful and painstaking labour and thanking you for revealing to them what the great climbers and photographers have missed.
Anyway, your road to fame is open through the backdoor, nay, the sewage pipe through which some choose to enter a palace, for they are but thieves at heart and feel unfit for the front-door. Don’t worry, you too will be purged and given an equal seat by the side of the Lord. For history repeats itself as they say and who would think of Rama without thinking about Ravana and Krishna without Kansa and of Christ without Judas. But these are myths for you, “objectively” unverified. Maybe, but then, such myths as these which have helped man to grow towards Truth and Beauty and Light, are far better than your half-truths and misrepresented facts that perpetuate the reign of falsehood in the name of truth. After all, Judas was being truthful and honest when he pointed a finger at Christ and revealed his identity. Yes, but truthful and honest to whom, — to those hostile to Christ’s mission and not to his own soul!
But forget it, you won’t understand all this as it needs truly a wide mind and a generous heart, an inner psychic vision and spiritual sense. And I doubt if you have these, even though you claim to be a practitioner of Integral Yoga. This must be some new brand of your own making where you don’t require faith or a Master, but can be done by anybody and anywhere. Or is it the American edition of the IY you are busy with, where you do not need the Mother and Sri Aurobindo’s divine help? I am told that new self-styled IY gurus have sprung up all over the world and your book will be the new gospel for them.
Frankly, I do not wish to concede to you the status of even Ravana or Kansa. At least they were honest about their intent and did not hide their hostility or masquerade as a disciple. But Judas may fit you well. Though historians have doubted the existence of Christ and Judas, the fact of our inner life is that they, just as Krishna and Kansa, continue to live and wrestle in the human heart. But who can show that to you, O petty-minded scholar, for you the heart is just an anatomical organ and all emotions rubbish. Well, not quite all, for you would surely validate your own self-love and love for your family and girl-friend. But if emotions surpass these limits and turn to God and by the force of His Grace enter into His secret heart and read the dream-prints of His eyes and share the vastness of His kingdom of delight, then you become scared (envious for the capacity you lack). Only in limits your reason is safe. Not for you the Illimitable and the Immeasurable. May I ask how big is your measuring rod and rope and how deep your probing lens? Can you measure the ocean of Light that shines through the milky-way? Can your rope tie the universe as a whole? Can you probe into the secret intent, the Will and Intelligence that works within the atomic void? If you can, then you may be ready, perhaps, to measure the infinite Compassion and Light that is Sri Aurobindo and probe the heart of boundless Love and Grace that is the Mother.
But it is pointless to tell you all this! Who can show the sun to the blind or show him the beauty and joy of the flowers? So let me not dare to try what even God Himself will perhaps find difficult. My only request is that a blind man should be put in his proper place so that he cannot bluff to the equally blind, “claiming” that he can see. His place is at the school of elementary education with Braille. To graduate him to read the script of the stars or to expect him to see the Light that even mortal eyes cannot bear, is surely a wrong choice. And what Sri Aurobindo and the Mother have written is neither braille nor mere human words! You should not be where you are right now [the Ashram Archives], even though I am told some great man [Jayantilal Parekh] put you there. But you see, great men can blunder greatly and it is left sometimes for the lesser mortals to bear the brunt of their blunders. And have we not borne enough? – first, your previous biography, and then this one, all at the expense of the Ashram resources, to denounce its own founders, its very basis and core, its soul and substance. While the world outside waits eagerly and expectantly for the Collected Works of Sri Aurobindo, you are busy spinning these awful biographies! Have we not had enough of you and your tales? Perhaps, you never learnt in the kindergarten that it is wrong to lie and tell tales about other people. Oh, I forgot, you are the founder of the Ashram Archives, and this we need to remember, because you will soon turn it into a department of research in psychoanalytic history.
Lastly, and since it is not within our means to do anything else as you are held in such awe and respect, let me just give you a word of advice, an advice similar to what Angad (I am sorry I can’t furnish accurate documents for this man or monkey in the Ramayana and do not know his qualifications, but his advice was sane and is still valid) gave to Ravana – to seek refuge in the Divine Incarnate whom the highly intellectual Asura could not understand. Well, here is the same advice for you. How else could one explain that you have been tolerated if not by the Grace or the magnanimity of the indiscriminate and indifferent human beings who are otherwise so ready to excommunicate ordinary persons for much lesser personal offences and transgressions, but would bear with you, nay encourage, shield and support you! Take refuge in Her Grace. Maybe your heart would change and your eyes see, feel and know the splendours that hide beyond the reach and ken of your so-called objective sight.
Wishing you well within and without
10 Oct 2009
The present sonnet by Deshpande was prompted by the four interviews that have appeared in the August 2009 issue of Auroville Today. These interviews, preceded with a brief introductory note by the Editor, are related with the highly controversial Lives of Sri Aurobindo published more than a year ago. The intention behind the drill was to build bridges between the opposing camps. While there is a general façade of balance and fair-play in these presentations by the authors, the essence of yogic and spiritual attainments of Sri Aurobindo never comes out with any degree of convincingness. Instead, everything is more or less reduced to human level, and one wonders whether the whole exercise was simply an aspect of self-projection and self-promotion. Nowhere any strict academic discussion about the claims and failings or inadequacies of the biography are examined. That it calls Savitri as a “fictional creation” has been strangely—or was that purposely?—overlooked by these experts. That makes the entire business somewhat one-sided, if not suspect. The sonnet has in its own way given vent to these aspects, but it is professionally necessary to go into the details.
This book is the cause of all my dismay
As though a swift hand of sleight must it write
In the dimness of the soul. “What one calls upright,
Spirit’s, is but fake, leading thought astray,
And must be shuttered; the academic way
Given to rational creature to fight,”
They hold, “is the fittest. O destroy blight
Of the credulous, fashioned from faith’s clay.”
Thus spoke the statues that were made of wax;
And one said, “This is fundamentalism,
Enemy of Enlightenment.” The next,
“We must script biographies, fill up racks
With the lives of yogis.” And so on. But Prism
Of Mind—can it break open the sealed text?
31 August 2009
4 Oct 2009
Govind Rajesh: The “intensity” of bhakti yoga, according to Peter Heehs, is turning the spiritually symbolic into the sexually suggestive
Peter has filled his biography The Lives of Sri Aurobindo (TLOSA) with insidious suggestions about Sri Aurobindo, speculating about lurid and sensational topics such as his sexuality or apparent lack of it, his seeming inadequacy as a husband, his inaptitude as a politician, his potentially scandalous legitimization of a possible marital relationship with his spiritual collaborator, the Mother (to describe whom Peter conveniently uses the ambiguous word 'partner', which has very well-known connotations in common parlance). The list goes on and on. On page after page in the book, Peter’s convoluted mental prism distorts the life and image of Sri Aurobindo into a pock-marked caricature of itself.
Furthermore, Sri Aurobindo’s literary work is diminished into a poor and pitiful shadow of the true puissance and sublimity one experiences when it is encountered and imbibed directly in its original form. In his inadequate, uninformed and uninspired treatment of these works, Peter distorts and devalues them by inserting misleading criticism or deviant perversions, even ridicule, into otherwise harmless descriptions that serve as a shell of neutral scaffolding around the negative kernel, betraying not only his lack of understanding when it comes to Sri Aurobindo's philosophy and system of spiritual discipline, but also a kind of latent, perhaps even subconscious, hostility that manifests itself in the core of his critical pronouncements and disparaging judgments.
In fact, this is a well-known literary device called an "Oxford Sandwich", which W.W.Robson in his book "The Definition of Literature and Other Essays" describes as follows "you begin by praise, then say something quite lethal, and round it off by praise again" (page 133). This literary device could be a perfect allegory for the book as a whole, and is precisely what makes it so contentious. While seeming to present a façade of objectivity and even positivity on the surface, the book, in fact, bristles with insidious suggestions designed to worm their way into the minds and hearts of readers and fill them with perverse distortions of Sri Aurobindo’s life and works.