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. One of the most egregious examples of this literary perfidy can be found on pages 283-284 of TLOSA where Peter makes short shrift of the section on the Yoga of Love (bhakti yoga) in Sri Aurobindo’s Synthesis of Yoga. The extremely short section starts harmlessly enough with a paragraph full of partial quotes from Sri Aurobindo. However, within the second paragraph itself the treatment quickly takes a turn for the squalid. Peter speculates “The ineffability of the states makes it difficult to write about bhaktiyoga, and Aurobindo gave less space to it in the Synthesis than to the other paths.” The statement that the ineffability of bhakti yoga makes it difficult to write about it, at least in the case of Sri Aurobindo, is quite patently absurd, and can only be made by someone who has neither carefully studied the “Yoga of Love” section of Sri Aurobindo’s Synthesis of Yoga nor his other major works. If difficulty in expressing the verities of a particular yoga were to determine the extent to which one could write about it, then all the sections of the book should have been equally small, since no Yoga is easy to express or describe in words. The fact that Sri Aurobindo is able to write hundreds of pages on the other equally ineffable karma yoga and jnana yoga is an indication that it is not just the ineffability of any particular yoga that determines or restricts the length of its description.

Furthermore, while the “Yoga of Love” section in Sri Aurobindo’s Synthesis of Yoga is smaller than the other sections, it consists of 52 pages and 8 chapters packed densely with the deepest, most profound expression of this path of yoga. To assert that it has somehow been given less space than it warrants (it is less in length since it is incapable of being easily expressed in words), is to subtly induce readers to devalue this section in relation to other more voluminous sections of the work. Finally, the integral element of bhakti yoga is found interwoven throughout the book, in all its sections, and also forms a central part of other major works such as Sri Aurobindo’s Essays on the Gita. However difficult it may be for the average man to give expression to the verities of bhakti yoga, Sri Aurobindo, at least, has managed to give the most prolific expression to bhakti yoga in the English language so far, both in prose and poetry.

But this statement about the apparent ineffability of bhakti yoga coming in the way of Sri Aurobindo being able to fully describe it in this section of the Synthesis, is not itself Peter’s primary concern. The main thing is rather the suggestion that follows, and for which this prior false proposition is meant only to lay the groundwork. In seeming ignorance or utter disregard of Sri Aurobindo’s prolific writings on bhakti yoga, Peter uses the apparent inexpressibility of bhakti yoga to inject a completely misleading and perverting suggestion. Peter continues “The suggestive language of aphorism may have been more apt to express the intensity of the path of love, as in this example from his posthumously published collection Thoughts and Aphorisms:

What is the use of admiring Nature or worshipping her as a Power, a Presence and a goddess? What is the use, either, of appreciating her aesthetically or artistically? The secret is to enjoy her with the soul as one enjoys a woman with the body."

The first thing to note is that there are a total of one hundred and thirty-three aphorisms that have been categorized in the Bhakti section of Sri Aurobindo’s Thoughts and Aphorisms. Why does Peter pick only this one? What is so special about this aphorism that lends itself to the suggestion that Peter is trying to implant into the minds of the reader by using the supposedly “suggestive language” of this aphorism? What is this notion of “intensity” that the scholar seeks to communicate? To the average reader it is clearly the sexually suggestive element in the enjoyment of the physical act of sexual intercourse that this aphorism apparently contains. For Peter, this sexually suggestive element is what can aptly express the “intensity” of bhakti yoga. In fact this is a gross perversion of a spiritually symbolic aphorism that Peter tries to turn into something suggestive of sexual eroticism.

Most readers, unfamiliar with the spiritual symbolism behind this aphorism, can hardly be expected to understand that it refers to the relationship between Purusha and Prakriti, Spirit and Nature respectively, which is a fundamental tenet and experience of Indian spirituality. The essential notion here is that Purusha, while it ignorantly identifies itself with Prakrit, remains its unconscious subject, trapped in the dualities of pleasure and suffering. This same Purusha, when it liberates itself from ignorance, becomes fully self-conscious, is the great lord of Prakriti, her conscious supporter and ENJOYER: bhartaa, bhoktaa, maheshwara. Prakriti here is the female principle while Purusha is the male principle, and the union of the two represents creation itself. In fact, the use of conjugal imagery to communicate the spiritual verity of this union is quite common in India, for example, in the Lingam-Yoni symbol that is found in every corner of the country. Clearly Sri Aurobindo, in his aphorism, was in no way being sexually suggestive, but rather using spiritual symbolism via the aphoristic medium to express the delight of existence, the ananda of Prakriti experienced by one who is possessed of the free Purusha consciousness.

It is here that we find Peter most deviously misleading. In his description of the jnana yoga (the yoga of knowledge) section of Sri Aurobindo’s Synthesis (that just precedes Peter’s description of the section on bhakti yoga and indeed on the same page 283), he mentions, but only in passing, the dual principle of Purusha-Prakriti in the context of Sri Aurobindo’s description of the Supermind. However, while citing this “sexually suggestive” aphorism, on the very next page, Peter makes no attempt whatsoever to elucidate the spiritual symbolism in terms of the Purusha and Prakriti principle, thus ensuring that the average reader is left holding mentally the now sexually “suggestive” imagery, without the saving explanation of the spiritual symbolism behind it.

To understand the full extent of the perversion being attempted here by Peter, we must come back to the falsehood that the aphoristic medium is somehow a more suitable vehicle for expressing the intensity of bhakti yoga. As explained before, there is no real basis for such a speculation, and the statement sounds like a kind of forced attempt to insert the “suggestive” aphorism into the section on the yoga of Love. Secondly, even if Peter genuinely believed this to be the case, then there were one hundred and thirty-two other aphorisms in the bhakti section of Thoughts and Aphorisms, many of them dealing directly with bhakti yoga, the union of the individual soul with the Supreme Soul through the spiritual discipline of love. Peter ignores all these other aphorisms to insert here the one that seems, on the surface, to use sexual imagery, an aphorism representing not the relationship between the Bhakta and Bhagavan, but rather the relationship between Purusha and Prakriti. The absurd takes its plunge into the insanely ridiculous here. In order to support his claim that aphorisms are a more suitable vehicle to express bhakti yoga, Peter cites an aphorism that is only remotely related to bhakti yoga, thus failing to establish his own tenuous claim of the aphoristic medium as being more apt to express the “intensity” of bhakti yoga!

As patent as this illogical absurdity may be to those who have a little bit of prior knowledge of the subject, the net effect in the minds of the average reader is nothing short of a perversion of the notion of Sri Aurobindo’s approach to bhakti yoga as a kind of spiritual sexuality or a sexual spirituality. This is the meaning of the “intensity” of bhakti yoga that Peter attempts to insert into the minds of the gullible reader via the technique of perverse suggestions, cleverly couched in between innocuous sounding scaffolding. It is hard to imagine that this sort of perversion is the result of a mere accident, particularly when the rest of the book is filled with other such instances.

Given the forced insertion of the Purusha-Prakriti aphorism into the passage one is justified in concluding that it is Peter’s deliberate intention to distort and pervert the place and significance of bhakti yoga in Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga. The mischief is further confirmed by the use of the very same aphorism by Jeffrey Kripal, with whom Peter has collaborated, in Kripal’s book on Esalen, in which he gives a fanciful and perverse sexual twist to Sri Aurobindo’s yogic sadhana. The article at the following link, ferrets out the nexus between Peter and Kripal: http://www.thelivesofsriaurobindo.com/2009/06/elucidation-of-jk-ph-nexusby-varuna.html

There is one possibility, however, that we must admit. This may not be so much an intentional fabrication as a perversity that Peter genuinely subscribes to. It is common enough for those with an irrepressible sexual urge or libido to project these lower movements onto the Divine and to incorporate them into their personal “spiritual” practices. This obsession with sexuality has led to the dark vital-physical and psycho-sexual perversion of Tantra by dabblers in modern pop-spirituality and pseudo-gurus. It is quite possible that Peter is only displaying symptoms of this inner disease. One would sympathize with him were it not for the fact that the book attempts to project his own condition onto his spiritual preceptor and to legitimize the attempt in the name of authoritative scholarship. In any case, the perversion stands and the book, as well as the author, fall with it.

A final but very important point on his style. It should be clear from this example that Peter’s method is to suggest rather than to propose. This is the tactic used by Peter throughout the book wherein, rather than making outright assertions, Peter surreptitiously implants insidious suggestions into the minds of the credulous. A frank and forthright claim in matters such as these would have left Peter dangerously exposed to criticism, with no cover of possible alternate interpretations and explanations. The Integral Yoga collective itself, fractured into those indifferent, supportive and opposed to Peter, would also have been unanimous in rejecting and opposing the book, had it been written in the form of a direct thrust, rather than an extremely well-disguised series of indirect cuts, against Sri Aurobindo and his Yoga.

Even if all evidence is set aside to assert that Peter simply erred in degrading the spiritual symbolism in the aphorism, there is no denying the perversion itself. The best defense for Peter in this case would be that he had no clue as to what bhakti yoga really meant, to the extent that he could just randomly pick up the most misleading aphorism classified under the “bhakti” section of the Thoughts and Aphorisms and quote it without any explanation whatsoever for the reader. This incompetence plea, as implausible as it appears, is probably less offensive than the charge of deliberate and malicious distortion. However, it also means that Peter had no business publishing books on Sri Aurobindo in which he pretends to write authoritatively about his yogic practices or literary works. An ignorant mind presumptuously serving up slime in place of the sublime is as dangerous as a deliberately malicious intellect that willfully intends to inflict damage by its influence.

Whether intentional or unintentional, the perversion is very much there and can be perceived with only a bit of foreknowledge and a little care in the reading. Such disfiguring and debasement, contorting out of recognition the central bhakti aspect of the Integral Yoga of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo and suppressing the spiritual symbolism in the aphorism, is an unmistakable indicator of the low level of thinking and consciousness that this book embodies. How such a work can issue from an institute established by the Mother and Sri Aurobindo to fulfill their vision and work is a mystery that the ages will toil to unravel, particularly when the author seems so clearly unqualified to write about the core aspects of Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga like love and bhakti, things that seem to be too transcendent and pure for his murky and sullied comprehension to understand, let alone explain authoritatively to others. Not surprisingly, in his ill-conceived attempt to do so in the TLOSA book, Peter ends up injuring both his readers and the great subject of his book.


  1. "This may not be so much an intentional fabrication as a perversity that Peter genuinely subscribes to."

    You might be right about there being something perverse or unhealthy about some of these individuals. At the very least, it might all be related to the high levels of acceptance and tolerance of sexual excess and perversity in the societies they come from. How can anyone but a pervert see a phallus in Ganesha's trunk as Courtright did. The response of most westerners and especially Americans to the criticism of PH's writing has been - what's with all this prudery, it's just sex?!!!

  2. Absolutely unacceptable.
    Thanks for this web-site.