30 Dec 2009

A Prayer for the New Year -- by Alok Pandey

May our minds and intelligence refuse to admit the dark and tortuous thoughts that revolt against the Light and resist it by doubt, denial and scepticism.

May our hearts banish the feelings that mock at faith, dismiss love and devotion as mere concessions to the weak, and distort the straight and simple truth they refuse to see.

May our will be free of all unclean motives, hypocrisy and duplicity, cunning and falsehood and all that corrupts and perverts by vain ambition, lust for power and greed for fame.

May we reject and expunge from our entire being the whispers of the Night that cast a hostile look on all that is True and Sacred and Beautiful and Pure and inflict upon the Divine and His messengers the thorns of its fallen nature by testing, judging, condemning and crucifying Him on the world’s altar and by returning Her Love and Grace with denial and distrust, refusal and revolt instead of love, gratitude and surrender.

May ‘We’ unite as one body, one mind, one will, one heart, one soul around the central fire of aspiration that ever seeks and labours, struggles and battles for the advent of a Light greater than reason, a Love deeper than human sentiments, a Freedom born of an inner liberation, a Unity that is founded on the bedrock of the One Self behind all things, an Equality that does not blur all distinctions through a blind indifference and the complacence born of inertia but shows each thing its right place for the harmonious arrangement of all things and ideas and forces in space and time.

May we be cleansed of all blind dogmas – whether religious or scientific, of all obscurantism ─ whether born of a clouded thinking or a rigid and narrow heart and mind, of all prejudices ─ whether arising out of a misguided materialism or a traditional escapist and nihilistic philosophy.

May the diabolic force that inspires works of the likes of TLOSA be dissolved once for all, defeated of its devious designs to hold the human mind a captive to the darkness of the Night from which a New World is struggling to emerge.

May this year, 2010, the centenary of Sri Aurobindo’s coming to Pondicherry be for all of us and for the earth a year for the return of light in our minds, of clarity in our perception and understanding, of devotion and gratitude in our hearts, of faith in our will, and of all that is necessary for Their Work.

Bonne Année

Happy New Year

Alok Pandey

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24 Dec 2009

Intellectual Fundamentalism -- by Raman Reddy

Of late, the view that Sri Aurobindo has to be presented either intellectually or with faith and devotion, historically or hagiographically, is fast catching up among the admirers and devotees of Sri Aurobindo. The idea behind is that faith is per se anti-intellectual and intellectuality necessarily anti-faith. The extrapolation of this stupid view into the realm of nationalities will one day land us into deep trouble, for you can politicise this view to drive a wedge into the nascent world unity that is taking shape here in the Ashram and Auroville and, hopefully, in other spiritual centres across the world. The conclusion that could be drawn is that Indians are generally good for yoga, which can be hardly be done without faith, devotion and surrender, and Westerners are only good for intellectuality and practical work, which does not make them fit for yoga. Though this might be true in certain respects – nobody would deny that Westerners have a certain advantage of coming from an organised and mentally developed society or that the age-old spiritual civilisation of India enables Indians to take up Yoga as naturally as fish takes to water – but if you overstress these racial inclinations, I wonder how further progress would be possible. We all have to rise beyond personal and national barriers, learn from each other and not insist on each other’s deficiencies and definitely not make matters worse by aggressively pitting Western intellectuality against Indian devotion. The personalities of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother are the best examples of a perfect blend of these two aspects and it is precisely because of this that they have touched the hearts as well as the minds of so many people all over the world. Let me however dig deeper into this artificial rift created by these two opposing camps of intellectuals and devotees.
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14 Dec 2009

Alok Pandey’s Reply to "The Larger Issues behind the The Lives of Sri Aurobindo Controversy"

[Around March 2009, the SCIY supporters of Heehs made a solemn collective statement on the larger issues behind the “The Lives of Sri Aurobindo” controversy. Laying the broad outlines of how the Integral Yoga should not be practised (as if they have been practising it for a long time), voicing grave concerns about how it was going awry at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, they formulated fourteen points with summary explanations attached it. How I wish this new charter of Yogic Rights was followed by the setting up of a new Ashram where they could have indeed shown the world how to practise the Integral Yoga in the right way. Heehs also could be anointed as its new Guru. Alok Pandey reacted to this collective lamentation by jotting down the following replies to some of their accusations – religious fundamentalism, not permitting intellectual freedom, etc.]

1. Religious Fundamentalism:

I don’t believe in any kind of fundamentalism, religious or intellectual. A narrow, one-sided, intellectual approach to truth is as harmful as religious bigotry. At the same time, every spiritual collectivity has a right to safeguard what is sacred and dear to it, its cherished values and ethos, and its unique way of life. Sri Aurobindo and the Mother are the centre and the circumference of the Ashram. The members here have willingly chosen this life centered around Them. They have not been forced into conversion or coerced into submission. One is free to move in (if admitted) and one is also free to move out. But when one is part of the institution, a minimum sense of public decency is expected of him. If a member writes publicly disparaging comments that are critical of the core values and founders of the institution and, that too, for years together, and others rise up to challenge and criticize him, I do not see how they become religious fundamentalists. In this world of transparency and accountability, nobody can stay secure on his throne and demand that he will continue to be in his privileged position despite his betrayal of the very Cause, or his acting constantly against the Spirit that built the institution. To expect others to meekly submit to such unlimited privileges is not the spirit of freedom but of slavery and depravity. The Spirit that built the Ashram and sustains it is not the Spirit of Democracy or Theocracy or Autocracy or any such political ideal. It is the spirit of Yoga and acceptance of the Master. Faith in the Founder and His wisdom are part of its core values and central ethos. For the rest, there is the world outside where people are free to speak on whatever they want in appropriate forums.

2. Intellectual Freedom:

Freedom of any kind,  intellectual, vital, physical – is always relative, and comes along with its own share of responsibility. An unlimited freedom is one of those chimeras of vain intellectuals who refuse to submit themselves to a higher Law or a deeper Truth greater than their minds. They are free to say whatever they want, but they must not then complain if others exercise their freedom to contradict their publicly stated opinions and ideas. Unlimited freedom, like unlimited authority is the prerogative only of a consciousness that dwells always in Truth. Since none of us can claim that, let us not speak of it. It is true that an enforced discipline by mechanical means or regimented code leads to conservatism and stagnation, which no progressive group can afford. But equally, an unlimited, unqualified freedom leads to chaos, a mad orgy of vital instincts and mental arrogance,  a regression to barbarism of another kind, which again no progressive group can accept. A right balance is needed, a healthy combination of freedom and discipline, individual and collective. The Ashram is precisely such a place with a leaning towards freedom. Yet, sometimes a group may need to send away a member if his presence is detrimental to the whole group-life or threatening to attack and erode the very Soul of the place. Whether it is possible to destroy the Soul or not is not the issue. The issue is whether certain persisting attitudes and tendencies of an extremely undesirable type can be accepted when they damage the very fundamentals of the Ideal that a group stands and lives for. There are always other groups and places where the individual’s bent of mind and the group’s ethos will match. One is always free to move there.

3. Spokespersons of Truth:

No one except for Sri Aurobindo and the Mother can have that absolute authority. Nobody else claims it either. And precisely for this very reason it is important to see that distortions and wrong of interpretations are not made from their writings, the kind of which PH has been indulging in openly and blatantly through this book.

4. Need for Reconciliation:

Yes, of course, but around what and whom? One cannot sacrifice the central principle for the peripheral, the higher truths for the lesser lights. Unless there is a basic agreement on certain fundamental issues, how can one hope to reconcile? In that case, it is better to let different groups grow independently, each in its own way, without interfering in the other’s affairs. When we would all have grown sufficiently, then union, if necessary, will happen naturally, first inwardly, then outwardly. The fundamental issues are:

(a) Can a critical attitude towards Sri Aurobindo and the Mother be permissible in the Ashram, leave alone tacitly being encouraged as it is being done now?

(b) Does the book truly represent Sri Aurobindo’s life and does justice to His Works?

5. Tolerating Different Approaches:

Of course, there is every scope and freedom for diverse approaches. But is the scientific objectivity of the skeptic materialist or hostile criticism of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother an approach to Integral Yoga? Of course, in the widest sense, everything leads us towards God, one way or the other, but when we speak of yoga, we mean a more direct effort. Not everything can be called conscious yoga simply because everything eventually leads us towards God. Besides, there is a difference between having a personal approach and claiming it as the most authentic or best approach for everybody. There is no problem if someone writes a book about how one feels closer to God when he quarrels with Him, but there is a problem when he denounces, belittles or dismisses others while hailing his own way as the only valid one. The author of TLOSA has precisely done that and he starts it in the Preface itself. It is PH and not the devotees who have been intolerant! They have only reacted to his dismissive attitude towards devotion and faith. If you put your hand in a hornet’s nest, you should not blame someone else for your pain!

6. Hindutva Influence:

This is sheer nonsense. Hindus are perhaps the most tolerant group. If there is any Hindutva influence in the PH controversy, it is seen in the remarkable tolerance displayed by the devotees and sadhaks in the face of such audacity and arrogance displayed by PH and the blatant lies that he and some of his supporters have unabashedly resorted to. Can you imagine someone continuing to live freely and enjoying the privileges of an Ashram despite publicly denouncing its Guru and Master?

7. Anti-Western feelings:

This is again sheer nonsense, an old trick used to divide people on racial lines. Has any westerner ever been harmed before, during, or after the controversy, including those who resolutely stand on PH’s side? B. and R.H. continue to occupy their places, while Sraddhalu has been asked not to go to the Archives. The feeling of racism has not been created by people who are against PH’s book but by those who are supporting him. Somehow they are unable to see beyond the colour of their skin and country of origin. It is sad, but who is responsible for it? That is the question.

8. Western outlook:

There may be some truth in it,  maybe related to a recent past and the turn that religion has taken in the West. Maybe it is difficult for a Westerner to surrender or acknowledge a personal and embodied Divine. But I am not sure if this is still a general phenomenon or one that afflicts the Sri Aurobindo group specifically. Nevertheless, just as an Indian has to pursue yoga forgetting that he is a Hindu or Indian, so also a Westerner or others may have to follow yoga, if they wish to, forgetting that they are Westerners, Christians, agnostics, etc. Or does this simple rule of yoga apply only to one group and not to the others??

9. Moral and Religious Policing:

Nobody does moral or religious policing here. Nobody peeps into anybody’s life or passes judgments except in private. It is rather PH who has tried to peep into Sri Aurobindo’s life with a voyeuristic curiosity and passed judgments. He has made his views public and therefore people have reacted because of his misrepresentations of Sri Aurobindo, His life and His works. How is that equivalent to moral and religious policing? Nobody is bothered or cares about PH’s private and personal life. Nobody has slapped a list of do’s and don’ts on him or anyone else. All that the devotees have asked of him is not to write such derogatory stuff while he is a member of the Ashram. Is that such an unfair demand? If anything, it is his followers in America who are trying to remote control and police and pass comments and judgments on what does not really concern them! One can understand that concern for what is written or said about Sri Aurobindo when it is not confined to the Ashram. The devotees all over the world have surely the right to express what they feel. But it is not within the prerogative of everyone, including devotees outside, to comment, interfere, influence and control the decisions regarding PH’s continuation at the Archives or the Ashram. To do that would rather be moral and religious policing. A distinction must be made between the Ashram as a source of spiritual Light for all and the Ashram as an institution. Nobody here is interfering in PH’s yoga or his personal approach to the Divine, which in any case is a matter of attitude rather than outer circumstances. Nobody is ex-communicating him. All that was asked was his removal from the Archives and that too not out of any ‘righteous wrath’ but because of the gross misuse of his privileges, such as making use of unpublished things for public consumption without taking permission. Such a change of department and even taking someone out of the Ashram has been done earlier and is an acceptable norm in other institutions. It has nothing to do with this hype on ‘religious wrath’ and ‘fundamentalism’. Does it mean that every time someone was asked to leave the Ashram (and there have been quite a few cases), it was done out of ‘religious wrath’ or a ‘fundamentalist’ impulse? It simply means that the individual does not fit anymore in the organization, because he does not agree to abide by its core principles.

10. Who is the authority?

For all Ashram related matters, it is obviously the Ashram Trust that enjoys the full authority. For PED (Physical Education Dept of the Ashram) matters, it is the PED that decides, and so also for most departments. There is no doubt about this. That is why the Ashram inmates welcomed the PED decision whereas they remained silent (though somewhat sorrowfully) at the decision of the Trust. Nobody went against the Trust; they only repeatedly kept apprising them, not because they wanted to ‘arm-twist’ the Trustees but because they felt unheeded and unheard (due to their silence). If a clear decision had been taken either way and communicated to everybody, there would have been no confusion. As I have said earlier, there is a time and place for silence and a time and place for speech and communication. To delay certain decisions for long can prove to be costly.

11. Lawsuit:

Certainly not the best way to settle issues. Yet, if all options are closed, it is the only viable way of redress and there is nothing uncivilized about it.

12. A Logical Fallacy:

Finally, one may say that supporting PH while condemning the reactions to the book is a strange and fallacious logic. The same logic used to defend PH defends also the reactions against him. For instance:

(i) PH decontextualized Sri Aurobindo’s writings, quoting them in bits and parts from here and there, so did those who quoted from his book.

(ii) PH is a representative type of humanity but then so are the others.

(iii) PH has analyzed Sri Aurobindo critically (and without a heart) with the lens of a scientific objectivity. The same is being done to him by others.

(iv) PH has intolerance towards other approaches dubbing them as hagiography, dogma, etc. So also others are being dismissive about his approach.

(v) PH has intellectual freedom to write what he wants, so also others are exercising their freedom to criticize him.

(vi) PH has been critical and dismissive towards Sri Aurobindo’s works, so also have been people been towards his work.

(vii) PH has called Sri Aurobindo names (some would have thought he was a megalomaniac, coward, liar, etc); so also have others done the same to PH, called him names.

(viii) You feel love for PH and are defending him, so also we feel love for Sri Aurobindo and are defending him. Or to use your language, you believe and stand for certain mental values such as vital and intellectual freedom. We believe and stand for certain spiritual values such as devotion and surrender when you take up the yoga (not otherwise).

I am not saying that ‘tit for tat’ is a very yogic thing. All that I am doing is to point out a logical fallacy in supporting PH’s personal actions. What should have been done instead was a discussion on the book itself.

13. Circulating the Extracts:

So do you expect that the whole book should have been circulated? That would be worse! And hasn’t PH done the same, giving a one-sided picture by selective half-quotes. And have not those who have analyzed our letters done the same,  taken them out of context. PH’s background, repeated actions of a similar nature, his being part of the Ashram and that too of the Archives, his abrasive personality that hastily dismisses other approaches, his mocking at people’s faith in the Mother, all these are part of the full picture. To simply take a few extracts (that too selected for effect) and analyze them is only to create confusion, nothing else.

14. Representative Type:

Yes, everybody here is a representative type but not all need to stay in a particular department of the Ashram to do yoga and change themselves. And if he is a representative type, so are the others and he is getting it from other representative types! Such logics is obviously self-defeating in the end!

Alok Pandey

April 2009

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5 Dec 2009

A Review by Manoj Pavitran

What is Great?

The most outstanding feature of the book that beats all other biographies that have been written so far is the sheer mass of research data that has made even the bibliography a book by itself. This is where the author excels and this is where we see his labour of love for Sri Aurobindo, who is the very subject of his investigation. No one can persist with such thoroughness for nearly three decades, collecting a huge amount of empirical data from all over the world, without a deep love for the subject. Here is a true researcher excelling in his craft, a lover who persists tirelessly. Any one who wants to investigate Sri Aurobindo’s life in the future will find this an immense treasure. This is the empirical domain, the verifiable data and Peter has done a great job, hats off!

What is Poor?

Once you have the data, you have to organize it in such a way that some new perspectives emerge and then interpret what one perceives or leave the readers to draw their own conclusions. This is a slippery ground where subjective judgments step in and we see the researcher in the author stumbling and becoming somewhat like an art critic and not even a connoisseur; here is where the lover ends and the critic begins, here is where the intellect shuts out the heart. The very opening shot of the book with the two photographs illustrates the pattern, which will be followed throughout the book. One photo is the original and the other is a touched-up version of the same. This much is fact, and putting them together is great to show the difference – it is an excellent view. Now personal preferences and taste come in when one starts interpreting them in one way or the other. Here we have already left the empirical ground and entered purely subjective space where any interpretation can claim itself as truth, and behind such interpretations we can perceive certain intentions, attitudes, etc., of the interpreter. These interpretations reveal more of the author’s inner workings than the object of investigation. If some readers of the book have perceived malicious intentions in it, I wouldn’t blame them. The author is not merely collecting and organizing the data to give us some new perspective, but he is also bringing in active interpretations and myth-making based on his personal preference and taste. If the reader is not careful, he is likely to miss the point where historical data ends and story-telling begins. This is a serious flaw of the book. An amazing layer of data is presented through an equally luxurious and imaginative layer of interpretations. What makes it poor is the author’s claim that his interpretations stand for greater truth than the other biographies of Sri Aurobindo, which he dumps together as hagiographies. Writing a biography of someone like Sri Aurobindo is like blind men describing an elephant, but when one blind man claims that all the others are false, we are dealing with someone who takes his personal views far too seriously and making a religion out of it. A reader should be extremely careful to see through these two layers and take only the facts and leave aside the fiction. But it is not at all easy because the author is an excellent storyteller and weaves fact and fiction seamlessly like a magician. If you have not read Sri Aurobindo’s own writings or his biographies by other writers, you are likely to be mesmerized by Peter’s interpretations and take them to be the truth about Sri Aurobindo.

The Freudian Bug

What makes the book bit silly is when we see the author sniffing around, which looks almost desperate, to find some evidence of sexual dynamics in the life of Sri Aurobindo. His “scholarly research” to find the reason why Sri Aurobindo married is a case in point. His dive into some selected poetry of Sri Aurobindo to analyze its plot shows a little Freud in the closet. It is laughable, to say the least. I wouldn’t say that these adventures have added any depth or credibility to the book; to me it looks rather pathetic. This Freudian bug is evident in quite many places.

Active Omissions

Anyone who is familiar with Sri Aurobindo can see that the author carefully omits quite many well-known aspects of Sri Aurobindo’s life, especially what has been told by the Mother, who in my view is the foremost authority on Sri Aurobindo. The author has no difficulty in using newspaper clippings as documented evidence in his interpretations, but when it comes to documented evidence coming from the Mother, we see a great reluctance to use them and active omissions. The Mother’s words may not be palatable to an academic audience, but to omit them from Sri Aurobindo’s life is not intellectual honesty or historical integrity or academic rigor. Truth is truth, whether it is appealing to the academic world or not, and hiding it to please a particular audience may be good marketing strategy but lowers the standards of truth.

Finally, the continuation of Sri Aurobindo’s work by the Mother and the supramental descent of 1956 are strangely missing, without which Sri Aurobindo’s life is not complete.

Having said all this, I repeat, the greatest value of this biography is in bringing together a huge mass of historical data even if he omits actively quite many. Its main weakness is in too many interpretations and judgments coloured by a personal bias.

Manoj Pavitran
manoj at auroville.org.in

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