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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