An Examination of Larry Seidlitz’s Defence of Heehs’s Biography of Sri Aurobindo
Larry Seidlitz’s defence of Heehs’s biography of Sri Aurobindo is rather lengthy and boring. It corroborates the decontextualisation theory put forward by Heehs by applying it faithfully in example after example, page after page, until you go to sleep. Now the word decontextualisation may be of recent origin but the practice of it is very ancient. It began, as the Mother recounted, with the appearance of the original Four Asuras separating from their divine counterparts. Love, Ananda, Truth and Life became, respectively, Hatred, Suffering, Falsehood and Death when they separated themselves from the Divine, or rather, decontextualised themselves from the larger context of the Divine, in which they were all united. References to decontextualisation of late have been more in the mundane realm of cricket. Ricky Ponting, the Australian captain, exonerated himself of the critical comments he had passed on Gavaskar in his book by the same argument—all this to say, there is no big deal about it, despite the academic pretentiousness with which it has been presented. Let me take Larry’s first and most important example: Sri Aurobindo’s “madness”. He writes: http://www.sciy.org/blog/_archives/2008/11/26/3995462.html )
Probably the most important charge against the book is that it suggests that Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual and mystical experiences are due to “an inherited streak of madness.” In the matter of insanity, my reading of the book is as follows.
After a lengthy section on the Record of Yoga which begins with a concise, detailed overview of the structure and character of the Yoga that Sri Aurobindo was practicing, followed by extended excerpts from Sri Aurobindo’s diary describing numerous mystical experiences and the implementation of supernormal powers illustrative of this practice, the author interrupts to deal with a “question that may have occurred to some readers.”(p. 245) He notes that whereas such mystical experiences are common to the Indian mythological and mystical literatures, in the psychiatry and clinical psychology literatures they bear similarity to symptoms of schizophrenia. He cites Freud's view that they "should be understood on the pattern of the individual neurotic systems familiar to us." (p. 246) In the next sentence, he counters that "a defender of mysticism would argue that the truth value of mystical experience is so much greater than the truth value of psychiatry—a discipline based on dubious assumptions—that any attempt by the latter to explain the former is absurd.” Then to support a neutral stance, he says "But unless the defender was an experienced mystic, this would just be substituting one set of unverified assumptions for another. When I speak of Aurobindo’s experiences, my aim is not to argue either for their veracity or for their delusiveness; I simply present some of the documented events of his inner life and provide a framework for evaluating them." (p. 246)
So what is this framework for evaluating these mystical experiences? In the next paragraph, Peter discusses William James’s view that “such experiences had to be interpreted in the immediate context of the religious consciousness.” The correct criteria for judging them were ‘immediate luminousness,’ ‘philosophical reasonableness,’ and ‘moral helpfulness.’ Later writers continued on similar lines. (p. 246) Peter then adds Anton Boisen's view, which suggested that “‘certain types of mental disorder and certain types of religious experience... [were] attempts at [personality] reorganization.’ When successful, such attempts can lead to a new synthesis; when unsuccessful they lead to insanity." Peter clarifies that "Neither Boisen nor James attempted to erase the line between mysticism and madness." He then adds Sudhir Kakar’s view "that the distinguishing sign of psychosis in such cases was ‘painful or anxious affect.’ In the absence of psychological pain or anxiety, ‘certain types of mystical experience’ could be regarded as having ‘their ground in creativity, akin to the heightened fantasy of an artist or a writer, rather than in pathology.’ ” (p. 246)
Peter then goes on to consider the evidence bearing on such an evaluation of Sri Aurobindo's mystical experiences in the light of this psychological framework: “Most of Aurobindo's experiences are familiar to the mystic traditions of India and elsewhere. He wrote about them in language that is reasonable and luminous, though often hard to understand. Some of this writing is in the form of diary notations that were concurrent with the experiences. Around the same time he also wrote more than a dozen books on philosophy, textual interpretation, social science, and literary and cultural criticism, along with a mass of miscellaneous prose and poetry. Numerous scholars admire these works for their clarity and consistency; thousands of readers believe that they have been helped spiritually or mentally by them. No contemporary ever remarked that Aurobindo suffered painful or anxious feelings as a result of his experiences. In one or two letters written in the 1930s, he wrote that his life had been a struggle, and hinted at dangers and difficulties as great as any "which human beings have borne," but at no time did he give evidence to others of inner or outer stress. Indeed, virtually everyone who met him found him unusually calm, dispassionate, and loving—and eminently sane. The reports to the contrary are so rare that they can be examined individually. (p. 247)
Peter then briefly takes note of three or four individuals who suggested that Sri Aurobindo was mentally imbalanced, and then, after individually discrediting each of their claims, collectively dismisses them: "these scattered reports by people out of sympathy with him are hardly significant in themselves; viewed together with every other known report of Aurobindo's character, they stand out as exceptions." (p. 247)
In the next paragraph: Peter notes that "Calm—shanti—was the first element of Aurobindo's yoga; balance—samata—was its basis. Asked in 1926 about his ability to overcome the difficulty of yoga, he replied: ‘A perfect yoga requires perfect balance. That was the thing that saved me—the perfect balance.’ ” (p. 247) 
… It would seem impossible to conclude from these passages that Peter has either openly or covertly suggested that Sri Aurobindo was mentally unbalanced or that mental illness was somehow the basis of his spiritual experiences.
Let me come straight to the point and, if necessary, expand on the brief comment I have already made at http://www.mirroroftomorrow.org/blog/_archives/2008/12/31/4040462.html (In Defence of the Extracts) on this decontextualisation theory by which Larry gives a clean chit to Heehs. In the above mentioned passage on Sri Aurobindo’s madness, it is Heehs who gives a clean chit, or what I would call “a certificate of mental sanity” to Sri Aurobindo (!), after examining him thoroughly from various angles. He begins his scrutiny from the Freudian point of view which interprets spiritual experience in terms of schizophrenia. What a wonderful way to start assessing Sri Aurobindo by a senior editor of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives! What a remarkable show of responsibility! I am sure no one who has joined the Ashram ever considered Sri Aurobindo from this point of view. We were ready to accept that we could go mad in Yogic misadventures, but never imagined that our beloved Master himself could have been a madcap!
Heehs then proceeds to counter the “madcap theory” by saying that “a defender of mysticism would argue that the truth value of mystical experience is so much greater than the truth value of psychiatry… that any attempt by the latter to explain the former is absurd.” Absolutely correct, this is what all disciples and admirers of Sri Aurobindo would love to hear, especially when their Master is at stake! But no, our hopes are again dashed to pieces when he insists on the verifiability of spiritual experiences! How can he believe in Sri Aurobindo’s testimony of spiritual experiences unless they are first analysed by the psychiatrists? So there come in two more heavyweights—William James and Anton Boisen—who give some comfort and solace to us, though they do not basically distinguish the Yogi from the madman. But why should they? It is also unfair on our behalf to expect them to do so. Psychologists or psychiatrists will necessarily limit themselves to their profession and technically judge both the madman’s ravings and the Yogi’s spiritual experiences by the effect they have on their patient’s mental health. So if the effects are positives states of “immediate luminousness”, “philosophical reasonableness”, or “moral helpfulness”, the experiences or ravings would be considered beneficial to mental health. If not, there is a strong case to send him to the asylum. Bluntly put, in the present context, it means that Sri Aurobindo may or may not have been a madcap. What a consolation!
Heehs finally does the rescue act when he has almost sunk our ship of hope. He submits Sri Aurobindo to one last test of psychoanalysis by Sudhir Kakar, according to whom, the distinguishing sign of psychosis is a “painful and anxious affect”. On further examination of evidence, we are assured that Sri Aurobindo certainly did not suffer from this “anxious affect”, because “everyone who met him found him unusually calm, dispassionate, and loving—and eminently sane.” Moreover, he authored dozens of books on various subjects with exceptional clarity and consistency which numerous scholars have admired. Certainly such creativity could not have been the result of insanity. In other words, rest assured, Sri Aurobindo was not a madcap!
We have more reasons to be optimistic in the next paragraph. Sri Aurobindo at last is given a chance to speak for himself after all the severe tests he has been put through. Asked in 1926 about his ability to overcome difficulties in his Yoga, he replies: “A perfect yoga requires perfect balance. That was the thing that saved me—the perfect balance.” But on what basis do we accept now Sri Aurobindo’s testimony? I thought we were supposed to have more confidence in the psychiatrist’s certificate of sanity than all the books Sri Aurobindo had written on the basis of his spiritual experiences. In any case, the impression conveyed at this point is that Sri Aurobindo was definitely not a madcap, and that he was a well-balanced, mentally fit, cool, spiritual guy! So what is wrong about the passage? Nothing, says Larry. Let me explain now how wrong Larry is!
First let us enumerate the various views in the sequence of their presentation:
(1) The Freudian view
(2) Sri Aurobindo’s view
(3) The views of William James and Anton Boisen
(4) The criterion of Sudhir Kakar to judge insanity
(5) and finally Sri Aurobindo’s view.
Now, first and foremost, why did the author bring in at all views of the psychiatrists? The serious consideration of these totally irrelevant views in judging a well-known spiritual figure gives you such a shock that you can never recover from it, despite the positive note on which the scrutiny ends. Why at all scrutinise Sri Aurobindo from this angle unless you have serious doubts about his mental sanity? It is not so much a question of the psychiatrists’ credibility in judging spiritual experience as much as the very necessity of bringing in their views into the presentation. For you generally refer a person to a psychiatrist when he shows symptoms of psychosis, which are often pretty evident to a layman. You go to him to have these mental ailments analysed and cured, and not when a person is as fit as a fiddle! Did Sri Aurobindo evince serious symptoms of psychosis in order to deserve such psychiatric attention? Heehs himself denies it, despite citing a couple of incidents of unusual anger in Sri Aurobindo’s life. Then why did he undertake this whole exercise of first rousing the suspicion of the reader with regard to Sri Aurobindo’s mental sanity and then dismissing its possibility at the end? I can think of nothing but a cunning attempt to denigrate and defame Sri Aurobindo in the eyes of not only the general public, but more particularly his disciples and devotees.
In more familiar terms, the presentation can be compared to that of a sane and well-balanced man dragged to the psychiatrist by his enemies on the charge that he has lost his mental equilibrium, or an honest person summoned to the court on false allegations of corruption, or an untainted Olympic champion accused of taking steroids. They all get a clean chit at the end but the unwarranted process sullies their names and sows the seeds of doubt in the public mind. The method adopted by Heehs is to first inflict heavy damage to the public image of the concerned person, an irreparable blow to his prestige, despite the damage-control exercise he undertakes at the end. The task of damage control is actually a deceptive cover and a clever justification of the initial damage that he perpetrates, as if the good work were an excuse to do all the bad work. Incidentally, this method reflects Heehs’s own professional career. He has done plenty of good work at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives, but unfortunately, all that seems to be discredited by this malicious intention behind this book.
What if I say now that it is Heehs who should be checked up by a psychiatrist for schizophrenia, because there seems to be an irreconcilable double personality in him? How will he react to it? Will he go merrily to the doctor and say, “Doc, the public wants you to check whether I am a psychotic or not”, or will he get annoyed and say, “What the heck are you talking about?” I can anticipate the storm this suggestion of mine is going to create among his supporters, but it is only in this way that they will experience a little bit of the trauma that thousands of admirers and disciples have gone through when they came to know about what had been written on their Master. For the sane person whom Heehs has dragged to the psychiatrist, happens to be one of the greatest spiritual figures of the last century, whom the entire Indian nation from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, reveres — Sri Aurobindo. However, if he still insists on Sri Aurobindo being subjected to this shoddy treatment, then I have every right to suggest that he should get himself first mentally examined.
What gives this whole matter a further twist is that Heehs has claimed himself to be the “founder” of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives in his book, which he was certainly not. Jayantilal Parekh, a Gujerati disciple, much loved and respected for his ability to inspire people to dedicate themselves to the multifarious work at the Archives, was its founder. Now this is a serious matter amounting to impersonation, for which Heehs could land himself into deep trouble. I suppose he thought he would get away with this obvious publicity stunt to promote his book, but no, he has been caught this time and exposed under the full glare of media attention. But even if he had claimed to be a senior member of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives involved from its very inception, which according to my information is quite correct, the implications are grave enough. For it means that after considerable research of Sri Aurobindo’s original documents and related papers, he has scrupulously arrived at some disturbing conclusions, due to which he found it necessary to test Sri Aurobindo’s mental sanity, question the nature of his relationship with the Mother, make disparaging remarks not only on his magnum opus The Life Divine but several of his other major works, and in general throw cold water on all the “theatricals” performed by his disciples in front of their Master during Darshan time. And this he expected the admirers and disciples of Sri Aurobindo to take lying down or silently ignore with equanimity!
But what is really incomprehensible to me is not so much his criticism of Sri Aurobindo but the reason for his living in the Ashram after having developed such an aversion for its Guru! Was he there for 37 years only to avail of the basic necessities of life without feeling any allegiance to the founder of the institution he was serving? I would think not, but if he had really wished to write about him in this way, he should have, as Dr Mohanty advised him in his first reaction to the book, severed “his institutional linkages that he has had so far, and write as an independent scholar, something which many writers do.” It would have been for him the right and honourable course to follow. Had he done that, very few would have cared to protest about his book and it would never have raised such an unprecedented storm among the disciples of Sri Aurobindo. But his insistence on not having done anything wrong by criticising Sri Aurobindo, while living as a disciple in his Ashram for such a long time, has raised grave suspicions on his real motives. The question that is being asked is whether he intends to erode the Ashram from within, that is, sow the seeds of doubt and destroy it by a slow process of inner corrosion. This may very well be true and an attitude of condoning negligence towards him at this stage might prove to be too costly for the institution in the future. For after a few more years of diligent research, Heehs might come up with fresh conclusions, perhaps proving this time that Sri Aurobindo had indeed a streak of lunacy, due to which he led all his disciples into this impossible Yoga of Transformation, which has resulted in so many failures. Then our blind Indian “intelligentsia” will nod its head, shrug its shoulders and say, “Since a Western scholar says so, it must be true!” That is why most people who serve an institution in good faith prefer an enemy without to such an insidious enemy within!
As for the academic pretensions of Heehs, he would have been on stronger ground had he straightaway declared himself as a non-believer of spirituality. But he does not, though he obviously gives more credence to Freud and the other psychiatrists than Sri Aurobindo with regard to spiritual experiences. He says he is writing for the Western academics and not for the Indian devotee—as if there are no Western devotees or Indian intellectuals—but what about his own opinions? Do his opinions vary according to the reader he addresses? At the same time, he claims neutrality and objectivity as if he has nothing to do with his own presentation. But pure objectivity does not exist, because you necessarily take a position, depending on your predilections. I repeat what I have written in an earlier article on the same subject, that there is “no such thing as no position in life”. How can you assert, for example, “I do not believe in anything”, or “I am located nowhere”, unless you are simply ignorant of what you believe in or you are not even aware of where you are? Beliefs are inbuilt or imbibed depending on the environment you grow up in and physical locations are automatically taken whether you like it or not. One could concede at the most a certain historical objectivity to the bare facts of a person’s outer life, or a classification of different schools of philosophy or psychology in an Encyclopaedia (even here I have my doubts), but the moment you apply them to a particular case, such as the evaluation of a spiritual personality, the presentation will necessarily become subjective.
The presentation will reflect the author’s mind by its very expression, by the very exercise of carefully balancing each statement and counterbalancing it with different or opposite statements. The effect on the reader will be determined not only by the content, but also by the sequence and stress given to various views, in the case when multiple views are quoted. An overall negative impression will be conveyed if what I call “the final balance of opinion” tilts to the negative side. If this “final balance of opinion” tilts to the positive side in spite of the mention of counteracting views, and if the reader happens to agree with the author, then the former will express his satisfaction. If not, he will express his dissatisfaction, which is precisely the case with me now. Heehs almost always conveys a negative final impression of Sri Aurobindo to the reader, especially in the above mentioned passage, in which a half-hearted and grudging counterbalancing is attempted in the middle and at the end. That is why his argument of a neutral presentation of various views is a big hoax and a practical joke! Unfortunately many have been fooled by it, except those who have read with their heart. Many well-meaning intellectuals like Larry himself have been trapped by this deception of “ending on a good note”, without realising that the author has dealt an irrecoverable body blow at the very beginning of the passage. Mostly they read with only the mind, without feeling the full impact on the heart, get confused by the sudden transitions from sympathy to hostility or neutrality and vice versa, and as the argument always ends on a positive note, they conclude that “All’s well that ends well”. But, as a matter of fact, the whole presentation can be charged for defamation of Sri Aurobindo’s character in an exceedingly clever and deliberately confusing way!
Coming now to Heehs’s weird theory of “the right of rebuttal” in order to truly assess a person’s greatness, it seems to be more like the principle of criminal investigation, by which all possible culprits are suspects unless and until they are proved not guilty. It pays good dividends to the police because no leaf is left unturned and the culprit often turns out to be the most unexpected person. But the method can hardly be profitable in the literary or spiritual fields where positive aspects have to be proved and there is no criminality involved. You can at the most arrive with it at the disproof of the negative, but what about the proof of the positive? You can prove that a wise man is not foolish, but can you prove that he is wise? You cannot, because the basic stance adopted in the method is full of suspicion and cynicism, which never gives you any chance to express genuine admiration. In fact, the attitude stems from a deep distaste for praise or admiration of true greatness, which is symptomatic of the general breakdown of values in modern times. This kind of mind does not feel comfortable without indulging in needless criticism because that is the only way it can assert its individuality and show the world its intelligence. Somebody even suggested on an Internet forum that this is the way Americans venerate their heroes, by attacking them—God save the society which breeds such ideas. Whither are we heading? Do we want a society without any constructive idealism, without any lofty thoughts, without any moral or spiritual heroes whom we can emulate?
Now I can understand a certain aversion for eulogy and over-praise, or the need to legitimately assess the human aspects of a great person who towers above us, but it is hard to accept this habit of dragging him down to our own level of imperfection. In India, tradition makes us respect the great and it is true that we often indulge in over-praise and pay too many artificial tributes. But this tendency is essentially harmless, which is the reason why it is tolerated. We also refuse to see the human limitations of supra-human personalities, often at the expense of intellectual honesty, but that is because we want to focus our attention on their sublime aspects and not on their human frailties. If this attitude is unrealistically positive, then I would call its opposite unrealistically negative. In any case, what is the practical use of noticing and emphasising a few black spots on the otherwise unblemished nature of the truly great and admirable? This “critical method” precisely concentrates so much on the blemishes that the author often forgets the reason why he is writing a book. It is so concerned in proving the “lack of greatness” that one wonders whether the book was worth writing at all. As for giving a truly realistic picture of a great person without losing his greatness in the process of making it realistic, what I would do is not to censor the faults or gloss over the dark spots, but give them just enough attention not to spoil the total picture—paint a few clouds but not let the sun disappear behind them. It is only the right attitude that can paint the right picture with the right balance of light and shade, without sacrificing on intellectual honesty!
 I have not quoted Larry’s comment on the shorter passage on pp 386-387 (read his full article) on the same subject of Sri Aurobindo’s madness in order to avoid a repetition of the argument that I have used to rebut the main passage on pp 245-247. I hope I would not be again accused of decontextualising Larry’s argument by doing so.