[Full text of Dr. Sachidananda Mohanty's letter to the Ashram Trust.]
DEPARTMENT OF ENGLISH
UNIVERSITY OF HYDERABAD
HYDERABAD 500 046, (A.P.) INDIA
Dr. Sachidananda Mohanty
Professor and Head
17 September 2008
The Trustees of Sri Aurobindo Ashram
Pondicherry 605 002
Sub: Peter Heehs’ book: The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, Columbia
University Press, 2008.
I do not quite know in what capacity I am writing this letter. Technically, I am an “outsider”, but ideologically and spiritually, I consider myself a member of the larger Ashram community. I had the good fortune to be admitted by the Mother into the SAICE, and my career there spanned from 1966-1975. Currently, I am the Professor and Head, at the Hyderabad Central University. As some one who sees his life deeply connected with the upbringing he received at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, allow me to share my thoughts regarding the sense of dismay many have felt following the publication of the above mentioned biography by Peter Heehs. Perhaps as an academician, my comments may be germane to the discussion at hand.
I shall divide my response to the present issue into three parts. I shall avoid what other correspondents have already said in their letters to the trustees. In Section I, I shall respond briefly to the academic side of the question since this seems to constitute the main line of defense of Peter Heehs , and his apologists. In Section II, I shall suggest some correctives to the impasse, and finally, I shall offer some reflections for the future well being of our community. I believe the last is a collective responsibility.
I am aware of Peter Heehs’ work in Sri Aurobindo: Archives and Research. I have read his authored and edited volumes. I have also gone through some of his articles in professional journals. Most of these are on Sri Aurobindo and related subjects. I have liked some aspects of his work and benefited from them, while I have had reservation about some others. Some of these I had pointed out to Manoj Das, Vijay Poddar and Manoj Das Gupta as far back as 1996. There was no action taken. At any rate none of the three whom I hold in high esteem got back to me.
I have had some experience in the area of textual and archival research. I worked, for example, at The Humanities Research Centre, Texas, Austin and Beineke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, Yale University, on a Fulbright Scholarship. Nearer at home, I carried out archival research that resulted in two pioneering studies Early Women’s Writing: A Lost Tradition, New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2005 and Gender and Cultural Identity in Colonial Orissa, Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 2008.
In addition, I have edited three volumes dealing with the vision of Sri Aurobindo. My most recent work in this area, Sri Aurobindo: A Contemporary Reader, New Delhi: Routledge, 2008, attempts to offer a reading of Sri Aurobindo’s international vision. Incidentally, both Sage and Routledge are international publications.
I am thus broadly aware of the current scholarship in this area. I am basically a literary and cultural critic. I believe, I am in a position to offer critical comments on some of the key assumptions of Peter Heehs in his latest book.
The modest familiarity I had with archival research gave me a valuable perspective, namely that critical judgement of men and matters is an extremely difficult task. The editor/biographer’s comments have to be balanced, nuanced and tempered, and not sweeping or opinionated. After all, the dead cannot come back to defend their honor or point of view. One must approach the study of the lives of great personalities in a spirit of modesty and understanding. There is a big difference between subservience and sympathy and every scholar worth his/her salt knows the difference. To cite one example, Aldous Huxley’s introduction to the Life of Sri Ramakrishna is marked by such a critical temper. He remains therefore for me, a good role model in this sense.
(1) Critical Method: Mr. Heehs’ reading of the narrative of Sri Aurobindo is in keeping with a currently accepted practice of reading against the grain. Fair enough! However, his claim of an overriding “objectivity” must also be seen carefully against the prevalent view on the subject. The very choice of a subject of research, for instance, the selection and arrangement of “facts” and “evidence”, all come invariably through the prism of the subjective self of a researcher. Words and comments themselves, including those used by Heehs in his latest book, are not value neutral. The decision to rely on one set of evidence to form one’s judgement rather than on some other, is also a deeply subjective act. Rather than claiming the high-moral ground of objectivity, the current practice, especially in the post-colonial context, is to be upfront about one’s approach and unpack one’s ideological predilections in a self reflexive manner at the outset for the reader to see. This is absent in Peter Heehs’ biography of Sri Aurobind, although he seems to indicate some of his preferences now and then. On the whole, however, one finds that evidence is not offered in a neutral a manner for the readers to judge. Quite the contrary, Mr. Heehs interprets events quite constantly while claiming objectivity. Clearly; he cannot have it both ways.
As a counterpoint, one can see the interesting and insightful manner spirituality, ethics and politics intersect in Chicago-based, post-colonial critic Leela Gandhi’s fine and nuanced study of colonialism and the politics of friendship in her path breaking work: Anti-Colonial Thought: Affective Communities and Politics of Friendship, Duke University, 2006; Permanent Black, 2006. We may contrast this study, part of which deals with the creative encounter between Mirra Alfassa (the Mother) and Sri Aurobindo, with the somewhat prurient account offered by Heehs (pp. 326-327) and come to our own conclusions.
(2) Textual Traditions:
Every genre (and the biographical mode is one such) must deal with the textual tradition of a given work. And thus, in dealing with a biography of a primarily spiritual figure such as Sri Ramakrishna, Ramana Maharshi or Sri Aurobindo, one can legitimately use approaches and modes of analysis that are innate and integral to that particular genre. This by itself does not turn the work in question automatically into a hagiographic account. For instance, the distinction between faith and dogma, religion and spirituality that Sri Aurobindo makes in his world view is fundamental to understanding his oeuvres. Peter is thus far off the mark when he asserts as a generalization, “matters of faith quickly become matters of dogma” in deciding about the entire question of Avatarhood. As a general proposition, this seems to be valid, although, in the Aurobindonian context, the distinction is of vital importance. Sri Aurobindo, it must be noted, devotes considerable space in his writings to explain the centrality of faith as distinguished from regression and obscurantism. We may see the truth of this aspect in his essay “True and False Subjectivism” in Human Cycle. Peter adduces no convincing reasons for dismissing alternative approaches to what is generally considered a purely “secular” or non-hagiographic reading. For instance, there could well be a non-secular and non-hagiographic reading of a spiritual figure. Why are we ruling these out? I have for instance, in my book on Sri Aurobindo, by Routledge (2008) attempted such an alternative (non-devotee) approach.
(3) Absolute freedom of a Writer: Clearly, this is a myth. While book banning and book burning are abhorrent acts and are counterproductive, every author/ editor, it is well known, is bound by trade disciplines, contractual agreements and obligations and copyright regulations. Further, a writer writes in a cultural and political context. His/her affiliations to communities and organizations are often cited as “authoritative” or “authentic” texts by publishing houses. Peter’s affiliation with the Ashram’s archive, as evidenced in the jacket covers/back page blurbs of his published books, or fliers/ promotional literature, are cases in point. For the very same reason, sentiments of a given community, whether one likes them or not, are also important factors that authors and publishers must take into account.
As an insider, one must write with care and sensitivity, and not in a spirit of disdain and dismissal. As a custodian of Sri Aurobindo archive, one is surely expected to uphold the trust bestowed upon one self by the institution.
(4) In case Peter Heehs wishes to write against the grain, the logical and honorable course for him would be to severe his institutional linkages that he has had so far, and write as an independent scholar, something which many writers do. It must be said that most institutions in the modern world are guided by written and unwritten regulations. This is as true in writing the institutional history of the Ford Foundation, the Fulbright Commission or the Central Sahitya Akademi, as the history of the Ashram or its Founders. I have had direct experience of this as a
(5) writer and a critic. There is no such thing as absolute freedom in life. Neither is there in literary creativity.
In the light of the above discussion (I have refrained from repeating arguments already advanced by others) I would suggest the following:
(1) Professionally and ethically, Mr. Peter Heehs should dissociate himself voluntarily from Sri Aurobindo Ashram and its Archives if he feels convinced about the correctness of his approach. There are fundamental differences between his approach and world view and that of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram as an institution. Again, his view clashes essentially with that of a philosopher whose vision, in the final analysis, rests upon faith and transcendence, on the reality of the inner world and the mystical domain rather than on the touchstone of empirical reason. This will be an honorable course for Mr. Heehs the author to adopt. This will also be perfectly in line with his cherished beliefs and world view.
In the first instance, therefore, the Ashram authorities ought to offer such an option to Mr. Heehs.
(2) Institutionally, as a corollary, the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust would be justified in distancing itself from Peter Heehs, his present book and its publisher(s). The proper line to adopt is to maintain that Heehs’ book is one more reading of Sri Aurobindo but that it has no backing of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram as an institution.
Next, since archives are a crucial storehouse of institutional memory, and contributes vitally in determining its future, it would be logical and ethical for the Sri Aurobindo Ashram as an institution to demand the withdrawal of Peter Heehs as a professional from the Archives. Free speech and anarchism ¾ what ever their appeal to utopian and idealistic thinking-- are always balanced in real life by a carefully constructed self-image that a community has for itself. As I have argued so far, in the present case, this self-image must be anchored vitally and substantially to Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy of terrestrial evolution, which remains, in the final analysis, an Ideal.
What are the lessons?
First, we need to strengthen the academic/intellectual side of the Sri Aurobindo International Centre for Education. We must fashion out a way of intellectual training of the young students and critics that fits into Sri Aurobindo’s injunction about the office and limitation of Reason, expounded in Human Cycle and elsewhere. The Mind, Sri Aurobindo says, most emphatically, has to be developed as an instrument, and open itself to higher Truths of Life. If we do not do this, we cannot blame others who are not attuned to this approach, from taking over and filling the void, as it has regrettably happened now. In this regard, we must be prepared to take the help of the ex-students of the Ashram who have had considerable training in this regard in the outside world. We must remember that either we move forward or go backward. There is no third alternative.
Clearly, as spirituality enjoins upon us, the best way of living within in our context, is to immerse ourselves in the writings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. While dogma and religiosity are to be shunned at all costs, we must internalize the Aurobindonian view of life which alone can safeguard us against aberrations and pitfalls. When a sufficiently large number of a community practise an ethical and spiritual life (ethics is not a bad word), then they would generate a force that alone can act as an effective antidote to darkness and ignorance.
Conclusion: Clarity of vision leads to a clarity of action. Those that are at the helms of affairs of a community must have a larger vision and discharge their responsibilities without fear and favor. The Sri Aurobindo Ashram was founded upon spiritual Realizations. As ordinary mortals, we can at least have conviction in the basic Truth of the Founders!
Is this too much to expect!
Jul 27, 2009
[Full text of Dr. Sachidananda Mohanty's letter to the Ashram Trust.]
Jul 9, 2009
The Preface is full of personal opinions and sets the tone for the rest of the book.
I FIRST ENCOUNTERED Aurobindo in 1968 in a yoga center on 57th Street in Manhattan. The teacher was an elderly Polish Jew with a suitably Indian name. He gave instructions in postures and breathing for a fee, dietary and moral advice gratis. Between lessons, he told stories about his years of wandering in India. Among the artifacts he brought back were photographs of people he called "realized beings," which covered the walls of his studio. One of them was of Aurobindo as an old man. I did not find it particularly remarkable, as the subject wore neither loincloth nor turban, and had no simulated halo around his head.
A few months later, after a brief return to college and a stopover in a wild uptown "ashram," I found myself living in another yoga center housed, improbably, in a building on Central Park West. Here there were just three pictures on the wall, one of them the standard portrait of Aurobindo (figure i). I was struck by the peaceful expanse of his brow, his trouble-free face, and fathomless eyes. It would be years before I learned that all of these features owed their distinctiveness to the retoucher's art.
Nasty and unwarranted comment upon the photograph. It means that the distinctive features such as the peaceful expanse of Sri Aurobindo's brow, trouble free face and fathomless eyes are due to the retoucher’s art. Incidentally, this photograph is kept in many people’s rooms as a symbol of divinity and a source of strength for them.
The center had the most complete collection of Aurobindo's writings in New York. I started with a compilation of his philosophical works, which I could not understand. Undeterred, I tried some of his shorter writings, which seemed to make a lot of sense to me. By then I had read a number of books by "realized beings" of the East and West. Most of them consisted of what I now would call spiritual cliches. This is not to suggest that bits of advice like "remain calm in all circumstances" or "seek the truth beneath the surface" are not valid or useful. But if they do not form part of a coherent view of life, they remain empty verbiage.
“Words of realised beings mostly consist of spiritual clichés … empty verbiage” is dismissive right from the start about what realised beings say.
Most of the documents I found in public archives dealt with Aurobindo's life as a politician. They confirmed that he had been an important figure in the Struggle for Freedom, but fell short of proving what his followers believed: that he was the major cause of its success. Nevertheless, his contribution was significant and, at the time, not very well known. Accounts that had been written to correct this deficiency were so uncritical that they undermined their own inflated claims.
Hurting sentiments through unconfirmed statements claiming that the devotees' claims are inflated.
The most remarkable discovery was a diary he had kept for more than nine years, in which he noted the day-to-day events of his inner and outer life. Most biographies of Aurobindo have made his sadhana, or practice of yoga, seem like a series of miracles. His diary made it clear that he had to work hard to achieve the states of consciousness that are the basis of his yoga and philosophy.
Adverse comment on other biographers thereby promoting himself while belittling others. Sowing seeds of doubts in people’s minds about any miraculous statements that may be alluded to Sri Aurobindo. Creating doubts about his divinity. Casting aspersions on Sri Aurobindo’s own statements.
Miracle or not, this statement is factually inaccurate and contradicts some of Sri Aurobindo’s own statements. For example, some of the major experiences of Sri Aurobindo came spontaneously and one may say quite effortlessly (miraculously). These include, among others, major experiences such as the sense of a vastness and calm on touching the Indian soil, the sense of the infinite while walking on the ridge of Solomon in Kashmir, the vision of the Godhead while on a carriage, the presence of the World Mother while gazing at the image of Kali, and of course Nirvana in three, actually one day, and finally the vision of the One Divine everywhere. These are not ordinary achievements. The diary he is referring to was much later, from 1912, when Sri Aurobindo’s personal realisations of the traditional paths were already over and he had started working on the earth nature for its transformation. It is then that the process slowed down, as he had to tackle the difficulties of universal nature one by one and take them to their ultimate perfection, a task that was never attempted before. But PH’s statement makes it appear as if the disciples were exaggerating his achievements and everything came with great difficulty and hard labour for him. Cited below for reference:
‘Now to reach Nirvana was the first radical result of my own yoga (this was in 1907). It threw me suddenly into a condition above and without thought, unstained by any mental or vital movement; there was no ego, no real world- …There was no One or many even…only just absolutely That, featureless, relationless, …yet supremely real and solely real. This was no mental realisation…I lived in that Nirvana day and night…it was the spirit that saw objects…and the Peace, the Silence, the freedom in Infinity remained always, with the world or all worlds only as a continuous incident in the timeless eternity of the Divine. …Nirvana in my liberated consciousness turned out to be the beginning…a first step…It came unasked, unsought for, though quite welcome…without even a “May I come in”…’ (SABCL : LOY Pages 49-50}
By making the above statement, PH is not only casting aspertions on the honesty of the disciples but also on Sri Aurobindo himself!
The genre of hagiography, in the original sense of the term, is very much alive in India. Any saint with a following is the subject of one or more books that tell the inspiring story of his or her birth, growth, mission, and passage to the eternal. Biographies of literary and political figures do not differ much from this model. People take the received version of their heroes' lives very seriously. A statement about a politician or poet that rubs people the wrong way will be turned into a political or legal issue, or possibly cause a riot. The problem is not whether the disputed statement is true, but whether anyone has the right to question an account that flatters a group identity.
Casting aspersions on Indians as hagiographers as if all the biographies of saints are hagiographies. This also falsifies the position of many previous biographies of other heroes. Too sweeping a statement giving the impression that Indians are untrue and flatter their group identity at all costs. It clearly shows that the author was completely aware as to what he was doing and its possible consequences. He is simultaneously building a defence for himself as an exponent of truth that is not flattering, though hidden beneath this concern for truth is merely an overcritical attitude.
Aurobindo has been better served by his biographers than most of his contemporaries have. But when I began to write articles about his life, I found that there were limits to what his admirers wanted to hear. Anything that cast doubt on something that he said was taboo, even if his statement was based on incomplete knowledge of the facts. Almost as bad was anything that challenged an established interpretation, even one that clearly was inadequate.
Casting aspersions on previous biographers and doubting their honesty. Casting aspersions on the admirers. Again the author is almost finding an excuse to be critical. The fact is that whenever Peter has tried to give alternate explanations, he has shown how his alternate explanations were wrong and how he has been twisting the data to fit into his doctrine.
Bogey of an example used to commit mental disfigurement and hurt sentiments again, as these photographs are associated in people’s minds with the sense of divinity.
Figure I. Aurobindo, circa 1915-16 (the "standard portrait").
Figure 2 is a photograph of Aurobindo that was taken around the same time as figure 1. Note the dark, pockmarked skin, sharp features, and undreamy eyes.
Indicates a kind of perversity in taking pleasure in vilifying beauty.
I sometimes wonder why people like figure 1. …The sparkling eyes have been painted in; even the hair has been given a gloss. As a historical document it is false. … It is the task of the retoucher to make the photograph accord with the reality that people want to see.
How does he know this? First of all, he is comparing two different photographs. This is an unfair comparison, scientifically incorrect. If he is so particular about it, he should have compared the original untouched with the same photograph touched up. If not, this comparison was unnecessary given the fact that during those days photography did not reproduce the image so well and retouching was quite necessary to bring some resemblance to the original. Moreover, the shine of the eyes can differ even from day to day. So how does he assert that the eyes have been retouched and therefore it is a false document?
Hagiographers deal with documents the way that retouchers deal with photographs. Biographers must take their documents as they find them. They have to examine all sorts of materials, paying as much attention to what is written by the subject's enemies as by his friends, not giving special treatment even to the subject's own version of events. Accounts by the subject have exceptional value, but they need to be compared against other narrative accounts and, more important, against documents that do not reflect a particular point of view.
Justifying his actions by making false statements. The fact is that he has neither indicated who was the enemy whose statement he has taken and who was a friend. In fact there are plenty of personal opinions and often unwarranted and illogical, unsupported by any document. The claim of objectivity is false and is used only as a cover to justify his own hostile intentions. We shall see that later in abundance.
…But what about mystical experiences? In trying to trace the lines of Aurobindo's sadhana, a biographer can use the subject's diaries, letters, and retrospective accounts. There are also, for comparison, accounts by others of similar mystical experiences. But in the end, such experiences remain subjective. Perhaps they are only hallucinations or signs of psychotic breakdown. Even if not, do they have any value to anyone but the subject?
Belittling mystic experiences. Shows his leanings even before he has started writing the biography.
Special thanks to the late Jayantilal Parekh of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives and to Michael Murphy of the Esalen Institute.
Thanks to Ashok Acharya, Rukun Advani, Duncan Bazemore, Francis Bertaud, Anuradha Bhattacharya, Liviu Bordas, Ratan Lai Chakraborty, AK. Dutta, PL. Dutta, Leela Gandhi, Aloka Ghosh, Ela Ghosh, Medha Gunay, Leslie Kriesel, Jeffrey Kripal, Marcel Kvassay, Julian Lines, Wendy Lines, Wendy Lochner, Raphael Malangin, Alka Mishra, Amp Mitra, the late Joya Mitter, Janine Morisset, Ajit Neogy, Neela Patel, Ramesh Patel, Madhumita Patnaik, Shanti Pillai, Olivier Pironneau, Stephen Phillips, Jacques Pouchepadass, Raman Reddy, Lalita Roy, Niharendu Roy, the late Ratnalekha Roy, Dhir Sarangi, the late Ambapremi Shah, Maurice Shukla, Brian Slattery, Chaitanya Swain, and Bob Zwicker.
Thanks also to the librarians, archivists, and staff of the Archives Nation-ales, Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Baroda Record Office, India Office Library and Records, Institut Français de Pondichéry, National Archives of India, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives, Sri Aurobindo Library, West Bengal State Archives, and the other institutions listed in the bibliography; and to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry; Sri Aurobindo Ashram Branch, New Delhi; Sri Aurobindo Bhavan, Kolkata; Sri Aurobindo Institute of Culture, Kolkata; and Sri Aurobindo Society, Vadodara.
Apologies to any individual or institution whose name I have inadvertently omitted from the above lists.
No Comments. Read the highlighted names and draw your own conclusions.
Jul 2, 2009
I would like to add a few points to Amal Kiran’s brilliant article in the Mother India issue of May 1988 on Peter Heehs’ misinterpretation of Sri Aurobindo’s Adesh, published in the Archives & Research issues of April 1985 and December 1987. The following were the main points of Heehs’ argument:
(1) Sri Aurobindo met in Calcutta on 20, July 1909, one Parthasarathy Iyengar belonging to the India group of revolutionaries in Pondicherry. Parthasarathy told Sri Aurobindo about the advantages of the French India territory, where one could be free from harassment by the British police.
(2) When Sri Aurobindo sent Moni (Suresh Chakravarty) to make arrangements for his stay in Pondicherry, he sent him with a letter addressed to Parthasarathy, which means that he remembered the Pondicherry contact when he decided to go there from Chandernagore.
(3) Sri Aurobindo came to Pondicherry “in obedience to a divine command” (Adesh), but “by speaking to Sri Aurobindo about Pondicherry, Parthasarathy may have played an instrumental role in his coming”.
(4) Heehs quotes from a letter of Sri Aurobindo written in 1936, “The Force does not act in a void and in an absolute way.... It comes as a Force intervening and acting on a complex nexus of Forces that were in action and displacing their disposition and interrelated movement and natural result by a new disposition, movement and result.” It is plausible that an Adesh similarly operates within the same complex nexus of forces. Applying this to the particular case in point, it is plausible that “the Adesh that directed Sri Aurobindo to go to Pondicherry operated within a nexus of forces that included the attempts of the British to have him arrested, and the recently established contact between him and the revolutionaries of Pondicherry”. Conclusion: “I have no difficulty accepting that Sri Aurobindo came to Pondicherry as the result of an Adesh, and at the same time accepting that there were political factors behind his departure.”
This apparently harmless conclusion not only belittles the divine nature of the Adesh Sri Aurobindo received, but lends support to the false rumour that he escaped to Pondicherry fearing a second arrest by the British police. First of all, it is a self-contradiction to accept that Sri Aurobindo came to Pondicherry in obedience to the Adesh and, at the same time, say that there were political factors behind his departure. Sri Aurobindo’s decision to go to Pondicherry was determined by the Adesh in the context of an adverse political situation, but the decision itself was not due to political factors. Sri Aurobindo himself said he did not question the Adesh when he received it – he simply obeyed it, which means he would have obeyed whatever the Divine commanded him to do. There were several courses open to him at that point of time. He could have bravely faced the prospect of another trial and possible conviction had the Adesh ordered him to do so, or he could have simply gone underground in Calcutta, or perhaps even made arrangements to go abroad. The fact that he suddenly went to Chandernagore at the dead of night and sought refuge from Charu Chandra Roy, who, in fact, refused to help him because of his fear of the British police, and the further event of Motilal Roy (whom Sri Aurobindo never knew) giving him shelter in his own house, shows the unplanned nature of Sri Aurobindo’s action. It hardly demonstrates a well-thought out plan to counteract adverse political factors!
Coming now to Parthasarathy’s “instrumental role”, Sri Aurobindo’s intention to come to Pondicherry was determined by the Adesh and not by the information provided six months ago by the former that the French town was a safe haven for revolutionaries. Surely, Parthasarathy was only one of the several contacts that Sri Aurobindo had, residing in different parts of British and French India and even perhaps abroad. As a matter of fact, when Sri Aurobindo received the first Adesh to go to Chandernagore, he tried to use one such contact, Charu Chandra Roy, whom we have already mentioned above. To therefore say or even remotely suggest that Parthasarathy made Sri Aurobindo come to Pondicherry is as absurd as for a resident of Pondicherry to say, “I went to Chennai (formerly Madras) because there is a bus going there at 9 o’clock in the morning.” The decision to go to Chennai is obviously taken before you choose the means of transport. Applying the same logic here, Sri Aurobindo remembered the contact in Pondicherry when he received the Adesh to go there. He did not go to Pondicherry because he had a contact there. One can concede then only a secondary “instrumental role” to Parthasarathy – that of being simply a helpful contact and definitely not an equally determinant role, on par with the Adesh, as Heehs presents it.
Moreover, Sri Aurobindo received two distinct divine commands from within. The first Adesh in Calcutta directed him to go to Chandernagore, where, after a month, he received the second Adesh to go to Pondicherry. Assuming for the sake of argument the possibility of the Adesh working in tandem with what normally anyone else in Sri Aurobindo’s place would have done only for political reasons, how do we explain the first impromptu decision to go to Chandernagore? And what about the second and final decision to go to Pondicherry with all the bungling that happened in the execution?  If the Adesh provided only a final seal of authority on the number of political considerations which might have prompted him to escape to Pondicherry, was the Chandernagore interlude necessary or was it a mistake? And who committed the mistake, was it the Divine behind the Adesh, or was it a case of mistaken judgment of political factors? Surely, the intelligent consideration of only political factors would have taken Sri Aurobindo directly to Pondicherry, instead of risking the sudden and unplanned flight to Chandernagore. The Adesh, in fact, put Sri Aurobindo in trouble rather than ensured a smooth flight to Pondicherry. How many times he had to change houses in Chandernagore and there were so many problems on the final day of his departure from Calcutta, not to mention Charu Chandra Roy’s refusal to give him refuge at the very outset. We actually see the Divine Grace intervening at every point and bailing out Sri Aurobindo from difficulties, which may not have happened had there been cool rational planning and advance thinking.
Most important of all, the Adesh that Sri Aurobindo received did not have anything to do with politics. As a matter of fact, it distanced him from politics and gave him the necessary freedom to pursue the greater aim of the supramental yoga, which, we can now say in retrospect, was certainly more important than the liberation of India. Therefore, to say that the Adesh and political considerations can merrily go together is to indulge in a contradiction, which distorts the truth of the matter and gives additional fodder to the already existing misunderstanding that Sri Aurobindo fled from the revolutionary scene out of fear of a second arrest by the British police. Incidentally, this kind of misrepresentation is a regular feature of Heehs’ research and I can give a number of similar instances from his articles in the Archives & Research magazine, leave alone the present biography which literally thrives on it.
How does Heehs present the same event in The Lives of Sri Aurobindo? I quote below the relevant portion:
“Years later Aurobindo explained that when he heard Ramchandra's warning, he went within and heard a voice—an adesh—that said "Go to Chandernagore." He obeyed it without reflection. Had he given it any thought, however, he would have found good reasons to comply. Chandernagore was a French possession, one of five scattered enclaves that made up the French settlements in India. Outside the jurisdiction of the British police, it had become an important center of nationalist activity. For a man with a British warrant against him, it was the best place near Calcutta to go. The adesh also came at an opportune moment. Aurobindo had written ten days earlier that he would "refrain from farther political action" until a "more settled state of things supervenes"—something that was unlikely to happen very soon. This period of political paralysis coincided with his own wish to retire from politics and spend more time practicing yoga. In December, he had looked into the possibility of buying land outside Calcutta to found a spiritual ashram.
Nothing came of this idea, but his urge to leave politics remained. It was only his awareness that his party depended on him that kept him in the field. But the return of Shyamsundar and the other deportees meant that the movement would not be leaderless if he left: In addition, the arrival of his uncle Krishna Kumar Mitra meant that his last family duty—looking after his aunt and her children—had come to an end.
This is not to suggest that he thought all this through when he decided to leave Calcutta. By his own account, his "habit in action was not to devise beforehand and plan but to keep a fixed purpose, watch events, prepare forces and act when he felt it to be the right moment." The moment for his departure had come. As he sailed up the Hooghly in his little wooden boat, he probably was not looking further ahead than the next few days.”
The first thing you notice is that he has abandoned the Parthasarathy connection in favour of a number of secondary reasons he has dug out from dusty archival records to belittle the divine nature of the Adesh. Mark the words, “Had he given it any thought, however, he would have found good reasons to comply”, the import of which very few will catch on their first reading. There is in the sentence a clear taunt aimed at Sri Aurobindo for not having used his mind instead of obeying unquestioningly the Adesh, as if to say, “Why did he have to give the excuse of an Adesh (which we historians of external events don’t understand) instead of simply saying that there were anyway very good reasons to do what the Adesh dictated inwardly!”
Note that he has also brought up as additional evidence a few internal reasons that could have also played a role in the event: (1) Sri Aurobindo’s wish to retire from politics; (2) the return of Shyamsunder which ensured the movement would not be left leaderless, and (3) the arrival of Krishna Kumar Mitra, which meant that his last family duty of looking after his aunt and her children had come to an end. But are these various factors compatible with each other? For example, the intention of buying land in Calcutta for an Ashram hardly goes well with political factors forcing him to flee from the same city. Yes, one could argue that it evinced his desire to practise Yoga, but then, he could have done his Yoga in Calcutta as well, by publicly declaring his retirement from politics, which the British Govt would have been so happy to hear.
Next, the phrase “last family duty” with reference to his aunt and her children implies that the other family duties had already been taken care of, which was certainly not the case. What about his own wife he left behind and whom he loved deeply? He could have arranged for her flight too had he known about his departure. And what about his mother to whom he used to send money? In fact, his act could be misinterpreted as neglectful of his family duties rather than fulfilling them. For the Adesh seemed to have caught him totally off guard without giving him any time to make the necessary arrangements for his family members, and it was certainly not with the profound satisfaction of having fulfilled all his family duties that he left Calcutta.
Lastly, to say that the return of Shyamsundar and other deportees gave Sri Aurobindo freedom to leave the revolutionary scene implies that he would have waited for them had they not returned. Was the escape so pre-planned and well-timed that it happened only after their return? Or it just happened that way like so many things in life over which we have no control? Moreover, if Sri Aurobindo had been so concerned about the nationalist movement, why did he at all leave it? In fact, the loss of a leader of Sri Aurobindo’s stature was never really compensated by any other statesman and the first wave of the nationalist movement subsided soon after he left for Pondicherry.
But does not Heehs exonerate himself at the end of the quoted passage by saying,
This is not to suggest that he [Sri Aurobindo] thought all this through when he decided to leave Calcutta. By his own account, his ‘habit in action was not to devise beforehand’.
But then, why state precisely those reasons which could suggest that Sri Aurobindo indeed “thought all this through when he decided to leave Calcutta” instead of being impelled by the Adesh from within? Why mention all this historical data which is dismissed in the concluding paragraph? The presentation of historical data is necessarily interpretative, unless one is ready to state the most contradictory data like an Archives curator, who is least bothered about their cogent presentation. But, I suppose, Heehs is basically an archivist with scholarly pretensions. He has collected a lot of data over the years, including plenty of second-hand negative evidence, without really knowing how to use it in the proper manner. That is why his presentation of Sri Aurobindo’s departure from Calcutta is indeed negative in spite of the few good words at the end, as if he were patting Sri Aurobindo on his back and saying, “Look, I believe what you say, but don’t make such a big fuss about your Adesh!” This is “brand Heehs”, consistently repeated throughout his book, born from that infamous “critical theory” – deliver a few hard punches in the beginning and end with a patronising pat on the back, so that the most hardened opponent condescends into uttering a few words of praise.
Lastly, how does it all reflect on the author, for the book indicates more his personality than that of his subject? As somebody put it so aptly, one can see in it a constant inner tussle between his admiration and sarcasm for Sri Aurobindo, which has resulted in a state of confusion and indecision with regard to his final assessment. One can admit that he has some respect for the Master as evinced by the oft-repeated strategy of setting the record straight after the damage he perpetrates, but he performs this act with a deep-seated grudge. Though this attitude partly stems from his adverse reaction to the over enthusiastic disciple gushing with superlatives, it is also due to the superhuman greatness of Sri Aurobindo himself. When he cannot measure up to the greatness of the Master, he attempts to downgrade him in order to make him acceptable to his puny mind. It is like someone standing at the foothills of the Himalayas and crying out in disgust that the mountain ranges cannot rise higher than those which are visible to him, because he cannot mount further. It would have been so much better had he, with a little humility and faith in his guide, given the benefit of doubt to the existence of the invisible heights rather than what he can only see with his limited vision. For, lending credence and scope to what is beyond oneself can certainly be part of good writing, especially in spiritual matters. So also admiration of the truly great can be measured and yet convincing without having to go overboard into hagiography. I wish the author had explored more this line of approach than the one he has unfortunately chosen.
 Read "Documents in the Life of Sri Aurobindo", Archives & Research, April 1985, pp 81-108.
 Read Jugal Kishore Mukherji’s two letters to the Trustees in 1986 & 1987 in which he has exposed these contradictions of Heehs. Both the letters have been posted on this site.
[Originally posted: 6/28/2009 04:30:00 PM]
Jul 1, 2009
Countless and cunning Trojan horses have entered the Web-Journals and their objective is to destroy the future, what stands for Tomorrow. But here is a warning from the watchful owl deeply keeping guard on things in the preciousness of the night.
The owl hooted in the mocking night, “Beware
Of Trojan horses set in brutal woods,
’neath thick branches of thought. They’re built in moods
Born of artful ends, and in the least care
Things that are to the growing spirit fair;
Deep silence in which the magic word broods
Is unknown to them; instead they prize goods
Synthetic, hurtful, swift masters of malware.
Seems they’re here to advance deceit, on the net
Spread disinformation; they will debunk
You, working night and day in shifty times.
They’ve no flowing manes, of scruples, and you’d get
Tricked by these schemers in the wooden trunk,
Beware! They would sue even gods for fake crimes.”
15 June 2009
First introduced by Virgil with a kind of finesse that speaks very highly of the ancient warriors, there is an acceptable Trojan Horse in Drydens’ translation. Its cunning is praiseworthy and honest resourcefulness, of doing things by noble and heroic people—unlike the way things happen on the quarrelling web-pages these days, witness vis-à-vis The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, the accusations and counter-accusations hurled by the warring tribes—as if they are all an insufferable lot. This has got to be remedied.
The subterfuge to deceive the Trojans was thought out, of course, by Athena herself, but was put into operation by the conniving and clever Odysseus. The gigantic wooden horse was designed and built by the artist Epeius and, when ready, a select number of Greek warriors climbed inside it. The rest of the Greek fleet pretended to sail away, back to their shores. The horse was left behind as a parting gift for the Trojans. Sinon, one of the accomplices, stayed behind to reassure the marvelling enemy not to worry about the horse, and that they could take it inside the city. Laocoon and Cassandra warned about the danger but, as usual, they were ignored. On the other hand, even as those thousand ships started sailing away, there were wild celebrations inside the guarded city and the treacherous gift was taken inside it. The moment of destiny had arrived and soon Sinon signalled the warriors hiding in the trunk of the wooden horse to jump out and attend to the short work they had planned with great care, in the manner of the Athenian perfection. Priam was killed and the city was set on fire.