1 Sep 2009

The Hardinge Controversy - by Raman Reddy

[In this lengthy article, I have not challenged the interpretation of Peter Heehs as much as Arun Chandra Dutt’s inference of Sri Aurobindo’s usage of code words in his letters to Motilal Roy between 1912 and 1920. What surprised me is that Heehs, who always makes such a big fuss about questioning Sri Aurobindo’s credentials at every point, accepted without any reservations Arun Chandra Dutt’s deductions of certain statements made by Motilal Roy. He combined them further with some notations from the Record of Yoga and came up with a preposterous conclusion regarding Sri Aurobindo’s attitude towards revolutionary activity during this period. He found nothing wrong about Sri Aurobindo congratulating Motilal for the bomb attack on Viceroy Hardinge and at the same time using his spiritual force to cure the wounds of the very same man who was attacked. According to Heehs, political expediency dictated the first action and spiritual solicitude the second. I personally found everything wrong with this conclusion which gives Sri Aurobindo a Jekyll and Hyde personality and creates a contradiction between his inner and outer person. That is why I mustered enough courage to question Dutt’s deductions and found plenty of loose ends in his presentation.]

The Hardinge controversy is with regard to Sri Aurobindo’s attitude towards the assassination attempt on Viceroy Hardinge in 1912 at Chandni Chowk, Delhi. This is how Peter Heehs presents the event in the April 1987 issue of the Archives & Research on p 124:

On 23 December 1912, Hardinge was grievously injured by a bomb during his ceremonial entry into the new capital of Delhi. The bomb was made and thrown by revolutionaries connected with Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual and political disciple Motilal Roy. A short while later Sri Aurobindo wrote a letter to Motilal in which, according to Motilal’s disciple Arunchandra Dutt, Sri Aurobindo referred to this attempt. In this undated letter (written probably early in January 1913) Sri Aurobindo wrote: “About Tantric yoga; your experiment in the smashana was a daring one,-- but it seems to have been efficiently & skilfully carried out, & the success is highly gratifying.” Dutt writes that “smashana” (burning ground) was a code word for Delhi. It is certain that in Sri Aurobindo’s correspondence with Motilal, ‘Tantric Yoga’ stood for revolutionary activity. There is no reason to disbelieve Dutt’s claim that the experiment referred to in the letter was the Delhi bombing. A certain type of human intelligence, however, may have a hard time reconciling Sri Aurobindo’s remark with the many solicitous references he made in Record of Yoga to the injured Viceroy’s condition. Certain entries, e.g. that of 15 January, show that Sri Aurobindo used his spiritual will (Aishwarya) to promote the healing of Hardinge’s wounds. The contradiction between the two attitudes is of course only superficial. This is not a matter that the historian of external events need concern himself with, but it may be suggested that Sri Aurobindo could well have approved of the attempted assassination as a matter of political expediency, while deprecating it from an occult or spiritual point of view.[1]

Mark the taunt in the words “A certain type of human intelligence...” aimed at the reader who would baulk at the concluding suggestion – “Sri Aurobindo could well have approved of the attempted assassination as a matter of political expediency, while deprecating it from an occult or spiritual point of view.” Not many noticed this objectionable sentence in 1987; those who did, maintained a dignified silence for the sake of institutional propriety. Only Jugal Kishore Mukherji, head of the Higher Course of the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education (now retired), spoke out his mind in no uncertain terms. In a letter addressed to the Trustees of the Ashram, he mentioned some half a dozen serious objections to Heehs’s research articles on Sri Aurobindo’s life published in the Archives & Research magazine. With regard to this particular controversy, he wrote the following:

Well, the less said about this type of far-fetching ingenuous explanation, the better....

To my perception there are no two Sri Aurobindos, one “inner” and the other “outer”, with two different motivations for two different simultaneous actions, one on the “inner” plane and the other on the “outer” one. Sri Aurobindo, is One and Indivisible. He always acts from one consciousness – spiritual-divine, from one motivation – spiritual-divine whether for “outer” activity or for the “inner” one. His ways and actions may appear to us inscrutable; but for that we should not try to create, through our limited investigation, contradictions and inconsistencies in his conduct and action, and then seek to “explain” them away as belonging to two different planes with two different standards and motivations.[2]

Before we launch ourselves into a detailed examination of the event, let me first contextualise it for the lay reader. Sri Aurobindo was in Pondicherry at this point of time. He had been there for around two and a half years and was facing an acute financial crisis. Luckily, Motilal Roy had paid his first visit to him in November-December 1911 and had started sending him a monthly remittance of Rs 50/ for his household expenses. Now, according to Arun Chandra Dutt, Sri Aurobindo congratulated Motilal Roy for the daring assassination attempt on Lord Hardinge, planned and carried out by revolutionaries connected with the latter and operating from Chandernagore, namely Rashbehari Bose and Srish Ghose. Motilal was sufficiently involved in it to be congratulated by Sri Aurobindo. The bomb itself was prepared by Mani Naik, a close associate of him, who in 1915 became the editor of the Prabartak, the Bengali counterpart of the Arya.

But the question is whether Sri Aurobindo at all congratulated Motilal! Because if he did, Sri Aurobindo becomes a bundle of contradictions, not only between his political action and spiritual work, but also between what he declared in public and what he wrote in private. The fact that Heehs did not find anything contradictory in Sri Aurobindo’s attitude when he wrote about it in the Archives & Research of April 1987 shows that there is something wrong with him, which is exactly the reason why he bombed in his recent biography The Lives of Sri Aurobindo. How does he say that this Doctor Jekyll and Hyde portrayal of Sri Aurobindo is just a superficial contradiction in his personality? Even an ordinary man would not be happy about the attempted murder of an individual in whose safety and well-being he is interested, forget about a Yogi like Sri Aurobindo, who was acting directly on universal forces with his Yogic power. In his letter to Motilal which can be dated August 1912, only two months before the assassination attempt, Sri Aurobindo writes,

My subjective sadhana may be said to have received its final seal and something like its consummation by a prolonged realization & dwelling in Parabrahman for many hours. Since then, egoism is dead for all in me except the Annamaya Atma,— the physical self which awaits one farther realisation before it is entirely liberated from occasional visitings or external touches of the old separated existence.

My future sadhan is for life, practical knowledge & shakti, — not the essential knowledge or shakti in itself which I have got already — but knowledge & shakti established in the same physical self & directed to my work in life. I am now getting a clearer idea of that work & I may as well impart something of that idea to you; since you look to me as the centre, you should know what is likely to radiate out of that centre.[3]

Does the above quotation, and I request the reader to go through the rest of the letter, give scope to a schizophrenic personality? Definitely not! But the best proof that it does not is Heehs’s own retraction in the present biography of the earlier statement he had made in the Archives & Research issue of April 1987. In the Lives, he writes the following with regard to the same event:

It would seem from this that Aurobindo was pleased with the attempt to assassinate the viceroy. But his apparent endorsement of Motilal’s activities is hard to reconcile with his evident distress at Hardinge’s injuries, which he frequently expressed in his diary. Presumably his attitude toward Motilal’s activities was the same as his attitude toward Barin’s five years earlier: “it is not wise to check things when they have taken a strong shape” because “something good may come out of them.” He certainly never ceased to believe that Indians had the right to use violence to topple a government maintained by violence. But he did not believe in individual terrorism, and he felt more than ever that terrorist acts were against India’s long-term interests.[4]

He now finds “hard to reconcile” what he had earlier thought was a superficial contradiction in Sri Aurobindo’s personality, which means he has attributed himself with “the certain type of human intelligence” he had a dig at in his earlier interpretation. But then why flog a dead horse? Why remind him of the years when he was a novice historian? Does he not have a right to change his opinions?

First of all, Heehs would hardly appreciate the pointing out of such gross discrepancies in his work. Secondly, he has published the first version in an Ashram magazine where the record has to be set right for the sake of posterity. Thirdly, and most importantly, I would like to use this example to demonstrate to those who are mesmerised by his so-called scholarship his inbuilt bias against Sri Aurobindo. To come to the point, the evidence adduced by Arun Chandra Dutt to show that Sri Aurobindo congratulated Motilal is, to say the least, flimsy and most unconvincing. But Heehs simply assumes that Dutt is right; he does not even critically examine the evidence whereas he is so keen in putting Sri Aurobindo in the dock for every slip he might have made. Sri Aurobindo’s memory is questioned, his credibility is put to the test, his honesty discussed, but whatever Arun Chandra Dutt says is tamely accepted and a superstructure of falsehood built on it.

Let us take up Dutt’s evidence and interpretation of the sentence in which Sri Aurobindo congratulates Motilal in code words:

About Tantric yoga; your experiment in the smashana was a daring one,-- but it seems to have been efficiently & skilfully carried out, & the success is highly gratifying.[5]

“Tantric Yoga”, we are told, stands for revolutionary activity, and “smashana” is a code word for Delhi, the “cemetery ground of mighty empires in the past and destined sepulchre of the ruling British empire”.[6] Frankly, this is hard to believe. The meaning of Tantric Yoga or Tantric kriyas here as elsewhere in the other letters of Sri Aurobindo to Motilal, seems to be what it would normally mean. Sri Aurobindo does seem to be referring to Tantric Yoga per se, though we are not sure what kind of Tantric Yoga is meant. All that we can say is that the Yoga of Sapta Chathusthaya which Sri Aurobindo was practising during this period, had some Tantric elements from the point of view of the mastery of the forces of life. Let me quote from the previous paragraph of the same letter:

What I [Sri Aurobindo] am attempting is to establish the normal working of the siddhis in life ie the perception of thoughts, feelings & happenings of other beings & in other places throughout the world without any use of information by speech or any other data. 2d.., the communication of the ideas & feelings I select to others (individuals, groups, nations,) by mere transmission of will-power; 3d., the silent compulsion on them to act according to these communicated ideas & feelings; 4th, the determining of events, actions & results of action throughout the world by pure silent will power. When I wrote to you last, I had begun the general application of these powers which God has been developing in me for the last two or three years…[7]

The sense is obvious here, and for those who are familiar with the Record of Yoga, it is an unmistakable reference to the yogic powers mentioned in it. How does the sense then suddenly change to “revolutionary activity” in the very next paragraph which opens with the controversial “smashana” sentence?

Dutt also claims that Sri Aurobindo took revolutionary activity as Tantra or Shakti-sadhana, but surely Sri Aurobindo’s Yoga encompassed all the activities of life and not only revolutionary action. Even if Sri Aurobindo particularly meant it to be so, can we apply systematically the same sense to all the occurrences of the word “Tantra” in his letters to Motilal? We see that we cannot, unless we perform some extraordinary semantic feats. For example, what would the phrase, “attempting an extension of Tantric Kriya without any sufficient Vedantic basis” mean?[8] Vedanta is so often mentioned by Sri Aurobindo in relation to Tantra that one would expect it to be also connected with revolution. In the Yogic context that Sri Aurobindo seems to be writing, the term “Vedantic basis” means the psychological foundation provided by the practice of Vedantic Yoga, which is based on the Purusha principle, as opposed to Tantra, which relies on the Shakti aspect of the Divine. Another problematic interpretation is that of “old Tantra” and “new Tantra”.[9] Do these terms mean old and new revolutionary activities? If so, what is new and what is old? What are “big kriyas” and small kriyas, “right mantra & tantra, “mukti” and “bhukti”?[10] Why does Sri Aurobindo stress on avoiding “rajasic defects” in the performing of Tantrik kriyas? – I would think that rajas helps in battle and brave militant action. Then, what would Sri Aurobindo mean by the Shakti preparing to pour herself out and choose her own method with regard to Tantric work?[11] Does this mean that you leave the planning of bomb attacks on the Divine Shakti? These and so many other questions arise on a closer analysis of Dutt’s proposition, and I would rather let the reader himself complete this exercise. But one thing stands out clearly, that Sri Aurobindo wrote about Tantric Yoga in general to Motilal and not about revolutionary activity in the guise of advice on Tantric Yoga. One can always force the meaning of revolutionary activity into his words under the plea that it was taken as Tantric Yoga by Motilal and his associates, but this narrow sense somehow does not fit in with the larger compass of Sri Aurobindo’s Yoga.

On the other hand, we cannot associate the terms “smashana” and “Tantric kriya” with Sri Aurobindo’s Yoga. But that is because our conception of his Yoga is generally founded on what he taught much later in his lifetime, especially in and after the 1930’s when he wrote thousands of letters to disciples and revised some of his major works. From this point of view, even the Yoga of Sapta Chatusthaya that Sri Aurobindo practised during the first decade of his stay at Pondicherry and noted down its results in the Record of Yoga, does not quite match with the Yoga of the triple transformation he prescribed to the sadhaks of the Ashram. We also do not know what exact method Sri Aurobindo advised Motilal to follow, apart from the three mantras he sent him from Pondicherry to recite in the traditional Indian way. Not many are aware that Motilal did develop certain powers mentioned in the Record of Yoga. He developed certain subtle senses and he once predicted the death of the mother of a close friend. On another occasion, he used his yogic will to prevent a miscarriage.[12] Moreover, he had already acquainted himself with certain Tantric and Hathayogic practices before he became Sri Aurobindo’s disciple. The word “smashana” would not seem so strange if the reader is informed that Motilal at some point of time volunteered to burn dead bodies in order to overcome his fear of them.[13] I do not say that this is what is meant in the sentence, but it is as legitimate a supposition as Arun Chandra Dutt’s, who wants us to believe that it refers to the Delhi assassination attempt.

Let us further examine Dutt’s evidence. One would expect him to build his reasoning on the testimony of Motilal, for after all the latter was a first-hand witness to what transpired between him and Sri Aurobindo, but, surprisingly, he does not. Dutt refers to Sri Aurobindo --Yuga Purush by Motilal Roy, who has mentioned there the fourth letter of Sri Aurobindo to him, dated February 1913, as evidence of Sri Aurobindo’s approval of the attack on Hardinge. But Dutt himself quotes the third letter of Sri Aurobindo to Motilal dated January 1913 to prove the same. This is a serious discrepancy, for where did he then source the smashana evidence from and the supposed meaning of “the graveyard of vanished empires” standing for Delhi? Moreover, Motilal himself seems to have made a mistake. I cite below the passage quoted by him:

I welcome it as a sign of some preliminary effectiveness, through you, in this direction, in which, hitherto, everything has gone against us; also, as one proof of several, that the quality of your power & your work is greatly improving in effectiveness & sureness. I need not refer to the other proofs; you will know what I mean.[14]

The above passage is taken by Motilal as Sri Aurobindo’s approval in code words of the Delhi bombing, and it is from this passage that Dutt seems to have extrapolated his interpretation of the third letter of Sri Aurobindo to Motilal dated January 1913. Nowhere does Motilal himself say that the sentence in Sri Aurobindo’s third letter to him refers to the Delhi bombing. Even this passage in the fourth letter clearly refers to the money that Motilal has sent Sri Aurobindo and not to the Delhi bombing. I incorporate the first two sentences of the quoted passage above and reproduce the full text in order to show the context:

I have received Rs 60 by wire & Rs 20 by letter. It was a great relief to us that you were able to send Rs 80 this time & Rs 85 for March; owing to the cutting off of all other means of supply, we were getting into a very difficult position. I welcome it as a sign of some preliminary effectiveness, through you, in this direction, in which, hitherto, everything has gone against us; also, as one proof of several, that the quality of your power & your work is greatly improving in effectiveness & sureness. I need not refer to the other proofs; you will know what I mean.[15]

The context, as we can see, is the “great relief” felt by Sri Aurobindo at the receipt of the money sent by Motilal and certainly not his appreciation of any successful revolutionary action. This is followed by his explanation of how Motilal had become an effective instrument in being able to reduce his financial burden. The reader should be reminded that Sri Aurobindo was in dire financial straits and he was using his yogic will-power to ease it. I quote a sentence from the Record of Yoga written on 3 February, 1913, which might be a reference to the very money mentioned in Sri Aurobindo’s fourth letter to Motilal written in February 1913:

Proofs of karmasiddhi were given, especially the arrival of money in the full sum willed & more than had been probable or expected. [16]

Next, I quote another sentence from the Record of Yoga written on 25 December, 1912, two days after the attack on the Viceroy:

The public news (eg the attack on the Viceroy, the ill-success of the Turkish naval sortie) show that the Power is still ineffective to prevent adverse occurrences.[17]

Sri Aurobindo took the attack on the Viceroy as an “adverse occurrence” which he could not prevent with his yogic Power. After this notation, we come across a dozen references to the use of his yogic power (aishwarya) to cure the Viceroy, intervene in Turkish politics and improve his own health. The fact that he brought all three under the ambit of his Yogic force rules out the possibility that he was merely experimenting with the Viceroy as he did with ants. Why would he then congratulate Motilal for what he considered to be an adverse event whose undoing took him a month of Yogic concentration?

Let me approach the problem from another point of view. Motilal says that Sri Aurobindo had instructed him to correspond with him on important political matters in a secret numeral code which was explained to him by Parthasarathy Iyengar. Sri Aurobindo’s letters were also written in the same code and these letters were destroyed by Motilal at his house in 1916 on the eve of a raid by Tegart, the police commissioner of Calcutta. If these letters were written in secret numeral code, why did Sri Aurobindo write in this verbal code of secret communication? Surely, the Hardinge incident was important enough to be written in the earlier code of secret communication, which would have been more difficult to crack by the British police than this verbal code. If it be argued that the secret code explained by Parthasarathy is this very verbal code, then how is it that these letters have survived, because they were supposed to have been destroyed? Finally, Motilal himself says that Sri Aurobindo was not informed about the planning of the assassination of Hardinge while, at the same time, claiming Sri Aurobindo’s guidance in all his revolutionary activity at Chandernagore.

These are some of the obvious questions which could have been raised before accepting Arun Chandra Dutt’s interpretation of Sri Aurobindo’s letter to Motilal Roy. But why was there not a single a murmur of protest or even a call for clarification by our so-called objective historian? Intellectual honesty requires him to question everything and everyone concerned with the issue, not only Sri Aurobindo. What kind of scholarship makes him test only Sri Aurobindo’s evidence with great severity and critical evaluation and accept the others without any hesitation? As a matter of fact, Sri Aurobindo has not been granted the credence that even an ordinary man deserves when speaking on the facts of his own life. Heehs has consistently made Sri Aurobindo bear the burden of proof instead of giving him the benefit of doubt. I enumerate below a number of such instances where secondary evidence has been portentously weighed against Sri Aurobindo’s statements regarding his own life:

(1) The acceptance of Parthasarathy’s role in making Sri Aurobindo come to Pondicherry in spite of the umpteen times Sri Aurobindo said it was because of the Adesh (divine command) that he came to Pondicherry. This was claimed by Narayana Iyengar, a relative of Parthasarathi Iyengar, and not by the latter himself. Neither was it endorsed by Srinivasachari, brother of Parthasarathi, who was close to Sri Aurobindo during the first few years of Sri Aurobindo’s stay at Pondicherry.[18]

(2) The serious consideration of Ramchandra Majumdar’s obviously motivated account of how Sri Aurobindo went to the Ramakrishna Math to have Ma Sarada-devi’s darshan and met Sister Nivedita on the day he left for Chandernagore. The last meeting has serious implications, because then one can say that it was she who advised Sri Aurobindo to go to Chandernagore, in which case the Adesh has no meaning. Secondly, the visit to Ma Sarada-devi puts Sri Aurobindo under the spiritual aura of Ramkrishna Math, which seems to have been the real motive behind the concoction of this story. This was a big controversy during Sri Aurobindo’s lifetime and he wrote in 1944 – 1946 four long notes denying both the meetings. Though Heehs himself points out the flaws in Ramchandra Majumdar’s account, he does plenty of damage to Sri Aurobindo’s credibility by weighing the possibility of serious lapses in his memory. This he does on the basis of what Nirodbaran and Purani recorded of Sri Aurobindo’s conversation of 5 February, 1939, which stands in direct opposition to what Sri Aurobindo wrote later on. In other words, the secondary evidence of Sri Aurobindo’s assistants is given more credence than Sri Aurobindo’s own written statements.[19]

(3) The acceptance of an oral account of Nolini Kanto Gupta during his last days when he was ailing and physically unfit. This again is conveyed by an assistant of Nolini to Heehs, who earnestly takes it up to oppose what Sri Aurobindo said in his famous Uttarpara speech delivered shortly after his year long detention at Alipore. The question was whether or not Sri Aurobindo left the case entirely to his lawyer Chittaranjan Das during his trial.[20]

(4) The acceptance of secondary evidence in the issue of the birthplace of Sri Aurobindo. In this particular case, there is no clinching primary evidence, but Heehs has more faith in what the daughters of Manmohan Ghose (friend of Sri Aurobindo’s father in whose house he was born) remembered than Sri Aurobindo’s own memory of it. Both the ladies, mind you, were born after Sri Aurobindo’s birth and had no documentation to present in support of what their father had told them. If it be argued how Sri Aurobindo could remember where he was born, why then have faith in the hearsay of the daughters of Manmohan Ghose? [21]

(5) Even the refutation of Jouveau Dubreuil’s conclusion that Pondicherry was called Vedapuri in ancient times, is based on a debatable interpretation of the basic facts. Dubreuil’s conclusion is after all backed up with solid archaeological facts and inscriptions.[22]

I take this occasion to mention another type of bias which Heehs has demonstrated from a long time -- that of deliberately going against the grain, of attempting to disprove what everybody thought was true. I mention a few instances without going into the details:

(1) The people of Pondicherry were proud to know from Jouveau Dubreuil’s research that their city was a centre of Vedic learning in ancient times. So Heehs had to prove that they were wrong and their belief based on wishful thinking.[23]

(2) There was a general impression in the Ashram, not without any foundation, that Cartier Bresson, the famous French photographer who took pictures of Sri Aurobindo in April 1950, had overcharged the Mother for the negatives of his shots. His company Magnum Photos in New York, after some initial hesitation to part with the negatives, charged 3000 dollars for them in 1951. So Heehs goes out of his way to say (1) that the charges may not have been as high as what the company might have got from selling the photographs to other prospective customers, (2) that the Mother could quickly recover the cost by selling the albums of the photographs, and (3) that “sales since then have made the transaction far from a losing one, even from the financial point of view.” Wonderful! As if the Mother thought in these commercial terms! But not a word on the possibility of the company, which was on the verge of bankruptcy, taking advantage of the situation to charge an unduly high sum! Why not a single supposition supporting the so-called “popular misconception” at the Ashram, even after having sufficient proof that Cartier Bresson had “a rather exaggerated notion of the Ashram’s assets”! It is not that one would like to defame Cartier Bresson, who was no doubt a wonderful photographer, but why defame the Ashramites as if they knew nothing about money? [24]

(3) In his booklet Sri Aurobindo and Hinduism, Heehs had to make the Hindu disciples of Sri Aurobindo think that their Master was against Hinduism, even though he encouraged them to regard the Mother as the incarnation of the Divine Mother and do pranam to her. Since when, I wonder, regarding the Mother as divine has become a Hindu ritual? Even Sri Aurobindo speaking about the important role that Krishna played in his life is taken by Heehs as Hindu practice, which should now be therefore exceeded in this new globalised version of Integral Yoga. From this point of view, as Prof Nadkarni said, Hindus should have grave objections to modern science and technology because these have mainly developed in the West. No Hindus object to Einstein being a Westerner or his name being associated with the theory of relativity! Why then object to that core of Hinduism which is synonymous with spirituality? Why make such a big chauvinistic fuss about the outermost forms and names of eternal truths? Krishna, for example, will always signify the overmental power, whatever name you may call him. Yes, denounce the Hindu rituals that have lost all relevance, but why deny the eternal values of the ancient Hindu scriptures on which Sri Aurobindo himself drew the basis of his Integral Yoga?

The list can go on, but what I would like to explore is the reason for this kind of deliberate exercise to undermine the faith of people in whatever they believe. I can understand the classic opposition of intellectual honesty against popular misconceptions or superstitions when there is a face-off between scientific truth and blind belief, but this is a case of plain bad will using the subterfuge of rational enquiry. It is also simply bad research, because the concerned person is bent upon disproving whatever you hold as true and sacred; good research surely requires a more dispassionate attitude to start with, for how can you build a good argument on bad premises? Moreover, the new paradigm introduced by Sri Aurobindo does not pit rationality against devotion or science against spirituality. Both are taken into account in his vast framework of the universe and each is given its proper place in his cosmic scheme. As a matter of fact, it is because the disciples in the Ashram are so catholic in their attitude that Heehs could get away for such a long time – 37 years to be precise. Not many people protested against his articles in the Archives & Research in the 1980s’, except a few elders who voiced their negative opinions. When he wrote his history of the Freedom Movement of India giving plenty of credit to Mahatma Gandhi while mentioning cursorily Sri Aurobindo’s role in it, this is what he replied when asked about the reason for doing so: “I would not have got the prize.” This speaks volumes on his so-called scholarship and intellectual honesty.

I end with a final observation with regard to the crux of the problem. Disciples of Sri Aurobindo were never against intellectuality because their Master himself had a great intellect, but intellectuals (of the wrong kind) do seem to have problems with devotion and surrender, which are so highly prioritised in this Yoga. It is perhaps because of this deep dislike of spiritual emotion that Heehs has cultivated over the years his anti-hagiographic attitude, assuming that intellectuality is necessarily pitted against devotion. I suppose he is not aware that devotion, common sense and higher sense often go together with clarity of mind while the crazy intellectual, who does not have any of these saving factors, keeps weaving his fancy theories in an abstract world. A true intellectual will therefore not use his intelligence merely to deny what he would be pleased to debunk or because of a certain sadistic pleasure he derives from it, but because there is sufficient justification in his quest and enough evidence to back it up. Heehs fails to win our confidence on both these counts.

Part 2

But the real problem still remains to be solved. Why did Sri Aurobindo perceive the attempted assassination of the Viceroy as an untoward event and why did he use his yogic force to cure his wounds? Why should a great nationalist like him be sympathetic towards the very symbol of British oppression in India? Sri Aurobindo was certainly not a pacifist to act in the Gandhian way, nor did he preach the gospel of Ahimsa. He did not denounce militant action for the sake of freeing the nation from foreign rule and had himself played a role in the formation of secret revolutionary societies which would prepare the nation for an armed revolt.

I must say at the very outset that this is a very difficult question to answer and requires much more research on the revolutionary period than what I have been able to manage. But I would still venture an answer based on what I assess as the best document on Sri Aurobindo’s political life -- A General Note on Sri Aurobindo’s Political Life -- written by himself in the third person in 1946, but revised and published in 1948. As he had revised it after the independence of India, one can assume that he came out with the full truth of the matter in a public way, which perhaps may not have been possible before India was free. There are, of course, other documents which I would like to refer to, but only to show how they match up with what he wrote in this long article. As a matter of fact, I haven’t found any contradictions between what he told his disciples in the Evening Talks, noted down in his private diary (Record of Yoga) or wrote in his public statements to newspapers.

Let us start by giving Motilal Roy the benefit of doubt despite the numerous questions I have raised with regard to the claim that Sri Aurobindo was guiding him from Pondicherry in all his revolutionary activity. Sri Aurobindo himself writes in this article that after coming to Pondicherry he kept up for some years “some private communication with the revolutionary forces he had led through one or two individuals”. Motilal was surely one of them, though he never came to the forefront of revolutionary action like the other prominent leaders of Bengal. But the question is to what extent was he guided by Sri Aurobindo? And to what extent he acted on his own?

Let us start with what Sri Aurobindo wrote on his political life at Pondicherry. I quote at length from the very paragraph that includes the above-mentioned sentence:

At Pondicherry, from this time [April 4, 1910] onwards Sri Aurobindo’s practice of Yoga became more and more absorbing. He dropped all participation in any public political activity, refused more than one request to preside at sessions of the restored Indian National Congress and made a rule of abstention from any public utterance of any kind not connected with his spiritual activities or any contribution of writings or articles except what he wrote afterwards in the Arya. For some years he kept up some private communication with the revolutionary forces he had led through one or two individuals, but this also he dropped after a time and his abstention from any kind of participation in politics became complete. As his vision of the future grew clearer, he saw that the eventual independence of India was assured by the march of Forces of which he became aware, that Britain would be compelled by the pressure of Indian resistance and by the pressure of international events to concede independence and that she was already moving towards that eventuality with whatever opposition and reluctance. He felt that there would be no need of armed insurrection and that the secret preparation for it could be dropped without injury to the nationalist cause, although the revolutionary spirit had to be maintained and would be maintained intact. His own personal intervention in politics would therefore be no longer indispensable. Apart from all this, the magnitude of the spiritual work set before him became more and more clear to him, and he saw that the concentration of all his energies on it was necessary.[25]

There is a complexity in Sri Aurobindo’s political action and spiritual attitude which could easily be misunderstood or misused. One cannot simply conclude that he left politics because he became aware of his spiritual work. For him, politics was to be an expression of spirituality – he wrote in a letter to Parthasarathi in 1911 that “spirituality is India’s only politics”. But then, why did he leave politics? He left it because he needed time to concentrate on building a spiritual basis of all the activities of life, which would include politics of the right kind. So there was no essential dichotomy between politics and spirituality. Secondly, his vision of the future assured him that Britain will be forced to concede independence to India “by the pressure of Indian resistance and by the pressure of international events”, because of which his personal participation in the national cause would be no longer necessary. There was thus a practical side to it, that of a statesman realising that his active role was over. Finally, I come to his attitude towards revolutionary activity, which is the subject in question. He felt there would be “no need of armed insurrection” although “the revolutionary spirit had to be maintained”. Assuming that he translated this attitude into practical guidance, there was every scope to be misunderstood in practice by those whom he inspired for such action. I suggest straightaway that this is what often happened with them, and especially with Motilal, who was so close to Sri Aurobindo as a disciple and yet so far away at Chandernagore to be able to communicate with him on a regular basis for guiding revolutionary activity.

I will now corroborate the fact that Sri Aurobindo was against revolutionary action after he came to Pondicherry, not in principle but against the way it was being carried out. He wrote the following in a letter to the Hindu which was published on 20 July, 1911:

An Anglo-Indian paper of some notoriety both for its language and views, has recently thought fit to publish a libellous leaderette and subsequently an article openly arraigning me as a director of Anarchist societies, a criminal and an assassin. Neither the assertions nor the opinions of the Madras Times carry much weight in themselves and I might have passed over the attack in silence. But I have had reason in my political career to suspect that there are police officials on the one side and propagandists of violent revolution on the other hand who would only be too glad to use any authority for bringing in my name as a supporter of Terrorism and assassination.[26]

Note that the British police officials as well as the “propagandists of violent revolution” would have been too glad to use Sri Aurobindo’s name in connection with terrorism, the former to get some evidence to put him behind bars, the latter to use his authority to enrol more people. Sri Aurobindo’s name carried weight and one of the best ways of making people join the revolution was to say that it had his full approval. One could object to this conclusion saying that the above statement to the Hindu was after all meant for public consumption and to inform the Govt. officials, and was written under circumstances which did not permit him to tell the whole truth of the matter. But what about his letter to Parthasarathi written around the same time, in which he is highly critical of Indian politics, be it parliamentary or revolutionary? This letter written on 13 July, 1911 (a week before the letter to the Hindu) gives us an insight of how things went wrong in the early stages of the freedom movement of India after an initial descent of the higher forces. I am tempted to quote it at full length:

Be very careful to follow my instructions in avoiding the old kind of politics. Spirituality is India’s only politics, the fulfilment of the Sanatan Dharma its only Swaraj. I have no doubt we shall have to go through our Parliamentary period in order to get rid of the notion of Western democracy by seeing in practice how helpless it is to make nations blessed. India is passing really through the first stages of a sort of national Yoga. It was mastered in the inception by the inrush of divine force which came in 1905 and aroused it from its state of complete tamasic ajnanam. But, as happens also with individuals, all that was evil, all the wrong sanskaras and wrong emotions and mental and moral habits rose with it and misused the divine force. Hence all that orgy of political oratory, democratic fervour, meetings, processions, passive resistance, all ending in bombs, revolvers and Coercion laws. It was a period of asuddha rajasic activity and had to be followed by the inevitable period of tamasic reaction from disappointed rajas. God has struck it all down,— Moderatism, the bastard child of English Liberalism; Nationalism, the mixed progeny of Europe and Asia; Terrorism, the abortive offspring of Bakunin and Mazzini. The latter still lives, but it is being slowly ground to pieces. At present, it is our only enemy, for I do not regard the British coercion as an enemy, but as a helper. If it can only rid us of this wild pamphleteering, these theatrical assassinations, these frenzied appeals to national hatred with their watchword of Feringhi-ko-maro, these childish conspiracies, these idiotic schemes for facing a modern army with half a dozen guns and some hundred lathis,—the opium visions of rajogun run mad, then I say, “More power to its elbow.” For it is only when this foolishness is done with that truth will have a chance, the sattwic mind in India emerge and a really strong spiritual movement begin as a prelude to India’s regeneration. No doubt, there will be plenty of trouble and error still to face, but we shall have a chance of putting our feet on the right path. In all I believe God to be guiding us, giving the necessary experiences, preparing the necessary conditions. [27]

Sri Aurobindo is against both democratic and revolutionary activity of the Western kind and the emphasis is on evolving India’s own politics of a spiritual type. But, towards the end of the letter, he is particularly harsh on terrorism and calls it the only enemy of India. Again, it should be understood that he was not against it in principle, but when it became in practice an “asuddha rajasic activity”. In other words, he would have no objection if it is properly executed and the kshatriya dharma fulfilled under the control of the “sattwic mind”. Sri Aurobindo spoke in similar terms to Motilal when the latter came to Pondicherry in November-December 1913. As soon as Motilal asked him if he should get revolvers from Indochina, Sri Aurobindo replied, “India will not awaken through rajasic ways”, and that its freedom could come only if a group of people became Gunateeta (free from the action of the gunas).[28] Finally, the most convincing evidence that Sri Aurobindo was against terrorism at this point of time is found in his Record of Yoga. I repeat here the notation of 25 December, 1912, which I have already quoted in Part 1 of this article:

The public news (eg the attack on the Viceroy, the ill-success of the Turkish naval sortie) show that the Power is still ineffective to prevent adverse occurrences. [29]

There is no better evidence than this notation which was written only two days after the attack on the Viceroy. The fact that he wrote it down in a private diary, meant for only himself and immediately after receiving the news, makes the evidence doubly certain. That he did not take well the attempted murder of the Viceroy is incontestable, and that he gave his attention for a whole month to cure his wounds with his spiritual power is therefore not surprising.

We see thus a clear compatibility between Sri Aurobindo’s public statement to the Hindu, his letter to Parthasarathi, his diary notation and even his conversation with Motilal, all written or said during the same period, that is, mid 1911 to end 1913. All these documents match in content with what he wrote in 1948 in his long autobiographical note on his political life. Thus Arun Chandra Dutt’s claim that Sri Aurobindo congratulated Motilal for the attack on Hardinge seems difficult to accept, not only because there is lack of sufficient evidence, but also because it is difficult to reconcile it with Sri Aurobindo’s attitude towards revolutionary action as expressed in the documents of that period. I would suggest a gap in time between the moment Sri Aurobindo gave his instructions to Motilal and the time they were fully understood and implemented. Motilal himself writes in Amar dekha Biplaba O Biplabee that Sri Aurobindo urged him to refrain from revolutionary work from the time the Mother came to Pondicherry in 1914, but that he (Motilal) actually dissociated himself from it in 1916. It is possible to conclude on the basis of the above documents that Sri Aurobindo was discouraging him from revolutionary work even earlier than that, at least a couple of years before 1914. Moreover, Sri Aurobindo was hardly the type to give orders with the expectation that they will be carried out immediately. He always gave freedom to his associates and played an advisory role than forced them to obey him unconditionally. So all the more reason why there might have been a delay between what he wanted Motilal to do and what the latter finally did.

What do we conclude from the above discussion? That Motilal seems to have been mostly responsible for whatever he did in his revolutionary work and not Sri Aurobindo, and that surely Sri Aurobindo would not have congratulated Motilal with regard to the attack on the Viceroy. That there might be some truth in the story of the revolvers that Sri Aurobindo procured for Motilal, but the supposedly code words used for arms and revolutionary action such as “Tantric kriyas” or “Yogini chakras” seem to be the deductions of Arun Chandra Dutt than Motilal’s own assertions. It is true that some of these phrases do sound strange, but the benefit of doubt should be given to what they mean at face value. For the phrase “Tantric kriyas” does make a lot of sense in the practice of Tantra and, as a matter of fact, it has been explained in the Record of Yoga:

In the same way there is a power in the consciousness of acting upon other conscious beings or even upon things without physical means or persuasion or compulsion. Great men are said to make others do their will by a sort of magnetism, that is to say there is a force in their words, in their action, or even in their silent will or mere presence which influences and compels others. To have these siddhis of power is to have the conscious and voluntary use of this force of Chit. The three powers are Aishwarya, Ishita, Vashita. These powers can only be entirely acquired or safely used when we have got rid of Egoism and identified ourselves with the infinite Will and the infinite Consciousness. They are sometimes employed by mechanical means, e.g. with the aid of Mantras, Tantric Kriyas (special processes), etc.[30]

Now Tantric processes have been there in India from time immemorial, but we generally don’t associate them with Sri Aurobindo, even though we know that he integrated some of the elements of Tantra in his integral Yoga. But the Yoga of Sri Aurobindo we are all familiar with was expounded much later in his lifetime and we don’t know exactly what and how he practised it in the earlier stages and taught it to the others. Motilal Roy was practically his first disciple and, according to him, Sri Aurobindo sent him three mantras from Pondicherry, instructing him to repeat them in the traditional way. This opens up the possibility that Sri Aurobindo may have sent him also “Tantric kriyas” and perhaps relied upon other traditional methods as well to guide his disciple. Beyond expressing this supposition, which has as much validity as Arun Chandra Dutt’s deductions, we cannot conduct our enquiry any farther due to the paucity of information available on this event. All that we can say is that we need plenty of additional evidence to believe what Arun Chandra Dutt would have us believe.

Raman Reddy


[1] Archives & Research, April 1987, p 124

[2] Jugal Kishore Mukherji’s Letter to the Trustees in 1987, published on livesofsriaurobindo.com

[3] CWSA, Autobiographical Notes, p 177

[4] Peter Heehs, The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, p 237

[5] CWSA, Autobiographical Notes, p182

[6] Arun Chandra Dutt, Light to Superlight, pp 50-51

[7] CWSA, Autobiographical Notes, p181

[8] CWSA, Autobiographical Notes, p 193

[9] CWSA, Autobiographical Notes, p 211

[10] CWSA, Autobiographical Notes, p182

[11] CWSA, Autobiographical Notes, p179

[12] Motilal Roy, My Life’s Partner (Jiban Sangini translated by D.S. Mahalanobis), pp 249-252

[13] Ibid, pp 108-112

[14] CWSA, Autobiographical Notes, pp 183-184

[15] CWSA, Autobiographical Notes, pp 183-184

[16] CWSA, Record of Yoga (3 Feb, 1913), p 231

[17] CWSA, Record of Yoga (25 December, 1912), pp 162-163

[18] Archives & Research, December 1987, p 220

[19] Archives & Research, December 1984, p 221

[20] Archives & Research, December 1982, p 228

[21] Nirmal Singh Nahar, Birthplace of Sri Aurobindo; also published on livesofsriaurobindo.com.

[22] Archives & Research, December 1989, p 221

[23] Ibid, p 221

[24] Archives & Research, December 1990, pp 228-234

[25] CWSA, Autobiographical Notes, p 64

[26] CWSA, Autobiographical Notes, pp 266-267

[27] CWSA, Autobiographical Notes, pp 170-171

[28] Motilal Roy, Sri Aurobindo – Yuga Purush, (1970) p 72. In the 1357 B.S. Paush (= 1951, January-February) issue of the Prabartak, Motilal writes of a similar remark made by Sri Aurobindo in November-December 1911, during his first visit to Pondicherry. This date tallies all the more with the other documents of this period, showing Sri Aurobindo’s strong disapproval of revolutionary activity by this time. Though the date given in the Prabartak should be more reliable by the very fact of being recorded twenty years earlier than Yug Purush, I still extend the benefit of doubt to the latter. In general, Motilal’s chronology is often vague and not reliable, though his closeness to Sri Aurobindo as a disciple for practically a decade cannot be doubted.

[29] CWSA, Record of Yoga, pp162-163

[30] CWSA, Record of Yoga, p 1474
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