23 Apr 2010

A Paragraph from “A Brief Biography of Sri Aurobindo” by Peter Heehs

[The earlier biography of Sri Aurobindo by Peter Heehs published in 1989 was not free from defects as the writer below points out. For that matter, things started going wrong in the early eighties and Jugal Kishore Mukherji took Heehs to task in 1986 over his articles published in the Archives & Research. Had Heehs learnt his lesson at that time and listened to sober advice, the phenomenon of The Lives would never have happened.]

A dedicated team of physicians was in attendance but Sri Aurobindo declined to receive any major treatment, or even to use his therapeutic power on himself. Asked why, he said simply, ‘Can’t explain; you won’t understand.’* He fell into what the doctors assumed to be a terminal uraemic coma; but it was a strange sort of coma, from which the patient seemed able to emerge at will. During his periods of full outward awareness Sri Aurobindo spoke to his attendants, and even, when the end drew near, kissed these faithful companions of his last years. Some time after midnight on 5 December 1950 he plunged within for the last time, and at 1.26 a.m. his vital functions ceased.

* Nirodbaran, Twelve Years with Sri Aurobindo, 1972, p. 264

(Peter Heehs, A Brief Biography of Sri Aurobindo, 1st ed., 1989, pp.146-7)

The underlined portion from Peter Heehs’s earlier biography raises some questions:

Champaklal was the only “attendant” Sri Aurobindo had until his accident in November 1938. Hence “his last years” = the next 12 years during which, in addition to six other sadhaks that Mother appointed as personal attendants, she permitted two visiting specialists and, much later, a resident specialist to “attend”, and, in the last week, she called Dr. Sanyal from Calcutta. So, did Sri Aurobindo kiss them all “when the end drew near”?

And were all of them “companions” of his last years? Intriguing why this biographer has chosen to be the first and only one to equate ‘companions’ with ‘attendants’, knowing perfectly well their differing connotations! The first has a connotation which I would not even like to state here. In the Lives of Sri Aurobindo Heehs has mentioned the Mother as Sri Aurobindo’s “partner”!

Has no source been given for “…kissed these faithful companions of his last years” so that we readers take it as part of Nirodbaran’s Twelve Years? But, p.265 of Twelve Years…, 1972, says:

By 5 p.m. [of 4th Dec.] there was a respite.… It was during this period that he often came out of the trance, and each time leaned forward, hugged and kissed Champaklal who was sitting by the side of his bed. Champaklal also hugged him in return. A wonderful sight it was, though so strangely unlike Sri Aurobindo who had rarely called us even by our names in these twelve years. We knew that Champaklal particularly longed for some tender outward expression. But Sri Aurobindo’s impersonal nature kept at bay all personal touches except during our birthday or Darshan pranams when he would pat and caress our heads. Now Champaklal had his heart’s yearning gratified to the full extent. But on what grounds? Was it the repayment of God’s debt to his “servant” for his lifelong dedicated service without the expectation of any other mead than perhaps some occasional look or touch or word?

Note that it was only Champaklal who was hugged and kissed by Sri Aurobindo as a boon for his lifelong “service”, and not “companionship”!

What then was the source of “kissed…”? Dr. P. Sanyal’s A Call from Pondicherry, published by Mother India in Dec.1953. I quote the relevant portions:

“On the evening of the 29th November 1950…a servant brought me a telegram which read: FLY—URGENT—MOTHER…. // Then it came to me—Is Sri Aurobindo ill?—Why otherwise would the Mother send such a telegram?... // On the way [in the car from Madras] Dr Nirod of the Ashram [not colleague] and my young colleague Dr Satya Sen acquainted me with the history and present condition of the Master…. // [When he met Sri Aurobindo] He placed His hand on my head and lovingly patted it a few times….It was a blessing no words could describe…an experience for the soul….

Dec 3rd…. The temperature had dropped to normal and so much was our relief that at 11 a.m. while making my Pranams to the Mother I ventured to suggest that as the Master was steadily improving I might perhaps leave that evening. The Mother remained silent…and I blurted out: “I would rather stay a few more days.” A smile lit all Her face….

“Dec.4th…. After a little while He opened his eyes and asked the time…. There was a pause; He looked at the clock and then asked how Bengal was faring, especially the refugees. I narrated to Him their pitiable plight and implored: “Surely the Divine can help?” My Lord answered, “Yes, if Bengal seeks the Divine.” He closed His eyes and went into silence (Samadhi)…. From midday the respiratory difficulty reappeared…. // The Mother came about 1 p.m. She watched for some time before entering the adjoining room with me. Then She said, “He is withdrawing.”… // By 5 o’clock again He showed signs of improvement…. We helped Him out of His bed…. After three quarters of an hour He…wanted to be back in bed…. Though He seemed to be unconscious He was not, which was evident by the fact that He drew Champaklal several times to His breast and kissed him lovingly and this Divine compassionate embrace was extended to Nirod and myself….”

Note that Sanyal was “acquainted with the history and present condition” only in the last week, not the “last years”, and he was a valued doctor disciple, not a regular “attendant” as the underlined portions show, and certainly not a ‘companion’ to whom that “compassionate embrace” (not kiss of his Lord) was “extended to”, which was an experience of the soul and not a physical fact.

And so, in December 1991, soon after A Brief Biography of Sri Aurobindo by Peter Heehs burst on the scene in 1989-90, Mother India republished A Call from Pondicherry under this editorial note:

We are republishing this vivid and valuable article from the joint Nov-Dec 1953 issue of Mother India. It was read out to the Mother and approved. But she had not been present during some of the events recorded here. On the basis of Nirodbaran’s reports the editor has made a correction at one place.

With that “correction”, or rather deletion of Dr Sanyal’s inadvertent ambiguity, the sentence reads:

Though He seemed to be unconscious He was not, which was evident by the fact that He drew Champaklal several times to His breast and kissed him lovingly.

Amal Kiran & Nirodbaran must have surely taken their due precautions after reading Heehs’ brief biography! It was around this time that a certain editorial control was likely to be imposed on Heehs, which unfortunately never happened, resulting in the present mess.

Are there other such sleights of hand in this biography? There are in plenty but to unearth & unravel them, you need to be determined to ‘get down to it’ and scrutinise closely the documentation in order to unravel the hidden twists in this so-called scholarly biography.

An Ashramite

16 April 2010
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22 Apr 2010

An Open Dialogue on The Lives of Sri Aurobindo -- by R.Y Despande

Apropos of The Lives of Sri Aurobindo which declares that Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri is a “fictional creation”, I’d received an invitation from Rich Carlson of the SCIY for a dialogue on the book; at the SCIY we were colleagues at one time. The intention of holding a dialogue was to see if it could address the valid issues that had caused a vertical split in the international IY Community. The idea was first to understand its nature and then possibly offer proposals to remove the regretful misunderstanding. Rich’s e-mail had come to me on 19 April 2009 (in India 20 April) and I waited purposely for two days to respond—first to gauge to what extent he was serious about the matter, and then to figure out the way in which the dialogue could be held, in case it was going to be held. In the meanwhile, Rich sent me another e-mail seeking my concurrence. Rich wanted to conduct the dialogue just between me and himself, “who are now on polarized sides of the ordeal.” The hope was “to see if this matter will end in resolution or rupture.”

On 22 April 2009 Rich sent me a sharp reminder. My reply was as follows: “I did get your earlier e-mail and was in the process of responding to it. Believe me, I thought it appropriate first to formulate the terms and conditions for the intended dialogue which are ready in a draft form; I would have sent these to you in a day or two. But this e-mail settles the issue.”

But Rich regretted his haste and wished again to start the process. He wrote back: “It is a good thing to formulate the terms and conditions for an intended dialogue. I had wished to do that myself.” He also felt that there is a lot at stake here and it would be in the spirit of the yoga to continue, no matter what the differences are.

My proposal to examine The Lives of Sri Aurobindo was to go through it paragraph by paragraph, and page by page, and discuss it exhaustively, in several aspects. I also mentioned that it would be preferable if the dialogue is carried out on the Mirror of Tomorrow where we can have inputs from alert and competent readers who are serious about the matter. I wrote to this effect: I think a chapter by chapter dialog on the book would be worthwhile, something certainly better than allowing courts to decide the issue.

Rich wrote back on 24 April 2009 saying that he meant it to be a private conversation on the issue in an attempt to arrive at a resolution. He was not in favour of an open dialogue which would rather cause further rupture in the world-wide IY Community. The matter was closed at that.

Today it is exactly one year when the idea of a possible dialogue was mooted. It is unfortunate that it didn’t materialise. The positions have now got so much hardened—witness for instance AV Today August 2009, some interviews on the subject—that perhaps only a miracle might work it out.

As there is really nothing confidential in these frank exchanges made in a liberal spirit, on this anniversary of the proposal I’m putting them on the Mirror of Tomorrow. If Rich wishes, he can put his version on the SCIY or related sites.


20 April 2010


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14 Apr 2010

Comments by Auroman

The quandary with the latest biography of Sri Aurobindo by his own follower Peter Heehs, The Lives of Sri Aurobindo published by the Columbia University Press, is that many times we get caught up in vitanda (which means, it is wrong because you are saying it—and using quotes to justify your side) and kutarka (wrong logic). Every argument is taken up, twisted and compared with some other argument. The rational mind keeps moving between various arguments never knowing where conclusion lies!

A Few Comments Apropos of The Lives of Sri Aurobindo — by Auroman

on Fri 09 Jan 2009 07:14 PM IST

The quandary with the latest biography of Sri Aurobindo by his own follower Peter Heehs, The Lives of Sri Aurobindo published by the Columbia University Press, is that many times we get caught up in vitanda (which means, it is wrong because you are saying it—and using quotes to justify your side) and kutarka (wrong logic). Every argument is taken up, twisted and compared with some other argument. The rational mind keeps moving between various arguments never knowing where conclusion lies!

Assuming this book was written with honest intent then, there is one fundamental question which must be answered: Is this book useful for spreading the message of Sri Aurobindo? Is it?

To me, this is a question, above all, of vibratory power. This book vacillates; it comes across as insipid and inconclusive. It doesn't drive home the argument that, yes, I can improve my life by taking up Integral Yoga. If this is supposed to be a primary biography written by an Ashram inmate and follower of the Path, then it must be held to a higher standard.

1) Except for the chapter on Major Works, Pondicherry, 1914-1920, Chapter 7, pp. 264-307, most the other chapters of the Lives come across like a soap opera, kind of "they met; he felt like this; she said that”—stuff. Even in this chapter there is no scholarly depth or insight expected with such a long association with the writings.

2) The constant use of double quotes through the text seems to indicate a lack of grasp of the subject matter. The plain question is: if you are an acclaimed expert, then why not write in your own words?

3) The work fails to present the basic theory of Integral Yoga forcefully in a concise manner. Isn't that what Sri Aurobindo is important for? It miserably fails to state that Sri Aurobindo was doing sadhana for the Earth. All we have are statements here and there like "he came down into the physical; he told someone the tail of the supermind has descended; by their own account, they never lost touch of the higher planes of consciousness." People might turn aside with a smile if they read some of this gibberish. Shouldn't the book try to explain what these statements mean in terms of the ancient Scriptures? Why is Sri Aurobindo different from other Sages and Rishis who lived in the past centuries?

4) The life of a Saint or a Yogi or a Rishi should be judged by the people he affected. Yet, there is little or no information about the major disciples like Nolini, Nirod, Amal, Pavitra, Amrita, Purani, Dilip Roy, Champaklal, Anilbaran, and many others. How did Sri Aurobindo change the lives of others? I presume, if I’ve to put it from the author’s point of view, this information cannot be included in the biography because, these people cannot be regarded as (trustworthy?) primary sources. So there is a basic conflict with the approach of the biographer and the life of the person he seeks to represent.

5) The epilogue is disappointingly incomplete. No information is given on various centers and institutions which have sprung up and the wide variety of people who embrace the philosophy and continue the work. Again, all we have are some ambiguous statements, like the following: "We are now in the second generation after Sri Aurobindo’s passing. His work continues… A superficial look at the organizations he inspired might give the impression that they constitute a movement of the sort he warned against in The Human Cycle. But a deeper look, not at organizational forms but at the practice of individuals, might give a different impression. And in the end any attempt to transform human society must begin with the individuals.” (p. 415) In support of this statement a quotation from Sri Aurobindo follows to close the book. The obvious suggestion is, the failure of the Aurobindonian attempt towards the transformation of the human society.

6) The Mother has been excluded—as if the author has a strong aversion towards her, a psychological barrier in accepting or acknowledging her contributions. Sri Aurobindo exits the stage and we are supposed to move on as if nothing happened after that.

7) The author has spent 35-40 years in the Archives. He must know for sure that Vivekananda visited Sri Aurobindo in Alipore jail. Yet here we find this strange statement, "Years later, he wondered whether its source was actually the spirit of Vivekananda." (p. 178) There is no reference for this statement as far as the primary sources are concerned. Evidently, meticulous scholarship also has its limits, but it is bad when it gets manipulated.

On this same page, we also read that Sri Aurobindo heard "all sorts of voices". The reference given to back up this claim of "all sorts of voices" seems to be some letter written to a disciple in Letters on Yoga, instead of something Sri Aurobindo said about himself. So this reference is obviously incorrect. Decontextualised quotations cannot give authenticity to the claims. These kinds of statements create doubt in the mind of the reader about Sri Aurobindo's sanity. Actually, what happened is that, after the Nirvana experience with Lele in December 1907, Sri Aurobindo only heard one voice of the Divine which spoke at various times and guided him.

8) A rumour about kidney trouble as the cause of Sri Aurobindo’s illness and ‘death’ has been included. (p. 406) Is this another example of meticulous scholarship? It creates doubt in the mind of the reader that perhaps Sri Aurobindo had kidney trouble all his life, in spite of his assertions to the contrary. It is worthwhile to go through the accounts of the doctors who actually attended on Sri Aurobindo.

9) There were all kinds of mischievous statements about Sri Aurobindo and the Mother made by strong lobbies in Pondicherry of those days. In order to dismiss such impressions, Jatindranath Sen Gupta, friend of one of the members of the Ashram, offered to write a piece for the daily Hindu of Madras, published in May 1927. (p. 358) Our author considers it more an "exercise in public relations than an example of balanced reporting." But, historically speaking, we must well understand that people in that age in India had no idea about marketing; Sri Aurobindo always made decisions based on spiritual motives. The author's mind is trying to judge these things based on his own upbringing, missing the perspective of space and time.

10) A reference is made to the Evening Talks recorded by AB Purani in the context of the passive attitude of the Hindus towards the Muslims. "Why don't the Hindus strike [on the Muslims]?”— that is what Sri Aurobindo is reported to have said. But our author adds that Sri Aurobindo asked his attendants this question “more than once when he heard of Muslim atrocities." (p. 395) We do not know wherefrom this "more than once" comes. Let me quote Nirodbaran from his Twelve Years with Sri Aurobindo:

…during the Hindu-Moslem riot in Calcutta constant frantic appeals were coming to him seeking advice, guidance, succour. When the Hindus were getting beaten in the first few days, Sri Aurobindo remarked, "Why don't the Hindus strike?" The very next day the scene changed; there was a tremendous counter-move. Lest people should be shocked to hear Sri Aurobindo advising violence, I refer them to Essays on the Gita where he discusses this question. Here I shall quote something from my correspondence. He says, "There is a truth in Ahimsa, there is a truth in Destruction also… Non-violence is better than violence as a rule, and still sometimes violence may be the right thing…"

And here is what Sri Aurobindo himself wrote in a letter dated 19 October 1946:

As regards Bengal, things are certainly very bad; the conditions of the Hindus there are terrible and they may even get worse in spite of the Interim mariage de convenance at Delhi. But we must not let our reaction to it become excessive or suggest despair. There must be at least 20 million Hindus in Bengal and they are not going to be exterminated,—even Hitler with his scientific methods of massacre could not exterminate the Jews who are still showing themselves very much alive and, as for Hindu culture, it is not such a weak and fluffy thing as to be easily stamped out; it has lasted through something like 5 millenniums at least and is going to carry on much longer and has accumulated quite enough power to survive. What is happening did not come to me as a surprise. I foresaw it when I was in Bengal and warned people that it was probable and almost inevitable and that they should be prepared for it. At that time no one attached any value to what I said, although some afterwards remembered and admitted, when the trouble first began, that I have been right; only CR Das had grave apprehensions and he even told me when he came to Pondicherry that he would not like the British to go out until this dangerous problem had been settled. But I have not been discouraged by what is happening, because I know and have experienced hundreds of times that beyond the blackest darkness there lies for one who is a divine instrument the light of God's victory. I have never had a strong and persistent will for anything to happen in the world—I am not speaking of personal things—which did not eventually happen even after delay, defeat or even disaster. There was a time when Hitler was victorious everywhere and it seemed certain that a black yoke of the Asura would be imposed on the whole world; but where is Hitler now and where is his rule? Berlin and Nuremberg have marked the end of that dreadful chapter in human history. Other blacknesses threaten to overshadow or even engulf mankind, but they too will end as that nightmare has ended. I cannot write fully in this letter of all things which justify my confidence—some day perhaps I shall be able to do it.

Both the references are given in the biography but the context is totally lost.

11) And here is the famous account about the disciples of Sri Aurobindo: “As a rule people spent most of their time in what Sri Aurobindo called the lower consciousness, caught up in the play of ordinary thought and emotion. They did their work, but sometimes argued with their colleagues. They met their neighbours, and sometimes slandered them behind their backs. At home they read Sri Aurobindo’s works, or indulged in sexual daydreams. They attended pranāms, and sometimes were consumed by jealousy because the Mother smiled more warmly at another. Then, while walking on the pier or sitting at home or dusting books in the library, they might again be lifted above the mind and perceive the one soul in all, or plunge into their heart and feel the fire of the psychic being.” (p. 373)

Courtesy mirroroftomorrow.org
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1 Apr 2010

Second Response to Debashish Banerji -- by Raman Reddy

Coming to the expansion of the Ashram from the 1940s, it happened spontaneously and the Mother accepted it, encouraged and took advantage of it to widen the physical base of the Ashram, so that fresh energy flowed in without losing sight of the ideal set forth by Sri Aurobindo. This is the miracle that happened in the physical presence of the Mother. Expansion necessarily leads to dilution, as you cannot mass produce yogis like Nolini, Amrita and Pavitra, but the loss in height is offset by the gain in width. If the Mother were reluctant about expanding the Ashram, why did she go out of the way to start a school and later a centre for higher education in 1951 for the children who came in the early forties? Why did she set up a wonderful sports infrastructure through the late Pranab Kumar Bhattacharya, whom she considered to be one of her best instruments of action? Why did she encourage Udar Pinto and Dayabhai Patel to start business units? Why did she start the Press and the handmade paper unit to mention only a few of the numerous departments of the Ashram? And what about the workshops and farms? What about the building construction work and finally even a Sugar Mill in the mid sixties? Does Debashish know enough of Ashram history to comment so glibly about its development?

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