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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