24 Jul 2010

A Review by Anon E. Muse

In the economy of the universe nothing is wasted, even waste is endlessly recycled, so why not with this provocatively flawed biography?

In order to demonstrate to the reader the author’s unbiasedness, objective, intellectual independence, and lack of awe towards his subject, the author takes the surprisingly juvenile approach of deliberate disrespect, casting of innuendos, and imputing of shallow motives. Also, casting around for a desperate search for revisionisms and seeing them even where none exist, that desperation colors his alleged objectivity – the justifying foundation for the writing of this biography is his need to set the alleged ‘hagiographic’ record straight – hence he is compelled to uncover ‘falsifications’. Well, if he can’t find any he will have to in desperation just perceive some.

Indeed, your reviewer has been saddened by the author’s juvenile, unwise, and needlessly provocative approach in an otherwise excellent compilation of raw biographic data. Indeed, this is a compilation of quotations; if all the quotations from previous biographies and essayists were to be removed, there would be hardly any original residual work left.

It is evident that by simply accumulating encyclopedic knowledge and laboring hard guarantees neither wisdom nor creativity. The difference between being a shallow Pundit or Don and a sincere Truth seeker remains patently self-evident. A dunce with online access to a Weikopedia will still remain a dunce regardless of the efficiency of his search engine. Fortunately the self-corrective ability to make this discrimination between informed knowledge and a realized knowledge is very much active in Indian readers as their naturally inherited cultural capacity will, like the ability of the mythical Swan, enable them to filter the milk from the diluents.

Evidently the author wishes to establish a scholarly name for himself as being an objective, impartial, and skeptical critic of all the multi-faceted aspects of an undisputed Colossus. (Sri Aurobindo gave an ancient nation its Independence, formulated a new system of Yoga, wrote an Epic poem, revitalized an entire Culture, demonstrated the next Evolutionary leap – should one expect more in one lifetime?). The author’s lack of awe, lack of simple respect, and void of devotion is to be heaped onto the childish insertion of his own gossipy, petty, and ignorant product selections and puerile assessments.

The root cause of his ignorance stems from (i) an ambition to be viewed as a scholar of some competence and (ii) an inability to grasp the fundamental Indian view of sarvam Brahma: this latter fundamental and crucial deficiency is bound to confound any true understanding of the India mind, without which how can one even dream of successfully assessing the multitudinous contributions of Sri Aurobindo?

As a critic, commentator, scoffer, what are his qualifications? What are his qualifications in any one field let alone all the multiple fields that Sri Aurobindo dealt with? His petty jabs reek of the envy of an armchair quarterback. Since when can poetry be objectively assessed? As for commenting on spiritual experiences, this pitiful biographer begins to melt and fall apart in mid-sentences like the proverbial salt doll that endeavors to gauge the ocean depths. Is a surgeon ‘objective’ when claiming that man has no soul since none was ever uncovered in dissections?

The Western mind is suffused with the Judaic-Christian belief that God and his creation are disjoint other than an occasional visitation of an angel or a messiah. Whereas the Eastern views creation of something from nothing as a totally absurd impossibility and prefers to more rationally describe genesis as a manifestation or involvement of the transcendent Divine itself. Much misunderstanding and incomprehension of the East/West chasm can be easily explained away if this simple but essential basis is understood: incomprehensions such as glimpsing Divinity in an ordinary piece of rough stone. Since ‘the Divine is in all, all is in the Divine, and all is the Divine’ then why should it shock to see one human bowing to and worshiping the Divinity in another? Necks readily lose their stiffness, once this understanding dawns. Others will continue to resist and find offense as long as their belief in Judean-Christian miraculous creationism prevails.

Right from the get-go (in the first page of the Preface, line 9) the author begins referring to Sri Aurobindo as ‘Aurobindo’ and only adheres to the usage ‘Sri Aurobindo’ on and subsequent to page 347 of this 496 page book. Surely this is a consciously deliberate pejorative choice despite his undoubtedly knowing better [pg 347: ‘Since [1933] the subject of this biography has always been known as Sri Aurobindo, the two words being regarded as a single name.’] The Mother herself had approved what Nolini Kanto Gupta had written in a letter [Ref 1]:

“It is an error to think that Sri is only an honorific prefix to Aurobindo which is the real name…. It is part of the name. Sri Aurobindo forms one indivisible word. That is the final form Sri Aurobindo himself gave to his name. And I may tell you that the mantric effect resides in that form.”

Mother has seen this admonition of mine to you and fully approves of it.”

[Ref 1] “Sri” in the name of “Sri Aurobindo”, Mother India, pg. 273, April 2007.

One of the rationale given by the author for writing this book is stated on Pg xii of the preface:

“But when I began to write articles about his life, I found that there were limits to what his admires 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”.

The author provides no description, inventory, or references to these objectionable articles that he wrote, nor does he provide a list of those statements that he considers were ‘based on incomplete knowledge of facts’.

In fact, this reviewer happens to be aware of at least two controversial doubts that the author had attempted in the past to promulgate and had, as a consequence of the overwhelming strength of incontrovertible evidence and the exposure of his own deficiency of faulty logic, to withdraw from his position. Both of these are not to be found in their original boastful version in this book but are presented in the corrected form.

The first was the author’s claim based on his own expertise in pop-psychology; he arrived at the diagnosis that Sri Aurobindo had a ‘mother fixation’ due to the fact that on his return from England his mother had failed to recognize him. This claimed evidence of fact was overturned by none other than Nirodbaran himself who provided the anecdote of the scar on Sri Aurobindo’s hand. This anecdote is narrated correctly by the author on pg. 41 “My Aurobindo had a cut on his finger.” [Sri] Aurobindo had a scar on his finger where he had cut himself as a child; this was shown to her, and she recognized her son”.

The second claim was that Sri Aurobindo’s adesh (a command from within) to go to Pondicherry could not in fact logically have been an adesh since he had prior knowledge of the existence of a revolutionary cell in southern India. This momentous finding of the author also had to be retracted when the validity of his argument was demonstrated to be patently false. Just because one is aware of multiple choices, how does an inner directive to make a particular choice, invalidate the nature or the strength of the command indicating a particular choice from the gamut of choices? See pg. 204 “he went within and heard a voice – an adesh – that said “Go to Chandernagore.” He obeyed it without reflection.

A recurring plaint voiced throughout this opus takes the following form : “Years later [Sri] Aurobindo explained….” The author would much rather have preferred to have his skepticism assuaged by Sri Aurobindo keeping a contemporaneously written ‘twittering’ record of all his thoughts and activities, even if such records led to an early demise of a budding revolutionary and latent avatar dancing the jig on British gallows. A consequence of his desire for real-time authentication, namely an early demise of his subject would have given the author a non-existent subject. Such are the conundrums of wishing to rewrite history.

It is customary to expect in an opus an introductory and a concluding chapter; in their stead the author offers an equivalent 4-pages Preface and a 5-page Epilogue. Half of the epilogue consists of describing the events at the ashram on the next day after Sri Aurobindo’s leaving his mortal sheath and the reaction of media reports and the eulogies of world leaders in the morning’s newspapers; the remaining two and a half pages are the total extent of his concluding assessments. [This reviewer himself recalls hearing the momentous news whilst in Paris on the afternoon’s news on short-wave broadcast of All India Radio.]

A skimpy preface is hardly sufficient to provide a motivational synopsis for a prospective reader to invest his energies in an almost 500 pages book. Also, can but two and a half pages of an epilogue be adequate to meaningfully assess the attainments of any subject worthy of a biography? These skimpy ‘book ends’, especially the prologue, have been scribbled without any profoundity as if under the pressure of a publication deadline and show great negligence of penmanship and are devoid of any fruits of contemplation on the significance of the accumulated heap of biographic data.

The author’s skimpy motivational summary presented in the preface succinctly states that “mystic self-absorption is not the only possible outcome of spiritual practice.” That [Sri] Aurobindo’s “first major inner experience was a state of mystical absorption, but he was driven to return to active life, and spent the next 40 years looking for a way to bring the knowledge and power of the spirit into the world.” And then he tries to grandly conclude: “In this lies the value of his teaching to men and women of the 21st century”. (pg. xiv)

The forgoing (with this reviewer’s highlighting) is hardly accurate even as a summary and is deeply flawed. To wit: Sri Aurobindo was not driven to return to active life; in fact the mystical experience occurred in the midst of active life [in the full commotion of a political convention]. He did not return from a mystical experience to active life but rather he went the other way, from an active life to successive levels of higher and higher mystical experiences: he was in fact driven from an active politico-revolutionary life to an absolutely literal isolation, both physical and mystical, of solitary confinement in a prison cell! And only thereafter did he dedicate the next 40 years to a spiritual life, to establishing an ashram, and to being a Guide. Right off the bat the author’s inability to glean meaning and significance from facts or sequence of facts shows his glaring deficiency and inability to be a meaningful commentator.

As for the assertion that ‘In this lies the value of his teaching…’ (i.e. in returning to active life after mystic self-absorption) is an assertion that is too simplistic, hardly elucidating, or even uniquely exemplary. Is this the best, the highest, the profoundest insight that the author can deliver with his decades of research and massive compilation of biographical sources? And this is his second attempt at a biography of his chosen subject! Is this not an instance of the same spiritual cliché and empty verbiage that the author himself warns the reader of on pg. x of the prologue?

Let us next examine the following conjunction of four successive sentences on the last page [Pg xiv] of the preface:

[#1] “But for many, figure 1 [a retouched photo from circa 1915-1916] is more true to Aurobindo than figure 2 [an original untouched photo from circa 1915].”

[#2] “In later life, his complexion became fair and smooth, his features full and round.

[#3] “Figure 2 [an original untouched photo from circa 1915] thus falsifies the “real” Aurobindo.”

[#4] “It is the task of the retoucher to make the photograph accord with the reality that people want to see.”

This reviewer is struck by the author’s clever wordsmithery!

What precisely does this out of place insertion of sentence #2 dealing with a later life description contribute to the discussion of the early life 1915-16 photographs? Is the author cunningly planting seeds of doubt that the ‘later life’ photos taken by Henri Cartier- Bresson in 1950 were also falsified to “accord with the reality that people want to see”? That the first hand accounts of the rapid radical changes [see Ref. 2 Pg. 201 The Mother: the Story of Her Life by Georges Van Vrekham] in Sri Aurobindo’s physiognomy which occurred within the relatively short period 1918-1921 were all figments of the imagination or products of hysteria?

What possible relevance does sentence #2 have to the early life Figures under discussion? There are a total of 18 photographs provided in the center of the book in addition to these two referenced Figures located in the preface; none of the 18 have been designated by a Figure number, hence it is impossible to discern which later life photographs he may be alluding to or what his motive may be in this botched interpolation.

The author is at least consistent, in that the Epilogue is of equal quality and tenor, thereby underscoring this reviewer’s estimation of the author’s utility as primarily a gatherer of raw data sources while the subsequent necessary steps of analysis and assessment are a capability beyond his pay grade and job description.

In assessing and gauging Sri Aurobindo’s contributions the author writes in the epilogue Pg 414: “It is likely however that they [Sri Aurobindo’s prose and poetry] will continue to be read long after those who excoriate his style have been forgotten.” This is a feeble imitative echo of barrister Chittaranjan Das’s thundering prophetic words [1909] addressed in defense summary to the bench of Judge C.P. Beachcroft in the Alipore Bomb Case :

“... my appeal to you is that long after this controversy is hushed in silence, long after this turmoil, this agitation ceases, long after he is dead and gone, he will be looked upon as the poet of patriotism, as the prophet of nationalism and the lover of humanity. Long after he is dead and gone his words will be echoed and re-echoed not only in India, but across distant seas and lands.”

Moving onto chapter I the reviewer does not see how the separate accounts of the failure of the ‘riding test’ show less pre-meditation in the earlier account than the later account [Pg 31-32].

(i) 1940 later account: “Trying to clear the controversy fifty years after the event, he wrote that he managed “by certain maneuvers” to “get himself disqualified for riding without himself rejecting the Service…”

(ii) 1909 earlier account: “I failed in the final for the Civil Service… because I could not ride.”

How does account (ii) show less premeditation than account (i)?

To this reviewer account (i) says he failed by not appearing (this maneuver” is strongly documented since several chances to retake the test were offered by the authorities).

While account (ii) says “I failed in the final because I could not ride” which is merely a statement of fact (from one known to be habitually reticent and known for his parsimonious use of the spoken word while account (i) provides details of how he failed. If in fact he did not repeatedly appear, then how does this suddenly become any less premeditated?

So is this perception of “less premeditation” in the jaundiced eye of the biographer, a desperate attempt by him to uncover anomalies at any cost to support his premise of extensive retouching? Is this akin to an instance of a scientist cooking up experimental data to fit his preconceived theory?

If anyone after a span of thirty years gives a word for word identical account he would be immediately suspect. The author is simply too eager to clutch at any flimsy straw to bolster his credentials as a restorer of truth, a remover of varnish, an uncoverer of falsifications.

Pg. 34: Contents of a telegram to father of Sri Aurobindo:

(i) According to Mr. De: Sri Aurobindo’s name not on list

(ii) Contents of telegram: steamer had sunk

Impossible to gauge the effect of death on Sri Aurobindo.
The father “died uttering his name in lamentation”.
The biographer writes about lamentation to be “almost certainly fictitious”.
Mr. De was the only eye witness recounter and does not mention last words.
Innuendo: But it is interesting (why?) that Sri Aurobindo accepted and recounted this.

[Does an advanced Yogi with the siddhi of trikal drishti have only the pedestrian mode of knowing? He can accept on the basis of his own cognition by identification with past events.]

OPEN QUESTIONS : Was Sri Aurobindo informed by telegram of his father’s death prior to embarkation on 11th Jan 1893? There is a gap of almost one month between death and sailing. What about the effect of news on his brothers, any documentation?
Here’s another instance of the author’s multi-layered fanciful suppositions (from Chapter 2, page 34-35):

“One cannot say whether [Sri] Aurobindo got his first taste of Anglo-Indian condescension [on his return voyage]…. If he did he may have found it surprising, but not painful.”

If the author “cannot say” then why does he say it, and that too fully interlaced with “if”, “may” and “but” and then having the presumption to know, under these hypothetical circumstances, what his subject would or would not find “surprising” or “painful”. The author with such creative imagination should be encouraged to write a science fiction biography of an Aurobindonian twin who resided in a parallel universe of the author’s making.

Yet, (in chapter 3, Pg 55) the author appeals to the reader to find explanations for why a 28 year old would marry a 14 year old, “it is hard to imaging what the Cambridge- educated scholar and the girl… found to talk about. [Sri] Aurobindo clearly was not looking for intellectual companionship when he chose her. What then was he looking for?” How is it that the author’s powerful creative imagination and abundance of suppositions have failed him here and he needs to toss the ball to the reader?

The answers to the author’s in-your-face impertinent leading questions are obvious enough. Marriage, besides being an institution for raising families, is also for forming alliances between powerful extended families and clans. Sri Aurobindo as an ambitious young man with a clear agenda of politics and revolution would not have been ignorant of that factor. As for age, girls were married-off early in those Victorian times and girls beyond early teens were already considered rejects. The author himself earlier (pg 54) quotes as social reality that “it was considered a disgrace to have an unmarried daughter over 14 years”. Also, Sri Arobindo has explained that at that time he had not yet taken up Yoga and was very much like most ‘normal’ men with all their difficulties.

Again, the author to promote his own personal agenda, can’t resist interpolation and drawing inferences where none exist. To wit: see chapter 6, pp 250-251 where whilst providing evidence of the Mother’s Jewish ancestry, he can’t resist dragging in “the question of Dreyfus”, stating that “[although] Mirra was not one to be absorbed by political matters, but it was impossible for anyone… to be indifferent to this… question.” No further reference or mention or elucidation of the Dreyfus question is to be found anywhere in the opus. Why this cameo appearance of Dreyfus on a supposition of impossibility of indifference?

To document the Jewish ancestry of the Mother, it is stated on page 250 that the name of Mother’s father was ‘Moise Maurice Alfassa’; yet most references never mention the prefix Moise which is the Frenchification for ‘Moses’. Why would someone born in the Ottoman Turkish city of Adrianopole have a French name? What exactly is the author’s personal agenda regarding the issue of Jewish ancestry? In fact, the Mother’s grand- daughter Pournaprema (Françoise Morisset) very much believed that it was a mixed marriage between religions, hence they had to emigrate from Cairo to Paris where the mixture would be more acceptable. The Mother herself always insisted that her parents were non-religious and described her father as being of Turkish origin.

On the issue of photographs, the final Mahasamadhi photo of Sri Aurobindo, the last of the 18 plates, is not printed in the prescribed orientation. It has been the ashram tradition from day one that this photograph should always be displayed vertical and not horizontal. This is evidently a conscious choice made by he author, no discussion or explanation is provided.

In the concluding pages of the epilogue on pg 414, the author pens a gobble-de-gook summarizing sentence: “In November 1926 he had an experience that he called the descent of the overmind, the highest of the powers of consciousness between the ordinary mind and the divine power that he called supermind.” If this is the extent of the author’s lucidity, this reviewer would much rather direct the seeker to the original exposition of the originator. As the Mother once said with reference to reading the original epic poem Savitri versus reading an explanation of it, “Why would your want to eat somebody else’s vomit?”

On avatarhood: this is mentioned in passing three times or so but a thorough treatment is neither given nor a reference provided. In the epilogue on Pg 414 he writes “To accept Sri Aurobindo as an avatar is necessarily a matter of faith and matters of faith quickly become matters of dogma.” Nothing prevents a seeker to dissect dogmas, perchance therein indeed hides a Truth. A seeker must necessarily turn every stone but not necessarily stone every turn! Surely it the concept of avatarhood does not fit Sri Aurobindo, then none other in recorded history would it fit either.

OMISSIONS: A few significant errors of commission have been discussed in this review, but there are also significant errors of omission, these are:

1. No discussion is provided on the concept and raison d’etre of avatarhood.

2. No list or catalog of open issues is provided for further debate.

3. No further ideas are given for leads to be pursued for future biographic research. Why should the saga of Sri Aurobindo presented in 2008 terminate its narrative in 1950, didn’t anything relevant transpire in that half-century interim to shed further light to the meaning of his life? How can a serious investigator ignore the mass of relevant evidence accumulated since 1950?

Answer: What do you expect of a jaundiced perception! Or perhaps there will be a sequel in the offing.

Reviewer’s conclusion:

Since half of the epilogue deals with the immediate aftermath of Sri Aurobindo’s death, the author could well have quoted the eulogy by the Mother that has been carved on his Rajasthani marcana marble-clad resting place [December 9, 1950]:


But then, if he were to admit bowing down in homage, in his former neighborhood of the big apple he would be considered a wimp. As having caved-in, and captured by the same ‘captive audience’ crowd that he warned the readers against in the epilogue (pg. 414) “As the fountain head of a spiritual [Yogic] movement, he undoubtedly has, so to speak, a captive audience.”

The parable of the salt doll wishing to fathom the oceans has regrettably another more frequent ending: when the moment of immersion arrives, faced with the likelihood of losing its limited self-identity in the vastness that is its object, it gets cold feet and backs-off from its adventure of self-discovery. For the traditional systems of yoga this immersion and dissolution of ego is the ultimate goal; however Sri Aurobindo says that for his Integral Yoga this is but a necessary first starting point: “My Yoga starts where the other have left off”.

Anon E. Muse

November 2009

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