12 Aug 2010

"Sri Aurobindo on Hinduism" by Peter Heehs -- reviewed by Raman Reddy

Sri Aurobindo made a clear distinction between two types of Hinduism, the lower and the higher. By the lower Hinduism, he meant outdated Hindu customs and rituals, the Hinduism “which takes its stand on the kitchen and seeks its Paradise by cleaning the body”. By the higher Hinduism, he meant the Hinduism, “which seeks God, not through the cooking pot and the social convention, but in the soul”. He made a further division in the higher Hinduism, “the sectarian and unsectarian, disruptive and synthetic, that which binds itself up in the aspect and that which seeks the All”. It is by cleverly playing on these multiple meanings of the word that Heehs causes grave misunderstandings. He deliberately confounds these various aspects of Hinduism and uses the word consistently in the negative sense to convey that Sri Aurobindo dispensed with Hinduism altogether after coming to Pondicherry, as if it did not have anything of lasting value. In fact, he concludes by saying that the Hindu disciples of Sri Aurobindo may be doing a great disservice to their Master by still following Hindu rituals of the past such as the belief in Krishna and the Divine Shakti of the Mother. Even Sri Aurobindo himself should be then spared of Avatarhood by us, because he himself said so! I wonder what would be the practical implications of this fantastic logic which throws out the baby along with the bathwater!

Full Article:

"Sri Aurobindo on Hinduism" by Peter Heehs

(published by Sri Aurobindo Society, Hyderabad, 2007)

-- reviewed by Raman Reddy

The following paragraph is from a booklet by Peter Heehs entitled Sri Aurobindo on Hinduism and published by the Sri Aurobindo Society, Hyderabad centre in 2007. I have quoted it here in order to point out another classic distortion in the typically confusing and deceptive style of the author. Even the well-informed reader of Sri Aurobindo will be at first fooled by the basic correctness of the data presented by Heehs, without realising that the interpretation is faulty, to say the least. Even the interpretation and conclusion appear to be so equivocal that the reader would sometimes not realise that he has actually skimmed over deep contradictions which bear the false impression of a balanced view.

Yet, for all Sri Aurobindo's insistence that there was no necessary connection between Hinduism and his yoga, life in his Ashram retained a recognisably Hindu tone. People who came from Hindu backgrounds found no difficulty in carrying over various Hindu habits into their yogic practice. And Sri Aurobindo did not oppose this. Indeed, he seemed sometimes to encourage it. He spoke openly of the important role that Krishna played in his yogic development. He wrote of the Divine Mother using the language of Hindu scriptures, and did not conceal the fact that he considered the Mother of the Ashram to be an incarnation of the Divine Mother. Some of the ceremonial practices that developed in the Ashram, in particular pranam with the Mother, would not have seemed out of place in an ordinary Hindu setting. But Sri Aurobindo did not see such practices in Hindu terms. He distinguished between acts like pranam, which, he wrote, “have a living value,” and conventional forms which “persist although they have no longer any value e.g. Sraddha for the dead.” He disapproved of people holding to “forms which have no relation to this Yoga for instance Christians who cling to the Christian forms or Mahomedans to the Namaz or Hindus to the Sandhyavandana in the old way.” Such people, he thought, might soon find such forms “either falling off or else an obstacle to the free development of their sadhana.” He also discouraged any form of public worship, such as prostrating before his photograph in the Ashram's reception room. Such ostentatious worship he specifically prohibited; but he noted at the same time that there was “no restriction in this Yoga to inward worship and meditation only”. He hoped that “old forms of the different religions” would eventually fall away; but he insisted that “absence of all forms is not a rule of the sadhana.”

(Peter Heehs, Sri Aurobindo on Hinduism, pp 19-20)

Let us take the first sentence:

Yet, for all Sri Aurobindo's insistence that there was no necessary connection between Hinduism and his yoga, life in his Ashram retained a recognisably Hindu tone.

Heehs is obviously disappointed at the fact that life in the Ashram has become “religious” in the Hindu way as opposed to the “free form” that Sri Aurobindo would have preferred. By “Hindu tone” he means Hindu habits and practices such as bowing down to the Guru or receiving the Mother’s pranam and considering her as the embodiment of the Divine Shakti. Even the mention of Krishna as having played an important role in Sri Aurobindo’s sadhana is taken as such, implying that Sri Aurobindo allowed this “old world spirituality” to creep in through the back door, probably because his Hindu disciples were not ready for the true supramental yoga! The argument seems to be quite sound, but then, in the same breath, he continues with a counter to the statement he makes at the beginning of the paragraph:

But Sri Aurobindo did not see such practices in Hindu terms. He distinguished between acts like pranam, which, he wrote, “have a living value,” and conventional forms which “persist although they have no longer any value e.g. Sraddha for the dead.”

The rest of the paragraph is fine (for us outdated Hindus!) and actually disproves the author’s own comment. It makes the distinction in Sri Aurobindo’s own words between outworn religious customs and forms of genuine spiritual expression which have a legitimate place in spiritual life.

But how does the first statement go with the second one? There are two possible ways of dealing with such a contradiction: either you resolve it with a third statement which will integrate the contents of the two opposing statements; or, you accept the contradiction, in which case you are supposed to say so loud and clear, and not pretend to have a balanced view. If the author disagrees with Sri Aurobindo’s views on Hinduism and spirituality, one expects him to come out forthwith and criticise the Master for having allowed Hindu religion in his Ashram even after writing to a Muslim disciple that the “Asram has nothing to do with Hindu religion or culture or any religion or nationality”. It means that there was a gap between what the Master wrote and did in his Ashram, which certainly does not put him in good light. But Heehs does not do that! Why? I can only draw two conclusions: either he is afraid of openly expressing his opinion or he has not learned how to think, in which case, he should find for himself a better editor. No, I personally have a good opinion of Heehs’s intelligence and can sense the motive behind this dissimulation: he wants to be able to criticise without being caught in the act and challenged. To the academic scholar unfamiliar with spirituality, he wants to say, “Look, I am criticising these unthinking devotees of Sri Aurobindo because I am a scholar like you.” To the Hindu disciples, he conveys, “I have some justification for your rituals in your Master’s own words; so rest assured.”

I come now to the belief in Krishna and the Divine Mother (leave aside for the moment looking upon the Mother of Sri Aurobindo Ashram as an incarnation of the Divine Mother). In the absence of personal experience, they are spiritual realities which you either believe in or not, and, if you do believe, you base your belief on the testimony of great, realised spiritual men and women. If Heehs does not believe in them, nobody is going to object about it. But having once accepted spiritual realities and taken his stand within the framework of Sri Aurobindo’s world-view, he cannot simply dismiss Krishna and the Divine Mother as mere Hindu creations without any universal application. Sri Aurobindo said that Krishna represented the Overmind in the cosmic range of consciousness from Matter to Supermind. So when he realised the Overmind on 24 November, 1926, he associated it with the descent of Krishna. With regard to the Divine Mother, he wrote that she is “the Conscious Force that upholds us and the universe” and has three aspects: the Transcendent Supreme Shakti, which “stands above the worlds”; the Universal or Cosmic Mahashakti who “creates all these beings and contains and enters, supports and conducts all these million processes and forces”; and the Individual Shakti who embodies the power of the other two and “makes them living and near to us and mediates between the human personality and the divine Nature”. In what way do these descriptions seem to be exclusively Hindu in nature, so that Western seekers can safely throw Krishna and the Divine Mother out of the window? The use of Indian terms should not essentially matter as long as they represent universal truths.

Let us shift the problem to the field of science for a better understanding. Do Asian scientists object to the theory of relativity being associated with Einstein, who was a Westerner? Do they insist that scientific theories be named after them and formulated in their language in order to be accepted by them? Of course, they don’t. When spirituality is treated as scientifically as physical science, which is what precisely Sri Aurobindo has done, why should there be any objection to using an Indian name for a well-established spiritual reality such as Krishna? But I suppose Heehs (who is an American) would be quite satisfied if Krishna were given an American name, donned western clothes, wore a hat instead of a peacock feather and played the saxophone instead of the flute! It is somewhat the same problem that Dara (a Muslim sadhak) faced in the Ashram in 1932. When he expressed his dissatisfaction about most of the disciples (who were Hindus) wearing the dhoti (a Hindu dress) instead of the pyjama (a Muslim dress) in an Ashram which was supposed to be beyond all religions, Sri Aurobindo replied:

What has dhoti to do with Hinduism or Mahomedanism? There are thousands of Hindus who never wear it - they wear pyjamas of some kind. Rieu, Arjava, Suchi [three Westerners] wear dhoti because it is convenient and good for the climate - they do not care one jot for Hinduism.

17 November 1932 (Bulletin, Aug 2000, p 72)

It is to Dara that Sri Aurobindo wrote the following letter in the thirties dissociating his Ashram from Hinduism:

The Ashram has nothing to do with Hindu religion or culture or any religion or nationality. The Truth of the Divine which is the spiritual reality behind all religions and the descent of the supramental which is not known to any religion are the sole things which will be the foundation of the work of the future.

(Bulletin, Feb 2001, p 72)

On another occasion, Sri Aurobindo even went to the extent of writing:

If this Ashram were here only to serve Hinduism I would not be in it and the Mother who was never a Hindu would not be in it.

17 November 1932 (Bulletin, Aug 2000, p 70)

The above two quotations have been pulled out of their context and quoted with great enthusiasm by Heehs, as if to score a point over the Hindu disciples of Sri Aurobindo. But these letters were written in the context of the “rigid orthodoxy” of past religions “whether Hindu, Mahomedan or Christian” and not in regard to the essential truth contained in any of them. Hinduism has been particularly referred to because the subject was raised by Dara (the Muslim disciple), who was missing his own culture in the predominantly external Hindu environment of the Ashram in the thirties. It was in this bad mood and on that very day that Dara wrote to Sri Aurobindo about most of the Ashram disciples wearing a dhoti and not a pyjama. He was mixing up two different issues, the external dress with the inward attitude, or rather the cultural issue with the spiritual issue. The same mistake has been committed by Heehs in a more sophisticated and supercilious manner.

Otherwise, how do you explain the following letter of Sri Aurobindo, which was written on the same day as the above letter of 17 November 1932:

What is kept of Hinduism is Vedanta and Yoga in which Hinduism is one with Sufism of Islam and with the Christian mystics. But even here it is not Vedanta and Yoga in their traditional limits (their past), but widened and rid of many ideas that are peculiar to the Hindus. If I have used Sanskrit terms and figures, it is because I know them and do not know Persian and Arabic. I have not the slightest objection to anyone here drawing inspiration from Islamic sources if they agree with the Truth as Sufism agrees with it. On the other hand I have not the slightest objection to Hinduism being broken to pieces and disappearing from the face of the earth, if that is Divine Will. I have no attachment to past forms; what is Truth will always remain; the Truth alone matters.

17 November 1932 (Bulletin, Aug 2000, p 74)

In the above letter Sri Aurobindo clarifies as to what kind of Hinduism was kept and allowed to continue in his Ashram. So if he encouraged the Mother’s daily pranam and blessings, it was because the disciples could spiritually benefit from it and not because he wanted to start a Hindu ritual. Even if the pranam was only a Hindu ritual, what about the soup ceremony of the Mother in the early days of the Ashram, which has been compared by Amal Kiran to ancient Egyptian or Greek rituals? And what about the groundnut distribution of the Mother in the Playground – to which religion does that belong? What about the Christmas celebration later on? Does the last mean that Christian rituals were instituted in the Ashram? The significance of these activities does not come from their similarity to existing religious practices (which were never demeaned), but from the way they were conducted and were a means for the Mother to communicate her spiritual power to the disciples. The fact that these activities became sometimes mechanical was neither Sri Aurobindo’s fault nor the Mother’s. It was precisely when they were taken mechanically by the disciples and drew heavily on the Mother’s energies that they were discontinued only to be replaced by a new routine, which enabled a fresh mode of contact between her and the disciples. Thus to say that these collective activities were mere rituals and that too Hindu rituals, displays not only sheer ignorance of sadhana but also of the facts of Ashram history.

I take up the issue of addressing the Mother of Sri Aurobindo Ashram as the incarnation of the Divine Shakti. If there was one important change in Sri Aurobindo’s advice to his disciples after the Siddhi Day of 24 November, 1926, it was his insistence on the Mother’s role in their sadhana and the necessity of opening and surrendering to her Shakti. The book “The Mother” was published as early as 1928 and immediately distributed to the sadhaks and sadhikas of the Ashram. To this day, it expresses the quintessence of Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga and remains the foundational book for the spiritual aspirant. Very few disciples had any problem with Sri Aurobindo regarding the Mother as the embodiment of the Divine Shakti mentioned in the book “The Mother”, including Dara, the Muslim disciple, and other members of his family who had settled at the Ashram. Very few “Hindu” disciples likewise had any objection to her French birth. There were also Parsis (Amal Kiran, for example) and Westerners who never baulked at the idea of bowing down to the Mother. Why? Because they did not see it as a mere ritual but as a means of receiving her spiritual force, which immensely facilitated their sadhana!

The tradition of looking upon your Guru as the embodiment of the divine Shakti is as old as Time and exists in all traditions, not only in Hinduism. The materialist is of course free to deny this as obsequious moonshine, but in that process he denies the truth of all spirituality. I have a certain respect for such hardcore materialists, for as long as they don’t have the experience of the Divine, they are bold and honest in expressing their views to the contrary. But what is not at all appreciable is the deceptive stance taken by Heehs: pretend to accept the spiritual reality, speak of himself as a practitioner of the Integral Yoga and downplay Sri Aurobindo by pointing out so-called “contradictions” in his life and teaching. I repeat again the argument that having once accepted the metaphysical framework of Sri Aurobindo, who considered Avatarhood as a spiritual reality and applied it in the case of the Mother, on what basis does Heehs suggest that in this particular case Sri Aurobindo made the mistake of continuing an outdated Hindu ritual, which has no place in the spirituality of the future? (He doesn’t dare say this openly, but these are the underpinnings of his statements, which are mostly missed by the reader who is in a hurry to finish the book.) Does Heehs have enough spiritual knowledge and experience to comment so confidently in these matters? If he has indeed found a wider framework of spirituality than Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga, then he should first elaborate his alternative philosophy instead of glibly commenting on the former.

Sri Aurobindo made a clear distinction between two types of Hinduism, the lower and the higher. By the lower Hinduism, he meant outdated Hindu customs and rituals, the Hinduism “which takes its stand on the kitchen and seeks its Paradise by cleaning the body”. By the higher Hinduism, he meant the Hinduism, “which seeks God, not through the cooking pot and the social convention, but in the soul”. He made a further division in the higher Hinduism, “the sectarian and unsectarian, disruptive and synthetic, that which binds itself up in the aspect and that which seeks the All”. [1] It is by cleverly playing on these multiple meanings of the word that Heehs causes grave misunderstandings. He deliberately confounds these various aspects of Hinduism and uses the word consistently in the negative sense to convey that Sri Aurobindo dispensed with Hinduism altogether after coming to Pondicherry, as if it did not have anything of lasting value. In fact, he concludes by saying that the Hindu disciples of Sri Aurobindo may be doing a great disservice to their Master by still following Hindu rituals of the past such as the belief in Krishna and the Divine Shakti of the Mother. Even Sri Aurobindo himself should be then spared of Avatarhood by us, because he himself said so! I wonder what would be the practical implications of this fantastic logic which throws out the baby along with the bathwater!

I take up for critical study another paragraph in the same booklet on Hinduism:

What would the founders of the movement called the Integral Yoga have to say, a generation or two after their passing, about the current life of the Ashram? Would they be surprised that not just the reception room but the entire courtyard of the Ashram is used for public worship from early in the morning till late at night? Would they be surprised to see conventional Hindu symbols displayed, on occasion, in public spaces in the Ashram, its guest houses, or on the covers of their books? Would they be taken aback that Ashram departments observe Hindu holidays with conventional decorations, or that newcomers are told by self-righteous onlookers to follow Hindu customs while sitting and moving in Ashram spaces? To be frank, I don't think that they would be greatly surprised, because all these things were present during their lifetimes. And if they disapproved (as they did disapprove during their lifetimes), they probably would take a tolerant or at any rate a resigned attitude towards these survivals of conventional religion.

(Peter Heehs, Sri Aurobindo on Hinduism, p 21)

The impression you get on reading the above paragraph is that Heehs has never overcome the initial cultural shock that a Westerner gets on coming to India for the first time, despite his long stay here (36 years in 2007 at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry). In fact, his inherent distaste for devotion, probably caused by his Protestant upbringing, seems to have strengthened with time. “Devotion” is one word which he shies away from as a cat avoids cold water, and his antipathy for hagiography basically stems from this deep dislike for spiritual emotion.

One also wonders whether he has ever lived a spiritual life. For, if he had, he would not have spoken with such conceit about “public worship” and the display of “Hindu conventional symbols” at the Ashram. Even the most conventional religious symbols have some inner value and Sri Aurobindo never denigrated traditional paths and practices, though he told his disciples to go beyond them. As for “public worship”, how does it necessarily become “religious” in the negative sense of the word? Is spirituality necessarily individualistic? Is there no scope for collective spiritual life? Can we not have a collective concentration without making it a religion? Why did Sri Aurobindo himself encourage the Mother’s pranam and darshan in his Ashram, if all collective activities are rituals?

The paragraph thus implies that spirituality can only be inward and doesn’t need outer expression, that all its outer expressions are necessarily ritualistic. There are a number of letters of Sri Aurobindo on this point to prove the contrary. I quote from the very letter of Sri Aurobindo that Heehs has quoted in the paragraph discussed at the beginning of this article:

I was thinking not of Pranam etc. which have a living value, but of old forms which persist although they have no longer any value -- e.g. sraddha for the dead. Also here forms which have no relation to this yoga -- for instance Christians who cling to the Christian forms or Mahomedans to the Namaz or Hindus to the Sandhyavandana in the old way might soon find them either falling off or else an obstacle to the free development of their sadhana.

(SABCL, Vol. 23, p 850)

Heehs should be complimented for his ability to take both positions (for and against the Mother’s Pranam) at the same time without having any logical problems! The very fact of quoting this letter indicates he sees truth in the act of Pranam (or any other public form of worship), which he criticises at the same time as an outdated Hindu ritual. I quote below other letters of Sri Aurobindo on the same subject:

There is no restriction in this yoga to inward worship and meditation only. As it is a yoga for the whole being, not for the inner being only, no such restriction could be intended. Old forms of the different religions may fall away, but absence of all forms is not the rule of the sadhana.

These are the exaggerations made by the mind taking one side of Truth and ignoring the other sides. The inner bhakti is the main thing and without it the external becomes a form and mere ritual, but the external has its place and use when it is straightforward and sincere.

What is meant by bahyapuja [external worship]? If it is purely external, then of course it is the lowest form; but if done with the true consciousness, it can bring the greatest possible completeness to the adoration by allowing the body and the most external consciousness to share in the spirit and act of worship.

The photograph is a vehicle only -- but if you have the right consciousness, then you can bring something of the living being into it or become aware of the being for which it stands and can make it a means of contact. It is like the pranapratistha in the image in the temple.

(SABCL, Vol. 23, p 777)

Another suggested implication is that Sri Aurobindo was a bundle of contraries because he allowed in his Ashram those practices which he disapproved in his letters, those rituals of Hinduism which he strongly condemned in writing. But I suppose this is but an exact reflection of Heehs’s mind which thrives in contrary statements and glosses over crucial distinctions such as the higher and lower Hinduism, or outworn rituals which no longer have any value as opposed to acts that have.

I will now consider the fallout of these implications in the situation of an American (Peter Heehs) finding himself extremely uncomfortable in what he calls a “Hindu” Ashram. First of all, this is not an uncommon situation. So many ethnically curious Western tourists daily walk into Ashrams or temples in India without understanding anything of the practices conducted there. This is normally expected of tourists, who are mostly not familiar with any spiritual traditions except perhaps Christianity. But what if someone keeps up the same attitude of contempt and misapprehension even after having settled in India from decades in an Ashram dedicated to the practice of Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga? Is there something wrong with him or with the majority of Indians there? Or, more importantly, does it mean that the basic requisites of the path of Integral Yoga are different for Westerners and Easterners, because of which a Westerner like Heehs could never adjust himself to the primarily “Hindu” environment of the Ashram? For Heehs always seems to mean (though he never says it openly) that Westerners like him need not “indulge” in devotion, faith and surrender, while Indians may do so to their heart’s content because of their traditional culture. Westerners need not be bound by these outdated customs and attitudes which Indians have been following from times immemorial, thereby implying that they have found a superior method of practising the same Yoga. There could be nothing farther from the truth, and you don’t have to spend hours of research to find a quotation from Sri Aurobindo to refute it (if it is to Sri Aurobindo that we fall back upon to find the truth of Integral Yoga), for Heehs himself provides us the quote:

It is not the Hindu outlook or the Western that fundamentally matters in yoga, but the psychic turn and the spiritual urge, and these are the same everywhere.

(SABCL, Vol. 23: 557)

I recommend the reader to go through this entire letter from which I will now quote a few more portions:

… there is no essential difference between the spiritual life in the East and the spiritual life in the West; what difference there is has always been of names, forms and symbols or else of the emphasis laid on one special aim or another or on one side or another of psychological experience.

Indian spirituality has, it is true, a wider and more minute knowledge behind it; it has followed hundreds of different paths, admitted every kind of approach to the Divine and has thus been able to enter into fields which are outside the less ample scope of occidental practice; but that makes no difference to the essentials, and it is the essentials alone that matter.

… we are not working for a race or a people or a continent or for a realisation of which only Indians or only orientals are capable. Our aim is not, either, to found a religion or a school of philosophy or a school of yoga, but to create a ground of spiritual growth and experience and a way which will bring down a greater Truth beyond the mind but not inaccessible to the human soul and consciousness. All can pass who are drawn to that Truth, whether they are from India or elsewhere, from the East or from the West. All may find great difficulties in their personal or common human nature; but it is not their physical origin or their racial temperament that can be an insuperable obstacle to their deliverance.

(SABCL, Vol. 23: 555-560)

Hence there is no essential difference between the East and the West as far as spirituality is concerned, just as there are none in science and technology. But what has caused the misunderstanding in Heehs? Is it his rebellious and ambitious nature standing in the way of opening himself to the Divine? Or did his vital nature revolt when his spiritual ambition was not fulfilled, which is a frequent phenomenon with sadhaks who want to storm the heavens by their intense personal efforts? Or is it simply his Protestant upbringing that could never reconcile with the concept of surrender? Whatever be the case, there seems to have been a spiritual failure and revolt because of which he went against the very grain of sadhana, for how else can a seeker have such a deep aversion to faith, devotion and surrender? How can you expect to do the yoga so unyogically, as it were, without these fundamental requisites of the path? It is perhaps due to this spiritual failure that Heehs had to find a scapegoat, and he found it in Hinduism. He had to put the blame on something to avoid admitting his own failure, and conclude that the above requisites were not necessary for practising the Yoga. So it is not that he (an American) could not familiarise himself with the “Hindu” environment of the Ashram; it is because he refused to surrender himself to the Divine (which most Indians have no difficulty in accepting in theory, though not in practice), that he had to condemn Hinduism in general. Instead of humbly accepting his own failure in sadhana, he had to arrogantly react and say that the sadhana which the Hindus practised was a failure.

It is somewhat similar to the reverse situation of an Indian who goes to America, cannot cope up with the general level of intelligence and external organisation of life and condemns American culture, saying that Indians have a better way of organising their cities. Very few Indians commit this mistake. Most of them are good learners and they not only catch up but outshine other groups with their innate capacity. It is because of this that the non-resident Indian community abroad is so affluent and never thinks of going back home. For who would want to face the political and social mess of present day India? Who would want to face its tremendous lack of basic infrastructure and even civic sense? I (being an Indian) have no qualms in admitting this, for we do have to learn from the West in these matters, just as the West has to learn from India in spiritual matters. I am thus conveying a simple point dictated by my common sense: let us learn from each other, for this is how we will become better human beings. Condemnation restricts the opportunities to learn and limits the scope of our self-expansion. Mutual appreciation makes us global citizens instead of narrow-minded chauvinists. In short, avoid the Peter Heehs phenomenon of being critical when you are unable to learn and appreciate! You can of course turn the tables and accuse me of exactly doing the same, thereby meaning that I should appreciate Heehs’s point of view, but that is only a clever argument to hide the deceit behind it all. For it was he who denigrated Hinduism and not us who criticised Western values.

What is also contradictory to the basic stand of Heehs and his mentors, Jeffrey Kripal and Wendy Doniger, is that they have no objection to Hinduism when it comes to Tantric sex, with which they are so comfortable. Then there is no question of outdated rituals and conventional practices, but only praise for its detailed knowledge and scientific pursuit of pleasure! But mention that sexual pleasure has to be transcended and sexual energies have to be transformed, and see how they wince! This is the reason why Heehs had to attribute Sri Aurobindo with “spontaneous erotic delight” in the Lives knowing fully well Sri Aurobindo’s view of the incompatibility of sex with his Integral Yoga. [2] Thus it is not Hindu conventions but unevolved human nature which often stands in the way of the Integral Yoga. Conventions and rituals can always be practised in the right spirit and need not be necessarily thrown aside. The spirit can express itself in new forms but it can also breathe life into existing forms belonging to Hinduism or any other spiritual tradition. Therefore when Heehs belittles Hinduism in the Ashram, it is not Hindu conventions that he disparages, but spirituality itself.

Let us take the practical example of bowing down to the Samadhi or the offering of flowers and lighting of incense sticks. Why should anybody make such a big fuss about them as long as he is not forced to perform these actions, which have always had some value in one’s relation with the Divine? It is only when they are mechanically performed that they lose their inner significance. It is when “the form prevails and the spirit recedes” [3] as Sri Aurobindo says in the Human Cycle, that they have to be abandoned, in which case you filter out outdated rituals from those actions which have a living value. But to say that all outer expressions are mechanical rituals is like throwing the baby with the bathwater and rejecting the spirit along with the form. Heehs always views the complex problem of spiritual expression from the wrong end, from outside than inside. Deliberately posing himself like a recent visitor from the materialistic environment of the West, he pretends not to understand the significance of these forms and strikes a sympathetic chord among those who are strangers to spirituality. For, after all, he wants to sell his book in the West, and how will his book sell if he repeats the same old traditional “hash”, whether it be true or not!

Heehs further mixes up spiritual realities with cultural issues. For him, the Divine Shakti is a dispensable Hindu creation, as if Westerners don’t have to surrender themselves to Her (or It) in their spiritual practice. The fact that the Divine Force may or may not be equated with the Mother of Sri Aurobindo Ashram is a secondary issue and should not come in the way of accepting the essential truth of the former. For it is well-known that every sadhak of the Integral Yoga invariably opens to this Divine Force in his spiritual endeavour. If he does not, I wonder what he is supposed to open to! I am waiting for the day when Heehs will declare that even the Divine is not necessary for the divinisation of life! So also Avatarhood is not a figment of the Hindu imagination, but an undeniable fact of spiritual traditions. So what is wrong if Sri Aurobindo affirmed the Mother’s Avatarhood and vice versa, especially when they left the matter to individual faith and did not enforce it in their Ashram. Similarly, Krishna is not just a Hindu myth but a personification of the Overmind plane of consciousness, through which all Yogis have to pass in order to attain the Supermind. The fact that Sri Aurobindo chose to go beyond the Overmind consciousness does not alter its own truth and role in the cosmic range of consciousness which he has described so well in the Life Divine.[4]

Or is it that Heehs is under the wrong notion that the Divine is necessarily impersonal, so that there is no place for divine personalities in the Integral Yoga? If so, he has only to read the chapter on “The Modes of the Self” in the Synthesis of Yoga. [5] In the passage I quote below, Sri Aurobindo at first seems to support Heehs’s thesis:

The distinction between the Personal and the Impersonal is substantially the same as the Indian distinction, but the associations of the English words carry within them a certain limitation which is foreign to Indian thought. The personal God of the European religions is a Person in the human sense of the word, limited by His qualities though otherwise possessed of omnipotence and omniscience; it answers to the Indian special conceptions of Shiva or Vishnu or Brahma or of the Divine Mother of all, Durga or Kali. Each religion really erects a different personal Deity according to its own heart and thought to adore and serve. The fierce and inexorable God of Calvin is a different being from the sweet and loving God of St. Francis, as the gracious Vishnu is different from the terrible though always loving and beneficent Kali who has pity even in her slaying and saves by her destructions. Shiva, the God of ascetic renunciation who destroys all things seems to be a different being from Vishnu and Brahma, who act by grace, love, preservation of the creature or for life and creation. It is obvious that such conceptions can be only in a very partial and relative sense true descriptions of the infinite and omnipresent Creator and Ruler of the universe. Nor does Indian religious thought affirm them as adequate descriptions.

(SABCL, Vol. 20, pp 364-65)

Mark the last two sentences where Sri Aurobindo denies what he states in the beginning. He goes on to explain how the Personal and Impersonal Divine co-exist and how both these modes of the Divine Consciousness can be simultaneously possessed.

The Personal God is not limited by His qualities, He is Ananta-guna, capable of infinite qualities and beyond them and lord of them to use them as He will, and He manifests Himself in various names and forms of His infinite godhead to satisfy the desire and need of the individual soul according to its own nature and personality. It is for this reason that the normal European mind finds it so difficult to understand Indian religion as distinct from Vedantic or Sankhya philosophy, because it cannot easily conceive of a personal God with infinite qualities, a personal God who is not a Person, but the sole real Person and the source of all personality. Yet that is the only valid and complete truth of the divine Personality.

The place of the divine Personality in our synthesis will best be considered when we come to speak of the Yoga of devotion; it is enough here to indicate that it has its place and keeps it in the integral Yoga even when liberation has been attained. There are practically three grades of the approach to the personal Deity; the first in which He is conceived with a particular form or particular qualities as the name and form of the Godhead which our nature and personality prefers; a second in which He is the one real Person, the All-Personality, the Ananta-guna; a third in which we get back to the ultimate source of all idea and fact of personality in that which the Upanishad indicates by the single word He without fixing any attributes. It is there that our realisations of the personal and the impersonal Divine meet and become one in the utter Godhead. For the impersonal Divine is not ultimately an abstraction or a mere principle or a mere state or power and degree of being any more than we ourselves are really such abstractions. The intellect first approaches it through such conceptions, but realisation ends by exceeding them. Through the realisation of higher and higher principles of being and states of conscious existence we arrive not at the annullation of all in a sort of positive zero or even an inexpressible state of existence, but at the transcendent Existence itself which is also the Existent who transcends all definition by personality and yet is always that which is the essence of personality.

When in That we live and have our being, we can possess it in both its modes, the Impersonal in a supreme state of being and consciousness, in an infinite impersonality of self-possessing power and bliss, the Personal by the divine nature acting through the individual soul-form and by the relation between that and its transcendent and universal Self. We may keep even our relation with the personal Deity in His forms and names; if, for instance, our work is predominantly a work of Love it is as the Lord of Love that we can seek to serve and express Him, but we shall have at the same time an integral realisation of Him in all His names and forms and qualities and not mistake the front of Him which is prominent in our attitude to the world for all the infinite Godhead.

(SABCL, Vol. 20, pp 365-66)

I have quoted at length from this chapter because it addresses the fundamentally wrong notion of the Divine being necessarily impersonal, which has probably led Heehs to dispense altogether with Krishna and the Divine Mother. I will now quote another lengthy passage which should settle the issue beyond all doubt, for at least those who are ready to accept Sri Aurobindo’s authority in these matters.

The answer to the question depends on what value we attach to spiritual experience and to the data of other planes of consciousness, other than the physical, as also on the nature of the relations between the cosmic consciousness and the individual and collective consciousness of man. From the point of view of spiritual and occult Truth, what takes shape in the consciousness of man is a reflection and particular kind of formation, in a difficult medium, of things much greater in their light, power and beauty or in their force and range which came to it from the cosmic consciousness of which man is a limited and, in his present state of evolution, a still ignorant part. All this explanation about the genius of the race, of a consciousness of a nation creating the Gods and their forms is a very partial, somewhat superficial and in itself a misleading truth. Man’s mind is not an original creator, it is an intermediary; to start creating it must receive an initiating “inspiration”, a transmission or a suggestion from the cosmic consciousness and with that it does what it can. God is, but man’s conceptions of God are reflections in his own mentality, sometimes of the Divine, sometimes of other Beings and Powers and they are what his mentality can make of the suggestions that come to him, generally very partial and imperfect so long as they are still mental, so long as he has not arrived at a higher and truer, a spiritual or mystic knowledge. The Gods already exist, they are not created by man, even though he does seem to conceive them in his own image;--fundamentally, he formulates as best he can what truth about them he receives from the cosmic Reality. An artist or a bhakta may have a vision of the Gods and it may get stabilised and generalised in the consciousness of the race and in that sense it may be true that man gives their forms to the Gods; but he does not invent these forms, he records what he sees; the forms that he gives are given to him. In the “conventional” form of Krishna men have embodied what they could see of his eternal beauty and what they have seen may be true as well as beautiful, it conveys something of the form, but it is fairly certain that if there is an eternal form of that eternal beauty, it is a thousand times more beautiful than what man had as yet been able to see of it. Mother India is not a piece of earth; she is a Power, a Godhead, for all nations have such a Devi supporting their separate existence and keeping it in being. Such beings are as real and more permanently real than the men they influence, but they belong to a higher plane, are part of the cosmic consciousness and being and act here on earth by shaping the human consciousness on which they exercise their influence. It is natural for man who sees only his own consciousness individual, national or racial at work and does not see what works upon it and shapes it, to think that all is created by him and there is nothing cosmic and greater behind it. The Krishna consciousness is a reality, but if there were no Krishna, there could be no Krishna consciousness; except in arbitrary metaphysical abstractions there can be no consciousness without a Being who is conscious. It is the person who gives value and reality to the personality, he expresses himself in it and is not constituted by it. Krishna is a being, a person and it is as the Divine Person that we meet him, hear his voice, speak with him and feel his presence. To speak of the consciousness of Krishna as something separate from Krishna is an error of the mind, which is always separating the inseparable and which also tends to regard the impersonal, because it is abstract, as greater, more real and more enduring than the person. Such divisions may be useful to the mind for its own purposes, but it is not the real truth; in the real truth the being or person and its impersonality or state of being are one reality.

(SABCL, Vol. 23, pp 423-25; to Dilip Kumar Roy, dated 2 December 1946)

Note that the letter was written in 1946, only four years before Sri Aurobindo passed away. Sri Aurobindo hardly seemed to have lost interest in Krishna or have “a resigned attitude towards these survivals of conventional religion” (p 21), as Heehs has claimed. On the contrary, Sri Aurobindo forcefully confirms the reality of “the Divine Person” whom we can meet, “hear his voice and feel his presence”. With regard to the Gods, they exist and “are not created by man”. With reference to the nation soul, “Mother India is not a piece of earth; she is a Power, a Godhead, for all nations have such a Devi supporting their separate existence”. Which spiritually conscious Indian would now be ashamed of Hindu culture after these occult confirmations of Sri Aurobindo?

I come now to the impression some disciples may have inadvertently created that Sri Aurobindo was against Hindu culture. It is true that you can find many statements in his writings dissociating himself from Hinduism, like the ones quoted here by Heehs, but these have been mostly made in the context of outdated Hindu ceremonies and practices which have lost their inner significance. As for his position with regard to traditional Hindu paths, I quote the following letter:

I have never said that my yoga was something brand new in all its elements. I have called it the integral yoga and that means that it takes up the essence and many processes of the old yogas -- its newness is in its aim, standpoint and the totality of its method….

It is new as compared with the old yogas:

1. Because it aims not at a departure out of world and life into Heaven or Nirvana, but at a change of life and existence, not as something subordinate or incidental, but as a distinct and central object. If there is a descent in other yogas, yet it is only an incident on the way or resulting from the ascent -- the ascent is the real thing. Here the ascent is the first step, but it is a means for the descent. It is the descent of the new consciousness attained by the ascent that is the stamp and seal of the sadhana. Even the Tantra and Vaishnavism end in the release from life; here the object is the divine fulfilment of life.

2. Because the object sought after is not an individual achievement of divine realisation for the sake of the individual, but something to be gained for the earth-consciousness here, a cosmic, not solely a supra-cosmic achievement. The thing to be gained also is the bringing in of a Power of Conciousness (the supramental) not yet organised or active directly in earth-nature, even in the spiritual life, but yet to be organised and made directly active.

3. Because a method has been preconized for achieving this purpose which is as total and integral as the aim set before it, viz., the total and integral change of the consciousness and nature, taking up old methods but only as a part action and present aid to others that are distinctive. I have not found this method (as a whole) or anything like it professed or realised in the old yogas. If I had, I should not have wasted my time in hewing out a road and in thirty years of search and inner creation when I could have hastened home safely to my goal in an easy canter over paths already blazed out, laid down, perfectly mapped, macadamised, made secure and public. Our yoga is not a retreading of old walks, but a spiritual adventure.

(SABCL, Vol. 22, pp 99-101)

What can we conclude from the above letter? There is certainly no belittling of traditional paths because Sri Aurobindo “takes up the essence and many processes of the old yogas” in his Integral Yoga. Nevertheless, his Yoga is sufficiently new for us to claim a break from the past aims and methods, especially in the aim of the supramental evolution and the method of triple transformation. Even in that method, Sri Aurobindo says he takes up “old methods but only as a part action and present aid to others that are distinctive”.

What was the practical outcome of this view in the early days of the Ashram? There was a bare minimum of collective rules for practising the Integral Yoga, such as the ban on sex, smoking and alcoholics. As Sri Aurobindo had retired after November 1926, the Mother conducted the daily collective meditations of the disciples. These were often followed by her blessings and distribution of flowers, which were a means of communicating her spiritual force to them. Otherwise, the rest of the day, most disciples worked for the community in various departments such as the Dining Room, Building Service, workshops, flower gardens and various other domestic departments. The sadhaks and sadhikas obviously worked in the spirit of Karmayoga and never found the work a repressive regime. In their free time, some of them wrote poetry, composed music, painted or did handwork and embroidery. There was neither any dress code nor social code restricting them from speaking to each other. Does the above description have any semblance to a strictly codified traditional Ashram where members are supposed to abide by certain rules and compulsorily participate in all sorts of collective pujas? This is not to say that traditional Hindu Ashrams or other religious communities have no value, but that Sri Aurobindo deliberately kept the minimum of outer forms and rules in his own Ashram.

What is the situation now? In the absence of the physical presence of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, most of the disciples (both Indians and Westerners) bow down to their Samadhi and draw their spiritual sustenance from it. They regularly concentrate or meditate in front of the photographs of their Gurus and derive great benefit from them. If they offer flowers and light incense sticks, it is certainly not due to any outer compulsion, but because these actions have for them a living significance. Now if anybody objects to these actions because he thinks they are religious in nature, then I would consider him to be not only a stranger to Hindu religion, but a stranger to spirituality! I would request him to first distinguish between religion and spirituality, and then make the further distinction between a ritual and a genuine spiritual expression. If he still insists on stopping these so-called “religious rituals”, I will tell him quietly that nobody is forcing him to repeat them, and that he may perform his own ritual as long as it is not a public nuisance. But if his ritual consists only in publicly denouncing what others are doing sincerely or even mechanically, then I would simply advise him to get lost!

Finally, let us look at this whole problem of religion and spirituality with a little more humility and common sense. How are we fit to pass judgment in such matters? Are we sufficiently spiritually advanced to distinguish one from the other? The fact that our Gurus made the distinction does not automatically give us the faculty of discernment. For often, we are so gung-ho about decrying religion, that we forget the difference between religion and spirituality is not as black and white as we project it to be. There is actually a whole range of outer expression between the two and the range (or spectrum) of these symbolic actions vary from: (1) those which have a genuine spiritual value; (2) those which have become half mechanical but still retain some inner significance, and (3) those which have become mere rituals and have no spiritual value whatsoever. In such a fluid situation, how can we pass facile judgments on the beliefs and practices of others without being ourselves judged in the same manner by them? And even if we are right in certain cases in disallowing certain rituals in places over which we have administrative control, why criticise those who practise them elsewhere and derive benefit?

As for old Yogas, have we mastered the achievements of traditional disciplines to be able to say that we have gone beyond them? Have we, for example, realised the Self (Atman), or managed to silence the mind, purified the heart or even disciplined the body? Have we realised even a modicum of the Integral Yoga in order to claim superiority over other Yogas? The fact that Sri Aurobindo said that his Yoga begins where old Yogas end applies to him and not to us, who are mostly neophytes in spirituality, whether old or new. Moreover, old and new are relative terms and Sri Aurobindo’s yoga, as expounded in the Arya, is now almost a hundred years old. We have faith that his yoga is not going to be so easily outdated, but do we have the inner knowledge to say so? Spiritual seekers all over the world are thus faced with the prospect of climbing the Himalayas of consciousness consisting of hundreds of traditional and modern Yogas, and if Sri Aurobindo has added another invisible peak or a new dimension, it hardly makes any difference to our present station, which is generally at the base of the mountain range. Therefore instead of heatedly arguing as to which destination is better, let us all start climbing together and help each other out with mutual respect and goodwill. For the preliminary and perhaps even the intermediate goals will be the same, no matter the way we choose, provided it is not the path of the precipice. And the higher we go, the less we will disagree with each other until all arguments cease with the dawning of true knowledge.

Raman Reddy



[1] CWSA, Vol. 1, Early Cultural Writings, p 551

[2] For more on this subject, read my article on Sri Aurobindo’s Marriage, published on this site.

[3] CWSA, Vol. 25, The Human Cycle, p 13

[4] Read the chapter “Ascent Towards The Supermind”, SABCL Vol. 19, Life Divine, pp 919 ff.

[5] SABCL, Vol. 20, Synthesis of Yoga, pp 358 ff.


  1. "One cardinal axiom Raman Reddy would do well to remember always is that no “interpretation is faulty” and hence maintaining an attitude of democratic respect and tolerance towards contrasting and adverse viewpoints is essential for personal growth as well as community well being. By not arrogating to himself the burden of offering the official interpretation, he can save himself from much torment and spare his readers too."
    [TNM] http://savitriera.blogspot.com/

    I think I should reply to the high and mighty Tushar Mahapatra of the Savitri Era Forum, who keeps on making the most opposite comments on the same issue, once for and once against, without realising that one should be at least stable with one’s own opinion. Or does he think that even fluctuating in one’s opinion like the wind is being democratic with the multiple selves that one has in one’s own being? But democracy being the foundation of TNM, he would say, “It does not matter even if I contradict myself for I am giving respect to all my selves!”

    When did I claim that my version is official, for that credit should go to the Ashram Trust which has been remarkably silent on the web? I find the interpretation faulty does not mean that I am claiming my version is official! Unless you mean that my version has become official because the others are silent or are unable to say something convincing in return. But then that is not our fault.

    I think Tushar should play a positive role in this affair instead of constantly arraigning those who are earnestly fighting PH’s views on Sri Aurobindo.

  2. Raman Reddy is an ashramite working in the archives for the last many years. As a sadhak and a scholar, it is expected that his articles conform to the academic norms of politeness. The opening paragraph, conversely, appears to be combative in this instance. It is, in fact, a question of substituting a few phrases here and there. Let me attempt a cosmetic makeover so that the reader is not put off by the menacing horns. [TNM]

    "On reading the booklet entitled Sri Aurobindo on Hinduism by Peter Heehs (published by the Sri Aurobindo Society, Hyderabad centre in 2007), I came across certain distortions. It seemed to me that the author has deliberately adopted a deceptive and confusing style such that even a well-informed reader of Sri Aurobindo will be easily taken in by the flow of arguments. Even the interpretation and conclusion appear to be so equivocal that the reader would sometimes not realise that he has actually skimmed over deep contradictions which bear the false impression of a balanced view. I have quoted the following paragraph in order to examine the discrepancies."

    Is this some kind of advertisement that you are giving free lessons on "writing with courtesy" on the Savitri Era forum?

  3. Yes, now and then I've been seeing those bazaar blogs named after Savitri always playing a dubious role, acting like paid agents yet keeping a facade of journalistic fairness. The best is to dismiss what they say. Take an example. At
    there is a poser: "Does anyone stand by the Pranab’s proposal?" The right question to ask would be: What are we doing with Pranab's Proposals? and so on.


  4. Peter Heehs has attempted for a very long time to erase any linkages Sri Aurobindo and his Yoga may have to Hinduism. Inspired by him, Rich Carlson has tried to do the same and Ulrich Mohrhoff has written to Outlook magazine online and every blog he could find just to register the exact same objections of Heehs and propagate the same message. They do this to justify whatever little attraction they have for Sri Aurobindo to the political milieu they cling to.

    The question is: Did Sri Aurobindo and Mother disallow people who wanted to do pranam to them the muslim way? Or by kneeling as some Christians do? If someone wanted to lift and touch their knees to their noses as a novel pranamic technique, would they have objected?? It’s very doubtful. So, what is Heehs really objecting to? Only that Sri Aurobindo allowed the Hindus to worship him in their way!

    Do these people expect that Sri Aurobindo should have created a whole new lexicon for his yoga completely outside of Indian religion and given brand new names to various powers or maybe even renamed Krishna as Jehovah or something else just to please them? Maybe they will next insist that Sri Aurobindo should have changed his own name so that it would not sound even remotely Hindu? It’s not possible to convince such small-minded, unreasonable, people if these are the levels they stoop to.

    Coming to his commentary about the externals aspects of a devotee’s worship: how can Heehs claim to know anything about the devotee’s attitude and/or consciousness while worshiping Sri Aurobindo that he can generalize and comment so glibly about it? If, as Sri Aurobindo says, the attitude and consciousness are more important than the externalities, Heehs oozes pure arrogance by assuming to know anything about the devotee’s attitude and/or consciousness.

  5. it is unbelievable what this Peter Heehs is doing, I believe he is an instrument of restail forces if to take into consideration the ability to pervert the work of Sri Aurobindo. more than that I think behind him is a coldly calculated actions of some powers