Dec 25, 2010

The Writings of Sri Aurobindo: Comments Apropos of Extracts from the Lives of Sri Aurobindo—by Krish Patwardhan

The crux of the difficulty that Heehs faces is the age old antagonism between spirituality and materialism and his wanting to please both parties in order to promote his book. On the one hand, he is supposed to expound the larger spiritual point of view of Sri Aurobindo, which does not reject Matter but explains it in spiritual terms. On the other hand, he has to reflect the ignorance of the materialistic critic, who does not understand spirituality at all, for otherwise how could he expect the latter to take him seriously? This could have been done by first presenting the materialistic point of view and countering it with the larger spiritual truth, as Sri Aurobindo has done in the Life Divine. But Heehs does the reverse; he presents the spiritual truth and counters it with the materialistic view, so that he ends up downplaying Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy and criticising his works in a hostile manner for the sake of gaining sympathy from the materialist. [extract]


The Writings of Sri Aurobindo: Comments Apropos of Extracts from the Lives of Sri Aurobindo — by Krish Patwardhan


The Lives of Sri Aurobindo by Peter Heehs, published by the Columbia University Press in May 2008, has given rise to a most unfortunate development. Extracts from it were widely circulated in the beginning of the controversy when serious objections were raised. Not only the disciples and admirers of Sri Aurobindo were shocked; they clearly saw the author’s obvious motive to denigrate Sri Aurobindo in his own Ashram. In order to defend himself the author, and all his admirers and supporters, came up with the excuse that the extracts were decontextualised. He then tried to contextualise them by providing more text from his book, indicating documentary sources in the footnotes and adding his comments to justify his criticism of Sri Aurobindo. These “corrected extracts” were thus supposed to soften the blows felt in the uncorrected ones. But these “corrections” hardly made any difference, for I know of some persons who, in good faith, read the “corrected extracts” and were as angry at Heehs as those who had read the uncorrected ones. I shall put the entire thing in fuller perspective and examine some of the aspects to clear the misgivings about the extracts.


On Sri Aurobindo’s Writings

It should be first pointed out that Peter Heehs has criticised practically all the major and minor works of Sri Aurobindo, subtly or overtly, as if he were an authority on all the subjects that have been dealt with—yoga, philosophy, Vedas, Upanishads, Gita, Indian culture, social and political thought, poetry and drama. In fact, it is hard to find any of Sri Aurobindo’s works which he has not criticised! All that I will say for the moment is that a biographer who goes berserk in this way with his biased and caustic comments on a great spiritual figure is not really worth serious consideration. Yet these ill-motivated assertions need to be dismissed at once.


The Life Divine

I begin with a discussion on the “corrected extract” from the Lives on The Life Divine.

The original extract below is in italics while the corrections by Heehs, which were supposed to mitigate his criticism of Sri Aurobindo’s Life Divine, are in regular font—some of these are in square brackets which either contain his own remarks or references to footnotes.

[The passage that follows is the only part of the author’s highly appreciative, 2800 word treatment of The Life Divine that is quoted.]

How does Aurobindo rank as a philosopher? Most members of the philosophical profession—those who have read him at all—would be loath to admit him to their club. His methods simply do not fit in with the discipline as it is currently practised. Even Stephen H. Phillips, the author of a sympathetic monograph on Aurobindo’s thought, had to admit that Aurobindo wrote the Life Divine not as a philosopher, but as ‘a spiritual preceptor’, in a long tradition of intellectual, but hardly academic ‘gurus’. [Footnote 35] Yet this preceptorial philosopher created a synthesis of spiritual thought that bears comparison with the best of similar systems: those of Plotinus, Abhinavgupta, and Alfred North Whitehead. Even if his critics deny him the label of philosopher—a label he never claimed for himself—his philosophical writings will continue to be studied by lay and academic readers.(Lives, p. 277)

[Text of footnote 35: S Phillips, Mutable God: Hartshorne and Indian Theism, p. 119]

Do philosophers have to be admitted in a club to be acknowledged for their greatness? If this is how Heehs judges the value of Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy, then I can very well imagine which club he wants to join to become famous (or, is it infamous!)—obviously the Chicago club of erotic psychopaths led by Wendy Doniger and Jeffrey Kripal.

Taking his criticism more seriously than it deserves, it is common knowledge that there is a fundamental difference between Indian and Western philosophy. The former bases itself on spiritual experience while the latter on the analytical knowledge of the mind. This does not mean that Indian philosophy has no logic, but that its basic assumptions are different, which does not prevent it to be logical within its own framework. By refusing to rank the author of the Life Divine as a philosopher, Heehs shows his ignorance of this fundamental difference known to every student of philosophy, for he has not only dismissed Sri Aurobindo but all Indian philosophy at one sweep.

By the way, Heehs’s claim of his “highly appreciative, 2800 word treatment of the Life Divine” is nothing but a good summary of the book almost entirely in Sri Aurobindo’s words, without a single word of appreciation coming from him. At the end of the summary, he prepares the reader for a condemnation of the book by saying that Sri Aurobindo did not study enough of European philosophy, implying that he did not have the necessary philosophical background when he wrote the Life Divine. I quote from an autobiographical note of Sri Aurobindo in which he explains how he wrote his philosophy:

My philosophy was formed first by the study of the Upanishads and the Gita; the Veda came later. They were the basis of my first practice of Yoga; I tried to realise what I read in my spiritual experience and succeeded; in fact I was never satisfied till experience came and it was on this experience that later on I founded my philosophy, not on ideas by themselves. I owed nothing in my philosophy to intellectual abstractions, ratiocination or dialectics; when I have used these means it was simply to explain my philosophy and justify it to the intellect of others. The other source of my philosophy was the knowledge that flowed from above when I sat in meditation, especially from the plane of the Higher Mind when I reached that level; they [the ideas from the Higher Mind] came down in a mighty flood which swelled into a sea of direct Knowledge always translating itself into experience, or they were intuitions starting from experience and leading to other intuitions and a corresponding experience. This source was exceedingly catholic and many-sided and all sorts of ideas came in which might have belonged to conflicting philosophies but they were here reconciled in a large synthetic whole. (Autobiographical Writings, p. 113)

It is strange that Heehs quotes part of the above passage on pp. 276-277, for it contradicts his later statement on not considering Sri Aurobindo a philosopher at all! For, after correctly informing the reader that Sri Aurobindo wrote his philosophy from the plane of the Higher Mind, how can he resort to the silly criticism of The Life Divine not being mental enough to be considered philosophy? It is as if he rejects it on the ground that it was written in a superhuman way and with a higher inspiration than the rational mind! Heehs perhaps does not know that the higher inspiration can come with the necessary logic to express itself in intellectual terms as it did in the case of Sri Aurobindo, and that philosophy need not be always produced by the slow laborious mind. It was because Sri Aurobindo found European philosophy “a mass of abstractions with nothing concrete or real” that he did not care to study it thoroughly, not because of any inability of the logical and philosophical mind, as Heehs suggests. For when the time came to express his spiritual experience in intellectual terms, Sri Aurobindo could easily muster his logical faculties and write his magnum opus.

It is by constantly switching his position between the larger spiritual vision and the small and ignorant perspective of the materialistic mind that Heehs manages to confuse the reader. He then lays undue stress on the negative criticism of Sri Aurobindo gathered from the research of small-time scholars like Stephen Phillips and perfunctorily fulfils his duty of expounding the greatness of Sri Aurobindo by saying “a few nice words” on him. The subconscient reason that prevents him from doing full justice to Sri Aurobindo is of course his inordinate fear of being counted among the other “hagiographers” of the past and not being accepted by the current academia in the West, which mostly judges things from the materialistic point of view.

I will now show how Heehs proceeds in his deceptive presentation. The paragraph below from the Lives, as I have mentioned before, prepares the reader for an outright condemnation of Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy on the basis that he had not studied enough of European philosophy to be able to write his own.

Aurobindo had little interest in philosophy and read few of the major Eastern or Western philosophers. At Cambridge he read a few Platonic dialogues as part of his study of Greek literature. He tried to acquaint himself with Hume, Kant, and Hegel, but retained little of the little he read. In general, European philosophy seemed to him to be “a mass of abstractions with nothing concrete or real that could be firmly grasped and written in a metaphysical jargon to which I had not the key.” Most of the ideas that he absorbed were “picked up desultorily” in his general reading. This included the works of the English Romantic poets, some books by Friedrich Nietzsche, and secondhand accounts of the theory of evolution. His study of Sanskrit literature led him eventually to the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, and the Rig Veda, but he did not study the dialectics of Vedanta or other Indian philosophical systems; only some “general ideas” stayed with him. Nevertheless, it would be inaccurate to say that he was innocent of philosophy when he began to write The Life Divine. The books he read were enough to introduce him to the classic problems of the discipline and to acquaint him with some of the leading schools. (Lives, p. 276)

Note the supreme conceit in the sentence “Nevertheless, it would be inaccurate to say that he was innocent of philosophy when he began to write The Life Divine”, as if Heehs were a philosopher of some standing in order to pass such comments on Sri Aurobindo’s knowledge of philosophy. On what does he base his comments? On Sri Aurobindo’s own remarks (!) and perhaps on lists of books he had ordered, as if they are a faithful record of all that he had read. But why don’t we simply judge Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy on its own merit than by the academic background with which he wrote, which is anyway difficult to determine now? Mark also how he exploits Sri Aurobindo’s own words against him, which is a standard practice in this book. Sri Aurobindo’s remark on his lack of interest in Western philosophy has been used here to suggest that he was incapable of philosophy.

In the next paragraph, Heehs switches on to what I have called “the spiritual view” of his subject. As this is what is expected from the biography of a spiritual giant, I have no cause for complaint.

The only works that Aurobindo regularly cited in The Life Divine were the Gita, Upanishads, and Rig Veda. His philosophy, he explained, “was formed first” by the study of these works, which were also “the basis of my first practice of Yoga; I tried to realise what I read in my spiritual experience and succeeded; in fact I was never satisfied till experience came and it was on this experience that later on I founded my philosophy.” But his experience was not confined to confirming the insights of ancient sages. He once wrote in a personal note that as he sat in meditation, ideas from the intuitive levels linking mind and supermind “came down in a mighty flood which swelled into a sea of direct Knowledge always translating itself into experience, or they were intuitions starting from an experience and leading to other intuitions and a corresponding experience. All sorts of ideas came in which might have belonged to conflicting philosophies but they were here reconciled in a large synthetic whole.” (Lives, pp. 276-277)

But he has to switch again his position from the spiritual to the ordinary view of things in order to please the academician:

These ideas and their synthesis were self-validating for Aurobindo, and most of his followers accept them as unquestionable truths. But if a philosophical system is to merit acceptance as philosophy, it has to be defended by logical arguments; otherwise it joins other infallible revelations that depend on faith for acceptance and persuasion or coercion for propagation. In other words, it becomes a religion. Aurobindo did not want his teaching to be regarded as a religion and therefore used logic to present and defend it—but not, he stressed, to arrive at it. In reaching his conclusions, he owed nothing, he said, “to intellectual abstractions, ratiocination or dialectics; when I have used these means it was simply to explain my philosophy and justify it to the intellect of others.” If the spiritual value of Aurobindo’s system can only be gauged by one who has had the same experiences, its philosophical value is measurable by the usual critical means: studies of sources, arguments, and conclusions, and evaluations of rhetoric and style. (Lives, p. 277)

Heehs has definitely got his arguments wrong here. Even Western philosophy bases itself on some fundamental assumptions, such as the existence of Matter or Mind. Even the concept of Matter in modern Science is so complex that an ordinary person has to have faith in the highly trained scientist to accept it. So if Sri Aurobindo bases his philosophy on his spiritual experience, which not everybody can easily verify for himself, how does it become less philosophic or less scientific than other systems? The acceptance of the spiritual field is as legitimate as any other assumption, be it matter or mind, and it surely does not preclude logic. Why does then Heehs fall back to the old world paradigm of spirituality versus science or religion versus intellect?

Final assessment of Heehs:

How does Aurobindo rank as a philosopher? Most members of the philosophical profession—those who have read him at all—would be loath to admit him to their club. His methods simply do not fit in with the discipline as it is currently practiced. Even Stephen H. Phillips, the author of a sympathetic monograph on Aurobindo’s thought, had to admit that Aurobindo wrote The Life Divine not as a philosopher, but as “a ‘spiritual preceptor,’ in a long tradition of intellectual, but hardly academic ‘gurus’. (Lives, p. 277)

Mark the words, “loath to admit him in their club” which has infuriated (to say the least) admirers of Sri Aurobindo’s Life Divine. I wonder how the corrected extracts or even reading the entire book mitigates the maliciousness of this remark! The only defence Heehs can offer for such a remark is that it is not his own but that of “members of the philosophic profession” whom he quotes. If that is so, it is an insult to the philosophic profession to underestimate The Life Divine, for I wonder how many people have understood it. Secondly, Heehs is responsible for his presentation, which depends on his selection of material from various sources, so he cannot get away by saying that he leaves the reader to form his own judgment. When he makes others pass such a devastating remark on Sri Aurobindo, it means he either endorses it or thinks that it is worth mentioning in his presentation.

In the next two sentences, there is however a desperate attempt to appreciate Sri Aurobindo after disqualifying him as a philosopher:

Yet this preceptorial philosopher created a synthesis of spiritual thought that bears comparison with the best of similar systems: those of Plotinus, Abhinavagupta, and Alfred North Whitehead. Even if his critics deny him the label of philosopher—a label he never claimed for himself—his philosophical writings will continue to be studied by lay and academic readers. (Lives, p. 277)

Heehs makes up for the severity of his previous remark, but, mind you, he does not concede ground, and the final assessment of Sri Aurobindo is that he is a “preceptorial philosopher” as opposed to a true one, whatever that means. But why should not precept go with philosophy? Why should philosophy be necessarily abstract and unconnected with the aim and purpose of life? This would mean that all spirituality goes against logic and any mention of the Divine is unacceptable to mainstream thought.


The Synthesis of Yoga
Accordingly, in the prospectus of the Arya, he said that he would publish "practical methods of inner culture and self-development." Readers hoping for a step-by-step guide to nirvana were destined to be disappointed. The Synthesis of Yoga, the work in which he presented his methods [of yoga], is almost as abstruse as The Life Divine, containing no easy-to-follow techniques. Aurobindo explained why in an article published at the end of the Arya’s first year:

Our second preoccupation has been with the psychological disciplines of Yoga; but here also [as in The Life Divine] we have been obliged to concern ourselves with a deep study of the principles underlying the methods rather than with a popular statement of methods and disciplines. But without this previous study of principles the statement of methods would have been unsound and not really helpful. There are no short-cuts to an integral perfection. (Lives, p. 279)

Heehs quotes Sri Aurobindo’s note in the Arya explaining why he could not publish what he had promised his readers—“practical methods of inner culture and development”, and why he had to first present the “principles underlying the methods”. But then why does Heehs come back to the same unsound criticism of The Synthesis of Yoga after he finishes summarising it. On p. 287 he concludes:

The Synthesis of Yoga is a formidable piece of work even in its incomplete state. It surveys familiar and unfamiliar systems of yoga and points out how they can be harmonized. What it gives remarkably little of is what the author promised in the prospectus: "practical methods of inner culture and self-development." It occasionally offers a technique of thought control or a tip about the development of intuition. But there is very little how-to advice.

It was amply clear on p. 279 that the Synthesis was not meant to be a book of “easy-to-follow techniques”. Why did he then raise up the same issue if not to leave the reader with a negative impression of it? This is another tactic of Heehs. First he gives the overall true picture and then passes his own negative comments elsewhere.

It must be noted that Sri Aurobindo deliberately avoided “easy to follow techniques” in order to cater to the infinite variation of individual natures. His Integral Yoga is wide and open and includes all possible approaches to the Divine. He gives us only the broad outlines and goes so far as to say that each individual has his own path of Yoga!!

As for practical guidance in Yoga, that was fulfilled by the thousands of letters Sri Aurobindo wrote in the late twenties and thirties, long after the Arya period during which he wrote the Synthesis. At that time, he was not a Guru except for a few disciples who accepted him as such. After the Ashram was founded in 1926, the necessity of practical guidance inevitably arose with the coming of the disciples.


Savitri

Sri Aurobindo's accounts of Aswapathy's voyage through the worlds of matter, life, and mind before reaching "the kingdoms of the greater knowledge," and Savitri's transit through the "inner countries" until she reaches the inmost soul certainly are based on his and the Mother's experiences; but the poem is a fictional creation… (Lives, p. 398)

Comment: Savitri-lovers will not be very glad when they are informed that Sri Aurobindo’s magnum opus in the field of poetry is only a “fictional creation” with no spiritual truth whatsoever!

Toward the end of Aurobindo's poem Death gives Savitri the chance to enjoy "deathless bliss" in a world of celestial beauty. She refuses. Death answers in lines that give expression to a defining characteristic of Aurobindo's yoga:

Because thou hast rejected my fair calm
I hold thee without refuge from my will;
And lay upon thy neck my mighty yoke.

(Lives, p. 300)

Comment: Not many Savitri enthusiasts would have noticed that Heehs has replaced here “Supreme” with “Death”! Towards the end of Sri Aurobindo’s epic poem, it is not Death but the Supreme that gives Savitri a chance to enjoy deathless bliss. Savitri conquers Death with her light and power and the latter disappears to reappear transfigured as part of the Supreme’s fourfold being. If he had remained Death, it means that Savitri has not been victorious over Death, or that the Supreme was after all none other than Death. This mistake seems almost a typo, but it is actually deliberate and well-thought out, considering the reference that Heehs provides to the very first draft of Savitri, which is not in the public domain for readers to check.


The Foundations of Indian Culture:

Much of Aurobindo’s Is India Civilised? is starkly dualistic, positioning Indian Culture as spiritual, aesthetic, and profound and Western culture as rationalistic, mechanistic, and superficial. (Lives, p. 295)

The Defence of Indian Culture is a polemic from the start to finish, as Aurobindo closed his eyes to the critic’s positive judgments and blasted him for the slightest negative remark. (Lives, p. 296)

Comment: Why should not Sri Aurobindo blast Archer when the latter made the most demeaning remarks on Indian culture? Heehs himself quotes one such remark:

But he [Archer] found little to admire in India's social and cultural life, sprinkling his book with supercilious remarks such as "I do not think it important to decide whether India is the most forward of barbarous, or the most backward of civilized, nations." (Lives, pp. 294-95)

How do you expect a soft response after this attack on Indian culture? Do you expect a balanced response such as “You may be partly right! But, you know, there is also the good side of our culture, etc…” Anybody with some sense of national pride would naturally counter attack! But the attack itself should not discredit Sri Aurobindo’s defence of Indian culture. The Foundations of Indian Culture (now renamed Renaissance of India) presents the essence of Indian culture (of which all Indians can be proud) as against the worst (not the best) of Western culture. The purpose was to defend Indian culture against stupid rationalistic critics like Archer, and not to balance the good points of the West with those of Indian culture. What has actually rankled Heehs is the attack on Western culture, which he has taken personally, instead of seeing it in the actual context of Sri Aurobindo’s argument.

Sri Aurobindo himself explains the reason for the aggressive style of his rebuttal:

Sir John Woodroffe invites us to a vigorous self-defence. But defence by itself in the modern struggle can only end in defeat, and, if battle there must be, the only sound strategy is a vigorous aggression based on a strong, living and mobile defence; for by that aggressive force alone can the defence itself be effective. (Renaissance of India, p. 62)

Aggression must be successful and creative if the defence is to be effective… (p. 63)

Certainly we must repel with vigour every disintegrating or injurious attack… (p. 87)


The Secret of the Veda

Years later he told a potential translator: "The 'Secret of the Veda' is not complete and there are besides many imperfections and some errors in it which I would have preferred to amend before the book or any translation was published."' (Lives, p. 266)

Comment: It is misleading to quote Sri Aurobindo in this manner without explaining the context of his remark. This is something that Heehs constantly does—quote Sri Aurobindo’s words against Sri Aurobindo, so that the disciples are silenced. If we read the context of this particular remark, we see that Sri Aurobindo was thinking in terms of perfecting his work, by which he meant establishing his conclusions on a more scholarly basis. That does not imply (as Heehs presents it) that there were basic errors in his interpretation or that he did not discover the secret of the Veda. It only shows he was a thorough scholar and was not satisfied with his work when he viewed it retrospectively after many years. This sense of perfection can be seen, for example, in the number of drafts he made for his poem Savitri.

In the letter quoted above, Sri Aurobindo actually grants permission to Purani for translating it into Gujarati. He also later instructed Kapali Shastri to write a commentary on the Veda “keeping close to his line of interpretation and using the clues that he has provided to unveil the symbolic imagery for arriving at the inner meaning” of the Veda.

(Read Sandeep Joshi’s article Deception by Peter Heehs (Lives, p. 266) published in livesofsriaurobindo.com)


Essays on the Gita

The sense that Aurobindo extracted from the Gita was thus of a piece with his own philosophy. (Lives, p. 270)

Comment: Does it mean that Sri Aurobindo read in the Gita his own philosophy? This is tantamount to saying that either Sri Aurobindo misread it, or that it has no independent meaning and that each one is free to interpret in the way he likes. Moreover, if the sense Sri Aurobindo extracted from the Gita were of a piece with his own philosophy, why did he write in a letter that the Gita does not give the “whole base” of his message to humanity? He should have simply said that his philosophy is the same as the Gita’s.


Upanishads

The language of Aurobindo’s dialogue is heavy and pedantic, the characters shallow and unconvincing, but the work shows evidence of much original thought. (Lives, p. 79)

Comment: What conceit! As if Peter Heehs’ opinion counts among the great critics of the world! It is typically the case of the mole measuring the mountain.


The Future Poetry

By 1920 the Modernists were changing the face of European and American literature, and many of the ideas on which The Future Poetry was based had become antiquated curiosities before any important poet or critic could read the book. Aurobindo’s own poetry, rooted deeply in the soil of the nineteenth century, was out of date before it saw print. (Lives, p. 306)

Comment: A typical case of a negative assessment without explaining the basis or the details of the reasoning that has led to it. Does the reader have to accept this conclusion merely on the basis that Peter Heehs has said so? Besides, what is meant by “outdated” poetry? Are Shakespeare, Keats and Shelley outdated because they wrote centuries ago? If that is the case, all the classics are outdated and one should stop reading them.

I quote below a stanza from Heehs’s own poem Seeker which should be called ultra modern poetry:

I seek not Peace but only relaxation,
Not Love and Beauty but sex and sensation,
Not closeness to the presence of the Mother
But a place where I can feel that I belong.

Devotion—An anthology of spiritual poems, compiled by Lloyd Hofman & Vignan Agni; published by Integral Enterprise, Auroville, India; First Edition 2004, p 128

Hurrah for modern poetry of this kind!


Karmayogin

The philosophical articles take up, in a non-academic way, some of the classic problems of the discipline: the relation between the individual and the cosmos, the puzzle of free will and fate, the origin and significance of evil. His essays on these subjects are clear and well expressed, though not particularly original. Many of them try to harmonise the Upanishads and late Victorian science by means of evolution. Some of his arguments now seem rather quaint. A seed grows into a certain sort of tree, Aurobindo wrote, because “the tree is the idea involved in the seed.” In the light of molecular biology, this is at best a vivid metaphor. (Lives, p. 203)

Comment: I wonder how much Heehs knows molecular biology or philosophy! He seems to have been too recent a convert to empiricism to make such a comment on Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy.



Poetry and Drama

I make no comments on this section. Heehs has said in the Corrected Extracts that the following are “matters of aesthetic judgment” and that “No point will be served by debating this”. He surely seems to have an unusual aesthetic development! Some of the remarks are even malicious, especially where he reads biographical clues in Sri Aurobindo’s plays such as this one on the Viziers of Bassora, “In the outer world of action, Aurobindo never sought help from anyone. In the imaginary world of his dramas, his protagonist was never without a partner.”


Songs to Myrtilla

One would be ill-advised to read, as one of Aurobindo’s biographers did, as confessions of infatuations with a half-dozen girls. Still, memory may sometimes have cued his imagination. “Edith,” whom he addresses in “Night by the Sea”… was the name of Mr Drewett’s younger sister-in-law, who lived with his family in Manchester. (Lives, p. 25)

Few people in London would have agreed that the book showed promise. (Lives, p. 50)

Urvasie
Written in the late Victorian style of Tennyson and Arnold, it contains little of lasting interest. (Lives, p. 50)


Love and Death
Twenty years passed before it finally appeared in print. By then the shock of World War I and the beginning of literary modernism had so transformed the poetic landscape that a late Victorian blank-verse narrative had no hope of attracting favourable notice. (Lives, p. 52)


Ahana and other Poems
A century after its publication, it is difficult to offer a balanced assessment of Ahana and Other Poems. All of the pieces in the collection, even those written in Pondicherry, bear the stamp of late-Victorian romanticism. The ideas in them may not have occurred to a Tennyson or Swinburne, but striking ideas in metrical form do not of themselves make poetry…Cousins wrote…At its best, his poetry stood “self-existent in its own authenticity and beauty”; at it worst it was “poor minted coin of the brain”. (Lives, pp. 301-02)


Collected Poems and Plays
Collected Poems and Plays were politely reviewed in India after its August publication. The Times Literary Supplement gave the book to Ranjee G. Shahani, an Indian writer living in London. Unimpressed by Sri Aurobindo’s poetry (“his technical devices are commendable; but the music that enchants or disturbs is not there”) Shahani chose to turn his review into a consideration of the author’s entire oeuvre…Shahani, like Younghusband, began his review by lamenting that Sri Aurobindo was practically unknown in England and the United States. Both reviewers contrasted this neglect with his growing fame in his own country. Shahani added that in India “there are no criticisms, only praise, “which not infrequently rose “to a crescendo of adulation.” (Lives, pp. 389-90)


Viziers of Bassora

The underlying plot of this wonder tale is one that Aurobindo returned to repeatedly in his dramatic writing: a beautiful young woman, noble but in bondage, and a handsome young hero, sensitive yet strong, fall irretrievably in love. The hero must battle entrenched inferiors to gain his birthright. In the outer world of action, Aurobindo never sought help from anyone. In the imaginary world of his dramas, his protagonist was never without a partner. (Lives, p. 80)


Rodogune

A tragedy in verse on the Shakespearean model now seems to be such a throwback that it is hard to evaluate Rodogune as literature. Viewed as drama, it is original and well-plotted, owing little to Corneille except the basic story. Viewed as poetry, it can hold its own against contemporary plays in verse by Stephen Phillips and Laurence Binyon. Its primary defect is flat allegorical characters. Antiochus never says an ignoble word or does an ignoble deed. Timocles comes across as a comic buffoon, not a tragic figure, while Rodogune is too colorless to inspire either devotion or jealousy. (Lives, p. 96)


Perseus the Deliverer

Aurobindo turned the story into a Shakespearean romance, complete with clowns, soubrette, soldiers, monsters, royalty, and hoi poloi. Even more than Rodogune, Perseus belongs in style and conception to a bygone era. Chained to the rock, Andromeda muses:

I will not die! I am too young,
And life was recently so beautiful.
It is hard, too hard a fate to bear.

In the face of such passages, it is easy to dismiss Perseus as intolerably mawkish. But the play is not without psychological interest.(Lives, p. 106)


Vasavadatta

From a literary point of view, Aurobindo’s plays are the least interesting of his works. Biographically speaking, they may offer insights into movements of his imaginative life. If his earlier plays suggest that he was searching for his ideal life partner, Vasavadutta seems to hint that he had found the woman he was seeking and was waiting for the moment when she would join him. (Lives, p. 299)


General Comment on all the Extracts

The crux of the difficulty that Heehs faces is the age old antagonism between spirituality and materialism and his wanting to please both parties in order to promote his book. On the one hand, he is supposed to expound the larger spiritual point of view of Sri Aurobindo, which does not reject Matter but explains it in spiritual terms. On the other hand, he has to reflect the ignorance of the materialistic critic, who does not understand spirituality at all, for otherwise how could he expect the latter to take him seriously? This could have been done by first presenting the materialistic point of view and countering it with the larger spiritual truth, as Sri Aurobindo has done in the Life Divine. But Heehs does the reverse; he presents the spiritual truth and counters it with the materialistic view, so that he ends up downplaying Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy and criticising his works in a hostile manner for the sake of gaining sympathy from the materialist. Not that he does not appreciate or present the spiritual view of Sri Aurobindo, but he tilts the final balance of negative and positive statements against him. The prime consideration that seems to have been always at the back of his mind, almost to the point of becoming a phobia, is to avoid praise at all cost, so that he never gives the appreciation Sri Aurobindo rightfully deserves.

Intricately connected to this situation of a scholar trying to gain fame by writing a so-called balanced book on a spiritual man, are the subjects of institutional allegiance and spiritual capacity. The ambitious scholar joins the Ashram of a well-known Guru, familiarises himself intellectually with the Yoga over three decades and thinks he is ready to write a book on his Guru as “a critical insider”. But how can he judge his Guru when he has not made any spiritual progress at all? One can understand the advantageous position of “a critical insider” in a political or educational organisation, but how can you be one in the Ashram of a Guru whose yoga begins where the old yogas end? The sheer degree of difficulty of Sri Aurobindo’s Yoga should mostly dissuade us from taking it up, and of even finding ways and means to survive on the path if we have been somehow drawn to it, forget about finding faults in the Master and his teachings! It is this fundamental error of arrogance that Heehs perpetrates, of attempting to overreach beyond his range of competence, and of obstinately trying to probe with his mind into what essentially is beyond him.

Then comes the matter of institutional allegiance. In this regard, nobody will deny that Heehs has flouted basic institutional norms. Which secular organisation will bear the denigration of its founder from its own office members, however well-placed and useful they are to its functioning? Which business house will allow statements that will erode its credibility in the public mind? In the case of a spiritual institution, it is all the more serious, because not only people have invested their money but their whole life to it. Disciples surrender their whole being to their Master—heart, mind and body—so that they come in contact with the divine force that acts through him. So when a senior archivist of Sri Aurobindo Ashram slings mud at its Guru saying that that is the “objective truth”, it cuts the very ground underneath the disciples’ feet. For, even if the negative appraisal of their Guru were true and based on sufficient evidence, it is highly irresponsible for an inmate to issue such a statement. Heehs’s disclaimer note that the opinions expressed in his book are his own and not the institution he serves hardly makes any difference. Honesty demands that he should have distanced himself from the institution before passing such a statement. For what is the use of serving an institution whose ideals he has lost confidence in? Why accept Sri Aurobindo as a Master when he finds so many faults in him? Why stay in his Ashram at all? The problem with Heehs is that he wants to avail of the basic amenities of the Ashram and enjoy a cushy life (which would never have been possible without the hard work of hundreds of dedicated disciples) and at the same time expect them to keep quiet when he insults their Master. What he simply needs is a base to launch his writing career by speaking adversely of their Guru, which is the kind of literature that will readily sell in the market nowadays. It is this duplicity that is highly objectionable, claiming to belong to the institution insofar he is benefited and betraying it in the name of freedom of speech for the sake of his writing career. In short, he spits on the hand that feeds him.

Finally, Heehs’s negative appraisal of Sri Aurobindo would have been less offensive had he based himself on solid evidence and honest research. But he does not! For a close scrutiny of the book uncovers the academic fraud behind the whole fa├žade of objective history. First of all, he says he is a historian, but the book is full of negative statements without any basis and caustic personal comments of a pretentious scholar who thinks he is master of all subjects, and who expects us to simply believe whatever he says. (Note his comments on Sri Aurobindo’s plays and poems and the way he has dismissed or found faults in all his major works.)

Another ploy of Heehs is quoting Sri Aurobindo’s own words against him when he says something negative on himself, and cleverly leaving out the positive content, often within the same text. Heehs takes full mileage of such remarks by decontextualising them, adding them to his store of negative assessments of Sri Aurobindo’s political enemies and hostile officers of the British Govt. and projecting an overall negative picture of Sri Aurobindo. In the process, he generally brings up the positive content only to alleviate the blows that he delivers, and finishes on a grudgingly positive note in order to deceive the reader.

But the most serious objection to his biography is the sheer bad taste he brazenly displays often to the point of indecency. This itself should disqualify him from being considered a serious biographer, for a mature writer would never without sufficient reason write of “urinary organs”; or mention sentences such as “go eat Tilak’s shit” or “Well, if you take the clothes away there remains little to distinguish one human radish from another”, etc. Use of such language would be avoided even in penning the biography of an ordinary person, leave alone an extraordinary yogi such as Sri Aurobindo. It is not that these statements are unsupported by documentary evidence, but what was the need of quoting them at all except to wilfully malign Sri Aurobindo in public, especially in the eyes of his devotees and admirers? What relevance have they to the central story of his life?

The last point I would like to discuss is Heehs’s so-called intention to show Sri Aurobindo’s growth from the human to the divine. This is an outright lie from the author to cover up his real motive to run down Sri Aurobindo whenever he has an occasion to do so, criticise him vehemently without any basis, and tarnish his reputation as a great yogi. I challenge the author to give me one instance in his book where he has shown how Sri Aurobindo grew from the human to the divine. It is rather the opposite that he constantly attempts to show—how the divine was pretty much human. There are umpteen presentations of Sri Aurobindo’s human defects, mostly decontextualised or gathered from secondary sources, for example, of him being a “coward and a liar”, explosive in temper, having married for “physical gratification”, etc. But where has he shown that Sri Aurobindo overcame these defects in the later part of his life? In fact, his spiritual experiences are doubted as schizophrenic delusions and so many caustic remarks are made on his later days as a Guru that the lay reader would begin to doubt as to whether he was a Yogi at all!

Krish Patwardhan

http://www.mirroroftomorrow.org/blog/_archives/2010/12/8/4698274.html

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