25 Jun 2010

A Short Review by a Disciple

The biography is craftily written to fulfil an objective born out of the author’s misguided objectivism. The general reader by and large is prone to be misled by such misdemeanours in literature and becomes an easy prey unless he/she is intelligent enough to decipher and discriminate between what is real and what is not real and maintain the right balance in his/her opinion. Interestingly, PH has tried to show his intelligence by acknowledging almost the whole staff of the Archives Dept. individually by their names and show to the world that his work is an authentic document while he blatantly misused his position as a member of the Ashram and spied on the available information. There is a case in history where a woman resorted to an intimate relationship of love in order to know the secrets of the other side. The present case is akin to that and therefore is a culpable act of spying.

Hence for the sake of his own honesty, PH has to take a clear stand in this game and play the ball accordingly. He can then articulate freely on Science, Materialism, Spirituality, Religion, Politics, Literature or any other topic the way he likes and as he deems fit without mincing his words. As of now he is not a flag-bearer of the Truth the Ashram stands for after the Master and the Mother have physically left the scene. Therefore, being an insider and a follower of the ideal they showed to humanity, he must not evaluate their work as if he were an outsider. He can however proclaim to the world from his own pulpit that he has greater and higher knowledge and power than Sri Aurobindo and draw his inspiration from Freud, Nehru, etc.

PH somewhere writes regarding Sri Aurobindo that “Some of his arguments now seem rather quaint.” This means that he has the temerity to suggest that he stands on a higher platform than Sri Aurobindo. Again he highlights a situation saying that Sri Aurobindo was a “coward and a liar” and immediately brings in Barin’s statement that “fear was unknown to him” to soften the public mind or, perhaps, to tone down the gravity of his first statement. In another case, he quotes Jawaharlal Nehru saying that “most of the people of my generation who were immersed in political aspects of our struggle did not understand why he [Sri Aurobindo] did so (retired from politics)”. As if the “founder-member” of the Archives Dept. could not make out the mystery of it even after decades of association with Sri Aurobindo’s writings!!!

Beside these, there are several other equally grave and serious errors in the book and they have already been discussed threadbare by people who understand the hypocrisy and stupidity of human behaviour, and so there is no need to mention them here. All said and done, and devotee or no devotee, Sri Aurobindo now belongs to all humanity and even at the human level is worthy of the highest and deepest regard. To say, for example, that he was not a good husband is an utter falsehood. Rama was an avatar of the mental being who established the mind in the earth’s consciousness. PH may say he was a cruel husband as he caused his wife to go into exile and undergo tortures for years in her forest life. But that will be his one personal opinion like that of the washerman in the Ramayana episode.

I will give only one advice to PH, though I don’t think he will understand it. The Mother said that “to come closer to the Truth, you must often accept not to understand.”

A Disciple
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15 Jun 2010

Comments on Nationalism, Terrorism, Fundamentalism, Delusion -- by R.Y. Deshpande

Extract from article:

It is a pity that Sri Aurobindo’s formulations and actions are totally misunderstood by the author of the repulsive The Lives of Sri Aurobindo when he makes a preposterous attempt to discredit Sri Aurobindo by saying this: “It is impossible to say anything certain about the success or failure” of Sri Aurobindo’s endeavor. In fact he goes farther and says that Sri Aurobindo’s success always seemed to elude him, if not delude him. He disbelieves that Sri Aurobindo succeeded in bringing down a new consciousness into the earth-consciousness. But this is plain stupid when one has no understanding of the occult-yogic aspects of the entire issue, aspects which have perhaps no concern for a historian as he claims himself to be one. There has to be some insight into them, preferably some experience or realization of them, before making any comment of the kind.

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7 Jun 2010

Review Article of Peter Heehs’ ‘The Lives of Sri Aurobindo’ -- by Dr. J.B.P. More

[Dr. J.B.P.More is a historian, author of several books and articles on India, the most recent being the one entitled "Partition of India: Players and Partners".]


"Though Heehs had taken the pain to consult the various archives for primary sources, incurring probably heavy expenses, there is nothing drastically new in what he puts forward. What is new is his penchant to use such sources to tarnish certain facets of Sri Aurobindo’s life, on the pretext that he is being objective, scholarly and so on. All throughout this book until the last pages, there is a barely unconcealed intention to somehow hurt Sri Aurobindo’s reputation and run down at the same time certain aspects of indigenous spiritual culture and tradition. This is not the hall mark of a great biography. Instead it is the trade mark of those who count upon controversy to sell their wares."

Review Article of Peter Heehs’ ‘The Lives of Sri Aurobindo’ -- by Dr. J.B.P.More

(Compte-rendu critique du livre de Peter Heehs)

Peter Heehs. The Lives of Sri Aurobindo. Columbia University Press, New York, 2008, 528 pages, Illust., Biblio., Index

In this thick book, the author has attempted to trace the life history of Sri Aurobindo. He has divided Sri Aurobindo’s life chronologically into various compartments like birth, childhood, youth, adulthood, retirement and death. He has also divided his life as life in Bengal, life in England, life in Baroda, life in Calcutta and life in Pondicherry. He again divides his life into school life, revolutionary life, conjugal or sexual life and spiritual life. That is why the author seems to have chosen the title of this book as ‘The Lives of Sri Aurobindo’. The author uses several archival sources, interviews and secondary sources in order to describe the various or varied lives of Sri Aurobindo as he understands it.

The author was an office assistant, stock boy and even taxi driver in New York before he joined the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry in 1971, where he was entrusted with the job of arranging and organising the archives related to Sri Aurobindo. He seems to claim that he stayed in the Ashram because he was given the job at the Archives which he liked and not because of his devotion to Sri Aurobindo (p.x). With the new-found job in the Ashram and the prestigious title of archivist of one of the most notable figures of modern India, Peter Heehs without any known academic qualification or experience, took to writing about Indian history. His first book was a slim volume on India’s freedom struggle from 1857 to 1947. That came out in 1988 after staying in India and the Ashram for about 18 years. That was the beginning of his positioning himself as a scholar, with the Sri Aurobindo Ashram as base.

A year later, he brought out a short work titled Sri Aurobindo: A Brief Biography, using the archival material at his disposal. In the Preface to this book, he differentiated between two types of readers – the students of history/social sciences and spiritual aspirants. He identified only four biographers in about two dozen, who based their works, partly at least on original research: A.B.Purani, K.R.Srinivasa Iyengar, Monod-Herzen and Raychaudhuri. For him, the rest of the biographies were simply rewritings of that of Purani, with some additions. He then wrote that even among these four, the first three were biased in favour of Sri Aurobindo. According to him, none of the three sought out and analysed variant accounts, though he conceded that they enjoyed direct access to Sri Aurobindo. He wrote that his short work was just a beginning and more critical study of Sri Aurobindo’s life will follow. Nobody took care of these words then. Nobody really paid attention to the fact that the author had wilfully run down the previous biographers of Sri Aurobindo in many respects. Nobody ever questioned how such a person who had run down all previous biographers could be still in such a vantage point as the archives of Sri Aurobindo. Two years later, Heehs brought out another book Modern India and World History, which went unnoticed.

In 1993, he brought out 'The Bomb in Bengal: The Rise of Revolutionary Terrorism in India, 1900-1910'. Once again in this book, he took on academic historians, especially of Bengal, who have produced a lot on the subject. He accused them mainly for being uncritical and unduly commemorative about the revolutionary events related to this period. However, he made a distinction between those including Sri Aurobindo who took to violence or inspired violent acts, and the terrorist violence (mainly Islamic) of today. In this way, he endeared himself to the unsuspecting reader, while at the same time he sought to discredit the established historians in the subject, using some primary archival sources. In 1989, he wanted to teach others about how to write the biography of Sri Aurobindo by running down his previous biographers. In 1993, he sought to do the same to established academic historians.

After 1993, Heehs produced at least three anthologies of Sri Aurobindo’s writings, culled from the Ashram archives. He thus established a reputation for himself as a specialist of Sri Aurobindo, his writings and philosophy.

Another fifteen years passed since Heehs published his Bomb in Bengal. Meanwhile he seems to have fabricated his own ‘bomb’ which came out in the form of 'The Lives of Sri Aurobindo' in 2008, published by the renowned Columbia University Press. Once again, in this work, he dons the garb of a scholar and teacher, giving lessons about how to write biographies in general and the biography of Sri Aurobindo in particular. This time he ignores all of Sri Aurobindo’s previous biographers and treats them as mere hagiographers (p.xiv). The work literally caught off-guard the devotees and followers of Sri Aurobindo, who never expected anything from the pen of their fellow Ashramite Heehs, that could raise question marks on the life of their guru and avatar. It also shocked the others, both scholars and laymen for the unconventional matter it contained and the way it was used by the author.
At the very outset, his objective seems to be to magnify wherever possible, what he considered to be blemishes and pockmarks in Sri Aurobindo’s life. It starts with the wilful comparison of two photographs of Sri Aurobindo, one ‘retouched’ he says to suit the devotee’s taste for radiance and fairness and the other ‘real’, with dark, pockmarked skin and undreamy eyes (xi-xiv).He never seems to have realised that ‘retouching’ of photographs was quite common in those days. Besides he ignores the historical fact that the ‘real’ images of past gurus or saints like Jesus Christ or Buddha have never come down to us. This superfluous obsession with Sri Aurobindo’s colour and image appears off and on throughout the book. He then goes on to portray Sri Aurobindo as born to a mother suffering from bipolar disorder (p.8,33). Later he deliberately portrays him as ‘weak and inept in the playing field’. He then claims that Sri Aurobindo himself had admitted that he was ‘a coward and liar’ in his schooldays. Heehs chooses to believe this. But strangely he would not believe any other reason given later by the same Sri Aurobindo for not passing the I.C.S., just because he did not find it in the British records (p.32,17). Using such statements pronounced in different contexts, Heehs insinuates that Sri Aurobindo’s later day behaviour of dissimulating certain facts, especially when he was in the thick of politics (p.34, 126-129,133,134,162, 175, 179), was conditioned by his early school life.

Regarding Sri Aurobindo’s early life as a revolutionary in England and Baroda, there is a deliberate attempt on the part of the author to portray Sri Aurobindo as a man with a violent streak, with a penchant for terrorist violence. Things like his admiration of France and the French revolution and his support for the ‘racist’ Boers against the British and even his worship of the fiery Kali are used to rub in the idea that Sri Aurobindo was indeed violent-prone and radical (p.23,24, 30, 39, 40, 61, 67, 118, 156,182). At the same time in the same book, it is also shown that Sri Aurobindo believed in passive resistance and not aggressive violence and that his revolution was a long-drawn out one which would take at least thirty years to fructify (p.62, 92, 99, 117, 118, 119, 151, 182, 210). The same Sri Aurobindo is also shown at one instance as not doing anything to prevent the violent activities of his brother and friends, mainly on the basis of unreliable second-hand sources, and statements quoted out of their context (p.119, 130,134,135, 141,142, 152, 153, 156, 157, 158). It is also admitted that Sri Aurobindo’s guru, Lele had never preached violence (p.151). These contradictions become quite obvious when we read the chapters dealing with them quite closely.

Besides, the author has significantly failed to implicate Sri Aurobindo directly in any sort of terrorist violence, though he wracks his nerve to trace all terrorist violence in Bengal to Sri Aurobindo. He also demonstrates that the latter pursued simultaneously his literary activities and spiritual experiences, even after leaving Baroda and even in Alipore prison (p.62-74, 76-78, 81, 82, 84, 142-145,148,164, 165, 168, 173, 174, 177, 178,183, 187) The British too never found any incriminating evidence against Sri Aurobindo, either when he was at the service of the Gaekwad in Baroda or after when Bengal was divided and he threw in his lot with the extremist faction of the Congress, led by Bepin Chandra Pal and Tilak. At this time, Sri Aurobindo preferred political independence rather than social reforms or addressing Muslim communalism (p.93,102, 103, 116, 117) But somehow Heehs tries to put the blame for all terrorist-related violence on Sri Aurobindo by arguing and even insinuating that he inspired all of them. He even goes to the extent of asserting hastily without any solid evidence that Sri Aurobindo was responsible also for the Hindu-Muslim divide, the partition of India in 1947 and the accompanying blood-letting due to his nationalistic activities which lasted (as Heehs himself says) only for about two and half years, roughly from 1907 to 1910 (p.116, 210, 212, 315) Besides, Heehs wonders at one stage how Sri Aurobindo who participated so little in politics is hailed as one of the protagonists of the freedom movement and one of the founding fathers of the Indian nation. But in the same breath he accepts that Sri Aurobindo was the first to call for independence, which was adopted by the Congress 23 years later in 1929 and that he succeeded in infusing the will for freedom to a whole generation. He ends up affirming somehow that Sri Aurobindo was not cut out for active political leadership, without trying to know or understand whether he really wanted such leadership or not (p.211,212,314, 321-322). All this only shows that Heehs lacks historical depth and training, which is a requisite for coherence in historical or biographical writing.

Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy and spiritual experiences and the stupendous quantity of literature produced by him, have never been the focus of the book. Instead, Heehs devotes more attention on Sri Aurobindo’s school and revolutionary lives rather than his spiritual life. It actually occupies more than 200 pages of the text in the book. It is actually based more on his previous works like the Bomb in Bengal than any genuinely new material. Of course, Heehs gives a twist to all this by levelling harsh, doubtful, petty and trivial criticisms on certain aspects of Sri Aurobindo’s lives in England, Baroda and Bengal. To conclude, he even adopts a paternalistic benevolent attitude towards pre-1947 Indian nationalism as justified by comparing it with the havoc caused by European nationalisms, without realising that Indians had never indulged in colonialism in their long history and had never sought to ‘blotting out individual peoples and effacing outward distinctions’, to use the words of Sri Aurobindo himself (p.189, 211) Their treatment of the menial class Sudras or Untouchables had indeed degenerated to inhumanity, as Heehs notes (p.296). But Heehs might well remember that they belonged to the same mixed racial and cultural stock as the other Indians and they were never subjected to extermination or deportation in their long history. It was the same Brahma who generated the Brahmin and the Untouchable or Sudra according to Hindu belief.

The second phase of Sri Aurobindo’s life started in 1910 with his decision to quit politics and Bengal for Pondicherry and spirituality. Heehs does not commit himself on whether Sri Aurobindo went to Pondicherry due to a divine call or because he feared arrest (p.219). In Pondicherry Sri Aurobindo continued with his sadhana and wrote a lot. It is true that Sri Aurobindo preferred solitude and silence. He is also believed to possess various spiritual and ‘siddhi’ powers, similar to many other Hindu, Christian and Muslim saints who preceded him. But Heehs does not cite one instance when Sri Aurobindo performed miracles with these powers, in order to attract followers and disciples towards him like many others before him. These ‘siddhi’ powers were based on the individual experience and knowledge of Sri Aurobindo. Silence, solitude and ‘siddhi’ powers were part of Indian spiritual tradition and behaviour, largely incomprehensible and abnormal to outsiders. One either believes in it and experiments with it or does not believe in it. It is not possible to assume gratuitously like Heehs even for the sake of argument or scholarly purposes that Sri Aurobindo suffered from schizophrenia or was under spells of hallucinations due to his behaviour. This is not the first time that modern scholars have treated an Indian stalwart as schizophrenic. Gandhi himself was viewed as a schizophrenic due to his abnormal activities like fasting, etc. The miracle-working Jesus Christ himself would become a schizophrenic if we apply some of these dubious modern psychiatric yard scales! The height of Heehs’ indecency becomes obvious when he relates Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual experiences to his mother’s bipolar disorder (p.247). More generally, by questioning Sri Aurobindo’s mystic powers, Heehs seems to question India’s entire yogic and Sufic traditions (p.226, 227,228, 230, 231, 238-246). Whether Heehs has the necessary qualifications, knowledge or experience to do that is highly doubtful. By wilfully doing it, he has no doubt overstretched himself.

Naturally, Sri Aurobindo’s literature, philosophy and spiritual experiences, which constitute a great part of his life is treated summarily by Heehs in the book (p.264-287). It lacks depth and range and appears rather superficial. For instance, Sri Aurobindo stood ultimately for a synthesis and union of the East and West, on a spiritual basis that preserved the diversity of its units. He did not want a union on any mechanical or material basis. But Heehs never dwells at length on this crucial topic. Instead, he asserts hastily that Sri Aurobindo neither understood the nature of the international order before and during the First World War nor did he understand the advent of modernity and the religion of humanity, which Heehs seems to hold as absolute (p.288-289, 295, 296, 306). Besides, Heehs devotes very little attention to Sri Aurobindo’s magnum opus, The Life Divine, where the pathway to divine life on earth has been set out. Instead he dismisses it (as well as Sri Aurobindo’s Synthesis of Yoga) unceremoniously as abstruse (p.279). He even regrets that both have failed to give any easy technique to reach nirvana (p.279,287). This desire for a short-cut to nirvana on the part of Heehs seems to be conditioned by his pre-Ashram background. Earlier he defended Sri Aurobindo’s Uttarapara speech as non-sectarian and all comprehensive (p.187). But Heehs asserts in the same breath that Sri Aurobindo, influenced by Bankim Chandra Chatterji, Tilak and Hindu sacred literature, was convinced of the superiority of the Indian (Hindu) spiritual culture compared to that of the west (p.42, 57, 67, 189, 260, 293, 295).

More generally, Heehs finds fault with Sri Aurobindo’s style of writing English and his poetical and other ideas whenever he gets a chance. He considers them as out of step with the new modernism of the west (p.78, 299, 301-302, 306,307,328) He also seems to question Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual powers (p.374, 381, 387, 396, 406, 407). He even finds fault with Sri Aurobindo for not having read much of Western and Eastern philosophy and much of Hindu sacred literature, apart from the Gita, Upanishad and Rig Veda. He never seems to realise that Sri Aurobindo became a yogi and philosopher by discovering the ‘ultimate’ truths through his own spiritual experiences and not by reading any sacred or secular text or by logical arguments (p.276-278). Sri Aurobindo later found justification for his experiences in literature like the Vedas, Gita and Upanishads. This is also the case of many other yogis in India. Some other yogis of India have hardly read any sacred literature in their lives. Besides, Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy of integral yoga or Divine Life on earth is based on his own spiritual experiences and understanding. Sankara’s philosophy of Advaita, Ramanuja’s Dvaita and Buddha’s Nirvana are based respectively on their individual experiences and understanding. But western philosophy, to use the words of Sri Aurobindo is a ‘game of words’ (p.341), not based on any individual experience. This is a fundamental difference between Indian and western philosophies, which Heehs has simply overlooked or has not understood.

In Pondicherry, Sri Aurobindo enjoyed the hospitality of some Tamils (p.218,226) He came into contact with Paul Richard and his wife Mirra, interested in occultism. Together, they founded the Arya. By the 1920s Mirra becomes the Mother. She also becomes the sole intermediary for Sri Aurobindo, who himself is seen as a guru or avatar by his disciples. In fact, Heehs hardly tells us anything about Sri Aurobindo in Pondicherry which we do not know already. At times he is repetitive, especially when he writes about the spiritual descent and ascent. Besides, he tells us only things which he wants to tell and which suits his temperament and predilections. For example, he seems to give special importance to Paul Richard’s sexual penchants, which do not have much to do with Sri Aurobindo (p.314, 341, 345, 353, 354, 355, 366, 375, 380) In order to offset such glaring shortcomings and attract attention to his book, Heehs has employed the unworthy tactics of maligning certain facets of Sri Aurobindo’s life by stooping low sometimes through unverifiable insinuations and ill-concealed, and largely unsubstantiated allegations (Cf. p.315, 326).

Strangely, Heehs seems to be obsessed with the sexual life of Sri Aurobindo right from his school days up to his meeting with Mirra, without giving the least thought that Indian spiritual tradition and culture in which Sri Aurobindo was immersed does not attach much importance to carnal pleasures. In fact, it demands the renunciation or transcending of sexual life. This is not fully comprehensible to Heehs, steeped in the sexual psycho-analytical theories of Freud, in the manner of a Wendy Doniger or a Dennis Hudson or a Jeffrey Kripal. Heehs has actually met and talked with Jeffrey Kripal while writing the present book. So he strives unconvincingly to pin down Sri Aurobindo by insinuating off and on that the latter did have some sexual adventures and desires and even insinuates that he was attracted to sexual tantrism, though Sri Aurobindo had outrightly denied it. Besides, he asserts casually, (as if he has some special power to gauge the minds of the immediate disciples of Sri Aurobindo) that the latter’s disciples even had sexual daydreams. He even seems to insinuate off and on that there was even a physical side to the relationship between Mirra and Sri Aurobindo, though the latter always considered the former as the indispensable divine Shakti in his quest for the higher truths (p.25, 56, 261,326, 329, 373). Heehs however gives no clear indication about the sources of his information in order to support his affirmations and claims. Besides he admits at times that in the Ashram sexual abstinence was a must. On the other hand, he condemns Sri Aurobindo for not being a good husband to his wife, knowing fully well that in the revolutionary and spiritual inclinations of the latter’s mind there was very little or no place for a sexual or a conjugal life. He does not seem to realise that in the Indian tradition distancing oneself from material and conjugal life in search of the Ultimate was not uncommon (p.55, 87, 89, 318, 319, 359).

Strangely, Heehs devotes less than hundred pages to the last 25 years of Sri Aurobindo’s life in Pondicherry. This creates a serious imbalance in his attempt to cover the various lives of Sri Aurobindo in the book. Heehs has hardly much to say about the interaction of Sri Aurobindo and the Ashram with the wider Indian society and also the local Pondicherry society, both French and Indian, as Pondicherry was still a French colony when Sri Aurobindo passed away in 1950. He has nothing much to say of Gandhi’s visit to Pondicherry in 1934. His understanding of the events that led to the partition of India is shallow, superficial and second-hand. Of course, Heehs has consulted some hitherto unused records related to the early life of Sri Aurobindo in the archives in London, Kolkata, Dacca, Baroda, and Delhi, but somehow he has missed the Pondicherry State and National Archives, though he has been a resident of Pondicherry since 1971. In France, he has just consulted one file in the National Archives of Paris. He has missed the Overseas Archives in Aix-en-Provence where all records related to the French colony of Pondicherry are stored. The consultation of the Overseas Archives and the Pondicherry Archives is a must for understanding certain facets of Sri Aurobindo’s life in Pondicherry, especially his last 25 years. This is one of the reasons why his book has become lop-sided and imbalanced. Generally Sri Aurobindo had a very good opinion of France and the French civilisation, and considered Pondicherry as a meeting place of the East and West. Heehs of course could not appreciate this predilection of Sri Aurobindo for France for reasons that we do not know.

Though Heehs had taken the pain to consult the various archives for primary sources, incurring probably heavy expenses, there is nothing drastically new in what he puts forward. What is new is his penchant to use such sources to tarnish certain facets of Sri Aurobindo’s life, on the pretext that he is being objective, scholarly and so on. All throughout this book until the last pages, there is a barely unconcealed intention to somehow hurt Sri Aurobindo’s reputation and run down at the same time certain aspects of indigenous spiritual culture and tradition. This is not the hall mark of a great biography. Instead it is the trade mark of those who count upon controversy to sell their wares.

Dr. J.B.P. More

Historian and Writer

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