22 Jan 2011

Preface of TLOSA -- by Alok Pandey

The fact is that PH has more often quoted the enemies and critics of Sri Aurobindo and shied away from those who have made positive statements on him. He does not give credence to even Sri Aurobindo’s statements on the events of his own life, though he is quick in highlighting Sri Aurobindo’s negative statements on himself in a highly decontextualised manner. Why this biased choice on implicitly accepting “negative statements” and rejecting outright “positive statements” of Sri Aurobindo or his admirers? His criterion of selection is not based on whether a document is authentic or not, but on whether it is critical or not of Sri Aurobindo. If it is critical, he is too eager to accept it; if it is appreciative he is too willing to reject it or doubt its authenticity! [extract]



The word “Preface”, as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary, is a preliminary statement usually written by the author introducing his book and explaining its scope, intention and background. The Oxford Dictionary defines it along similar lines as an introduction to a book, typically stating its subject, scope and aims. It sets the tone of the book, so to say. Let us examine what kind of note the author has written to start the biography of a ‘Person’ whom many in India and outside consider their Spiritual Master, and in whose Ashram the author himself has lived for over thirty-five years as a disciple.

Meaning of the The Lives of Sri Aurobindo

1. Some generations count more than others. The United States owes an enormous debt to the men and women born between 1730 and 1760 who took part in the events of 1770 to 1790. Modern India owes as much to its own revolutionary cohort, men and women born between 1860 and 1900 who prepared and participated in the Struggle for Freedom. In popular memory, both groups are represented by a small number of exemplars: in America, the more important founders; in India, a dozen or so political, cultural, and spiritual leaders, among them Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, B.R. Ambedkar, Rabindranath Tagore, Swami Vivekananda, and Sri Aurobindo. Of these, Aurobindo is the most difficult to categorize. He was, for a moment, the most important political leader in the country, the first to say clearly that the goal of the national movement was independence. But he was also a scholar, a poet, a philosopher, and above all, a yogi and spiritual leader. His diverse achievements at various times can make it seem as though he led four or five different lives in a single lifetime.

(Lives, Preface, p ix)

The author seems to be drawing a parallel between the story of India and her “political, cultural and spiritual leaders” and the story of USA and its founders. This is quite natural since the author is an American citizen and has America as his standard. But to a perceptive reader, it shows the limitations of the author in understanding India, a fact that will reflect time and again through the pages of his book. Thus, he begins by a making a wrong comparison between the histories of the two nations. India does not owe her greatness only to half a dozen great men of the previous century but to a plethora of Seers and Sages, Saints and Heroes and Avatars who are woven into the very fabric of Indian life. An Indian breathes their consciousness from his very birth and the great and luminous seers of yore still shine in his soul. Their words inspire his thoughts and their life is a constant example before him. By clubbing Sri Aurobindo and Swami Vivekananda with a few modern political figures and a national poet, the author shows his shallow understanding of the true greatness of India.

2. I have called this book The Lives of Sri Aurobindo to highlight his many-sidedness. In each of the book’s parts, one of his personas predominates. Part One, “Son,” covers his early years in India. The next part, “Scholar,” deals with his education in England and his intellectual, administrative, and academic life in Baroda. “Revolutionary,” the third part, begins with his entry into the national movement and ends with his sudden departure from politics. Part Four, “Yogi and Philosopher,” charts his early practice of yoga and examines his major works. The last part, “Guide,” deals with his final years, during which an ashram grew up around him.

(Lives, Preface, p ix)

It sounds at first good when the author says that Sri Aurobindo had many sides to His life. But we are soon disappointed when we see him mention these many sides. First of all, one does not understand how Part One on the “Son” reflects an aspect of Sri Aurobindo’s life. It is a role or a stage, but certainly not an aspect of his life. There is surely something that the author is trying to tell us when he devotes a full chapter to this phase of Sri Aurobindo’s life, while the other chapters are not marked stage-wise but aspect wise, even though these aspects follow to some extent the stages of his life.

But what are these aspects? In the author’s arrangement, the aspects of Sri Aurobindo’s life consist of his being a Scholar, Revolutionary, Yogi and Philosopher, and finally a Guide. The choice of words is indicative. The author does not feel it necessary to devote a separate section to Sri Aurobindo, the Poet, the aspect that is actually closest to the subject of his study. One understands later why he does not do it. For in dealing with Sri Aurobindo’s poetry, he finds in it nothing more than an imitation of Arnold in an outdated Victorian style. But Sri Aurobindo himself preferred to be called a poet rather than a philosopher!

The other observation one can make is that the author seems to make no distinction between a Yogi and Philosopher. While it is true that India philosophy is born of Yoga, the terms cannot be used interchangeably. These are some of the natural expectations one would have from an Ashram author who has spent forty years editing Sri Aurobindo’s works. One would expect, for instance, that he would bring out certain aspects of Sri Aurobindo that other disciples have missed out, such as the Linguist, Educationist and Journalist – Sri Aurobindo gave some truly novel and creative insights in the field of languages (especially Sanskrit), Education (in National education), writing and reporting of events with the touch of a deeper truth and wider angle of vision in the Bande Mataram and the Karmayogin. I leave aside the fact that Sri Aurobindo was not just one more spiritual leader, but someone who gave to earth an entirely new perspective of Spiritual Life and a brand new path of Yoga; that Sri Aurobindo was not merely a revolutionary who laid down the large lines by which India walked towards freedom, but also among the foremost political thinkers of his time who gave mankind the roadmap towards World-Unity in a very methodical manner; that he not only embodied the spirit of the Indian Freedom movement but was also the soul of Indian Renaissance. All these and much more would have truly been worthy writing by such a long standing disciple with free and unlimited access to Archival documents.

But alas, there seems to have been a different agenda behind the façade of a good beginning. The author quickly and almost abruptly jumps to his personal experience with the subject of his biography, and to his strange and hostile attitude towards Sri Aurobindo that gets reflected again and again through the pages of the book. Let us then analyse the Preface which, after the first two paragraphs, hurls sarcasm and innuendo at the previous biographers, whom he calls hagiographers.

Priming the Readers: A sarcastic and suggestive remark

3. A few months later, after a brief return to college and a stopover in a wild uptown “ashram,” I found myself living in another yoga center housed, improbably, in a building on Central Park West. Here there were just three pictures on the wall, one of them the standard portrait of Aurobindo (figure 1). I was struck by the peaceful expanse of his brow, his trouble-free face, and fathomless eyes. It would be years before I learned that all of these features owed their distinctiveness to the retoucher’s art.

(Lives, Preface, p x)

The author makes a nasty and unwarranted comment on Sri Aurobindo’s photograph. He says that the distinctive features of Sri Aurobindo such as “the peaceful expanse of his brow, his trouble free face and fathomless eyes” are due to the retoucher’s art and do not belong to the Master. This is an unnecessary comment, like someone who takes a perverse pleasure in needling others for no particular reason. After all, there is nothing wrong or unusual about retouching photographs in those days when the quality of photographs was poor. Incidentally, this photograph is kept in many people’s rooms as a symbol of divinity and is a source of strength to them. What a perverse way to start a book on one’s Master! This attitude of ‘diminishing the stature of the Master will continue throughout the book.

4. The center had the most complete collection of Aurobindo’s writings in New York. I started with a compilation of his philosophical works, which I could not understand. Undeterred, I tried some of his shorter writings, which seemed to make a lot of sense to me. By then I had read a number of books by “realized beings” of the East and West. Most of them consisted of what I now would call spiritual cliches. This is not to suggest that bits of advice like “remain calm in all circumstances” or “seek the truth beneath the surface” are not valid or useful. But if they do not form part of a coherent view of life, they remain empty verbiage.

(Lives, Preface, p x)

So here is a hypothesis in the making – the words of “realised beings” mostly consist of spiritual clichés and empty verbiage! It is dismissive right from the start about what realised beings say. Is he implying that realized beings have nothing much to offer except bits of advice that are mostly clichés? What is the relevance of this here except to mock at the spiritual experiences of a galaxy of spiritual beings to whom the world has turned in times of crisis for succour, support and guidance? What he dismisses as “spiritual clichés” are eternal truths which all seekers aspire to live. It is necessary to have what is known as a “psychic opening” to be able to understand the utterances of “realized beings”. It is doubtful given Peter’s own account of how he came to work in the Ashram Archives, as to whether he had any such opening. Here is what the Mother says on the right approach to spiritual truths and the way to understand them:

Only the soul can know the soul, and on each level of being, only the equivalent level can recognise the other. Only the Divine can know the Divine, and because we carry the Divine in ourselves we are capable of seeing Him and recognising Him. But if we try to understand something of the inner life by using our senses and external methods, the result is sure to be total failure and we shall also deceive ourselves totally.

So when you imagine that you can know the secrets of Nature and still remain in a purely physical consciousness, you are entirely deceived. And this habit of demanding concrete, material proofs before accepting the reality of something, is one of the most glaring effects of ignorance. With that attitude any fool imagines that he can sit in judgment on the highest things and deny the most profound experiences.

It is certainly not by dissecting a body which is dead because the soul has departed from it that the soul can be found. Had the soul not departed, the body would not have been dead! It is to bring home to us the absurdity of this claim that Sri Aurobindo has written this aphorism.

It applies to all judgments of the critical mind and to all scientific methods when they would judge any but purely material phenomena.

The conclusion is always the same: the only true attitude is one of humility, of silent respect before what one does not know, and of inner aspiration to come out of one’s ignorance. One of the things which would make humanity progress most would be for it to respect what it does not know, to acknowledge willingly that it does not know and is therefore unable to judge. We constantly do just the opposite. We pass final judgments on things of which we have no knowledge whatsoever, and say in a peremptory manner, “This is possible. That is impossible”, when we do not even know what it is we are speaking of. And we put on superior airs because we doubt things of which we have never had any knowledge.

Men believe that doubt is a sign of superiority, whereas it is really a sign of inferiority. Scepticism and doubt are two of the greatest obstacles to progress; they add presumptuousness to ignorance.

21 November 1958
(The Mother, MCW, Vol. 10, pp 26-27)

One wishes the author of TLOSA had heeded this golden advice before starting his venture that was foredoomed to fail, when seen and judged from its intrinsic spiritual worth. But then humility and the author never seem to have gone together as we shall see in the following pages.

5. Most of the documents I found in public archives dealt with Aurobindo’s life as a politician. They confirmed that he had been an important figure in the Struggle for Freedom, but fell short of proving what his followers believed: that he was the major cause of its success. Nevertheless, his contribution was significant and, at the time, not very well known. Accounts that had been written to correct this deficiency were so uncritical that they undermined their own inflated claims.

(Lives, Preface, p xii)

What a roundabout way of saying that the devotees’ claims were inflated! As if the worth of a man is measured by documents that are eating dust in the Archives of various institutions. We see that the main intention of this biography, as suggested by the Preface, is to deflate, to diminish, and to belittle all that is known about Sri Aurobindo’s life so far. The author passes a very negative judgment on devotees and previous biographers without any valid justification. His main concern seems not to verify and state the truth as he claims, but criticise and take a dig at the established accounts in the name of so-called objectivity, taking advantage (from the point of view of public recognition) of his unique position at the Archives. In psychological parlance, the above paragraph primes the audience. He prepares his readers to believe that whatever has been written so far is a highly coloured account and therefore not true. Note the frequent use of pejorative terms such as “champions, advocates, devotees, followers, admirers, apologists” to refer to the disciples of Sri Aurobindo, including direct disciples such as Nolini Kanto Gupta, Nirodbaran, Amal Kiran, Srinivas Iyengar and Rishabchand, whose biographies are the source of much inspiration and invaluable material on the Master’s life and works.

6. It took several years for me and my colleagues just to organize his manuscripts. While engaged in this work, we were surprised and delighted to find much that had not been published. The most remarkable discovery was a diary he had kept for more than nine years, in which he noted the day-to-day events of his inner and outer life. Most biographies of Aurobindo have made his sadhana, or practice of yoga, seem like a series of miracles. His diary made it clear that he had to work hard to achieve the states of consciousness that are the basis of his yoga and philosophy.

(Lives, Preface, p xii)

Miracle or not, this statement is factually inaccurate and contradicts some of Sri Aurobindo’s own statements. Some of the major experiences of Sri Aurobindo did come spontaneously and, one may say, quite effortlessly (miraculously). These include major experiences such as the sense of a vastness and calm on as soon as he touched the Indian soil on his return from England, the sense of the Infinite while walking on the ridge of Solomon in Kashmir, the vision of the Godhead while sitting in a carriage, the presence of the World Mother while gazing at an image of Kali, and, of course, Nirvana in three, actually one day, and finally the vision of the One Divine everywhere. These are not ordinary achievements. The diary (Record of Yoga) Peter refers to belongs to a much later period, from 1912 to 1920, when Sri Aurobindo’s personal realisation of the traditional paths was already over, and he had started working on the physical nature for its transformation. It is then that the process slowed down for he had to tackle the difficulties of universal nature, a task that was never attempted before. But PH’s statement makes it appear as if the disciples were exaggerating his achievements and everything came with great difficulty and hard labour for him. Cited below for reference:

Now to reach Nirvana was the first radical result of my own yoga (this was in 1907). It threw me suddenly into a condition above and without thought, unstained by any mental or vital movement; there was no ego, no real world …There was no One or many even…only just absolutely That, featureless, relationless, …yet supremely real and solely real. This was no mental realisation…I lived in that Nirvana day and night…it was the spirit that saw objects…and the Peace, the Silence, the freedom in Infinity remained always, with the world or all worlds only as a continuous incident in the timeless eternity of the Divine. …Nirvana in my liberated consciousness turned out to be the beginning…a first step…It came unasked, unsought for, though quite welcome…without even a “May I come in”…

Sri Aurobindo
Letters on Yoga (SABCL), pp 49-50

A word on this ‘remarkable diary’ (Record of Yoga) that the author makes it seem was discovered by chance while organizing Sri Aurobindo’s manuscripts. The fact of the matter is that this diary was kept in Sri Aurobindo’s room and was later in the custody of Nolini Kanto Gupta, Sri Aurobindo’s secretary. Towards the end of his life, Nolini-da gave it to Jayantilal Parekh, the then in-charge of the Archives, for safe keeping, and not for publication! There are no written instructions by Sri Aurobindo, the Mother or Nolini to publish the Record of Yoga. Hence, given the nature of this diary, it was extremely unwise of the Ashram Trust to publish it.

One could ask: “Why not a great Yogi’s diary should be made public for the benefit of humanity?” Because of the possibility of it being misunderstood and misused by untrained minds and ambitious half-baked disciples. We have already in front of us the classic case of the interpretation of the term maithunananda, which Peter has misinterpreted as “spontaneous erotic delight” – this interpretation goes totally against Sri Aurobindo’s written views on the transformation of sexual energies and gives a left-handed Tantric twist to his Yoga.

7. The genre of hagiography, in the original sense of the term, is very much alive in India. Any saint with a following is the subject of one or more books that tell the inspiring story of his or her birth, growth, mission, and passage to the eternal. Biographies of literary and political figures do not differ much from this model. People take the received version of their heroes’ lives very seriously. A statement about a politician or poet that rubs people the wrong way will be turned into a political or legal issue, or possibly cause a riot. The problem is not whether the disputed statement is true, but whether anyone has the right to question an account that flatters a group identity.

(Lives, Preface, p xii)

This statement is not only deprecatory but clearly chauvinistic; it stems from a racial prejudice that recurs through the pages of the book. It is besides too sweeping a statement that makes it appear that Indians, by nature, flatter their group identity at the cost of truth. It also shows that the author was fully aware of what he was doing and the possible consequences (of a riot, etc); in fact, he nearly caused one at the Ashram. He simultaneously builds a defence for himself as an exponent of truth, though hidden beneath this concern for truth, is merely an overcritical attitude. Obviously he understands nothing of the way Indians perceive their spiritual figures and, in his arrogance, condescendingly labels it as hagiography. History in the Indian context is not limited to the outer facts and figures but includes the inner movements and representations of the human archetypes in their earthly play, which keeps repeating from age to age. That is why the legends of Rama and Krishna are termed as history (itihasa) as also the mythical accounts recorded in the Puranas. It is the history of inner life, of the play of forces that move men and events from behind, which is more important than a mere chronology of surface events. The author betrays a total lack of understanding of the Indian ethos and, instead of trying to understand, he is quick to cast aspersions on it. If he had read the following words of the Master, he might have perhaps refrained from such stupid statements. The following are the Mother’s comments on Sri Aurobindo’s Thoughts and Aphorisms:

Some say Krishna never lived, he is a myth. They mean on earth; for if Brindavan existed nowhere, the Bhagavat could not have been written.

Sri Aurobindo

Does Brindavan exist anywhere else than on earth?

The whole earth and everything it contains is a kind of concentration, a condensation of something which exists in other worlds invisible to the material eye. Each thing manifested here has its principle, idea or essence somewhere in the subtler regions. This is an indispensable condition for the manifestation. And the importance of the manifestation will always depend on the origin of the thing manifested. In the world of the gods there is an ideal and harmonious Brindavan of which the earthly Brindavan is but a deformation and a caricature.

Those who are developed inwardly, either in their senses or in their minds, perceive these realities which are invisible (to the ordinary man) and receive their inspiration from them. So the writer or writers of the Bhagavat were certainly in contact with a whole inner world that is well and truly real and existent, where they saw and experienced everything they have described or revealed.

Whether Krishna existed or not in a human form, living on earth, is only of very secondary importance (except perhaps from an exclusively historical point of view), for Krishna is a real, living and active being; and his influence has been one of the great factors in the progress and transformation of the earth.

The Mother

Strange! The Germans have disproved the existence of Christ; yet his crucifixion remains still a greater historic fact than the death of Caesar.

Sri Aurobindo

To what plane of consciousness did Christ belong?

In the Essays on the Gita Sri Aurobindo mentions the names of three Avatars, and Christ is one of them. An Avatar is an emanation of the Supreme Lord who assumes a human body on earth. I heard Sri Aurobindo himself say that Christ was an emanation of the Lord’s aspect of love.

The death of Caesar marked a decisive change in the history of Rome and the countries dependent on her. It was therefore an important event in the history of Europe. But the death of Christ was the starting-point of a new stage in the evolution of human civilisation. This is why Sri Aurobindo tells us that the death of Christ was of greater historical significance, that is to say, it has had greater historical consequences than the death of Caesar. The story of Christ, as it has been told, is the concrete and dramatic enactment of the divine sacrifice: the Supreme Lord, who is All-Light, All-Knowledge, All- Power, All-Beauty, All-Love, All-Bliss, accepting to assume human ignorance and suffering in matter, in order to help men to emerge from the falsehood in which they live and because of which they die.

The Mother

Sometimes one is led to think that only those things really matter which have never happened; for beside them most historic achievements seem almost pale and ineffective.

Sri Aurobindo

Sri Aurobindo, who had made a thorough study of history, knew how uncertain are the data which have been used to write it. Most often the accuracy of the documents is doubtful, and the information they supply is poor, incomplete, trivial and frequently distorted….

That is why, as Sri Aurobindo says, all this makes a rather dismal picture without any deep significance. On the other hand, in the legendary accounts of things which may never have existed on earth, of events which have not been declared authentic by “official” knowledge, of wonderful individuals whose existence is doubted by the scholars in their dried-up wisdom, we find the crystallisation of all the hopes and aspirations of man, his love of the marvellous, the heroic and the sublime, the description of everything he would like to be and strives to become. That, more or less, is what Sri Aurobindo means in his aphorism.

The Mother

There are four very great events in history, the siege of Troy, the life and crucifixion of Christ, the exile of Krishna in Brindavan and the colloquy with Arjuna on the field of Kurukshetra. The siege of Troy created Hellas, the exile in Brindavan created devotional religion (for before there was only meditation and worship), Christ from his cross humanised Europe, the colloquy at Kurukshetra will yet liberate humanity. Yet it is said that none of these four events ever happened.

They say that the gospels are forgeries and Krishna a creation of the poets. Thank God then for the forgeries and bow down before the inventors.

Sri Aurobindo

(Collected Works of the Mother, Volume 10, pp 60-64)

8. Aurobindo has been better served by his biographers than most of his contemporaries have. But when I began to write articles about his life, I found that there were limits to what his admirers wanted to hear. Anything that cast doubt on something that he said was taboo, even if his statement was based on incomplete knowledge of the facts. Almost as bad was anything that challenged an established interpretation, even one that clearly was inadequate.

(Lives, Preface, p xii)

Once again he rubbishes the previous biographers and doubts their honesty. He also casts aspersions on the admirers of Sri Aurobindo, as if their admiration was based on an incomplete knowledge of facts. The fact is that in the eighties whenever Peter tried to give alternate explanations to events in Sri Aurobindo’s life, he was challenged by Jugal Kishore Mukherjee and Amal Kiran and shown how his explanations were wrong and how he actually twisted the data to fit his conclusions. Jugal Kishore and Amal Kiran responded to PH’s revisionist views with academic counters which PH was unable to respond to. As a result, the Archives and Research magazine in which PH expressed his controversial views was finally discontinued by the Ashram authorities. So it is PH who has been dishonest and academically unsound and not the admirers of Sri Aurobindo. The letters of Jugal Kishore and Amal Kiran are available on the following links:




9. Figure 1. Aurobindo, circa 1915-16 (the “standard portrait”).
Figure 2 is a photograph of Aurobindo that was taken around the same time as figure 1. Note the dark, pockmarked skin, sharp features, and undreamy eyes. I sometimes wonder why people like figure 1. …The sparkling eyes have been painted in; even the hair has been given a gloss. As a historical document it is false. … It is the task of the retoucher to make the photograph accord with the reality that people want to see.

(Lives, Preface, pp xi - xiv)

Bogus example used to commit mental disfigurement, as these photographs are associated in people’s minds with the sense of divinity! Indicates a kind of perversity in taking pleasure in vilifying beauty! Besides, what is his problem if people like one photograph or another? What is there to wonder about it, unless he means that people willingly choose a false appearance? In those days the quality of photographs was not good as nowadays and had to be touched up. Champaklal (the Mother’s assistant) says how the Mother herself sent Sri Aurobindo’s photograph for retouching because the plate was quite bad.

Moreover, the two photographs which have been compared by PH have been taken at different times! The comparison could have been valid if the untouched photograph had been compared with the touched-up version of the same. But that is not the case, so how can the two photographs be compared at all? This is a typical case of how the author uses wrong data to come to wrong conclusions. The biography is full of such conclusions based on apparently correct data, which prove to be wrong or one-sided on closer examination.

Besides, there is a subtle dimension to these things that he completely ignores. The Mother has stated that She is (spiritually) present in Her photographs. We could hold the same for Sri Aurobindo. It requires some spiritual maturity to understand the purpose behind such photographs. The photograph was prepared by the Mother for the disciples and was intended to reflect the subtle or occult image of Sri Aurobindo. The same photograph was put on the cover of Satprem’s book “The Adventure of Consciousness” as part of her occult action, and one can judge by the effect it had in the 1970s. Moreover, the technique of using an image of the Master to concentrate the mind is there in all paths of Yoga. Even the Buddhists in their meditation concentrate on idealized images of the Buddha sitting in paradisiacal environments. See http://www.buddhadordenma.org/meditation/visualizingforms.php.

10. Hagiographers deal with documents the way that retouchers deal with photographs. Biographers must take their documents as they find them. They have to examine all sorts of materials, paying as much attention to what is written by the subject’s enemies as by his friends, not giving special treatment even to the subject’s own version of events. Accounts by the subject have exceptional value, but they need to be compared against other narrative accounts and, more important, against documents that do not reflect a particular point of view.

(Lives, Preface, p xiv)

The fact is that PH has more often quoted the enemies and critics of Sri Aurobindo and shied away from those who have made positive statements on him. He does not give credence to even Sri Aurobindo’s statements on the events of his own life, though he is quick in highlighting Sri Aurobindo’s negative statements on himself in a highly decontextualised manner. Why this biased choice on implicitly accepting “negative statements” and rejecting outright “positive statements” of Sri Aurobindo or his admirers? His criterion of selection is not based on whether a document is authentic or not, but on whether it is critical or not of Sri Aurobindo. If it is critical, he is too eager to accept it; if it is appreciative he is too willing to reject it or doubt its authenticity! There are also plenty of highly critical personal opinions of PH, often unwarranted and illogical, unsupported by documents or based on flimsy documentation. The claim of objectivity is false and is used only as a cover to justify his hostile intentions.

The real issue is not about quoting friends or enemies, but of finding authentic and reliable sources. PH’s book is full of secondary, tertiary and biased sources, which are given more importance than Sri Aurobindo’s own narration of his life, or those of his immediate disciples present at that time. For example, in order to cast aspersions on Sri Aurobindo, PH quotes a newspaper cutting which reports that during the Surat Congress session someone shouted in the crowd “Aurobindo, go eat Tilak’s shit.” What was the necessity of reporting this verbal abuse, even if it be accurate? One might as well report the conversation of quarrelling taxi drivers to give an idea of a musical performance at a theatre! The very choice of such evidence reflects a certain depravity of taste and perversity of mind.

Another example of Peter’s so-called “objective reporting” is his unquestioning trust in Matriprasad’s reporting of what Nolini-da told him in his last days as against Sri Aurobindo’s own statement on whether he guided his lawyer (Chittaranjan Das) in the Alipore Bomb Trial. Sri Aurobindo said in his famous Uttarpara speech that when he got a message from within, he left the case entirely on his lawyer and gave no further instructions to him. Nolini-da apparently confirmed the contrary in his last days, at the age of ninety-three. And how does this evidence get additional worth? By the fact of Matriprasad remembering the exact date of when Nolini-da told him! (See Jugal Kishore Mukherjee’s first letter). So Sri Aurobindo’s evidence of what he said in public shortly after he came out of jail is set aside against the “irrefutable” evidence of what Nolini-da said after seventy years of the same event, and that too, when he was in his nineties, ailing and bedridden. This is the result of Peter’s policy of “not giving special treatment even to the subject’s own version of events”!

11. But what about mystical experiences? In trying to trace the lines of Aurobindo’s sadhana, a biographer can use the subject’s diaries, letters, and retrospective accounts. There are also, for comparison, accounts by others of similar mystical experiences. But in the end, such experiences remain subjective. Perhaps they are only hallucinations or signs of psychotic breakdown. Even if not, do they have any value to anyone but the subject?

(Lives, Preface, p xiv)

This is simply not true but a conjectural hypothesis in order to avoid a generous inclusion of the subject’s first-hand account, which is most likely to be a reliable account of things. PH must know that self-reporting is very much an accepted form in biographical reporting. Accepted scientifically under the rubric name of Autoethnography, it is a form of autobiographical personal narrative that explores the writer’s experience of life. The term was originally defined as “insider ethnography”. For further information on it, read en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autoethnography

Peter seems to ignore the important criterion for inter-subjectivity: that Sri Aurobindo along with the Mother provided guidance to a number of disciples through inner influence. A lunatic would not have been able to gather and transform so many educated and skeptical disciples such as Pavitra, A.B. Purani, Kishor Gandhi etc. Besides, has not Sri Aurobindo himself answered these questions abundantly with clarity to the utmost satisfaction of the scientific community? Then why this pseudo-academic exercise by the author, who knows next to nothing about the psychological, scientific or spiritual realms? Here is a reply of the Master himself to the doubts and questions of scientists. I wish the author had read this and incorporated it in his arguments. Instead he seems to be more than happy to label these as hallucinations and be done with it.

They told me, “These things are hallucinations.” I inquired what was a hallucination and found that it meant a subjective or psychical experience which corresponds to no objective or no physical reality. Then I sat and wondered at the miracles of the human reason.

Sri Aurobindo

What does Sri Aurobindo mean by “the miracles of the human reason”?

In this aphorism, by “they” Sri Aurobindo means the materialists, the scientists and, in a general way, all those who only believe in physical reality and consider human reason to be the one infallible judge. Furthermore, the “things” he speaks of here are all the perceptions that belong to worlds other than the material, all that one can see with eyes other than the physical, all the experiences that one can have in subtle domains from the sense perceptions of the vital world to the bliss of the Divine Presence.

It was while discussing these and other similar “things” that Sri Aurobindo was told that they were “hallucinations”. When you look up the word “hallucination” in the dictionary, you find this definition: “Morbid sensation not produced by any real object. Objectless perception.” Sri Aurobindo interprets this or puts it more precisely: “A subjective or psychical experience which corresponds to no objective or no physical reality.” There could be no better definition of these phenomena of the inner consciousness, which are most precious to man and make him something more than a mere thinking animal. Human reason is so limited, so down to earth, so arrogantly ignorant that it wants to discredit by a pejorative word the very faculties which open the gates of a higher and more marvellous life to man.... In the face of this obstinate incomprehension Sri Aurobindo wonders ironically at “the miracles of the human reason”. For the power to change truth into falsehood to such a degree is certainly a miracle.

The Mother
5 January 1960 (Mother’s Collected Works, Vol. 10, pp 39-40)

The aim of the author seems to belittle mystic experience. He shows his leanings even before he has started writing his biography. The issue of spiritual experiences vis-a-vis psychotic breakdowns cannot be stated in such a summary way. However, it indicates his leanings and doubts, a theme that runs throughout the book as an undercurrent. While it is true that our faith cannot be disturbed by his gimmicks, it shows the nature of the consciousness and the attitude that has gone into the book. Fortunately, Sri Aurobindo has written a lot on the subject of faith, which is considered by all spiritual Masters as a preliminary and indispensable requisite to any spiritual pursuit, and in fact to any genuine seeking!

But faith is necessary; if faith is absent, if one trusts to the critical intelligence which goes by outward facts and jealously questions the revelatory knowledge because that does not square with the divisions and imperfections of the apparent nature and seems to exceed it and state something which carries us beyond the first practical facts of our present existence, its grief, its pain, evil, defect, undivine error and stumbling, asubham, then there is no possibility of living out that greater knowledge. The soul that fails to get faith in the higher truth and law, must return into the path of ordinary mortal living subject to death and error and evil: it cannot grow into the Godhead which it denies. For this is a truth which has to be lived,—and lived in the soul’s growing light, not argued out in the mind’s darkness. One has to grow into it, one has to become it,—that is the only way to verify it.”

(CWSA, Essays on the Gita, pp 309-10)

Obviously PH takes a wrong turn from the very beginning which he keeps justifying throughout the book. One wonders how he has not learnt this basic, fundamental truth of spiritual life and failed to imbibe the Ashram ethos despite staying there for nearly forty years. What is more surprising is that his approach is justified by some as a legitimate approach while the reactions against his book are dubbed as merely sentimental reactions. What PH calls hagiography are simply truths seen by the eye of faith and confirmed by the inner vision that is born of the soul as it grows and peeps out of its denser sheaths. By denying all that can be seen only by the eye of faith or subtle vision, PH rubbishes or discards a whole set of data at the very outset.

12. Those who have had mystical experiences have always held that they are the basis of a kind of knowledge that is more fundamental, and thus more valuable, than the relative knowledge of words and things. Absorbed in inner experience, the mystic is freed from the problems that afflict men and women who are caught in the dualities of knowledge and ignorance, pleasure and pain, life and death. A mystic thus absorbed often is lost to the human effort to achieve a more perfect life. But this is not the only possible outcome of spiritual practice. Aurobindo’s first major inner experience was a state of mystical absorption, but he was driven to return to the active life, and spent the next forty years looking for a way to bring the knowledge and power of the spirit into the world. In this lies the value of his teaching to men and women of the twenty-first century.

(Lives, Preface, p xiv)

The last paragraph of the Preface cannot be found fault with. The author at least knows that one of the fundamental differences between Sri Aurobindo’s message and that of other mystics is this return upon life. But he has already passed so many caustic remarks that the final statement loses its shine and leaves one wondering as to what really the author is trying to say. For by now one thing is evident, that the author has no sympathy for spiritual experiences. He is averse to them and considers the possibility of regarding them as “signs of psychotic breakdown”. For those who are not be familiar with the term psychosis, it may be recalled that the word is used in the language of Psychiatry to indicate a serious form of mental disorder commonly referred to as insanity. Thus by discussing the possibility of insanity with reference to mystic and spiritual experiences, Peter has indirectly accused Sri Aurobindo of being insane. He will argue that discussing the possibility of somebody being insane is different from actually finding him insane, but this is only a clever argument of a journalist who does not want to get caught saying the wrong thing in public. For when do you really need to discuss the possible insanity of someone? When there is enough prima facie evidence to back it up! And not when you merely want to tarnish the reputation of a person by raising unnecessary doubts about his insanity on the basis of flimsy evidence.

We shall see in the pages that follow how the author has honed this clever defamatory technique to perfection. He will buttress one positive comment between two strongly negative ones, so that the value of the positive statement is lost or negated, and the reader is left wondering what to believe in. This constant self-contradiction obviously helps the author to escape the sharp responses that his negative statements would evoke. Falling back upon the positive statements, his supporters say that he has indeed written positively in spite of the negative things that have been pointed out by his critics! But this is only a clever way of getting out of a bad situation. I am reminded of the story of the boy who grew up in a household helping the family in its errands and daily chores. Gaining the confidence of the house, he got access to the keys of the cash-box. One fine day, taking full advantage of the trust the family had reposed in him, he stole a large amount and used it for his private pleasure. When questioned, he retorted with a curt sorry and justified his action by saying that after all he had served the family for so many years!

One can summarise the Preface as follows:

1. The author tells us that though Sri Aurobindo was an important figure, what until now has been written on him is uncritical and inflated.

2. He is therefore the first biographer to correct this error and produce an objective and authentic biography.

3. Thus he takes an overly critical approach towards his subject and intends to show that his subject is not as great as his devotees and admirers portray him to be.

4. He assumes that Indians are sentimental fools who hype their heroes and are not willing to see their defects.

5. Though he is not sure as to whether mystic experiences are real or the sign of a psychotic breakdown, it is most possibly the latter.

6. The author’s area of interest is primarily in that aspect of Sri Aurobindo which connects the spiritual to the material. He has stated in his post-publication blog that the “Aurobindo that interests him is the one who wrote a shelf-full of books.”

7. He is not at all interested in Sri Aurobindo being an Avatar, because the term “Avatar has lost its meaning and it is simply a question of faith.”

Basically, the author of TLOSA intends to win accolades from perverted academics like Jeffrey Kripal and Wendy Donniger by denigrating a great spiritual Master. He takes it as an opportunity to project his distaste for devotion and his cynical attitude towards faith. (To those who have worked closely with him, his condescending attitude towards anything that partakes of faith and devotion is well-known.) At the same time, he weaves his defence by making occasional positive statements to avoid a backlash from Sri Aurobindo’s disciples and admirers. He says that, unlike him, the disciples are sentimental and squeamish about discussing the negative side of their Guru. But the truth of the matter is that PH makes “active omissions” of highly positive sources, highlights flimsy negative evidence, constantly decontextualises Sri Aurobindo’s autobiographical statements and makes highly critical comments without any basis whatsoever on most of his works – does he think himself to be a master of all subjects? One cannot but notice the hostile motivation (under the guise of so-called objectivity) to destroy the high regard for Sri Aurobindo in the public mind. If Sri Aurobindo were not truly great, Peter himself would not have attempted to destroy his reputation, for it is only by maligning truly great men that authors like Peter Heehs hope to thrive and make their way into newspaper headlines.

Alok Pandey

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