18 Feb 2011

Clever Denigration of Sri Aurobindo by Peter Heehs -- by Alok Pandey

Peter Heehs uses in his book certain subtle psychological techniques to create a negative opinion of Sri Aurobindo. One such device is never passing an outright negative judgment without making some qualifications to it. Generally he flip-flops between positive and negative statements, swings to the left and right, and in a most unsuspecting way nullifies his positive statements on Sri Aurobindo. For committing this ‘murder in cold print’, he begins with some sweet talk lulling the reader into a false sense of sympathy, and then delivers a blow to Sri Aurobindo in someone else’s name, adding his own opinion quietly in the presentation of a multitude of documents. He does this so cleverly that at times it is hard to distinguish his personal opinion from the quoted documents. For example, while summarizing Sri Aurobindo’s life at Baroda, the author makes the following statement:

Looking back three years later on Aurobindo’s entry into the public life of Bengal, his colleague Jitendra Lal Bannerji recalled that he was looked on then as “an obscure school-master in a far-off province of India—one who had apparently failed in life and had retired into oblivion—a man unknown, unheard-of.” To call the professor from Baroda a failure was to exaggerate his insignificance, but not by much. He had done little in thirty-three years to make a name for himself. Since his return from England in 1893, he had risen from trainee to secretary to the Gaekwar and vice principal of Baroda College. He might have looked forward to a ministerial post in ten or twenty years, but his interests lay elsewhere, in literature and revolutionary politics. In these fields he had taken some preliminary steps, but little more. As a writer he had achieved fluidity, had begun to find his voice, and was on the trail of the themes that would carry him into mature expression, but he had produced comparatively little and published less. As an organizer, he had helped to found a revolutionary group in 1902, but little remained of the organization, and the revolutionary impetus had passed from Calcutta to Dacca. Overall, “in the stirring and slow-heaving political atmosphere of the time,” Aurobindo was, in Jitendra Lal’s summing up, “an altogether negligible factor.”

(Lives, pp 101-102)

Note how Peter selects this particular document to summarise Sri Aurobindo’s life at Baroda – Jitendralal was a colleague of Sri Aurobindo but did not stay with him in Baroda, so how could he comment on Sri Aurobindo’s life there? Note the way he shortlists Sri Aurobindo’s achievements until then, and quickly, as if by a sleight of hand, trivialises them (text in italics) before dismissing him at the end of the paragraph (text in bold). Finally, he slips in his personal opinion, blending it so well with the quoted document that the average reader is left confused as to whether he endorses or mitigates Jitendralal’s view (see underlined text in italics).

Let us examine Sri Aurobindo’s life and achievements until the end of the Baroda period. He had passed the Tripos in the first shot and in first class; he had cleared the ICS examination (the riding test was only an excuse to get himself disqualified for the ICS); he was among the toppers at Cambridge and was known for his mastery of foreign languages; he was chosen as the Maharaja’s Secretary, which was by all means a very respectable and lucrative job; he was the Vice-Principal of the Baroda college (later the Principal for a short period) and loved and admired by his students and colleagues; he had written poems such as ‘Light’ at the age of 11; written The Harmony of Virtue at the age of 18; had experienced the “vacant Infinite” while walking on the Takht-e-Suleman; looked into the eyes of the World-Mother while staring into the image of the goddess Kali at Narmada and had experienced the rush and flow of occult experience following his assiduous practice of Pranayama. By what standard can the above achievements be attributed to a man who has “failed in life”? It can be argued that Jitendralal had no inkling of Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual experiences, but then why quote him and justify his poor and ignorant assessment of Sri Aurobindo? Does not the present day historian have the advantage of hindsight? Or will Peter say that spiritual experience does not fall in the ken of the objective historian? If that is so, why mention Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual experiences, why write about the Record of Yoga; in fact, why write about Sri Aurobindo at all, for if there is anything that Sri Aurobindo is known for is his spiritual world-view which even explains Matter in spiritual terms!

But no, our biographer has to criticise Sri Aurobindo, for otherwise how can he be called objective by the academicians! Mark how he validates Jitendralal’s negative remark by a half-hearted disapproval of the same, “To call the professor from Baroda a failure was to exaggerate his insignificance, but not by much.”

Alok Pandey

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