19 Feb 2011

One-Sided Reporting by Peter Heehs -- by Alok Pandey

Let me now give an example of one-sided reporting from the chapter entitled “Son”. Our biographer goes at great length to describe the madness of Sri Aurobindo’s mother and keeps referring to it time and again well past the half-way mark of his book. He mentions the unfaithfulness of Sri Aurobindo’s father to his wife and dubs him as “Darwinian Mr Ghose” because he was “proud to have brought children of a better breed into the world” (p 9). What does the author convey through the presentation of this data? He is forcefully drawing our attention to the poor heredity of Sri Aurobindo, more specifically the inheritance of madness from his mother, and the unhappy environment of his childhood days, both of which may have caused the spiritual “hallucinations” he saw in the latter part of his life! This view we of course discredit, but even from the angle of the psychologist seriously interested in engaging with someone who does not believe in spiritual things, there are three important factors Peter deliberately ignores. First, he belittles Sri Aurobindo’s father by neither mentioning his generosity nor his achievements in the medical field and his reputation as a good doctor (there was even a biological test bearing his name which is now outdated).

Next, emotionally Sri Aurobindo was closer to his maternal grandfather, Rishi Rajnarayan Basu, than to his mother. He even dedicated a poem to him, Transit Non Periit, on his death in 1899. I quote below the poem both for the subtle influence of Rishi Rajnarayan on Sri Aurobindo and the depth and maturity of Sri Aurobindo’s thought in his early youth.
Transiit Non Periit

(My grandfather, Rajnarayan Bose, died in September 1899)

Not in annihilation lost, nor given
To darkness art thou fled from us and light,
O strong and sentient spirit; no mere heaven
Of ancient joys, no silence eremite
Received thee; but the omnipresent Thought
Of which thou wast a part and earthly hour,
Took back its gift. Into that splendour caught
Thou hast not lost thy special brightness. Power
Remains with thee and the old genial force
Unseen for blinding light, not darkly lurks:
As when a sacred river in its course
Dives into ocean, there its strength abides
Not less because with vastness wed and works
Unnoticed in the grandeur of the tides.

(Collected Poems, CWSA, Vol. 2, p 282)
Knowing the elementary laws of Mendelian Inheritance, the non-genetic vertical heredity transmission, and, above all, going by the common-sense theory that we are influenced most by those whom we love and admire, it is important for any scientific biographer writing for the academia to speak about Sri Aurobindo’s grandfather, the only blood relation to whom he has dedicated a poem. The Wikipedia describes him as:
Rajnarayan Basu (Bengali: (1826–1899) was a writer and intellectual of the Bengal Renaissance. He was born in Boral in 24 Parganas and studied at the Hare School and Hindu College, both premier institutions in Kolkata, Bengal at the time. A monotheist at heart, Rajnarayan Basu converted to Brahmoism at the age of twenty. After retiring, he was given the honorary title of Rishi or sage. As a writer, he was one of the best known prose writers in Bengali in the nineteenth century, writing often for the Tattwabodhini Patrika, a premier Brahmo journal. Due to his defence of Brahmoism, he was given the title “Grandfather of Indian Nationalism”.

Rajnarayan Basu was a close friend of Michael Madhusudan Dutt, a prominent poet of the time, and the introducer of free verse in Bengali. Both were responsible for introducing classical Western elements into Bengali literature.[1] He briefly tutored Asia’s first Nobel prizewinner, Rabindranath Tagore and spent three years translating the Upanishads into English. As a member of Young Bengal, Rajnarayan Basu believed in “nation-building” at the grassroots level.
I also quote at length from Shri Chinmoy’s article on Rajnarayan Basu:
The father of Sri Aurobindo’s mother, Swarnalata, the “grandfather of Indian Nationalism,” the militant defender of his country, the Olympian champion of truth, the ruthless antagonist of sham, and, above all, a holy personage of hallowed memory who arouses a profound esteem and veneration in the hearts of the Bengalis, is Rishi Rajnarayan Bose.

He was a fond child of the Goddess of learning. Not once but twice he successfully proved himself matchless: as a student and as a teacher. “It was my principle,” the Rishi said, “as a teacher to guide the boys by means of love.” He was thoroughly at home in English literature. He had an easy access to the mines of Sanskrit and Arabic literatures.

Some of his countrymen took him amiss. They took him for an old man who cherished a clinging to the education and culture of ancient India, be it supremely good or abysmally bad. In fact, what he wanted was to draw the attention of his countrymen to the silliness of holding the notions that “the Indian way of eating, the Indian way of dressing, the Indian way of learning”—in a word, whatever India could offer to the world in any sphere of life—is insignificant, while whatever the English offer is worth having for a man in a civilised society. According to him, no other country in the hoary past dared belittle India for anything. And now why should it be otherwise? The Indians must be Indians heart and soul. To ape the English is to ask the presiding Deity of India to quit her own throne. And what, after all, would they get by this mad pursuit? Nothing short of self-perdition. He was a pioneer in the field of giving concrete shape to Indian Nationalism.

His heart would be uncontrollably swayed while he was singing Bande Mataram, careless of the fact that his voice was sadly wanting in the art of singing. In this connection let us remember what he wrote to the author of Anandamath in which shines our national Anthem. He was simply enamoured of the book, and wrote to Bankim, “May your pen be immortal!” The Rishi’s prayer was fulfilled.

A character with diverse virtues was he. This moment his face shows a thunderbolt determination. The next moment he becomes the personification of irresistible laughter. This moment he tries to identify himself with the innermost Spirit. The next moment he discharges the duties of a wise householder. This moment he gives advice to alumni and the adorers of Bengali literature on how to serve the country better through their powerful contributions. The next moment he loses himself in the company of impossible fools.
The superiority complex was altogether foreign to his nature. Children had free access to him who was four times as old as they. Tagore was one among those little ones. One will be frankly bewildered as to how such a thing could take place in Bengal, where age is treated with far more reverential awe than in any other part of the world. It was impossible for any one to resist the good humour of the Rishi. Once Sri Aurobindo said to one of his disciples:

Your question reminds me of the story of my grandmother. She said: ‘God has made such a bad world! If I could meet Him I would tell Him what I think of Him.’ My grandfather said: ‘Yes, it is true; but God has so arranged that you can’t get near Him so long as you have such a desire in you!’

A prophet is not honoured in his own country.” This frequently mouthed proverb proved quite true in the case of Rishi Rajnarayan. His own son-in-law K.D. Ghosh decided to send his children to England to become thoroughly anglicised. As preparation for the fulfilment of his wishes, perhaps, he appointed a European nurse to attend his child, Auro, and later sent him to an English convent at Darjeeling for his primary education. But as a contrast, it is equally strange that the very same father should send to his son Auro in England press-cuttings from India describing the injustices and atrocities of British rule here. Thus unconsciously he supplied fuel to the fire of patriotism with which the son appears to have been born. The father did all this, for he intuitively felt that his son Auro was destined to do something very great. His expectations were more than fulfilled in Sri Aurobindo’s becoming a spiritual Leader of mankind, while his immediate expectations were only partly fulfilled. Aurobindo learned what the West could teach him, yet he remained thoroughly Indian in the core of his heart, and was not anglicised, as his father desired. The grandfather’s joy and pride knew no bounds to find in his grandson a unique love for his Motherland, for his culture and education, notwithstanding his Western education of the highest order.’

Among the mighty minds caught by the spirit of India’s renaissance and among the pioneers in the field of national creativity, the Seer of the age, Sri Aurobindo, has seen in only two personalities the true Rishi-vision: Bankim Chandra and Rajnarayan.

Rabindranath, who had great admiration and veneration for Rishi Rajnarayan, has noted two significant aspects of his character:

“On the one hand he had committed himself and his household affairs entirely to the care of the Divine; on the other hand he would busy himself making innumerable plans feasible or otherwise for the advancement of the country’s progress.”

(Chinmoy Ghose, Mother India, Nov/Dec 1961 p. 102)
We can see clearly from the above quotations that if at all Sri Aurobindo’s psychological make-up depended on heredity; it was certainly the seed of his grandfather that had sprouted in him. His mother was merely a physical instrument for carrying the seed or, let us say, the fire of the grandfather’s personality. From a deeper understanding of her madness, one could say that her madness itself may have been an inability to bear in a frail body her father’s fire. In this so-called academic biography of Peter Heehs, there is hardly any mention of Rishi Rajnarayan’s influence on Sri Aurobindo.

Finally, the third important factor our biographer has failed to note due to his obsession with Swarnalata’s madness, is a beautiful poem written by Sri Aurobindo when he was only eleven years old, a poem that is almost prophetic of his future work, and hence all the more important to reveal certain traits of his personality which were at that time in the form of a bud.

From the quickened womb of the primal gloom,
The sun rolled back and bare,
Till I wove him a vest for his Ethiop breast,
Of the threads of my golden hair;

When I flashed on their sight, the heralds bright,
Of Heaven’s redeeming plan,
As they chanted the morn, the Saviour born –
Joy, joy to the outcast man!
Equal favour I show to the lofty ad low,
On the just and unjust I descend:
E’en the blind, whose vain spheres, roll in darkness ad tears,
Feel my smile – the blest smile of a friend.

O, if such the glad worth of my presence on earth,
Though fitful and fleeting the while,
What glories must rest on the home of the blessed,
Ever bright with the Deity’s smile.

(Collected Poems, CWSA, Vol. 2, pp 5-6)
One need not wonder as to what prevented our biographer from bringing out these aspects of Sri Aurobindo’s childhood. For under the dubious garb of objectivity and neutrality, he had his own agenda to fulfil, the agenda to demolish the faith of the disciples in their Master. It is true that no one can demolish faith once it is born, not even a thousand such biased authors, but should we become party to his mischief on that account? If I am personally immune to an illness, should I let others be exposed to it and let the falsehood spread with the excuse that the Divine will do everything to defend himself? What about our own responsibility in the matter? Thus each has a role to play, small or big, depending on one’s sincerity and concern for the truth that Sri Aurobindo and the Mother represent.

Alok Pandey


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