5 May 2011

Sri Aurobindo's Avatarhood -- by Vishwas Patel

The occasion for a rebuttal came up when Peter Heehs attempted to ridicule the private beliefs of the disciples of Sri Aurobindo and argued that he was not an Avatar because he had “never made any such claim on his own behalf”. It would have been absolutely fine, I repeat, had Peter Heehs said that he did not believe in the Avatarhood of Sri Aurobindo, because there was never any question of forcing upon others such a sacred and personal conviction. It is only when he had a nasty dig at the faith of the concerned disciples in what he claimed to be the “first objective biography on Sri Aurobindo” (while still pretending to be a disciple of the same Guru), that a reply became necessary. It is this duplicity that had to be exposed in public. For it is understood that as far as institutional propriety is concerned you are either outside an institution or inside it. You cannot be both in and out, that is, enjoy the privileges of an insider and at the same time have the unrestricted freedom to criticise the founder of the institution that an outsider generally has. (Extract)

Sri Aurobindo's Avatarhood

by Vishwas Patel

Peter Heehs writes in the Lives on the issue of Sri Aurobindo’s Avatarhood:

Whether spontaneous or conventional, a reverential attitude was becoming the only acceptable way to approach Sri Aurobindo. Disciples took it for granted that he was an avatar, or incarnation of God. He never made any such claim on his own behalf; on the other hand, he never dissuaded anyone from regarding him in this way, and wrote openly that the Mother was an incarnation of the Shakti. She reciprocated when speaking about him with disciples, but insisted on “great reserve” when people wrote articles for the general public.

(Lives, p 380)

The first sentence suggests that there was a social pressure from the disciples to make the general public regard Sri Aurobindo as an Avatar. Not only is this factually wrong but it is a deliberately misleading statement. Sri Aurobindo himself was exceedingly discreet about making any public statements with regard to his Avatarhood and discouraged his disciples from doing the same. There is in fact a long standing practice in the Ashram not to stress on this personal aspect of Sri Aurobindo in their interaction with outsiders. Moreover, some of the disciples themselves regarded him as their Guru only or a great Yogi, without elevating him to the status of an Avatar, and this neither interfered in their Yoga nor irked their Master. So there was never any question of the disciples exerting a psychological pressure on the public or even on fellow disciples to make them believe in Sri Aurobindo’s Avatarhood. What seems to have peeved Peter Heehs must be the enthusiasm of Sri Aurobindo’s disciples in expressing among themselves their faith in the Master’s Avatarhood, which is but natural and expected of a community which believes in his greatness! After all, Peter Heehs, who has been a member of the same community from the last forty years, cannot expect other members of that community to subscribe to his own disbelief in the Master’s Avatarhood. Thus what has been presented as a general observation in the first sentence is actually a very personal reaction and frustration at not being able to convince others within the community to his own view.

The second sentence gibes at the disciples’ belief in Sri Aurobindo’s Avatarhood. The phrase “Disciples took it for granted that he [Sri Aurobindo] was an avatar, or incarnation of God” implies that they were stupid in taking it for granted and that they should have looked for more scientific proof in order to believe in it. This shows a fundamental ignorance of spirituality and a total reversal of values. If faith and spiritual experience along with the confirmation of spiritually realised persons (such as the Mother) are not sufficient for the disciples to be convinced about their Master’s greatness, I wonder what other proofs can be found! Do you need experimental proofs in a scientific laboratory to establish the Avatarhood of Sri Aurobindo? The peculiarity of Heehs’ case is that he asks for physical evidence in a spiritual domain where the basic laws are different and verification of truth has its own methods. And yet he thinks himself to be very clever in passing such a smug statement!

The third sentence brings in another insinuation. Here he resorts to the argument of Sri Aurobindo not being an Avatar because “he never made any such claim on his own behalf”. The instance of the over enthusiastic disciple who forces his conviction on others is well-known, but here is someone who tries to do the reverse -- persuade the disciples not to believe in Sri Aurobindo’s Avatarhood by saying, “Look, your own Master did not claim to be an Avatar, so how can you claim it for him?” It is true that Sri Aurobindo did not claim to be an Avatar, but could not that be out of divine humility and public discretion? I quote below what he himself has written on the Avatar proclaiming himself to be an Avatar. Though he wrote in general terms with particular reference to Krishna (whom he considered an Avatar), the quote below could very well apply to him:

Why should the Avatar proclaim himself except on rare occasions to an Arjuna or to a few bhaktas or disciples? It is for others to find out what he is; though he does not deny when others speak of him as That, he is not always saying and perhaps never may say or only in moments like that of the Gita, “I am He.”

(Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga, SABCL, Vol. 22, pp 418)

I quote another letter to show his own public discretion in this matter. He instructs a disciple not to speak about the divinity of the Mother and himself to a lady coming from Switzerland. This reticence “about inner matters of the Ashram” had to be observed until she was “thoroughly tested” -- which implies that Sri Aurobindo would have no objection after she was tested and made herself familiar with life at the Ashram.

One thing. There is coming here in a day or two (perhaps tomorrow) a lady from Switzerland named Madame X who is a friend or acquaintance of Y’s mother; she will put up in Boudie House, perhaps for a month, perhaps for a shorter or longer time. We know nothing of her and it is not yet sure whether her profession of seeking the spiritual Truth is really deep or genuine. Therefore till we are fixed about her, Mother wishes that she should not be taken in intimately into the Asram life or told anything about inner matters of the Asram or spoken to about questions such as the divinity of the Mother or myself (for her we are simply spiritual Teachers) or shown freely messages or letters. A certain reserve is necessary until she has been thoroughly tested. I write this in view of the possibility of your and other sadhaks meeting her and an acquaintance forming, so as to put you on your guard. It is not a case like Z or even the A’s.

(Letters on Himself and the Ashram, CWSA, p 433)

So if Sri Aurobindo did not claim himself to be an Avatar, it does not necessarily mean that he was not one, for it could be simply out of public discretion that he did not do it. Actually, the fact that he did not dissuade anyone from regarding him in this way could be a further proof that he was an Avatar, for why would he not dissuade if that were not the case? Thus there are good reasons apart from good faith in accepting Sri Aurobindo as an Avatar. I will provide more such good reasons in this article, good only for those who believe in his spiritual greatness and are willing to think for themselves within the framework of Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual world-view.

Who is an Avatar, or rather, what constitutes an Avatar, according to Sri Aurobindo? The Avatar, he says, “is one who comes to open the Way for humanity to a higher consciousness”.1 I quote from two other letters:

The Avatar is necessary when a special work is to be done and in crises of the evolution. The Avatar is a special manifestation while for the rest of the time it is the Divine working within the ordinary human limits as a Vibhuti.

(Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga, SABCL, Vol. 22, p 401)

Avatarhood would have little meaning if it were not connected with the evolution. The Hindu procession of the ten Avatars is itself, as it were, a parable of evolution. First the Fish Avatar, then the amphibious animal between land and water, then the land animal, then the Man-Lion Avatar, bridging man and animal, then man as dwarf, small and undeveloped and physical but containing in himself the godhead and taking possession of existence, then the rajasic, sattwic, nirguna Avatars, leading the human development from the vital rajasic to the sattwic mental man and again the overmental superman. Krishna, Buddha and Kalki depict the last three stages, the stages of the spiritual development--Krishna opens the possibility of overmind, Buddha tries to shoot beyond to the supreme liberation but that liberation is still negative, not returning upon earth to complete positively the evolution; Kalki is to correct this by bringing the Kingdom of the Divine upon earth, destroying the opposing Asura forces. The progression is striking and unmistakable.

(Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga, SABCL, Vol. 22, p 401-402)

I further quote extensively from the Essays on the Gita on the purpose of Avatarhood:

But it is to assist that ascent or evolution the descent [of the divine incarnation] is made or accepted; that the Gita makes very clear. It is, we might say, to exemplify the possibility of the Divine manifest in the human being, so that man may see what that is and take courage to grow into it. It is also to leave the influence of that manifestation vibrating in the earth-nature and the soul of that manifestation presiding over its upward endeavour. It is to give a spiritual mould of divine manhood into which the seeking soul of the human being can cast itself. It is to give a dharma, a religion, – not a mere creed, but a method of inner and outer living, – a way, a rule and law of self-moulding by which he can grow towards divinity. It is too, since this growth, this ascent is no mere isolated and individual phenomenon, but like all in the divine world-activities a collective business, a work and the work for the race, to assist the human march, to hold it together in its great crises, to break the forces of the downward gravitation when they grow too insistent, to uphold or restore the great dharma of the Godward law in man’s nature, to prepare even, however far off, the kingdom of God, the victory of the seekers of light and perfection, sādhūnām, and the overthrow of those who fight for the continuance of the evil and the darkness. All these are recognised objects of the descent of the Avatar, and it is usually by his work that the mass of men seek to distinguish him and for that that they are ready to worship him. It is only the spiritual who see that this external Avatarhood is a sign, in the symbol of a human life, of the eternal inner Godhead making himself manifest in the field of their own human mentality and corporeality so that they can grow into unity with that and be possessed by it. The divine manifestation of a Christ, Krishna, Buddha in external humanity has for its inner truth the same manifestation of the eternal Avatar within in our own inner humanity. That which has been done in the outer human life of earth, may be repeated in the inner life of all human beings. This is the object of the incarnation…

(Essays on the Gita, SABCL, Vol. 13, pp 149-58)

Sri Aurobindo had long and interesting arguments with Dilip Kumar Roy over whether Rama was an Avatar. He says in the following letter why he thought Rama was an Avatar:

As for the Avatarhood, I accept it for Rama first because he fills a place in the scheme and seems to me to fill it rightly --and because when I read the Ramayana, I feel a great afflatus which I recognised and which makes of its story--mere fairytale though it seems -- a parable of a great critical transitional event that happened in the terrestrial evolution and gives to the main character’s personality and actions a significance of the large typical cosmic kind which these actions would not have had if they had been done by another man in another scheme of events. The Avatar is not bound to do extraordinary actions, but he is bound to give his acts or his work or what he is--any of these or all--a significance and an effective power that are part of something essential to be done in the history of the earth and its races.

(Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga, SABCL, Vol. 22, p 414)

We can easily replace “Rama” by “Sri Aurobindo” in the above sentence marked in bold, for the same applies to him. Like Rama, Sri Aurobindo also fills a place in the cosmic scheme, we feel “a great afflatus” in his major works (especially in his epic poem, Savitri), and mankind at present is in the throes of a critical transition in which he certainly has a key role to play. If Rama was the Avatar who represented the ideal of the sattwic mental man, Sri Aurobindo is the Avatar who has shown the path to the next stage of man’s evolution – the superman. And if the difference between man and superman is greater than that between the animal and man, what objection can you have in accepting Sri Aurobindo as an Avatar? In fact, it is rather foolish to accept the possibility of the superman (as defined by Sri Aurobindo) without accepting the possibility of him being an Avatar!

Mutual Recognition, Not Mere Reciprocation

I come to the next insinuation in the same paragraph on page 380 of the Lives. Heehs says Sri Aurobindo “wrote openly that the Mother was an incarnation of the Shakti” and that “She reciprocated when speaking about him with disciples.” The facts are correct, but the use of the verb “reciprocated” suggests that Mother called Sri Aurobindo an Avatar because Sri Aurobindo called her the Divine Shakti. It would mean that Sri Aurobindo and the Mother aggrandised each other, thereby tricking their disciples into believing that they were both Avatars. If you think that I am reading too much into what could be a harmless statement of fact, and that Heehs actually believes (!) in Sri Aurobindo and the Mother’s Avatarhood, I quote from another paragraph from the Lives on page 413 of the Epilogue:

It is difficult to offer a balanced assessment of a man who is regarded by some as an incarnation of God and by others as a social and political reactionary. To accept Sri Aurobindo as an avatar is necessarily a matter of faith, and matters of faith quickly become matters of dogma. Besides, the term “avatar” has lost much of its glow in recent years. Once reserved for “descents” that come “from age to age,” it now is applied to any spiritual leader with a halfway decent following.

(Lives, Epilogue: p 413)

It is clear from the above paragraph that Heehs does not believe in Sri Aurobindo being an Avatar, for the word Avatar “now is applied to any spiritual leader with a halfway decent following” and that Sri Aurobindo may be one such unexceptional spiritual or religious leader. He does not even believe in faith, for “matters of faith quickly become matters of dogma”. Furthermore, he hopes to strike a balance between the views of leftist scholars and spiritual seekers, which is impossible, for how can you be a materialist and a spiritualist at the same time? We have come to the crux of the problem, because Heehs is always confused about his own position, which is why he confuses others. He never says that he is an outright materialist (which would have been so honest of him), nor does he reject his insider status of being a disciple of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram from the last forty years. How remarkably foolish of him to have stayed there for such a long time with so many lingering doubts about his Guru!

I take up the issue of the Mother calling Sri Aurobindo an Avatar. If there was one big change after the Siddhi Day (24 November 1926) apart from the fact of Sri Aurobindo’s own retirement, it was the Mother’s coming forward to take charge of his disciples, not only materially as head of the nascent Ashram, but also as their spiritual guide. Sri Aurobindo put her in front and thenceforth acted from behind, silently and invisibly through his spiritual force, verbally and materially in the form of innumerable letters to his disciples. The whole sadhana became Mother-centric and Sri Aurobindo advised his disciples to open themselves to her force. The first book that he wrote and published after the Siddhi Day was the book “The Mother”, which explains the various aspects of the Divine Shakti. Of late, there has been a tendency to downplay this fact and dissociate the Divine Mother from the physical Mother, that is, Mira Alfassa, who came to be known as the Mother by the disciples of Sri Aurobindo. But Sri Aurobindo made the connection between the Divine Shakti and the individual Mother amply clear and, except for a few, most of his disciples accepted and derived great spiritual benefit from it. I quote first from the book The Mother in order to give the context of the questions that follow it:

The One whom we adore as the Mother is the divine Conscious Force that dominates all existence… The Mother is the consciousness and force of the Supreme and far above all she creates…

There are three ways of being of the Mother of which you can become aware when you enter into touch of oneness with Conscious Force that upholds us and the universe. Transcendent, the original supreme Shakti, she stands above the worlds and links the creation to the ever unmanifest mystery of the Supreme. Universal, the cosmic Mahashakti, she creates all these beings and contains and enters, supports and conducts all these million processes and forces. Individual, she embodies the power of these two vaster ways of her existence, makes them living and near to us and mediates between the human personality and the divine Nature.

(Sri Aurobindo, The Mother, Letter on the Mother, pp 19-20)

Q: Do you not refer to the Mother (our Mother) in your book, “The Mother”?

A: Yes.

Q: Is she not the “Individual” Divine Mother who has embodied “the power of these two vaster ways of her existence” ― Transcendent and Universal?

A: Yes.

Q: Has she not descended here (amongst us) into the Darkness and Falsehood and Error and Death in her deep and great love for us?

A: Yes.

(Sri Aurobindo, Letters on the Mother (SABCL), p 47)

These three short Yes’s are the shortest and clearest answers of Sri Aurobindo on who the Mother is. After reading the above, his disciples need not be at all apologetic about accepting the Mother as the embodiment of the divine Shakti. In fact, that has been the tradition at the Ashram since the late twenties and early thirties. The disciples regarded her as the Divine Shakti and offered their work to her inwardly while obeying her external directions, without creating a rift between the physical and spiritual reality.
Sri Aurobindo even wrote about the spiritual identity of his and the Mother’s consciousness:

Mother and I are one but in two bodies; there is no necessity for both the bodies to do the same thing always. On the contrary, as we are one it is quite sufficient for one to sign, just as it is quite sufficient for one to go down to receive Pranam or give meditation.

* * *

Q: Is there or would there be any difference in the force or effectivity in your working and the Mother’s ?

A: No, it is a single Power.

* * *

Q: Very often Sri Aurobindo says one should allow the Mother’s force to govern. Does it mean that there is a difference between the two forces?

A: There is one force only, the Mother’s force — or, if you like to put it like that, the Mother is Sri Aurobindo’s Force.

(Letters on Himself, SABCL, Vol. 26, pp 457-458)

Consequently, why should there be any hesitation about accepting Sri Aurobindo as an Avatar when the Mother speaks of him as such? Identity of their consciousness would in fact give further authenticity to her statements on Sri Aurobindo. So not to believe in Sri Aurobindo’s Avatarhood because he did not “claim” to be one is rather illogical, that is, if you have faith in his spiritual authority. It is absolutely fine if someone does not care for Sri Aurobindo or even rejects spirituality in toto, but once you place him in a position of spiritual authority, how can you pick and choose from what he says, for example, accept the truth of the Supermind and not accept the divinity of the Mother? Thus when Sri Aurobindo considered the Mother to be the embodiment of the supreme Shakti, and She declared Sri Aurobindo as an Avatar, it is not only right but plain common sense to accept her statement as true.

Indirect Suggestions of being an Avatar

It is true that Sri Aurobindo discouraged his disciples from discussing his own Avatarhood, but he often hinted it in his letters, implied or tacitly accepted it, just fell short of confirming it or phrased it in general terms without overtly mentioning it and specifically using the word “Avatar”. It should also be noted that his disciples mostly had an attitude of implicit faith and trust in his and the Mother’s divinity, even when they asked questions relating to their Avatarhood. Thus any intelligent disciple (who does not make such a big issue of Sri Aurobindo not being an Avatar) can easily conclude on the basis of Sri Aurobindo’s own words (not merely on the basis of blind faith) that he was an Avatar. For example, in the letter quoted below, Sri Aurobindo ought to have denied his Avatarhood if he had disagreed with what his disciple had stated in the question.

Q: We believe that both you and the Mother are Avatars. It is said that both you and she have been on the earth since its creation. What were you doing during the previous lives?

A: Carrying on the evolution.

Q. Can you elaborate it?

A. That would mean writing the whole of human history. I can only say that as there are special descents to carry on the evolution to a farther stage, so also something of the Divine is always there to help through each stage itself in one direction or another.

Sri Aurobindo (SABCL, Vol. 26, p 445)

“Carrying on the evolution”, mind you, does not mean carrying on the evolution as Avatars, because Sri Aurobindo says that he and the Mother were not Avatars in their previous lives:

Q. Since you and the Mother were on earth constantly from the beginning what was the need for Avatars coming down here one after another?

A. We were not on earth as Avatars.

Sri Aurobindo (SABCL, On Himself, Vol. 26, p 448)

So what were they in their previous incarnations? I won’t go into this complex question, which would sidetrack the main issue. But the implication that they were Avatars in this life is pretty clear. I quote another letter:

The common mass of mankind in the past may not have recognised your presence amongst them, especially when outwardly both of you may have had personalities like those of ordinary human beings. But how is it that even Sri Krishna, Buddha or Christ could not detect your presence in this world?

Presence where and in whom? If they did not meet, they would not recognise, and even if they met there is no reason why the Mother and I should cast off the veil which hung over these personalities and reveal the Divine behind them. Those lives were not meant for any such purpose.

Sri Aurobindo (SABCL, On Himself, Vol. 26, p 445)

Sri Aurobindo is certainly not squeamish of the phrase “reveal the Divine behind them”. This was of course meant for the disciples and not for the general public. The closest that he came to mentioning his own divinity was when he wrote on the identity of his and the Mother’s consciousness:

The opposition between the Mother’s consciousness and my consciousness was an invention of the old days (due mainly to X, Y and others of that time) and emerged in a time when the Mother was not fully recognised or accepted by some of those who were here at the beginning. Even after they had recognised her they persisted in this meaningless opposition and did great harm to them and others. The Mother’s consciousness and mine are the same, the one Divine Consciousness in two, because that is necessary for the play. Nothing can be done without her knowledge and force, without her consciousness--if anybody really feels her consciousness, he should know that I am there behind it and if he feels me it is the same with hers. If a separation is made like that (I leave aside the turns which their minds so strongly put upon these things), how can the Truth establish itself--from the Truth there is no such separation.

(Letters on Himself, SABCL, Vol. 26, pp 455)

Note that he speaks of his own divinity in the context of some of his disciples not recognising the Mother as divine while accepting him as such. So he was forced, as it were, to speak of his own divinity to make them accept hers. I take this as an example of Sri Aurobindo speaking of his own Avatarhood in general terms. He does not use the word “Avatar”, but what else could “the one Divine Consciousness” mean! I quote from another letter of the same kind:

You say that this way is too difficult for you or the likes of you and it is only “Avatars” like myself or the Mother that can do it. That is a strange misconception; for it is, on the contrary, the easiest and simplest and most direct way and anyone can do it, if he makes his mind and vital quiet, even those who have a tenth of your capacity can do it. It is the other way of tension and strain and hard endeavour that is difficult and needs a great force of Tapasya. As for the Mother and myself, we have had to try all ways, follow all methods, to surmount mountains of difficulties, a far heavier burden to bear than you or anybody else in the Ashram or outside, far more difficult conditions, battles to fight, wounds to endure, ways to cleave through impenetrable morass and desert and forest, hostile masses to conquer--a work such as, I am certain, none else had to do before us. For the Leader of the Way in a work like ours has not only to bring down and represent and embody the Divine, but to represent too the ascending element in humanity and to bear the burden of humanity to the full and experience, not in a mere play or Lila but in grim earnest, all the obstruction, difficulty, opposition, baffled and hampered and only slowly victorious labour which are possible on the Path.

(SABCL, On Himself, Vol. 26, pp 463-64; full letter in Letters on Yoga, Vol. 24: 1359-1364; letter to Dilip Kumar Roy dated 5.5.1932, Sri Aurobindo to Dilip, Vol. 1, pp 193-199)

The double quotes around the word “Avatar” cannot be taken as a proof that Sri Aurobindo and the Mother were not Avatars, because what follows in the last sentence (in bold) is precisely a description of their Avataric work. For who else could “bring down and represent and embody the Divine” and “represent too the ascending element in humanity and to bear the burden of humanity”! The quotes convey irony and protest from Sri Aurobindo with regard to the disciple’s conclusion and not surprise at being called “Avatars”.

Nirodbaran’s correspondence with Sri Aurobindo has a long and hilarious sequence of letters exchanged between the Master and disciple on the same topic. The disciple complains that the Yoga can be done only by Avatars like Sri Aurobindo and the Mother and not ordinary mortals like him:

We are a little puzzled when you give your own example to prove your arguments and defend your views, because that really proves nothing. I need not explain why: what Avatars can achieve is not possible for ordinary mortals like us to do.

I don’t know what the devil you mean. My sadhana is not a freak or a monstrosity or a miracle done outside the laws of Nature and the conditions of life and consciousness on earth. If I could do these things or if they could happen in my Yoga, it means that they can be done and that therefore these developments and transformations are possible in the terrestrial consciousness.

(Nirodbaran’s Correspondence with Sri Aurobindo, Vol. 1, 135)

Sri Aurobindo writes the next day:

When you say that I could do this only in my case because I am an Avatar(!) and it is impossible in any other case, you reduce my sadhana to an absurdity and Avatarhood also to an absurdity. For my Yoga is done not for myself who need nothing and do not need salvation or anything else, but precisely for the earth-consciousness, to open a way to the earth-consciousness to change. Has the Divine need to come down to prove that he can do this or that or has he any personal need of doing it?

(Nirodbaran’s Correspondence with Sri Aurobindo, Vol. 1, 138)

Note the exclamation mark within parentheses after Avatar – obviously Sri Aurobindo doesn’t like to be addressed as an Avatar. But the next sentence in the first person most aptly describes the work of an Avatar, “to open the way to the earth-consciousness to change”. Then follows the last sentence describing the work of the Divine in the third person! Now even if you give the benefit of doubt to Sri Aurobindo not being an Avatar, why has he switched over from the first to third person as if they referred to the same person and as if it did not make any difference to his own status?

At the end of this most interesting topic, Sri Aurobindo writes:

Let me make it clear that in all I wrote I was not writing to prove that I am an Avatar! You are busy in your reasonings with the personal question, I am busy in mine with the general one. I am seeking to manifest something of the Divine that I am conscious of and feel – I care a damn whether that constitutes me an Avatar or something else. That is not a question which concerns me. By manifestation, of course, I mean the bringing out and spreading of that Consciousness so that others also may feel and enter into it and live in it.

(Nirodbaran’s Correspondence with Sri Aurobindo, Vol. 1, 177)

I consider the above letter a very important one because it brings out the essential attitude of Sri Aurobindo towards his own Avatarhood. He is least interested in proving that he is an Avatar and cares a damn if his work of manifesting the Divine would make him one. However, his own lack of interest in being recognised as an Avatar should not be taken as a proof of his not being one, for that is a question which should be settled by others and not by him. Moreover, in this particular case, Sri Aurobindo’s confirmation of being an Avatar would have hardly helped the disciple in his sadhana. First of all, the disciple already believed in it, so there was no need to confirm. Secondly, the latter was actually misusing his belief, because he justified the difficulties of his sadhana on the basis that they could only be overcome by Avatars like Sri Aurobindo and the Mother and not mortals like him. This not only provided him an excuse for not doing the Yoga but also the occasion to merely pay lip service to his Master without following his path. Then it nullified the very purpose of Avatarhood, for what is the use of the Avatar when humanity cannot profit by his example? It is in this context that Sri Aurobindo naturally discouraged “the personal question” and focused on the general question of the feasibility of his Yoga. Thus in most cases it was not necessary for Sri Aurobindo to speak of his own Avatarhood to his disciples.

But in a few cases, he did speak of his divinity when it helped the disciple in his sadhana. I quote a letter where he directly suggests his Avatarhood without using the word Avatar (see sentence in bold):

I thought I had already told you that your turn towards Krishna was not an obstacle. In any case I affirm that positively in answer to your question. If we consider the large and indeed predominant part he played in my own sadhana, it would be strange if the part he has in your sadhana could be considered objectionable. Sectarianism is a matter of dogma, ritual etc., not of spiritual experience; the concentration on Krishna is a self-offering to the ista-deva. If you reach Krishna you reach the Divine; if you can give yourself to him, you give yourself to me. Your inability to identify may be because you are laying too much stress on the physical aspects, consciously or unconsciously.

(On Himself, SABCL, Vol. 26, p 137)

If giving oneself to Krishna (who is considered an Avatar by millions of Indians) is giving oneself to Sri Aurobindo, the implication of his own Avatarhood automatically follows. In this instance, it was necessary for Sri Aurobindo to mention his divinity because it cleared the mental block of the disciple with regard to him (Sri Aurobindo) and Krishna, thus enabling the latter to surrender to the Divine without any hesitation.

I quote one more letter which is perhaps the best refutation of Heehs’ statement on Sri Aurobindo never writing on his own Avatarhood:

I have a strong faith that you are the Divine Incarnation. Am I right?

Follow your faith – it is not likely to mislead you.

(On Himself, SABCL, Vol. 26, pp 150-51)

If somebody still objects and says that the word “Avatar” has not been used in the above letter, then he is being merely argumentative. For what else can “Divine Incarnation” mean and what further confirmation do you need than the above answer of Sri Aurobindo!

Common Objections and Misunderstandings

Let me now discuss some of the common objections that people have with regard to calling Sri Aurobindo an Avatar:

(1) The strongest objection to it is that there are simply too many Gurus who claim to be Avatars. But this is like saying that there cannot be wise men because there are too many claimants to wisdom. Instead of reacting in this manner, I would rather let Time test their knowledge and let posterity decide on the issue than wrangle over present Avataric claims. In the case of Sri Aurobindo, his disciples never forced upon the public their belief in his Avatarhood. It was Peter Heehs who tried to dissuade them from believing in it by producing “internal evidence” from the Master’s writings. Sri Aurobindo himself was very discreet about making any such allusions in public and restrained likewise his disciples from doing the same. So the question of his claiming to be an Avatar or his disciples claiming it for him in competition with other claimants never arises.

(2) The second objection arises from the gulf that we generally create between the Avatar and us ordinary human beings. We think that the Avatar is a superhuman being with extraordinary faculties and that he is essentially different from us, so that what is possible for him is impossible for us -- it is precisely on this point that Sri Aurobindo lambasted Nirodbaran in his correspondence. But according to Sri Aurobindo, there is no essential difference between the Avatar and us. I quote from his correspondence with Nirodbaran in which this topic is extensively discussed:

Your psychology is terribly rigid. I repeat, the Divine when he takes on the burden of terrestrial nature, takes it fully, sincerely and without any conjuring tricks or pretence. If he has something behind him which emerges always out of the coverings, it is the same thing in essence, even if greater in degree, that there is behind others -- and it is to awaken that that he is there.

The psychic being does the same for all who are intended for the spiritual way,-- men need not be extraordinary beings to follow Yoga. That is the mistake you are making, to harp on greatness as if only the great can be spiritual.

(Nirodbaran’s Correspondence with Sri Aurobindo, Vol. 1, 176)

So if the difference is in degree and not in essence, why should there be an objection to Avatarhood per se?

What is the difference between the Avatar and the ordinary man? The Avatar, as Sri Aurobindo wrote in his Essays on the Gita, is “a direct descent [of the Divine] into the stuff of humanity and a taking up of its moulds” and “not an evolution or ascent like the ordinary man”.2 Elsewhere, he says, the Avatar “is one who is conscious of the presence and power of the Divine born in him or descended into him and governing from within his will and life and action”3 as opposed to the evolutionary human being who achieves the same consciousness in the course of many lives. However this does not prevent the Avatar from taking up the burden of terrestrial nature and fully assuming the difficulties of man in order to be able to show him the path to the next stage of evolution. There is therefore in him “a double element -- human in front, Divine behind”, and if you look with the external eye only, you will see a human being only, but “if you look for the Divine, you will find the Divine”. 4

This double element of the Avatar causes two common misunderstandings. The first accepts the divinity of the Avatar but is not ready to concede any human imperfections to him. It instals the Avatar on such a high pedestal that it disconnects him from his human moorings and makes him irrelevant to humanity. This is the mistake typically represented by Nirodbaran’s complaint in his correspondence with Sri Aurobindo, which resulted in the Master’s mock fury and a thorough drubbing of his doctor disciple. The second common mistake is to see only the human front of the Avatar and refuse to see the Divine behind him. It treats him at the most as an extraordinary human being and proceeds to explain him in terms of normal human behaviour. Heehs basically represents the latter type of misunderstanding which applies a materialistic set of principles in a domain where they don’t apply. How can you apply, for example, Freudian psychology on someone whose goal was the transformation of sexual energies? Or for that matter the laws of insane behaviour on spiritual experiences of a high order? His friends of course have to pat him on the back and say that he has “successfully humanised and problematised” the life of a great Yogi. But the truth is that he has only vulgarised the life of a great Yogi and created problems where there were actually none. Basing himself on decontextualised statements of Sri Aurobindo, hostile reports of British Govt. officials and sometimes even sheer speculation, he has woven a tissue of lies around Sri Aurobindo’s life. He has also consistently ignored the deeper spiritual element of Sri Aurobindo which would have explained many of the outer events of his life in the right perspective. For after all, “what matters in a spiritual man’s life is not what he did or what he was outside to the view of the men of his time but what he was and did within” and “it is only that that gives any value to his outer life”.5 An “objective biography” of a spiritual person based on “verifiable evidence” (as Heehs claims to have written) is thus a contradiction in terms.

I wind up the discussion by reminding the reader that I have argued basically from the standpoint of a disciple of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother and within the framework of their spiritual philosophy. My aim was certainly not to prove that Sri Aurobindo was an Avatar to people who have no regard for him or his spiritual view of life, or even to disciples of other Gurus who are considered as Avatars in their own right. The occasion for a rebuttal came up when Peter Heehs attempted to ridicule the private beliefs of the disciples of Sri Aurobindo and argued that he was not an Avatar because he had “never made any such claim on his own behalf”. It would have been absolutely fine, I repeat, had Peter Heehs said that he did not believe in the Avatarhood of Sri Aurobindo, because there was never any question of forcing upon others such a sacred and personal conviction. It is only when he had a nasty dig at the faith of the concerned disciples in what he claimed to be the “first objective biography on Sri Aurobindo” (while still pretending to be a disciple of the same Guru), that a reply became necessary. It is this duplicity that had to be exposed in public. For it is understood that as far as institutional propriety is concerned you are either outside an institution or inside it. You cannot be both in and out, that is, enjoy the privileges of an insider and at the same time have the unrestricted freedom to criticise the founder of the institution that an outsider generally has.

Finally, from the disciple’s point of view, does he not have the right to defend the values that he cherishes most – spiritual values that the rest of the world might not believe in, but which have made him leave his kith and kin and settle in a remote Ashram in South India? Among these deep seated values is certainly the faith that Sri Aurobindo was a divine incarnation and that his spiritual work will one day be recognised as path-breaking and lead to a new age in the history of mankind. It is true that Time will finally decide as to whether his faith had been right or wrong, but meanwhile he surely has the right to object (with the rest of the community) when suddenly a fellow “disciple” loses his head for some reason and throws insinuations at their Master, and still expects to remain as the chief editor of the Master’s Collected Works! I wonder which spiritual institution in this wide world will allow this to happen!

Vishwas Patel

May 2011

1 Sri Aurobindo, On Himself, SABCL, Vol 26, p 463
2 Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, CWSA, Vol. 19, p 159
3 Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga, SABCL, Vol. 22, pp 406-07
4 Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga, SABCL, Vol. 22, p 409
5 Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga, SABCL, Vol. 22, pp 428

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