9 Jun 2011

Is This History or Speculation? -- by Krish Patwardhan

But where are the solid facts and well-documented evidence? All that we come across is speculation after speculation, and one speculation pitted against another speculation in order to create problems! And if there are a few hard facts, Heehs is more keen on artificially creating problems than solving them. There is as it were a deliberate “problematising” of Sri Aurobindo’s life and a deliberate denial of the right perspective to create the impression of a so-called “balanced” view which caters more to the materialistic point of view than the spiritual, so that Sri Aurobindo is often presented as a bundle of opposites!

Is This History or Speculation?

By Krish Patwardhan

I question the very credentials of Peter Heehs being a serious historian because his selection of material does not concern itself with authenticity as much as his purpose of belittling Sri Aurobindo in the public eye. Disciples and admirers of Sri Aurobindo wouldn’t mind being informed of the “defects” or the “human side” of Sri Aurobindo if the information with regard to them was based on honest research and well-ascertained documents. Not because they would be glad to see the human defects of their Master, but because they know that Sri Aurobindo overcame them and did finally embody a divine consciousness. This is what the yoga of transformation is about and it is always encouraging for them to know that, at a certain point of his life, the Master faced those very difficulties which now engage so much of their time and attention. But this is not the case here. We have here instead a highly biased and pretentious writer who systematically suppresses primary evidence because it puts Sri Aurobindo in positive light, and uses secondary evidence in order to create a negative picture of him. To make matters worse, even this secondary evidence is often woven in with uncalled for personal remarks and statements based on pure speculation. Take the following paragraph on Sri Aurobindo’s married life:

The usual desire for gratification, as Aurobindo has the guru call it, was presumably a factor in his decision to get married, but it does not seem to have been an important one. His later writings show that his knowledge of human sexuality was more than academic, but the act seems to have held few charms for him.’76 Consummation may have been delayed because of Mrinalini’s youth, and his own stoicism, partly innate and partly learned from philosophers such as Epictetus, would have helped him to keep his sexual tendencies in check.

(Lives, p 56)

I have marked in bold those words which a historian would generally not use, that is, if he bases himself on well-ascertained evidence and expects the reader to have some trust in his research. Note the following words – “presumably”, “does not seem”, seems to have”, “may have”, “would have”. Is this history or guesswork?

The word “presumably” has been used in reference to an imaginary Guru in a commentary on the Isha Upanishad by Sri Aurobindo; it has nothing to do with his own life. But Peter Heehs has to speculate on the reason for Sri Aurobindo’s marriage from what the imaginary Guru says because the commentary was written by Sri Aurobindo “four or five years after his marriage”.[1] So whatever he wrote around this time has to be a reflection of his own life! It is because Heehs would not have been able to counter this silly conclusion that he uses the word “presumably” to be on the safe side. But where are the primary documents which throw light on the reason for Sri Aurobindo’s marriage, in the absence of which a regular historian would mention only the bare facts like Sri Aurobindo’s father-in-law did (see paragraph quoted below from the Lives, pp 318-19). After all, a historian is not supposed to be a writer of fiction, who can build his story on any stray material which can unleash his imagination.

Next -- the usual desire for gratification “does not seem” to have been an important factor in Sri Aurobindo’s decision to get married. Another uncertainty! How did he conclude that sex did not “seem to be” an important factor? Where is the reference to the document that Heehs bases his uncertainty upon?

Further, “the act seems to have held few charms for him”. How does he know this? Again no documentary reference! Moreover, this is in stark contradiction to the first sentence which says that sex was “presumably” a factor in Sri Aurobindo’s decision to get married. The following is part of endnote 76 referred to in the above passage on p 56 of the Lives:

In 1936 he [Sri Aurobindo] wrote to his disciple Nirodbaran, who was complaining about the difficulty of overcoming anger and sexual desire, “I was also noted in my earlier time before Yoga for the rareness of anger. At a certain period of the Yoga it rose in me like a volcano and I had to take a long time eliminating it. As for sex—well. You are always thinking that the things that are happening to you are unique and nobody else ever had such trials or downfalls or misery before.” See Nirodbaran, ed., Correspondence, 748.

(Lives, endnote 76 on p 426)

On one hand, Heehs tries his level best to produce evidence of Sri Aurobindo’s knowledge of sexuality (as in endnote 76); on the other hand, he keeps contradicting himself by saying that sex held few charms for Sri Aurobindo.

“Consummation may have been delayed because of Mrinalini’s youth.” Is Heehs some kind of sex doctor to speculate so authoritatively on Sri Aurobindo’s sex life?

Finally, Sri Aurobindo’s “own stoicism, partly innate and partly learned from philosophers such as Epictetus, would have helped him to keep his sexual tendencies in check.” I reproduce below the document which Heehs has based himself upon to show the reader how he decontextualises his sources:

Sri Aurobindo’s intellect was influenced by Greek philosophy.

Very little. I read more than once Plato’s Republic and Symposium, but only extracts from his other writings. It is true that under his impress I rashly started writing at the age of 18 an explanation of the cosmos on the foundation of the principle of Beauty and Harmony, but I never got beyond the first three or four chapters. I read Epictetus and was interested in the ideas of the Stoics and the Epicureans; but I made no study of Greek philosophy or of any of the [? ].

(Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Autobiographical Notes, p 112)

Sri Aurobindo’s note begins with “Very little” in answer to the biographer’s statement on him being influenced by Greek philosophy. If Sri Aurobindo goes on to say that he read Epictetus and was interested in the ideas of the Stoics, it certainly does not mean a denial of his opening answer or that he was indeed influenced by Epictetus and the Stoics. How does Heehs then conclude that Sri Aurobindo’s stoicism was “partly learned from philosophers such as Epictetus”? How does he at all conclude that Sri Aurobindo was a stoic? By the fact that he took up Yoga which requires self-control? If that is the case, then we can conclude that only stoics take up Yoga!

I take up another paragraph (equally bad) from the Lives on the same topic:

About their connubial relations nothing is known. Her father summed up the situation in a sentence: “There was no issue of the marriage.”25 After Aurobindo entered what he called “the sexual union dignified by the name of marriage,” he seems to have found the state bothersome and uninteresting. “Marriage,” he wrote later to a disciple, “means usually any amount of trouble, heavy burdens, a bondage to the worldly life and great difficulties in the way of single-minded spiritual endeavour.” Many of these difficulties, for most people at least, are related to sex and the desires that accompany it. Aurobindo appears to have had few problems in that regard. He was probably alluding to his own experience when he wrote to a disciple that there were “some who can eliminate it decisively by a swift radical dropping away from the nature.” On another occasion he said more directly: “I for one have put the sexual side completely aside, it is lying blocked so that I can make this daring attempt” at spiritual transformation.26

(Lives, 318-19)

Heehs seems to know more about Sri Aurobindo’s private life than Bhupal Bose, who was Mrinalini’s own father and Sri Aurobindo’s father-in-law! When Bhupal Bose himself said that nothing is known about Sri Aurobindo’s married life, how did Peter Heehs come up with so much of psychological insight with regard to the same? What is his source of information on Sri Aurobindo finding his marriage “bothersome and uninteresting”? As no reference is given to authenticate this statement, one gets the impression that Heehs is cooking up data from his own fertile mind.

Next, the phrase “sexual union dignified by the name of marriage” is picked up from a letter of Sri Aurobindo to Nolini Kanto Gupta in which he humorously advises the latter not to get married. It is presented by Heehs as if it were a remark of Sri Aurobindo on his own marriage!

“Aurobindo appears to have had few problems in that regard.” Why “appears to have had few problems”? What is the basis of this conjecture?

“He was probably alluding to his own experience when he wrote to a disciple that there were “some who can eliminate it decisively by a swift radical dropping away from the nature.” Another probability! But this time Heehs refers to his source of information, which is a letter of Sri Aurobindo to a disciple on how to eliminate the sex difficulty in Yoga. But how does he know that Sri Aurobindo was alluding to his own experience in that letter? Sri Aurobindo advised so many of his disciples on how to deal with sex in Yoga – does it mean that each letter bears a reflection of his personal life? It only means that a Guru of his stature experiences the difficulty on a universal scale and derives knowledge from a universal source, which makes him the pathfinder and guide to all those who are drawn to his Yoga.

“On another occasion he said more directly: ‘I for one have put the sexual side completely aside, it is lying blocked so that I can make this daring attempt’ at spiritual transformation.” The reference to this quote in endnote 26 is “Sri Aurobindo, talk of December 13, 1923, partly published in Sri Aurobindo Circle 9 (1953): 207”. Now should not a historian deal with his material in chronological order? Or can he put things in any order depending on how he “likes” to present it? Sri Aurobindo’s remark (even this is not a primary document but an oral notation) was made in December 1923 whereas he wrote his letters on Yoga in the late twenties and thirties. So his advice to eliminate sex swiftly and decisively came after his remark on having blocked his sexual side, and not before as presented by Heehs. The order makes a huge difference because, when presented in the right chronological order, it implies a certain progress in Sri Aurobindo’s sadhana – that of being able to overcome the sexual difficulty which was previously lying blocked or set aside. As presented by Heehs in the reverse order, it only confuses the reader and “problematises” Sri Aurobindo’s personality, for how can the sexual difficulty be eliminated and blocked at the same time?

Having pointed out the blunders of our so-called historian, let me make it clear that I do not believe therefore in the opposite of what I have refuted. So if I have challenged Peter Heehs’s conclusion of Sri Aurobindo being a stoic, it does not mean that I consider him emotional or passionate. I have challenged rather the historical method of Heehs than his conclusions as such, for his method (or rather lack of method) seems to hardly befit a serious and disciplined historian.

Deliberate Omissions

Let me now expose Heehs’s deliberate omission of documents that go against his negative presentation of Sri Aurobindo. The text produced below is probably the only one that throws some light on the reason for Sri Aurobindo’s marriage:

One day I had asked him in the course of conversation, “Chief, you knew that you were going to plunge into the vortex of revolutionary politics. Why did you marry? Don’t tell me if you don’t want to.” He thought for a moment and replied very slowly, “Well, Charu, it was like this. Just then I was very despondent and felt that I was destined to lead the life of a pedagogue. Why, then, should I not marry?” Aurobindo married, be it noted, in April 1901. And, in 1903, he initiated his Bhawani Mandir movement, and pushed it vigorously.

(Charu Chandra Dutt, My Friend and My Master, Sri Aurobindo Circle, 1952, pp 137-38)

Why was this particular text not used at all? Especially when it is perhaps the only one available on a topic which interested Heehs so much that he was ready to indulge in pure speculation? The above text suggests that Sri Aurobindo was looking for emotional companionship than mere sexual gratification – note that he was “despondent” and did not want “lead the life of a pedagogue”. But what happened after his marriage? I quote three more documents which our so-called historian has either turned a blind eye upon or not used the relevant portions:

Document 1:

In 1909, after his acquittal, I once invited Sri Aurobindo for lunch. He came with a shawl draped over his shirt, and had a shaggy beard…

We discussed whether one can maintain brahmacharya after marriage. I was of the opinion that one can’t. He was explaining how it was in fact possible. I was curious to know whether Sri Aurobindo himself maintained it but could not muster the courage to ask him. After a while he told me, “I can see what is in your mind. You are eager to know whether I have sexual relations with my wife or not. I don’t,” he declared. “I have been able to maintain my brahmacharya even after marriage.

(Manomohan Gangopadhyaya [Shruti-Smriti, part 1, (1927), p 13]

Document 2:

I asked Sri Aurobindo one day: “Sejda, on the one hand you practise the austerities of yoga and on the other you sleep in one bed with your wife. What kind of austerity is that?” Smiling sweetly he said: It is not simply by sharing one’s bed with one’s wife that brahmacharya is lost. To form a group of naked ascetics is not my intention. We have thirty-three lakhs of such ascetics in India. I want ‘grihasta sanyasis’ – men leading the full life in the world who when the need arises will renounce everything at the call of duty.”

Abinash Bhattacharya

*This conversation took place early in 1908 around the time Lele visited Calcutta [Galpa-Bharati: 829-50]

Document 3:

He never slept on a soft cotton-bed, as most of us do, but on a bed made of coir (coconut fibres) on which was spread a Malbar grass-mat which served as a bed-sheet. Once I asked him why he used such a coarse hard bed and he said with his characteristic laugh, “My boy, don’t you know that I am a Brahmachari? Our shastras enjoin that a Brahmachari should not use a soft bed, which may induce him to sleep.” I was silenced but I thought myself that he must be a great man….

One day … in the beginning of 1905, Messrs. Arvind Babu, Deshpande and Jadhav went to Chandod, a small town on the bank of the Narmada, a place of pilgrimage. There they passed a day with a Yogi and then proceeded to Ganganath, a place a few miles distant from Chandod. There is a beautiful Ashram there where Swami Brahmanand spent his life. At that place they passed another day, discussed some spiritual problems with the disciple of Brahmanand Swami and then returned to Baroda. After this trip I saw a marked change both in Arvind Babu and Deshpande. Both of them changed their life altogether. They started worshipping the Goddess and taking only one meal – a pure vegetarian meal – a day; both started living a life of austerity. But between the two I saw a greater change in Arvind Babu. He was never as free with me as he used to be before. He looked serene and calm with the gravity of a man of ripe old age.

R.N. Patkar, A.B. Purani, Life of Sri Aurobindo (1978), pp 62-65

The above three documents show that Sri Aurobindo took to brahmacharya shortly after his marriage. The date of this crucial turning point in his life is early 1905, after his visit to Chandod, as recounted by R.N. Patkar. His famous letter to Mrinalini on his three madnesses further corroborates this fact and gives us a more precise date:

The second madness has recently taken hold of me; it is this: by any means, I must have the direct experience of God. The religion of today, that is, uttering the name of God every now and then, in praying to Him in front of everybody, showing to people how religious one is—that I do not want. If the Divine is there, then there must be a way of experiencing His existence, of meeting Him; however hard be the path, I have taken a firm resolution to tread it. Hindu Dharma asserts that the path is there within one’s own body, in one’s mind. It has also given the methods to be followed to tread that path. I have begun to observe them and within a month I have been able to ascertain that the words of the Hindu Dharma are not untrue. I am experiencing all the signs that have been mentioned by it. Now, I would like to take you also along that path; you would of course not be able to keep up with me as you have not yet acquired so much knowledge, but there is nothing to prevent your following me. Anybody can have the realisation by following the path, but it is left to one’s will to choose to enter the path. Nobody can force you to enter it. If you are willing, I will write more on the subject….

Now I ask you: What do you want to do in this matter? The wife is the sakti (the power) of the husband. Are you going to be the disciple of Usha and adulate the sahibs? Would you be indifferent and diminish the power of your husband? Or would you double his sympathy and enthusiasm? You might reply: “What could a simple woman like me do in all these great works? I have neither will power, nor intelligence, I am afraid even to think of these things.” There is a simple solution for it—take refuge in the Divine, step on to the path of God-realisation. He will soon cure all your deficiencies; fear gradually leaves the person who takes refuge in the Divine. And if you have faith in me, and listen to what I say instead of listening to others, I can give you my force which would not be reduced (by giving) but would, on the contrary, increase. We say that the wife is the sakti of the husband, that means that the husband sees his own reflection in the wife, finds the echo of his own noble aspiration in her and thereby redoubles his force.

(Letter to Mrinalini, 30th August 1905, Bengali Writings, pp 349-54)

It is clear from the sentences marked in bold that Sri Aurobindo began to practise Yoga a month before he wrote the above letter. Brahmacharya was a natural outcome of it, for why would he otherwise exhort Mrinalini to follow him on the path and not diminish the power of her husband? Why has this fact been blotted out from Sri Aurobindo’s pre-Pondicherry days in the Lives? Is it not a fact of history, and did it not make any difference to Sri Aurobindo’s life? Heehs has devoted an entire paragraph (see p 87) on the first results of Sri Aurobindo’s practice of pranayama – on how his “health improved”, how his skin “became lighter and smoother”, how “he could taste an unusual sweetness in his saliva”, and how he began to see occult phenomena more frequently than before. But why is there is not a single word on his decision to take up brahmacharya? Why this unusual bias towards this age-old and time-tested observance necessary for the practice of Yoga, especially when it has been so well-documented in his life? Heehs of course may have his personal objections to brahmacharya, but history, I thought, should be written without bringing your personality into it, and this is one thing he never seems to have realised despite all his inflated claims to objectivity.

Thus Heehs had to create Sri Aurobindo in his own image and decide beforehand what he should be, according to his own judgment, instead of accepting what Sri Aurobindo actually was, according to readily available documents. Instead of simply taking cognisance of Sri Aurobindo’s brahmacharya, he had to speculate on him being a stoic and one who found his marriage “bothersome and uninteresting”. The implication behind such a conjecture is that Sri Aurobindo did not have any physical relation with his wife because he was a stoic and not because he sought to sublimate his sexual energies, because he was anyway not attracted by the sexual act (and was perhaps even sexually incapacitated) and not because he followed the ancient path of Yoga prescribed by the Hindu Dharma. Heehs continues in this vein by wrongly defining maithunananda (a term used by Sri Aurobindo in his Record of Yoga) as “spontaneous erotic love”, thereby implying that Sri Aurobindo satisfied his sexual instinct inwardly because he did not (or could not) indulge in it outwardly in the normal manner. The grand finale of this perverted philosophy is of course Jeffrey Kripal, whose glowing encomiums have been printed at the back of the Lives and whose very touch gives a left-handed Tantric interpretation to everything on earth, including the Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo. If this sex-starved interpreter of Yoga happens to be the mentor of Peter Heehs, what else can we expect from his trainee?

Coming back to history, the speculation of Sri Aurobindo being a frigid stoic lands Heehs into several internal contradictions. Even if we assume that this is true, how could the reason for Sri Aurobindo’s marriage be “the usual desire for gratification”, which is yet another unfounded speculation? How could his knowledge of sex be “more than academic”, meaning that it was not merely abstract but based on practical experience? And how did he write so many letters advising his disciples on how to deal with sex in Yoga? Would he have been able to do this if he himself never had any problems with it? Admitting that Heehs’s style is a deliberate presentation of opposites (because life is indeed full of unexplained opposites), you would at least expect a presentation of solid facts even if they are contradictory to each other. But where are the solid facts and well-documented evidence? All that we come across is speculation after speculation, and one speculation pitted against another speculation in order to create problems! And if there are a few hard facts, Heehs is more keen on artificially creating problems than solving them. There is as it were a deliberate “problematising” of Sri Aurobindo’s life and a deliberate denial of the right perspective to create the impression of a so-called “balanced” view which caters more to the materialistic point of view than the spiritual, so that Sri Aurobindo is often presented as a bundle of opposites! For example, there was never any problem with Sri Aurobindo’s marriage and there was no need to speculate on him being a stoic in order to explain his behaviour towards his wife. The spiritual call came soon after he got married, as it happened in the lives of a number of great spiritual men such as Buddha and Confucius, and that explains it all. The spiritual call changed his life after he got married, so how could he then return to a normal domestic existence? I finish with a quote from Sri Aurobindo’s correspondence to Nirodbaran on this very issue:

Somebody writing the biography of Confucius in Bengali says: “Why do the Dharmagurus marry, we can’t understand. Buddha did and his wife’s tale is hriday vidārak [heart-rending].

Why? What is there vidārak [rending] in it?

He goes on: Sri Aurobindo, though not Dharmaguru, has done it too, and can be called dharma pāgal [mad about religion]. Well, Sir?

Well, it is better to be dharma pāgal than to be a sententious ass and pronounce on what one does not understand.

“We feel so sad about his wife, so too about the wife of Confucius.”

Poor sorrowful fellows!

“It is the same about Con [short for Confucius]. He had even a son and two daughters.”

[Sri Aurobindo put a ? above Con]

Who is this gentleman? Is it Wrong? Or is it Kong, by any chance?

“So we don’t understand why they marry and why this change comes soon after marriage.”

Perfectly natural —they marry before the change — then the change comes and the marriage belongs to the past self, not to the new one.

“The wives of Buddha and Ramakrishna felt proud when they were deserted.”

Then what’s the harm?

“If married life is an obstacle to spirituality, then they might as well not marry.”

No doubt. But then when they marry, there is not an omniscient ass like this biographer to tell them that they were going to be dharmaguru or dharmapāgal or in any way concerned with any other dharma than the biographer’s.

So according to this biographer, all of you, except Christ, showed a lack of wisdom by marrying!

Well, if a biographer of Confucius can be such an unmitigated ass, Confucius may be allowed to be unwise once or twice, I suppose.

I touch upon a delicate subject, but it is a puzzle.

Why delicate? and why a puzzle? Do you think that Buddha or Confucius or myself were born with a prevision that they or I would take to the spiritual life? So long as one is in the ordinary consciousness, one lives the ordinary life — when the awakening and the new consciousness come, one leaves it — nothing puzzling in that.

(Nirodbaran, Correspondence With Sri Aurobindo, 27 April, 1936, pp 575-76)

I have quoted the above correspondence at length so that the reader knows firsthand Sri Aurobindo’s answer to people who object to his marriage and attitude towards his wife. Mark that these hilarious replies were written in the context of a biographer’s objections, and that Sri Aurobindo called him in private “an unmitigated ass”. I suppose history repeats itself until we learn our lessons!

Krish Patwardhan



[1] Peter Heehs, Lives of Sri Aurobindo, p 55

Courtesy: http://www.mirroroftomorrow.org/blog/_archives/2011/6/3/4830223.html

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