24 Jul 2011

Objective Research, or Research with an Objective? -- by Saurabh Somani

The most serious objection I have to the book though is not that facts are presented selectively or out of context. It is the fact that Peter Heehs is voluntarily an inmate of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and has been one for over 3 decades. Nobody is forced to join the Ashram. However, when someone decides to join the Ashram, it is implicit that he does so because he believes in the Ashram philosophy, i.e. the philosophy of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. If one doesn’t believe in the philosophy, then why be a part of it? The Ashram does not hold guns to peoples’ heads and force them to join. (extract)

Objective Research, or Research with an Objective?

By Saurabh Somani

(This is a longish post. Those not familiar with the life of Sri Aurobindo might want to read this before reading the post.)

I have recently read a few extracts from a book on the Indian freedom fighter, philosopher and spiritual leader – Sri Aurobindo. The book, called ‘The Lives of Sri Aurobindo’, is written by Mr. Peter Heehs.

A little bit of background: I have spent most of my life in Pondicherry, the location of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, and done my schooling – from kindergarten through college – at the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education. I have thus a great fondness for the place.

However, that does not mean I necessarily agree with most peoples’ ideas about Sri Aurobindo, or subscribe to them.

Most of the residents in the Ashram and members of its alumni regard Sri Aurobindo as an incarnation of the Divine – and therefore above human interpretation and/or questioning. The book by Peter, though, attempts to do just that. It attempts to ‘humanize’ Sri Aurobindo, to analyze him from an objective, non-devotional viewpoint (a non hagiographical viewpoint as Peter says).

I have no problem with people operating on the premise that Sri Aurobindo is human, and treating his life as such – I do the same. I mention this merely to clarify my position and where I’m coming from, because in spite of my lack of belief in divinity, I do have a problem with the way Peter has gone about his work.

There could (and would) be critics who would be dismissive of the criticism that Peter’s book has and will continue to evoke, because to them the people criticising Peter’s book are unable to view his work objectively, since they are in the main, followers of Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy and believers in his divinity.

This is written in answer to those critics.

(The comments in italics below are from the book. I have read only the extracts, and thus my objections to the words in the book are based on this. I realise this is a far from ideal manner to review the book, but the extracts themselves seemed flawed enough to merit a response. There is the possibility that when Peter’s words are viewed in the context of the whole book, their meaning might change – but I doubt it, for reasons that will be made clear below.)


As a rule, however, he kept to himself. Most of his classmates were too much older than he to be his friends. A few patronised him on account of his childishness; the rest paid him scant attention. He had few of the qualities that English schoolboys find interesting. Weak and inept on the playing field, he was also – by his own account – a coward and a liar.
While I understand that this is an effort to make a comprehensive biography, the most meticulous biographer would not be able to include every single detail of any person’s life (and if he did, then he would produce the most eminently boring and unreadable biography) and he should have sufficient power of judgment to decide what is relevant and what is not. Along with deciding on the relevance of information, due care has to be exercised in the way it is presented. There seems to be an unnecessarily negative slant to this piece. “He was by his own account a coward and a liar” – I wonder at the source of this information, and the context in which Sri Aurobindo made this statement. Without these, it would not be proper to pass judgment on these lines, but if Peter has not given a proper context in the book, then he stands open to indictment by those who believe that this is not an objective research but a deliberate effort to malign.

As to the relevance of the paragraph, in what way is this tidbit of information useful? Does it shed any light on Sri Aurobindo’s work, legacy, his life, or the ashram? Does it serve any purpose towards understanding the psyche of the man Aurobindo? He was an introverted boy who wasn’t a sports star – so what?

Riding test

(28) Aurobindo failed to pass his medical examination the first time on account of “something found wrong with his urinary organs.”

(30) In October, the ICS commissioners wrote Aurobindo asking him to fix a date to take his riding examination. He agreed to go on October 26, but did not turn up. An official then asked him to meet the riding instructor to make another appointment. He did not bother to see the man. Called to the office to explain, Aurobindo told a series of lies.

(32) He was rejected simply because he did not pass the riding examination. He was not given another chance to pass because he did not follow instructions, keep appointments, or tell the truth.

Sri Aurobindo has clearly stated that he deliberately failed to turn up for the riding test, since he did not want to be in the service of the British Government.

- Sri Aurobindo – A Dream-Dialogue with Children by Nirodbaran, pages 70-74
- Talks with Sri Aurobindo Vol. 2 – 6th to 18th Dec 1940 by Nirodbaran, pages 953-954

These works are unequivocal on the subject. In fact, Sri Aurobindo was even asked by someone whether he failed to turn up for the test or he simply did not know riding. He replied that it was true he did not know how to ride, but that this was hardly a major stumbling block, as riding lessons were freely available for a few shillings, and the examination required absolutely basic skills.

Thus the problem here is of Peter’s choosing one version about the event versus another. The only thing is – I don’t see it as much of a problem for the simple reason that there is direct historical evidence for Sri Aurobindo’s version of events. Sri Aurobindo says he did not want to enter into the service of the British. And what did he do on his immediate return to India? He joined the freedom movement with full heart and soul, became a revolutionary leader whom the British described as ‘the most dangerous man in India’, and spent a year in jail for his involvement in the freedom struggle.

So the question is – why did Peter give any credence to any other version?


(56) The usual desire for gratification… 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. (see endnote below) Consummation may have been delayed because of Mrinalini’s youth, and his own stoicism, partly innate and partly learned from philososphers such as Epictetus, would have helped him to keep sexual tendencies in check.
I have a problem with the inclusion of this paragraph in the biography – not for any religious reason or because I may or may not consider Sri Aurobindo to be a form of divinity – but because this flies in the face of logic.

Peter is quite clear that he is looking at Sri Aurobindo not as an avatar or incarnation of god, but as a human being – which is fine, it’s his prerogative to look at him as he sees fit.

But then if we proceed from Peter’s view, why on earth is Sri Aurobindo’s knowledge and/or liking of human sexuality worthy of attention in a biography in such detail? He’s a normal human being (as of Peter’s own view). What is so outlandish then in him getting married? It’s the most natural thing in the world! And once married, whether he slept with his wife once, or a hundred times, or grudgingly or not at all, is really, absolutely not anyone else’s business – biography or no biography. Basic human decency demands that even for public figures, privacy be respected in personal matters.


(112) His “voluntary self-effacement” was put to the test on December 12 when an officious secretary printed his name as editor-in-chief where Pal’s name used to be. Aurobindo was furious when he saw it. It gave him publicity he did not want… Hemendra Prasad, who witnessed the outburst, thought Aurobindo was more than just harsh. “Well, if you take the clothes away there remains little to distinguish one human radish from another,” he noted in a Shakespearean allusion. A day later, he was more explicit: “Babu Aurobindo Ghose is an extremely strange man. And I suspect a tinge of lunacy is not absent in him. His mother is a lunatic. And it is not at all strange” – not strange, that is, that the madness in Aurobindo’s family might express itself in him as an intensity that exceeded the norm.
Show me one person who has impacted human thinking in any significant way who did not have an intensity that exceeded the norm. An attempt to disingenuously suggest that Sri Aurobindo had a touch of dementia because of his intensity is quite disgraceful.

Surat session of the Congress

(140) As the Extremists followed their leader [Sri Aurobindo] as he walked out of the room, one of Bannerjee’s lieutenants raised his fist and shouted: “Aurobindo, go eat Tilak’s shit!”
In politics, as in life, one will obviously have supporters of one leader who are fanatical in their support to the point of denigrating other leaders. Do these people merit a voice in a biography of Sri Aurobindo (or in any sane writing for that matter)? How are they remotely relevant to his life and work? I’m not aware of the political scene of the early 1900s, but if there was a serious difference of opinion between Tilak and Sri Aurobindo, to my mind, the thing to do is to bring out the issues that divided them along with the reasons both parties had for their stance. That approach would stick to good investigative journalism standards while not stooping to include what seem like ‘masala’ bits – that seem to be put in just to sell a higher number of copies of the book.

Moreover, I find it hard to imagine a context in which this particular quote would merit a mention in this biography – even taking into account the facts that for such a biography a full representation needs to be made rather than a hagiographic one; moreover the full context of the quote is not given here.

Hindu-Muslim problem

(212) He tried, half-heartedly, to bring Muslims into the movement, but he never gave the problem the attention that hindsight shows that it deserved. But could anything said or done in 1907 have changed the outcome forty years later? Probably not. Still, partition and the bloodletting that accompanied it were the movement’s principal failings, and Aurobindo and his colleagues have to take their share of the blame…


(130) Contemporaries and historians questioned his right to be called an effective politician. Certainly, he was not a great builder or steady worker.
By his own admission, Peter is doubtful whether anything said or done in 1907 could have prevented the events of 1947. Therefore, for someone to actually be able to

a. foresee the problems that would occur 40 years hence, and
b. take steps to prevent the bloody nature of the partition,

he would have to necessarily be a great visionary, an extra-ordinary social thinker, a politician of uncommon savvy, a man who could predict the unfolding of events 40 years down the line.

In the book however, Peter has clearly stated that Sri Aurobindo was not such a person. He was a firebrand, a leader who would be called upon to inject dynamism, to take a radical or revolutionary line – but he was not, in Peter’s words, hailed as an effective politician according to either contemporaries or historians; he was not a great builder, or a steady worker.

Sri Aurobindo was not even involved in active politics since 1910 (which is the year he took up permanent residence in Pondicherry). For him to be judged on events that happened in the 1940s, it would require a whole-hearted acknowledgement that he was, at the very least, one of the primary thinkers of the age who had the national stature, the charisma and the following to influence events so much after his time – such an acknowledgment is absent in the biography.

How then can any portion of the blame for partition be placed on Sri Aurobindo? Damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t? That does not sound very objective to me!

The most serious objection I have to the book though is not that facts are presented selectively or out of context. It is the fact that Peter Heehs is voluntarily an inmate of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and has been one for over 3 decades. Nobody is forced to join the Ashram. However, when someone decides to join the Ashram, it is implicit that he does so because he believes in the Ashram philosophy, i.e. the philosophy of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. If one doesn’t believe in the philosophy, then why be a part of it? The Ashram does not hold guns to peoples’ heads and force them to join.

I find it profoundly unethical that someone joins the Ashram, gains access to archived material in good faith, and then uses the material to trot out views that contradict the beliefs and ideals of the very community he has chosen to be a part of.

And what Peter has done is just this. He has cast aspersions on aspects of Sri Aurobindo’s life, his yoga and his sanity. I do not oppose his right to his beliefs – I oppose the method by which he has aired them.

If Peter had written the book as a scholar, as a follower of Sri Aurobindo, it would have been fine. But he has written it as an inmate of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram – and he has abused the trust that the community had placed on him.

Mordechai Vanunu is often looked at with favourable eyes from the world at large, but has anyone looked at him from an Israeli viewpoint? Will Israel ever forgive a breach of trust as severe as Vanunu’s, I wonder?

Saurabh Somani


  1. a most sensible commentary.
    I live outside the aurobindian community and am used to being a minority of one with regard to Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. This does not worry me, I am confident in my path, and feel no need to prosletyse. I have not read Peter Heehs book, and have never felt the inclination to do so.
    I do not however object to the book, as there has to be some wisdom here, the will to choose so to speak, for example,I can understand Hitler without reading Mein Kamfp, I do not feel the need to understand Sri Aurobindo from Peter Heehs perspective, whilst respecting his right to put forward his views.

    I do have one idiosyncricity though, as I will never be able to come to the Ashram, I am reliant on the Ashram to reflect the truth of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother as closely as possible. I was personally dismayed when I found that someone "who was only a disciple of sorts" still resided at the Ashram. Frankly I still don't get it.

    Thus it is Peter Heehs residency in the Ashram that concerns me also. I have no quarrel with those who do not accept Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, I simply feel that it is beholden on those who live in the Ashram to do so. Or have I got it wrong, has the Ashram devolved into a hodge podge of beliefs and views with revisionism and reformism the order of the day?

  2. Dear Diane,

    There is an important difference between Hitler's Mein Kampf and Heeh's TLOSA. Hitler merely expressed his personal thoughts and opinions, however perverse they may have been. But Heehs has deliberately distorted historical facts, concocted quotations and decontextualised incidents so as to lead to perverse conclusions in the name of Sri Aurobindo and his Ashram! Therefore the objections to his book. Heehs has a right to express his opinions freely. But he does not have a right to pervert historical facts.

    As far as the Ashram is concerned, we must distinguish between the inmates/residents of the Ashram and the present Trustees who control the Ashram's finances. The inmates petitioned the Trustees to remove Heehs and formally dissociate from the book and its conclusions. But the Trustees refused, and instead began to victimise the inmates who spoke out against the book.

    The Ashram Trust has been hijacked, and the inmates currently live in fear of the present Trustees. That is why the inmates have now filed a class action suit seeking dismissal of the present Trustees.

    Karthik Srinivasan