11 Mar 2012

Spirituality, Religion, Fundamentalism -- by Ranganath Raghavan

Does open-mindedness and catholicity become so vast that you allow violence against yourself?  And allow yourself  to lose your own aims and values ? Do you grow so vast that you become a colourless, featureless neutrality and fall prey to an attack at the very foundations of your spiritual life? (extract)

Spirituality, Religion, Fundamentalism

In the 28th February , 2012 issue of the HINDU, the trustees of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram have defended their “non-action” against Peter Heehs, the author of  The Lives of Sri Aurobindo  which denigrates Sri Aurobindo in various ways. That the book has passages laudatory of the sage is irrelevant because the author has been an inmate of the Ashram for the last forty years, enjoying all its facilities and privileges. His misdeeds and malafide intentions have been documented on this website in detail. It may be mentioned that denigration of the Guru by a shishya or an inmate of the Ashram is a totally different issue as compared with the criticism of  Sri Aurobindo by an outsider, living outside the Ashram and not dependent on the Ashram resources in any way. In the latter case, freedom of speech may be claimed and his contentious comments can be countered by arguments and debate.

But the question to be examined now is the reason for the support and active help of the trustees of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram to Peter Heehs. Why are they giving this support to Peter Heehs and not standing up  in defence of Sri Aurobindo, the Guru of thousands all over the world and considered by most to be an incarnation of the Divine, an Avatar?

The argument that the Divine can never be insulted or hurt and He can look after Himself is most irrelevant.  Everything is the Divine and the question is not whether the Divine can protect Himself. The issue is what the sadhak is doing. Is he aligning himself with the Divine forces or whether he is becoming, consciously or unconsciously, an agent of the wrong forces? 

The trustees’ support, legal, financial and moral, is mysterious and inexplicable, suggesting strongly a secret reason for the same. But their inaction (or rather positive support) is based on several “reasons” which have been trotted out by them over the entire period of three years, since this controversy arose. They may be summed up as follows:

a) The Sri Aurobindo Ashram is a spiritual institution and not a religious organisation

b) “We” do not support “Fundamentalism” and “Bajrangdal–like” activities and intolerance.

c) We respect freedom of speech

d) We are taking a witness attitude, as advised by the Mother.

Let us examine each of these propositions and see whether they stand up to scrutiny.

Religion and Spirituality

The trustees’ contention that they are acting according to spiritual standards is  not tenable. The denigration of a guru by a “disciple” or an inmate of the Ashram can never be a spiritual standard of action nor can passive acceptance of the same be spiritual. Sri Aurobindo and the Mother have on several occasions explained that this is not acceptable. Documents from Mother and Sri Aurobindo have been circulated often enough and several cases, with Their views on this matter, have been made public.

The terms, Spirituality and Religion, have then to be defined.

Both seek God in various ways, both recognise the limited and imperfect nature of earthly existence and both seek perfection in God. What then is the difference between them? Where does one end and the other begin? Are they hermetically sealed  and separate  units or are they  related in some way? If they are as distinct as black and white, then there is no issue and no problem. All would know the difference and debate would be unnecessary.

Spirituality is the seeking for perfection – “God, Light, Freedom, Immortality.” The process for achieving this goal is various, each system taking its own distinct path. Religion, basically, has the same intention and aim but overstresses the “processes” and the “forms” with rigidity and often  with intolerance of the other paths. Spirituality seeks perfection in its essence without stressing  the “forms”. It admits that the ways to God are infinite and flexible. Having said that, we must immediately qualify the statement. It  does not mean that Spirituality has no rules or methods. In any discipline, there are always legitimate rules. Respect, reverence and devotion for the Guru are certainly some of the rules.

In brief, to simplify a complex issue, we may say that Spirituality seeks the spirit and Religion is bogged down in “forms” and “rituals”. But are they eternally separate and divergent or is there a link between the two?  It is quite easily admissible that their aim being the same, they are linked and that religion can be a first gate of entry into the   spiritual life.  Once the Spirit is experienced, the outer forms may drop off or at best are of secondary importance. But this is not indispensable and the outer forms of worship and service can continue to persist.

 Here is a quote from Sri Aurobindo :

True religion is spiritual religion, that which seeks to live in the spirit, in what is beyond the intellect, beyond the aesthetic and ethical and practical being of man, and to inform and govern these members of our being by the higher light and law of the spirit.”

Sri Aurobindo says in the Synthesis of Yoga that worship of God has three elements: a) the outer form of worship, b)  the symbol of the worship c) the inner spirit and adoration of the worshipper.  All are valid and a complete worship must include all the three.  (Synthesis, SABCL   p 153)

When the outward physical act of worship is performed such as Pranam at the Samadhi or to a  photograph of the Mother or  to any object representing the  Mother, is it religious or spiritual? If the act is mechanical, merely a habit, done with other thoughts in the mind or other feelings in the heart, then it may be termed religious. But if on the contrary it is done with full concentration and intensity as an act of prayer or self-giving, it is certainly  spiritual.

Some time ago, when the old Distillery near the Tennis Ground was to be converted into a public park, it was proposed to place a statue of Sri Aurobindo in a prominent place. It was reported that the managing trustee of the Ashram turned down the proposal with the argument that it would amount to religion.  Did he not completely overlook the fact that the Mother had installed a bust of Sri Aurobindo right in the meditation Hall of the Ashram? Is there not a large picture of the Mother in the Meditation Hall? And a picture of Sri Aurobindo in the Reception Room of the Ashram? And a bust of Sri Aurobindo in the Ashram Library? Did not the Mother give specific directions to some of the Ashram  Departments to have a symbol of the Mother on the front Gate? When Mother distributed her own photograph to disciples or gave them gold rings with her symbol on them, was it Spiritual or Religious? When pieces of Mother’s carpet are distributed on the Golden Day, is it spiritual or religious? Where do we draw the line between Spirituality and Religion?

Spirituality always sheds earthly imperfections and raises itself to the Perfection  and Purity of the Spirit  without compromise. Religion often makes “Heaven a sanction of Earth’s desires” (Synthesis of Yoga,  SABCL p. 131) Religion is often intolerant  of other paths and degrades  itself to pander to the  dark elements of the lower vital. History bears adequate witness to the debased and degraded values of Religion.  Consider the sale of Indulgences, the Crusades, the burning of witches at the stake in Europe. In India, there was the deplorable caste system and its corollary untouchability, the original noble ideal of Sati which deteriorated into the forced burning of widows, and the banishing of widows from society. We are also presently witnessing the Jihad of extreme Islamic movements. Spirituality is free from all these crude defects.

When we say that we do not want religion but only spirituality, we mean that we reject all these negative aspects. But that does not mean that we reject Devotion, worship of God or Guru. Spirituality encourages an open mind, catholicity, tolerance of other paths, but that does not imply that it allows Guru Ninda.  Religion is often intolerant of other paths. It not only disapproves, rejects and condemns them, but also fights them with hate and physical violence. Spirituality never does that. But does wide-mindedness, catholicity, and generous accommodation to other religions allow Spirituality to be attacked without resistance, or allow degradation of its own values, beliefs and practices? If attacked, does one not have the right of self-defence? Does one meekly surrender to such attacks by saying, ingenuously at best and with immature foolishness at worst, “We are all children of God, and you have the full right to do what you are doing. We accept your attack on us”?

Does open-mindedness and catholicity become so vast that you allow violence against yourself?  And allow yourself  to lose your own aims and values ? Do you grow so vast that you become a colourless, featureless neutrality and fall prey to an attack at the very foundations of your spiritual life?

Bernard Shaw humorously remarked that a specialist is one who knows more and more about less and less, until he knows everything about nothing.  Can we say, in an opposite vein, that Spirituality should become so vast and  large that it loses itself  in a void?  Should it not preserve its own  basic character and principles?

Who is a fundamentalist?

A religious fundamentalist is one who hates and attacks other religions with or without provocation, not one who defends his own spirituality when attacked.

There is also the excuse of the “Witness Attitude” which is being flung about very liberally to justify inaction in problematic situations which require a solution. In the spiritual experience of the Self, a vast, impersonal Consciousness which is featureless, immutable, inactive is reached in which the sadhak is only a witness, separated from the cosmic manifestation and his own body, life and mind.  Certainly this Consciousness is greatly prized and is often the final aim of the traditional paths. But this Witness Self is possible ONLY when one rises above the mind and the three modes of Nature. One becomes trigunatita. Claiming to have a witness attitude in the thick of ignorance, is extreme hypocrisy. Particularly so, when the contrary is proved by the claimant taking action against those who are not in his favour!! Peter Heehs is spared, but not  R.Y.Deshpande, Abala and Niranjan Naick who are unceremoniously removed from their place of work. A witness attitude is never selective!!

The arguments given by the trustees for supporting Peter Heehs are obviously without value. The Ashramites may very well suspect other hidden reasons which are not being revealed.

The beneficiaries of the Ashram Trust have the right to know the real causes behind this strange support to the author who denigrates  the Guru  in a book that is being distributed all over the world.            

Ranganath Raghavan


  1. In an attempt to defend the shoddy scholarship behind ‘The Lives of Sri Aurobindo’, Peter Heehs excuses himself from what should have been the only genuine concern of his biographical research by claiming that the revelation of Sri Aurobindo as the 9th Avatar of Vedic tradition was a distracting hagiographic idealization in which he had no real interest.

    ‘…What about the assertion that Aurobindo was an avatar? I can’t say that the question interests me very much. Aurobindo never claimed the distinction for himself, and I don’t think anyone alive is in a position to say one way or the other…’ (Peter Heehs, from the Columbia website)

    For persons of knowledge, the arrogance of this statement is simply breathtaking. Unfortunately it reflects a long standing attitude of the Auroville Brahmin who claim to ‘adore Sri Aurobindo and the Mother’ while simultaneously suppressing their work. It is as if the Vedic tradition of the Avatar is meaningless, even though it is sanctified by the Gita in Sri Krishna’s own words, and Sri Aurobindo’s and the Mother’s as well. Moreover, Heehs’ contention that no one alive today is in a position to say one way or another belies an embarrassing lack of research on his part or, more likely, a calculated decision to ignore the volumes of objective proofs that have been published by Patrizia Norelli-Bachelet and accepted as part of the permanent record of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives; an organization which lists Heehs as one of its founding member.
    Given the voluminous and non-speculative proofs of Sri Aurobindo’s Avataric credentials on file in the Ashram Archives and Heehs ready access to this material, his only reason for making such a disingenuous statement is that he, like his cronies in Auroville, know that the Supramental proofs of Sri Aurobindo’s avatarhood also include the irrefutable credentials of the Third in the line as well as the details of Sri Aurobindo’s rebirth as the Fourth. Moreover, they know that any acknowledgement of these objective proofs would mean an immediate end to the rule of orthodoxy and its stultifying dogma that has reduced this most important spiritual work of the age to an arrogant, fundamentalist and elitist cult.
    It is as if a cadre of hard line Tibetan Buddhist fundamentalists had taken over the Potala Palace and refused to acknowledge the rebirth of the next Dalai Lama so they could continue to indulge their self-important pretentions as the unchallenged leaders of their faith.

    It is clearly time for this ignorance and hypocrisy to come to an end. For a detailed account of Sri Aurobindo’s Avataric credentials, see: http://www.rigvedacos.blogspot.com/

  2. Robert Wilkinson is misinformed when he says the Ashram Archives "lists Heehs as one of its founding member". He is merely repeating Heehs' false claim. In fact Heehs was originally one of 40 proof-readers of the SABCL publication unconnected with the Archives when it was started. The Mother blessed two young men as the first researchers at the Archives founded by Jayantilal Parekh. Heehs was nowhere in the picture. Since Jayantilal headed both projects (Archives and SABCL), eventually after 1973 the proof-reading group was folded into the already existent Archives. That is how Heehs came to join the Archives as a proof-reader. By that time, the actual researchers at the Archives (approved by the Mother) were already at work for over two years.