19 Apr 2012

A Bluffer in a Scholar’s Clothing? -- by Govind

A brief, non-hagiographic peek into the lives
of a "founder" of the Ashram Archives

In his book, The Lives of Sri Aurobindo (TLOSA), Peter Heehs declares himself to be a “founder” of the Ashram Archives. People are buying his book, not just purchasing it but also buying it in the sense of believing in it, solely on the basis of Heehs’ self-promoting claims of apparent expertise and authority on Sri Aurobindo. However, few of these are in a position to independently verify the credibility of the author's self-portrayal. In this article I attempt to take a critical look at the primary claim that the author makes about himself in his book, which is that he is a "founder" of the Archives department in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, and share my conclusion that he is, in all likelihood, bluffing the reader by pretending to be something he is not.

[click on main title for full article]

Peter Who?

To assert that one is the founder of the Archives Department in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram is to lay claim to a very prestigious title which has to it a ring of official-sounding, bona fide scholastic and organizational authenticity that could hardly be matched by other more humble and unassuming self-descriptions such as “member of the Ashram”, or even “scholar” for example. There is an all-too-human motive behind this self-description. Any writer who wants to be considered a legitimate scholar and promote his book needs to establish his own standing in the eyes of his readership. Evidently, Heehs has been successful in this self-promotion. Today the internet is littered with references to Heehs as “Founder of the Ashram Archives”. In fact, it is almost exclusively on the basis of this title that Heehs can claim significant credibility in the minds of people who had probably never even heard of him before.

A pattern of self-promotion emerges when we observe that on his own website (http://peterheehs.net/aboutus.aspx) Heehs declares himself to be "an acknowledged expert on Sri Aurobindo and his philosophy". One wonders who acknowledged Heehs as such an expert and on the basis of what authority. Note that this is Peter’s own website and not a third-party web-site anointing him an expert. Assuming that there are grounds for Heehs pole-vaulting himself onto that pedestal of expertise, one wonders further how someone claiming to be a spiritual seeker and a disciple of Sri Aurobindo can so blithely advertise himself as an expert on his spiritual preceptor. For example Heehs vaunts himself as a Sadhak of the Integral Yoga in the following words “I am, after all, a practitioner of Sri Aurobindo's yoga” on this page: http://www.auroville.org/journals%26media/avtoday/August_2008/An_extraordinarily_complex_individual.htm. Even in the case of Swami Vivekananda, himself a god-like personality overflowing with power and illumination, one would be hard pressed to find claims of expertise and authority on his outwardly unimpressive yet inwardly infinite spiritual preceptor and parent, Sri Ramakrishna.

Still, the issue of expertise is admittedly a philosophical, and not really an ethical or legal issue. The claim of being a founder of the Ashram Archives, in contrast, represents a far bigger problem for Heehs, given the strong likelihood that it is a naked untruth which, instead of establishing his trustworthiness as a scholar and a historian, actually ends up having the very opposite effect, indicating that he is rather a bluffer and a pretender. Our primary concern here is not with the apparent contradiction between Heehs’ claims of authority and expertise on one hand and his claim of being a disciple of Sri Aurobindo on the other (although based on his public claims and output that claim too can be challenged) but rather with the question of whether he is pretending to be the founder of the Ashram Archives.

An Inconvenient Truth

There is at least one person who could have laid claim to the title of "founder" of the archives department, or the department that eventually came to be called by that name, a person who perhaps never himself claimed to be a founder of the Archives department. This was Mr.Jayantilal Parekh. Remarkably enough, in 1999 Heehs authored a short, obscure obituary to Mr.Parekh, in which he himself referred to the deceased as the one who “established the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives”. This obituary is available at the following page: http://web.archive.org/web/20070822012627/http://www.sriaurobindocenter-la.org/newsltr/jyntlal.html. Note that Heehs does not refer to Mr.Parekh as a co-founder or a colleague, or just one among several who established the department. Heehs further describes Mr.Parekh as "a self-effacing servant of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo who quietly produced lasting results". It is doubtful, therefore, whether Mr.Parekh, unlike his less self-effacing eulogizer, would have described himself as the one who "established" the Ashram Archives as its "founder". Evidently the example set by Mr.Parekh was one that was easy to grasp, but hard to emulate.

A closer look at Mr.Parekh's pivotal role in the formation of the Ashram Archives department makes Heehs’ claim of being any sort of a founder of that department, either in place of or even along with Mr.Parekh, appear to be an instance of serious resume padding in order to inflate his credibility in the eyes of his readers. In other words Heehs seems to be intentionally bluffing or misleading his readers when he claims to be a "founder" of the Archives department.

When one contrasts Jayantilal Parekh with Heehs, one is immediately struck by the staggering difference, in terms of seniority, between the two men. When the Archives department was established, Mr.Parekh seems to have been around 58-60 years of age. Mr.Parekh had studied at India's prestigious Shantiniketan School, established by its most famous poet and humanist, Rabindranath Tagore. Furthermore, Mr.Parekh had joined the Ashram in 1938, which means that he had already been a member of the Ashram for almost 35 years when the Archives department was established. By then he had also, in Heehs’ own words, "played a significant role in the development of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Press, and was the guiding force behind the publication of the Sri Aurobindo Birth Centenary Library." Mr.Parekh was in fact the one who sought permission from the Mother to have Heehs join him in the work given to him by the Mother, and was thus responsible for giving young Heehs’ life it's most significant turn.

This is only a brief description of Mr.Parekh's extensive background and immersion in the Ashram work at the time, but it is enough to establish the utter contrast between him and Heehs, who had only arrived at the Ashram sometime back as a person with no impressive qualifications of his own.

It is not even clear whether Heehs had fully entered the Ashram community at that time, at least as far as his own self-consecration was concerned. In the preface to the TLOSA book, Heehs writes that he may not even have stayed at the Ashram had he not been asked to join the archiving work, which indicates that whatever may have been his status at the Ashram, it was not that of a full-fledged member who had taken an irrevocable decision of becoming a part of the community dedicated to fulfilling the vision and the work of The Mother and Sri Aurobindo. It is possible that Heehs’ youth, since he was probably in his early twenties at the time, may have acted as a bar to his full admission to the Ashram. But by Heehs’ own admission the thing most likely to have come in the way was his own reluctance to join the Ashram in the first place.

It is also a fact that some senior members of the Ashram referred to Heehs at that time as "the boy", not a very edifying appellation for a founder of anything, let alone a key department charged with preserving documents written by or related to Sri Aurobindo. In any case, in terms of age, seniority, education, length of stay at the Ashram, familiarity with the works of Sri Aurobindo and also in terms of the sheer work done in publishing these, it is clear that Heehs could not even be remotely compared to Mr.Jayantilal Parekh and his role in founding the Archives.

A Most Convenient Falsehood

Given these circumstances it is a travesty of logic, but certainly not of the creative imagination, to claim that Heehs was considered by anyone at the Ashram at that time, including himself, to be a "founder" of the Archives department, or even on the same footing as a person with the background and the standing of Mr.Parekh. At most Heehs was a very junior person helping out other far more senior members of the Ashram, like Mr.Jayantilal Parekh, who had already been involved in the work

It could only have been the senior members who assumed the real responsibility of doing the work at that time and who had to ask permission from the Mother to let the young and totally inexperienced Heehs make himself useful in the Ashram by merely participating in the effort. It is hard to imagine a young, untested person like Heehs, given his lack of qualifications and short stay at the Ashram, being given such a great responsibility as the "founding" of the Archives department. Let us also remember that the Founder of the Ashram, the Mother, was physically present in the Ashram at the time, and that it was under Her auspices and aegis that the department was formed. 

If despite all these facts, we continue to insist upon the role of Heehs as a founder of the Archives department, then we might as well glorify the sadhaks who just happened to be around and working for the Mother and Sri Aurobindo at the time of the founding of the Ashram in 1926 as nothing short of "founders of the Ashram" along with the Mother and Sri Aurobindo. Can any line of reasoning be more patently ridiculous or absurd?

In fact, Heehs himself inadvertently blurts out the truth about his standing vis-a-vis Mr.Parekh in an interview where he refers to Mr.Parekh as "my first boss at the Ashram Archives". The full interview can be found here: http://www.auroville.org/journals&media/avtoday/August_2008/An_extraordinarily_complex_individual.htm

Therefore, the unvarnished, unadulterated truth is that Heehs was merely a worker and an employee of the department at the time and is today only pretending to be its founder.

By The Self Thou Shouldst Uplift Thy Self

At least in the case of Heehs, an appropriate extension to the above statement from the Gita would be “… but beware lest in doing so thou degrade others”. Even in the TLOSA book, Mr.Parekh does find mention as the first one to be thanked by Heehs in the acknowledgment section. However, in contrast to the concession made by Heehs in his obscure obituary to Mr.Parekh, here Heehs makes no mention of the latter's primary role as the one who "established" the Archives department. This may not be mere coincidence or a slip on the part of the supposedly meticulous scholar. After all, doing so would have meant sharing credit for the foundation of the Ashram Archives department, in itself a false premise.

A review of Heehs’ self-descriptions in previous books reveals a discernible pattern of increasingly greater self-promotion. In his first biography of Sri Aurobindo, written when Mr.Parekh was alive, Heehs takes care to describe himself merely as "an archivist" at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives. However, in a subsequent book of his, written in 2002, after Mr.Parekh had passed away, Heehs describes himself as "the director of historical research" at the Archives. Finally, not content with remaining a director it seems, Heehs has now tried to make the final leap and has retroactively promoted himself to the status of a founder of the Ashram Archives department. The only problem in doing so is that to assume this new title requires not only a change of office but also a distortion of history, in other words false historical revisionism. Apart from the fact that this self-declared “historian” (on his web-site he describes himself as “an American historian based in Pondicherry, India”) apparently sees no problem in manufacturing false history to benefit himself and fool the readers, the other very disturbing thing about this act of self-promotion is that it is done at the expense of a person like Mr.Parekh who may have very well acted as Heehs’ mentor, and who may have guided Heehs throughout the remainder of his life at the Archives department. This is not just falsehood in words but in deeds as well and reveals a certain disturbing moral flexibility that is not only economical with what is true but also liberal in its disregard for what is just and fair.

Since this seems to be Heehs’ approach to his human mentor it is only reasonable to expect him to adopt a similar one in the case of his spiritual preceptor, Sri Aurobindo. The expectation proves to be more than justified. While Heehs apparently proceeds quite coolly to touch up his own resume in promoting himself, he takes umbrage at others for touching up Sri Aurobindo's photos and supposedly even his biographies, and Heehs goes to some lengths to introduce imperfections and defects into Sri Aurobindo's apparently touched-up public image, intending to produce a genuinely "factual" and "objective" biography, a "non-hagiography". He states his intention of doing so clearly right in the very preface and delivers on his promise in the rest of the book. The whole point of course would be to raise his standing in the academic world by appearing to cleave to its standards of objectivity by mixing damaging criticism into apparently sympathetic praise.  Iconoclasm was the price for a coveted seat in that highly exclusive circle which includes worthies such as Wendy Doniger and Jeffrey Kripal.

One consolation is that at least Sri Aurobindo is not left to face it all alone, although he does bear the brunt of it. Ashramites will not be happy to note that even the Ashram has not been spared by Heehs, who concludes his book with the implied suggestion that the place has become, at least on the surface, a religious institute. Not content to stop there, the missionary has repeated the claim openly in a recent article of his on the Mother. There is no denying how harmful even a suggestion like this can be when made by one who claims to be a long-time, highly placed insider. To call such statements merely irresponsible would be a euphemism. Other sadhaks and devotees are implicitly tarnished elsewhere in the book as "religious" followers who take their stand on faith, rather than reason.

A foretaste of his treatment of the Mother's way is obtained when he dwells critically on her encouragement of a worshipful attitude towards Sri Aurobindo. Not surprisingly, after the book was published, others picked up the threads laid out by Heehs to judge and criticize the Mother's actions in their own articles, basing their pronouncements on Heehs’ "scholarship". For example the article at the http://www.integralworld.net/carlson.html uses Heehs’ book to criticize the Mother for taking an apparently “patronizing” approach.

It seems that Heehs can't help publicly debasing and working against the interests of those who have taken him into their embrace and have given him shelter or admittance into their circle of trust, be it his spiritual preceptors Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, his mentor Mr.Parekh, the Ashram where he is allowed to stay or  finally other sadhaks who would have openly lived their lives as aspirants, god-seekers and god-lovers before his very eyes, unsuspecting of the critical acid achurn in the mind behind his gaze.

The pattern in all cases seems to be the same. Criticize others while glorifying one’s own self. Although it could be argued by others that this is not really a pattern of betrayals so much as a series of 'coincidences', even in human terms such behavior is not something that one would consider to be very moral. From the spiritual point of view it would perhaps indicate a lowest sort of approach, adhamaam gatim.

Satyam Eva Jayatan Naanritam

Thankfully, from a yogic point-of-view perhaps through the action of a Grace whose all-embracing compassion includes Heehs as well, instead of magnifying his self-created identity and ego as an authority on Sri Aurobindo and a "founder" of the Ashram Archives, this whole episode has backfired rather badly and has served to irredeemably reduce his standing in the eyes of many who would have otherwise put him on a sort of pedestal. Furthermore, where pleas for sensitivity, decency and basic honesty have failed, legal procedures have proved to be very effective, a common but in no way universal panacea in dealing with unrepentant criminal minds and personalities. The case initiated against Heehs for misrepresenting himself as a founder of the Archives has already produced a kind of retraction. With real punitive repercussions looming, Heehs has apparently blamed his publisher, Columbia University Press (CUP), for falsely misrepresenting him as a founder of the Ashram Archives, confirming once and for all that this claim was indeed a falsehood.

But one wonders why Heehs did not come out with this clarification before, when he would have held the first copy of his book in his hands? It is difficult to accept, further, that the thing went to press without Heehs knowing how he himself was being described in it. Also, where did the publisher get the idea that Heehs is one of the founders of the Archives department, since there seems to have been no precedent for this claim in the past? Surely the most obvious and straightforward explanation is that the source was the author himself. Furthermore, given that this book is his "magnum opus" and touted as the definitive biography of no less than the life of someone whom Heehs has declared to be his own yogic preceptor, can we imagine that this glaring error somehow miraculously slipped past the scrutiny of this meticulous and thorough researcher? Indeed Heehs has not issued any kind of clarification even when he gave talks in the U.S, the advertisements for which again repeat the very same falsehood that Heehs is “one of the founders of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives”. Even if we continue to lay the blame at the doorstep of the CUP it is at least clear that whether or not he originated the falsehood, Heehs is happy to let it be propagated.

Despite everything, even if we were to fanatically assert that Heehs had no part in manufacturing this falsehood, if this sort of capital error can find its way so prominently into the book, it should at least be enough for any prospective reader to pause and what other gargantuan falsehoods he/she would find in the whole work whether from Heehs, his editor or his publisher or financier or collaborators or whoever. When it comes to playing the blame game there is here a vast and open field in which to play it and the author could easily chuck the ball in any direction he likes, so that he is not left holding it himself. Generally authors take responsibility for their errors in their books, but then all authors cannot be expected to hold themselves to average moral standards.

If it is true, as the facts seem to indicate, that Heehs engaged in deliberate historical falsification to promote himself and his book then, while such self-serving bluffing clearly disqualifies him as a trusted scholar or historian, it is even more devastating when it comes to claims of being a sadhak of the Integral Yoga, for which honesty, straightforwardness and an absolute rectitude in one's public pronouncements about oneself and one's Preceptor are fundamental preconditions.


February 2011

1 comment:

  1. People, who are in the know of these things, have taken far too long time to disclose the facts in open public.
    in the meanwhile, Peter and his so-called supporters, even among important personalities in India, have made their ample noise in the Indian Press and TV media, eulogizing the GREAT work of intellectual history on Sri Aurobindo.
    NOW, it is very necessary that the facts revealed in the above article, should be printed as substantial articles in all our national newspapers, and flashed in TV discussions, in a small attempt to rectify the earlier damage done and to re-inform the general public of India.
    We have been bombarded with much mis-information during the weeks preceeding the deportation of Peter, by much tall talks.
    May The Mother show us the way.
    H. Acharya