10 Apr 2012


The main defence of Peter Heehs has been the decontextualisation argument. Time and again he has accused his critics of quoting extracts from his book without the surrounding context. But did the adding of the context by him in his revised version of the Extracts change anything? No! Readers remained unaltered in their negative assessment of his book. Why? If the extracts were really decontextualised, then they would have changed their opinion. But let me get into the nitty gritty of this oft-repeat argument of decontextualisation.

[click on title to read the full text]

Peter Heehs himself quotes the Life Divine where Sri Aurobindo presents the argument of the materialist. Now if you read only this portion, you would certainly be under the impression that Sri Aurobindo was a materialist. But if you read the entire chapter, then you realise that he presents the materialistic argument only to refute it. He does the same with the ascetic denial of the world and thus disproves Shankara. Thus quoting Sri Aurobindo out of context and presenting him as a materialist or an ascetic would be called decontextualisation.

In the case of Peter Heehs, this does not happen. The negative statement remains negative despite the mild palliative it is generally given at the end of the presentation. In fact, the ruse employed by Peter Heehs is that he says things without actually saying it! That is he presents the context in such a way that anybody will deduce or extrapolate the negative statement that he wants to project. For example, he discusses the possibility of Sri Aurobindo’s madness in such way that the ordinary reader will certainly begin to doubt his sanity, even though Peter considers him finally as “eminently sane”. He discusses the relationship of Sri Aurobindo with the Mother in such a way that the reader will certainly presume an ordinary romantic relation between them. So he keeps making implications and insinuations without actually saying them! He argues saying that he is merely presenting the pros and cons of the story and letting the reader decide for himself what is true. But what he actually does is to try to get away without being caught insulting Sri Aurobindo in the open! This is what has confused so many people but that is what he has been practising from the last forty years of his so-called historical research – the art of spreading confusion on Sri Aurobindo’s life.


  1. I wonder why he has been allowed to do that for the past forty years. If his attempts at playing such mischief were nipped in the bud, things would not appear as they are right now. The whole world (media, other scholars, and those who do not know Sri Aurobindo) is thinking that Peter Heehs has been a diligent and hardworking scholar/researcher who has dedicated his whole life to understanding Sri Aurobindo and his work. Now that he has come out with his "findings", which differ from previous work in its tone and temper, he is being ostracised. In this context, I also wonder what can be done to present the truth of things in such a way that the tide of sympathy is reversed and Peter Heehs doesn't appear to be a tragic victim of power-play or fundamentalism.

  2. I agree with the above assessment of Peter Heehs's writing.

    in fact, The Mother clearly says that Sri Aurobindo generally presents even apparently contradictory views on any issue - but then finally gives the objective version , thereby bringing out the fallacy of partial interpretation.Such holistic writing becomes not only objective and comprehensive but also gives the total view.
    To a person with a superficial interest or prone to taking a partial and coloured view, arguments could therefore be found in the wrtings depending on the motive; however, if such a person is honest and sincere,and does not resile from reading the writing in full, he would perceive as to how Sri Aurobindo has dealt with the issue in totality and the message would be clear in unmistakable precision.Any honest and sincere person who is worth his salt would quote the entire stream of logic and the presentation.
    No honest writer would partially quote the "genius" to further one's own pet theme. Such effort at insinuating the "genius" by quoting partially and in a decontextualised manner is a grave error and injustice to Sri Aurobindo. Peter Heehs appears to have taken the easy path of partial quotes and strategy of decontextualisation to make a story of his own choice about the live of Sri Aurobindo.
    Contrasted with the epithet of being a historian-as Peter would like to publicise himself, it would be more appropriate to give the title of "storyan" to him.

  3. I agree with what you have explained with Peter Heehs subtle insinuations in his book. Though i admit i have not read the book yet but i just casually came across a paragraph quoted from Heehs book over the net. As an ardent devotee i must say i was completely taken aback by the manner in which Heehs very boldly but subtly describes his own fabricated romance between the mother and sri aurobindo and before you realise or rather take in that hinted suggestion, the perverted tone in the phrase has already done the damage to your psyche! This has happened to me who totally reveres the two supreme divine manifestations, Imagine if a novice or a non-devotee reads this! I can only exclaim! God! Save our Souls! By the way its rather hard to believe that Heehs didnt intend to malign; 40 years of stay in the divine presence and atmosphere! this is what you end up giving to the readers?!

    At the dust of her divine feet,

    A devotee.

  4. Here are some examples of decontexualisation, sent by a friend:

    It could be designed to simplify the mischief of PH by taking an innocuous statement to which let's say the anchor can agree, with a general context, like: 'I am really fond of Delhi'. By mischievous juxtaposition this stated 'fact' of statement of Anchor XYZ TV can be misused by juxtaposition of another popularly accepted fact as follows:

    Delhi is the capital of ex-Soviet states exported prostitution. Anchor XYZ TV is really fond of Delhi.
    Delhi is the capital of rapists. Anchor XYZ TV is really fond of Delhi.
    Delhi is the capital of politics. Anchor XYZ TV is really fond of Delhi.
    Delhi is the capital of corruption. Anchor XYZ TV is really fond of Delhi.

    Maybe we could have a 15-20 min video on the same, played out on a media platform.

  5. You can readily create examples from the following template, sent by another friend.

    The technique is not as exemplified below in the Delhi lines. It is more subtle and deniable. Typically the formula goes something like this, though couched in a more slippery style:

    "It is said that (or xyz says that or a reasonable person may think that) X is (say insane or romantically attached or emotionally unregenerate, homosexual or anything really). A few well-researched and substantiated lines or paragraphs showing why this is eminently plausible (hallucination by madmen/mystics or hand-holding or anger or association with boys a la Ramkrishna). A final subjective statement denying the quality imputed to X.

    The blow is struck at the beginning. All negative imputations are ostensibly substantiated. The author emerges unscathed due to the final denial.

  6. Context driven meaning – some thoughts on PH Book.

    Mind never works by a thesis alone. It needs an antithesis for its clarification and direction. In the linguistic department of St. Petersburg University we had an anecdote, which may clarify my point here:
    “A lecturer presents a book written by X and says at the end of his presentation: “if somebody tells you that this book is written not by X but by Y, you should not believe it! You should be totally sure that this book is by X! Do you have any questions?” And there is a question from audience: “Is the book written by X or by Y? Tell us straight!”
    The context influences and even defines the meaning. It shadows out light in a particular way and gives it a new color, as it were. When something is spoken, the meaning is not exclusively derived from what is said but also from what is not said and mainly from the context in which it is spoken. So Sri Aurobindo’s Life is now given a new context in PH’s book, which is of the western approach to life. And here lies the problem.
    So, instead of trying to see our modern life in the context of Sri Aurobindo’s, PH, as a historian, brings Sri Aurobindo into our own western context, and even tries to defend and justify him in it, sometimes with a partial success. After such a presentation we discover that Sri Aurobindo is quite a healthy individual, and not some kind of schizophrenic, reasonable poet and writer, a good philosopher (again it’s a matter of opinion) and quite an honest seeker for knowledge, to say the least. In other words: a good guy.
    For the Indian mind it is a misplacement of all the issues, for the western it is a true and honest account.

    1. The issue is not whether the perspective of Peter Heehs is Indian or Western, but whether it is spiritual or materialistic, and it is obviously leaning towards the latter. The issue is also which set of values you would like to support and cherish, and put into practice in your own life. Simply putting on a show of wide-mindedness and saying that both Indians and Westerners are right in their own way won’t do. You have to take sides in life, you have to choose between materialism and spirituality. I trust that many Westerners in Ashram and Auroville have made a conscious spiritual choice; otherwise they would not have flown ten thousand miles to settle in a remote corner of Tamilnadu. If they simply wanted to follow the current materialistic trend, they would have remained in the West.

      The problem with Peter Heehs is that he wants to please everybody (somewhat like you), please the spiritual-minded by making a few positive statements on Sri Aurobindo and please the academic by deconstructing him from the materialistic point of view. This is plain dishonesty. I don’t mind him being a downright and unpretentious materialist condemning Sri Aurobindo, though I, as well as you, would then object to his staying in a spiritual Ashram and being the chief editor of Sri Aurobindo’s works. But this kind of jumping from one world-view to a diametrically opposite one and then jumping back to the first position can only be termed as theatrics or monkey tricks. What this kind of behaviour actually reflects is his inability to do the Integral Yoga, and instead of simply saying that he is not fit for it, he has to bring down Sri Aurobindo to his level to justify his own failure. Well, nobody made Yoga compulsory for him!

      I repeat again that this is not an Indian vs Westerners issue as has been presented by many supporters of Peter Heehs, because there are Indian materialists and Western spiritual seekers. It is true that Indians take to Yoga more easily and that Westerners are better at material organisation, but there is no essential difference between them. The Integral Yoga is common to both and there are no separate directions for Westerners. The truth is that Peter Heehs has found more supporters on the issue of his deportation and not with regard to the actual contents of his book. Westerners are a minority here, so they are obviously going to defend him on this issue because of the underlying concern for their own visas. But what is less known is that many Westerners do not dare to speak against Peter Heehs because the Trustees of Sri Aurobindo Ashram will then withdraw their visas. Caught between the Govt and the Trustees, they observe an uncomfortale silence.

    2. When there is a fight of the extreme points of view then subtleties are not felt anymore. The sarcastic tone of my remarks are lost and I seem to protect PH, according to the general editors remarks, which is in fact quite the opposite.

    3. “After such a presentation we discover that Sri Aurobindo is quite a healthy individual, and not some kind of schizophrenic, reasonable poet and writer, a good philosopher (again it’s a matter of opinion) and quite an honest seeker for knowledge, to say the least. In other words: a good guy.”

      The above text can only be understood as an appreciation of Peter Heehs’s book! “A good guy” cannot become “a bad guy” despite all the subtleties of semantics. If Sri Aurobindo has been portrayed as “a good guy” by Western standards (meaning that he is not a madcap but reasonably cool or “eminently sane” as Peter puts it), then there is nothing more to argue about. My only problem is that many of us think that he is much more than that and that he has something to say with regard to the future evolution of man. So simply proving that Sri Aurobindo is not a madcap does not really add anything to his greatness. You might as well praise somebody by saying that he is not a thief, not a lunatic and not a pervert! Or take somebody to the police station to declare that he is not a criminal! Why take him at all to the police station?