13 Apr 2012

Historical Documentation

When you quote a person who was not there at the time of the event and who scribbles something on the basis of what he has heard from others (whose identity he himself does not know or does not reveal), then you are going against the very fundamentals of historical documentation.  
[extract - click on title for full text]

Historical Documentation

Most readers are not aware of the basics of historical documentation, though all seem to have a vague idea of it. The first rule of sound historical documentation is that it should be first hand evidence, that is, the event should be recounted by a person who has witnessed it himself and not heard from others. If a person (who was not present at the time of the event) merely reports on the basis of what others (who were present) have said, the source is considered secondary. This has some value, especially when that person is no more, but there is always a chance of distortion when the story is passed from one to another. When the story is relayed through several persons, there is of course more chance of distortion, and one can hardly rely on these tertiary sources for writing accurate history. But when you quote a person who was not there at the time of the event and who scribbles something on the basis of what he has heard from others (whose identity he himself does not know or does not reveal), then you are going against the very fundamentals of historical documentation. The point is not whether such hearsay seems correct or plausible or probable, but that you have not followed the rigor of the historical discipline, and that you merely want to write a good or bad story but not history. The reports of A.B. Purani used by Peter Heehs to misrepresent Sri Aurobindo’s relation with the Mother fall in this category of unusable documents. A.B. Purani was not present in Pondicherry in 1920 when Paul Richard left for the Himalayas in a mood of revolt and the Mother joined Sri Aurobindo in his spiritual endeavour. He neither named the source of his information nor the time when he jotted down his diary notes. The time of the diary notation is important because the farther you are in time from the occurrence of the event, the more likely you will misreport, for memory always plays tricks. The sooner you note down the description of the event, the more accurate it is likely to be. Diary notations thus form the best evidence of past events. In the case of A.B. Purani’s diary notes, all these factors discredit their authenticity. Finally, the snippets of conversation between Sri Aurobindo and Paul Richard which have been recorded by him do not amount to anything substantial; they remain fragments of a puzzle which can be filled in any way you like. This is exactly what Peter Heehs has done in the passage quoted below. He has pieced together these various snippets into a story with a number of insinuations on Sri Aurobindo and the Mother’s relationship. Therefore the impression that Peter Heehs has revealed the truth much to the embarassment of the disciples of Sri Aurobindo is totally false. It is actually he who ought to be embarassed when the truth of his bogus scholarship is disclosed to the public!

I reproduce below the passage in question along with the endnotes which give references to the documents used in it:

When he had finished the day’s work, a dozen or more people—members of the household, the Richards, visitors from out of town—came to his study for talk and meditation. On Sundays he and other members of his household visited the Richards for dinner and talk. At some of those meetings, people noticed a surprising development. After dinner those present tended to cluster in two groups: Aurobindo and Mirra on one side, Paul and the others on another. Sometimes, when they were alone, Mirra took Aurobindo’s hand in hers. One evening, when Nolini found them thus together, Mirra quickly drew her hand away. On another occasion, Suresh entered Aurobindo’s room and found Mirra kneeling before him in an attitude of surrender. Sensing the visitor, she at once stood up. There was nothing furtive about these encounters, but they did strike observers as unusual. Neither Mirra nor Aurobindo were in the habit of expressing their emotions openly. The young men, already somewhat unhappy about the inclusion of women in their circle, and the consequent erosion [of] their bohemian lifestyle, were somewhat nonplussed by this turn of events. Paul Richard took it more personally. At times he could be heard muttering a phrase of garbled Tamil, setth ay pochi, by which he meant “the calamity has happened.”49 After a while he asked Aurobindo about the nature of his relationship with Mirra. Aurobindo answered that he had accepted her as a disciple. Paul inquired as to what form the relationship would take. Aurobindo said that it would take any form that Mirra wanted. Paul persisted: “Suppose she claims the relationship of marriage?” Marriage did not enter into Aurobindo’s calculations, what was important to him was Mirra’s autonomy, so he replied that if Mirra ever asked for marriage, that is what she would have.50  

Paul took up the matter with his wife. According to Mirra, recalling the events forty years later, the confrontation was stormy. Aware more than ever that Mirra had made his literary and spiritual accomplishments possible, Paul demanded that she give her primary loyalty to him. Mirra simply smiled. Paul became violent, came close to strangling her, and threw the furniture out of the window. Mirra remained calm throughout, inwardly calling on the divine. For all intents and purposes this was the end of their relationship. A year later Paul confided to the novelist Romain Rolland that it had been a time of “violent crisis” in his life. He had been forced to fight “a dreadful inner battle, which threw me, alone, face to face with death . . . into the immense and glorious void of the Himalayan ‘Ocean.’ “In his diary, Rolland translated this into more mundane language: “In fact,” he wrote, “his wife . . . left him.” 51 (326-27)

Endnotes:

49 Purani Talks manuscripts 9:80; 5:98. Richard, who knew virtually no Tamil, seems to have combined two phrases, seththuppochchi, which is colloquial Tamil for “he/she died,” and aypochchu, which means “it is over.” (453)

50 Purani Talks manuscripts 5:76. In the interest of coherent dialogue, I have expanded and slightly amended Purani’s notes regarding this incident, which read: “(One day PR. came & asked him in what way he (A. G.) related to Mirra. He said she was his disciple. But what was her attitude towards him. He said in whatever way the disciple will aspire for me he will get me as such [possibly an allusion to Bhagavad Gita 4.11]—Suppose she claims relations of marriage. ‘Well she will have that’—).” In a report of what appears to be a separate conversation between Aurobindo and Richard, Purani writes that in reply to a question from Richard about Mirra “A.G. simply said she had offered herself to him & she had been accepted. It was her lookout to do what she wanted to do.—” (453)

51. The Mother, L'agenda de Mère, vol. 2: 409; R. Rolland, Inde: Journal 1915-1943, 28. (453)

(Peter Heehs, Lives of Sri Aurobindo)


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