30 Aug 2012

A Hatchet Job on Sri Aurobindo – Bhaskar Menon

Peter Heehs, the American author of The Lives of Sri Aurobindo (Columbia University Press 2008), has been an archivist at the Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry for over 40 years. However, long familiarity with his subject and with India has not translated into insight or even understanding. His 496-page tome seems to have been written by some racist koi-hai from the colonial era.

The "genre of hagiography ... is very much alive in India" Heehs writes. "Any saint with a following is the subject of one or more books that tell the inspiring story of his or her birth, growth, mission, and passage to the eternal. Biographers of literary and political figures do not differ much from the model. People take to the received version of their heroes’ lives very seriously. A statement about a politician or poet that rubs people the wrong way will be turned into a political or legal issue or probably cause a riot. The problem is not whether the disputed statement is true, but whether anyone has the right to question an account that flatters a group identity.”

Obviously written for foreigners who know little of India (the people at Columbia University Press?), those lines are absurd. How many “riots” can we Indians remember that were sparked by a comment in a book about some poet or politician? How many law suits? The overkill continues in a comparison Heehs offers between two photographs of Aurobindo, one retouched to erase wrinkles and make him fairer. Such retouching is a common free service provided unasked by Indian darkroom assistants and their modern computerized counterparts; but Heehs sees it as devious hagiography, intended to make Aurobindo look more saintly. Upon that overblown conclusion he hangs the following startling declaration:

“Hagiographers deal with documents the way that retouchers deal with photographs. Biographers must take their documents as they find them. They have to examine all sorts of materials, paying as much attention to the subject’s enemies as by his friends (sic), not giving special treatment even to the subject’s own version of events.” There is no mention of the biographer’s responsibility to try and arrive at the truth, an omission we could consider an oversight if the book were not such a study in dishonesty.

Another astonishing element of the book is Heehs’ assessment of Aurobindo’s mystical experiences. “In trying to trace the lines of Aurobindo’s sadhna, a biographer can use the subject’s diaries, letters and retrospective accounts," says the Preface. "There is also for comparison, accounts by others of similar mystical experiences. But in the end, such experiments remain subjective. Perhaps they are only hallucinations or signs of psychotic breakdown.” Even if that is not so, he asks, “do they have any value to anyone but the subject?”

Heehs gives short shrift to the claim that mystics access “a kind of knowledge that is more fundamental, and thus more valuable, than the relative knowledge of words and things.” A mystic absorbed “in inner experience … is freed from the problems that afflict men and women who are caught in the dualities of knowledge and ignorance, pleasure and pain, life and death,” he writes. “A mystic thus absorbed often is lost to the human effort to achieve a more perfect life.” Rather lamely he then adds that the value of Aurobindo’s life lies in his 40-year effort to “bring the knowledge and power of the spirit into the world.”

The Preface makes it abundantly clear that Heehs does not write of spiritual experience from personal knowledge. That conclusion is hammered in by the rest of the book, structured to reflect his view that Aurobindo had five discontinuous “lives:” as Son, Scholar, Revolutionary, Yogi/Philosopher, and Guide. Despite the admission that the “five lives were not sealed off from one another,” and that “in the end, [there was] only one,” it is obvious that Heehs suffers from a fundamental incapacity as Aurobindo's biographer: he cannot validate anything beyond the physical. In fact, even his understanding of the physical appears shaky. For instance, he thinks (page 203) the electron microscope rendered invalid Aurobindo's statement that a seed holds the "idea" of the plant it will become.

All that the electron microscope has done, all that modern physics as a whole has done, is to examine more closely the logistics and mechanics of natural processes; the Scientific Method cannot assess purpose and significance, the vital components of the "idea" driving them. That is why Science has been silent on such issues as the meaning of the Universe and human destiny. The discontinuities that Heehs perceives in Aurobindo's life are meaningless in the face of the "idea" incarnate in the foremost of India's modern mystics. However, they do help the reviewer filet the author’s misunderstandings.

Life 1: “Son”
Aurobindo Ackroyd Ghose was born in Calcutta on 15 August 1872, the third son of a young anglophile doctor in the employ of the colonial regime. Dr. Ghose was posted in the nearby provincial town of Rangpur, a name that Heehs says means "City of Delight." It actually means Colourful Place. Errors like that cast doubt on almost everything he reports. When Heehs asserts that Aurobindo's middle name was an afterthought, honouring Annette Ackroyd, an Englishwoman who came to India six months after his birth, the reader is inclined to ask for a verifiable source. And what is one to make of the completely gratuitous comment that Keshub Chunder Sen in 1870 was “the first Indian with flowing robes and an agile tongue to captivate a credulous West"? Raja Rammohun Roy and Dwaraknath Tagore made grand public tours of Britain several decades before Sen, and it was not just in the "credulous West" that crowds gathered to hear them.

When Aurobindo was five Dr. Ghose sent his sons to a mission school in Darjeeling, and two years later took them to Britain (along with his pregnant wife and infant daughter). The boys were left in the charge of an Anglican clergyman, William Drewett, who was asked not to teach them anything about India; Dr. Ghose hoped if they were raised British it would ease their path into the Indian Civil Service. The minister and his wife initially tutored the boys at home. Aurobindo was the brightest of the three and excelled at English, French and Latin. He won a scholarship to London’s prestigious St Paul’s School and did well enough in the first of a succession of ICS examinations to win an additional stipend. That allowed the brothers to scrape by, ill clad and ill fed through years in which they received little from home. Heehs makes no attempt to explain why their father stopped sending money, or why he began sending snippets from newspapers to show how "heartless" the British were.

Penury did not prevent Aurobindo from thriving at school. He excelled at Latin and Greek, wrote poetry, avoided games, kept pretty much to himself, and passed out with another merit scholarship, to King’s College at Cambridge. There he acquired his first knowledge of Sanskrit and went through the motions of studying Bengali from a British "pundit" who, when given a novel by Bankimchandra Chatterjee, asked in what language it was written. He took the "Tripos," the most difficult examination at the BA honours level, in two years instead of the usual three. (The exam got its name from the three-legged stool scholars sat on as they wrangled with complex questions posed by a panel of examiners.) Aurobindo got a first in the test but not a degree: that would have required another year at Cambridge.

Not to disappoint his father, Aurobindo sat for the final ICS entry exam; but he had no interest in becoming a member of that supposedly elite service. “He just did not like the English” writes Heehs. “Though he kept up cordial relations with individuals” he developed what he described later as “a ‘strong hatred’ of Englishmen in general.” The carefully tweaked image of the ICS was that it drew from the cream of British youth; Aurobindo found the reality of the exam hall different. The candidates were “shallow schoolboys” from “cramming” establishments, the “sons of small tradesmen … promoted from the counter … Bad in training, void of culture, in instruction poor … unmannerly, uncultivated, unintelligent.”

Aurobindo placed near the top in all the written exams but avoided recruitment by not appearing for the mandatory riding test. The ICS Commissioners wrote asking him to reschedule the test. He set a date but did not turn up; an official then told him to see the riding instructor, which he did not do. “Called to the office to explain, Aurobindo told a series of lies,” Heehs writes; he neither explains that serious charge nor says on what source it is based. After yet another missed appointment the Commissioners dropped him. It is legitimate to wonder if Heehs would have considered it less discontinuous if Aurobindo had joined the ICS.

Life 2: “Scholar”
From 1893 to 1906 Aurobindo worked for the Gaekwad of Baroda, initially as a bureaucrat, then as a teacher of English literature at the college established by that most liberal of Indian rulers. He also wrote the Gaekwad’s letters and speeches, continued his self-education in Sanskrit and Bengali, took up the practice of yoga, and immersed himself in the study of the Upanishads, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, the Gita and Kalidasa. On visits to Bengal he reclaimed other aspects of his Indian self. His father had died suddenly just before his return to India, but he re-established contact with his supposedly “mad” mother, his younger sister and brother, and an extended family. Aurobindo married, read voraciously on all manner of topics, wrote poetry, plays and political commentary; and under the guidance of a yogi from Maharashtra, Vishnu Bhaskar Lele, experienced for the first time “the silent, spaceless, timeless Brahman.”

His purely British upbringing and subsequent immersion in Indian life and lore gave Aurobindo the capacity, unmatched by any other Indian leader of the time, to see through the bluff of British power. He pilloried the pallid state of Indian resistance, declaring the country’s worst enemies to be "our own crying weakness, our cowardice, our selfishness, our hypocrisy, our purblind sentimentalism.” He was capable of seeing the true worth of Indian literature and religion in a way impossible for those accustomed to them from childhood. The Indian tendency to accept European “Orientalist” assessments of the country’s traditions irritated him. The Mahabharata was a far greater work than the Iliad, to which European scholars often compared it, in the process telling Indians their national epic was “a mass of old wives’ stories without a spark of poetry or imagination.”

He asserted the importance of Hinduism to the Indian future: if “we are not to plunge into the vortex of scientific athieism and the breakdown of moral ideals which is engulfing Europe, it must survive as the religion for which the Vedanta, Sankhya and Yoga combined to lay the foundations, which Sri Krishna announced and which Vyasa formulated.” If Providence had set out to design a leader to energize Indian nationalism there could have been no better plan than to have an exceptionally gifted boy sent off at a tender age to be raised British. Far from being discontinuous, the first two of Aurobindo’s “lives” shaped him for the seminal role he would play in the rapidly changing politics of the country.

Heehs is badly misinformed about the political background of the time. "With one exception," he writes, "any stirrings of revolt in the country at the time were momentary ripples on the tranquil sea of the Pax Britannica. The exception came from an unexpected quarter. Toward the end of 1903, the government of Bengal announced its intention to transfer the eastern districts of the province to Assam for reasons of administrative efficiency. Bengal was almost as large as France and much more populous, and there had long been calls to divide the province into more manageable units." In accepting the entirety of the regime’s rationalization of the 1905 division of Bengal Heehs turns a blind eye to malignant intent: the creation of a Muslim majority East Bengal was meant to divide Hindus and Muslims and weaken the mainstream Indian National Congress.

The "tranquil sea of Pax Britannica” Heehs perceives was actually the aftermath of the worst series of famines inflicted on India by British rapacity. In the last quarter of the 19th Century, as millions of people were starving to death around the country, the British exported rice at record rates, held a barbarously gluttonous "Durbar" in Delhi, made ruinously expensive efforts to control Afghanistan, and raised the regressive Salt Tax to pay for it all. Ill feelings against the regime were high everywhere. It was to channel them into a loyalist forum that a retired "Agriculture member" of the Viceroy's Council took the initiative to found the Indian National Congress in 1885. However, the Congress did not long remain as loyal as the British wanted and soon they had an additional cause of worry: the Muslim membership of the party rose in its first six years from two of 72 delegates (2.7 per cent) to 156 of 702 (22 per cent). As Muslim luminaries like Mohammad Ali Jinnah rose to the front ranks of the Congress leadership, the British took fright. The one indelible lesson they had drawn from the great uprising of 1857 was that Hindu-Muslim unity posed the most extreme threat to their rule.

The British motive in dividing Bengal was underlined by another initiative of the Viceroy in 1905: he got the Agha Khan (the third of his line to be a willing foreign tool), to assemble a collection of feudal landowners and establish the All India Muslim League. With rather less ostentatious prompting the Hindu Mahasabha also came into being at the same time. Like the League it was a British proxy, and over the next few decdes they drove the great communal bloodletting that climaxed in the Partition "riots" that killed over a million people and made 14 million homeless in their ancestral lands.

To begin with, however, the division of Bengal and creation of the Muslim League did not siphon off support and weaken the Congress. The League remained a paper organization for decades, with an affluent feudal membership so small that into the 1930s the quorum at its annual meetings was 10. The Congress, on the other hand found itself suddenly more popular than it had ever been. As its staid leaders took to addressing mass meeting to promote swadeshi and the boycott of British goods, legions of new young activists joined the national cause. The most radical of the young, including Aurobindo’s brother Biren, found inspiration in Italian and Irish revolutionaries and began plotting opposition to British rule with bomb and gun. From Baroda Aurobindo supported those conspiratorial initiatives, but there was a limit to what he could do without getting his employer into trouble. As a passionate new nationalism grew in Bengal he quit the Gaekwad’s service and moved to Calcutta in 1906.

Life 3: Revolutionary
Seemingly ignorant of the nationalist advances that precipitated the course of events described above, Heehs asserts that “between 1885 and 1905 the Congress achieved virtually nothing.” He turns a blind eye on the active British role in fomenting Hindu-Muslim antagonisms; in fact, he comes across as their apologist. “Faced with growing opposition from upper class Hindus, the British were in need of ‘native’ allies,” he writes. “One third of India’s population was Muslim. Lagging behind the Hindus in education and employment, the Muslims had come to believe that it was in their interest to establish a bloc to offset Hindu influence.” In that quote, note how it is “upper class Hindus” who opposed the British, while “the Muslims” had come to believe in the need for a bloc. That essentially British bias makes Heehs an unreliable reporter not only of Aurobindo as a leading opponent of colonial rule, but of Indian history overall. This is how he reports the Jallianwallah Massacre: “In Amritsar the British Army was called in to suppress a meeting. Hundreds were killed or injured.”

Some examples of bias are vicious. Heehs writes that Aurobindo, short of funds for two would-be assassins “suggested that they look for someone to rob.” The source of that monstrous charge is hearsay in a 1928 book in Bengali. Heehs does not examine the strong possibility that it was police propaganda; as with the earlier allegation that Aurobindo told a "series of lies," he is content to hit and run. At another point he describes the repressive “Seditious Meetings Act” of 1907, used to brutalize thousands of peaceful protesters, as “the bureaucracy’s way of dealing with violence and unrest.” Other examples of bias merely show his preference of perspective. The account of Aurobindo at the crucial Surat meeting of the Congress, an event widely covered by Indian media because it marked the parting of ways between the party's Moderates and Radicals, is based almost entirely on British newspaper reports. Inherent bias is the only explanation for Heehs' use of "Extremist" rather than "Radical" (the usual Indian usage), to label the Tilak-Aurobindo faction.

In recounting that “Hindu-Muslim rioting broke out in East Bengal” in 1906, Heehs notes (page 115) that “Aurobindo blamed the British. The Muslims had not planned the attacks but had been goaded by the government. The Hindus retaliated only after ‘serious and even unbearable provocation’.” Heehs himself ignores the ample evidence that the British pushed the country into a religious civil war to stem the rise of the nationalists. Instead, he blames Aurobindo and the "Extremists" for "giving a Hindu slant to the [independence] movement” (page 116). Evidently forgetful of the quote on page 115, Heehs says on page 211 that "Aurobindo regarded religious conflict as a purely social matter, refusing to see it as a vital political issue." On page 212 there is a more direct indictment: "Partition and the bloodletting that accompanied it were the [nationalist] movement's principal failings, and Aurobindo and his colleagues have to take their share of the blame." While holding Aurobindo responsible for events that occurred four decades after his retirement from active politics, Heehs makes not a single mention of the cold blooded British manipulations over that period to precipitate what is arguably the most murderous civil conflict in history!

After he moved to Calcutta from Baroda Aurobindo quickly became the leading spokesman of radical opinion. As the editor of Bande Mataram and working with Tilak within the Congress he helped shape the expectations and attitudes of a pan-Indian generation that Gandhi would mobilize in the final push to drive the British out. Although never an active member of his younger brother’s various plots, Aurobindo remained an important supporter and guide. There is no doubt that in marked contrast to Gandhi, he considered it entirely legitimate to avoid self-incrimination under repressive laws and to resort to violence when necessary. He made that explicit in responding to Rabindranath Tagore’s criticism of the hatred that drove the boycott of British goods. A “certain class of minds shrinks from aggressiveness as if it were a sin … The Gita is the best answer to those who shrink from battle as a sin and aggression as a lowering of morality. … Another question is the use of violence in the furtherance of boycott. This is, in our view, purely a matter of policy and expediency. An act of violence brings us into conflict with the law and may be inexpedient for a race circumstanced like ours. But the moral question does not arise.”

He discovered all too soon that it did arise: in the wake of an assassination attempt on a British judge that miscarried and killed two Englishwomen, the police raided Aurobindo’s house on 2 May 1908 and took him away in handcuffs with a rope around his waist. He was charged with being part of a conspiracy to overthrow the government. During the year he spent in jail waiting for judgment in the “Alipore conspiracy case,” Aurobindo experienced a spiritual transformation. As a schoolboy in Britain he had felt it his duty to work for the freedom of India; as he matured, that developed into a sense that he had divine protection in carrying forward the fight against the British. His faith was shaken during the first few days in prison.

“I faltered for a moment and cried out in my heart to Him: ‘What is this that has happened to me? I believed that I had a mission to work for the people of my country and until that work was done, I should have thy protection. Why then am I here and on such a charge?” There was no answer. Days of inner turmoil followed in his solitary cell in Alipore Jail until, in desperation, he asked for divine help and felt an instant calmness. Then came the voice of his inner guide: “The bonds you had not strength to break I have broken for you … I have another thing for you to do, and it is for that I have brought you here, to teach you what you could not learn for yourself and to train you for my work.”

Life 4: Yogi/Philosopher
Aurobindo has described the transformation that followed. "On one side was the jail workshop, on the other side the cowshed; these were the two limits of my free domain. Strolling back and forth ... I would recite the profound, inspiring and inexhaustibly strength-giving words of the Upanishads. Or else, watching the movements and activities of the prisoners, I would try to realize the fundamental truth that the Lord dwells in all. Repeating silently in my mind the words sarvam khalvidam brahma, 'All is verily the Eternal', I would project that realization on everything in existence -- trees and houses and walls, man and beast and bird, metal and earth. As I did this I would get into a state in which the prison no longer appeared to be a prison at all. It was as if this high rampart, this iron grating, these high walls, this sunlit tree with its bluish leaves and these ordinary material things were no longer inert objects."

Eventually he reached a point when he saw only God in everything around him. "I looked at the jail that secluded me from men and it was no longer by its high walls that I was imprisoned; no, it was Vasudeva who surrounded me. I walked under the branches of the tree in front of my cell, but it was not a tree. It was Vasudeva, it was Sri Krishna whom I saw standing there and holding over me his shade. I looked at the bars of my cell, the very grating that did duty for a door, and again I saw Vasudeva. … I looked at the prisoners in the jail, the thieves, the murderers, the swindlers, and … it was Narayana whom I found in these darkened souls and misused bodies.” His inner Guide continued to steady him, holding out the prospect of a new mission in life.

On several occasions he believed that the spirit of Swami Vivekananda spoke to him "about the processes of the higher truth consciousness" that later turned out in his own experience to be "precise even in the minutest detail." There were other voices too, but Aurobindo was careful to heed only those he recognized as meaningful and worthy. Looking back on this experience in later life he allowed that the voices could have been emerging from parts of his own subconscious, but that did not reduce their significance. Midway through his imprisonment he got what he considered an “adesha” that the case would end in acquittal and that he should thereafter undertake a spiritual mission so that a free India could be of “service to the world.” As it turned out, Aurobindo alone was acqutted of all charges: the judge, a former schoolmate, found the prosecution case against him too circumstantial.

After the year in Alipore prison Aurobindo returned to his life as a journalist by founding a new magazine, Karmayogin. It aimed at uniting India's spiritual and material worlds. The task, he wrote in its second issue, is "moral and spiritual. We aim not at the alteration of a form of government but at the building of a nation. Of that task politics is a part, but only a part." Karmayogin would seek to unite all aspects of life in articulating "the dharma, the national religion which we also believe to be universal." That universal religion was the Sanatana Dharma (the eternal law) that lay at the core not only of Hinduism but of all religions, and in bringing that message to the world India had a special role and destiny.

Heehs misunderstands the whole thrust of Aurobindo's thinking. "Although by no means a chauvinist" he writes, "Aurobindo was convinced of the essential superiority of Indian culture. A century later, when all forms of essentialism are suspect and national exceptionalism -- whether American, Russian, Chinese, Japanese or other -- is subject to well-deserved condemnation, one might wonder whether Indian essentialism and exceptionalism have much to recommend themselves."

It is difficult to understand how Heehs can have studied one of the most articulate spokesmen of the Indian renaissance for so long and yet be oblivious to the fact that one does not have to be a "chauvinist" to see that India is unique among nations. It is not only that unlike all other national claims to exceptionalism, Aurobindo's conception of India's special mission was "moral and spiritual;" its "essentialism" lay in the recognition of the universal in all humanity.

There is also the incontrovertible fact that India is the only nation that has a multimillennial history defined primarily by a sustained effort to comprehend the nature of Universal reality. The Indian national tradition flows from the Vedas to the Upanishads, to the Puranas, enters popular culture through the Ramayana and Mahabharatha, and courses unbroken down the centuries into the contemporary world. This is not to say it did not encounter blockages and periods of great difficulty. When the original tradition became crusted over with ritual and superstition the Buddha emerged with the spare re-telling of its great truths. When Buddhism lost energy, Sankara revived the old religion and set off the Bhakti tradition that strengthened Indians against invading Islam and eventually softened the foreign faith into the indigenous Sufi movement. Emerging from that milieu, Kabir and Guru Nanak, healers of caste and religious division, set off the streams of poetry and faith that became modern Indian nationalism. It is this extended background that explains why, when Raja Rammohun Roy took up the British challenge in Bengal in the 18th Century, the response came not just from there but from the whole country, reaching fruition in Gandhi.

That long continuum of some 15 to 20 millennia transformed tribes into castes, caste federations into unitary kingdoms, kingdoms into empires, and unified the whole with a common culture and philosophy. No other nation has a comparable history. In Europe nations resulted from conquest and oppression. Those who shaped Indian unity were sages, poets and philosophers inspired by a profound mystical perception of universal realities; they emerged from all parts of the country and from high and low castes. Heehs is blind to a history in which spirituality has been a primary structural element; he cannot see that Aurobindo’s significance lies in the fact that his thought and practice brought into the modern world the great insight of the Upanishads that under the material diversity of the world there is an indestructible Universal Spirit.

It was during Aurobindo’s lifetime that Western Science arrived at an understanding of that basic duality, first discovering that light existed as both particle (matter) and wave (energy), and then, in Einstein’s famous equation E=MC2, postulating the indestructible duality of the universe. Heehs seems to be ignorant of that aspect of science. “If Aurobindo is right that matter and spirit are different forms of a single unity” he writes, “it follows that there is a ‘scale of substance’ that links the two” (page272). In the long section of the book that deals with Aurobindo’s work in Pondicherry, the archivist in Heehs provides a useful overview while the author in him provides confused and misleading commentary.

For nine months after his acquittal Aurobindo stayed on in Calcutta, editing Karmayogin and practicing yoga. He was widely in demand as a public speaker. Amidst rumors that the British were preparing to arrest and deport him without the niceties of prosecution and trial he fled to French-controlled Chandernagore near Calcutta, and after a few weeks there, left for Pondicherry, traveling under an alias on a French vessel, the Dupleix. He arrived in Pondicherry on 4 April, 1910. Arrangements for his stay were made by the publisher of the Madras-based nationalist magazine India, Srinivasacharya Iyengar, who had also fled for refuge to Pondicherry. The editor of India, the poet Subramania Bharati, was also a refugee there. Like Aurobindo, he was a man of wide intellectual interests, and their talks were considered "variety entertainment" by the others in their group.

The refugees from Bengal led a Spartan existence in Pondicherry, eating just one meal a day, sleeping on the floor, sharing a single bar of soap and even forced to use a common towel. It was years before money ceased to be a problem. Beyond mentioning "supporters" in Bengal and a Madras businessman whose own dying guru 30 years earlier had predicted the coming of a guide from the north, Heehs makes no effort to explore the issue of who financed Aurobindo. He does, however, conduct yet another hit and run attack, citing speculation in a police report that violent secret societies in Bengal "probably helped him financially." If true, he comments, "this would mean that some of the funds ... were collected at gunpoint in Bengal, as armed robbery was the [Dacca Anushilan] samiti's principal means of fundraising."

Money only ceased to be a problem after a French devotee, Mirra Alfassa Richard, later known as "Mother," took matters in hand. She had arrived in Pondicherry with her husband Paul Richard before the outbreak of World War I. Both were spiritually inclined, and Paul was a prime mover in the founding of Arya, a monthly magazine of literature, philosophy and commentary; however, the war called him away almost immediately after its launch and it was left to Aurobindo's prolific pen to fill the pages of the magazine. The postwar influenza pandemic killed Aurobindo's wife, who had remained in Bengal, and it almost killed Mirra Alfassa, who had gone to Japan while her husband was a combatant. The Ashramites offended by Heehs' book have focused on his innuendo filled account of how she and Paul returned to Pondicherry, their estrangement, and her attachment to Aurobindo.

Life 5: Guide
In the final phase of his life Aurobindo's sadhna, spiritual effort, was directed at realizing and thus bringing into the world the potent supra-consciousness he perceived as part of the directive force of the universe. He kept a diary of his efforts for long periods, at other times he did not. The subject is highly esoteric and only those who have some personal sense of that superior energy can really appreciate what he was trying to do; there is little doubt that the long and lonely road of his experience was and remains important, pointing to a more spiritually evolved human future. Heehs' account of this period is without insight, and he has no real idea of Aurobindo's historical significance. (That incapacity seems to be widely shared among Indians: Aurobindo did not even make it into the top 50 listing in The Greatest Indian poll conducted by CNBC-18 to find the most revered personality after Gandhi.)

There are several levels at which we can assess Aurobindo's importance. His veering trajectory from boyhood in Britain to revolutionary nationalism and then yogic meditation in Pondicherry highlighted the value and worth of Indian tradition and flagged down violence in Indian politics. That prepared the way for Gandhi. For the inchoate generations that have struggled in free India to escape the deadening influence of our brainwashed historians and Golliwog media, Aurobindo has bannered the potential and scope of individual spiritual effort. Perhaps what history will hold his most important achievement is that in an age of insanely violent material ideologies his long fierce pursuit of a singular spiritual reality held out the alternative.

How real is Aurobindo's expectation that humanity is on the brink of broad-based spiritual progress? The answer is not all airy hope. Something of what he foresaw as the descent of the Supermind into human affairs is happening in the emergence of what Yuri Milner, the Russian Information Technology guru, calls the "global brain." The unprecedented global connectivity resulting from the spread of mobile telephone and broadband networks, engaging not only people but the machines that now process and store most of human knowledge, is creating a new level of consciousness. The "Internet of things" as Milner calls it, is expanding much faster than its human counterpart. There are some two billion people and five billion machines connected to the Internet today; in the next decade the number of individuals will more than double while that of machines is projected to reach 20 billion. In the same period almost everyone on the planet will be connected by mobile phone networks.

If the flashing synapses of this global brain are to develop positive patterns of thought and creativity, if we are to ensure that the planetary consciousness now descending on humanity will not take malignant and schizophrenic forms, we must look for guidance from India's spiritual masters, especially Mahatma Gandhi and Sri Aurobindo.

Bhaskar Menon

With due acknowledgement to the author who has produced this excellent review. 


  1. The following line from Savitri essentially sums up all that Sri Aurobindo stands for: “His birth held up a symbol and a sign.”

    This is well brought out in one single sentence by the present author, Bhaskar Menon: “Perhaps what history will hold his most important achievement is that in an age of insanely violent material ideologies his long fierce pursuit of a singular spiritual reality held out the alternative.”

    We never get that impression from The Lives of Sri Aurobindo and, it seems, even ten Columbia University Presses would not come to it. It is not only a miserable failure of the biographer but also of the publisher. A biography should not be an exercise in falsification, misrepresentation, debunking—if a biographer has to be true to his dharma.

    He should also know well that arguments over “evidence” belong to endnotes and do not really constitute the interpretative aspect of the life of a subject, and here we have the vision and work of a Yogi par excellence, Sri Aurobindo.

    A preface to a biography has said it well: “The duty of a biographer is to provide perspectives on a life that was in most instances had salt—was valuable. In this context the biographer will seek to reveal those key issues which in the ultimate end will assist in human development in general and help us to know those individuals amongst us who rose to great heights in their service to humanity.” Nothing of that comes out from the Lives. That's the pity.

    What does one think of this suicide note of Hitler signed on 29th April 1945, at 4:00 am? “I myself and my wife—in order to escape the disgrace of deposition or capitulation—choose death. It is our wish to be burnt immediately on the spot where I have carried out the greatest part of my daily work in the course of a twelve years' service to my people.” The Lives after a work of about four decades seems to be something of the sort. It doesn't deserve to be there.

  2. A friend asked me about the relevance of Hitler's suicide note in the present context. Perhaps I should not have left it to be understood. That note is actually a part of the will he had left behind and does come as a fact of life, of history; but as a fact it has a place only as an endnote to history. Behind it the greater and ghastly history remains untold, and it is that which a biographer is expected to bring out. One example of that horrifying frightful history is the cruel cold-blooded holocaust, a hell-fire let loose into the world of life. Sri Aurobindo himself had said that, Hitler's success would have meant putting the clock of human civilisation back by fifty thousand years. That would have been dreadfully calamitous. This had to be halted. The most difficult and painful occult work the Mother and Sri Aurobindo had done to halt it is the real story of World War Two. The Mother impersonated the Power who was guiding Hitler and 'deceived' him to take a wrong step, telling him to invade Russia. That virtually was the end of the War. All this remains untold in the cunning Lives of Sri Aurobindo, although its author is fully aware of these facts. All the while shrilly and stridently proclaiming the so-called doctrine of objectivity, of going by “historical facts”, it deliberately fails to provide perspectives. It is not only a failure in that respect; it is wilfully pernicious, insidious, malicious, spiteful, destructive.