5 Nov 2012

Fifth Letter of the Bengaluru Study Circle to the Trustees of Sri Aurobindo Ashram

Pratap Bhanu Mehta admits to “have had a long professional interest in [Sri] Aurobindo”. Are we to assume that this interest drove him at some point of time to study for himself Sri Aurobindo’s oeuvre diligently if not comprehensively? If he had really done so, he would have by now come to know the crucial distinction between the subconscient and subliminal consciousness and understood where precisely Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis belongs. And of course he would have also been more enlightened on the subject of “madness”. This is what happens when people choose to read about Sri Aurobindo rather than Sri Aurobindo. It has calamitously led to uncritical acceptance of Peter’s Book on its face value almost as an article of faith. Quite surprisingly Peter Heehs himself seems as confounded on his understanding of Freud, of madness and yogic experiences. His clumsy effort at connecting all the three in Sri Aurobindo’s life are the result of this confusion unless of course it is by wicked design! [extract]


Letter To Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust and Trustees

Sub: Peter Heehs and his book The Lives of Sri Aurobindo

Dear Shri Manoj Dasgupta,   

We of the Study Circle, Bengaluru, acknowledge your kind reply of Aug 16 (2012) with its numerous enclosures. Our special thanks for all the trouble you have taken to post us with certain developments.

   We intend to answer your letter enclosure-wise and conclude with a few candid suggestions by way of a viable solution. Let not this letter be treated as one more of those “mass-petitions” that you say you have been receiving on the controversial book in question. It is by no means a “petition” in the first place. It is our detailed response reflecting serious concerns for the Ashram which is engulfed in an unprecedented crisis today.  We would strongly urge you to give this letter all the attention and importance that it deserves rather than dump it as yet another scrap of paper.

ENCLOSURES  B1, B2 and B3

   The opinions expressed in these enclosures on the Book in question are flawed and very  misleading as reasoned below:   

Pratap Bhanu Mehta (B1):

   Mehta brands opposition to Peter’s Book as a symptom of a wider “cultural crisis” and “failure of liberal education”. But this makes little sense as culture and liberal education can mean different things to different people. And his “comfort zone” is again a matter of individual upbringing and temperament.

   Then he talks of “proper religious sensibility” as the need of the day. The sensibility pertaining in this case to sadhaks and devotees has nothing to do with religion. It has to do only with Bhakthi towards the Guru, something that the supercilious intelligentsia hold in disdain!

   For him to bemoan that we are not prepared for any truth is again pointless. Because there are truths and truths in this world including his own, all of them “com[ing] with a small ‘t’” of course . And each of them holding its own naturally demands its rightful place under the sun! Where is the choice then than to scrupulously avoid trampling upon others' truths? In one word, let it be understood that there is subjectivity in everything in this unfortunate world of ours except perhaps in mathematical equations! And his own perception of Peter’s book in superlatives is not exempted either!

   He goes on to extol Peter’s “acuteness that it has grasped a deep philosophical fact: that most of [Sri] Aurobindo’s oeuvre, including the Life Divine, is an extended reworking of the Isa Upanishad…” But is this really so or is there far more to these Works? Peter must surely revisit them and get back afresh to his adoring readers!

   We do not by any means deny Mehta’s contention that “to draw a protective curtain and monumentalize tradition” is bad practice. But it is also naive to deify Intellect as the ultimate means of “knowledge” —knowledge with a small ‘k’ of course!   
 
   Then there is his apparent confusion over “faith” and “experience”. One is not an alternative to the other. Faith is the way and experience the goal. Faith may be the “Yoke of the Divine” according to him. But he should also know that the Intellect is as much a yoke and a yoke that moves not forward but grinds in barren circles!

   He admits to “have had a long professional interest in [Sri] Aurobindo”. Are we to assume that this interest drove him at some point of time to study for himself Sri Aurobindo’s oeuvre diligently if not comprehensively? If he had really done so, he would have by now come to know the crucial distinction between the subconscient and subliminal consciousness and understood where precisely Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis belongs. And of course he would have also been more enlightened on the subject of “madness”. This is what happens when people choose to read about Sri Aurobindo rather than Sri Aurobindo. It has calamitously led to uncritical acceptance of Peter’s Book on its face value almost as an article of faith. Quite surprisingly Peter Heehs himself seems as confounded on his understanding of Freud, of madness and yogic experiences. His clumsy effort at connecting all the three in Sri Aurobindo’s life are the result of this confusion unless of course it is by wicked design!  

Ramachandra Guha (B2):

   His article seems to have more to do with the politics of banning books. His brimming praise of Peter apart, there is no indication that he has himself any first hand knowledge of Sri Aurobindo’s works. We perceive effervescence rather than any essence in his pronouncements!
  
Obadiah S. Harris (B3):

   Here is some one who claims to “have read nearly all of Sri Aurobindo’s works…., written a number of books based on the views of Sri Aurobindo and continue to teach a course based on the Life Divine etc. etc.”  But all this virtually falls apart when he goes on to assert in the same breath:   “There is a very fine line between reverence and idolatry, those who cross it seldom return to the rational world…” With his claims of knowledge of Sri Aurobindo’s works, he ought to know more than anyone that the bond that links a true devotee or sadhak with his Guru transcends all three—reverence, idolatry and rationality. It is suprarational sensibility. Does this mean anything?

   This learned gentleman amazingly follows up his commendation of Peter’s book with a zealous recommendation of Peter himself for reinstatement in the Archives of the Ashram. Queer in the extreme surely!

   To sum up for the benefit of the Trustees, we are far from impressed or convinced by the views of the above celebrities on the Book in question.

ENCLOSURES C,D and E:

   These have little substance for us to comment upon.

ENCLOSURES  F and G (Letters to Government)

   We honestly doubt whether these luminaries who dutifully lined up to sign common letters, one addressed to the PM and the other addressed to the HM, have themselves read Sri Aurobindo. Not having read Sri Aurobindo, their views of Peter and his Book render themselves valueless. In any case this episode of a number of academics coming together in a powerful bid to plead passionately with the highest Executive of the land for extension of stay of an odd foreign national, who is at best a controversial author, would strike any one as bizarre and does raise eyebrows.

ENCLOSURE  H (Extracts from the book):

   Item No.3 (page5) on spiritual experiences of Sri Aurobindo: Peter’s confusion (already referred to under Enclosure B1) comes through strikingly here when he makes a jumble of mysticism, madness, psychiatry, Freud etc., not making the least effort to enlighten the reader as to what Sri Aurobindo himself has to say on these matters.

LETTER OF THE TRUSTEES TO THE MEMBERS OF PARLIAMENT :  

   Essentially the said letter makes the following three points: (i) The Book has been receiving raving reviews and unqualified acclaim from Scholars, Historians, Academicians and other people of eminence both in India and abroad (ii) On the other hand “a small group of people” in the Ashram, who are opposed to the Book have been carrying out a relentless campaign in different forms like holding ‘dharnas’, distributing offensive pamphlets, writing to different people against the Management, filing court cases against the Author and the Trustees etc. and (iii) The Trustees for their part have been maintaining admirable “neutrality” neither commending nor condemning the Book keeping in mind the International stature of Sri Aurobindo and his worldwide following.

Our comments on the above assertions are as follows in the given order:

   i) The credibility of the reviewers of the Book and of those others heaping acclaim in vague generalities is seriously open to question as most of them do not seem to have read Sri Aurobindo in the original. This is a fatal flaw because it leaves them no option but to accept Peter’s word for gospel truth! This has been clearly exemplified in the case of Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Ramachandra Guha. In the case of Obadiah Harris also there is enough room for disagreement despite his professed scholarship on Sri Aurobindo. We have given our views in respect of each of these gentlemen under Enclosures B1, B2, B3 above.

   Further, it is of utmost importance to bear in mind in this connection that any venture of writing the biography of any great Yogi is invariably fated to end as no more than an inconsequential narrative of his outer life which is in any case there for everyone to see. The true life of such a person is not on the surface at all but within with vastnesses and depths of its own. And this true life is beyond the apprehension of the intellect however extraordinary. Therefore the likes of Peter can only gather and repackage banalities of such outer life and even in doing so this man in his pettiness and cunning has chosen to strike and hurt as well.  
  
   ii) It is not just any academician, scholar, historian or litterateur, however eminent, who can be trusted to judge a biography of a Yogi because the intellect needs to be tempered for the purpose by certain inner sensibilities. In other words scholarship must be accompanied by humility and genuine reverence for things spiritual. Both in the Ashram and outside we have such people who combine in themselves scholarship, devotion and even sadhana. Many of them have already made known their specific objections to the Book in question. They cannot be just wished away because they do know more than anyone what they are talking when it comes to the Mother and Sri Aurobindo. And yet the Trustees have chosen to ignore them and instead given misplaced importance to the views of an intellectual class who are either ignorant or altogether refractory. This is a gross error on their part that needs to be undone immediately through serious dialogue.

   iii) Sri Aurobindo Society had officially declared some time back that “… the book, at many places, presents facts and information based on unreliable sources and contains misrepresentations and distortions of the life, work and yoga of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother….. The ‘Lives of Sri Aurobindo’ has not been allowed by Sri Aurobindo Ashram to be sold at SABDA. Sri Aurobindo Society strongly disapproves of the book.” And the Ashram Trust itself had similarly declared the unacceptability of the Book in no uncertain terms. But we notice that lately a mysterious tectonic shift has taken place in the stand of the Trust, a shift, shall we say, even to the point of joining with Peter and basking along with him in his new found glory!  Where is then their “neutrality” as vociferously claimed? Of course there was no evidence of it even in the past, whether it was The Mother’s Agenda, whether it was the book by Patricia or even the article ‘Guru Droha’. It seems therefore that ‘Neutrality’, is now entirely a matter of personal convenience or expediency!

PRESENCE OF PETER HEEHS IN THE ASHRAM — OUR VIEWS

   In our last four letters we had made every effort to impress upon you the undesirability of allowing this gentleman to continue in the Ashram even if he has somehow managed to get his stay In India extended. The Trustees and also the Society having openly declared his Book controversial and unacceptable and having officially restrained its sale in SABDA, his continued stay in the Ashram defies all logic and reason.  If he had authored the Book as an outsider and not as an occupant of the Ashram, things might have been different. But planting himself in the Ashram for as long as forty years, enjoying all its facilities and writing a book derogatory to the presiding Guru and consciously hurting the sensibilities of the Devotees is something that would be inconveivable anywhere else in the world. Moreover this person has also been going to town that he is not a devotee but only a Historian!

   There has to be only one guiding principle for all of us in this important matter and it is axiomatic: The Ashram is by the Devotees, of the Devotees and for the Devotees. By his own admission he is not a devotee and must be thrown out bag and baggage. Why should anyone develop cold feet in taking this simple, straightforward and very lawful action? Why indeed?
    
SOME FUNDAMENTAL CONSIDERATIONS

   Basically, what is it that keeps any Ashram in one piece without falling apart? It is Bhakthi—Bhakthi towards the Guru that endures even after he ceases to exist physically. This is also the binding force between sadhak and sadhak. It is a sublime emotion that springs deep within one’s being which the sterile intellect tends to look down upon as maudlin sentimentality. This is an absurdity as by this reckoning even patriotic fervor that drives a soldier to lay down his life in defense of his country or the profound emotions stirred by a National flag would also reduce themselves to mawkishness. Just as Bhakthi for our motherland cannot be compromised, assailed or insulted in any way, Bhakthi towards the Guru, who is the source of spiritual nourishment for the sadhak cannot be trifled with. These are by no means negotiable.

   In forty years Peter Heehs, even as a self-professed non-believer, should have had the sense, culture and decency to have respected this sensibility of sadhaks—sadhaks for whom the Guru is eternal and is also everything in life as well as beyond life, Guru who is for them the embodiment of tatwa and jnana, Divine principle and Divine knowledge. Whatever might be the dubious merits otherwise of his Book, its insensitivity to their inmost sensibilities is what hurts the sadhaks most. We have every reason to believe that insensitivity bared in this case is motivated, willful and deliberate. Splitting hairs between “hagiography” and “biography”, or differentiating between “Western” and “Indian” Readership, between Devotees and Non-Devotees etc. are but tricks to deceive the gullible and the uninformed.  The hurt he has inflicted is by no means imaginary because it has found expression in the form of a number of informed critiques posted on the Net for everyone to judge for themselves. It must be said to their credit that these critiques are so clearly focused on specifics that they are quite compelling in themselves. This hurt, this pain, this anguish reflected in the said critiques is at the core of the on-going conflict and must therefore be addressed squarely, courageously and instantly.

   Be it also understood clearly on all sides that it is futile and foolish to seek out Samaritans elsewhere to our rescue. There are neither saviours nor solutions outside the Ashram—not in the corridors of power, not in the courtrooms, not in academia, not in the marketplace of public discourse. The solution is entirely in our hands. It is an in-house problem and requires to be sorted out in-house within the four walls of the Ashram and its affiliates. Active lobbying for and against the Book outside the Ashram has gone on far too long and has only brought ridicule and disrepute lowering the dignity of the Ashram as a whole. This must stop right away.

   And in its place a dialogue must be initiated with all those sadhaks who have been deeply wounded and have expressed their opposition to the Book. We would strongly urge you, Mr. Manoj Dasgupta, to reach out to them warmly and wholeheartedly, listen and understand their viewpoints as against Peter’s and accommodate them keeping the dignity and sanctity of the Ashram in mind. That would be far more statesman-like and sadhak-like on your part than accusing them of this and that. Whether these sadhaks are only a few or many, whether they constitute a majority or minority is not the question. Every sadhak is precious because he represents the soul of the Ashram in his own individual way. A dialogue started on a note of trust and good will would be a noble gesture from your side, a gesture not so much out of magnanimity as out of wisdom, a gesture out of our deep commitment to the Mother and Sri Aurobindo.

   It must be kept in mind that as devotees and sadhaks within the Ashram or outside, all of us are answerable first and foremost to ourselves, our conscience, our loyalty and Bhakthi towards our Guru rather than to any human being however exalted and eminent he might be, inside the country or outside.

THE ONLY SENSIBLE COURSE OPEN

To initiate a dialogue with all those who are hurt with in a spirit of goodwill, trust, honesty and truthfulness, (ii) evolve a consensus on all controversial issues, (iii) take prompt action in furtherance of this consensus and (iii) put in place effective mechanisms to prevent recurrence of situations of the present kind in future. The on-going court cases should automatically fall in place as a natural consequence of consensus once reached.

Thanking You,

Sincerely yours,

for SRI AUROBINDO STUDY CIRCLE


Vaishali Ganapati Bhandari  

30 October 2012

[The above letter has been signed by forty more members of the Bengaluru Study Circle.]

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