23 Nov 2012

Squint-Eyed Scholarship – by Nileen Putatunda

Earlier this year, former New York taxi driver Peter Heehs, based in India since the 1970s, was in the news for his controversial book The Lives of Sri Aurobindo published by Columbia University Press. There was an attempt made by devotees of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, who were outraged by this book, to deny Heehs an extension of his Indian visa. Some supposedly-eminent Indians rushed to the rescue of Heehs by appealing to the Prime Minister and the Home Minister, and Heehs was allowed to stay on.

Being a humble admirer of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother over many years, and having delighted in attending a monthly reading session here in Kolkata of Sri Aurobindo’s epic poem Savitri, I got hold of a copy of Heehs’ book to see what the din was about. Having read every word of the book, I must say that I was disappointed with the scholarship in this part-serious, part-frivolous effort by Heehs which pop historian, Ramachandra Guha has described as: “The product of a lifetime of scholarship, its empirical depth and analytical sharpness is unlikely to be surpassed. For Heehs knows the documentary evidence on and around Aurobindo’s life better than anyone else.” 

How Guha arrived at this judgment bewilders me for the same Guha in an interview with The Indian Express admitted last year that the word “spirituality” meant “nothing at all” to him and that it was “a meaningless term”. Surely, Guha is clueless about veterans in the Aurobindonian movement who have seen, interacted with, studied and written about Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, something Heehs never managed. Guha also suffered from acute myopia when he left out Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose but included Jinnah and Nehru in his book Makers of Modern India where he profiled 19 Indians whose ideas had a defining impact on the formation of our republic. By way of explanation, Guha wrote: “I have also not included spiritualists such as Swami Vivekananda and Dayanand Saraswati, who represented a muscular brand of Hinduism that sought to meet the challenge of the West by breaking down caste barriers and consolidating the community as one. Both were, in their own day, quite influential; yet (as with Radhakrishnan and Aurobindo) their influence has passed.” Guha is unaware that Vivekananda’s Ramakrishna Mission has 176 branch centres all over India and the world, including all continents save Antarctica. If Vivekananda’s influence had indeed passed, would Mr Pranab Mukherjee have gone to Chicago earlier this year to establish the Vivekananda Chair at the University of Chicago, or would the Prime Minister choose to be the chairman of a national committee for the celebration of the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda?

In his book, Peter Heehs made ample efforts to focus on the trivial: in four places, he refers to supposed pockmarks on Sri Aurobindo’s face. In five places, he describes Aurobindo as short – around five feet, four inches – and in a way that is disparaging. Should Sri Aurobindo, whose praises were sung by seers and scholars of the calibre of Rabindranath Tagore, Dilip Kumar Roy, Chittaranjan Das, Netaji Bose, Romain Rolland, Aldous Huxley, Pitirim Sorokin, Tan Yun-Shan among others, be reduced to such physical scrutiny in the name of bashing “hagiography”? Heehs proceeds to pry into a mystic’s (i.e. Sri Aurobindo’s) diary and fathom his spiritual journey. He is brazen enough to write: “Through Record of Yoga we can trace the outlines, if not understand the details, of Sri Aurobindo’s sadhana between 1912 and 1927. For the next twenty-three years, we have to depend on scattered notes and letters.” Heehs dismisses what Sri Aurobindo had clearly said to a devotee, “The attempt is bound to be a failure, because neither you nor anyone else knows anything at all of my life; it has not been on the surface for men to see.” Heehs takes great pleasure in finding fault with Sri Aurobindo’s literary works. Heehs is no Kalidasa and has no formal degrees, and I would much rather place my trust in the accolades for Sri Aurobindo from Gabriela Mistral (Nobel Prize for Literature, 1945), Pearl Buck (Nobel Prize for Literature, 1938), and my own joy in his writings over years.

Heehs descends to mischievousness when he tries to portray a romantic relationship between Sri Aurobindo and his spiritual collaborator, the Mother. These parts of the book suffer from being drawn from completely unreliable sources in addition to Heehs’ much too fertile imagination. Earlier in the book, he speculates on Sri Aurobindo’s conjugal life. Heehs also attempts to paint Sri Aurobindo with a communalistic brush which is far from the truth. In a message given at the request of All India Radio for 15 August 1947, Sri Aurobindo had mentioned some of his dreams for India and the world, the first of which was “a revolutionary movement which would create a free and united India…But the old communal division into Hindus and Muslims seems now to have hardened into a permanent political division of the country. It is to be hoped that this settled fact will not be accepted as settled for ever or as anything more than a temporary expedient. For if it lasts, India may be seriously weakened, even crippled…” 

Heehs’ book has been praised by Jeffrey Kripal, author of that ridiculous book Kali’s Child. But that’s more to Heehs’ discredit than anything. Kripal’s book has been countered point by point in Pravrajika Vrajaprana and Swami Tyagananda’s Interpreting Ramakrishna: Kali’s Child Revisited. In the foreword to their book, Huston Smith, the great scholar and author of The World’s Religions wrote: “To put the best face I can on Kripal’s unfortunate book, perhaps it can serve as an object lesson on the way cross-cultural discussions should not proceed.”

When Heehs’ visa was finally extended, he told a newspaper that he was looking forward to being forgotten. His book should meet the same fate if we are to follow the prescription of the great English essayist and critic of the nineteenth century, Charles Lamb, who said: “Make me respect my mind so much that I dare not read what has no meaning or moral. Help me to choose with equal care my friends and my books, because they are both for life.” If we are to understand Sri Aurobindo, we would be wise to read Prof. KR Srinivasa Iyengar’s (author of at least 25 scholarly books and vice-president of the Sahitya Akademi in the 1970s) biography, the first two drafts of which were seen by Sri Aurobindo himself. AB Purani’s biography is also recommended.

Nileen Putatunda

[The writer is a social worker and poet. The above article was published in "The Statesman", Perspective page, 17th November, 2012.]


  1. I have just finished reading Georges Vanvrekhem's book Evolution Religion and the UnKnown God which is an exceptional book, and a serious scholarly examination of the western intellectual paradigm that underlies Peter Heehs's thinking. The final chaper Intelligeñce that is Consciousness that is Being, outlines Sri Aurobindo's Cosmology. To me this book is a rebuttal of Mr Heehs "Sri Aurobindo's views of science are quaint" comment, as well as the notion tbat his cosmology is merely derivative of the Isha upanishad.
    There are many westerners who do not accept Peter Heehs, Michael Murphy and Rich Carlson's world view, this book is the first published evidence of this.

  2. Thanks for this excellent breakdown of TLOSA and of Ram Guha. I would like to humbly add another example of focusing on the trivial leading to mischief, that I reliably learnt about recently. It reveals the new lows that Peter Heehs is plumbing.

    In his denigratory biography of Sri Aurobindo Peter Heehs has already cleverly insinuated that Sri Aurobindo had an inappropriate relation with the Mother, was schizophrenic, wrote bad poetry, was partly to blame for the partition of Bengal, etc. But now he has crossed all limits by alleging that Sri Aurobindo was corrupt! Shocked? Read on.

    Here is what Heehs has written in his latest 'research article' on Sri Aurobindo and his handling of finances, published on the internet.

    "He [Sri Aurobindo's father-in-law] had gone through the prescribed Prayaschitta, the atonement, on his return from England in order to be absolved of the sin amassed by his to-and-fro voyage across the sea. Sri Aurobindo of course refused to oblige the colossal orthodoxy of the time that demanded, on the eve of his wedding, the same penalty from him. But an indulgent priest exempted him from the fate of having to shave his head or gulp down a soft drink prepared with cow dung, in lieu of monetary consideration."

    Now, it is well known that an option to pay an official fee to a priest to avoid the atonement for leaving India's shores was not available to anybody. As such this statement amounts to nothing less than stating Sri Aurobindo bribed the priest to escape the penalty! Just see how slyly Heehs slips in his allegation without explicitly stating it in black and white in order to avoid direct censure! What was the need to incorporate this insignificant detail, if not to sow the seed of doubt in the reader's mind? We will not be fooled by his cunning!

    Of course for the trustees of Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Sri Peter Heehs is more worthy of worship than Sri Aurobindo, so we the devotees cannot expect any corrective measures from them. We at least hope and pray that this article is not printed in any of the journals of Ashram!

    Surendra Mondal

  3. Comment by Juan Robledo:

    Dear Sir or Madam

    I have read with a great deal of interest some of the articles posted in refutation of Mr Hees book. I want to thank you very sincerely for taking a strong and courageous stand on behalf of Sri Aurobindo's work. It is very heart warming to know that no one will be allowed to vilify and tamper with the life and work of such magnificent soul.

    I have never visited Sri Aurobindo's ashram and often times I struggle with the thought of going there for a visit and always I hesitate to make a final decision, no obvious reason on my part. Except until now when I read about the conflicts facing the home of such a great seer my hesitation somehow becomes clear to me.

    I hold Sri Aurobindo and every thing he wrote and did in his yoga to be nothing less than a clear and unmistakeable manifestation of the Spirit in our world.

    Thank you for your clarity and your strength of thought.


    Juan Robledo