1 Feb 2013

Raman Reddy’s response to the Ashram Trust’s letter of 21 June, 2010

[The following is Raman Reddy’s response to the Ashram Trust’s letter of 21 June, 2010. Though he was not part of the group of three senior Ashramites (Kittu Reddy, Ranganath Raghavan & Sumita Kandpal) that met and corresponded with Manoj Das Gupta, the Managing Trustee, during this period, it is worthwhile reading his response to the Ashram Trust. A copy of it was sent at that time to the Managing Trustee.]

The Trust asserts its legal authority

I quote from the letter of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust dated 21 June 2010 to Kittu Reddy, Ranganath Raghavan and Sumita Kandpal:

The Mother while entrusting the responsibility to the Trust to manage the assets of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, thought fit in Her wisdom, not to include any clause or direction to even remotely suggest that all beneficiaries, be they devotees or inmates, should necessarily be consulted at any stage in the management of things or in the decision making process – if at all it be even logically possible to consult everyone belonging to such an open ended and amorphous body consisting of all the inmates of the Ashram and disciples of Sri Aurobindo. (p 2)

The Trust has literally alienated the entire Ashram community along with the admirers and disciples of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother all over the world with one well-constructed sentence defining its autocratic legal position vis-a-vis the beneficiaries. But have we ever denied its legal authority, or said that we “should necessarily be consulted” in the decision making process? All that we insist upon is the right to ask questions whenever their decisions don’t seem right to us, and receive satisfactory answers. Even Sri Aurobindo and the Mother cared to explain to their disciples the reasons behind their administrative decisions. One has only to read Nirodbaran’s correspondence with Sri Aurobindo to see how much time the Master spent in keeping the disciples happy and clearing their misunderstandings.

Secondly, does the voice of the community not count at all? I understand that democracy may not necessarily be the best form of governance for spiritual communities where high standards of conduct have to be observed, but does it mean that the beneficiaries should have no say at all in the administration, especially in vital issues which affect the entire community? Should there be no checks and balances on the Trust by a larger body of disciples, so that the possibility of errors may be curtailed? Or is it that the Trust is infallible and beyond any public accountability? The Trust itself says that it “never tried to create an impression that it was an alternative to the Mother and Master”. In the absence of such spiritual authority, how can it claim this unilateral power of taking decisions?

Finally, the Trust should have at least the moral authority to command respect from us, as it did all these days after the passing of the Mother in 1973 up to recent times. It is only recently that there has been a strong erosion of its credibility and the disciples have started voicing concerns over its arbitrary decisions. Instead of taking this useful feedback in the right manner and behaving like elder statesmen, the Trust has declared its legal authority like bureaucrats in a combative mode. Does the Trust realise that the best way to lose its moral authority is to assert its legal authority in public? For the message that goes to the beneficiaries is, “We don’t care for your questions and we are not legally bound to reply them!” What a fine way of settling problems in a community which is meant to be the cradle of the new world! Moreover, even from a practical point of view, how can the Trust ensure a collective co-operation in this manner? After all, the Ashram is run on a purely voluntary basis by a couple of thousand disciples and devotees who have come here to dedicate their lives to a higher purpose.

Aim of the Ashram

I reproduce below the paragraph from Sri Aurobindo’s Human Cycle quoted by the Trust in order to justify its stand on protecting Heehs and his book:

The spiritual aim will recognise that man as he grows in his being must have as much free space as possible for all its members to grow in their own strength, to find out themselves and their potentialities…. Thus true spirituality will not lay a yoke upon science and philosophy or compel them to square their conclusions with any statement of dogmatic religious or even of assured spiritual truth [emphasis added], as some of the old religions attempted, vainly, ignorantly, with an unspiritual obstinacy and arrogance…. But meanwhile they [Science and Philosophy] must be left free even to deny God and good and beauty if they will, if their sincere observation of things so points them…. Often we find atheism both in individual and society a necessary passage to deeper religious and spiritual truth: one has sometimes to deny God in order to find him….

(SABCL, Human Cycle, pp 214-215, quoted in Section C, on p 6 of the Trust’s letter, emphasising the phrase in bold letters)

This paragraph from the Human Cycle applies to a future (not yet realised) spiritual society, not to the Ashram which Sri Aurobindo and the Mother have specifically founded to realise their ideals. But, by quoting this paragraph out of its context, the Trust says that there should be scope in the Ashram for this kind of suicidal catholicity. One can only imagine what would happen if all kinds of persons detrimental to the aim of Integral Yoga are given refuge in the Ashram under this pretext and who, after having firmly consolidated themselves, hijack the original purpose of the institution to suit their own agenda. This would nip Sri Aurobindo and the Mother’s work in the bud and ruin the beautiful institution they have built for us. It is true that Sri Aurobindo “will defend himself” in the long run, but why put to such a great risk the existing Ashram in the immediate present, over which we do have some control? I quote a letter where Sri Aurobindo precisely discusses the necessity of keeping the Ashram apart from the ordinary life until we succeed in our spiritual purpose on a small scale.

As for our own position it is that ordinary life is Maya in this sense, not that it is an illusion, for it exists and is very real, but that it is an Ignorance, a thing founded on what is from the spiritual point of view a falsehood. So it is logical to avoid it or rather we are obliged to have some touch with it but we minimise that as much as possible except in so far as it is useful for our purpose. We have to turn life from falsehood into spiritual truth, from a life of Ignorance into a life of spiritual knowledge. But until we have succeeded in doing that for ourselves, it is better to keep apart from the life of Ignorance of the world -- otherwise our little slowly growing light is likely to be submerged in the seas of darkness all around it. Even as it is, the endeavour is difficult enough – it would be tenfold more difficult if there were no isolation.

(SABCL, Vol. 23: 851-52)

The very preamble of the Ashram Trust Deed begins in the following manner:

Whereas Sri Aurobindo Ashram at Pondicherry is an institution and a centre of practice for evolution of a kind and form of life which would in the end be moved by a high spiritual consciousness and embody a greater life of the Spirit And Whereas Sri Aurobindo Ashram is the home of persons who are the followers and disciples of Sri Aurobindo having faith in his philosophy and yoga And Whereas Sri Aurobindo Ashram had been established and is being maintained, under the benign care and guidance of The Mother, for the exclusive purpose of helping the devotees towards their educational and spiritual upliftment in conformity with the ideal and teachings of Sri Aurobindo And Whereas a residential university has been opened by The Mother under the aegis of the said Ashram, known as Sri Aurobindo International University Centre for the purpose of imparting such education and training to the students of the said university as will ensure and bring about an all-round mental development and which is entirely based upon the ideal and teachings of Sri Aurobindo…

(Preamble of the Ashram Trust Deed)

The purpose of the Ashram Trust is unambiguously clear in the opening words of the Trust Deed. We need not therefore have any qualms of conscience for being termed as “followers and disciples of Sri Aurobindo having faith in his philosophy and yoga” for which the Ashram was “exclusively” meant. So is the Trust Board contemplating changes in the very object of the Trust Deed by quoting the paragraph on the necessity of scepticism and atheism in society? It is one thing to force on others one’s own point of view and another to invite spiritual disaster by courting falsehood. The first is religious fundamentalism, which is not the case here, as we are not trying to convert Peter Heehs or his associates and supporters, it is he who insists on converting us into materialistic sceptics with his so-called “objectivity”. The second is spiritual suicide by accepting the rank falsehood pervading his book, which has already started eating into the very foundation of sadhana at the Ashram. Should the disciples bear with Sri Aurobindo and the Mother’s denigration in the very heart of the institution that they have dedicated their lives to? Should they take this untenable criticism of their Master without any protest? Should they simply do nothing to prevent this perverted book from getting introduced in the curriculum of universities in India and abroad?

The Trust’s stand on the book

If the Trust’s stand is that the Ashram should not throw out even those inmates who have turned hostile to Sri Aurobindo and the Mother’s work, and that Heehs is one such case, why does not the Trust publicly say so? Why does it then always support Heehs’s book instead of condemning it outright? It is because of this lack of a clear stand from the very beginning of this controversy that we have been driven to ask the same questions again and again, only to be met each time with disappointingly ambivalent answers. “Book is good”, “Book is bad”, “Some portions are good”, “Some portions are bad”, “Not all have found it good”, “Not all have found it bad” – hasn’t this been going on far too long? Cannot the Trust come up with a clear assessment of its own and decide upon an action plan even after two years? Even in this letter, on the one hand it says that it does not want to pronounce on the book because the matter is in the court of law and on the other hand it attaches more than 25 pages of annexures to prove that the book is good. In fact, the Cuttack High Court has given final orders with regard to the banning of the book and a gazette notification to that effect has been published by the Orissa Govt in April 2009. So there is actually no reason for the Trust, except its own unwillingness, to pronounce its opinion on the book!

The Ashram Trust does not care for the opinions of the disciples

And what about the hundred and one postings on our twin sites, livesofsriaurobindo.com and the mirror of tomorrow.com where we have exposed the book threadbare? Why were not these mentioned at all? Or is it that the opinions of the beneficiaries have to be simply brushed aside because the Mother did not mention their role in the administration of the Ashram? But did she say that the beneficiaries should not be consulted? And is it only the prerogative of the Trust to call them for consultation as and when it requires, and not when they come knocking at its door with embarrassing questions, in which case they are told to mind their own sadhana and not meddle with the affairs of the Ashram? “Do your own sadhana” seems nowadays to be a standard recommendation to avoid answering troublesome questions! In any case, apart from the views of the beneficiaries on Heehs’s book, we have posted criticisms of well-known professors and historians such as Dr J.B.P More, Dr. Prithwindra Mukherji, Dr. Ananda Reddy and Dr Sachidananda Mohanty, all of which the Trust has never taken into serious consideration.

Sraddhalu’s stand on the book

The only negative review of the book by Sraddhalu dated 13.01.2009 (Annexure 1) is actually ridiculed by the Trust by pointing out its differences from the soft stance taken by him earlier in his letter dated 14.10.2008 (Annexure 7). I wonder how the Trust finds his stand incoherent or lacking in cogency. Did Sraddhalu ever felicitate Heehs for writing the book? The tone of unequivocal condemnation is present in both his letters. The fact that he advises the Trust not to remove Heehs from the Ashram in the letter of 14.10.2008 does not mean that he supports him. It simply means that he did not want him to become a ‘martyr' by being evicted from the Ashram – which is more or less the Trust’s position, unless the Trustees, with an extra show of catholicity, declare now that they have become enthusiastic supporters of Heehs! The letter of January 2009 is seven pages long and mentions in great detail the reasons why the Trust should publicly distance itself from the book. The letter of October 2008 is short and suggests a way of dealing with the problem of disciplinary action against Heehs, leaving the burden of finding the solution on the shoulders of the Managing Trustee. How are these two stands so different? Most importantly, the second letter was written after a gap of three months after which why only Sraddhalu, but anybody could have changed his mind regarding the course of action to be followed, because it was precisely those three months that convulsed the Ashram life with the deepest anguish due to the inaction of the Trust with regard to this nasty book.

Why things went out of control

It is true that some action was taken and one unsigned circular, without the letter head, and only meant for internal circulation to a few select departments was issued, distancing itself from the book, but that hardly convinced anybody. To think of it, it was the Trust which aggravated the problem with its so called “dignified silence”. When it refused to issue one single statement distancing itself from the book, which would have satisfied most of the disciples of the Ashram, there was no other recourse left but to try to ban the book in India through the intervention of the Court. So also, when not a single disciplinary measure was taken against Heehs except persuading him to temporarily stay away from the Archives, there was no other option left but to move the Court in order to cancel his visa and make him leave India. Even here, one single statement in time saying that Heehs has been removed from the Archives would have defused the situation, instead of waiting until things got almost uncontrollable, and then telling him not to come to the Archives for reasons of his own safety. The Managing Trustee has already said in a recent interview with our group that he intended to bring back Heehs to the Archives after some time, as if he were too eager to let him play the same game all over again. This is truly incredible! For it is like giving the keys of the vault to the robber, even after being robbed once and knowing very well who the robber is. What kind of spiritual catholicity is this? Does this reflect any practical wisdom? Or is there some deeper problem, to put it in the mildest of terms, which prevents the Trustees from taking the necessary action?

Spiritual catholicity and disciplinary measures

What is actually inexplicable is the Trust’s own stand as expressed in this letter. Section C quotes the paragraph from Sri Aurobindo’s Human Cycle in order to imply that we at the Ashram should be catholic and wide-minded, even to the extent of permitting the denial of “assured spiritual truth” such as the Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. Section E then concerns itself with the disciplinary measures taken against an inmate of the Ashram (Kamal Dora), and the follow-up of the case proceedings “not once but twice to the Supreme Court”! Since then, disciplinary measures have been taken against other individuals, one especially with tremendous speed to oust a young and talented physical education instructor out of the Ashram. But here the Trust comes up with a justification for its swift remedial action by saying that “we cannot throw practical and worldly wisdom entirely to the winds and we… have to take our necessary precautions to prevent any potential mischief.” How are these two stands compatible? Or does the Trust only decide when which section is applicable, without needing to explain its contradictory decisions to the beneficiaries? As for its frequent use of quotations from Sri Aurobindo’s books, they are I suppose meant only for those occasions when the Trust prefers not to act! How I wish there were fewer quotations and more disciplinary action in the case of Peter Heehs!

The dig at Ranganath

Finally, about the dig at Ranganath’s involvement in the Savitri corrections case at Alipore. The Trust did not do a favour to Ranganath by providing him legal defence; Ranganath did a favour to the Trust by leaving his work and deposing in front of the court. The main accused in the case was the Trust and the names of Ranganath and many others were included in the petition as co-respondents because of their indirect involvement in the matter – Ranganath was looking after the Ashram Press at that time and he printed the new edition of the Savitri under instructions from the Trust. The Trust itself, along with a few others, was actually responsible for the Savitri corrections. Incidentally, the same Peter Heehs and Richard Hartz figure prominently in this case, which could have been easily settled out of the court with a little discussion and referring the matter to other experts in the same field instead of insisting on the decisions of only one committee.

Raman Reddy

3 July 2010

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