5 May 2013

An Analysis of the Preface of Peter Heehs's "Sri Aurobindo: A Brief Biography", OUP, 1989


Peter Heehs wrote two biographies: Sri Aurobindo: A Brief Biography, OUP, 1989 (Bio-1), and The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, CUP, 2008, (Bio-2). He also planted a life-sketch of Sri Aurobindo in an anthology of Indian saints, maybe to test the tactic used in Bio-1 and imply Sri Aurobindo’s rank among them. This part of my article scrutinises Bio-1’s Preface, the second will scrutinise that of Bio-2. The third part will compare a few of the facts and interpretations in both vis-à-vis relevant facts from what Peter calls variant accounts.

* * *

Preface of Sri Aurobindo: A Brief Biography, 1989, (Bio-1)

This is a masterpiece of well-sculpted elusiveness. Peter’s full positions on specific points are cut up, altered, implanted in unrelated arguments or explanations. To unravel a full position and weave the pieces in an unbroken paragraph, I had to repeat and remerge them with their soul-mates in several passages. In the section “Peter’s attitude and approach”, his text is in Italics and mine in Roman, hoping to make the overall reading smooth and comprehensible.

Peter’s attitude and approach–A:
Peter satisfies the legitimate but conflicting claims of both, students of history and social sciences, i.e., materialists,[1] and devotees or spiritual aspirants. The first require a work of scholarship: well researched, documented and objective, making no unwarranted assumptions or unverifiable claims and providing facts and interpretations based on facts. The second look principally for spiritual guidance and uplift… mainly in anecdotes and examples, not facts and interpretation… are apt to consider documentation unnecessary and to be offended by an objective tone. To satisfy both types of readers, Peter fulfils the three laws of non-hagiography: It is based on 15 years’ research in primary source materials and its paramount reliance is on documents. But the third law: A scholarly biography cannot be devotional in tone raises a dilemma: since for forty-five of his seventy-eight years, Sri Aurobindo was engaged in the practice of yoga, the correct attitude…towards the inner experiences of this period could be neither the passivity of the believer nor the aggressiveness of the debunker. To avoid the commitments of a disciple as well as a debunker, Peter devised the critical openness of the seeker of truth which, he claims, made it legitimate for him to assume that spiritual experiences are (or let us say, can be) genuine experiences of actual realities. This assumption authorized him to deal successfully with Sri Aurobindo’s inner experiences – whether emotional, intellectual, or spiritual…in appropriately inner terms. Neither the implacable debunker-scholar nor the credulous disciple-scholar can achieve what his non-devotional acceptance of the validity of spiritual experiences has. For it permits the investigation of all inner and outer events in Sri Aurobindo’s life and all his inner and outer attitudes to them without explaining any outward happenings in the subject’s life by the religious fraud of supernatural intervention, or rejecting spiritual phenomena by invoking the debunker’s ploy of up-to-date dei ex machina of Marxist, Freudian or other provenance. This makes Peter’s biography the only one to deal evenly with all the different aspects of Sri Aurobindo’s life: domestic, scholastic, literary, political, revolutionary, philosophical, spiritual.

My Comments:
Four standpoints here disobey the First Rule for Admission to Sri Aurobindo’s Ashram: “The conditions for admittance as a member of the Ashram are: the call of the way and spiritual purpose of this Yoga; an entire and one-minded readiness for surrender and the giving up of all else for the One Truth; acceptance by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.”[2]

1) Peter’s primary reliance on documents (which are necessarily based on the document writer’s bias);

2) trusting only his own mental interpretations;

3) posing as a seeker of truth with a critical openness to spiritual phenomena in spite of knowing Sri Aurobindo’s statements: “In Yoga, obedience to the Guru or the Divine and the law of the Truth as discovered by the Guru is the foundation of discipline”; “If the mind is shut up in its own ideas and refuses to allow the Mother to bring in the Light and the Truth…then one is not open”;

4) espousing a non-devotional acceptance of spiritual experiences to adjudicate if Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual experiences were actual realities or not.

Did the concerned  authority of Sri Aurobindo Ashram fully read this two-faced biography, produced at such an inordinate expense to the Ashram for the personal gain of this so-called ‘disciple-Ashramite’ since 1971, while defying Sri Aurobindo’s own warning against writing his biography: “You have persisted in giving a biography – is it really necessary or useful? 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.” Compare the Ashram  sadhak Gangadhar, who obeyed the basic rules of sadhana and by his uncritical openness, obtained psychic and spiritual insights and experiences that gave him more than adequate knowledge of Sri Aurobindo and the significance of his life and his work.

Peter’s Attitude and approach–B:
(1) Orthodox scholars write from the spiritual point of view, hence they are liable to extend methods appropriate to the study of inner experiences to outward happenings.

(2) Most full-length biographies of Sri Aurobindo have been written from a spiritual point of view, and most do tend, Peter asserts quoting Leonard Gordon, [3] to “read back the holy man into the earlier stages of his career”. Unchecked this tendency would result not in biography but hagiography. “Almost without exception,” Gordon says again, “they have given readers the life of a saint, who they assume was an avatar. The human characteristics and personal drama have been lost in the process.” I agree that the human side of Sri Aurobindo has not been adequately brought out in any existing biography.

My Comments:
(1) These opinions reflect those of Neo-Darwinian Richard Dawkins: “a) a Darwinian worldview makes belief in God unnecessary; b) truth is grounded in explicit (scientific) proof; c) religion offers an impoverished and attenuated vision of the world; d) religion leads to evil.”[4]

(2) Neo-Darwinians would denounce ‘orthodox’ scholars who read back the holy man into the earlier stages of his career. To them the concept of a psychic being evolving through reincarnation is odious fiction, as is the belief that the spiritual view reads back the holy man down to his birth, because it is concerned with the soul and not the drama of its present ephemeral mind-life-body. Had Peter ever experienced the spiritual reality, he would have rather held that a biographer, writing from the spiritual standpoint, can illustrate how the inner experiences and outward happenings actually form two strands of the subject’s life.

(3) Note the obfuscating use of almost, most, most do tend in a blatant accusation.

(4) Again, he rejects the disciple’s devotion, denies Sri Aurobindo’s avatarhood; repudiates the spiritual point of view in dealing with events and attitudes in the earlier stages (1872-1905) of Sri Aurobindo’s career (!?) as if they can only have been the same as his (Peter’s) own; and vows to bring out Sri Aurobindo’s human side, his external human characteristics and personal drama. This recalls the comment by R. Mark, after reading Peter’s second biography The Lives of Sri Aurobindo: “Perhaps it is part of the common trend nowadays, to ‘humanize’ people of inspiration and accomplishment, by focussing more on the trivial than the meaningful – and what is meaningful is reduced to bland analysis. It is almost as if there is an effort to take Sri Aurobindo down a notch, or knock him off his pedestal.”[5]

Peter’s Attitude and approach–C:
Most full-length biographies of Sri Aurobindo have been written from a spiritual point of view, and most do tend to “read back the holy man into the earlier stages of his career”. Unchecked this tendency would result not in biography but hagiography. The charge of hagiography has often been levelled against Sri Aurobindo’s previous biographers. Some two dozen biographies of Sri Aurobindo have been published in half a dozen languages. Only four of them have been based even partly on original research: A.B. Purani’s Life of Sri Aurobindo, K.R. Srinivas Iyengar’s Sri Aurobindo, and Monod-Herzen’s Shri Aurobindo (French), and G.S. Raychaudhuri’s Sriarabinda o Banglay Svadeshi Yug (Bengali). Most of the rest are simply rewritings of Purani, with a few facts from Sri Aurobindo’s autobiographical writings added here and there. Are these four original works hagiographic? Certainly not Raychaudhuri’s! Though not so hostile to his subject as some have alleged, [6] he was certainly not overly sympathetic. In the other three writers a bias in favour of Sri Aurobindo is clearly visible. This is not surprising since all of them were disciples or devoted admirers of their subject…. The principal fault that could be levelled against them is lack of research and uncritical dealing with their limited sources. Only Purani made significant use of primary documents. None of the three sought out and analysed variant accounts. When their source erred, they erred along with it. These shortcomings are more than balanced by the advantage enjoyed by the three writers: they all had access to Sri Aurobindo and they were able to elicit from him a great deal of indispensable information. For this I and all future biographers must be indebted to them.

My Comments:
(1) Note how deviously Peter condemns Purani, Iyengar, and Monod-Herzen as incompetent scholars. He criticises their work as false portrayals of Sri Aurobindo for breaking the following taboos of materialistic scholarship: writing from the spiritual point of view, favouring Sri Aurobindo, not giving primacy to documents, accepting everything Sri Aurobindo said as true without analysing and defying them with accounts by other, even hostile, sources.

(2) What passes as Purani’s Life of Sri Aurobindo since 1978, was practically rewritten by Peter – Purani died in 1965.

(3) Peter is silent on the spiritual biography Sri Aurobindo or the Adventure of Consciousness because he knows that unlike us naïve Ashramites, Satprem’s admirers won’t appreciate his critical openness judging it. Consider this remark by an American on Peter’s The Lives of Sri Aurobindo: “To cut a long story short, to truly get a glimpse of Sri Aurobindo and his life and philosophy, one would be wise to spend his/her money on Satprem’s classic Sri Aurobindo or the Adventure of Consciousness. This book seems to be biased, despite its claims to objectivity.”

(4) Were Peter honest, he would admit the infinite gulf in his own situation and that of Purani, Iyengar and Monod-Herzen in researching, amassing, and organising source documents. While they got little help from Ashram authorities, he was the head of an Ashram department set up exclusively to collect, organise, and preserve documents on the life of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. Instead he throws at them rotten crumbs of indebtedness for their hard-earned information meant solely for sincere disciples.

(5) For Peter, variant accounts generally means adverse (esp. British Govt reports), even irrelevant ones; we shall expose one such variant account to malign Sri Aurobindo.

A Humble Disciple

[1] Social Darwinism’s “revised evaluation of the human is called ‘the Copernican principle’… formulated by Stephen Hawking as follows: ‘We are insignificant creatures on a minor planet of a very average star in the outer suburbs of one of a hundred billion galaxies. So it is difficult to believe in a God that would take care of us or even notice our existence.’ ” Georges van Vrekhem’s Evolution, Religion, and the Unknown God, Amaryllis, Manjul Pub. House Pvt. Ltd., 2011; p.115.

[2] Rules of Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 2003, p. 1.

[3] Quoted from Leonard A. Gordon’s Bengal: The Nationalist Movement 1876-1940, New Delhi: Manohar, 1979; pp. 101, 102, and 106. Note that in current terminology ‘nationalist’ means fascist.

[4] Georges van Vrekhem’s Evolution, Religion, and the Unknown God, Amaryllis, Manjul Publishing House Pvt. Ltd., 2011; p.150. Biography-2’s portrayal of Dr K.D. Ghose reveals Peter’s atheistic Darwinism.

[5] Mark R., customer-review of Peter’s The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, on Amazon.com, 14 Aug, 2011.

[6] See Sri Aurobindo on Raychaudhuri’s book in Autobiographical Notes…, CWSA-36, complied by Peter.

1 comment:

  1. It has always been my view that The Many lives of Sri Aurobindo, tells us more about Peter Heehs than Sri Aurobindo.
    I am pleased to see this first step towards analysing Heeh's motivations. Western male scholarship would like to pretend it is able to be objective, detached, without any agenda at all, which is in itself delusional. This view was challenged in the West during the gender wars of the 1970's, but never achieved fruition as many women intellectuals, retired to the broom cupboard, known more generally as Women Studies, others went off into what is generally derided as New Age.
    Personally if western males wish to waste this life time, in mind games rather than tackling the much more difficult task of spiritual sadhana, its their choice, I have not interest in their musings.