14 Jun 2013

An Analysis of the Preface of Peter Heehs's "Sri Aurobindo: A Brief Biography", OUP, 1989 (Part 2) ― A Zombified Disciple

MURDERS IN THE LAND OF THE NAÏVE — 2

Peter Heehs wrote two biographies: Sri Aurobindo: A Brief Biography, OUP, 1989 (Bio-1), and The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, CUP, 2008, (Bio-2).[1] He also planted a life-sketch of Sri Aurobindo in an anthology of some Indian saints, maybe to test the tactic used in Bio-1 and imply Sri Aurobindo’s rank among them. This part of my article analyses the rest of Bio-1’s preface. Parts 3 and 4 will take up the preface of Bio-2. Part 5 will compare a few of the facts and interpretations in them with relevant facts from variant accounts.

            Peter’s opinions on specific points are cut up, masked, and implanted in unrelated passages. To unravel these opinions and weave their pieces in an unbroken paragraph, I had to often repeat and remerge the pieces with their soul-mates in other passages. Peter’s text is in Italics and mine in Roman.

Peter’s Attitude and approach – D):
(1) No one has tried to deal evenly with all the different aspects of Sri Aurobindo’s life: domestic, scholastic, literary, political, revolutionary, philosophical, spiritual. I have attempted…to give adequate attention to each of these aspects.

(2) My main problem has been to balance the conflicting claims of two different classes of readers: students of history and social sciences i.e., materialists, and spiritual aspirants. Readers in the first class 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. Readers in the second class are looking principally for spiritual guidance and uplift…are interested mainly in anecdotes and examples, not facts and interpretation. They are apt to consider documentation unnecessary and to be offended by an objective tone. A biographer who wishes to reach them must share their assumptions and make appropriate claims.

(3) I believe that the needs of both types of readers are legitimate and I feel that the present volume has something to say to each. My form, method and tone all are scholarly; at the same time much of the book is devoted to Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual life and thought.

My Comments:
(1) Who can rightly judge if all aspects in the life of one absorbed in spirituality for 45 of his 78-years, have got adequate attention? Peter, whose theoretical preconceptions arbitrate Sri Aurobindo’s account of his life against his documents? Whose non-devotional scholarly mind decides if Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual experiences are actual realities or delusion? Can his materialist readers, for whom “there is no inner reality, and consequently, no spirituality,”[2] be the right judges? Or spiritual aspirants, who know that the Spirit is the sole Reality which influences, guides, and finally possesses all surface human characteristics and personal drama of life?

(2) To claim that balancing the needs of materialists and spiritual aspirants is a problem is sheer drivel; both needs are present in all. The history of Science and Spirituality is replete with highly developed personalities – Teilhard de Chardin and Sri Aurobindo are two such cases – in whom science and spirituality co-existed. “Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual practice, his ‘spiritual realism’,” says George van Vrekhem, “has always taken the sciences as known to him fully into account, and weighed the contents of their worldview against the profoundest spirituality of the past and his personal experience.” [3]

(3) Peter’s claim of giving equal legitimacy to the claims of fellow materialist-foxes and disciple-hares is an outright lie. His real problem is how to indulge the foxes and fool the hares. So he pompously offers to the foxes intellectual substance: My form, method, and tone all are scholarly. And what does he throw to the hares?  Much of the book is devoted to Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual life and thought! But this is baloney! Hares know too well that devoted to Sri Aurobindo does not mean ‘written as a devotee or disciple of Sri Aurobindo’, but ‘about’ or ‘space allocated to’ or ‘portion assigned to’ Sri Aurobindo’!

Peter’s Attitude and approach – E):
(1) The scholarly biographer of a saint or yogin, faced with evidence about outward happenings that is not in accord with his preconceptions, is not permitted to explain it away by invoking the deus ex machina of supernatural intervention.

(2) It seems equally dubious to me to explain away spiritual phenomena by invoking up-to-date dei ex machina of Marxist, Freudian or other provenance.

(3) When a sociologist [Gordon[4]] interprets Sri Aurobindo’s interest in spirituality as ‘a way of handling a situation of cultural aggression’, he seems to me to be telling us more about his theoretical preconceptions than about Sri Aurobindo’s discernible motives. It is even worse when a historian [same Gordon] strays out of his field into the formula-ridden morass of pop psychology, suggesting that Sri Aurobindo’s ‘lifelong obsession with mother figures dates from his childhood’, or that his rejection from the ICS was due to his ‘fear of failure’. If one is to deal successfully with inner experience – whether emotional, intellectual or spiritual – one must deal with it in appropriately inner terms.

My Comments:
(1) This law against explaining outward happenings in a yogi’s life in spiritual terms arises from the central assumption behind the three laws of scholarly biography Peter holds sacrosanct, viz., it cannot be devotional. And which Gods framed these inviolable laws? The leftist ‘secular’ clique ruling India’s scholarly world! Bio-1 is not his first offering at this sacred altar.[5]

(2) In his outward Ashram life Peter showed himself a talented playwright and actor. Here he plays the dual-role of a Certified Fox who denigrates Sri Aurobindo and his disciples, and a Heroic Hare who springs to their defence:

a)    Certified Fox convicts Purani, Iyengar and Monod-Herzen, (why not Satprem?) of lacking in scholarly objectivity because they wrote from the spiritual point of view, which, he explains, is not surprising since all of them were disciples or devoted admirers of their subject. Heroic Hare contests this verdict: But admiration, even discipleship, is not proof of total lack of objectivity. It is true that none of these three had anything unflattering to say about Sri Aurobindo, but neither did they engage in gratuitous glorification.

b)    Hares are not permitted to explain outward happenings in a yogi’s life by the religious fraud of invoking supernatural intervention; but foxes may explain away spiritual phenomena by invoking up-to-date dei ex machina of Marxist, Freudian or other provenance, without seeming to do it.

c)     Certified Fox validates Gordon’s charge that the human side of Sri Aurobindo has not adequately been brought out in any existing biography, and Heroic Hare softens it: but this does not in itself convict the authors of the total lack of objectivity implied by the word hagiography. In order to make the charge stick, it would have to be shown that they were so intent on glorifying Sri Aurobindo that they distorted the entire picture. Both know the charge sticks by the Fox God’s dictum “Thou shalt not be devotional!”

(3) Brother Gordon should have set aside Sri Aurobindo’s interest in spirituality as a political ploy to resist European culture without seeming to, like Peter’s India’s Freedom Struggle[6] craftily slashed Sri Aurobindo’s political role to a disposable footnote. So should Gordon have deviously psycho-analysed Sri Aurobindo’s life-long obsession with mother figures as a sexual fantasy rooted in a motherless childhood. In sum, only Peter’s critical openness of the seeker of truth[7] can precisely explain his subject’s inner experiences in appropriately inner terms – rejecting even the subject’s own account. In the next section playwright Peter depicts the last two days of Sri Aurobindo.

Peter’s Attitude and approach – F):
(1) 4th and 5th December 1950: (1) Sri Aurobindo fell into what the doctors assumed to be a terminal uraemic coma; but it was a strange sort of coma, from which the patient seemed to be able to emerge at will.

(2) During his periods of full outward awareness Sri Aurobindo spoke to his attendants, and

(3) even, when the end drew near, kissed these faithful companions of his last years. Some time after midnight on 5 December 1950 he plunged within for the last time, and

(4) at 1.26 a.m. his vital functions ceased.


My Comments:
(1) This falsification of facts is meant to cast aspersions on the following statement of Nirodbaran, the doctor-disciple in attendance on Sri Aurobindo from 1938 to 1950: “He was now always indrawn, and woke up whenever he was called for a drink. That confirmed the Mother’s observation that he was fully conscious within and disproved the idea that he was in uraemic coma. Throughout the entire course of the illness he was never unconscious.”[8]

(2) This distortion of facts implying that there were also periods of unconsciousness, as there would be if Tom, Dick and Peter fell in such a coma, is invented to adequately bring out the human side of Sri Aurobindo.

(3) Isn’t this sly mutation of attendants into faithful companions meant to provide scope for a homosexual interpretation of Sri Aurobindo by Peter’s soul-mate Jeffrey Kripal? An attendant (says the Chambers Dictionary) attends or serves; a companion keeps company voluntarily or as a profession. The only eye-witness accounts of these scenes are by Dr. Nirodbaran and Dr. Sanyal. Here is Dr. Sanyal’s: “Though He seemed to be unconscious He was not, which was evident by the fact that He drew Champaklal several times to his breast and kissed him lovingly…this emotional behaviour was evident here for the first time.”[9] And here is Nirodbaran’s: “It was during this period that he often came out of the trance, and each time leaned forward, hugged and kissed Champaklal who was sitting by the side of his bed. Champaklal also hugged him in return. A wonderful sight it was, though so strangely unlike Sri Aurobindo who had rarely called us even by our names in these twelve years Sri Aurobindo’s impersonal nature kept at bay all personal touches except during out birthday or Darshan pranams, when he would pat and caress our heads. Now Champaklal had his heart’s yearning gratified to the full extent…. Was it the repayment of God’s debt to his ‘servant’ for his lifelong dedicated service without the expectation of any other meed than perhaps some occasional look or touch or word? For my part too, I can count a few glowing touches…when I did pranam on my birthday…and the last Darshan day, he was unusually tender and caressed and pressed my head for a long time. But the climax of the wonder came when I was massaging his right leg [on 4th December]. He was quietly lying down in bed; I was within the reach of his right hand. As I bent down, I suddenly felt a quick touch of his palm on my head. At once I looked up; all was as before. His gaze was elsewhere as if he knew nothing about it…. About ten minutes before the grand end, he called me by name from his indrawn state, inquired about the time and said, “Nirod, give me a drink.” This was his deliberate last gesture…there was no apparent need of calling me by name.”[10] Are these accounts written by gay companions?

(4) So will Peter and I conk out; but Sri Aurobindo controlled his vital functions, they ceased only because he willed it.

Peter’s Attitude and approach – G):
This biography is a short work and does not pretend to be comprehensive. It is meant as a popular introduction to the subject. I hope it will mark the beginning of the critical study of a remarkable life.

My Comments:
We naïve Ashramites took this popular introduction as written by a spiritual seeker[11], and thought that its cover-picture, a painting of Sri Aurobindo in 1915 by a Danish artist known to the Mother, was chosen by an Ashramite[12]. But we never imagined Peter’s comprehensive and critical study of Sri Aurobindo’s remarkable life promised here would materialise as The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, the very antithesis of a disciple’s homage to his Master. It is an infinitely more sordid affair than the Revised Edition of Savitri published in 1993 that began with a lot of fanfare in 1980[13]. Is the climax yet to come in The Lives of Mirra Alfassa, a.k.a. Mother? Or have his sponsors postponed this crowning achievement in view of the popularity of The Mother’s Agenda compiled by Satprem?

Peter’s Attitude and approach – H):
A full list of the people to whom I am indebted would occupy a disproportionate amount of space. But I must acknowledge the help and encouragement I have received from various members of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives and Research Library. Thanks are also due to the Trustees…to quote from Sri Aurobindo’s works. Neither the Ashram nor its Archives is in any way responsible for ideas or opinions expressed or implied in these pages.

My Comments:
Is it a disciple’s reverence that affixed Sri to all the seventeen times Aurobindo occurs in this preface? And his self-effacement the reason for not providing the reader with the details of his own life and work environment: on how and why he became a disciple and when an Ashramite; on how Mr Jayantilal Parekh, the late head of the Ashram Archives, promoted and protected him at an infinitely more disproportionate amount of trouble; on how without the innate liberality of Mr. Manoj Das Gupta, his writings would have been in limbo; on how hundreds of disciples all over the world offered every facility, thinking he worked for the Ashram? No. This fake self-effacement was aimed to dupe the Ashram while assuring the leftist Gods of his fidelity, like his fake bio-data in 1988: “In 1971 Peter Heehs settled in Pondicherry [not as a disciple of Sri Aurobindo]. He is a research scholar [not an Ashramite] at the Sri Aurobindo [not the Ashram’s] Archives and Research Library, specializing [meaning?] in the life and politics [not the Yoga] of Sri Aurobindo.”[14] The Ashram never woke up to that bio-data and the book’s intentional insult to Sri Aurobindo. But self-effacement in this preface and playing both Certified Fox and Heroic Hare in Bio-1 was his only safeguard: to admit being a fox could force the Ashram to review his licence to publish anything, anytime, anywhere; and to appear as a hare could invite censure from the leftist Gods. The strategy worked: The Fox Gods were gratified, the naïve disciples were zombified, and the Ashram took up the sale of Bio-1 without any hesitation.

Heil Dr. Heehs, Master of the Uncritical Openness of a Seeker of Falsehood!

A Zombified Disciple

Refer to Part 1 of the Analysis published on 5 May, 2013 on this site.


[1] Presumably both were read and approved by the Ashram Trust as per Rule No. 6 on p.5 of its Rules of Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 2003: “Nothing should be sent out for publication (contributions to newspapers and magazines, or books) without having been first submitted to Sri Aurobindo for approval.”

[2] Georges van Vrekhem, Evolution, Religion, and the Unknown God, Manjul Pub. House Pvt. Ltd., 2011; p.207.

[3]  Georges van Vrekhem, op.cit, p.80.

[4] Gordon, Leonard, A: Bengal: The Nationalist Movement 1876-1940. New Delhi: Manohar, 1979.

[5] Read India’s Freedom Struggle, OUP, 1988: adaptation of his prize-winning entry at a Delhi Govt. contest.

[6] Ibid.

[7]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.” [SABCL 25:123-24] – “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.” [CWSA 35:672]

[8] Twelve Years with Sri Aurobindo:  Nirodbaran, 3rd Edition, 1988; p.274-75

[9]A ‘Call’ from Pondicherry”, Dr. Prabhat Sanyal, Mother India, Nov-Dec 1953 and Dec. 1991

[10] Twelve Years…, p.275

[11] For the spiritual seeker the only development he seeks is the development of the psychic and spiritual consciousness…because it is necessary to reach and to serve the Divine…. – Sri Aurobindo [SABCL 23:520]

[12]By definition the Ashramite has resolved to consecrate his life to the realisation and service of the Divine.” – The Mother [CWM 13:117]

[13] In his Archives & Research, 1980, Peter’s critical openness declared: “[My] editorial staff…verify material already published [to produce] new editions of old books, in which newly discovered material is added, and old texts are checked carefully…in a few years a critical text of [Savitri] will be brought out.” (p.93); “The duty of the editor is to present the text exactly as [I decide] the author would have wanted it presented.” (p.199); “If the editor…resorts to emendation, it is to set right a manuscript reading that [to me] is clearly not what the author intended.” (p.200)

[14] On the inside cover of India’s Freedom Struggle, OUP, 1988.

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