9 Feb 2014

Analysis of the Preface of P. Heehs’ The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, CUP, 2008 (Part 4) ― A Zombified Disciple

Murders in the Land of the Naïve – 6

Heehs wrote Sri Aurobindo: A Brief Biography, OUP, 1989 (Bio-1), The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, CUP, 2008, (Bio-2) and much else in the same vein.[1] I analyse Bio-1 and 2 and their prefaces using his device critical openness of a seeker of truth and his diktat: Biographers must take their documents as they find them…, paying as much attention to what is written by the subject’s enemies as by his friends, not giving special treatment even to the subject’s own version of events. Accounts by the subject have exceptional value, but they need to be compared against other narrative accounts, more important, against documents that do not reflect a particular point of view.
All text in Italics is from Bio-1, Bio-2 and their prefaces; all in Roman is mine. I have often interspersed my comments in Roman within Marcher’s text which is always in italics.

Peter’s Attitude and Approach F: I first encountered Aurobindo in 1968 in a yoga center on 57th Street in Manhattan. The teacher was an elderly Polish Jew with a suitably Indian name (so a turncoat?)…. Among the artefacts he brought back from India were photographs of people he called “realized beings” (so a turncoat?)…. One of them was of Aurobindo…I did not find it particularly remarkable as the subject wore neither loincloth nor turban, and had no simulated halo around his head. A few months later…I found myself living in another yoga center…(which) had the most complete collection of Aurobindo’s his writings in New York… for the next four years…I did a lot of reading, primarily, of Aurobindo…. Now and then I thought about travelling to India…. A week after my arrival, I found myself living in the ashram Aurobindo had founded. I might not have stayed if I had not been asked to do two things I found very interesting: first, to collect material dealing with his life; second, to organize his manuscripts and prepare them for publication… [For,] it had never occurred to anyone to search systematically for biographical documents…. But when I began to write… I found that…anything that cast doubt on something that he said was taboo, even if his statement was based on incomplete knowledge of the facts…anything that challenged an established interpretation, even one that was clearly inadequate.

My Comments as his hagiographer: Marcher was a mature youth of 20 when he first encountered Aurobindo and by his Daemon’s grace knew Aurobindo for a fraud. Next month, he found himself (= without conscious willing) at a certified Yoga center, took an in-depth Yoga-course and, awarded a Black Belt in Yoga at 24, became a Seeker of Truth qualified to judge Aurobindo’s inner lives in appropriately inner terms. Next, obeying his Daemon’s adesh, he found himself living in Aurobindo’s ashram, the authorities of which promptly asked him to do two things which no disciple ever showed interest or ability to do systematically. He founded Aurobindo Archives, collected and classified every good, bad and ugly written and oral data on his subject both in ashram and outside. At the same time he acquired Black Belts in ashram’s and India’s biographies, histories, religions, sociologies, and politics, to (re)interpret everything by and on Aurobindo, and created the only authorised biographies in appropriately scholastic terms Simultaneously, he built himself a real Cave of Tapasya, equipped it with the latest yogically-electronic gadgetry, linked his fast-evolving Yoga with the evolving world, and created the Only True Evolutionary Yoga from which, I shall quote in the last part of this series.

My Comments as his biographer: Mutated by his Daemon, Marcher’s mind (re)interprets everything in its muddied puddles of objective facts. Check out this trivial-looking instance: Bio-1 indexes him under “Sri Aurobindo” but Bio-2 under “Ghose, Aurobindo”. Now three instances relevant at this stage:

First instance: How and why Sri Aurobindo became a revolutionary.
[A] Sri Aurobindo’s account (compare the underlined here and below): At an early age (1884-86), he began first to be interested in Indian politics of which previously he knew nothing. His father began sending the newspaper The Bengalee with passages marked relating cases of maltreatment of Indians by Englishmen and he wrote in his letters denouncing the British Government in India as a heartless Government. At the age of eleven (1883) Aurobindo had already received strongly the impression that a period of general upheaval and great revolutionary changes was coming in the world and he himself was destined to play a part in it. His attention was now drawn to India and this feeling was soon canalised into the idea of the liberation of his own country. But the ‘firm decision’ took full shape only towards the end of another four years. It had already been made when he went to Cambridge (1890).” By then “he had studied with interest, the revolutions and rebellions which led to national liberation, the struggle against the English in mediaeval France and the revolts which liberated America and Italy. He took much of his inspiration from these movements and their leaders, esp., Jeanne d’Arc and Mazzini…. His habit in action was not to devise beforehand and plan but to keep a fixed purpose, watch events, prepare forces and act when he felt it to be the right moment. His first organised work in politics (grouping people who accepted the idea of independence and were prepared to take up an appropriate action) was undertaken at an early stage, but took regular shape in or about 1902.[2]

[B] Bio-1 and Bio-2’s interpretations in a combined form (compare the underlined here and above): Shelley’s ‘Revolt of Islam’…the story of a struggle from freedom set in a mythic East, but patterned on the French Revolution, helped turn Aurobindo’s maturing thought [=ignorant of actual realities] in the direction of political action.[3] He read it ‘again and again’, and touched by something in Shelley’s imaginative recreation of the French Revolution, resolved to dedicate his life ‘to a similar world-change and take part in it’. He had by then ‘received strongly the impression that a period of general upheaval and great revolutionary changes was coming in the world’, and he felt destined to play a part in these changes. This feeling was at first not specially connected with India, about which ‘he knew nothing’; but soon his father – whose opinion of the British had changed radically as a result of his unjust and humiliating transfers, unjustifiably nurtured his son’s interests [=fantasies] by sending cuttings from a Calcutta hence unreliable newspaper “with biased passages marked relating to cases of maltreatment of Indians by Englishmen” and, blinkered by rancour, to condemn the Indian government  as ‘heartless’. When Aurobindo learned of conditions in his homeland [not motherland, mother-figures are fatal!], his general commitment to revolutionary [political above] action was ‘canalised into the idea of the liberation of his own country’. In his reading of history, he concentrated on [≠ Sri Aurobindo’s “studied with interest”], ‘the revolutions and rebellions which led to national liberation’, and made heroes of Joan of Arc, Mazzini, and others who fought against foreign domination. The last sentence, Bio-1’s, stops to quote at ‘led to national liberation’ lest Americans know that Aurobindo also made heroes of the founders and movements of their homeland to oust the same alien leeches, and empathy infects their soul! Bio-2 omits even this disinfected mention.[4]

Second instance: Conditions that brought him into and out of active politics.
[A] Sri Aurobindo’s account: “There were three sides to Sri Aurobindo’s political ideas and activities… a secret revolutionary propaganda and organisation of which the central object was the preparation of an armed insurrection… a public propaganda to convert the whole nation to the ideal of independence… the organisation of… a public and united opposition and undermining of the foreign rule through… noncooperation and passive resistance. [He] believed that although the British would… only concede very slowly such reforms as would not weaken their imperial control… if they found resistance and revolt becoming general and persistent they would in the end…prefer to grant independence…. [His] first move [was] revolutionary propaganda and recruiting throughout Bengal….. Meanwhile Sri Aurobindo had met a member of the Secret Society in Western India…. [He] took up on his own responsibility the task of generalising support for its objects in Bengal…. One of the ablest men in these revolutionary groups was S.G. Deuskar who had written a popular life of Shivaji in Bengali in which he first brought in the name of Swaraj, afterwards adopted by the Nationalists as their word for independence…. Sri Aurobindo preferred to remain and act and even to lead from behind the scenes… [When prosecuted] as editor of the Bande Mataram… he became openly… a prominent leader of the Nationalist party, its principal leader in action in Bengal and the organiser there of its policy and strategy…. After a detention of one year as an undertrial prisoner in the Alipur Jail, he came out in May 1909, to find the party organisation broken, its leaders scattered by imprisonment, deportation or self-imposed exile and the party itself still existent but dumb and dispirited and incapable of any strenuous action. For almost a year he strove single-handed as the sole remaining leader of the Nationalists in India to revive the movement…. But at last he was compelled to recognise that the nation was not yet sufficiently trained to carry out his policy and programme. For a time he thought [of taking up] a less advanced Home Rule movement or an agitation of passive resistance… [But] saw that the hour of these movements had not come and that he himself was not their destined leader…. In February, 1910, he withdrew to a secret retirement at Chandernagore and in the beginning of April sailed for Pondicherry in French India…. Eventually he cut off connection with politics… and went into complete retirement.”[5]

[B] Bio-1’s account: Between 1900 and 1906 Aurobindo tried to build up a revolutionary network in Bengal and attempted to link these groups to the secret society he had joined in Bombay in 1902. Between 1905 and 1910 he was one of the leaders of the advanced [= fanatical] nationalist party known as the Extremists. After 1906, he put most of his energy into politics [but] exercised general control over his revolutionary network. Important matters of policy, such as decisions to kill officials, were usually referred to him. He did not choose to halt or redirect their [terrorist] activities, arguing that ‘it is not wise to check things when they have taken a strong shape, for something good may come of out them’ and later claimed that the general idea was taken up and activity of many groups led to a greater and more widespread diffusion of the revolutionary drive and its action’. Surely, this makes him the father of Indian terrorism? At the 1906 session of Congress…the Extremists generally had the better of the Moderates…. At the same time the British were growing aware that the Extremists posed a genuine challenge…the result was that they and Moderates joined forces…“to moderate the evil passions of the Bengali” Extremists without delaying the reforms that the Morley-Minto govt had promised. From May 1908 a concerted govt campaign crushed political ‘extremism’ and revolutionary activism. From the moment of his acquittal [2 May 1909] the govt. had been looking for a way to put him back in jail…. As his influence grew, the provincial govts of Bengal and the imperial govt of India regarded him with increasing anxiety. The Chief Secretary of govt of Bengal wrote of him as “the most dangerous of our adversaries now at large”. The same epithet was used by the Lt. Governors of East and West Bengals, and later by the Viceroy, who referred to him as ‘the most dangerous man we have to deal with at present’. In December 1909, after the failure of the Extremist-Moderate negotiations, he issued a major policy statement in ‘To My Countrymen’ where he condemned the Moderates for rejecting the Extremists’ hand of fellowship, and criticized the Govt for deluding the country with the sham Morley-Minto Reforms. In January 1910, revolutionists indirectly connected with Aurobindo assassinated a police official…. Through February and March the Govt studied the merits of the case, finally deciding to act early in April. An arrest warrant was issued but it could not be served, for Aurobindo had left the province.[6]

[C] Bio-2’s account: In October 1906, Lord Minto told a deputation of influential Muslims…: “You justly claim that your position should be estimated…in respect of the political importance of your community and the service it has rendered to the Empire.” In December 1906, the first meeting of the All-India Muslim League was held. Its stated aims were “to protect the cause and advance the interests of our co-religionists throughout the country” and “to controvert the growing influence of the so-called Indian National Congress.” This declaration marked the beginning of sectarian politics in India [Note!]…. Seeing the Extremists…happy with the results of the 1906 Congress session, the Tory press in England exploded: “…it is well for the small and highly-educated classes [=Moderates] that the British sword stands between them and their native enemies.” In 1908, while govt was jailing Extremists, it was building bridges with the Moderates. In exchange for toning down the nationalist movement, it would be rewarded with seats in the legislative councils under the Morley-Minto Reforms. Since his release from jail [2 May ’09], Aurobindo advised revolutionary leaders such as Jatin Mukherjee…but his position as the country’s most visible Extremist made more active involvement impossible. This explains why, in 1909, the lull in revolutionary activity, after the arrests of 1908, began to heat up again. In November 1909 an unknown terrorist [on his orders?] threw a bomb at Lord Minto in Ahmedabad – a coconut that only dispersed the crowd! A month later, members of a Maharashtrian group [on his orders?] shot and killed the district magistrate of Nashik. Then, on January 24, 1910, a young Bengali named Biren shot Calcutta detective Shamsul Alam at the Alipore courthouse. Biren was captured, but his accomplice Satish…ran to tell Jatin Mukherjee who had planned the assassination [on his orders?]. Rather rashly, Jatin told Suresh to go and inform Aurobindo. He was, Satish later recalled, “very happy” to hear the news. Aurobindo’s happiness doubtless was genuine, but his feelings about terrorism had changed. [The primary source that gives Marcher genuine happiness to implicate Sri Aurobindo as the veiled General of all terrorists is this note of Lt. Gov, West Bengal, to Viceroy in May.08: Aurobindo is able, cunning, fanatical…. He is the leader…in forefront of all, advising seditions writing and authorising murder. But he has kept himself, like a careful and valued General, out of sight of the ‘enemy’.] After weighing the benefits of terrorism… he concluded that…govt retaliation would paralyse “the hope and the effort to revive the…broader and calmer Nationalism”. On February 8, 1910, govt passed a new Press Act spelling the end of the free expression of political opinion…. He then ceased to write about politics…. On the 11th February 1910, his uncle and the other eight deportees returned… Four [or five] days later he was told that he was about to be arrested…. The moment for his departure [flight] had come.[7]

Third instance: The Adeshes that brought him to Pondicherry.
[A] Sri Aurobindo’s account: Sri Aurobindo’s first turn to spiritual seeking came in England in the last year of his stay there…. In his studies… of the “Six Philosophies” of India he was especially struck by the concept of the Atman… [To] convert the abstract idea into a concrete and living reality in his own consciousness [he conceived] it as something beyond or behind this material world – not having understood it as something immanent in himself and all and also universal…. [The] vast calm which descended upon him at the moment when he stepped first on Indian soil [6Feb.’93], the vision of the Godhead surging up from within when in danger of a carriage accident in [1893], the realisation of the vacant Infinite [1904], the living presence of Kali in a shrine in Chandod [1904-5] were experiences [that came] of themselves…. [By then] his habit in [political] action was not to devise beforehand and plan but to keep a fixed purpose, watch events, prepare forces and act when he felt it to be the right moment.  [In 1904] he began his practice of Yoga – not to clarify his ideas, but to find the spiritual strength which would support him and enlighten his way [for] he carried on both [Yoga and politics] without any idea of opposition between them…. [In 1907-08] Lele [his only helper in Yoga] asked him [if] he could surrender himself entirely to the Inner Guide within him and move as it moved him…. This he accepted and made that his rule of sadhana and of life.… Since his twelve months’ [2May.08—2May.09] detention [as an undertrial prisoner], which had been spent entirely in the practice of Yoga, his inner spiritual life was pressing upon him for an exclusive concentration. [But] he was determined to continue the [political] struggle…. [It was] Uttarpara [that] for the first [and only] time he spoke publicly of his Yoga and his spiritual experiences….  Meanwhile the Govt were determined to get rid of him as the only considerable obstacle left to the success of their repressive policy. As they could not send him to the Andamans they decided to deport him…. [One] night at the Karmayogin office [he] received information of the Govt’s intention to search the office and arrest him. While considering what should be his attitude, he received a sudden command from above to go to Chandernagore in French India. He obeyed the command at once, for it was now his rule to move only as he was moved by the divine guidance and never to resist and depart from it… in a few hours he was at Chandernagore where… he plunged entirely into solitary meditation and ceased all other activity. Then there came to him a call to proceed to Pondicherry…. At Pondicherry, from this time onwards [his] practice of Yoga became more and more absorbing. He dropped all participation in any public political activity....[8]

[B] Bio-1’s standpoint: 1) A scholarly biography cannot be devotional therefore he does not need to be a disciple or devotee. 2) Aurobindo was engaged in the practice of yoga only after 1905, so he does not need any belief, faith or interest in spiritual matters to deal with his life before 1905 – in other words Sri Aurobindo’s experiences from 1883 to 1905 (those we have just read Sri Aurobindo relating), were not spiritual. 3) He claims to have dealt with the period after 1905 by merely a non-devotional assumption that spiritual experiences…can be genuine experiences of actual realities – in other words, even after 1905, what Sri Aurobindo calls spiritual experiences may not have been experiences of actual realities, just hallucinations. 4) He claims to deal with Sri Aurobindo’s inner experiences – emotional, intellectual, or spiritual – in appropriately inner terms, but does not reveal his own spiritual experiences and status which give him the spiritual authority to judge all of Sri Aurobindo’s inner experiences.

Bio-1’s account: One evening in mid-February, Aurobindo was informed that the next day the Karmayogin office would be searched and he arrested. “While considering what should be his attitude, [Marcher is quoting Sri Aurobindo] he received a sudden command from above to go to Chandernagore in French India. He obeyed the command at once, for it was now his rule to move only as he was moved by the divine guidance and never to resist and depart from it…in a few hours he was at Chandernagore where he went into secret residence.” [Ridiculing this quote, he adds] Chandernagore, a town 20 miles from Calcutta, was under French administration. So long as he stayed there he was safe from British arrest. Nevertheless, after about a month he received another adesh telling him to go to Pondicherry, another French enclave a 100-miles south of Madras. [What he means is that these commands, adeshes, were lies invented decades later, the actual reality was that it was a mentally planned escape to French territories which everyone knew were perfect bolt-holes for absconders from British Law. To amplify this actual reality he has discovered, he twists another statement of Sri Aurobindo.] Since his release from Alipore jail [i.e., as a convict on serving his term], his “inner spiritual life” had been “pressing upon him for an exclusive concentration”. Once settled in Pondi he could give his full attention, free from the demands of his friends [Extremists and terrorists] and the harassment of his enemies [British Govt]…in order to complete his Yoga unassailed. [But why illicitly insert the phrase free from the demands of his friends and enemies when the rawest spiritual aspirant knows that exclusive concentration on inner spiritual life at the stage Sri Aurobindo then was could only be assailed by hostile occult forces, not any human friend or enemy? In order to link Sri Aurobindo to the activities of Extremist politicians and terrorists that continued after he retired to Pondicherry.

[C] Bio-2’s standpoint: A biographer can use the subject’s diaries, letters, and…accounts by others of similar mystical experiences. But in the end, such experiences remain subjective. Perhaps they are only hallucinations or signs of psychotic breakdown. Even if not, do they have any value to anyone but the subject?

Bio-2’s account:During his last few months in Calcutta, he had felt a strong pressure to devote more of his time to yoga, and his stay in Pondicherry reinforced this feeling…. On February 8, 1910, Govt passed a Press Act that… spelled the end of the free expression of political opinion. He therefore announced in the Karmayogin that the paper would abstain “from comment on current Indian politics or criticism of Govt….” He also got the idea [planned] of learning a little Tamil and engaged a Malabari pandit for the purpose. His desire to learn a language that was of no use to him in Calcutta seems to have [=did] stemmed, at least in part [=yes and no], from his contacts with men from the Madras presidency. In July 1909, he had met one of the promoters of [Extremist Chidambaran Pillai’s] Swadeshi Steam Navigation Co. of Tuticorin; the next month he gave an interview to India, a Tamil weekly published by [terrorist] Srinivasacharya one of the company’s main promoters. Toward the beginning of 1910 Srinivasacharya’s brother came to Calcutta and told him how after the editor Bharati was arrested for sedition in 1908 [fallout of Alipur Bomb Case], they had shifted to the French-ruled enclave in Pondicherry. Quite possibly on 15th February Aurobindo…and some others were sitting at the Karmayogin office when their friend Ramchandra burst in and said that he was about to be arrested…. After a minute Aurobindo stood up and announced that he was going to Chandernagore…. Years later he explained [cloaking his cowardice] that…he went within and heard a voice – an adesh – that said “Go to Chandernagore”. He obeyed it without reflection. Had he given it any thought [=he did] he would have found good [rational] reasons to comply: Chandernagore [even idiots knew] was a French possession [so] the best place near Calcutta to go [to hide]. The adesh also came at an opportune moment [Ha, ha!]…. By his own account, his “habit in action was not to devise beforehand and plan but to keep a fixed purpose, watch events, prepare forces and act when he felt it to be the right moment.” [This was his habit in action in Feb.1893 not in Feb.1910! The own account merely corrects a biographer’s idea that on return from England in 1893, “he did not know what exactly he should do to make himself useful to his country-men”. By Feb.’10, he had “in full…the realisation of the silent, spaceless and timeless Brahman…and that of the cosmic consciousness and of the Divine as all beings and all that is…after that it was impossible for him” not “to rely wholly on the Divine and his guidance alone both for his sadhana and for his outward actions.” Such is the reliability of this Seeker of Truth!] Aurobindo’s friends in Chandernagore had difficulty sheltering him.… Then sometime in March, he received another adesh: “Go to Pondicherry.” Pondicherry, the capital of the French settlements in India, was more than a thousand miles to the south [safest bolthole]. After working out [mentally, not supramentally] the outlines of the plan, he wrote notes to…M and…C, giving each a mission [=planning like a criminal mastermind. Then the coup de grace]. In retrospective accounts, he mentioned [only to disciples, hence unreliable] his adesh and the need to concentrate on yoga as the reason for his withdrawal from politics.[9]

[1] Presumably they were 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] SABCL 26:3-4, 17, 18
[3] A fantasy patterned on the bloody French Revolution, helped turn a child-mind to political action – the subtle clashes of bourgeois ambitions-interests! For his real opinion on political versus revolutionary actions see his comments in the next two instances. 
[4] Bio-1:11-12, 8, plus Bio-2:15
[5] CWSA 36:47-52, 8
[6] Bio-1:38, 41-43, 51-52, 61-69
[7] Bio-2: 114-15, 124-25, 166, 201-05
[8] CWSA 36:6-10, 8, 61-64
[9] Bio-2: Preface, 226, 202-11

1 comment:

  1. Just a minor quibble. It is my understanding tuat Peter Heehs was born in 1949. I also understand he arrived at the Ashram in 1969 at the Ages of 20. If he spent 4 years involved in the NY ashrams he would have first encountered Sri Aurobndo at age 16 or thereabouts. As usual an e,cellent article