24 Oct 2014

Why Sell the Soul for a Mess of Pottage? – by Sampdas

The brief factual Aide-Memoire on the ongoing debate on the book of Peter Heehs titled “The Lives of Sri Aurobindo” could serve to focus on the fundamental issues concerning not just the Sri Aurobindo Ashram commune at Pondicherry but also the extended Ashram body of devotees, disciples and followers of The Mother and Sri Aurobindo – living in India as well as overseas.

Though a large majority of people are aware that there is trouble and mudslinging between those critical of Peter Heehs and those who defend him, the surprising thing is that both the groups have their epicentre at Pondicherry. The fact that the problem has taken a larger dimension about the way matters are handled by the management of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram leaves us in no doubt that all is not well over there.

For the purpose of clarity it is worth mentioning that all who have turned to Sri Aurobindo and The Mother are sadhaks – though not necessarily living physically in the precincts of the Pondicherry Ashram in buildings hired or otherwise. And the Ashram consists of The Mother and Sri Aurobindo and all those who have accepted them as embodiments of the Divine or as spiritual guides on the path of Integral Yoga, and who reach their offerings in physical or monetary form to the Masters through the Ashram Trust. Consistent with this fact, the Ashram Trust exists basically for providing the administrative and managerial support to look after the interests of The Mother, Sri Aurobindo, as well as to assure the basic necessities of life to the Ashram inmates and meet with the requests of the followers of the Masters for correspondence, reaching Blessings to them and logistics for their stay etc. The Ashram Trust (with the exception of The Mother) is neither a team of spiritual leaders nor its Trustees are spiritual successors to The Mother.

Of late it has emerged that not all those who stay within the Ashram precincts, i.e., in the dwelling units at Pondicherry under the aegis of the Ashram Trust, are either devotees or serious spiritual aspirants. The profile of activities of some of those staying there seems to indicate that they are not interested in spirituality or yoga, but are seekers of commercial benefits with profit-motive driven activities and using the cover of the Ashram insignia to further their private ends. It is time that the world at large knows who are on the side of the Divine and who act against the Divine by misusing the trust of the inmates and devotees.

Having said this, let us look at the genesis of the trouble which has brought to the fore the schism and turmoil at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. The inter-personal problems could have brewed from earlier times but became apparent in 2008. A gentleman by the name of Peter Heehs (from USA), who has been staying at the Ashram for around four decades, engaged himself with work at the Archives section of the Ashram. From time to time he was publishing articles in his personal name for commercial consideration, but using the badge or the stamp of the Archives and the Ashram. This probably was happening with the tacit approval or acquiescence of the Ashram Trust management. Though there were rumblings within the Ashram on the activities of such persons, things continued to be under the lid. But the proverbial last straw on the camel’s back was the publication of his book titled “The Lives of Sri Aurobindo” by Columbia University Press in USA in 2008.

The publication has raised a hornet’s nest. The content of the book does disturb many objective readers, disciples, devotees and admirers of Sri Aurobindo, who have a conscience. This owes to the fact that there is a perceptible undercurrent of effort in the book to derate Indian culture and spirituality as well as Sri Aurobindo’s contribution to the freedom struggle of India, despite his being the first Indian to call for Poorna Swaraj. The book also reflects the personal prejudices of the author about Sri Aurobindo as a person, including his physical features and appearance, even though Peter Heehs never had the good fortune of seeing Sri Aurobindo in person! There are also snide snippets on Sri Aurobindo’s integrity, character, knowledge and wisdom, his writings and teachings. The very spiritual content of Sri Aurobindo’s approach and his spiritual dimension are undermined as if it is not original but borrowed from others. (It is a certificate from a person who does not appear to profess any interest in matters of the spirit, notwithstanding his long stay at the Ashram!) Furthermore, there are disgusting references that allude to a conjectured romantic relationship of Sri Aurobindo with his spiritual collaborator The Mother.

Notwithstanding the views and the ill will contained in the book of Peter Heehs, there are still people around who have met the Mother in person and those who have had first hand interface with Her and Sri Aurobindo (unlike Peter Heehs) and who have progressed on the path of Integral Yoga; all of them stand as one to vouch for the spiritual content of the teaching of the manifest glories in human form known as The Mother and Sri Aurobindo.

Perturbed at this slanderous write-up, a group of devotees and good Samaritans knocked at the doors of the Judiciary; this together with the swift response of governmental authorities resulted in the ban on the book’s publication or release in India in April 2009. That Peter and his friends are litigating and making efforts to revoke the ban and his generous offer to come out with a sanitised version of the book exclusively for the Indian audience and readership only gives credence to the underlying motivation of the writer for earning a few more dollars or rupees.

While those who are upset and agitated about the derogatory content of the book are well-wishers of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, those who support or swear by Peter Heehs appear to be well-wishers of themselves and Peter Heehs. The latter category includes the Ashram Trust, who by their silence have demonstrated their tacit acquiescence in the vilification of Sri Aurobindo and his teachings; and some others who were earlier against the scurrilous writing but have subsequently fallen in line with the supporters of Peter Heehs in order to safeguard their personal luxuries and perquisites. The vast majority of the Ashram inmates, who are peeved at the way events are unfolding, are but silent spectators in as much as they are at the mercy of the Ashram Trust which is allegedly threatening to stop their food, stay arrangements and medical facilities if they dare to speak against Peter Heehs or about the rampant mismanagement in the affairs of the Ashram. The Peter Heehs matter according to some is only the tip of the iceberg since there were allegations of alienation of properties of the Ashram to benefit private interests. It was also alleged that there were cases of sexual harassment of women inmates! Possibly taking note of these, the Pondicherry Government moved in for cleaning up the stables of the Ashram Trust. An enquiry was ordered by the Pondicherry Govt, but the Ashram Trust approached the Court against the enquiry. When the Madras High Court was pleased to order an enquiry in 2013, they had to reluctantly relent. The enquiry however did not proceed fast since the initially appointed retired Judge could not continue the work owing to his taking up practice at the Supreme Court of India, and the second Enquiry Judge unfortunately breathed his last in January 2014. The matter stands still and stalled as of now.

Be that as it may, the present write-up in this posting is mainly concerned with the Peter Heehs matter. A quick reference to it in the nature of an aide-memoire is presented below to recapitulate the basis of the controversy for the benefit of all, especially for those who still strive to uphold the cause of Peter Heehs. Since much has been written on this matter, my endeavour now is to highlight only select postings on this site, which would help in appreciating the various ramifications. The write-ups referred here can be viewed from the year of reference and corresponding to the date and title as given below.

(2) In the Main Menu of this site, the list of Categories of Postings indicates the broad types of postings published on this site. The nature of distortions by Peter Heehs are given under different headings. (December 12, 2008)

(4) “Squint Eyed Scholarship” – by Nileen Putatunda (November 23, 2012). Reproduced from an article in The Statesman dated 17 November 2012.

(5) In addition there is an interesting correspondence between Manasi Pahwa (a Ph.D scholar, Dept. of Psychology, University of Delhi) with Peter Heehs. A set of three letters brings out in bold relief the defective tenor and content of the biography. (October 30, 2008)

(6) Though the book is banned in India, excerpts from it are available on the web. Further, the discourse by those who have had access to it overseas is reflective of the twisted nature of the book’s contents. It is a monumental effort that Peter appears to have done to portray Sri Aurobindo in as bad a light as possible, right from his appearance and physical features to his health, even commenting on a supposed kidney problem and malfunctioning of the urinary organs, as if Heehs has seen Sri Aurobindo in person. Some references to the distorted and derating writeup by Peter Heehs along with scholarly comments exposing the distortions can also be found at another site with the title below:

Some samples of the sordid contents are quoted there from the relevant pages of the book of Peter Heehs. Viz:

§    History of Kidney trouble page 406
§    Undermining the Adesh page 204
§    Misleading remarks page 328
§    Distortion of the episode involving Vivekananda’s 
guidance to Sri Aurobindo in Alipore jail page 178

Even if those who support Peter Heehs are unconcerned about his derating Sri Aurobindo, they should at least sit up on reading the following references to the disciples and inmates of the Ashram in the book. Read below the extract from page 373 :

“Such experiences were comparatively infrequent even for those who were advanced enough to have them. As a rule, people spent most of their time in what Sri Aurobindo called the lower consciousness, caught up in the play of ordinary thought and emotion. They did their work, but sometimes argued with their colleagues. They met their neighbors, and sometimes slandered them behind their backs. At home they read Sri Aurobindo’s works, or indulged in sexual daydreams. They attended pranam, and sometimes were consumed by jealousy because the Mother smiled more warmly at another. Then, while walking on the pier or sitting at home or dusting books in the library, they might again be lifted above the mind and perceive the one soul in all, or plunge into their heart and feel the fire of the psychic being.”

This is just a sample to read and digest (or not to digest)!

Opinionated writers and those writing for lucre can bend themselves and the facts, but for a person, who claims to have lived in the Ashram for many decades, writing this kind of stuff on Sri Aurobindo and his disciples is appalling.

It is known the world over that Sri Aurobindo was not only an Intellectual par excellence, but a Philosopher, Yogi, Nationalist and a Pioneer in unravelling the further course of evolution for humanity – from man to superman. What is most striking is that he did not found any religion but emphasised on the spiritual content of life. The true followers of Sri Aurobindonian thought are not religious zealots but those who believe in the perfectibility of man and the transformation of human life to Life Divine. To have missed out on the basics of spirituality despite being a resident in the Ashram, the effort of Peter Heehs claiming to write an intimate biography, with his colourable subjective opinions, looks a classic case of “Being nearest to the Church but farthest from God”! Possibly he would very well fit into the description in Savitri:

In a narrow plot he has pitched his tent of life.
(Sri Aurobindo, Savitri, p 166)

While the real reason for such an effort of denigrating Sri Aurobindo would be known only to the author of the book, there is a surmise that the derating biography penned by a so-called “insider” could possibly be to sensationalise trivia to whet the appetite of a certain breed of modern scholars who rejoice at the character assassination of national and international heroes of the Orient. Surely such books would have brisk sales raking in moolah! This is in line with the mischievous writings of Wendy Doniger and Jeffrey Kripal as specialists on India.

The work of Peter Heehs in my view cannot be ranked as authoritative since he never had any personal interaction with The Mother or Sri Aurobindo, but has devoted his time and energy to scout for stray events or views of others and to quote them out of context to paint Sri Aurobindo in bad light. Nor does it appear to be comprehensive since Peter does not seem to have understood the writings of Sri Aurobindo or the basis of spirituality, let alone the Integral Yoga. Nor for that matter it could be ranked as a scholarly effort since his intention is to twist the writings of Sri Aurobindo by quoting views which are prejudicial to him and out of sync with his Yoga and spiritual philosophy – Peter has done this to suit his own prejudices thereby giving a go-by to objectivity.

Despite the long stay, neither Peter Heehs nor his supporters seem to have come across what The Mother said as early as 3 June 1939 :

“It is not a question of disobedience. I know nothing about your additions to the Life Sketch of the sources from which they were taken. My point of view is this, that anything written by a sadhak about Sri Aurobindo which brings him down to an ordinary level and admits the reader to a sort of gossiping familiarity with him is an unfaithfulness to Him and His work. Good intentions are not sufficient, it is necessary that this should be understood by everybody.”

(Words of the Mother 1, p 27, Volume I3, CWM, 2003)

Though uttered in a different context, another quote from The Mother’s words appears apposite to Peter Heehs and his supporters:

“Well, I am constantly struggling against people who have come here so that they may be comfortable and “free to do whatever they like”, so ….I tell them “The world is big enough, you can go out”-- there is no soul, no aspiration, nothing….. To be satisfied with petty personal satisfactions….which take you nowhere, busy with what they are going to eat, oh!”….But the flame, the flame of aspiration, there are not many who bring it. Provided they are what they call ‘comfortable’, it is all they need – and free, to do some nonsense which they would not do in the world!”

(The Mother, Notes on the Way, Volume 11, p 252, CWM, 2003)

The above message can very well be deemed to be tailor made for Peter Heehs.

Those who continue to defend the atrocities against Sri Aurobindo by supporting Peter Heehs in the name of freedom of expression should ask him to exercise his freedom outside and not from the sheltered cocoon of the Ashram. The facilities and freebies given to Peter and his cohorts, who enjoy the free food, free stay and other benefits from the funds of the Ashram, is an insult and injustice to the thousands of devotees and disciples of Sri Aurobindo, who chip in with their resources for the upkeep of the Ashram and for furthering the yoga and ideals of Sri Aurobindo.

The defenders of Peter Heehs as well as the silent majority of the inmates of the Ashram should also be reminded of the story of the two brothers Esau and Jacob in the Bible as narrated by The Mother:

“In the Bible there is a story I have always liked very much. There were two brothers, if I am not mistaken, Esau and Jacob. Well, Esau was very hungry, that’s the story, isn’t it? I believe he was a hunter or something; anyway, the story goes like this. He came back home very hungry, and told Jacob he was very hungry, and he was so hungry that he said to him, ‘ Listen, if you give me your mess of pottage’ (Jacob had prepared some stew), ‘if you give me your mess of pottage I will give you my birthright’. You know, one can understand the story quite superficially, but it has a very profound meaning: the birthright is the right of being the son of God. And so he was quite ready to give up his divine right because he was hungry, for a concrete, material thing, for food. This is a very old story, but it is eternally true.“

(The Mother, Volume 6, p 162, CWM 2003)

Well, the issue is before all of us – should we be a party to selling our birthright of belonging to The Mother and Sri Aurobindo for a mess of pottage? If we are true to our calling, the way forward is clear for each of us, which is indicated so aptly in Savitri:

Remember why thou cam’st,
Find out thy soul, recover thy hid self,
In silence seek God’s meaning in thy depths,
Then mortal nature change to the divine.
Open God’s door, enter into his trance.

(Sri Aurobindo, Savitri, p 476)

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