27 Sep 2015

Indians and Westerners in Sri Aurobindo Ashram – by Baikunth

I see a silver lining in the clouds in those few Westerners who dared to stand by Sri Aurobindo at the expense of their national pride and ego. For the true test of the World Unity that all of us aspire for, is not in how we sing and dance and hold our hands together in a symbolic circle when all is well, but in how we rise above national feeling and racial prejudice when differences arise between people from various nations and cultures. Until we can do so, the project of the New World, which Sri Aurobindo and the Mother wanted us to build, will never take off. We will remain on the ground imagining that we are flying high in the sky! [read full article below]  


Indians and Westerners in Sri Aurobindo Ashram by Baikunth

The last post on Amit Shah’s visit to the Ashram Cold Storage is bound to be misinterpreted by the Ashram Trustees as an expression of identity politics by a disgruntled xenophobic Indian. But such misinterpretations are common and come almost as a knee-jerk reaction to whoever dares to establish his Indian identity in India. For Indians are not supposed to assert their individuality; they are taught to efface their identity, spread themselves out into universalism, accept all and reject none, and be ready to even sacrifice all that is precious and sacred to them at the altar of world-culture, whatever that means. It is probably one of the reasons that has motivated the Managing Trustee of the Ashram to protect Peter Heehs at all cost – at the cost of even Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual stature in the public domain. Be that as it may, the purpose of this write-up is not to give reasons for the rightful assertion of the Indian identity, but to analyse the stereotypes surrounding the recent face-off between Indians and Westerners among the disciples of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother on the issue of Peter Heehs.

            What generally happens in such a situation is that the protesting Indian is immediately branded as a “Hindu fanatic” (even though fanaticism hardly exists in the spiritual traditions of India and even if the so-called Hindu fanatic may be an expert on Shakespeare or Walt Whitman). And the Westerner (who has hardly internalised Indian culture because it is basically far below his dignity to do so) becomes the “victimised scholar” targeted by highly charged, Trishul brandishing, arrow shooting Hindu fanatics. The conflict then is projected as a clash between the enlightened scholar from the West (who is supposed to know more about India than Indians themselves do) with the ignorant native who is primarily an idiot with neither the knowledge of the West nor of the wisdom of the East. The next scene is set in motion when political parties and TV anchors jump into the fray and fight for the freedom of expression of this so-called “brave scholar who dared to speak the truth”, and make exciting national news out of it rather than honestly assess his research. This is what exactly happened in the case of Peter Heehs’s hostile biography of Sri Aurobindo. The conflict or rather the argument in the public domain (with the exception of this blog) never reached the level of an in-depth discussion and analysis of his book, because the media and the public soon lost interest in it. So the issue now hangs in the realm of uncertainty, with a flurry of court cases that have been filed against the Ashram Trust by deeply distressed disciples of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. In my opinion, it should hang like that for the next twenty years! It would serve Peter Heehs right for playing the mole for four decades at the Ashram Archives and collecting hostile data on Sri Aurobindo and the Mother!

            Let me dispel another stereotype that accompanies the facile pronouncement of being a Hindu fanatic in the Ashram context. Most Indian disciples of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother do not suffer from xenophobia at all for two reasons. One – the Mother herself was French. If the Mother, whom they regard as the embodiment of the Divine Shakti, could herself be of French origin, how could there be any objections to Westerners from other countries? It means that true spirituality overcomes all differences of race, nationality and culture, and there is essentially no incompatibility between India and the West when it comes to spiritual seeking.

            Two – the independence of India is a far-off event in the past and does not influence anymore present day relationships with other countries, including those which had colonised India. In fact, the West (especially America) has become the El Dorado for the educated upper and middle class Indians, which incidentally include many of the ex-students of the Ashram School. They cannot afford to challenge  Westerners because their whole life and career depends on them being accepted in the West. Strangely, it is these very NRIs (non-resident Indians) abroad who are now turning to Hinduism with a vengeance, having realised the moral bankruptcy of the West, while the resident Indian intelligentsia spends most of its time pooh-poohing Indian culture.  

            I come now to the other side of the picture – what about the Westerners in the Ashram? The xenophobic Westerner (who is waiting to catch me on my back-foot with a wrong remark) will be surprised to read my positive assessment of them. First, the foremost factor that has to be taken into account is that Westerners who have settled in the Ashram have come with a genuine spiritual aspiration. I say this not out of spiritual insight but by sheer common sense. Considering the spiritual and material difficulties of the Ashram, it would have been otherwise impossible for them to stay there for several decades, as some have indeed done and even spent their last days. It is of course a minority, but a respectable minority which has integrated reasonably well with the rest of the Ashram community, which mainly consists of Indians.

            But then what went wrong in the issue of Peter Heehs if relations between Westerners and Indians in the Ashram were so harmonious? Everything went topsy-turvy when the Westerners recoiled back into their shells and insisted on their Western identity instead of looking at the problem from above, without any racial considerations. What became more important than anything else was the protection of one of their kind, who was under attack for good or for bad reasons, and he had to be defended at all cost, even if it was at the cost of what they had come for to the Ashram. The reason why Indian disciples of Sri Aurobindo took strong objections to Peter Heehs’s biography of Sri Aurobindo became an altogether secondary issue as compared to the primary purpose of standing by him in this moment of trial, as if he were an angel surrounded by evil forces baying for his blood. Once this stand was taken, those who were demanding legitimate action against Peter Heehs had to be countered by an argument which sounded good in the present day political atmosphere of India – hence the well-rehearsed accusation of being Hindu fanatics, which is totally out of place in a spiritual institution like the Ashram. And to think that these Westerners had come across the proverbial seven seas in search of spirituality (it is actually far easier nowadays to come to Pondicherry from New York or London than from distant parts of India); to think they had practised the Integral Yoga for decades and dedicated their lives to the ideals of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother; to think they were convinced about the importance of Gurus in the spiritual life and were themselves recipients of their Grace. If after all that, they still behaved like the leftists and secular intelligentsia of India and the West (who are ignoramuses of the first order in the field of spiritual knowledge), and organised themselves into a powerful pressure group to prevent the Trustees from taking any action against Peter Heehs, then surely something was seriously amiss.

            I can only compare this phenomenon with what frequently happens in our daily life and Yoga. How often we come across people who explode in anger or (the reverse) draw back with intense resentment when you make the mistake of touching a raw nerve in their personality? These people are otherwise sober and mature, but when you infringe upon them in certain areas, say in matters of property or power, or human relationships or racial feelings, and if you have crossed the delicate limits of their tolerance, then all hell breaks loose. Try, for example, to sit on your boss’s chair, or build a wall around your unfenced property, or talk about a ruptured relationship to someone who has been on the receiving end, or pyschoanalyse the defects of Westerners in their own language, which is what I am precisely doing! There are bound to be explosions, or implosions! In the Integral Yoga, you would couch it in the following terms: there is generally a total disregard of the higher aims of life when the lower parts of our nature come into play. Sri Aurobindo has extensively elaborated on the necessity of the transformation of this lower nature in man, which he said is the most difficult problem you face in the Integral Yoga. How many seekers get thoroughly drubbed in this inner struggle, how many fall by the wayside or miserably fail and go back to the ordinary life!

            The reaction of most Westerners in the Ashram has thus been a resurgence of their atavistic past, a resurfacing of the old colonial mentality that had remained rooted in the subconscient – it had only to be rubbed hard in order to revive it. Peter Heehs played the role of the scholar-victim with splendid success so that there were hardly any second thoughts among the other Westerners. He had to be right (because he was one of them); there was no question of him being wrong (because he was an American), and so he had to be supported by the entire group regardless of what he had written. Moreover, if Peter Heehs got thrown out of India, what would be the fate of their own visas guaranteed by the Ashram Trust? These were finally the mundane considerations that ruled the day, which made them stand together in one solid block like a minority on the brink of survival. I would not be surprised if the Managing Trustee of the Ashram was simply overwhelmed by this sudden show of solidarity and conceded to their demand out of sheer weakness!

            Readers will be glad to know that a handful of Westerners did stand for Sri Aurobindo, openly criticised Peter Heehs and did not approve of the way the Ashram Trust had handled the issue. But their sane voices were not heard or soon got lost in the din and noise of the conflict. Ironically, some of them were silenced by the threat of the withdrawal of their visas by the Ashram Trust itself, which took a strong position favouring Peter Heehs while stringently punishing all those who criticised him and them. I see a silver lining in the clouds in these few Westerners who dared to stand by Sri Aurobindo at the expense of their national pride and ego. For the true test of the World Unity that all of us aspire for, is not in how we sing and dance and hold our hands together in a symbolic circle when all is well, but in how we rise above national feeling and racial prejudice when differences arise between people from various nations and cultures. Until we can do so, the project of the New World, which Sri Aurobindo and the Mother wanted us to build, will never take off. We will remain on the ground imagining that we are flying high in the sky!  

1 comment:

  1. Comment by an Ashramite:

    Here is a passage from Sri Aurobindo’s Synthesis of Yoga in support of Baikuntha’s anguished cry: “And to think that these Westerners [in this Ashram] came in search of spirituality… dedicated their lives to the ideals of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother… convinced about the importance of Gurus in the spiritual life and… still behaved like the leftists [of India] and [liberals of] the West, and organised themselves into a powerful pressure group to prevent the Trustees from taking any action against Peter Heehs… then surely something is seriously amiss.”

    “For the seeker of the integral Yoga… the experience of the Divine Oneness carried to its extreme is more deeply embraced and amply fathomed by following out to the full the experience of the Divine Multiplicity. All that is true behind polytheism as well as behind monotheism falls within the scope of his seeking; but he passes beyond their superficial sense…. He sees what is aimed at by the jarring sects and philosophies and accepts each facet of the Reality in its own place, but… proceeds farther till he discovers the One Truth that binds them together. The reproach of anthropomorphism and anthropolatry cannot deter him, – for he sees them to be prejudices of the ignorant and arrogant reasoning intelligence, the abstracting mind turning on itself in its own cramped circle…. It is through the human exceeding itself and opening itself to a supreme plenitude that the Divine must manifest itself here, since that comes inevitably in the course and process of the spiritual evolution, and therefore he will not despise or blind himself to the Godhead because it is lodged in a human body, mānusīm tanum āśritam. Beyond the limited human conception of God, he will pass to the one divine Eternal, but also he will meet him in the faces of the Gods, his cosmic personalities supporting the World-Play, detect him behind the mask of the Vibhutis, embodied World-Forces or human Leaders, reverence and obey him in the Guru, worship him in the Avatar. This will be to him his exceeding good fortune if he can meet one who has realised or is becoming That which he seeks for and can by opening to it in this vessel of its manifestation himself realise it.”

    [The Synthesis of Yoga, CWSA Vol. 23, Pages 129-30]

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