28 Jan 2016

Response to FIRSTPOST on the Scheme Suit issue – by Bireshwar Choudhury

On 14 January 2016, the Editor of the FIRSTPOST has referred in passing to the petitioners of the Scheme Suit in a most disparaging manner in an article titled “SC has shown great foresight in striking against proxy PILs as instruments of intimidation”.  As an admirer of this website, which has dared to take on the likes of Wendy Doniger, it is strange that it has now decided to support one of “Wendy’s children” – Peter Heehs (read this post). But I hope I can attribute this error to factual ignorance and unfamiliarity with the recent problems in Sri Aurobindo Ashram. If that be the case, I would like to point out a few outright errors in the write-up for the clarification of the larger readership connected with the FIRSTPOST, which hopefully would set the record right or at least give us a chance to give our version of events on its website. I quote from the article:

While the case of the book is currently in the Orissa High Court, the excerpt based on which the dissolution is being sought, is to any mind, anything but sacrilegious; on the contrary, it is deeply reverential, as the following paragraph reads.
     "Early in the afternoon the Mother rejoined him, and they walked together to the small outer room where they sat together on a sofa, the Mother on Sri Aurobindo's right. Here they remained for the next few hours as ashramites and visitors – more than three thousand by the end of the 1940s – passed before them one by one, "There is no suggestion of a vulgar jostle anywhere in the moving procession,” a visitor noted. "The mystic sits bare-bodied except for a part of his dhoti thrown around his shoulders, a kindly light plays in his eyes,” Sri Aurobindo looked directly at each person for a moment "the moving visitor is conscious of a particular contact with these [eyes] as he bends down to do his obeisance. They leave upon him a mysterious 'feel' that baffles description. The contact, almost physical, instils a faint sense of a fragrance into his heart and he has a perception of a glow akin to that spreading in every fibre of his being.” Most visitors had similarly positive experiences. But some, particularly those from the West, were distracted by the theatricality of the setting and the religiosity of the pageantry.” [Emphasis added] (Lives of Sri Aurobindo by Peter Heehs, pp 399-400)

I wonder if the Editor of the FIRSTPOST has himself read the passage that he quotes to prove that the Lives of Sri Aurobindo by Peter Heehs is “deeply reverential”! Has he read the last sentence at all? Peter Heehs writes that Westerners witnessing the Darshan of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother in Pondicherry “were distracted by the theatricality of the setting and the religiosity of the pageantry “! If the Editor of the FIRSTPOST could not catch the sarcasm behind this sentence, it only means he has been fooled (like so many others) by the rest of the passage which is positive in content. This is a familiar literary device called the ”Oxford Sandwich” which Peter Heehs uses throughout his derogatory biography of Sri Aurobindo. I quote from an excellent article by Govind Rajesh published on our site: 

In fact, this is a well-known literary device called an "Oxford Sandwich", which W.W. Robson in his book "The Definition of Literature and Other Essays" describes as follows "you begin by praise, then say something quite lethal, and round it off by praise again" (page 133). This literary device could be a perfect allegory for the book [Lives of Sri Aurobindo] as a whole, and is precisely what makes it so contentious. While seeming to present a façade of objectivity and even positivity on the surface, the book, in fact, bristles with insidious suggestions designed to worm their way into the minds and hearts of readers and fill them with perverse distortions of Sri Aurobindo’s life and works.

I  quote further from the same passage in the Lives:

Vincent Sheean, a well-know American journalist…as he stood in line to have darshan, with incense swirling around him and people throwing themselves at the guru’s feet… was hit by “a shock of sledge-hammer quality, to see human beings worshipped in this way.” Failing to make sense of it, he at least was glad to see that “whatever others may think or say”, Sri Aurobindo did not seem to “to be deceived or befuddled by these extravagant manifestations.” (Lives, pp 399-400)

The American journalist is obviously shocked by disciples falling at the feet of their reverend Master, because he does not have an iota of spirituality in him. Any Indian with some grounding in Hindu tradition would not at all be shocked at the bhakti and adoration expressed by the devotees, unless he has been totally “secularised” like those praising Wendy Doniger’s sexual interpretations of the goddess Kali.  Moreover, the fact that the Orissa Gazette Notification quoted the first portion of the passage in its notification does not at all mean that it banned the book on the basis of this passage only. The Gazette Notification was passed after a thorough study of the book and after receiving thousands of letters from aggrieved devotees and after lakhs of them signed petitions against it. Even the majority of the members of Sri Aurobindo Ashram signed a petition urging the Ashram Trust to publicly condemn the book, which it never did, in spite of finding it highly reprehensible. For that matter, Sri Aurobindo Society, which has around 400 centres and 16000 members if not more, unilaterally condemned it in no uncertain terms and questioned the authenticity of the documentation. It is worthwhile quoting its statement in the May 2012 issue of the All India Magazine.

Important note for all the Members, Branches & Centres of the Society on the book “The Lives of Sri Aurobindo” by Peter Heehs

Our Branches & Centres have made queries regarding the controversy that has been created by the book “The Lives of Sri Aurobindo” by Peter Heehs, an ashramite. Head Office has been repeatedly asked as to what is the stand of Sri Aurobindo Society in this connection.

This matter was discussed in detail by the Executive Committee of Sri Aurobindo Society and the following decision was taken: 

“After having read the book ‘The Lives of Sri Aurobindo’, by Peter Heehs, the Executive Committee of Sri Aurobindo Society has come to the conclusion that the book, at many places, presents facts and information based on unreliable sources and contains misrepresentations and distortions of the life, work and yoga of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. The book also puts down other biographies written by scholars and devotees, which are certainly not hagiographies and have inspired a large number of devotees, seekers and scholars.  All these biographies are available with SABDA, the official sellers of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother’s books and other related books. ‘The Lives of Sri Aurobindo’ has not been allowed by Sri Aurobindo Ashram to be sold at SABDA.

Sri Aurobindo Society strongly disapproves of the book.” 

Here are a few more snide remarks of Peter Heehs on Sri Aurobindo to convince those readers who are not familiar with this highly objectionable book:

“Weak and inept on the playing field, he [Sri Aurobindo as a child] was also... a coward and a liar.” (Lives, p 17)

“Called to the office to explain, Aurobindo told a series of lies.” (p. 30)

[With regard to Sri Aurobindo losing his temper, Hemendraprasad noted,] “Well, if you take the clothes away there remains little to distinguish one human radish from another” (p 112)

“I suspect a tinge of lunacy is not absent in him.” (p 112)

“Aurobindo, go eat Tilak’s shit!”(p 140)

“Still, partition and the bloodletting that accompanied it were the movement’s principal failings, and Aurobindo and his colleagues have to take their share of the blame.” (p 212)

[That his yoga led him to the experience of] “spontaneous erotic delight” (p 245)

[On the Life Divine:] “Most members of the philosophical profession – those who have read him at all – would be loath to admit him to their club.” (p 277)

The Defence of Indian Culture is a polemic from the start to finish. (p 296)

“Aurobindo’s own poetry, rooted deeply in the soil of the nineteenth century, was out of date before it saw print.” (p 306)

The book is chockfull of such insulting remarks on Sri Aurobindo, which are usually speculative and not at all based on authentic documents. His standard method is to fire over the shoulders of other critical writers and pretend innocence, or write a paragraph or two in a positive manner followed by a most damaging comment. All these objectionable portions have been analysed threadbare on our site for the sake of those who are not familiar with the spiritual philosophy and facts of Sri Aurobindo’s life. If the first time reader does not have enough time to fully explore our site, I would advise him to click on the link below to get at least introduced to some of these objectionable extracts:

Finally, with regard to the general observation of the Supreme Court on avoidable litigation in the Scheme Suit Order, I quote a passage from it which has been deliberately left out in the reports of the secretaries of the Ashram Trust:

It is time for all of us, litigants, lawyers and judges to introspect and decide whether a litigation being pursued is really worth the while and alternatively whether an amicable dispute resolution mechanism  could  be availed of to settle the dispute to the satisfaction of the litigants.  Most problems have a positive solution and a concerted effort  must  be  made  by all concerned to find that solution of  least  resistance  to  the  problem. This is not only in the interest of the parties involved but also in  the larger interest of the justice delivery system.
(Paragraph 4, Page 2 of the Supreme Court Order)

It is clear that the Supreme Court is urging both parties in the Scheme Suit – the disciples as well as the Ashram Trustees – to settle matters amicably and find the “solution of least resistance to the problem”. For those who do not know what transpired prior to the filing of the Scheme Suit, let it be noted in indelible letters that the Ashram Trust did not even listen to the protesting disciples in most cases, and even if they gave a hearing, did very little to soothe their feelings with regard to the vilification of Sri Aurobindo. It is primarily this intransigent attitude of the Trust that aggravated matters to a flashpoint and left the disciples no other option but to seek justice in the Court of Law. In the beginning of the crisis, when Pranab Kumar Bhattacharya (personal attendant of the Mother and head of the Ashram Physical Education Department) supported the view of the disciples, the Trust resorted to a cat and mouse game with him because of his huge popularity among the followers of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, both within the Ashram and centres outside. A petition signed by him and the majority of the Ashramites, demanding (1) the immediate removal of Peter Heehs from the Ashram Archives and (2) issuing a public condemnation of his book, was handed over to the Ashram Trust in October 2008 – only to be contemptuously ignored.

After Pranab Kumar Bhattacharya died in January 2010, there was no strong personality for the Ashramites to rally around and to oppose the Trust’s wilful inaction with regard to Peter Heehs. In May-July 2010, three senior disciples of the Ashram, Kittu Reddy, Ranganath Raghavan & Sumita Khandpal (an ex-Collector) exchanged letters with the Trust after a couple of fruitless meetings with the ever evasive Manoj Das Gupta, the Managing Trustee. The correspondence abruptly ended with the Trust threatening them with stern legal action in its letter of 2nd July, 2010.  (Should this be called intimidation of the Trust by the disciples or the reverse? The truth is that the present Ashram Trust has constantly intimidated the inmates by the threat of the withdrawal of food, shelter and other basic necessities of life, because of which most of the inmates have been forced into silent and shameful submission.) At this point, after all that had happened, Manoj Das Gupta said he was constrained to bring back Peter Heehs to the Archives – this was the last straw on the camel’s back. It was after he voiced this preposterous intention to reinstate Peter Heehs as the chief Editor of the Ashram Archives in spite of writing such an obnoxious biography of Sri Aurobindo, that the Scheme Suit was filed by five Ashramites on the 23rd of August 2010.

The fact that the Scheme Suit was admitted four times, twice in the Pondicherry Court and twice in the Madras High Court, shows that it was certainly not a frivolous suit meant only to harass the Trustees of the Ashram. It should also be mentioned that the Supreme Court did not deem it frivolous either. It dismissed it for the very technical reason that the Orissa High Court had not arrived at a final judgment on the book, without which the Scheme Suit could not be admitted, because the latter was closely linked to the former. The Scheme Suit was filed to dismiss the Trustees for not taking action on Peter Heehs, who was an inmate and had written a book that went against the very grain of the Ashram. But as long as the final judgment on the book itself was pending, there was not sufficient ground to dismiss the Trustees, despite the Gazette Notification of the Orissa Govt. banning the book in April 2009.

All said and done, the Ashram Trust has managed to win the case through clever court tactics, deceitful public stands and tacit support to Peter Heehs. In the Court it has praised to the skies his so-called scholarship! Outside the Court, it has expressed its strong displeasure with regard to his book, and removed him from the Archives. (It has yet to be seen whether Peter Heehs will be reinstated with full honour as the Chief Editor of the Archives!) Finally, it has defended him tooth and nail on the basis of free speech, while at the same time taking severe action on all those who dared to criticise him and the Trustees. This is the sordid tale of the Ashram Trust’s duplicity and double game behind the serene atmosphere of Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Incidentally, this serene and peaceful atmosphere, which every sensitive visitor to the Ashram spontaneously feels, is due to the occult presence of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother which persists not because, but despite the arrogant and inept administration of the present Ashram Trust.

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