29 May 2019

"Deliberate Distortions of Sri Aurobindo's Life and Yoga" – edited by Raman Reddy


This book is a counter to the vicious attack on Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual stature that came in the form of a hostile biography of him by Peter Heehs entitled The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, published by Columbia University Press in 2008. All the articles in this book are in defence of Sri Aurobindo and many of them have been written by well-known historians and academicians. Though the book is written in support of the disciples and followers of Sri Aurobindo and their spontaneous rejection of the gross distortions of their Master’s life and teachings, the refutations themselves are based on a scholarly study of Sri Aurobindo’s works and a thorough examination of the historical facts of his life. I hasten to make here a necessary clarification with regard to the study of great spiritual personalities such as Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.
There is a general assumption that spirituality and rationality don’t go together just as feeling and reason cannot operate at the same time. So either you believe in an “irrational” way in spiritual realities as disciples do, or you accept only things which come under the strict purview of reason, as overconfident secular scholars do. But for those of us who have outgrown this narrow attitude of looking at things, we have a mixed bag of assumptions. We believe in the truth of spiritual experience on the testimony of those who are spiritually advanced, but we also believe in the truth of reason which bases itself on material facts. And we do not see any essential contradiction in holding both positions as long as we treat them according to the laws and principles of their respective domains. This does not mean that our judgment of spiritual events is devoid of rationality, with a total suspension of logic and commonsense, or that our reason has no connection whatsoever with spirituality. For there is a lot of common ground and mutual compatibility, which often allows us to buttress faith with reason, or realise the shortcomings of faith in the light of reason, and even perceive the limitations of reason itself vis-à-vis faith and spiritual knowledge.  This has of course enormously increased the scope for subjective errors in our judgment, but it has given us at the same time a much larger view of life, because it includes the vast inner domains of the Spirit as well as the material world around us. The strictly objective scholar will be horrified at this liberal attitude, but then if he rejects the truth of the Spirit only because of the complications that it may bring to his scholarship, then one day or the other the grand edifice of his erudition will crumble down with the rapidly widening horizons of spiritual knowledge in modern times.

I will give several examples of what the regular scholar and historian would consider taboo for fear of being ostracised by his peers. Take for instance the Adesh (a divine command) which Sri Aurobindo received in Calcutta to go to Chandernagore, and another one to go from there to Pondicherry. The regular historian would not even mention it; he would simply narrate the facts and conclude that he was a coward who ran away to French India in order to avoid being arrested by the British Police. Or take Sri Aurobindo’s experience of Nirvana and other spiritual experiences, it would be literally blasphemy for him to take them seriously. If he is forced to mention them, he would have to bring in the play of imaginations and hallucinations to explain them to his readers. Similarly, the topic of the Self or the Soul would have to face either a stiff silence or a severe reprobation. In the realm of spiritual associations he would see only sexual relations, and there would be no question of brahmacharya, a yogic practice with which we are familiar in India since times immemorial. As for the Supermind and the different planes of consciousness described by Sri Aurobindo in such great detail, I am sure tomorrow a super-clever scholar will map them into the various layers of the human brain. This indeed is the petty modern interpretation of spirituality, and it is because Peter Heehs had to constantly bear in mind this view of leftist scholars who have dominated India and the West, that he had to mess up his biography. Otherwise, he would have been rejected outright and even shunned by them, and he would never have gained entry into this elite group of short-sighted academicians.

But even this old school of thought is at least consistent in limiting itself to material facts and evidence and rejecting all spiritual phenomena. There is a strict criterion and discipline that these scholars and historians follow in the matter of collecting, authenticating and organising their documents, and drawing rigorous conclusions from them. Peter Heehs’s biography of Sri Aurobindo lacks this basic discipline, although he proudly calls himself an objective scholar. He is so eager to destroy Sri Aurobindo’s image that he cannot write a fair and credible account of him even from the leftist or secular point of view. The very fact that he spends forty years of his life pretending to practise yoga in Sri Aurobindo Ashram, and during that long period gathers almost exclusively negative data on Sri Aurobindo, and that too from unreliable secondary and tertiary sources, shows his plain dishonesty. He ends up being neither a straightforward leftist scholar nor an admirer of Sri Aurobindo who believes in his spiritual world-view. So then you wonder why he wrote at all a biography of Sri Aurobindo whose spiritual life was never “on the surface for men to see”, as he said once to a biographer. He should have chosen instead a run-of-the-mill politician whose life is very much on the surface to see and record!

Our refutations of Heehs’s distortions of Sri Aurobindo’s life and teachings have been on perfectly rational grounds, questioning the dubious way he has handled historical evidence, his omissions and commissions, without basing ourselves merely on faith and hurt emotion. We have taken on faith only what cannot be taken otherwise, and where we are forced to assume, such as Sri Aurobindo’s account of his own spiritual experiences or his statements on spiritual realities and events, which are beyond the grasp of reason and ordinary sensory perception. But once we have assumed these, the super-structure that we have built on them is as logical as that of any objective scholar who bases himself on material facts and evidence. In general, we have paid Heehs in the same coin that he thought he would get away with. He announced that he was the founder of Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives to gain public credibility; we exposed him to be a fake. He flaunted his objective scholarship; we showed how he was biased and chose flimsy negative evidence over much that was actually in favour of Sri Aurobindo. One tactic that he has frequently adopted is to quote Sri Aurobindo against himself, so that he can silence his disciples. We went to the very same texts and found that he had decontextualised Sri Aurobindo’s frank remarks on himself. For example, Heehs gleefully pounces on Sri Aurobindo’s remark of being a coward and a liar when he was a boy of ten, but he deliberately omits in the same paragraph the part on Sri Aurobindo outgrowing these defects after he commenced his Yoga. Another method of Heehs that defies common sense is to read Sri Aurobindo’s life into his works, as if what he wrote was a faithful reflection of his actual life. Sri Aurobindo’s commentary on the Isha Upanishad has thus given rise to such silly speculations by Heehs that you could almost propose him to write a novel instead of a biography. Then the book is full of insidious remarks and insinuations, nasty comments on all the major works of Sri Aurobindo which have won so much admiration from intellectual circles, a constant running down of Hindu values and practices, and a denigration if not an outright vilification of the divine personalities of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.

It was therefore incumbent on us to produce a rebuttal of this biography by Peter Heehs, without which there would be a lot of misunderstandings regarding Sri Aurobindo’s life and teachings in the public domain. Our book therefore endeavours first to clear the distortions and doubts that Heehs has sown among the disciples and followers of Sri Aurobindo. It also addresses readers who may not be so familiar with Sri Aurobindo, but are open to spiritual thought in general in order to appreciate the purport of this book, for similar attacks of this kind have been made in the recent past on other great spiritual figures of India and Hinduism in general. As a matter of fact, there is clear evidence that Jeffrey Kripal, who portrayed Ramakrishna Paramhansa as a paedophile in his book Kali’s Child, exchanged notes with Peter Heehs prior to the publication of the Lives of Sri Aurobindo in June 2008. Heehs has thus joined hands with this notorious group of Hindu bashers which Rajiv Malhotra has so well countered and responded to in his books and blogs.  Our rebuttal will also be of interest to the purely academic scholar from the point of view of exposing a technically defective and totally biased presentation of historical documents, of which Heehs’s biography of Sri Aurobindo is a classic case. In other words, Peter Heehs has been very successful in showing to the academic world how a biography should not be written! The arguments that we have presented in this book are thus logically sound and based on sufficient historical evidence, and the fact that they are in outright support of a great spiritual personality should not by itself disqualify them from scholarly consideration. 

Finally, by the publication of this rebuttal, we have proved that disciples, followers and admirers of great spiritual masters can retaliate intellectually instead of being only hurt and shocked by insidious attacks on their Gurus. While the general way of peace-loving Indians to leave everything to the Divine is a good long term strategy, it is necessary nowadays to pick up the gauntlet in the face of such vicious attacks on their culture and spiritual ethos. One thing we Indians ignore today is how much Westerners are strangers to our culture, and that unless we clarify and counter at every point their distorted understanding of it, we will never be able to set the record straight in the eyes of the rest of the world. A certain amount of hatred of Indian culture among Westerners stems from sheer unfamiliarity with it. The fact that Indian spirituality offers solutions to the age-old problems of man while Western thought and culture find themselves in a state of inner bankruptcy, increases all the more this ill-will instead of promoting a healthy cultural exchange. Hence we see nowadays so many clever attempts of Western scholars to appropriate the spiritual knowledge of India without acknowledging it, or, if that appears to be too blatant a cultural theft, try to show its hitherto unknown origin in the West. Indians are generally quick to absorb Western culture without any such inhibitions coming in the way, but many Westerners, if at all interested in Indian culture, can rarely overcome their cultural barriers and genuinely empathise with it. There are of course exceptional Westerners who have steeped themselves in Indian culture, but they have been marginalised by the mainstream academia. It is in these rare and genuine souls that we can hope to find one day a true synthesis of the East and the West. 

The problem is multiplied by English becoming the global language of communication and creative expression. Most English speaking Westerners automatically think that the mere knowledge of English elevates them beyond the need of learning from other cultures, because everything is available in English. But what is available in English is often half-baked knowledge or poor translations, especially in the realm of spirituality, which moreover needs a preliminary awakening of the inner consciousness that no amount of mental effort can bring. It is for this reason that much stress is nowadays laid by Western scholars on the ideas and concepts of spiritual philosophy, for then they can juggle with them in an endless rigmarole of comparative studies and pretend to be experts in religious studies, without having an iota of spiritual experience. Even in the case of Sri Aurobindo, where everything indeed is available in English, the need to practise his Yoga for a long time and gain sufficient familiarity with the larger background of Hinduism from which he developed his spiritual philosophy, cannot be simply brushed aside. It is precisely to avoid the necessity of doing so that there have been recent efforts among some Western scholars to dissociate Sri Aurobindo from Hinduism and say that he rejected it altogether in the latter part of his life. But I attribute this again to sheer arrogance and what is perceived by them as a cultural humiliation to learn from an “inferior race”, though they do not dare to say so and hide their real feelings behind sophisticated trappings. How much the world would have been better had not these extraneous considerations come in the way of mutual understanding! As for the large number of English-educated Indians who have unfortunately become stooges of these Western scholars and are eager to commit cultural hara-kiri for the sake of a so-called “global harmony” which ironically has no place for Indian culture, it is mostly the politics of self-interest that drives their actions. I would be at once accused of Western phobia and Hindu jingoism, but for once let us stop mouthing these political platitudes and look at the plain truth of the matter – Indians have never been averse to Western culture, they have always been good learners. It is Western scholars, especially the type of Peter Heehs and Jeffrey Kripal, who want to belittle Indian culture because of their morbid revulsion for it. Indians therefore have every right to defend and rebuff malicious attacks on their culture, and there is no need to be apologetic about it. 

A last word on justifying the aggressive stand we have taken in our rebuttal, which most mild-mannered Indians would generally avoid, having been born in the land of the wandering Sannyasin. To this I repeat the old adage that attack is the best form of defence, especially when the enemy is bent upon eliminating you and taking full advantage of your naiveté. Such defensive aggression would also indirectly pave the way for a better cross-cultural understanding in the future, for it is only after a confrontation and a clash that Indians will be able to command respect from others. Finally, learn we must from everybody and especially from the West, which has been in the vanguard of humanity’s scientific progress for the last few centuries, but why not at the same time assure the survival of what we hold to be infinitely more precious than all the material advancements and technical innovations that the present world can offer – our spiritual heritage?

Raman Reddy