August 28, 2006

His Peter

Nationalism, Religion, and Beyond: Writings on Politics, Society, and Culture — Edited by Peter Heehs Permanent Black, Delhi SABDA – Distributors of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publications
Peter Heehs was the first member of the Ashram whom I could meet and talk to personally. This was in 1998 while he was attending a conference on South Asia held in Prague, Czech Republic. I travelled there from neighbouring Slovakia. By then I was already aware of Heehs's books published by Oxford University Press. Well-researched, factual and dispassionate, yet immensely readable, they help make Sri Aurobindo's thought more accessible to academic audiences. Heehs has understood and mastered the art of writing for this difficult and demanding group of readers. First and most important, he respects their right to learn about Sri Aurobindo without being pushed, directly or indirectly, out of their current and often secular world-views. Sri Aurobindo has a lot to offer even when measured by purely objective and scientific standards of achievement.
Academics tend to see each book as a sort of argument. In order that they should perceive it as valid, the book must satisfy certain professional criteria. Externally, nothing can impair its message more than a sloppy production with typographical errors, or clumsy style betraying the author's insufficient command over the language. But "internal validity" is even more important. With regard to anthologies, academics are prone to ask a whole set of inquisitive questions: Is the editor impartial? Is his selection of material truly representative and well-balanced? Are his claims justified in the light of the objective, primary evidence that he can muster in favour of his proposition? What exactly is he trying to prove?
Heehs's present anthology of selections from Sri Aurobindo's writings published by Permanent Black, an associate of Orient Longman, is aimed at well-educated and critically-minded people both in India and abroad. For many of them this would be the first detailed encounter with Sri Aurobindo's writings, and the selection of texts is therefore meant to be representative: the earliest piece is dated 1893, the latest 1949...Within the general framework of "politics, society, culture" it also briefly deals with the related aspects of Sri Aurobindo's thought. The problem of society can hardly be divorced from the problem of the individual, or culture from that through which it tries to reach beyond itself: religion and spirituality.
It is a commonplace among critics that the very act of compiling is interpretive. In this sense, compilations consisting only of the compiled material without a word from the editor are not necessarily objective, but merely hide the editor's personal views without eliminating them. The established "standards of the profession" therefore require that the editor clearly explain his approach and criteria for selection. This and much more Heehs does in an extensive introductory essay where he first situates Sri Aurobindo's thought in the general trends of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, and then explains its relevance for the present-day readers by relating it to contemporary social and cultural theory...
Throughout the anthology, Heehs remains focused on the needs of readers who may view the claims of spirituality with scepticism. Therefore, as in his other books, Heehs distances himself from his subject and accepts scepticism as his starting point. Aware that his readers need to know not only what Sri Aurobindo had said but also why, he has carefully selected passages which stand as mini-arguments on their own, yet mutually support and throw light on each other, woven into the larger argument of the chapter or section. Thus the anthology takes on a whole new quality—as if the pieces, from such diverse periods, were meant to form a single book.
Overall, Heehs has managed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that, however sceptical our initial approach, so long as it remains fundamentally unbiased, Sri Aurobindo will always break through as a unique and original thinker with something to offer to all, not just to those with overt spiritual inclinations. And if secularists cannot accept him in toto, yet they will surely enjoy his thought-provoking analyses of the burning social, political and cultural issues of the day. For his ideas have withstood the test of time; even after a century they resonate in us more deeply than many contemporary theories.
To conclude, I would not be surprised if the anthology were to become a highly-valued possession not only of academic institutions and scholars, but of all who are serious in their intent to study and understand Sri Aurobindo. It has every chance of becoming a "standard" one-volume reference to Sri Aurobindo's social and political thought. With a protective hard cover and 360 pages tightly packed with riveting material, it is certainly worth its price. Given its indisputable qualities, we can only wish it the best of luck on its way to readers. — Marcel Kvassay
Marcel qualified as an electrical engineer and a teacher from Slovak Technical University in Bratislava, Slovakia. He spent several years working for Oxford University Press in the area of English Language Teaching. In August 2002 he came to Pondicherry and since then has worked at SABDA. This review is written in his personal capacity.

1 comment:

  1. [Peter Heehs writes on modern Indian history, and Indian spirituality and religion. Much of his work focuses on the Indian political and spiritual leader Sri Aurobindo. His publications include nine books and more than forty articles in journals and magazines.

    His latest book, The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, was released by Columbia University Press in 2008.

    Review Extracts

    "Sri Aurobindo has at last received the scholarly biography he deserves—and we need."

    — Robert McDermott, author of The Essential Aurobindo

    Read the author's post about the writing of this book on the Columbia University Press blog.

    Listen to an interview with the author on the WIE Unbound website.

    Read an article based on an interview with the author on the Auroville Today website.]