September 08, 2008

I am, after all, a practitioner of Sri Aurobindo's yoga

Peter Heehs

Most biographies of Sri Aurobindo published before 1989 were based on his reminiscences, supplemented by an assortment of secondary sources... I believe that the Sri Aurobindo that emerges from the new biography is much more lifelike, more unpredictable, more complex, than the Sri Aurobindo of earlier biographical writing, including my own.
And when I say “emerges”, I mean emerges in the mind of the reader, for I tried hard not to impose any specific point of view, but rather allowed the reader to use the material to construct his or her own Sri Aurobindo...

When I began writing this book, I had to decide who I was addressing. Among people interested in Sri Aurobindo there are, first, the devotees. But there are also many people in the academic world who are interested in Sri Aurobindo not as a spiritual figure or object of devotion but because of his writings or because he was a revolutionary.
Both readerships have legitimate needs that have to be taken into consideration by a biographer. But both have limitations: there are topics they consider inappropriate, materials they don't want to hear about, preconceptions that they consider unquestionable verities.
For various reasons, I gave a certain priority to the academic approach. As a contributor to historical journals, I have developed an admiration for the scrupulousness and rigour of academic discourse. I feel comfortable with this approach, and feel uncomfortable with the loose, ‘devotionalistic' or ‘New Age' sort of expression that is popular among many people who write about spiritual figures.

On the other hand, I knew I had to write about Sri Aurobindo's spiritual life in a non-reductionist way. I didn't want to treat Sri Aurobindo's spiritual experiences as so much data for social scientific analysis, as many academics might have felt compelled to do. I am, after all, a practitioner of Sri Aurobindo's yoga, and I take what he has written about his own practice of yoga, and the yogic discipline he recommends to others, quite seriously.
My ideal reader is therefore a sort of composite of the devotee and the academic: a devotee willing to look at things in a new way, an academic open to the possibility of spiritual experience and transformation. I don't expect any reader to agree with everything I say. What I am hoping is that each reader will use the book to enhance his or her understanding and appreciation of Sri Aurobindo in all his complexity...

All in all, Sri Aurobindo stands up very well to the critical approach. Devotees think they have to be protective of him, that any criticism will destroy him and all his work. This is ridiculous. His accomplishments in various fields are so strong and lasting that he emerges firmer and stronger from a critical treatment that deals squarely with difficult questions...

I wouldn't recommend writing a biography as a means of sadhana. It may be that a simple devotional approach is best. But I don't think, given my personal temperament, that I could have gone very far with that. And, as it happened, this biographical work just fell into my lap.
My appreciation of Sri Aurobindo has definitely been enhanced by my study of his life. First, because I now know a lot more about him and, secondly, because as a biographer I had to critique my material, and Sri Aurobindo passed all the tests.
Sri Aurobindo was an extraordinarily complex individual. And over the years I've developed a complex attitude towards him: that of a person who follows his path but has moved beyond an unthinking appreciation to one informed by the results of scholarly research, which perhaps can better understand his complexity.

From an interview by Alan Home > Journals & Media > Journals > Auroville Today > Current issue > An extraordinarily complex individual August 2008 An important new biography, The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, has just been published in the U.S. Written by Peter Heehs of the Ashram Archives, it is the product of many years of painstaking research. Auroville Today spoke to him about the challenges involved in writing about Sri Aurobindo.

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