September 18, 2008

Where the author is commissioned to write what the publisher wants him to write

The Lives of Sri Aurobindo—a Controversial Biography by Peter Heehs
by RY Deshpande on Wed 17 Sep 2008 09:37 AM PDT Permanent Link

What Sri Aurobindo represents in the world’s history is not a teaching, not even a revelation; it is a decisive action direct from the Supreme. ~ The Mother
(14 February 1961)

The present article is apropos of The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, a controversial biography by Peter Heehs, published recently by the Columbia University Press, USA, May 2008. It is claimed that the work is based on researched material, something which is missing in the earlier publications. Please also go to where there is a pretty extensive discussion on a few of the related matters. ~ RY Deshpande

The Technology of Promotionalism
Peter Heehs’s Lives of Sri Aurobindo is a recent arrival in the thriving genre of biographies and professes itself to be founded on researched material. It essentially treats the subject as a human person and not really as a yogi or a spiritual stalwart, and in the least as an incarnate. The book has been recently published by the Columbia University Press and appears to be rough on the sentiments of the devotees of the Mother and the Master. The author claims himself to be a meticulous professional historian and wants to present the subject strictly as it should emerge from the documentary material. The approach is, holds the author, strictly rational and is grounded in the principles of research, eschewing goody-goody emotionalism of the hagiographic presentations of such themes. This may have certain merit but there are things that lie far beyond the reach of such scientification of occult and spiritual matters. In fact, it is not possible for reason to grasp the issues connected with them although to some extent it could open to its intuition; this is simply true, for the reason that “things are never on the surface for men to see them”.

On the other hand, with a degree of spiritual experience and realization, there is a chance of presenting them to the rational mind also. This spiritual experience and realization must come first before one attempts to speak about them who live in the richness of the spirit, in its multi-dimensionality. If this basic fact is not recognized, then the work will fail to carry in it the substance or essential conviction of the higher principles. Not only that; such a work should be at once dismissed as an inchoate or garbled attempt, without any further consideration—because of the wrong premises with which it begins, because it smacks more of “I’m wiser than you all, the gullible, that you utterly lack rational faculty and capacity to detach yourself from your object of adoration." Such unfortunately seems to be the case of the much touted Lives of Sri Aurobindo brought out with great fanfare, which is of course a part of the modern publication dynamics where the author is commissioned to write what the publisher wants him to write.

Truth, the spiritual truth then gets sacrificed on the altar of promotionalism. And it is a peculiar game, a very queer game in which the more the writer becomes diabolical the more gets promoted promotionalism. But we need not fall prey to all this full-size ballyhooing if we are established in the spiritual principles that guide and govern our aspiration and that bring fulfilment to it, the decisive factor being transparent sincerity and devotion in the sense of commitment to one’s persuasive or compelling ideals. So without getting impressed by the “gunny sack” scouring of facts of pseudo-rationalism we could depend more upon the intuition and the inner conviction in matters of spiritual personalities. This need not carry any guilty feeling in us; rather it is that which will strengthen our refined perceptions and subtleties of understanding...

An Extraordinarily Complex Individual
As a part of systematic promotionalism of The Lives of Sri Aurobindo we have in the August 2008 issue of Auroville Today, Peter Heehs being interviewed by Alan. The author maintains that his is a biography based on enormous amount of archival material, on “authentic documents”, something which the earlier works totally lacked. “It wasn't always easy,” informs the biographer, the records of Baroda College, for instance, were stored in “gunny sacks covered with bat droppings, heaped up in an unused”. While fact collection is an important aspect of the work, much has yet to be done in presenting them in a coherent understandable manner, often comparing several sources. In the process certain subjective elements also enter in, something which is inevitable in this kind of a job. However, the author maintains 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.” But then there is a puzzling statement also: “If spiritual experience is something which is not merely subjective but represents a human capacity, one would expect to find such accounts.” Although such a stand might be perfectly justifiable for a book to be written for people “in the academic world”, it at once spells doom as far as the representation of the subject is concerned. Never in the case of a spiritual person should come any consideration that is not spiritual, and therefore the argument that “a certain priority to the academic approach” be given turns out to be fallacious.

So what the Mother called “a direct action straight from the Supreme” has to prove itself right in the eyes of the academicians, they sitting in the lofty judgement seats. The fallacy becomes particularly glaring when the interview comes to the deep occult matters, for instance the passing away Sri Aurobindo. Peter Heehs replies:

“You correctly put your finger on a special difficulty of dealing with a life like Sri Aurobindo's. When, as historians, we speak of physical events, there's an established way of dealing with them, using documents to corroborate what we say. When we talk about a person's spiritual experiences, we have that person's own account of what took place. But when we talk about occult workings and effects, we are talking about spiritual things having an impact on physical events. But the influence of the inner world on the outer is not verifiable in ordinary terms. I could have used the Mother's accounts of his death etc. as she is certainly an authority in these matters; but the kind of the biography I wanted to write had to be based upon verifiable facts. When I think about things like Sri Aurobindo's death, I certainly take what the Mother said about them into consideration. But I didn't put everything I think into this book.”

But has any criteria been spelt out as to what should be put and what be not? We have no idea from the interview. In conclusion the biographer says:

“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.”

But this statement itself is ridiculous, as it fails to recognize the foundational basis of the spiritual work. It will of course be grossly ridiculous for the Ashram to consider Sri Aurobindo as its property, but to speak of “an extraordinarily complex individual” with multiple spiritual dimensions only in terms of facts found in the gunny sacks lying in the attic is sheer falsification, certainly it is perversion. And the fact is that facts are not always presented. The whole approach therefore displays complete lack of sensitivity; in it spiritual perceptions are unfortunately absent.

This becomes more astonishing when the author also claims himself to be the follower of Integral Yoga. He proclaims: “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.” But who is going to decide the “quite serious” aspect of the matter? In any case, it need not be our concern, it need not concern us here...

But what are the spiritual credentials of those people who opine about Sri Aurobindo? We have not been informed about these. Nevertheless, we are persuaded to go by the findings of scraps in gunny sacks, with droppings of bats on them. Or else, we have to go by the bazaar talk and dismiss even what the Mother says:

“What Sri Aurobindo represents in the world’s history is not a teaching, not even a revelation; it is a decisive action direct from the Supreme.”
RY Deshpande
Keywords: SriAurobindo, Spirituality, Sethna, Savitri, Satprem, Review, Religion, Pondicherry, Mother, Biography, Avatar, AurovilleToday, Aurobindo, Ashram, Amal, Science, Culture and Integral Yoga [10:25 AM]


  1. Peter Heehs is himself a riddle. One wonders what is it that inspires him to write about Sri Aurobindo (not Aurobindo-as Sri Aurobindo himself signed his name with a prefix-'Sri')? He seems to be interested only to discard those who regard Sri Aurobindo as an Avatar.
    What about Peter's opinion on the content carried in the book -"Life Divine"? None insists him to accept Sri Aurobindo as an Avatar-including Sri Aurobindo himself-as Peter himself stated.
    Peter does not have any idea about Avatar-hood as it's believed in India. Even the most eminent Indians of the Twentieth Century did not understand it.
    From my experience I have found that the Communists and some Western people(Catholic or non-Catholic) carry a grudge for Sri Aurobindo. But Why? These persons do not care to write volumes on Rajneesh or Sai Baba of Putraparti or even on Sri Ramakrishna and Vivekananda. They are this or that way related to matters spiritual in India. I think it's because -Sri Aurobindo was a born futurist and he belongs to future. And for that matter -many elites who become disillusioned with everything of what life as expressed through the Homo Sapien-species -are drawn to the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. So those who are rooted in the vested interest of the conventional LIFE -appear as die-hard enemies of Sri Aurobindo.
    Peter does not know that his and for that matter the yardsticks (for Hagiography or research) of the materialist's mind is useless to understand a life and its mission which was nothing but spiritual.
    Leave Sri Aurobindo. What does Peter think of Sri Ramakrishna and his contribution in spirituality? Sri Ramakrishna did not write anything himself on any matter. And he never felt it necessary to write about the materialist's confusions as well as spiritualist’s misconception. Then why not are these people are interested in villifying Sri Ramakrishna? The so called intellectuals like Peter Heehs are never comfortable with Sri Aurobindo as he made himself concerned with every aspect of Life.
    Moreover -the Catholic Christians and the atheists always turn to abuse Sri Aurobindo in explicit or subtle ways. Peter Heehs falls in the latter category.
    Why not does Mr Heehs write about the religious fundamentalists-Hindus, Muslims and Christians?
    I can not expect Peter Heehs is capable of understanding Indian spiritual matters-leave alone Sri Aurobindo-but I hope that he will not mention the name of Sri Aurobindo without the prefix 'Sri'. I'm not ritualistic about it -nor I'm a religionist with Sri Aurobindo but I love and believe in giving respect to call the spiritual personalities as they wanted it in their lifetime-especially Sri Aurobindo who was very specific about it.

  2. “Because - Sri Aurobindo was a born futurist and he belongs to future,” so well put. But whether Peter Heehs has “any idea about Avatar-hood” or not is immaterial to us as long as he is writing quality books. He is free to write his intellectual biography at some future date, but right now his beliefs and views are not worth tracking. Further, his writings to date largely fall under history which, to be fair, cannot be strictly attributed as reflecting his personal viewpoint. [TNM]