November 15, 2009

Devotionalism is not the only possible approach to Sri Aurobindo

Introduction Letters Letter to the Managing Trustee, from Peter Heehs
25 September 2008

My first biography of Sri Aurobindo, Sri Aurobindo: A Brief Biography, was published by Oxford University Press in 1989. It has been reprinted at least five times since then. It was well received abroad, in India and even, for the most part, in the ashram.

I began work seriously on a proposed larger biography of Sri Aurobindo sometime in the late 1990s, using material and notes I had accumulated since the early 1970s. My purpose in writing it was, in brief, to enlarge the biographical narrative I published in 1989. I hoped to have the new biography published by a major US university press. The audience I imagined for it were the sort of people who read books published by university presses. My primary intention was to bring the life, works, philosophy and yoga of Sri Aurobindo to an audience who had either never heard of him or had only a hazy idea of who he was and what he had done.

Here I may remark that there is an appalling lack of interest in Sri Aurobindo in academic circles and, more generally, in the world at large (by this I mean the world outside the ashram and the wider Sri Aurobindo community in India and abroad). When interest appears, it often is based on a distorted idea of his life and thought.

For example, when Sri Aurobindo is cited by politicians and political journalists, it usually is as a supposed forefather of the modern Hindu Right. The Right adopts him; the Left condemns him for being adopted by the Right. Nobody actually reads his works with the exception of a handful of extracts from his speeches that are presented out of context.

I have gone to the trouble of writing several articles to show that both the Right and the Left get Sri Aurobindo wrong. The same sort of misunderstanding is apparent when Sri Aurobindo is cited in discussions of literature, philosophy, and spirituality. I have always considered this unfortunate.

Part of my aim in writing a biography was to correct the distortions and misunderstandings about Sri Aurobindo that had arisen in such fields.

Another part of my aim was to speak to potential readers who were unable to approach Sri Aurobindo through the promotional literature mentioned above. Much of this literature may be termed “devotional”. It should be clearly understood that I have no problem with devotional literature as such. Devotion – true bhakti, that is – plays a very important role in Sri Aurobindo’s synthesis of yoga. A large number of people seem to benefit from reading devotional literature about Sri Aurobindo. This doesn’t trouble me at all. But I do believe that devotionalism is not the only possible approach to Sri Aurobindo. I could cite innumerable passages from his writings to support this belief.

What I wanted to do in my book and my other writings was to open an approach to Sri Aurobindo for people who were not born with the devotional temperament or, if they were, wanted to extend their seeking beyond mere devotionalism, in the spirit of the integral yoga.

As my proposed book was not intended for devotees, I did not start with the preconceived notion that Sri Aurobindo was born a divine being or avatar whose outward or human side was only of secondary interest. The people I wanted to reach were not the sort of people who would accept such a preconception. [...]

If I began by saying that he was a star athlete and model of fortitude and probity, nobody would have given any credit to my later positive assertions – assuming they even bothered to read the book that far. I could give many other examples of strategic concession used in my book as a means to strengthen my positive evaluations of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother’s life and works. But I want to turn to the second technique, which I will call anticipating and refuting objections.

Getting beyond the Conventions of Biography – and Hagiography Too: A Post by Peter Heehs
The following post is by Peter Heehs, author of The Lives of Sri Aurobindo August 4th, 2008

What about the assertion that Aurobindo was an avatar? I can’t say that the question interests me very much. Aurobindo never claimed the distinction for himself, and I don’t think anyone alive is in a position to say one way or the other.

The Aurobindo that interests me is the one who turned from a life of hectic action to a life of contemplation, but was able, during his forty-year retirement, to write a shelf full of books on philosophy, political theory, and textual criticism, along with thousands of letters and, yes, that epic in iambic pentameter. People will continue to differ about the significance of his work, but its very mass is there for all to see. His life as a yogi and spiritual leader is more difficult to quantify, but it certainly will not be forgotten soon. I tried to do justice to all sides of this versatile man, but to do so I had to be unconventional in more ways than one. Posted by Columbia University Press in Asian Studies, Postings by Authors, Religion


  1. from Paulette (
    date 16 November 2009 14:08 Please post this comment:

    In “The Synthesis of Yoga” Sri Aurobindo takes the trouble to analyze major yogic paths such as bhaktiyoga, jnanayoga, karmayoga, rajayoga, tantrayoga, hathayoga etc. Integral Yoga is a synthesis of the essence of all these paths, as a starting point. However, it is a fact that one’s nature and predisposition (adhikara) intervene, orienting the disciples prevalently towards this or that path, as a natural help on the way. There is nothing wrong with this, we do have to begin from somewhere. What’s wrong is to impose upon others one’s preferred way – be this bhakti, jnana, karmayoga or any other yogic path – at the exclusion of all others. Where is the “synthesis”, then?
    There is a tendency, in India, but also spreading abroad, to consider an avatar every guru, big or small. Sri Aurobindo, who never paid attention to external formulations, stated:
    “Let me make it clear that in all I wrote I was not writing to prove that I am an Avatar! You are busy in your reasonings with the personal question, I am busy more with the general one. I am seeking to manifest something of the Divine that I am conscious of and feel — I care a damn whether that constitutes me an Ava­tar or something else. That is not a question which concerns me. By manifestation, of course, I mean the bringing out and spread­ing of that Consciousness so that others also may feel and enter into it and live in it.”
    On Himself, 8.3.1935, 150
    He had already clarified:
    “I don't know about Avatars. Practically what I know is that I had not all the powers necessary when I started, I had to deve­lop them by Yoga, at least many of them which were not in exis­tence in me when I began, and those which were I had to train to a higher degree. My own idea of the matter is that the Avatar's life and actions are not miracles. If they were, his existence would be perfectly useless, a mere superfluous freak of Nature. He accepts the terrestrial conditions, he uses means, he shows the way to humanity as well as helps it. Otherwise what is the use of him and why is he here?
    I was not always in the Overmind, if you please. I had to climb there from the mental and vital level.”
    On Himself, 13.2.1935, 149
    When I first came to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, in 1973, none of the old Indian sadhaks to whom I related enforced on me anything, whether a particular yogic approach, or the concept of Avatar, Divine Mother etc.: I was let free to grow at my own pace and rhythm. One day, years later, I suddenly realized that Sri Aurobindo is an Avatar – and the Mother, the Divine Mother: my consciousness had widened enough to introject these truths.
    It is certainly not straitjacketing people that we can force them to share our beliefs. What’s needed is expansion of consciousness – not dogmas.

  2. Personally, I have disagreements with the last line. Dogma or not, it is for the individual to choose; why should it be denigrated and who do we turn to for a certificate? [TNM]

  3. from Paulette (
    date 17 November 2009 07:42
    Please post my reply:

    this is exactly what I mean, where is disagreement? I know very well what dogma is, having been brought up in a country, Italy, where you were excommunicated and went to hell if you didn’t endorse unconditionally all the dogmas set by the Catholic Church.
    The mystery of the avatar is so unfathomable that only through consciousness it can be apprehended – not through indoctrination and threats. No matter how long it takes, it is for one’s psychic being to find out the truth. Nobody else can do the job, there are no other ways.