February 06, 2010

Heehs was a project leader in the groundbreaking team that published The Record

Highly recommended -- an excellent and important book, January 16, 2010

The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, by Peter Heehs, is a definitive biography, and combines his life story and history in a meticulously researched and well-written narrative. No other historian today has the depth, breadth, and intimate understanding of Sri Aurobindo. This book is an expansion of Heehs' earlier book, "Sri Aurobindo: A Brief Biography," published in 1989, and was well worth the wait. (For those who don't have the patience to go through the Lives, this earlier work is excellent as well). On publication the Lives became an instant classic. As a friend noted who has read virtually every biography of Sri Aurobindo (and all of his works), the Lives is a page-turner, and reads like a novel.

Any biography of a spiritual figure is immensely difficult to achieve, but Heehs has deftly tied together the threads of Sri Aurobindo's life such that by the end even previously unfamiliar readers will have a solid understanding of the man, his times, and his yoga. Even from the first pages there are revealing insights and details. "Years later he still considered two of the Platonic dialogues he read at
Cambridge, the Republic and the Symposium, to be among humanity's `highest points of thought and literature.'" (p. 24)

Although Sri Aurobindo is a founding figure in both Indian politics and in yoga, many who know of him learn only a few catchphrases or concepts. For a man whose life intersected in one way or another with Gandhi, Churchill, Mountbatten, Tagore, Nehru, who was nominated for both the Nobel prize in peace and in literature, and who was appreciated by contemporaries such as Aldous Huxley, Maria Montessori, Albert Schweitzer, and Gabriela Mistral, this is a pity. Thanks to Heehs' decades-long immersion in Sri Aurobindo's thought and writings, the Lives integrates even the most obscure works and events into a comprehensive picture.

The political years are especially fascinating, as we watch the man developing into a master strategist among the often wildly disparate and unfocused groups struggling to free
India. A quarter of the Lives is devoted to his years as a revolutionary. Key events are illuminated, such as the year he spent in jail on trial for sedition. "On their way to and from the court, the prisoners were handcuffed two by two and fastened to a chain in the van. All the way, they sang and joked and laughed." (p. 177)

Heehs was a project leader in the groundbreaking team that published The Record, Sri Aurobindo's unique journal during the first twenty years of his yoga. During the eighties and nineties Heehs wrote several important essays on connections between the Record and Sri Aurobindo's more familiar writings, such as The Life Divine or The Synthesis of Yoga. The forty pages of the Lives devoted to these major works should be read by every student of Sri Aurobindo; even though there have been innumerable commentators on these writings, none have placed them so well in context.

One important virtue of the Lives is that it humanizes a spiritual teacher who became, even in his own lifetime, "a legend and a symbol." Of the early meetings between Sri Aurobindo and the woman later known as The Mother, who was a singular spiritual figure in her own right, we see the reality of their time together. "They spent much of their time at Aurobindo's place, particularly in the evenings when there was a regular gathering for conversation. Sometimes these sessions became `full of a natural silence verging on meditation.' Every Sunday Aurobindo and members of his household went to the Richard's for dinner. Mirra [The Mother] prepared some of the dishes herself. Afterward they all went to the terrace for talk and relaxation." (p. 321)

Probably the greatest value of the Lives is the full 200 pages that Heehs devotes to Sri Aurobindo's time in
Pondicherry, when he became the towering yogic figure that is recognized today, and when the major works were written. Partly because he was in seclusion for twenty-five years, this period is prone to rumors and simple inaccuracies. For most of that period, `no one except the Mother and one or two attendants had any idea of how he passed the day." (p. 363)

There are important insights into Sri Aurobindo's method as a spiritual teacher. In speaking of how he approached his own brother Barin, he said "'I am letting him develop according to his own nature... I do not want to fashion everybody in the same mould... Everyone grows from within: I do not wish to model from outside." (p. 322) And again, "he `did not impart instructions or give initiation through a mantra,' or provide a fixed method such as pranayama, or breath control. Those who came to him `were free to pursue any method or all methods - or no method at all.'" (p. 332)

Every biography is really about two people: the author and the subject. Boswell and Johnson, van Doren and Franklin, Clark and Einstein - in every case, inescapably, we learn almost as much about the author's mind as we do about the subject's life. This is true in the Lives as well, and though some would prefer a more deferential approach to such a great figure, his greatness shines through the details. Many who have read the Lives have found true inspiration and encouragement in their pursuit of yoga, an outcome that cannot fail to take place when one encounters such a transformative figure in all his spiritual, intellectual, and living wideness.  Permalink

Outstanding!December 30, 2008
By       J. U. Mohrhoff (Pondicherry, India) - See all my reviews (REAL NAME)   

This painstakingly researched and expertly written biography is a perfect antidote to the many hagiographies on Sri Aurobindo. While the latter may be inspiring and uplifting to some, they can also be disappointing, even infuriating to someone looking for a well-documented, fact-based biography that meets contemporary standards of historical research. Not only does an Avatar have a human side, his human side is precisely what makes him one of us and proves that we can follow the path he has cut through the subliminal and supraconscient jungle of human nature. Sri Aurobindo's human side therefore deserves to be treated with the same respect as his unparalleled spiritual achievements, and The Lives of Sri Aurobindo is the first book that does this.

As co-founder of the Sri Aurobindo Archives, historian Peter Heehs has been eminently equipped for this task, having had full access to a vast resource of original letters, diaries, and other primary sources. Despite his strong influence on the founders of some of today's most significant spiritual movements, including the human potential and integral movements, in the West Sri Aurobindo has never gained the recognition he deserves. Heehs and Columbia University Press have done the world a great service with the publication of a book that may finally make Sri Aurobindo and his work accessible to a broader audience. Permalink

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