Peter Heehs states “Absorbed in inner experience, the mystic is freed from the problems that afflict men and women who are caught in the dualities of knowledge and ignorance, pleasure and pain, life and death. A mystic thus absorbed often is lost to the human effort to achieve a more perfect life. But this is not the only possible outcome of spiritual practice. Aurobindo’s first major inner experience was a state of mystical absorption, but he was driven to return to the active life, and spent the next forty years looking for a way to bring the knowledge and power of the spirit into the world. In this lies the value of his teaching to men and women of the twenty-first century.”(PH, preface, pg xiv) His biography “Lives of Sri Aurobindo” is an attempt to bring this knowledge of Sri Aurobindo closer to these men and women so that they can expand their understanding to encompass a richer, more complex and dynamic view of man’s place in the universe and his capacity for self-exceeding.
The author has made an effort to do this by undertaking to put Sri Aurobindo’s life and teaching in an intellectual framework. He has done an admirable job in painstakingly researching and documenting the physical aspects of the Master’s life and circumstances. Unknown or little known documents have been referred to, authenticating facts surrounding Sri Aurobindo’s birth, parents, life in England and Baroda, his political career. Similarly for the arrival of the Mother and the birth and growth of the Ashram. As Sri Aurobindo has said in another context, “In intellectual knowledge there is always a mixture of falsehood or incompleteness which has to be got rid of by subjecting the truth itself to sceptical inquiry…..”(SABCL 13, pg 196). Consequently the scholarly approach has yielded excellent results in details of Sri Aurobindo’s external life but has not been satisfactory in presenting his inner life and teachings to a wider audience.
Again in the words of Sri Aurobindo, “…the Divine Consciousness must be something infinitely wider, more complex than the human mind, filled with greater powers and lights, moving in a way which mere mind cannot judge, interpret or fathom by the standard of its fallible reason and limited half-knowledge.” (SABCL 22, pg 169). In the light of the above, the author’s attempt at interpreting Sri Aurobindo’s teaching to a mental audience to satisfy the reason has, despite the best of intentions, predictably and spectacularly failed causing widespread resentment and antipathy among the Master’s disciples and devotees. The author himself intuiting such a reaction has said in his preface to the book, “A statement about a politician or poet that rubs people the wrong way will be turned into a political or legal issue, or possibly cause a riot.”(PH, preface pg x) And Peter Heehs’ book has certainly ‘rubbed people in the wrong way’ (with a vengeance one might say) though not strictly for the reasons he had foreseen. It is not the amended facts of Sri Aurobindo’s life which have offended people but the attitude he takes. A case to the point is Sri Aurobindo’s early writings where Heehs takes a patronising stance. Also his repeated use of the name Aurobindo without the honorific ‘Sri’ despite Sri Aurobindo’s and Mother’s unequivocal statements that it is an integral part of the name.And this is one of the things that sticks in the gullet of most devotees who, while they are glad to learn more of Sri Aurobindo’s physical life, are not ready to accept such an attitude from a fellow disciple, who has been a member of the Ashram for close to four decades. What he calls hagiography is not any such thing in this case but is an honest attempt, on the part of Sri Aurobindo’s intimate disciples, to give an accurate value to the mystic experiences of Sri Aurobindo in the only words appropriate enough to convey such sublime truths and the only true (psychic) way of approaching such a divine Person. If it was some intellectual outside the Ashram circle, people would have noted, objected and moved on, but coming from one so close they are unable to take a similar attitude.
Fundamentally, there are two possible ways of approaching a spiritual figure (or his teaching) with a view to make him more accessible to a larger general group. The first, and the only worthwhile, approach is to try to build a bridge between man’s ordinary level of consciousness and the truths of the spirit embodied in his life and teachings. In Sri Aurobindo’s case the voluminous writings he and the Mother have left cover most questions that can occur to the intellect and are answered from the highest consciousness the human mind is capable of comprehending. Therefore by a judicious selection of their words one could have built this bridge without a very great effort. Such an approach would tend to connect the intellectual class of seekers, actual or potential, to the Master’s influence which would carry them as far as they are capable of being carried on the path. And from the new status of consciousness resulting from such a connection they would be able to open to a higher level of his consciousness and better appreciate the profundity of his life and teaching.
The second and practically worthless approach is to bring down the spiritual figure (and his teaching) to the level of an ordinary consciousness dominated by surface reason and intelligence. Such an approach requires the life and teaching of such a figure to be subjected to a critical surface intellectual scrutiny, trivialising his whole message to the readers and worse, putting a damper on the intensity of even those coming to him with higher aspirations. For, in such a case, it is easy for a seeker to get lost in the maze of surface impressions. Heehs, in presenting Sri Aurobindo’s biography, has chosen – perhaps out of necessity – to take the second approach. Therefore, in Heehs’ book, the power of Sri Aurobindo’s words and message, instead of acting as a magnet to draw one higher, have been diluted and rendered almost ineffectual. But one could have reasonably expected this from Heehs given the fact that he “might not have stayed (at the ashram) if I had not been asked to do two things I found very interesting: first, to collect material dealing with his life; second, to organize his manuscripts and prepare them for publication.” (PH, preface pg xii) Heehs certainly does not seem to have stayed primarily for the pursuit of Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga. This is probably the reason he has not really been able to take a yogic and spiritual view of Sri Aurobindo’s life and teachings. Sri Aurobindo’s yoga is, essentially, for the sake of the Divine and not for the sake of humanity. A fundamental error in Heehs’ approach is to appreciate the Master’s life and teaching only in as much as it is of value to the human race in the intellectual and limited view of the object of human life. But that is to turn the whole thing on its head. As Sri Aurobindo has affirmed time and again, the perfection and upliftment of humanity cannot be the true or the only aim of spiritual endeavour but is one of the important consequences of the descent and manifestation of the Spirit in terrestrial Nature – the only way in which human life can achieve true perfection. And as long as events and people are not perceived in this vein, any presentation of Sri Aurobindo will be basically flawed and distorted. This is probably, in large part, what has caused disciples and devotees to take umbrage to a number of Heehs’ statements.
We believe that even though Heehs has the best of intentions, in his keenness to present an impartial and intellectual review of Sri Aurobindo, he has gone too far from the true spirit. His insistence on being seen to maintain an unbiased position has vitiated his whole approach resulting in distortions, not of physical facts,but of right perspective on the uniqueness of Sri Aurobindo’s life and action. It must be added, however, that given the unwholesome requirements and limitations such a critical approach places on the author, he has tried his level best to present Sri Aurobindo in the most favourable light possible. Any contention of malice and deliberate distortion of Sri Aurobindo’s life and teaching against Peter Heehs is a misunderstanding and misrepresentation of his true intentions.
In the following pages an attempt has been made to review each of the five sections of the book in light of the above discussion. Noteworthy quotations from the book have been listed and commented upon wherever it was felt necessary to do so.
Part I: Son
- 1. Early Years in India
(1) I may be son of my father or mother in certain respects, but most of me is as foreign to them as if I had been born in New York or Paraguay. (pg 2)
(2)The nineteenth century in India was imitative, self-forgetful, artificial. It aimed at a successful reproduction of Europe in India…. If we had succeeded in Europeanising ourselves we would have lost for ever our spiritual capacity, our intellectual force, our national elasticity and power of self-renovation. (pg 3)
Part II: Scholar
2. Growing up English
3. Encountering India
(3) As a rule, however, he kept to himself. Most of his classmates were too much older than he to be his friends. A few patronized him on account of his childishness; the rest paid him scant attention. He had few of the qualities that English schoolboys find interesting. Weak and inept on the playing field, he was also – by his own account – a coward and a liar. Years later, when he became known as a revolutionary leader, his former classmates could hardly believe the reports. “It would have been difficult in those days to regard him as a firebrand!” one exclaimed. Another went to the trouble of informing the government that if either of the Ghose boys was involved in revolution, it must be Manmohan. More demonstrative than his younger brother, Manmohan broadcast his political views, but his ardor soon cooled off. Aurobindo rarely spoke, but his conviction that he had a role in the coming transformation of India grew stronger. By the time he left school he had made a “firm decision” to work for India’s liberation. (pg 17)
Here Heehs seems accurate, as far as physical facts are concerned.
(4) A good half of the poems in Songs to Myrtilla are on the theme of love, but it was a rarefied sort of eros that Aurobindo celebrated. Poems like “The Lover’s Complaint” and “Love in Sorrow,” conventional in form and language, are clearly not the records of actual attachments. One would be ill-advised to read them, as one of Aurobindo’s biographers did, as confessions of infatuations with a half-dozen girls. Still, memory may sometimes have cued his imagination. “Edith,” whom he addresses in “Night by the Sea” (“Kiss me, Edith. Soon the night / Comes and hides the happy light”), was the name of Mr. Drewett’s young sister-in-law, who lived with the family in Manchester. Aurobindo had ample occasion to meet women at Cambridge, in London, and at holiday resorts, but he does not seem to have spent much time with them. He was attracted by feminine beauty, however, praising it lavishly in poems like “Estelle”: “Turn hither for felicity,” he tells the lady with the star-like eyes, “My body’s earth thy vernal power declares.” A prose-poem from a Cambridge notebook is even more sensuous, but it is a stylized literary sensuousness, in the manner of the Song of Solomon: (pg 25)
(5) IN OCTOBER, the ICS commissioners wrote Aurobindo asking him to fix a date to take his riding examination. He agreed to go on October 26, but did not turn up. An official then asked him to meet the riding instructor to make another appointment. He did not bother to see the man. Called to the office to explain, Aurobindo told a series of lies. The senior examiner heard him out, then said that he would give him one more chance: Aurobindo had to meet him on the platform of Charing Cross Station at 2:15 on November 15. The two would go to Woolwich, where Aurobindo would be examined. Aurobindo went neither to Charing Cross nor to Woolwich. Two days later he was told that he had been rejected from the service. (pg 30)
Here the use of the phrase “told a series of lies” is unduly offensive. While it may be strictly true in the Gandhian concept of truth and lies, it would be more accurate to say “he made excuses”. The same can be said of the phrase “did not….tell the truth” in the quotation (6) that follows. The author has tried to bend backwards to be seen as unbiased but succeeds only in betraying a lack of sensitivity and finesse.
(6) When Aurobindo became famous as a revolutionary politician, many Britons assumed that it was his rejection from the ICS that “turned him against government “. This certainly was not so. His opposition to British rule took form long before he was rejected. Equally unfounded is the claim that his radical views contributed to his rejection. Aurobindo was once informed that the “revolutionary speeches” he made at Cambridge “were recorded as a black mark against him by the India Office” and “had their part in determining the authorities to exclude him from the Indian Civil Service”. There is no hint of any such black mark in the India Office correspondence. He was rejected simply because he did not pass the riding examination. He was not given another chance to pass because he did not follow instructions, keep appointments, or tell the truth. That said, it must be added that few men in Whitehall wanted “natives of India” to join the ICS. Less than a year after turning down Aurobindo’s petition, Lord Kimberley wrote: “It is indispensable that an adequate number of the members of the Civil Service shall always be Europeans.” Lord Lansdowne, the incumbent Viceroy, agreed with him on “the absolute necessity of keeping the government of this widespread Empire in European hands, if that Empire is to be maintained.” (pg 32)
(7) The last installment of New Lamps for Old was published in March 1894. For the next sixty years the articles languished unread in the files of Indu Prakash. Rediscovered and republished in the 1950s, they have been cited by historians as early examples of the aggressive nationalism that eventually turned Congress into an effective political instrument. Reading such appraisals, it is easy to forget that the articles attracted only fugitive notice in Bombay and had little direct impact on the development of Indian political discourse. Nevertheless, they are of great historical interest because they anticipate some of the most important strands of Indian nationalist thought. Indians had to “cease to hanker after the soiled crumbs which England may cast to us from her table,” and take the reins of their destiny in their own hands. This demand for self-help, as it later would be called, was not associated with exclusionary chauvinism, but a broadminded cosmopolitanism. “Even if we are ambitious to conserve what is sound and beneficial in our indigenous civilization,” Aurobindo wrote, “we can only do so by assisting very largely the influx of Occidentalism.” But the primary need was for action. Aurobindo could not be explicit about the sort of action he was thinking of in a newspaper article, but his repeated references to eighteenth – and nineteenth – century France make it clear that he favored revolution. Finally, he identified the masses as the agent of the needed change. With the proletariat, he wrote “resides, whether we like it or not, our sole assurance of hope, our sole chance in the future.” Few other members of the educated middle class were willing to give any serious thought to the importance of the lower classes. But it was not until the masses entered the Congress a quarter-century later that the Indian national movement began to produce results. (pg 40)
In the above passage, Heehs brings into light the record of Sri Aurobindo’s deep insight into the future trends of the freedom movement.
(8) It was to Khaserao’s house that Aurobindo came after the puja holidays in 1898. With him was Dinendra kumar Ray, a Bengali writer whom Aurobindo had asked to come and help him learn the language. Dinendra kumar had been apprehensive before meeting his new employer. He pictured a well-built young man “dressed head to toe in English clothing.” As befitted an “England-returned” scholar, he would be rude of speech, arrogant of eye, and haughty of demeanor. When they finally met, he could not have been more surprised:
On his feet old-fashioned slippers with the toes turned up, his clothes of coarse Ahmedabad cotton, on his back a tight waistcoat, around his waist a dhoti with the tail hanging loose, on his head a long flowing mass of hair hanging down to his shoulders, on his face tiny pock-marks, in his eyes a gentle dreamy look – who would have thought that this thin dark-skinned young man was Sriman Aurobindo Ghose?
Aurobindo did not impress at first sight. He was short, around five feet, four inches, and thin, around 113 pounds. His complexion was on the dark side, and the pock-marks, from a case of smallpox, gave a rough look to his otherwise boyish face. Dinendrakumar saw in the “firm set” of his lips the mark of an “inflexible will.” Most people were struck rather by the mildness of Aurobindo’s expression, though this “slight and unobtrusive figure” had about him a gravity that few failed to notice. (pg 47)
(9) In Dinendrakumar’s laudatory but not hagiographic memoirs, which have the advantage of having been written only a decade after the events they describe, he often referred to Aurobindo’s generosity. Once, seeing that Aurobindo was filling out a money order form, Dinendrakumar asked if he too could send something home. Aurobindo opened the box where he kept his money and, finding there was just a little, gave it all to Dinendrakumar. His friend protested: “What is this? You were just making out a money order so that you could send something home. Send it. I’ll send mine later.”Aurobindo told him to go ahead. Despite his simple mode of living, he never seemed to have a pie left over at the end of the month. This was due in part to his habit of sending much of his salary to his father’s mother in Benares and his mother and sister in Deoghar. Benoybhusan and Manmohan, both of whom earned more, contributed less. When Manmohan stopped sending his small contributions, Aurobindo sent more. He used to leave his quarterly salary, a thousand rupees in coins, on his desk and use it “till it was consumed.” Rajaram Patkar, the younger brother of K.G. Deshpande’s wife, asked him why he left so much money in the open without even keeping an account. Aurobindo laughed and told him, “Well, it is a proof that we are living in the midst of honest and good people.” Rajaram and Dinendrakumar were both amazed by Aurobindo’s indifference to food. He consumed without comment whatever was placed before him, even if the cooking was so bad that Dinendrakumar could hardly touch his plate. Aurobindo sometimes got so absorbed in what he was doing that he forgot his meals altogether. Rajaram was on hand one evening when a servant brought Aurobindo’s dinner and announced, “Sab, khanna rakha hai” (Sir, dinner is served). Aurobindo muttered “yes” without lifting his eyes from his book. An hour later the servant returned to find the meal untouched. He appealed to Rajaram, who timidly pointed out that the food was waiting. Aurobindo looked up, smiled at the boy, went to the table, finished the cold food,and returned to his reading.
Dinendrakumar attributed Aurobindo’s good health to his parsimonious eating habits and his leading a “regulated life.” He governed his life by the clock, frequently consulting a cheap watch that he carried in his pocket. His friends were struck by his indifference to physical discomfort. He never complained about the heat of Baroda’s summers or the chill of its winters. Only on the coldest mornings did he throw a shawl over his shoulders; only on the coldest nights did he sleep under a cotton blanket. His bed, a thin mattress on a cast-iron frame, was one that “even a clerk would have thought it a disgrace to lie down on.” (pg 48-49)
In the passage above and the three that follow Heehs has gone to some lengths to highlight positive personality traits of Sri Aurobindo like his generosity, indifference to physical discomfort, focus and concentration to the exclusion of external distractions – all pointing to the mystic personality within. Here, Dinendrakumar’s account is seen as more having more worth because he knew and wrote about Sri Aurobindo before his spiritual Person emerged. Throughout his book, Heehs seems to give more value to surface impressions than to the deeper understanding that comes from devotion and spiritual experience. Any expression of devotion or commitment is seen by Heehs as hagiography. But the value of a person depends not just on what he knows but more on what he lives and becomes. If knowledge based on reason is superior to judgement clouded by infatuated emotion then definitely perception sharpened by a higher consciousness and devotion is superior to reason. In the field of spiritual experience one who knows but does not love, does not truly know; one who loves but does not know does not truly love. All Heehs’ assessments and the sources he finds reliable suffer from the fundamental flaw of being only surface readings by people who can go only a little behind the surface person. Sri Aurobindo has said that his life has not been on the surface for men to see but has been principally on the inside not open to the scrutiny of men. So a mystical and spiritual person’s testimony is more reliable, not less so, because of his closeness to the person.
(10) AUROBINDO READ ENORMOUSLY during his years in the college. Every month, sometimes every week, he placed orders with Bombay and Calcutta booksellers. His purchases “did not come by book post but by railway parcel, in enormous packing cases.” Aurobindo used to finish the books “in eight or ten days and then placed an order for more.” Most of the books he bought were works of literature. Dinendrakumar saw “collections of all the English poets from Chaucer to Swinburne” on his shelves, and “innumerable English novels” heaped up “in corners of the room, in cupboards, and in steel trunks.” Like most heavy readers, Aurobindo had a number of books going at the same time. In the first week of January 1901, for example, he was reading two Sanskrit classics-Kalidasa’s Raghuvansa and the Hitopadesha – Gustav Freytag’s play DieJournalisten, and Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, the assigned reading for his intermediate arts students. He read with great concentration, as Dinendrakumar relates:
Sitting in a chair before a table, undisturbed by the terrible biting of the mosquitoes, Aurobindo read at night until one o’clock by the light of a “jewel lamp.” I saw him sitting there for hours at a stretch, his eyes glued to the page, his attitude unchanging, like an ascetic rapt in contemplation, oblivious of the world. I don’t think he would have noticed if the house caught fire. (pg 49)
(11) The usual desire for gratification, as Aurobindo has the guru call it, was presumably a factor in his decision to get married, but it does not seem to have been an important one. His later writings show that his knowledge of human sexuality was more than academic, but the act seems to have held few charms for him. (pg 56)
(12) Barin Ghose wrote that Aurobindo’s “inner detachment and natural quietude of spirit was so complete that it acted as an inhibition and kept suppressed all his feelings and sentiments which go towards the make-up of a family-man or a genial and loveable social character.” Aurobindo would have laughed at his brother’s jargon-filled account, but he wrote something similar in a letter to his father-in-law: “I am afraid I shall never be good for much in the way of domestic virtues. I have tried, very ineffectively, to do some part of my duty as a son, a brother and a husband, but there is something too strong in me which forces me to subordinate everything else to it.”ONCE HE HAD RETIRED to his room, Aurobindo remained there for hours, and “not even the simple and childlike charms of his wife could drag him away from his studies.” (pg 56)
(13) On one of their trips to Chandod, Aurobindo and his friends visited the nearby temple town of Karnali. Leaving their boat at the landing, they climbed the stone steps leading from the banks of the Narmada and entered the temple complex. Aurobindo was drawn to the shrine of Kali, the terrible form of the mother goddess, who is especially venerated in Bengal. To the eye of the profane, the Kali image at Karnali is not terribly prepossessing; it is a roughcarved stone smeared with color and covered with gaudy clothes and jewels. But as Aurobindo looked he saw
A living Presence deathless and divine,
A form that harboured all infinity.
This was the fifth such experience that had come to him. All of the experiences involved striking, if transient, changes in his ordinary state of consciousness, but they had little effect on his outer mode of life. A single experience of the sort Aurobindo had is often enough to impel an Indian man to leave wife, family, and home and begin wandering from place to place, or pass months in meditation. Aurobindo simply returned to his work, not telling anyone what had happened, not even noting down his impressions.(pg 86)
In the above passage by the way of his comments Heehs draws our attention to the greatness of Sri Aurobindo’s mystic personality – his capacity to be always greater than even the most profound mystic experiences.
(14) A tragedy in verse on the Shakespearean model now seems to be such a throwback that it is hard to evaluate Rodogune as literature. Viewed as drama, it is original and well-plotted, owing little to Corneille except the basic story. Viewed as poetry, it can hold its own against contemporary plays in verse by Stephen Phillips and Laurence Binyon. Its primary defect is its flat, allegorical characters. Antiochus never says an ignoble word or does an ignoble deed. Timocles comes across as a comic buffoon, not a tragic figure, while Rodogune is too colorless to inspire either devotion or jealousy. But the characters’ flatness makes it easier for the author to bring out the conflict at the heart of the drama: the life of pleasure versus the life of action. Antiochus, marked for kingship, is fated to yearn for Rodogune’s beauty. Light-hearted Timocles becomes a monster when he aspires for the throne and the captive princess. Strife seems inevitable, though as the action reaches its climax, the author puts a third possibility in the mouth of an Eremite who appears in the desert just as Antiochus declares: “I thirst for mightier things / Than earth has.” “Seek them in thyself,” the Eremite answers; it is in the soul that the real battles are fought and the real empire is won. But the Eremite knows that Antiochus is doomed to return to Antioch and defeat, for “that sudden disappointment,” will turn him to his “true crown.” This is the doctrine of karmayoga-renouncing desire but embracing action-given a tragic turn under the influence of Greek drama. (pg 96)
Heehs has criticised the play in the first few lines of the passage above. These lines cannot, however, be viewed detached from the rest of the passage as some critics of Heehs have viewed them. If the passage is taken as a whole we can see nothing derogatory of Sri Aurobindo, only an honest, rounded, sympathetic critique and evaluation of the play.
Part III: Revolutionary
4.Into the Fray: Calcutta, 1906-19085. In Jail and After: Bengal 1908-1910
(15) I am an idealist to the marrow, and could only be useful when there is something drastic to be done, a radical or revolutionary line to be taken (I do not mean revolutionary by violence), a movement with an ideal aim and direct method to be inspired and organised. (pg 99)
Peter Heehs has vindicated and illustrated the above statement of Sri Aurobindo throughout part three of his book as the quotations which follow demonstrate.
(16) Aurobindo was living again in the Mallik mansion, where he did most of his Bande Mataram writing. People were amazed at his ability to concentrate in the midst of noise and distractions. Arthur Roy once watched him write an article “while he turned half round to us and was engaged in lively discussion.” When he finished the piece, “he just gathered the sheets together” and without looking them over, “sent them down to the press as the editorial for the next day.” Sometimes someone came from the office to pick up his piece. If he had not finished when the man arrived, he asked him to wait. “Sometimes looking at the paper, sometimes not glancing at it, he would write. The pen or pencil did not stop at all. After writing a few pages he would say, `do you think that will do?”‘ If the answer was yes, he would turn to other things. If not, he would go over to the news desk and “look over the telegram sheets and write a `para’ or two, as the mood was on.”
People who met Aurobindo at work were surprised by his unprepossessing appearance. When Upendranath Banerjee first came to the office, he was astounded to learn that this “thin, dark, disease-stricken” man was the redoubtable Aurobindo Ghose. The one thing that struck him was Aurobindo’s “wonderful, indescribable” eyes. Another Bande Mataram staffer recalled that Aurobindo’s dress “was one of the plainest: an ordinary coat buttoned up to the neck and a common dhoti. It seemed nobody cared to clothe him properly, while he was himself too preoccupied to give attention to it. He seemed oblivious of his body even.” Most people found him distant, as Abinash Bhattacharya, a member of Barin’s samiti, relates:
He was always meditating deeply about something. When he looked at one, he seemed not to view one, as if mentally he was soaring far, far away. I found him always sitting in the same posture with a pen in his hand, deeply immersed in thought. That he had few words for others was not due to any inherent pride or superciliousness. It was probably in his nature.
His appearance might have improved if Mrinalini had been staying with him. In her absence, Abinash became “the chief’s housewife.” He found Aurobindo an undemanding charge. Whatever food was placed before him, he ate; whatever clothing was laid out for him, he put on. If his shoes had holes in them, he either did not notice or did not care. When Aurobindo ran out of money which was often, because he rarely took his Bande Mataram salary – Abinash or Shyamsundar Chakravarty had to go to the office to ask Hemendra Prasad for “a few rupees … to purchase rice for Aurobindo’s house. The Chief, they said, was “either practising `yoga’ or immersed in writing for the `Bande Mataram,’ and they would not worry him.” (pg 121-122)
Heehs has highlighted with carefully selected quotations the exceptional abilities and capacities of Sri Aurobindo suggesting the mystic personality.
(17) “National independence is absolutely necessary to national growth,” he wrote; “there can be no national development without national liberty.” A century later, it is easy to underestimate how radical this sort of thinking was. The British Empire was at its apogee, the imperial system the basis of the international order. The most sympathetic friends of India in England did not envisage the country’s freedom within their lifetimes. Few in India even thought about the problem; those who did hoped at best for more responsible posts for Indians. Pal’s call for “national autonomy” or Tilak’s cry that “Swarajya is my birthright and I will have it!” were revelations. It was left to Aurobindo to insist unambiguously on “absolute independence” and to construct a consistent policy on that basis.
More than any other newspaper of the day, a contemporary wrote, Bande Mataram gave vent to what was boiling in men’s hearts. It said things which others did not, could not or dared not articulate. It campaigned for the freedom of India, freedom from the hands of the British. To utter such things was rank sedition in those days, but somehow it touched the hearts of a people lulled into slavery for so long.
Its forthright articles won it unprecedented popularity and influence. “No newspaper that we know of has ever evoked such passionate personal enthusiasm as the `Bande Mataram’ did during its short tenure of life,” Jitendra Lal Bannerji recalled.The memoirs of many who later became prominent in the movement show that the praise was not hyperbole. Aurobindo’s editorials inspired Kakasaheb Kalelkar in Gujarat, R.R. Diwakar in Karnataka, Hasrat Mohani in the North, R.K. Shanmugham Chetty in the South, along with hundreds of others. The paper’s influence was commented on by Gandhi in South Africa and felt by Nehru in England. Throughout Europe it helped radicalize the expatriate Indian community, converting Shamaji Krishnavarma and Bhikhaiji Cama from nonviolence to revolution.
Bande Mataram was also read by the British. After going through The Doctrine of Passive Resistance, the director of criminal intelligence noted that the articles were “very well written and the tone is wonderfully restrained for Bengali lucubations.” He thought the movement needed “to be watched for it might develop into dangerous proportions under favourable circumstances.” Meanwhile, Bipin Pal crowed that “long extracts” from Bande Mataram were being “reproduced, week after week, even in the exclusive columns of the `Times’ in London.” Although flattered by the attentions of the British press, Aurobindo never addressed a British audience; that would have been a form of the mendicant policy he deplored. Neither did he base “his case for freedom on racial hatred or charges of tyranny or misgovernment” like Sandhya or Jugantar. The basis of his claim was simply “the inalienable right of the nation to independence.” His stand, consistently repeated in the paper, was that “even good [foreign]government could not take the place of national government-independence.” (pg 123-124)
Here Heehs clearly delineates Sri Aurobindo’s foresight in incisively declaring the need for national independence – not so much because of misrule or tyranny on the part of the British but because of the inalienable right of a nation to independence. The enormous influence that Sri Aurobindo and the Bande Mataram had in inspiring and shaping the ideas of the leaders fighting for independence has also been brought out with help of inspiring excerpts from various sources.
(18) On the morning of August 18, 1907, Aurobindo woke to find himself a celebrity. His case was discussed in every Calcutta newspaper and many in other parts of the country. The Madras Standard, a daily that he had criticized in Bande Mataram, devoted half a column to his case:
Perhaps, very few outside Bengal have heard of Mr. Arabinda Ghose…. No English or Anglo-Indian paper, so far as we are aware, has failed to recognize the singular literary ability and originality of the leading articles in Bande Mataram, but many people attributed their authorship to Mr. Bepin Chandra Pal, not knowing who exactly was the power behind the paper. In his telegram published elsewhere, our Calcutta correspondent speaks thus of Mr. Arabinda Ghose:-“I have not the honour of knowing Mr. Ghose personally, but from all accounts, he was a thoroughly sincere man. Of his abilities of a writer and organizer, it would be impertinence to speak. Whatever errors of indiscretion he may have been guilty of, his independence and uprightness are acknowledged by all hands.”
A writer for the Indian Patriot was even more lavish in his praise, and added some personal observations:
Mr. Aravinda Ghose is no notoriety hunter, is no demagogue who wants to become prominent by courting conviction for sedition. A man of very fine culture, his is a loveable nature; merry, sparkling with wit and humour, ready in refined repartee, he is one of those men to be in whose company is a joy and behind whose exterior is a steadily glowing fire of unseen devotion to a cause.
Another article published later in the same paper bordered on the hagiographic: “Thy courage shall live to inspire thy race. Thou shalt live not only in marble and gold but in poet’s song which is more enduring.” The perpetrator of this effusion was apparently unaware that the greatest Indian poet of the day had already composed a tribute to Aurobindo. On August 24, Rabindranath Tagore wrote (in Bengali) the now famous lines:
Rabindranath, O Aurobindo, bows to thee!
O friend, my country’s friend, O voice incarnate, free,
Of India’s soul!…..
The king’s a shadow, – punishment is but a breath;
Where is the tyranny of wrong, where is death?
Aurobindo had resigned from the National College when his arrest seemed imminent. The administration was content, but the students and teachers met to express their “sympathy in [his]present troubles”and invited him to the college to be feted and photographed. On August 23 he went to Bowbazar Street, where he received the treatment that public figures in India have to get used to: a ceremonial welcome, garlanding, photo opportunity, food, more food, and a command to speak. His response that day was unusually personal:
In the meeting you held yesterday I see that you expressed sympathy with me in what you call my present troubles. I don’t know whether I should call them troubles at all, for the experience that I am going to undergo was long foreseen as inevitable in the discharge of the mission that I have taken up from my childhood, and I am approaching it without regret….
The only piece of advice that I can give you now is – carry out the work, the mission, for which this college was created…. What we want here is not merely to give you a little information, not merely to open to you careers for earning a livelihood, but to build up sons for the Motherland to work and to suffer for her…. Work that she may prosper. Suffer that she may rejoice. All is contained in that one single advice.
At this point, he seemed to be resigned to a term in prison. In the face of that prospect he was, Hemendra Prasad observed, “wonderfully composed.” (pg 126-28)
The tremendous impact of Sri Aurobindo’s writings and actions and the fame and celebrity status that followed it, also his complete indifference to them has been illustrated by Heehs in the preceding lines.
(19) The general satisfaction at Aurobindo’s acquittal – there were celebrations in every part of the country – shows that people did not condemn him for his action.
Among the politicians of the day, Aurobindo was regarded as a model of disinterestedness, and nothing in the biographical record belies this perception. Unlike Surendranath Banerjea and Bipinchandra Pal, he was never accused of profiting from his leadership, and he did not pursue position or fame. But there was a personal side to his action, as he himself acknowledged. He had a fighter’s temperament and took a visceral pleasure in the rough and tumble of political action. His unwillingness to compromise was his strength as well as his weakness. He was – as he wrote in a letter of 1920 – the right person to call on “when there is something drastic to be done, a radical or revolutionary line to be taken.” In the give-and-take of day-to-day politics he was less effective. He approved of but could not follow Tilak’s advice that a politician should be ready to accept half a loaf, and then demand the rest. Contemporaries and historians questioned his right to be called an effective politician. Certainly he was not a great builder or steady worker. But his radical interventions opened up paths that others could hardly imagine. (pg 130)
Using contemporary sources Heehs has shown Sri Aurobindo’s unique position among the politicians of the day – his complete disinterestedness and his opening of the ‘paths that others could hardly imagine’.
(20) Now, by his own account, his mind was “full of an eternal silence.” Aurobindo’s experience of the passive brahman “remained unimpaired for several months” – indeed, he later explained, it remained with him for years, so that he could write in 1936 that it was “there now though in fusion with other realisations”.
How does a biographer deal with such statements? Up to this point, it has been possible to satisfy the insistence of critical readers for objective verification. But when one writes about subjective experiences, this sort of verification is not possible. “One cannot criticize the vision of a mystic,” the philosopher William James once observed, “one can but pass it by, or else accept it as having some amount of evidential weight.” To pass by Aurobindo’s spiritual experiences would be to ignore the most significant part of his life. This biographer therefore will make use of Aurobindo’s accounts of his experiences, trying to square them when possible with other sorts of evidence, but not treating them as data for psychological or sociological analysis. (pg 145)
It can be seen here that Heehs understands the impossibility of a critical verification of Sri Aurobindo’s mystical experiences and the necessity of using Sri Aurobindo’s own accounts as well as the pitfalls of trying to analyse them.
(21) Lajpat Rai declared “that none of us had the right to exclude from the deliberations of the Congress anybody who pitched his ideal so high as the complete independence of his mother country.” He believed “that no assembly in India could be called national which precluded by virtue of his creed a man of purity and of the absolute disinterestedness and high patriotism of the nation as Aurobindo Ghose.” (pg 154-155)
Another illustration of the high regard in which Sri Aurobindo was held by his colleagues in the independence movement even though he remained in politics for very few years.
(22)The Uttarpara Speech has been printed and cited innumerable times since its delivery, mostly because it was the first and last occasion that Aurobindo spoke of his spiritual experiences in public. As such, it is an important document for scholars of mysticism. But historians, political scientists, and politicians also discuss the speech. Left-wing critics hold it up as proof that Aurobindo’s nationalism was Hindu at its core, and suggest that this bias encouraged the growth of communalism, which made the partition of the country inevitable. Right-wing enthusiasts regard the speech as an inspired expression of the imperishable Indian spirit, citing passages of the speech out of context to make it seem as if Aurobindo endorsed their programs. These readings are both partial and thus both false; Aurobindo’s “universal religion” was not limited to any particular creed. It had been given classic expression in the Upanishads and Gita, but it was also at the core of such scriptures as the Bible and the Koran. More important, “its real, most authoritative scripture is in the heart [of every individual]in which the Eternal has His dwelling.” The true sanatana dharma was not a matter of belief but of spiritual experience and inner communion with the Divine.
Such experience and communion was now the main motive of Aurobindo’s life; but he did not believe that it ruled out an active life in the world. (pg 187)
Here we can see Heehs’ well-balanced handling of a sensitive issue, bringing out that the core of Sri Aurobindo’s attitude – towards any religious belief and scripture – was that the eternal and the most authoritative scripture is in the heart of every individual more than in any particular set of scriptures or beliefs.
(23) In London, Bipin Pal published a profile of his former colleague. In Calcutta, Jitendra Lal Bannerji published another. In an effort to explain the “marvellous change” of an “obscure school-master” into a national political leader, Bannerji proposed to give his readers what was needed to plumb the “secret of that mysterious personality which has drawn to itself so much love, hope and reverence.” Glowing portraits of Rajnarain Bose and Dr. K.D. Ghose were followed by a potted biography of Aurobindo that stressed his intelligence and self-sacrifice. Released from jail after a year’s confinement, he “is like gold, thrice tested in fire.” Some called him a visionary and a dreamer. Jitendra Lal had no quarrel with that: “Yes, Aravinda Ghosh is a dreamer–but he has dreamed golden dreams for his country and people– visions of glory and triumph.” This article may be said to mark the beginning of the Aurobindo legend, which would assume new forms in the years to come. But Aurobindo does not seem to have taken Jitendra Lal’s article too seriously. In December he published a letter by a professor named Hiralal Haldar that scoffed at Jitendra Lal’s hero-worshipping tone.
Critics of Aurobindo could be as zealous in detraction as Jitendra Lal was in praise. Annie Besant again proclaimed him dangerous, even fanatical on account of “his refusal to work with any Englishmen.”Members of government used the same terms to describe the man they were trying to imprison. Some added that they thought he was slightly off his head: “There is madness in his family,” wrote the viceroy to the secretary of state, “and he probably has a bee in his bonnet.” Minto seems to have picked up this notion from R.C. Dutt, a onetime friend of Aurobindo’s, who had been asked for information by the political agent of Baroda. “Arabindo’s mother was off her mind,” Dutt volunteered, “and Arabindo himself was eccentric.” Other Moderates spoke privately in terms similar to Dutt’s. Publicly they charged Aurobindo with being an impractical dreamer, an “impatient idealist.” About this epithet Aurobindo wrote:
The reproach of idealism has always been brought against those who work with their eye on the future by the politicians wise in their own estimation who look only to the present…. The whole Asiatic world is moving forward with enormous rapidity. In Persia, in Turkey, in Japan the impatient idealists have by means suited to the conditions of the country effected the freedom and are now building up the dignity and strength of their motherland…. Of all the great nations of the world India alone is bidden to wait…. Under the circumstances, which is the more unpractical and idealistic, the impatience of the Nationalist or the supine and trustful patience of the President of the Hooghly Conference? (pg 199-200)
In the above passage Heehs collects more comments about Sri Aurobindo, both favourable and unfavourable, from his contemporaries including some who had a very brief and/or superficial contact with Sri Aurobindo and are therefore practically of no value. Here it would have been much better to have included accounts of people like Nolini Kanta Gupta.
Throughout his book Heehs avoids such accounts from persons close to Sri Aurobindo and the most important factors behind such avoidance seem to be his paranoia about hagiography and an intense desire to present himself, before his prospective intellectual audience, as distant – from the Ashram and its devotional atmosphere – and consequently entirely unbiased. A good deal of his patronising attitude towards some of Sri Aurobindo’s literary writings – a field in which Heehs seems to be very sure of himself and his judgements – may also have its origin in the same above mentioned factors.
(24) Aurobindo then ceased to write about politics in the Karmayogin. Its columns were filled with pieces on art, education, literature, and philosophy, as well as translations of the Upanishads. The philosophical articles take up, in a non-academic way, some of the classic problems of the discipline: the relation between the individual and the cosmos, the puzzle of free will and fate, the origin and significance of evil. His essays on these subjects are clear and well expressed, though not particularly original. Many of them try to harmonize the Upanishads and late Victorian science by means of evolution. Some of his arguments now seem rather quaint. A seed grows into a certain sort of tree, Aurobindo wrote, because “the tree is the idea involved in the seed.”In the light of molecular biology, this is at best a vivid metaphor. (pg 203)
Heehs does not seem to have an appreciation of Sri Aurobindo’s deeper insight into the workings of Nature. What Sri Aurobindo says is not a metaphor but the truer way of looking at how Nature works. Heehs seems much impressed by the claims of modern scientific and intellectual approaches to find the deeper truth behind the workings of Nature and is therefore out of sympathy with the inner and mystic ways of seeing.
(25)Yet Aurobindo is often regarded as one of the protagonists of the movement, one of the founding fathers of the nation. Even those who would dispute his place in the national pantheon concede that he was a highly influential leader and thinker. He was active at the moment when Indian nationalism came of age. Between 1885 and 1905 the Congress accomplished virtually nothing. Aurobindo was among the first to present a reasoned critique of this unproductive body. He soon was silenced, but eleven years later, when the swadeshi movement began, he came to Calcutta and helped to turn the Congress into an instrument of political change.
Stock narratives of the freedom movement devote much attention to the clash between the Moderates and Extremists. The importance of this conflict may be overplayed, but it is broadly true that there was no real freedom movement until the Extremists set forth their aims and methods. The primary aim, political independence, was announced by Aurobindo in the columns of Bande Mataram. Derided at the time as the dream of a visionary or the ravings of a lunatic, it was adopted as the goal of the Congress in 1929 – twenty-three years later – and then accepted by the nation at large.(pg 210-211)
Heehs affirmatively comments on Sri Aurobindo’s prescience and the defining role he had in shaping the direction of the Indian freedom movement despite the efforts of detractors to minimise his significance.
(26) Indian nationalism arose in response to an intolerable situation: domination by foreigners who bled the land of its wealth and regarded those they called natives as members of an inferior race unfit to govern their own country. Indian nationalism had no ambitions outside its borders and no plan to eradicate its minorities; it failed, however, to solve the problem of communalism. Aurobindo regarded religious conflict as a purely social matter, refusing to see it as a vital political issue. He tried, half-heartedly, to bring Muslims into the movement, but he never gave the problem the attention that hindsight shows that it deserved. But could anything said or done in 1907 have changed the outcome forty years later? Probably not. Still, partition and the bloodletting that accompanied it were the movement’s principal failings, and Aurobindo and his colleagues have to take their share of the blame. (pg 211-212)
Heehs himself admits the futility of blaming anyone involved in the freedom movement in 1907 for the Partition and the Muslim problem when he says ‘He tried, half-heartedly, to bring Muslims into the movement, but he never gave the problem the attention that hindsight shows that it deserved. But could anything said or done in 1907 have changed the outcome forty years later? Probably not.’ and then contradicts himself by holding ‘Aurobindo and his colleagues’ partly to blame for the blood-letting and Partition that accompanied Independence in 1947. Indeed Sri Aurobindo is the only one who had a true insight into the seriousness of the problem and its only possible solution – which holds true even today – as can be seen in the following quotation from the Karmayogin, parts of which Heehs himself has quoted in this book, “Of one thing we may be certain, that Hindu-Mahomedan unity cannot be effected by political adjustments or Congress flatteries. It must be sought deeper down, in the heart and the mind, for where the causes of disunion are, there the remedies must be sought. We shall do well in trying to solve the problem to remember that misunderstanding is the most fruitful cause of our differences, that love compels love and that strength conciliates the strong. We must strive to remove the causes of misunderstanding by a better mutual knowledge and sympathy; we must extend the unfaltering love of the patriot to our Musulman brother, remembering always that in him too Narayana dwells and to him too our Mother has given a permanent place in her bosom; but we must cease to approach him falsely or flatter out of a selfish weakness and cowardice. We believe this to be the only practical way of dealing with the difficulty. As a political question the Hindu-Mahomedan problem does not interest us at all, as a national problem it is of supreme importance. We shall make it a main part of our work to place Mahomed and Islam in a new light before our readers, to spread juster views of Mahomedan history and civilisation, to appreciate the Musulman’s place in our national development and the means of harmonising his communal life with our own, not ignoring the difficulties that stand in our way but making the most of the possibilities of brotherhood and mutual understanding. Intellectual sympathy can only draw together, the sympathy of the heart can alone unite. But the one is a good preparation for the other.” (SABCL 8, pg 31) ‘Political adjustments and Congress flatteries’ continue to bedevil the problem today and were the main reason for the problem reaching its present complicated state. As Professor Kittu Reddy has discussed in his book ‘History of India – A new Approach’ (pgs 377-81, 385-86, 443-456), it is only because the leaders who came after Sri Aurobindo diverged from the lines laid down by him, that the Hindu-Muslim problem began to assume the horrific proportions it still has today. To blame Sri Aurobindo for something he specifically warned against and tried his best to avert through his timely intervention, more than once, even from his retirement, is surely a complete travesty of the truth of the matter.
(27) His chief aim in entering politics was “to get into the mind of the people a settled will for freedom and the necessity of a struggle to achieve it.” He succeeded in infusing this will into the mind of a whole generation. “Was Aurobindo a man of action?”This question was asked by K.M. Munshi, a seasoned politician, in 1951. He answered it himself: “It is a superficial view which identifies a man of action necessarily with restless hours, ceaseless jostling with men, with public meetings and newspaper headlines. If action implies power to move men, Aurobindo was a great Karmayogi.”… This may be simply another way of saying that Aurobindo was less a man of action than a man of ideas; but it also acknowledges that ideas change people and people change the course of events. (pg 213)
Heehs gives another insightful exposition about Sri Aurobindo’s foray into politics and its far-reaching consequences for the Indian movement for independence.
Part IV: Yogi and Philosopher
6. A Laboratory Experiment
7. The Major Works: Pondicherry
(28) In writing and speaking about his sadhana, Aurobindo made the following claims: that he saw visions, heard voices, and had other sources of knowledge independent of the senses and reason; that he could read people’s minds and had knowledge of the future; that by means of mental power he could change the course of events, cure diseases, and alter the form of his body; that he went into trance; that he felt physical pain as pleasure and experienced spontaneous erotic delight; that he had a sort of supernatural strength; that he was in touch with goddesses and gods; that he was one with God. Those familiar with Indian mythological literature will not be surprised by these powers and experiences, as they are commonplace in the epics and Puranas. Those familiar with the literature of mysticism will observe that Aurobindo’s powers and experiences are similar to those that other mystics from Milarepa to Rumi to Saint Teresa are said to have possessed. But those familiar with the literature of psychiatry and clinical psychology may be struck by the similarity between Aurobindo’s powers and experiences and the symptoms of schizophrenia. The question of the relationship between mysticism and madness has been discussed since antiquity. In the folklore of many cultures, a man or woman of exceptional ability has often been thought closer to the lunatic than to the ordinary mortal. Indian tradition offers hundreds of examples of yogis, mystics, and sufis whom others regarded, at least sometimes, as out of their minds. India assigns an honored place to the divine madman and madwoman once their spiritual credentials have been accepted. In the West, someone who acts eccentrically and claims divine influence is more likely to be considered a psychotic with religious delusions. Recent psychiatry has barely amended Freud’s idea that “religious phenomena are only to be understood on the pattern of the individual neurotic systems familiar to us.” A defender of mysticism would argue that the truth value of mystical experience is so much greater than the truth value of psychiatry – a discipline based on dubious assumptions – that any attempt by the latter to explain the former is absurd. But unless the defender was an experienced mystic, this would just be substituting one set of unverified assumptions for another. When I speak of Aurobindo’s experiences, my aim is not to argue either for their veracity or for their delusiveness; I simply present some of the documented events of his inner life and provide a framework for evaluating them. (pg 245-46)
As pointed out in the overview, Heehs has bound himself in the limitations of a critical approach and uses phrases like ‘the similarity between Aurobindo’s powers and experiences and the symptoms of schizophrenia’ and ‘When I speak of Aurobindo’s experiences, my aim is not to argue either for their veracity or for their delusiveness; I simply present some of the documented events of his inner life and provide a framework for evaluating them.’ The veracity of Sri Aurobindo’s experience rests on his own words. And if a framework has to be provided – Sri Aurobindo has provided a wide and profound world view in his writings which should be the only thing needed to provide a context for his experiences. If some amplification is needed the statements of those closest to him with mystic credentials should have most appropriately been used. But Heehs has excluded (possibly because of an imagined fear of lapsing into ‘hagiography’) all those who could have spoken with some credibility about the Master’s experiences. Nowhere have the Mother’s comments or statements found a place in talking of Sri Aurobindo’s experiences. Surely by virtue of her own comparable spiritual experiences and stature she is the one person who has been able to give us the most precise ‘framework for evaluating them’. But Heehs has completely ignored the opinions of anyone with even a wisp of spiritual experience and brings into the sublime atmosphere of Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual experiences the dirt of the primitive notions of modern psychiatry and Freud. Little wonder that the whole idea of such a framework seems pure madness and Heehs seems misguided (at best) for suggesting it.
(29) Most of Aurobindo’s experiences are familiar to the mystic traditions of India and elsewhere. He wrote about them in language that is reasonable and luminous, though often hard to understand. Some of this writing is in the form of diary notations that were concurrent with the experiences. Around the same time he also wrote more than a dozen books on philosophy, textual interpretation, social science, and literary and cultural criticism, along with a mass of miscellaneous prose and poetry. Numerous scholars admire these works for their clarity and consistency; thousands of readers believe that they have been helped spiritually or mentally by them. No contemporary ever remarked that Aurobindo suffered painful or anxious feelings as a result of his experiences. In one or two letters written during the 1930s, he wrote that his life had been a struggle, and hinted at inner dangers and difficulties as great as any “which human beings have borne,” but at no time did he give evidence to others of inner or outer stress. Indeed, virtually everyone who met him found him unusually calm, dispassionate, and loving – andeminently sane. The reports to the contrary are so rare that they can be examined individually. As noted earlier, while working as editor-in-chief of Bande Mataram, Aurobindo sometimes was severe and occasionally angry. After witnessing a tongue-lashing Aurobindo gave to another, Hemendra Prasad Ghose wrote in his diary that he thought Aurobindo might have inherited “a tinge of lunacy” from his mother. R.C. Dutt, asked by the government for information about Aurobindo, also mentioned Swarnalotta’s madness and suggested that her son was “eccentric.” After Aurobindo had spoken of his vision of Krishna in the Uttarpara speech, a few of his associates murmured that he had lost his balance. These scattered reports by people out of sympathy with him are hardly significant in themselves; viewed together with every other known report of Aurobindo’s character, they stand out as exceptions. Aurobindo’s anger was remarkably rare and did not leave scars. A few months after noting down the outburst that had surprised him, Hemendra Prasad wrote to Aurobindo that he would “always look back with pleasure on the period of my life during which I had the privilege of working with you for a cause.” That some of Aurobindo’s political opponents considered him eccentric or unbalanced is not surprising. When people asked him about his claim to have seen Krishna, the calmness and lack of self-assertion of his answer convinced them that he was anything but unbalanced. Calm – shanti – was the first element of Aurobindo’s yoga; balance – samata – was its basis. Asked in 1926 about his ability to overcome the difficulties of yoga, he replied: “A perfect yoga requires perfect balance. That was the thing that saved me-the perfect balance. First I believed that nothing was impossible and at the same time I could question everything.” Record of Yoga is remarkable not only as a chronicle of unusual experiences, but as the self critical journal of a practitioner who was never satisfied with anything short of perfection. (pg 247-248)
Sri Aurobindo had a calm poise and balance unshaken by even the most profound mystical experiences. Heehs shows how accounts of Sri Aurobindo’s experiences have to be reckoned all the more reliable because of his self-critical and balanced attitude.
(30) In 1910, just before Richard left for Pondicherry, he and Mirra rented a townhouse at 9 rue du Val-de-Grace, not far from the Luxembourg Gardens. Neither of them wanted to go through the formalities of marriage, to the scandal of their families and friends. Finally, to placate her mother, Mirra agreed to marry her companion in May 1911. The union was an unusual one. Early in their friendship, Mirra explained to Paul “that the animal mode of reproduction was only a transitional one and that until new ways of creating life became biologically possible her own motherhood would have to remain spiritual.” Paul was not ready to go along with this. For him, men – especially men like him – had a duty to bring children into the world. Rather than argue, Mirra encouraged him to look elsewhere for sexual gratification. Their relationship from the beginning was one of intellectual and spiritual collaboration. (pg 254)
Heehs illustrates clearly that Mother was beyond sexual desire and any basis of a relationship she had with Paul Richard was platonic.
(31) She accepted this, but was still convinced that her place was in Pondicherry. And surely (she told herself) Aurobindo thought so too. If he asked her to stay, she would have done so without hesitation; but far from doing this, he “even appeared to wish that I should go away.” When the final order came from Paris, Mirra packed her bags along with Paul. On February 22, 1915 the couple left for Madras. A day or two later, as they boarded their steamer in Colombo, Mirra declared “with great feeling and assurance `We shall come back.”‘ As far as Paul could remember, “from that point on, all our thoughts turned towards Europe in the throes of war.” Mirra’s diary shows that her heart was elsewhere. “Bitter solitude!” she wrote on March 3, “and always that strong impression of having been thrown headlong into a hell of darkness. At no other time, in no other circumstance, have I ever felt myself living in surroundings so totally opposed to all that I am conscious of as true, of all that is the essence of my life.” (pg 261)
(32) In answering Archer’s negative criticisms, Aurobindo was no more even-handed than he had been in Bande Mataram when writing about the latest utterance of John Morley. The Defence of Indian Culture is a polemic from start to finish, as Aurobindo closed his eyes to the critic’s positive judgments and blasted him for the slightest negative remark. Archer wrote: “The only characters in the [Indian] epics that can arouse anything like rational admiration are the long suffering and devoted women of whom Sita is the type. Their stories are sometimes really touching, though the heroism they display is too often, like that of Alkestis or Griselda, excessive to the verge of immorality.” Illegitimately citing only the last conceit, Aurobindo chastised Archer for writing “that Sita, the type of conjugal fidelity and chastity, is so excessive in her virtue `as to verge on immorality.’ Archer certainly was colonialist, biased, and condescending, but he made a number of honest points that might have helped early twentieth-century Indians better understand their own culture. Like many other Westerners, Archer was horrified by caste and in particular by untouchability. Without acknowledging Archer’s criticisms, Aurobindo admitted in the Defence that “the treatment of our outcastes,” which condemned “one sixth of the nation to permanent ignominy,” was “a constant wound to the social body.” But this was just one of those “errors” that Indians had to deal with “not from any European standpoint but from our own outlook.” This is not very comforting. Hindu Indians had done nothing about their outcastes for more than a thousand years and were content even in the twentieth century to let the “permanent ignominy” continue. (pg 296)
Heehs, at his most patronising, sees polemics in Sri Aurobindo’s vigorous defence of Indian culture against an malicious attack. Sri Aurobindo’s strong stance was necessary to counter the widespread belief among both Westerners and western educated Indians of the backwardness and primitiveness of Indian culture. And the ‘honest points’ Archer makes take the most superficial view of Indian culture without any attempt at a deeper understanding. Heehs in sympathy with Archer, condemns Hindu Indians for ignoring the plight of the outcastes and Sri Aurobindo for wanting to deal with the problem ‘not from any European standpoint but from our own outlook ‘. Far from doing nothing, a galaxy of Hindu Indian reformers, from Guru Nanak, Kabir, Chaitanya to modern reformers like Dayanand Sarawati in north India and Brahmo Samaj in Bengal and countless others have come from within the fold to champion the cause of the outcastes in the last thousand years. Political subjugation first under the Muslims and later under the British prevented these attempts from having a widespread impact but as soon as India gained her Independence the problem has been squarely faced and much has been done to eradicate it. Heehs himself has quoted Sri Aurobindo where he condemns the treatment the outcastes received historically and the need to remedy the situation but Heehs doesn’t seem to find it enough.
(33) Archer gave much attention to Indian religion, which to him entailed pessimism, asceticism, and “a flat negation of the value of life.” Aurobindo countered that spiritual realization was the fundamental aim of life, that the most perfect systems of spirituality were developed in India, and that Indian spirituality in its true, ancient form encouraged a life expression that “was not wanting in any of the things that make up the vivid interesting activity of human existence.” In five pugnacious chapters, he laid down the fundamentals of Indian religion, sketching its evolution from the Vedas to its final flowering in the medieval bhakti movement. In laying out this history, he gave most of his attention to what scholars call the Hindu “great tradition”: the Vedas, the Upanishads, the epics and philosophers, and the Puranas. To Aurobindo, Buddhism, with its two thousand-year history in India, was just an extreme restatement of the truths of Veda and Vedanta – a characterization that no Buddhist would accept. (pg 297)
Heehs calls Sri Aurobindo’s insightful exposition of Indian religion ‘pugnacious’ highlighting his own complete lack of empathy for Indian culture. In these five chapters Sri Aurobindo has given a balanced, most beautiful and profound elucidation of Hinduism or Santana Dharma (to call it by its true name not the travesty imposed by foreigners) – its fundamentals, structure and innermost truths, its ability to permeate and uplift all parts of life even the most mundane. It is clear that despite his long stay in India, Heehs has not been able to get over the normal westerner’s lack of empathy for India and her spiritual culture.
(34) William Archer, not surprisingly, preferred European art. Aurobindo, not surprisingly, preferred Indian. But after the inevitable comparison of Indian and Western artistic motives, Aurobindo at last forgot his “rationalistic critic” and the Defence rose to a higher level. (pg 297)
Heehs says Sri Aurobindo ‘rose to a higher level’ as if he (Sri Aurobindo) was prone to come down to level of polemic commentators and speak out of bias and personal prejudice. It just reveals Heehs’ own condescending attitude.
(35) Turning from Indian literature to Indian polity, Aurobindo admitted for the first time that India’s achievements did not measure up to those of other civilizations. When judged from the viewpoint of “those activities that raise man to his noblest potentialities as a mental, a spiritual, religious, intellectual, ethical, aesthetic being,” Indian civilization had to be considered “one of the half dozen greatest of which we have a still existing record.” But in politics, the country’s perennial failure to unite and to resist foreign domination meant that “judgment of political incapacity must be passed against the Indian people.” The kingdoms of ancient India were admirable creations, but none of the many empires that followed could establish a lasting unity. Somewhat paradoxically given his lack of interest in Muslim India, Aurobindo had a number of positive things to say about the Mughal Empire, “a great and magnificent construction” in whose creation and maintenance “an immense amount of political genius and talent was employed.” He noted also that the Muslim dynasties “ceased very rapidly to be a foreign rule.” (pg 297-298)
Given Heehs’ compete lack of sympathy for India and her culture, he seems happy to record, at last, that in his Indian polity ‘Aurobindo admitted for the first time that India’s achievements did not measure up to those of other civilisations’, and that, ‘judgment of political incapacity must be passed against the Indian people.’ Here Heehs completely misunderstands Sri Aurobindo. He refers to pages 384 and 426 of CWSA volume 20 in support of his contention.
On page 384, Sri Aurobindo writes, ‘But there are many who would admit the greatness of the achievement of India in the things of the mind and the spirit, but would still point out that she has failed in life, her culture has not resulted in a strong, successful or progressive organisation of life such as Europe shows to us…’. Then he goes on further up to the next page to fully state the case of the adversary which Heehs has mistaken for Sri Aurobindo’s own view of things. Sri Aurobindo begins refuting the case of the adversary beginning with the following passage on page 386-387, ‘The legend of Indian political incompetence has arisen from a false view of the historical development and an insufficient knowledge of the ancient past of the country.’ After the above statement Sri Aurobindo goes on for the next 38 pages to state and elaborate the facts in support of this contention.
Heehs refers to page 486 of the CWSA volume 20 and partly quotes the following passage of Sri Aurobindo where – after stating the case of the adversary in detail – he sums up its logic by saying, ‘It is clear therefore that judgment of political incapacity must be passed against the Indian people.’
Here again, Sri Aurobindo refutes the above charge against the Indian people in the next eighteen pages which are full of the most incisive analysis of the historical record of Indian polity. In the very first paragraph following the above quotation, Sri Aurobindo says, ‘Here again the first necessity is to get rid of exaggerations,to form a clear idea of the actual facts and their significance and understand the tendencies and principles involved in the problem that admittedly throughout the long history of India escaped aright solution. And first if the greatness of a people and a civilisation is to be reckoned by its military aggressiveness, its scale of foreign conquest, its success in warfare against other nations and the triumph of its organised acquisitive and predatory instincts,its irresistible push towards annexation and exploitation, it must be confessed that India ranks perhaps the lowest in the list of the world’s great peoples. At no time does India seem to have been moved towards an aggressive military and political expansion beyond her own borders; no epic of world dominion, no great tale of far-borne invasion or expanding colonial empire has ever been written in the tale of Indian achievement. The sole great endeavour of expansion, of conquest, of invasion she attempted was the expansion of her culture, the invasion and conquest of the Eastern world by the Buddhistic idea and the penetration of her spirituality, art and thought-forces. And this was an invasion of peace and not of war, for to spread a spiritual civilisation by force and physical conquest, the vaunt or the excuse of modern imperialism, would have been uncongenial to the ancient cast of her mind and temperament and the idea underlying her Dharma. A series of colonising expeditions carried indeed Indian blood and Indian culture to the islands of the archipelago, but the ships that set out from both the eastern and western coast were not fleets of invaders missioned to annex those outlying countries to an Indian empire but of exiles or adventurers carrying with them to yet uncultured peoples Indian religion, architecture, art,poetry, thought, life, manners. The idea of empire and even of world-empire was not absent from the Indian mind, but its world was the Indian world and the object the founding of the imperial unity of its peoples.’
Here Heehs has very evidently committed a gross blunder in completely misrepresenting Sri Aurobindo’s views on the achievements of Indian culture in the political field.
(36) From a literary point of view, Aurobindo’s plays are the least interesting of his works. Biographically speaking, they may offer insights into movements in his imaginative life. If his earlier plays suggest that he was searching for his ideal life partner, Vasavadutta seems to hint that he had found the woman he was seeking and was waiting for the moment when she would join him. Nine months after completing Vasavadutta, Aurobindo began to work on a poem, Savitri, that would become his most extensive literary creation. In its earliest form it is a narrative of about two thousand lines, written on the same Victorian model as Love and Death. Like that poem, Savitri is based on a legend from the Mahabharata. (pg 299)
Heehs’ imagination has been working overtime if he reads any biographical correlation between the plays and Sri Aurobindo’s life. Savitri, the one work that best expresses Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual experiences as well as his vision for the future, has been almost ignored or rather, even worse, passed over with a cursory recounting of the tale in the Mahabharta upon which it is based. Surely, Savitri, which the Mother says is the supreme revelation of Sri Aurobindo’s teaching deserves better treatment. But Heehs, always afraid of falling into the trap of ‘hagiography’, refuses to consider the words of the Mother – the only one qualified to comment upon Sri Aurobindo’s experiences. In a similar fashion Heehs fails to convey the power and intensity of Sri Aurobindo’s message in the Life Divine. He misses out such potent quotations as, ‘The ascent to the divine Life is the human journey, the Work of works, the acceptable Sacrifice. This alone is man’s real business in the world and the justification of his existence, without which he would be only an insect crawling among other ephemeral insects on a speck of surface mud and water which has managed to form itself amid the appalling immensities of the physical universe’ . But it is all part of the role of a critical rationalist that Heehs has taken on. He has insulated himself from the power of Sri Aurobindo’s words so that, even while working so closely with them he seems to have failed to receive anything from them.
(37) Aurobindo wrote The Future Poetry between December 1917 and August 1920, that is, during and after World War I. Among its other works of destruction, the war succeeded in killing off the intellectual and artistic assumptions of the nineteenth century. Belief in God, progress, and social stability were replaced by skepticism and irony. The last vestiges of Romanticism were swept away, along with ideas of literary and artistic form that had prevailed for millennia. By 1920 the Modernists were changing the face of European and American literature, and many of the ideas on which The Future Poetry was based had become antiquated curiosities before any important poet or critic could read the book. Aurobindo’s own poetry, rooted deeply in the soil of the nineteenth century, was out of date before it saw print. Aurobindo witnessed the rise of Modernism and found it difficult to align with his own ideas of beauty and significance. Reviewing an issue of Shama’a, an Indian cultural journal, in September 1920, he noted that modernist poetry, though it had a certain strength, could not compete with traditional formal poetry. The Modernist poems in Shama’a were, he wrote, all “of the same stereotyped kind of free verse.” He hoped that the journal would publish more “strains that go beyond the present to a greater poetic future, let us say, like the exquisite rhythm and perfect form of beauty of Harindranath’s poem in the first number.” Harindranath Chattopadhyay was a young Indian poet whose first volume Aurobindo had praised in the Arya. His poem in the first issue of Shama’a had lines like these:
For He shall find our very eyes
Turned into skies
And know our human bodies hide
Fine Gods inside.
It is no surprise that the author of Ahana and Other Poems found something to enjoy in such verse. (Aurobindo was honest enough to acknowledge that “a poet likes only the poetry that appeals to his own temperament or taste, the rest he condemns or ignores.”) But Chattopadhyay never got beyond his rather insipid beginnings, and his work is now unknown even in India. It certainly did not presage a “greater poetic future” –at least not one that actually happened. Ironically, another item in the first issue of Shama’a was a manifesto of the poetry that would dominate the twentieth century, and Aurobindo ignored it completely. The piece was a lecture by the then little-known T.S. Eliot, in which he introduced many of the ideas that he would develop in later essays: tradition and the individual, the importance of French symbolism, the objective correlative.There is nothing in Eliot’s lecture that Aurobindo would have especially objected to, but it offers a radically different view of the future of poetry than the one that Aurobindo was developing. Perhaps for that reason, he declined to engage with it. As the Modernist movement progressed, Aurobindo became out of touch with contemporary developments in poetry. As a result his poetry and criticism must now be judged by the standards of the past, or else taken-so far with little support – as harbingers of a future yet to be glimpsed. (pg 306-07)
The purpose of poetry like that of all life, art, thought is to express the Divine Reality. If we accept that this is an evolutionary world with an evolution of consciousness towards the Divine then, poetry too will evolve to express this growing consciousness. Sri Aurobindo has very eloquently and comprehensively described in ‘The Future Poetry’ the path poetry will take if it is to fulfil this purpose. Heehs seems to have failed to understand the intent and scope of Sri Aurobindo’s message in ‘The Future Poetry’ because he seems to expect the immediate future to reflect this flowering. But that is like expecting that the Supermind will be visible to everyone immediately or that the future described in Savitri will reach culmination at once.
Part V: Guide
8. The Ascent to Supermind
9. An Active Retirement
(38) In October Paul was declared unfit for service, and he and Mirra went to Paris. To the east, the French and British were hurling themselves, with little effect, against the German lines in Artois and Champagne. Paul spent his time looking for a job that would take them away from France. At the same time, and with Mirra’s approval, he formed a sexual liaison with another woman who later bore him a child. In February 1916 he obtained a letter from the French foreign ministry naming him a delegate of the National Union for the Export of French Products. Armed with this, he and Mirra departed for Japan. Their voyage around the Cape of Good Hope took more than two months. They remained in Japan from May 1916 to the beginning of 1920. (pg 314)
(39) “I do not, even to this day, definitely know what is the political standpoint of Aurobindo Ghosh. But this I know positively that he is a great man – one of the greatest we have-and therefore liable to be misunderstood even by his friends. What I feel for him myself is not mere admiration, but reverence for his depth of spirituality, his largeness of vision and his literary gifts, extraordinary in imaginative insight and expression.” (pg 316)
(40) After Aurobindo entered what he called “the sexual union dignified by the name of marriage,” he seems to have found the state bothersome and uninteresting. “Marriage,” he wrote later to a disciple, “means usually any amount of trouble, heavy burdens, a bondage to the worldly life and great difficulties in the way of single-minded spiritual endeavour.” Many of these difficulties, for most people at least, are related to sex and the desires that accompany it. Aurobindo appears to have had few problems in that regard. He was probably alluding to his own experience when he wrote to a disciple that there were “some who can eliminate it [the sexual propensity]decisively by a swift radical dropping away from the nature.” On another occasion he said more directly: “I for one have put the sexual side completely aside, it is lying blocked so that I can make this daring attempt” at spiritual transformation.” (pg 308-309)
(41) When he had finished the day’s work, a dozen or more people – members of the household, the Richards, visitors from out of town – came to his study for talk and meditation. On Sundays he and other members of his household visited the Richards for dinner and talk. At some of those meetings, people noticed a surprising development. After dinner those present tended to cluster in two groups: Aurobindo and Mirra on one side, Paul and the others on another. Sometimes, when they were alone, Mirra took Aurobindo’s hand in hers. One evening, when Nolini found them thus together, Mirra quickly drew her hand away. On another occasion, Suresh entered Aurobindo’s room and found Mirra kneeling before him in an attitude of surrender. Sensing the visitor, she at once stood up. There was nothing furtive about these encounters, but they did strike observers as unusual. Neither Mirra nor Aurobindo were in the habit of expressing their emotions openly. The young men, already somewhat unhappy about the inclusion of women in their circle, and the consequent erosion their bohemian lifestyle, were somewhat nonplussed by this turn of events. Paul Richard took it more personally. At times he could be heard muttering a phrase of garbled Tamil, setth aypochi, by which he meant “the calamity has happened.” After a while he asked Aurobindo about the nature of his relationship with Mirra. Aurobindo answered that he had accepted her as a disciple. Paul inquired as to what form the relationship would take. Aurobindo said that it would take any form that Mirra wanted. Paul persisted: “Suppose she claims the relationship of marriage?” Marriage did not enter into Aurobindo’s calculations, what was important to him was Mirra’s autonomy, so he replied that if Mirra ever asked for marriage, that is what she would have. Paul took up the matter with his wife. According to Mirra, recalling the events forty years later, the confrontation was stormy. Aware more than ever that Mirra had made his literary and spiritual accomplishments possible, Paul demanded that she give her primary loyalty to him. Mirra simply smiled. Paul became violent, came close to strangling her, and threw the furniture out of the window. Mirra remained calm throughout, inwardly calling on the divine. For all intents and purposes this was the end of their relationship. (pg 326-327)
We understand that the above quotation has been made the pivot of most of the virulent attacks on Peter Heehs and a final proof of his evil intention of defaming Sri Aurobindo and the Mother and all that they stood for. If one calmly considers the above quotations (38-41) and a few given before and after (9,10,28,29,38,39,40,41,42) it becomes absolutely clear that Heehs has provided an overwhelming amount of material to vindicate Sri Aurobindo’s and Mother’s standpoint about the incompatibility of any kind of sexual desire with their Integral Yoga. And these quotations also make it obvious, that at a personal level, such a thing was contrary to their very temperament. Heehs has done an exceptionally good job of clarifying the atmosphere in this respect – especially of the Mother in view of her marriage to Paul Richard. To accuse and condemn him for defaming them and distorting their views about sex and spiritual life is one of the most thoroughly wilful falsehoods imaginable.
(42) One thing is clear, however: the arrival of Mirra Richard had an enormous impact on his practice. With her help, he told Barin, he “completed ten years of sadhana in one.” Her assistance was especially important in turning his sadhana outward. If he had been concerned only with his own transformation or with transmitting his yoga to a limited number of people, he could have done it on his own. But for his work to have a lasting effect in the world, he needed a shakti, a female counterpart. (328-329)
(43) Some schools of tantric yoga put so much stress on this relationship that they require male practitioners to have female sexual partners. Aurobindo made it clear that this was not the case in his yoga. “How can the sexual act be made to help in spiritual life?” he asked a disciple who posed the question. It was necessary, in the work he was doing, for the masculine and feminine principles to come together, but the union had nothing to do with sex; in fact it was possible in his and Mirra’s case precisely because they had mastered the forces of desire. (pg 329)
(44) Everything revolved around Mira Devi, the Mother, who carried out Sri Aurobindo’s work with his power behind her. As for the “ugly rumours,” Sen Gupta insisted that they were false. “An absolute mastery of the sex movements and entire abstention from the physical (animal) indulgence are the first conditions” of Sri Aurobindo’s way of yoga. Accordingly “sensual indulgence” was “absolutely forbidden” and even “such comparatively innocent habits as smoking were discountenanced.” (pg 359)
(45) A year later  he gave a private darshan to Olive Maitland-March, an Englishwoman who had been staying in the ashram and claimed to be in contact with influential people in Britain. The meeting lasted “for about twenty minutes,” Maitland-Marsh later wrote, “during which time no word passed between us, yet the fact of my coming into personal contact with His powerful vibrations, made this a very wonderful personal experience…. For the first time I knew the meaning of spiritual silence, and what can be accomplished in it.” (pg 362)
(46) To an American student, a first-time visitor, the whole procedure seemed “a bit ridiculous.” What purpose could be served by standing for a moment before the author of The Life Divine without saying a word to him? What happened next was unexpected:
As I stepped into a radius of about four feet, there was the sensation of moving into some kind of a force field. Intuitively, I knew it was the force of Love, but not what ordinary humans usually mean by the term. These two were “geared straight up”; they were not paying attention to me as ordinary parents might have done; yet, this unattachment seemed just the thing that healed. Suddenly, I loved them both, as spiritual “parents.”
Then, all thought ceased, I was perfectly aware of where I was; it was not “hypnotism” as one Stanford friend later suggested. It was simply that during those few minutes, my mind became utterly still. It seemed that I stood there a very long, an uncounted time, for there was no time. Only many years later did I describe this experience as my having experienced the Timeless in Time. When there at the darshan, there was not the least doubt in my mind that I had met two people who had experienced what they claimed. They were Gnostic Beings. They had realized this new consciousness which Sri Aurobindo called the Supramental. (pg 407-408)
Heehs has tried to bring to positive light the power of Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual consciousness by reporting the experiences of two westerners. And in doing so he does not feel that his objectivity is threatened because these people are not, strictly speaking, devotees. Thus, while Heehs has quoted several experiences that casual visitors had when they saw Sri Aurobindo,he has failed to consider those of the intimate disciples like Nolini Kanta Gupta, Amrita etc.
After a review of Peter Heehs’ book it is plain that while a charge of limited understanding maybe levied against the author we have to acquit him of any deliberate ill-intent or attempt to defame Sri Aurobindo and by extension, the Mother and their work. Heehs has pledged himself to an approach based on reason and the intellect. While such an approach is undoubtedly superior to one of untrammelled emotion, in the case of Sri Aurobindo it has led him to ignore the voices of those most sane – in the true sense of the word – and able to understand his mystic personality. He has avoided all that the Mother had said about Sri Aurobindo’s life and experiences (to avoid a charge of hagiography?). But who besides the Mother, with the unique position she held in the Master’s life and her own equal spiritual stature, can provide any background for understanding him. And if we ignore the mystic, there is left only an ‘ordinary’ great man – not one of unique significance to all ages –Sri Aurobindo. Heehs is, indeed, aware of the need to treat Sri Aurobindo’s mystic experiences differently from the external facts of his life but his desire to be accepted by a certain class of readershas betrayed him. Consequently he has lost what could have been a rare opportunity to help a wider audience open to Sri Aurobindo.
Basically, it would seem to be sheer folly to attempt to scrutinise and measure Sri Aurobindo’s divine and absolutely unique personality using the compass of cold human reason and ordinary intelligence. But then again, foolishness is not the monopoly of any one person; we all have our own fair share of it, for, in the words of Sri Aurobindo, ‘It is a universal human failing’. One certainly cannot be condemned or impeached for such a thing.