Sunday, September 21, 2008

Biased train of conversation which denounces the integrity of a fine critical biography

Re: The Lives of Sri Aurobindo—a Controversial Biography by Peter Heehs
by Rich on Sat 20 Sep 2008 05:25 PM PDT Profile Permanent Link

As always context makes a big difference because...there is no contradiction in worshiping the guru if you locate yourself in a religious tradition like Hinduism as then one simply is adhering to its practices. But claiming to renounce religion yet keeping its embers burning in the form of avatar worship is simply a contradiction... Although no one is saying its invalid within the context of its tradition to perform guru worshing, something else is troubling in Sri Aurobindo's defense here.

Because one notorious way to avoid or deflect criticism of those who disagree with you is simply by hurling invectives at the dissenters that label them in terms of ones own self-constructed categories (e.g people living in the mental or vital mind). It is no different than Ken Wilber avoiding his critics by labeling them: Green!

This method of discouraging disagreement is simply toxic to examining any truth claims and its quite a common practice among Aurobindo's followers. The inscrutable religion of Aurobindoism is certainly witnessed in this biased train of conversation which denounces the integrity of a fine critical biography in favor of treating the subject as if he were so holy as to be above any critical inquiry whatsoever. One only makes such arrogant claims of privilege for a God,.... rc

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Re: The Lives of Sri Aurobindo—Objectivity Science, Culture and Integral Yoga
by RY Deshpande on Sat 20 Sep 2008 02:11 AM PDT
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Apropos of The Lives of Sri Aurobindo and the critical approach adopted by its author, here are some comments from a friend of mine who is a Professor of English and an author of internationally published books. These observations of his are very valid and I thought it appropriate to include them as a part of our discussion. I’m thankful to him for sending these to me and allowing me to put them at the sciy-article of mine. ~ RYD

Critical Method Mr. Heehs's reading of the narrative of Sri Aurobindo is in keeping with a currently accepted practice of reading against the grain. Fair enough! However, his claim of an overriding “objectivity” must also be seen carefully against the prevalent view on the subject. The very choice of a subject of research, for instance, the selection and arrangement of “facts” and “evidence”, all come invariably through the prism of the subjective self of a researcher. Words and comments themselves, including those used by Heehs in his latest book, are not value neutral. The decision to rely on one set of evidence to form one's judgement rather than on some other, is also a deeply subjective act. Rather than claiming the high-moral ground of objectivity, the current practice, especially in the post-colonial context, is to be upfront about one's approach and unpack one's ideological predilections in a self reflexive manner at the outset for the reader to see. This is absent in Peter Heehs's biography of Sri Aurobindo, although he seems to indicate some of his preferences now and then. On the whole, however, one finds that evidence is not offered in a neutral a manner for the readers to judge. Quite the contrary, Mr. Heehs interprets events quite constantly while claiming objectivity. Clearly; he cannot have it both ways.

As a counterpoint, one can see the interesting and insightful manner spirituality, ethics and politics intersect in Chicago-based, post-colonial critic Leela Gandhi's fine and nuanced study of colonialism and the politics of friendship in her path-breaking work: Anti-Colonial Thought: Affective Communities and Politics of Friendship, Duke University, 2006; Permanent Black, 2006. We may contrast this study, part of which deals with the creative encounter between Mirra Alfassa (the Mother) and Sri Aurobindo, with the somewhat prurient account offered by Heehs (pp. 326-327) and come to our own conclusions.

Textual Traditions Every genre (and the biographical mode is one such) must deal with the textual tradition of a given work. And thus, in dealing with a biography of a primarily spiritual figure such as Sri Ramakrishna, Ramana Maharshi or Sri Aurobindo, one can legitimately use approaches and modes of analysis that are innate and integral to that particular genre. This by itself does not turn the work in question automatically into a hagiographic account. For instance, the distinction between faith and dogma, religion and spirituality that Sri Aurobindo makes in his world view is fundamental to understanding his oeuvres. Peter is thus far off the mark when he asserts as a generalization, “matters of faith quickly become matters of dogma” in deciding about the entire question of Avatarhood. As a general proposition, this seems to be valid, although, in the Aurobindonian context, the distinction is of vital importance. Sri Aurobindo, it must be noted, devotes considerable space in his writings to explain the centrality of faith as distinguished from regression and obscurantism. We may see the truth of this aspect in his essay “True and False Subjectivism” in The Human Cycle. Peter adduces no convincing reasons for dismissing alternative approaches to what is generally considered a purely “secular” or non-hagiographic reading. For instance, there could well be a non-secular and non-hagiographic reading of a spiritual figure. Why are we ruling these out?

Absolute Freedom of a Writer Clearly, this is a myth. While book banning and book burning are abhorrent acts and are counterproductive, every author/editor, it is well known, is bound by trade disciplines, contractual agreements and obligations and copyright regulations. Further, a writer writes in a cultural and political context. His/her affiliations to communities and organizations are often cited as “authoritative” or “authentic” texts by publishing houses. Peter's affiliation with the Ashram's archive, as evidenced in the jacket covers/back page blurbs of his published books, or fliers/ promotional literature, are cases in point. For the very same reason, sentiments of a given community, whether one likes them or not, are also important factors that authors and publishers must take into account. As an insider, one must write with care and sensitivity, and not in a spirit of disdain and dismissal. As a custodian of Sri Aurobindo archive, one is surely expected to uphold the trust bestowed upon one self by the institution.

The Archival Systems Every archive has documents which are categorized: e.g. as sensitive, very sensitive, with public access, with limited public access, or, occasionally, with no access at all. In the present instance at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives, no system seems to be in operation. Mr Peter Heehs seems to have treated the Archival holding as personal property. Was specific permission obtained, for instance, while using Purani's diary notes, to cite one example? Not likely. SM

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