Monday, January 5, 2009

My presentation is neutral

21 September 2008 Dear Manasi Pahwa
Thank you for forwarding a copy of your letter to the Trustees to me. Since you clearly are qualified to write about the subject, and since you, for the most part, keep to the tone of civil discourse expected of a scholar, I am happy to write a brief reply. [...]

As is evident in the book, but not at all evident in the selective compilation, my discussion of psychological literature comes at a point in my book where I have presented, at considerable length (8 pages), experiences recorded by Sri Aurobindo in record of yoga. My presentation is neutral, though most readers will see that by presenting Sri Aurobindo’s experiences uncritically and at length, I consider them valid and interesting.

(Please note that when I write “I”, I am referring to myself as the author of the book. A historian, like a psychologist, cannot fill his or her professional work with personal reflections, opinions, etc. To avoid going off on a tangent, I leave my personal feelings about Sri Aurobindo as a spiritual personality out of this letter as well.)

As you correctly point out, I have no professional qualifications as a psychologist. My discussion on pages 245-248 is that of a historian who, for the purposes of this discussion, read a few dozen books and papers on the subject. These are listed in the bibliography of my paper “Genius” Mysticism and Madness”, published in the Psychohistory Review, a peer reviewed American journal, in 1997. This paper is listed in my list of publications on my website, and (I believe) included in the 1998 list of scientific research done in the Ashram. The article may be available in the DU library. I would sent you an electronic copy but the copyright of the article in owned by the journal. I’m sure the publisher would allow me to send you a single copy, but as I find that people are sending multiple copies of copyrighted material that I have written all over the place in violation of copyright law, I would prefer that you check your library for a hard copy.

My discussion of the topic in the book is based on this article. Note that both the article and the book were written as contributions to historical research, an activity supported by the ashram in its role of a scientific research institution. The article therefore contains no expression of devotion and treats Sri Aurobindo’s experiences as the subject of scientific and historical research. As noted above, in both publications I present myself as a historian addressing an audience of scholars, and not as a devotee giving expression to personal feelings for the benefit of other devotees.

Having presented Sri Aurobindo’s experiences at length, I pause, on page 245, to anticipate “a question that may have occurred to some readers”, namely what is the relationship of spiritual experience to madness. As you well know as a student of psychological literature, this is a topic that has been for centuries. In this regard, I speak of three sorts of likely readers: (1) those steeped in the Indian tradition who find nothing remarkable about powers like trikaldrishti, since they are described in texts like the Puranas; (2) those who study mystical experience as a remarkably interesting aspect of human potentiality; (3) those who view spiritual experience as a sort of psychological aberration.

You correctly note in your third paragraph that “any kind of mystical experience was looked upon with suspicion in psychology.” I would add that for the most part this is, regrettably, still the case. You correctly point out on page 4 that some modern psychologists like Maslow, Grof, Washburn, et al. have taken a positive view towards spiritual experience of “peak experience” as Maslow calls it. Unfortunately these psychologists are not very much in vogue in the moment. This is why it is necessary to engage with position (3).

While in the book I don’t state my own position in the matter, I can inform you privately that it is position (2). With position (1) I am not concerned. The purpose of my treatment is to take up the objections raised by those of position (3), and by discussing them, to show that they are invalid. This strategy is clear in the book itself and in the enlarged extracts that I attach. This form of argument is, I believe, similar to the purvapaksha-uttarapaksha form of argument of Sanskrit rhetoric. (I say this in an attempt to make my intentions clear by giving an example that may be familiar to you. I have never actually studied Sanskrit rhetoric.) it is also of course a form of argument used Sri Aurobindo in The Life Divine. (Please don’t imagine I am comparing my book to The Life Divine.) You may remember a passage in the Mother’s talks where she says that Sri Aurobindo’s use of this type of argumentation left him open to charges from ignorant people that he was accepting a position that he in fact was discussing in order to refute it.

I hope the above makes my intentions on pages 245-248 of my book clear. I am trying to convince people holding position (3) that it is perfectly all right to view spiritual experience in a positive light. But to do this, I have to speak their language (to the degree that I have learned it) and to cite their literature. (To give one example, I cite a representative of the Freudian school even though, personally, I reject Freudian psychology completely.)

Understanding this, you will see that your accusation that I am engaged in a “personal vendetta against Sri Aurobindo” has no foundation. I am actually trying to encourage people who may have been troubled by my quotations from Record of Yoga to put aside their objections. More generally, I am trying to make it possible for people not disposed to take spiritual experience seriously to study it in depth and form their own conclusions.

Thank you very much for the definitions you provide on pages 2-3. I wish I had these pages when I was writing my paper. I am puzzled, however, why in the midst of your discussion you ask me “Would someone suffering from schizophrenic hallucinations and delusions be able to write 35 volumes of books,” etc. as though this was the position I held. Even if you look only at the incomplete and misleading extracts from my book in the selective compilation that has been circulated, you will see that the last passages quoted are: “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… 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.” If you read my enlarged extracts, or the book itself, or my 1997 paper, you will see that I use the argument you give (would someone suffering from delusions be able to write 35 volumes?) as one of my main arguments in my attempt to demonstrate, to those of position (3), that Sri Aurobindo was “anything but unbalanced.”

As most of your discussion on pages 4 and 5 seem to be based on the same misunderstanding of my motives, I pass to your discussion of my reading of Sri Aurobindo’s plays. Here I must admit that I was writing not as a historian but as a literary critic of the biographical school. I took up the plays at their chronological place in Sri Aurobindo life, summarized them, and then tried to present what I found interesting in them. (Again, “I” is the author of the book, not me personally. I really enjoy reading these plays – I have read each of them a half dozen times – and while I do not think they are among Sri Aurobindo’s greatest poetic creations, they certainly are of considerable interest.) But in discussing them in scholarly biography, there is a problem. All the plays are based on a literary model that was long out of fashion when Sri Aurobindo wrote them and is even more out of fashion now. It thus is difficult to discuss them as contributions to the field of English literature. What I found interesting in the plays is the activity of Sri Aurobindo’s poetic imagination that finds expression in them. I also was struck by the fact that Sri Aurobindo wrote several of his plays when he had a week or two free while otherwise engaged in political action. (I bring this out in the book.) Why, I asked myself, did Sri Aurobindo write these plays? It seemed to me (thinking, as I have said, not as a psychologist or a historian, but as literary critic of the biographical school) that the creation of these plays, so unrelated to Sri Aurobindo’s current outward activities, had something to do with the imaginative impulses of his higher vital and psychic beings. Here, obviously, I was straying beyond history properly speaking into speculative literary criticism. Some of your points you raise in regard to my presentation from the point of view of scientific psychology are well taken.

In a way I regret these brief detours (each only a sentence or two long) from my biographical narrative into speculative criticism. Still, I felt while writing that I had to make this attempt to probe into the mystery of Sri Aurobindo’s creative personality, and these inadequate passages were the result. [...]
Yours very sincerely
Peter Heehs

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