Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The follower and the academic

In the case of "The Lives of Sri Aurobindo", I find parts of it superb, others good to fair, and parts I think are poor or even wrong. I have my list of suggested revisions, as others have theirs. What I think would be most helpful would be for people to submit their lists of suggested revisions to Mr. Heehs, and, in a collaborative manner, encourage him to improve the book. After he has done his revisions, then all those who are not satisfied with the final version can write their rebuttals. Or, write their own biographies of Sri Aurobindo.

I understand that critics of Mr. Heehs love Sri Aurobindo and are concerned his book will debase Sri Aurobindo's image and hinder the spread of His truth and teaching. I would like to reassure you that no such negative outcome will happen, for several reasons. First, this book is written for an academic (i.e. university professor) audience, but intellectuals are too focused on their careers and mental pursuits to be interested in Sri Aurobindo. Second, among the potentially large audience of lay people who are seeking a spiritual path, most end up in one of the major religions, or studying with a guru or teacher who has a physical body. Very few can relate to a spiritual Presence, such as of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, that is real but does not have a physical body in the conventional sense. And third, whether academic or lay, most readers read to re-inforce what they already believe, not to alter their core beliefs. Thus, this book will have very few readers, even if it is widely available, and it will not alter what those few already believe.

So you see, the only audience for Mr. Heehs's book is the Master and his existing devotees, whose views on the book are already set. This whole debate is therefore only an opportunity for us, individually and collectively, to grow in His consciousness. No one outside our community cares about this discussion, because the rest of the world is busy with its own sectarian conflicts! We should be more friendly with each other about this book, and focus on improving it rather than banning it. And we should not let our reaction to the book become more of a problem than the book itself.
Sincerely
Michael Miovic
Boston, USA
Tuesday, 20 September 2011 4:10 AM

But I am not writing to perpetuate the debate at its current level, and I am not choosing side A or B. I am trying to introduce a third option, which is working collaboratively to improve the book. I understand the likelihood of this coming to pass is small, but I feel the best way to honor Sri Aurobindo is to remain open to the possibility of working together to produce a better book about Him. I don't know that Peter will accept this proposition, nor that his opponents will, but I am extending a standing invitation to both sides to do so.

Let me briefly state the potential benefits of improving this book. First, as Larry noted, this book is extremely well researched and documented. It could use some editing, but setting aside those important details for now, I would ask people to stand back and look at the "big picture." No religious leader or major spiritual teacher in the history of the world has had a biography written of them with such academic depth and rigor as this one--I mean at the level of raw data and collateral information, not how the data is presented and interpreted at times. It is a credit to the synthetic nature of Sri Aurobindo's vision, and the culture that spawned within the Ashram and our community, that it produced such a bold attempt to bridge two worldviews (the "follower" and the academic). No other Ashram in India has produced a biography half as detailed and innovative as Peter's. If we can navigate through this conflict productively, and improve the book, we have the opportunity of presenting to Sri Aurobindo a first in the history of world literature. I think He deserves that.

Second, although the final choice to accept or reject suggested revisions is Peter's, and he is and will bear the inner karmic results of these choices, there is still a communal aspect to this that cannot be overlooked in our yoga. We are here to transform human nature and the ills of humanity. Religious schism and sectarian conflict is a major human problem, and has been throughout history. Our current communal split into For and Against is repeating this age old dynamic. So, if we can find some way to work through this problem, we can be of spiritual help to the world. If not, then we will simply repeat the world.

Third, from a purely practical perspective, I would urge Peter's critics to focus on improving the book because in today's world you cannot stop the spread of information--but you can still influence what is spread. Look at the case of Satprem, who clearly went against the Mother's word by publishing the Agenda so soon (She said wait 30-40 years). The Agenda is now available for free all over the Internet, including the original audio files, and no one has been able to contain this spread. Peter's book will have a smaller audience than the Agenda, but the same principles apply. People in India who want to read it will simply order it by Internet, or email a friend in the U.S. or Europe to obtain it, and there will be pirated PDFs on the web. In 10, 30, or 50 years the government of India will drop the ban, and there you have it.
So, the best thing you can do in the long run is to focus now on improving the book. Then everyone will benefit ultimately from a better product.

I could say much more about suggested revisions and ways to improve the book, but that is for another day.
Sincerely,
Michael
23 September 2011

While I would agree that there are a small number of ungracious remarks made in the book, overall it is highly laudatory of Sri Aurobindo, informative about his life and work, and well-researched and documented. The book is not an attack on Sri Aurobindo's life or work as a few have suggested, or if it is an attack, then it is a very lame attack indeed which many intelligent, devotee readers could not even detect.

On the other hand, there are certain norms of the Ashram that are very well known and some even embedded in its rules. These have been trampled with impunity by the perpetrators of this malicious attack upon the author and the book.
Larry Seidlitz
22 September 2011

Re: A Question of Hagiography and Biography by Kepler on Tue 17 Feb 2009 02:58 AM
Very interesting article. Good point about the inherent conflict in writing usefully about a saint in a non-hagiographic style, unless one is purposely trying to write about the saint completely outside the context of his or her sainthood, e.g. a book solely about Sri Aurobindo’s external political work. He was a historical figure and a historical biography could be written entirely from that perspective. As you indicate, in such a book it may be best to say nothing about the spirituality of the saint. Perhaps it’s the mélange of purposes attempted in this book that is causing the jarring clash.

Here’s a question: what if one did want to know, as objectively as possible, all that could be documented about Sri Aurobindo’s external life, not in order to critique, reduce, or explain his spiritual greatness by mundane details, but rather because one has a deep love for Sri Aurobindo, and finds everything one learns about the actual external life he led is filled with sweetness and brings an increasing sense of closeness. In terms of that purpose, would one prefer a biography of Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual life and experiences, based necessarily on his own and some of his disciple’s descriptions of them, or would a painstaking, historical, critical attempt to gather and present all the discoverable external details be more likely to deliver the desired result?

Perhaps it’s partly the “confusion of dharmas” (as someone phrased it on this site) in this single book that leads some to love it and many to despise it, based on the approach they desired and expected from it.

Kepler

Re: A Question of Hagiography and Biography by Kepler on Thu 19 Feb 2009 02:12 AM
Thanks for the recap of existing biographies. I’ve read some but not all, and none of them recently, so I can’t comment just now on their particular treatment of Sri Aurobindo’s “external life”.

What prompted my question (perhaps posed too confusingly), was your observation of the folly of an overly empirical, rationalistic approach to writing about a Yogin who by definition has been established in a consciousness that exceeds the rational thinking mind. This is very well taken.

But it then occurred to me that as a highly empirical, rationalistic approach works rather well when seeking knowledge about the external, physical world (even if at a loss when expounding upon spiritual experience), so perhaps a heavily rationalistic approach might bear fruit when fully documenting the purely external life of a saint. I think there are some who have read the Lives book and appreciated that aspect of it, even while being annoyed by the misapplication of that approach to Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual life and persona.

I realize some interpret the appreciation of any aspect of the Lives book to be an attempt to negate all criticism of it, but that was of course not my point. No need for anyone to remind me of all the objectionable quotes :-)

Regards,
Kepler

Re: A Question of Hagiography and Biography--Empirical Rationalism by Kepler on Thu 19 Feb 2009 09:51 PM
Thank you for your eloquent reply. I have also previously read with interest your articles on “Can there be an Indian science?” I fear that my point is perhaps so narrow and tangential that, like a small twig standing against a flooding wave, it is readily swept away unnoticed.

My question actually was not of a rationalistic approach “bearing fruit while expounding the spiritual experience”, but rather “might bear fruit when fully documenting the purely external life of a saint”, with emphasis on “the purely external life”.

I’m in full agreement regarding the pathetic limitations of such an approach in comprehending or evaluating the spiritual experience and consciousness of the saint, which is of course the overwhelmingly more important task.

But consider the much less important, but still interesting (to some of us), attempt to get at all the available external documentation of, for example, Sri Aurobindo’s outer life in Baroda, i.e. what he did, where he went and when, whom he associated with, what they recorded as their impressions of him, etc. Would the empirical, critical, “scientific” historian’s approach to this specific task produce more reliable results than a hagiographic one?

I personally do appreciate the results of the rationalistic approach to this “documentation of external facts” about the saint’s life, meaning just those facts that actually were “on the surface for others to see”. I think the raw tasks of collecting, evaluating and presenting the available physical data, do lend themselves to the empirical, rationalistic approach. My problem with the Lives book is that it also attempts to turn that approach on Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual life and persona, with obviously jarring and distorting consequences. I suppose the strength of that jarring effect makes it impossible for many to appreciate this other, smaller result, and I’m happy to drop the point.

Regards,
Kepler

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