Monday, April 2, 2012

Peter Heehs does not criticize Sri Aurobindo where he deserves to be criticized

Auroville Radio Auroville Radio Newsletter Editor's Notes Dear readers,
Auroville continues its pursuit of working through matter to understand the spiritual, and so this week we bring to you our coverage of a variety of experiments in art and culture, the Kabir Festival being the highlight. Also, if you have experienced cycling around in Auroville, do check out the latest development at Solar Kitchen. Enjoy!

In 1950, I was serializing in a Calcutta Bengali monthly the story of the Ashram, invited by its editor who had never come to Pondicherry and did not know my age. Nolinida went through every instalment, with his written suggestions and corrections. When the episode of Richard’s visit came, Nolinida asked me never to write the first name (Paul) and the family name (Richard) side by side, because numerically they represent the incarnation of a negative Force. Sixty years later, I wonder whether still that is valid.
Extremely disturbed by the Mother’s decision to stay on, in 1920, he had rushed in vain to influence Tagore; then, during the Nagpur session of the Congress, Bhupendrakumar Datta had seen his ominous presence near Gandhiji; and Romain Rolland had received him with the utmost care. Rolland’s young musician friend Alfred Cortot having had eloped his wife, the pains of a bruised husband’s heart interested him and led him to leave in his diary a few damaging remarks about the Mother.
Congratulations for these after-thoughts of an aged philosopher. Prithwindra Mukherjee

31 March 2012: Don't expel US historian, govt told Addendum: The question about the relationship between Sri Aurobindo and the Mother is only one of dozens of objections raised by that handful of religious fundamentalists; it is not even mentioned in the Orissa Gazette Notification. It is, however, what appears to produce the most visceral effect in the public, for reasons we fail to understand. Heehs made it perfectly clear that there was no sexual element at all in this relationship. On the contrary, what he wrote underscores its profoundly sacred nature. Only readers with a serious Freudian hang-up can fail to see this. — Editors, IYF. Recent Additions
9 August 2011: Review by Antony Copley

So I started reading the book that has caused Indian heads to explode, namely, The Lives of Sri Aurobindo. This is a biography written by the historian Peter Heehs, and is written from a secular perspective. Although Heehs was himself a devotee (or claimed to be), he wrote the book as a secular historian. Thus, the descriptions are relatively impersonal and have the qualities of a normal biography, not a hagiography.
I love this book. I think it’s an engaging, well-written and informative biography. I have not finished reading it yet, but so far have not come across anything ‘offensive’ to me as a disciple. The only two times I have been offended is when Heehs is insufficiently critical of Sri Aurobindo. Sri Aurobindo does not have a good track record when it comes to egalitarianism — in fact, as far as I know he has shown relatively* little interest in and sensitivity toward types of oppression other than the oppression of India (Indian men?) by the British. Heehs quotes a misogynistic statement of his, and describes his uncritical exercise of male privilege in choosing his wife, but does not criticize or distance himself from these actions and statements. I am of the view that biographers ought not to be ‘neutral’ on such subjects, but ought to call out the figures they’re ‘biographizing’ in order not to implicitly condone their actions/words. So my only complaint against Peter Heehs so far is that he does not criticize Sri Aurobindo where he deserves to be criticized, though perhaps that was a prudent choice on his part.
Besides that, I don’t know what all the fuss is about. This is a standard biography, written from a perspective that is supposed to be as unbiased as possible. The book was not written to convert people onto the path, but to make information available to disciples and non-disciples alike, about the ‘outer’ life of Sri Aurobindo as well as the bare bones of the Integral Yoga. The reaction that it has met is so irrational as to be mind-boggling. Those raging against Heehs and the book have severe problems that they need to examine. They should stop wasting time persecuting others, and pay more attention to themselves. I’d certainly start respecting them more of they did.  * Relative to others in the same age, such as John Stuart Mill in the case of gender. mystic servant

Stumbling mystic March 6, 2012 at 3:39 am
OF COURSE Sri Aurobindo and the Mother say many things that indicate the historical era that they were a product of, and OF COURSE they often use language that is totally obsolete for our times or that lacks the linguistic and deconstructive tools of our postmodern age. Merely realizing this and pointing it out is, far from being disrespectful to SA/M, to bear witness to the eternal renewability of the spirit of their message. In short, to stay true to what they actually stood for beyond the exigencies of language and history! That, said …
I do believe you are being too harsh on Sri Aurobindo here. Yes, I think it’s true that the kind of egalitarian political attitude that is pretty well-accepted in the postmodern age didn’t exist during Sri Aurobindo and the Mother’s time, but it was certainly in the process of being created and as far as I can tell, they were very supportive of democratization movements in general. Sri Aurobindo’s social consciousness seems to have been basically influenced by the Marxism of his time and he was opposed to the caste system in India.
It’s true that Sri Aurobindo didn’t pay much attention to the women’s movement (and even the Mother only seems to give it very cursory attention), and I’ll probably attribute to this to basically conservative Hindu background, but we have to acknowledge that despite this background he made a number of progressive statements about women’s intellectual, physical and other capabilities that were not generally accepted by Indians during that era.
Add to that the fact that the Sri Aurobindo Ashram always had free mixing between the sexes, mixed gender sports, encouraged psychological androgyny as both a precondition and a goal of the integral yoga, etc. etc. and you can see that even though SA/M weren’t immersed in political feminism or in the sophisticated language of feminism, what they were proposing was perfectly in line with feminism and the integral yoga has (as we’ve discussed in the past) many incredibly fruitful opportunities for dialogue with feminism.
I won’t deny that Sri Aurobindo’s language is hopelessly androcentric, to the point that as a disciple who is a woman and a feminist, I frequently find myself rolling my eyes at some of his more obsolete phrases. It is somewhat disappointing that he doesn’t seem to have even encountered John Stuart Mill’s “The Subjection of Women” even though he studied in England during the heyday of the early progressive movements. And I won’t deny that most disciples of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, if not explicitly anti-feminist, aren’t particularly pro-feminist either, nor do they recognize the amazing humanizing effect that feminism has had on the world (or if they do, it’s through the lens of a believing in a reified “Divine Feminine” principle).
Nevertheless, we have the benefit of living in the 21st century, where words like “heteronormativity” exist and have completely turned our understanding of sex and gender around, and it seems somewhat arrogant to retrospectively judge people from a different historical era by our standards. Hindsight is always 20/20. I also don’t expect Sri Aurobindo and the Mother to espouse intellectual perfection or exemplary politics, necessarily — to me they were spiritual masters who had retired from the intellectual and political realm to do a great inner work (a sacrifice due to which all of us disciples are benefiting a great deal, undoubtedly). The synthesis of the integral yoga with an intellectual and political integrity is a job for us disciples — SA/M have laid the base down for us, and the rest is up to us.
I agree with everything you’ve said, though I’ll say that Sri Aurobindo was not merely androcentric in his language, he was also outright misogynistic at times. But then he was also feminist at times, e.g. in his admiration for masculine and androgynous women (e.g. St. Joan of Arc). None of this effects my sadhana, btw. I don’t judge Avatars by their outer personality. By this I mean that my devotion does not depend on their outer personality, since to the extent that I am devoted to them I am devoted to their spiritual personality, and I tend to direct my devotion mainly toward God directly and not as much toward the guru anyway (I’m a bit more ‘Islamic’ in that sense, though I’m completely okay with bhakti directed toward a guru).
Stumbling mystic March 6, 2012 at 4:28 pm
Yes it’s important to note that Sri Aurobindo, unlike many other spiritual teachers, never romanticized weakness or delicacy in women. All the women he seems to have associated with or admired (the Mother, Alexandra David-Neel, Joan of Arc, etc.) clearly had a high masculinity and “virility” quotient. I think Sri Aurobindo was just an admirer of certain virtues and ideals — impersonality, stature, dignity, courage, nobility and generosity of character — and even though he didn’t pay much attention to the effects of structural oppression on women’s psychology (he does mention it briefly in some dialogues with disciples, but never in detail) he would have respected anyone who embodied those virtues, regardless of their sex.
I agree about not worrying too much about the outer personality of the Avatar. The outer personality is just a historical vehicle for the Shakti that they are manifesting. Still, as you know I believe in a certain type of Guruvad: I do often chant “Ma Sri Aurobindo” as a way of invoking the Divine presence and force, and I definitely feel a certain love for Mother and Sri Aurobindo in their personal aspects. It’s just that this love is not blind devotion, and because it is sincere and frank love and not insincere flattery, it’s not incompatible with my critical thinking and deconstructive faculties.
Stumbling mystic - March 11, 2012 at 3:39 pm
I forgot to qualify the above comment: “All the women …” *except* his wife who was much younger than him and a very conventional, traditional Hindu woman. I don’t doubt that he loved her, but from his letters to Mrinalini Devi, it’s pretty obvious he treated her more or less like a child. It’s hard for me to understand why someone who was educated in England, had exposure to the progressive movements, must have interacted with liberated Englishwomen, and whose parents were not traditional Hindus but atheists, would come back to India and have a really conventional traditional marriage to a woman who was half his age (he was 28, she was 14). It’s pretty difficult to conclude that in those days Sri Aurobindo did not have some residual sexism and my sense is his androcentrism only starts getting moderated after his relationship with the Mother, who was clearly influenced by feminist thinking (obviously, being a woman).
Stumbling mystic March 6, 2012 at 3:47 am
Also, Peter’s biography is unopinionated for a reason … it’s not a critique, it’s a historical biography, and he wrote it as such. Needless to say, it’s also not a biography that gives much deeper insight into what Sri Aurobindo and the Mother were really about, but that wasn’t really its purpose anyway. What’s ironic is that people are up in arms about such an unopinionated biography. What would they say to yours or my critique of the androcentrism in Sri Aurobindo’s language? Probably chop our heads off.
I’m of the somewhat postmodern view that one can never be neutral about these things. To quote a problematic line by Sri Aurobindo and not mention that it is problematic, is in a way participating in that same problem. Heehs did not have to offer his opinions, but he could at least have said: ‘this may seem like a misogynistic statement to many, but recall that Sri Aurobindo was influenced by the currents of his time’, or, ‘it is clear that Sri Aurobindo was not much influenced by the feminist movement, though his later writings indicate a greater awareness of these issues’. Or something like that.
Stumbling mystic March 6, 2012 at 4:33 pm
True, I have seen another paper where the historian was discussing Sri Aurobindo’s participation in the nationalist movement and he quoted a pretty misogynistic line from Sri Aurobindo where he was saying something like we shouldn’t be a nation of women, ready to suffer but not to strike, or something like that. This historian did say that this was a very unfortunate phrase to use, but that it was an attitude toward women that was very common in India at that time.
The problem is that Sri Aurobindo’s unfortunate earlier language regarding women has set a bad precedent, and I know many of the more conservative Hindu disciples in the integral yoga community are pretty set in their ignorance of feminism and women’s issues.

I engage in personal acts of resistance by not conforming to gender, by repudiating femininity completely in both my outer appearance and my personality. I try to challenge gender essentialism in everyday life, but it is not enough. And it especially infuriates me when people bring gender into spiritual matters, by using such nonsensical terms as ‘Divine feminine’ and ‘masculine principle’. It makes me want to throw up. 
Stumbling mystic March 18, 2012 at 6:52 pm
There are obviously differences between male and female conditioning, and there are biological and cultural factors at play there. Many of these conditioned behavioral patterns are deeply embedded in the subconscient and because the average person isn’t even particularly mentally developed, let alone spiritually developed, the subconscient has a tremendous hold on them, leading them to believe that these conditioned patterns are immutable…
The reality based on the empirical literature that I’m familiar with is that men and women have somewhat different emotional issues. Men tend to lean toward more schizoid personality profiles and lack empathy, and are more prone to psychopathy and antisocial/aggressive behaviors. Women tend to lean toward more borderline personality profiles and lack emotional stability, and tend to get stuck in co-dependent relationship patterns and such things, although they are higher in empathy than men and exhibit more emotional nurturance. The struggle for men is to learn how to let their guard down and open their hearts; the struggle for women is to put their guard up more often and set some boundaries with people.
But there’s no evidence that I’m aware of showing that men find it easier to be “objective” about their psychology than women. Most human beings in general find dispassionate intellectual analysis and cold, brutally detached self-observation an *unbearable* chore.
Stumbling mystic March 18, 2012 at 7:29 pm
In integral yoga terms, I would say that men generally have over-developed and over-assertive vital egos, without enough openness in the heart-center to keep their egos reigned in. That would explain the overall lack of empathy and greater proneness to psychopathy and anti-social behaviors, but the absence of emotional entanglements at least gives men a degree of emotional freedom and a chance to devote their energies to their own pursuits/achievements.
Women tend to be more open in the heart-center, but have under-developed or under-assertive vital egos. The excessive emotional openness without sufficiently stable and developed vital defenses makes them more prone to getting trapped in emotional entanglements and emotional vulnerability, and to invest all their energy in nurturing other people or their relationships with them, rather than focusing their energy on their own achievements.
All of this is ridiculously consistent with and predicted by feminist analysis of gender roles and the institutions of patriarchy. It’s a wonder anybody can break out of these patterns at all (a testament to the existence of an inner spiritual freedom, if you ask me) given how ancient and institutionalized these patterns are.
But yeah, you’re right. Feminism meshes nicely with IY: IY fills out the details of what feminism has some vague intuitions about.
Stumbling mystic March 18, 2012 at 7:36 pm
The reality is actually the opposite. It’s men who tend to isolate themselves more to hide their emotions or sense of vulnerability, and to exhibit schizoid or antisocial behaviors, not women. If anything, women are excessively trusting and emotionally expressive, which is what usually lands them in abusive relational dynamics, especially with men. The vast majority of women, if you criticize them publicly, far from trying to hide their flaws, they’ll be self-deprecating or even self-flagellating and self-mortifying. It’s usually men who withdraw or lash out in response to criticism, not women.

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