M.Alan Kazlev 11 August 2009: My thoughts on the controversy surrounding Peter Heehs' book The Lives of Sri Aurobindo Kheper Home Sri Aurobindo and the Mother Home Sri Aurobindo and the Mother Books Topics Index Divinisation New Search The Lives of Sri Aurobindo: Peter Heehs
The Lives of Sri Aurobindo (Columbia University Press (2008) 528 pages) is the first ever scholarly non-hagiographic study of Sri Aurobindo. Heehs is a scholar who managed the ashram archives for some 30 years; he wrote a very informative academic-style biography of Sri Aurobindo. I found it both facsinating and inspiring. Sri Aurobindo the unreachable perfect god, I have no interest in such a conception at all. Sri Aurobindo the imperfect and fallible human who at the same time was an avatar of Supramental transformation, that he went from being an ordinary person to such a great Realizer, now that is what I find inspiring!.
Rather than write a simple overview of what the book is about (which I find tedious to do anyway), I'll quote from the publicity blurb on Amazon com.
Since his death in 1950, Sri Aurobindo Ghose has been known primarily as a yogi and a philosopher of spiritual evolution who was nominated for the Nobel Prize in peace and literature. But the years Aurobindo spent in yogic retirement were preceded by nearly four decades of rich public and intellectual work. Biographers usually focus solely on Aurobindo's life as a politician or sage, but he was also a scholar, a revolutionary, a poet, a philosopher, a social and cultural theorist, and the inspiration for an experiment in communal living.Peter Heehs, one of the founders of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives, is the first to relate all the aspects of Aurobindo's life in its entirety. Consulting rare primary sources, Heehs describes the leader's role in the freedom movement and in the framing of modern Indian spirituality. He examines the thinker's literary, cultural, and sociological writings and the Sanskrit, Bengali, English, and French literature that influenced them, and he finds the foundations of Aurobindo's yoga practice in his diaries and unpublished letters. Heehs's biography is a sensitive, honest portrait of a life that also provides surprising insights into twentieth-century Indian history.
Sounds straightforward...sounds good. And I really do feel this is an excellent contribution to the field of Aurobindo studies.
Not since Satprem published the Agenda has the Integral Yoga community been wracked by such a schism.
The Western disciples and Westernised Indians praised the book, and no doubnt were inspired by it for exactly the same reason I was (well, some of them anyway). But the religious and devotional Indians hated it. I myself could find nothing at all objectionable about his book, but the ashramites are up in arms; Heehs has been driven out and there was even a court case brought against him.
The whole thing spilled over to the Aurobindo mail list, auroconf, which I am no longer subscribed to. The reason I unsubscribed is because I found the whole argument (even if it was conducted in the most civil and respectful manner) about the book so absurd, with all that emotionalism. (but i'm very a solitary person and don't fit in groups anyway).
The battle-lines were drawn, several blogs and websites were set up or - if already established - took positions along factional lines.
In this way, the whole affair has been documented in mind-numbing detail by each side, each of course with its own bias.
So, against Heehs' book (devotee websites and blogs) there is:
The Lives of Sri Aurobindo - despite the title, this isn't a site to publicise the book. It's a devotee site set up to criticise it.
Mirror of Tommorrow archives. Mirror of Tommorrow is a devotee blog, this particular page describes some objections in great detail. Again, for me it is this very human, intimate, side of Sri Aurobindo and Mirra's relationship that I am most interested in, not some idea of sterile sanitised detachment
Heehs Biography Controversy - my friend Tusar N. Mohapatra is anti-Heehs, here he has collected a series of links and documents
If you look at the Pro-Heehs camp in the same objective way, you can notice the same "us and them" projection of the shadow, although they do get the facts about the book right! And the critiques by Peter's supporters are for the most part well written and eminently reasonable. The impression I get from those who argue in support of Peter Heehs' work is that they come from a place of secular Modernity, of an enlightened (in the sense of the secular enlightenment) and spiritually sympathetic and rational modernity. Just as those who attack the book seem to my biased perception at least to be coming from an uncritical guru-religious position. And it is noteworthy that Sri Aurobindo himself, and even more so The Mother, spoke out very strontgly against religion. But in the end their teachings and personalities have become a religion, just like what happened with Jesus and all the rest.
Enlighten Next blog post overview by Carter Phipps, chief editor of Enlighten Next, and hence, a devotee of the controversial guru Andrew Cohen, seems to engage in his own shadow project, the way he seems to imply taht teh entire Aurobindo internet community is up in arms against Heehs (not so, not so...). The position of Enlighten Next is essentially that of Cultural Creative modernity, there is no gnosis there. I'm not saying they are no good, only that they are non-gnostic (but sympathetic to those who do have gnosis, even if they don't understand it themselves)
Integral Yoga Fundamentalism - a whole website set up to oppose the critics; the name is bound to antagonise (a friend of mine criticized them over this, and I cannot but agree). But if I ask myself are the anti-Heehs people Aurobindo fundamentalists, I have to honestly say yes, they are. But it is precisely through that religious fundamentalism they access Sri Aurobindo and the Mother's Light. Indeed, I was an Aurobindo fundamentalist for a long time as well, you do get a certain connection through the intense literalism of belief. The ideal is to retain the connection, but without the literalism.
The Integral Yoga Fundamentalism site is organized by the SCIY blog people, who tend (so it seems to me) to adopt a non-religious, postmodernist approach to Sri Aurobindo. It would be arrogant to say that only the religious types can access Sri Aurobindo's Light. Why shouldn't the postmodernists as well? And of course he SCIY blog, being is pro-Heehs and against the religious, has a lot on this, although I can't be bothered sifting through (and I guess that's why they set up the IY Fundamentalism blog. But you can always try a Google search approach
Now, I would love to remain neutral; I don't want to be drawn into another war; what happened with Sai Baba was enough for me! Especially after the google vandalism I got from a rabid Sai Baba devotee. But the fact remains that the most absurd lies have been said about Heehs book (and about Heehs; that he has hatred for Sri Aurobindo, that he's a drug addict, etc), in a manner reminscent of the slanderous devotee phenomenon. When I first encountered this my immediate reaction was: How can this be??? These are devotees of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, not of some abusive guru, and yet there is full-blown shadow projection! I found the whole thing appalling, and decided I wanted nothing to do with the Aurobindo community (apart from a few people on both sides of the fence that I know, like, and respect).
To be fair on Heeh's critics, I can appreciate and respect that they are devotees who have a religious worship of Sri Aurobindo, and would therefore be offended by a non-hagiographic biography, especially by an ashramite who they had always considered one of their own. And certainly there is great value in passion and of faith which is lost in secularism. Also I can understand the ashramites (as Hindus) see it as another attack by a Westerner on their culture and sacred traditions, a culture i myself resonate very powerfully to (because of past life samskaras/vasanas no doubt!). But that doesn't excuse the lies and hysteria that they have spread about Heeh's book; I know their claims are lies because i read (most of) the book, and apart from one or two correct things almost everything they claim is in the book isn't.
The only thing I myself would say that is really critical of the book is that Heehs does not clearly specify that Sri Aurobindo attained the Supramental state early on; just the opposite, he seems to imply that Sri Aurobindo never really attained it, even after thirty years. The reason for this error is easy to see. Heehs is an academic, not a gnostic, and therefore he is not in a position to understand the higher aspects of Sri Aurobindo's life and teachings. In this respect at least his critics are right.
Sri Aurobindo in fact had totally supramentalised his own consciousness and even his body, he had attained supramentalisation very early on, it may have been as early as the 1910s on his own (during the period he was writing Record of Yoga, a cryptic diary of his experiences), or the early 1920 or thereabouts with The Mother. But what he and Mirra struggled and did not fully achieve was the Supramentalisation of the Earth (the Terrestrial Consciousness) as a whole. That is what Heehs got confused about. The individual supramentalization was relatively easy in comparison (although still far beyond ordinary Liberation); and Sri Aurobindo later noted that other yogis had attained Supermind, but in an individual yogic manner, not as a collective transformation.
In this respect, an intelligently written hagiography like Van Vrekhem's Beyond the Human Species is better, because he at least conveys the sense of the occult, esoteric, and transcendent, even if it is in a religious - one could say an esoteric religious - perspective. This is why scholarship itself is not enough. Scholarship is caught up in secularism, so if you don't have gnosis yourself, at least you can get some sense of the transcendent through religious devotionalism. I didn't find Van Vrekhem's book anywhere as interesting as Heehs'. It is just the same old hagiography. But it does contain imporatnt esoteric information that Heehs, by his very nature as an academic, is not allowed to talk about. Therefore Lives of Sri Aurobindo has to be suplemented with hagiographic material if it is to convey a more complete picture.
It's worth considering that the Integral community (Wilber et al) have tried to approach the gnostic without religion. I don't think they succeeded; in my experience the mainstream integral movement - everyone from Wilber down - is still exoteric, non-gnostic, and secular; even if it is at the high end of the exoteric and non-gnostic (and that's no doubt what their contribution is; everything in stages; it is just that I want to make bigger leaps!).
What I find the most troubling is that it is evident that, with very few exceptions, the people attacking Heehs have not even bothered to read his book . They are just reacting to what others (who likewise have not read it) are saying. It is like a mob reaction. One gets stirred up, then another, and everyone's rampaging. With the customer reviews of the Amazon.com link above you will notice that some people (including the same guy - "A Reader", from Boston - voting twice) rated the book one star (Amazon com ratings don't allow zero stars). I bet that none of them have read the book. Those giving it five stars however clearly have. So what does that say? It doesn't put the critics in a good light.
At the end, where do I stand on this? Well, I have no choice but to fully and completely support Heehs and his book. Flawed though it may be in its apologetics to gross materialists and its failure to emphasise Sri Aurobindo's supramental attainments, it is an important, indeed, essential, contribution to Aurobindo Studies. Most importantly from the perspective of modernity, people should be allowed to write books without fear of abuse or attack. Even if most people are not at the level of gnosis, it is important to move beyond literal religion of any sort. According to the Wilberian integralists, society has to evolve through modernity before it can get to higher, integral stages. And I actually agree there, you need a certain emotional calmness and intellectual clarity, and you won't get that through the shadow projection that comes with religionism. Even if most people who support Heehs are only at the level of modernity, I still feel that is more important, and at a higher degree of consciousness, than devotionalist inspired opposition. Then, having attained mental clarity and the historical objectivity that secular modernity provides, you can return to devotionalism, but from a higher turn of the spiral. And that's what it's all about :-)
Finally, if you are concerned about Fundamantalist devotees, or any sort of fundamentalism, you may want to check out this event, which is free, but requires you to be in San Francisco
Fundamentalism and the Future is hosted at the California Institute of Integral Studies. The forum is organised by pro-Heehs students of Sri Aurobindo and Integral Yoga (including some of the SCIY blog people) Kheper Home contact me
page by M.Alan Kazlev page uploaded 11 Aug 2009