Larger Issues

The Heehs biography controversy is unfortunately a symptom of a much deeper crisis in the Integral Yoga community, with future repercussions which are hardly optimistic. In this consideration of some of the larger issues involved, the editors of SCIY and other concerned viewers of the phenomenon have drawn attention to what is at stake for all those interested in the Integral Yoga. These are only a few of the more serious ramifications.

Creation of a new religion
The question arises whether the sense of outrage voiced by those opposed to this book is the symptom of a religion, whose prescribed modes of practice, belief and expression feel violated. If this is so, we have to ask whether such a religious formulation of the teaching of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother is legitimate or not. Both Sri Aurobindo and the Mother have been very explicit that they did not want their spiritual teaching turned into a religion.
Narrowing the Integral Yoga to a devotionalist approach
The attempt at an appropriation of Sri Aurobindo by an exclusive devotional tradition threatens to undermine the integrality of his Yoga and divide his followers along cultural and temperamental lines. It tends to exclude or marginalize those who are not raised in this tradition. While bhakti is an essential component of Sri Aurobindo's Yoga, genuine bhakti must be distinguished from the superficial manifestations of devotionalism. The attempt to limit its modes of expression to those of a specific tradition, let alone to narrow, intolerant forms, is a violation of the Yoga's integrality. This imperils the universality of Sri Aurobindo’s work and legacy and its continued relevance to a changing, globalized world.
Language use and the reification of experience
When the specialized yoga vocabulary of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, such as “psychic being,” “supermind,” “avatar” or “asura” are used in social conversation by those who have not experienced the reality of these things, a second order reality with constructed mental approximations is created, whose common currency can only be a reduction into the morality of “good” and “evil.” With this comes inevitably the self-appointed judges who make it their business to divide the world into “those on the side of the divine” and “those on the side of the hostile beings.” Instead of their legitimate use as inner and experiential pointers in yoga, these terms become weapons of social approval or ostracism, the conversion of the spiritual life to a  priest-run orthodoxy. The judges or priests make pretentious claims of occult knowledge and their followers allow themselves to be led blindly into prisons of their collective making.
Control of representation
The “image” of Sri Aurobindo or of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram features prominently in the arguments of the opponents to the book and its author. According to them, a reader of the book would associate the “insider” status of the author with authority and thus his opinions and interpretations would be viewed as truths. If there was anything even ambiguously negative in such expressions, it would be taken as gospel leading to a negative perception of the ashram and its founder. This view would lead to the conclusions that (a) there needs to be an individual or a collective body which will control representations of Sri Aurobindo, the Mother and the ashram (with the opponents of Heehs’s book representing such a body); and (b) insiders of the ashram are not free to express their true opinions, even those that arise within their individual spiritual practice, for fear of damaging the “image” of the ashram or its founders. Such views, again, belong not to a living spiritual culture but to a policed religious space bound by prescribed man-made values.
The importance of minority views in the yoga community
The ashram (and the larger IY community) has been likened by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother to an experimental laboratory for working out the problems of human transformation. In this respect, the Mother has referred to each individual in the ashram as representing “an impossibility to be solved,” having its effects in the world consciousness. The promises and struggles of each individual in the yoga were accepted by the Mother as part of her own work of transformation. With the passing of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, the dominance of a majoritarian uniformity today threatens to wipe out all differences of interpretation or approach, thus defeating the very purpose of the ashram as a field of spiritual culture with extended effects on diverse possibilities of evolving consciousness.
Profession of belief in Sri Aurobindo and the Mother as Avatars
One of the factors cited for widespread denunciation of the book and its author is its ambiguous stance regarding the avatarhood or divinity of Sri Aurobindo. It should be remembered that Sri Aurobindo himself was ambiguous in this matter. Moreover, his interpretation of the meaning of avatarhood was more complex than what is usually understood by it and emphasized the avatar’s acceptance of human nature, especially in his early life. Wider issues related to this are the questions of whether it is necessary to profess acceptance of Sri Aurobindo as an avatar to do the integral yoga or be a member of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, and whether his divinity must be proclaimed even in writing for the general public.
Criteria for membership in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram
What constitutes the criteria for membership of the ashram? Does one need to satisfy criteria beyond being a self-professed follower of the integral yoga and accepting Sri Aurobindo and the Mother as his/her gurus (as in the case of the author)?  No stipulations regarding the acceptance of Sri Aurobindo as an avatar have hitherto existed for membership in the ashram. Moreover, if a follower has a personal interpretation of the yoga which is based on the teaching of the founder, should this not be seen as that person's path and relation with the Divine? Should it be anyone's business to decide for someone else what it takes to follow Sri Aurobindo's yoga?
New rules for the Ashram
The issue of making new rules and regulations for the ashram and its followers is another important one. The opponents of the book have represented themselves as champions of the ideals of the ashram and its founders, yet they have disregarded existing ashram rules as well as exhortations by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother in the manner in which they have proceeded against another member of the ashram. To express one’s critical dissatisfaction with a book is one thing; it is a different matter to impose rules of one’s own making on other members, and it is a serious issue when these members take the enforcement of such rules into their own hands, instead of proposing them in an appropriate forum, where they can be evaluated and then either officially adopted or officially rejected.
Hindutva influence
Whether there is a Hindutva interest behind the moves of the opponents of the book and whether this supports or violates the views of Sri Aurobindo is another issue at stake.
The Uttarpara speech has been printed and cited innumerable times since its delivery, partly because it was the first and the last occasion when Sri Aurobindo spoke of his spiritual experiences in public. As such, it is an impor tant document for scholars of mysticism. But historians, political scientists, and politicians also discuss the speech. Left-wing critics hold it up as proof that Aurobindo’s nationalism was Hindu at its core, and suggest that this bias encouraged the growth of communalism. Right-wing enthusiasts cite passages of the speech out of context to make it seem as if Aurobindo endorsed their programs. Both of these readings are partial and are inconsistent with Sri Aurobindo's major socio-political texts in which he defines his ideals of human unity. Sri Aurobindo’s “universal religion” was not limited to any particular creed. Besides, the Uttarpara speech was given at an early stage of his sadhana and does not adequately represent his later vision.
On the use of quotations
A major component of the arguments against Heehs is the highly selective use of quotations from Sri Aurobindo and the Mother creating the impression that it is illegitimate to write their biographies (though previous biographies seem to be exempted from this prohibition), and the threat of dire consequences for making Sri Aurobindo “seem human.” Quotations used for illumination, illustration or testing one’s own experience can be a valuable aid in individual and collective spiritual life, but the use of quotations as law is a typical mechanism of orthodox religious control.
A spiritual teacher’s words are uttered in a context of time, place, circumstance and recipient’s personality, as a force in action, not as a law to use as a substitute for truth. Sri Aurobindo and the Mother have responded very differently in different contexts, have warned against taking their words out of context, and have said that for every truth there is an opposite truth equally valid at its time and in its context.
Quite apart from the contents of these quotes, their intended effect is to set up those voicing the quotes as having the right to mete out justice in the name of the quotations’ authors. The use of quotations is dangerous if made into a collective judgment by a group on the sadhana of another person.
Reading skills
What is one to do if the majority population in a community either have little or no access to a text, have no interest in reading the text or do not possess adequate reading skills to correctly understand the text and yet overwhelmingly accept the interpretations of the text presented to them by leaders with their own motives? One of the anomalies of the present case is the apparent lack of reading skills (real or feigned) in the interpretations used to incite popular resentment against the book and its author.
Balance and distortion
It is a commonplace of Sri Aurobindo’s teaching that a balanced view of things is a prerequisite for the integral yoga. Impartiality and balance in the mind and feelings leads to equality of consciousness and allows the true proportion and relations of the parts of a thing to other parts and the whole to emerge. This is the hallmark of truth. This leads naturally to the need to grasp the whole of a thing before one can know its parts and their place, importance or significance. Decontextualized quotes selected, edited and annotated to make an impression of outrage are distortions of meaning and intent which bias the reception and understanding of a text, particularly in readers who don’t feel the need to know the whole and are inclined to jump to conclusions. A community where the culture of balance in the perception of texts, events or objects is lacking, slides easily to irrationality and becomes prey to the designs of falsehood.
Ad hominem attacks and character assassination
A major part of the movement against The Lives of Sri Aurobindo is waged by emotional language. Through the repeated use of this kind of language, a feeling is built up in the reader against a person who is portrayed as evil, untrustworthy, ill-intentioned, and out “for the kill”. These emotional words cannot be verified, which is why they have such force. Attacking the person is a common and effective method in politics. Once fixed in the public mind, these images are difficult to undo.

These “loaded” words are not arguments, but slander. In the letters attacking Peter Heehs, some of the adjectives used to describe the author, his mind or consciousness, and the book itself are: malignant; perverse; dark and perverted; dangerous; destructive;  petty; shallow; small, narrow and diabolic. His intentions or designs, which the writers claim to know, are said to be: sinister; horrific; diabolic; perverse and harmful; cunning; nefarious.Some of these words are frequently repeated. He is said to have “gone way beyond any decency”; “sinned much by his defiance of all spiritual norms”; “played into the hands of the hostile forces”; etc. He “goes down to the dirty cellar” to “look for a blockage in the sewage system so that he can gleefully and perversely report it to the world at large”; his“road to fame is open through the backdoor, nay the sewage pipe through which some choose to enter a palace.” He is called “Peter Pettigrew also known as Wormtail”; he is compared to animp or a mole; his work is hailed by rats, bandicoots, lizards and serpents.

This declamatory stripping of a person’s humanity is designed to incite mob hatred and violence.
Effects on future discussions in the Integral Yoga community
The possible future impacts of the campaign against this book are disturbing. Acceptable speech, writing, and attitudes for sadhaks in this yoga could be affected.Many discussions about Integral Yoga between individuals, in current journals, in online forums, in conferences and meetings would not be allowed under the strict boundaries that the opponents of the book are trying to impose. Many sadhaks and devotees would think twice before speaking their real thoughts. Open exploration of the yoga could be stifled. Dialogue with those outside the community would be restricted. The permissible ways of presenting Sri Aurobindo to the general public would be severely limited.
If the movement against Heehs succeeds, who would dare speak or think freely about Integral Yoga, about Sri Aurobindo or the Mother, indeed about any topic at all, for fear of bringing righteous wrath, mob violence, or even a lawsuit, down upon oneself? Condemnation and banishment is a powerful tool for keeping the community in line; it has worked for thousands of years. Self-censorship would become the norm.  Debashish Banerji , Rich Carlson , David Hutchinson , AngirasUlrich Mohrhoff

Re: Explanation of my Stand wrt The Lives of Sri Aurobindo by David Hutchinson on Wed 26 Nov 2008 06:24 AM PST Profile Permanent Link 4:36 PM

Any large institution that is involved in publishing needs policies that address individual copyright, the ability of its members to write and publish within the subject matter of their jobs and their role within the institution. It is the nature of writing that it may offend some people, or there may be questions about the right of a person to publish certain material. An institution needs to address this directly. In addition, a large institution needs policies and procedures related to communication and public relations. This issue only shows the current weakness. This "controversy" is common knowledge in the Ashram, in Auroville, and across the world, and is bringing a bad name to the Ashram. There should be a person or an office that is empowered to speak to this, that can be the voice of the Ashram as a whole, that can tell residents, locals, and the world what the actions of the institution are, how it is approaching this matter. In the absence of such a voice, it seems that the institution is throwing itself open to arbitrary actions, movements, and outcomes.

A critique of the book "The Lives of Sri Aurobindo" by Peter Heehs ... DEC 14, 2009 Alok Pandey’s Reply to "The Larger Issues behind the The Lives of Sri Aurobindo Controversy"
[Around March 2009, the SCIY supporters of Heehs made a solemn collective statement on the larger issues behind the “The Lives of Sri Aurobindo” controversy. Laying the broad outlines of how the Integral Yoga should not be practised (as if they have been practising it for a long time), voicing grave concerns about how it was going awry at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, they formulated fourteen points with summary explanations attached it. How I wish this new charter of Yogic Rights was followed by the setting up of a new Ashram where they could have indeed shown the world how to practise the Integral Yoga in the right way. Heehs also could be anointed as its new Guru. Alok Pandey reacted to this collective lamentation by jotting down the following replies to some of their accusations – religious fundamentalism, not permitting intellectual freedom, etc.]

1. Religious Fundamentalism:
I don’t believe in any kind of fundamentalism, religious or intellectual. A narrow, one-sided, intellectual approach to truth is as harmful as religious bigotry. At the same time, every spiritual collectivity has a right to safeguard what is sacred and dear to it, its cherished values and ethos, and its unique way of life. Sri Aurobindo and the Mother are the centre and the circumference of the Ashram. The members here have willingly chosen this life centered around Them. They have not been forced into conversion or coerced into submission. One is free to move in (if admitted) and one is also free to move out. But when one is part of the institution, a minimum sense of public decency is expected of him. If a member writes publicly disparaging comments that are critical of the core values and founders of the institution and, that too, for years together, and others rise up to challenge and criticize him, I do not see how they become religious fundamentalists. In this world of transparency and accountability, nobody can stay secure on his throne and demand that he will continue to be in his privileged position despite his betrayal of the very Cause, or his acting constantly against the Spirit that built the institution. To expect others to meekly submit to such unlimited privileges is not the spirit of freedom but of slavery and depravity. The Spirit that built the Ashram and sustains it is not the Spirit of Democracy or Theocracy or Autocracy or any such political ideal. It is the spirit of Yoga and acceptance of the Master. Faith in the Founder and His wisdom are part of its core values and central ethos. For the rest, there is the world outside where people are free to speak on whatever they want in appropriate forums.

2. Intellectual Freedom:
 a regression to barbarism of another kind, which again no progressive group can accept. A right balance is needed, a healthy combination of freedom and discipline, individual and collective. The Ashram is precisely such a place with a leaning towards freedom. Yet, sometimes a group may need to send away a member if his presence is detrimental to the whole group-life or threatening to attack and erode the very Soul of the place. Whether it is possible to destroy the Soul or not is not the issue. The issue is whether certain persisting attitudes and tendencies of an extremely undesirable type can be accepted when they damage the very fundamentals of the Ideal that a group stands and lives for. There are always other groups and places where the individual’s bent of mind and the group’s ethos will match. One is always free to move there.¾ intellectual, vital, physical – is always relative, and comes along with its own share of responsibility. An unlimited freedom is one of those chimeras of vain intellectuals who refuse to submit themselves to a higher Law or a deeper Truth greater than their minds. They are free to say whatever they want, but they must not then complain if others exercise their freedom to contradict their publicly stated opinions and ideas. Unlimited freedom, like unlimited authority is the prerogative only of a consciousness that dwells always in Truth. Since none of us can claim that, let us not speak of it. It is true that an enforced discipline by mechanical means or regimented code leads to conservatism and stagnation, which no progressive group can afford. But equally, an unlimited, unqualified freedom leads to chaos, a mad orgy of vital instincts and mental arrogance, -Freedom of any kind,

3. Spokespersons of Truth:
No one except for Sri Aurobindo and the Mother can have that absolute authority. Nobody else claims it either. And precisely for this very reason it is important to see that distortions and wrong of interpretations are not made from their writings, the kind of which PH has been indulging in openly and blatantly through this book.

4. Need for Reconciliation: 
Yes, of course, but around what and whom? One cannot sacrifice the central principle for the peripheral, the higher truths for the lesser lights. Unless there is a basic agreement on certain fundamental issues, how can one hope to reconcile? In that case, it is better to let different groups grow independently, each in its own way, without interfering in the other’s affairs. When we would all have grown sufficiently, then union, if necessary, will happen naturally, first inwardly, then outwardly. The fundamental issues are:

(a) Can a critical attitude towards Sri Aurobindo and the Mother be permissible in the Ashram, leave alone tacitly being encouraged as it is being done now?

(b) Does the book truly represent Sri Aurobindo’s life and does justice to His Works?

5. Tolerating Different Approaches:
Of course, there is every scope and freedom for diverse approaches. But is the scientific objectivity of the skeptic materialist or hostile criticism of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother an approach to Integral Yoga? Of course, in the widest sense, everything leads us towards God, one way or the other, but when we speak of yoga, we mean a more direct effort. Not everything can be called conscious yoga simply because everything eventually leads us towards God. Besides, there is a difference between having a personal approach and claiming it as the most authentic or best approach for everybody. There is no problem if someone writes a book about how one feels closer to God when he quarrels with Him, but there is a problem when he denounces, belittles or dismisses others while hailing his own way as the only valid one. The author of TLOSA has precisely done that and he starts it in the Preface itself. It is PH and not the devotees who have been intolerant! They have only reacted to his dismissive attitude towards devotion and faith. If you put your hand in a hornet’s nest, you should not blame someone else for your pain!

6. Hindutva Influence:
This is sheer nonsense. Hindus are perhaps the most tolerant group. If there is any Hindutva influence in the PH controversy, it is seen in the remarkable tolerance displayed by the devotees and sadhaks in the face of such audacity and arrogance displayed by PH and the blatant lies that he and some of his supporters have unabashedly resorted to. Can you imagine someone continuing to live freely and enjoying the privileges of an Ashram despite publicly denouncing its Guru and Master?

7. Anti-Western feelings:
This is again sheer nonsense, an old trick used to divide people on racial lines. Has any westerner ever been harmed before, during, or after the controversy, including those who resolutely stand on PH’s side? B. and R.H. continue to occupy their places, while Sraddhalu has been asked not to go to the Archives. The feeling of racism has not been created by people who are against PH’s book but by those who are supporting him. Somehow they are unable to see beyond the colour of their skin and country of origin. It is sad, but who is responsible for it? That is the question.

8. Western outlook:
 maybe related to a recent past and the turn that religion has taken in the West. Maybe it is difficult for a Westerner to surrender or acknowledge a personal and embodied Divine. But I am not sure if this is still a general phenomenon or one that afflicts the Sri Aurobindo group specifically. Nevertheless, just as an Indian has to pursue yoga forgetting that he is a Hindu or Indian, so also a Westerner or others may have to follow yoga, if they wish to, forgetting that they are Westerners, Christians, agnostics, etc. Or does this simple rule of yoga apply only to one group and not to the others??¾There may be some truth in it,

9. Moral and Religious Policing:
Nobody does moral or religious policing here. Nobody peeps into anybody’s life or passes judgments except in private. It is rather PH who has tried to peep into Sri Aurobindo’s life with a voyeuristic curiosity and passed judgments. He has made his views public and therefore people have reacted because of his misrepresentations of Sri Aurobindo, His life and His works. How is that equivalent to moral and religious policing? Nobody is bothered or cares about PH’s private and personal life. Nobody has slapped a list of do’s and don’ts on him or anyone else. All that the devotees have asked of him is not to write such derogatory stuff while he is a member of the Ashram. Is that such an unfair demand? If anything, it is his followers in America who are trying to remote control and police and pass comments and judgments on what does not really concern them! One can understand that concern for what is written or said about Sri Aurobindo when it is not confined to the Ashram. The devotees all over the world have surely the right to express what they feel. But it is not within the prerogative of everyone, including devotees outside, to comment, interfere, influence and control the decisions regarding PH’s continuation at the Archives or the Ashram. To do that would rather be moral and religious policing. A distinction must be made between the Ashram as a source of spiritual Light for all and the Ashram as an institution. Nobody here is interfering in PH’s yoga or his personal approach to the Divine, which in any case is a matter of attitude rather than outer circumstances. Nobody is ex-communicating him. All that was asked was his removal from the Archives and that too not out of any ‘righteous wrath’ but because of the gross misuse of his privileges, such as making use of unpublished things for public consumption without taking permission. Such a change of department and even taking someone out of the Ashram has been done earlier and is an acceptable norm in other institutions. It has nothing to do with this hype on ‘religious wrath’ and ‘fundamentalism’. Does it mean that every time someone was asked to leave the Ashram (and there have been quite a few cases), it was done out of ‘religious wrath’ or a ‘fundamentalist’ impulse? It simply means that the individual does not fit anymore in the organization, because he does not agree to abide by its core principles.

10. Who is the authority?
For all Ashram related matters, it is obviously the Ashram Trust that enjoys the full authority. For PED (Physical Education Dept of the Ashram) matters, it is the PED that decides, and so also for most departments. There is no doubt about this. That is why the Ashram inmates welcomed the PED decision whereas they remained silent (though somewhat sorrowfully) at the decision of the Trust. Nobody went against the Trust; they only repeatedly kept apprising them, not because they wanted to ‘arm-twist’ the Trustees but because they felt unheeded and unheard (due to their silence). If a clear decision had been taken either way and communicated to everybody, there would have been no confusion. As I have said earlier, there is a time and place for silence and a time and place for speech and communication. To delay certain decisions for long can prove to be costly.

11. Lawsuit:
Certainly not the best way to settle issues. Yet, if all options are closed, it is the only viable way of redress and there is nothing uncivilized about it.

12. A Logical Fallacy:
Finally, one may say that supporting PH while condemning the reactions to the book is a strange and fallacious logic. The same logic used to defend PH defends also the reactions against him. For instance:

(i) PH decontextualized Sri Aurobindo’s writings, quoting them in bits and parts from here and there, so did those who quoted from his book.

(ii) PH is a representative type of humanity but then so are the others.

(iii) PH has analyzed Sri Aurobindo critically (and without a heart) with the lens of a scientific objectivity. The same is being done to him by others.

(iv) PH has intolerance towards other approaches dubbing them as hagiography, dogma, etc. So also others are being dismissive about his approach.

(v) PH has intellectual freedom to write what he wants, so also others are exercising their freedom to criticize him.

(vi) PH has been critical and dismissive towards Sri Aurobindo’s works, so also have been people been towards his work.

(vii) PH has called Sri Aurobindo names (some would have thought he was a megalomaniac, coward, liar, etc); so also have others done the same to PH, called him names.

(viii) You feel love for PH and are defending him, so also we feel love for Sri Aurobindo and are defending him. Or to use your language, you believe and stand for certain mental values such as vital and intellectual freedom. We believe and stand for certain spiritual values such as devotion and surrender when you take up the yoga (not otherwise).

I am not saying that ‘tit for tat’ is a very yogic thing. All that I am doing is to point out a logical fallacy in supporting PH’s personal actions. What should have been done instead was a discussion on the book itself.

13. Circulating the Extracts: 
taken them out of context. PH’s background, repeated actions of a similar nature, his being part of the Ashram and that too of the Archives, his abrasive personality that hastily dismisses other approaches, his mocking at people’s faith in the Mother, all these are part of the full picture. To simply take a few extracts (that too selected for effect) and analyze them is only to create confusion, nothing else.¾So do you expect that the whole book should have been circulated? That would be worse! And hasn’t PH done the same, giving a one-sided picture by selective half-quotes. And have not those who have analyzed our letters done the same,

14. Representative Type:
Yes, everybody here is a representative type but not all need to stay in a particular department of the Ashram to do yoga and change themselves. And if he is a representative type, so are the others and he is getting it from other representative types! Such logics is obviously self-defeating in the end! Alok Pandey, April 2009 Posted by Raman Reddy at 12/14/2009 06:16:00 PM