From Choice (USA), October 2008
Most books on Sri Aurobindo are hagiographical, with little or no biographical information; in keen contrast, this book covers in great detail the various stages of his life. The book consists of a preface, epilogue, and five parts–part 1, “Son”: “Early Years in India, Bengal, 1872-79”; part 2, “Scholar”: “Growing up English, England, 1879-93” and “Encountering India, Baroda, 1893-1910”; part 3, “Revolutionary”: “Into the Fray, Calcutta, 1906-08” and “In Jail and After, Bengal, 1908-10”; part 4, “Yogi and Philosopher”: “A Laboratory Experiment, Pondicherry, 1910-15” and “The Major Works, Pondicherry, 1914-20”; and part 5, “Guide”: “The Ascent to Supermind, Pondicherry, 1915-26” and “An Active Retirement, Pondicherry, 1927-50.” Many expositions and commentaries on Sri Aurobindo’s principal works have been written, especially on The Life Divine, but this reviewer believes that Heehs’s book stands out as the very best by enabling readers to understand the various circumstances that led Sri Aurobindo to his final destination. Heehs (independent scholar) richly deserves congratulations for the first-class research and scholarship evident in this rare work. Excellent notes, bibliography, and index enhance the book’s value. All students and scholars of Sri Aurobindo will find this extraordinary book most rewarding. Summing Up: Essential. Graduate students and faculty/researchers; general readers.
— Ramakrishna Puligandla, professor emeritus, University of Toledo
From H-Net Reviews, June 2011
In recent years, authors writing about ancient to more modern traditions, communities, and divine and not necessarily divine persons connected to South Asia have sometimes found themselves to be virtually and, thankfully more rarely, literally assailed for their interpretations. These authors and their critics, one could argue, are part of a shared discursive context, one where technologies, global circulation of ideas, and the ease of joining in on conversations can support a wonderfully diverse audience but where the consequences of a perceived misstep in interpretation may require more than a thick skin. Into this milieu, a new biography of Sri Aurobindo Ghose has arrived. The Lives of Sri Aurobindo (hereafter The Lives), by Peter Heehs, joins his already impressive roster of publications, many concerning Aurobindo and unpublished materials from the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives of which Heehs is one of the founders. The new work covers the whole of Aurobindo’s life (1872-1950). It is engagingly written and supported by a bounty of historical materials. Students of India with little familiarity of Aurobindo will discover that Heehs offers a multisided portrait of a brilliant and enigmatic man whose lifetime spanned a momentous period in modern Indian history and whose various accomplishments bear closer examination for their content and for their discursive revelations on a variety of subjects, including revolution, violence, nationalism, poetry, metaphysics, Indian culture, Hindu texts, yoga, religion, and spiritual communities. For those already aware of Aurobindo’s role in early Indian nationalist politics and his subsequent transformation into a revered “spiritual” leader and founder of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Heehs’s biography adds many fine details from Aurobindo’s own diaries and retrospective writings alongside accounts from family, friends, associates, and foes. The overall result is a masterful and inspiring biography that provides a solid foundation for further Aurobindo studies and offers plenty of cues for other kinds of historical, textual, and exegetical work that could enhance our understanding of the multiple sites in which Aurobindo lived and worked.
Since its publication, Heehs’s biography has elicited strong criticism from some members of the Aurobindo community. These reactions were anticipated by Heehs who notes, in the preface, that admirers of Aurobindo do not always agree with perspectives that do not match theirs or with interpretations that challenge existing ones (p. xii). The actual points of contention (much of which can be located on the Internet) deserve attention for their contribution to the ongoing and not always consonant discourses that constitute Aurobindo. This review, however, is only focused on Heehs’s efforts to convey a portrait of Aurobindo’s life, one that is intentionally non-hagiographical and draws on a multiplicity of voices to help readers approach a life from numerous perspectives.
The Lives allows readers to come to an understanding of Aurobindo that is not predetermined by Heehs. Rather, the main purpose of this biography is to allow the complex person of Aurobindo to emerge from personal accounts and writings, observations, and other historical records. Heehs maps the course of Aurobindo’s life over five sections, each covering a range of roles that Aurobindo fulfilled, as son, scholar, revolutionary, yogi and philosopher, and guide. Heehs uses these sections well to allow Aurobindo’s multiple “lives” to emerge in the reader’s mind, first by not imposing any broader thesis to explain Aurobindo’s actions and decisions throughout his life, and second, by providing the right amount of context that allows the historical materials to largely speak for themselves. Heehs also seeks to add clarity rather than further confuse certain moments and comments in Aurobindo’s life that have been frequently interpreted to serve their supporters’ or critics’ purposes. These include Aurobindo’s comments on sanatan dharma (traditional ethical practice) and the need for modern India to recognize its cultural legacies and spiritual gifts. Heehs makes clear that Aurobindo’s essentializing of Indian culture when situated in the context of colonialism cannot be construed as synonymous with a program for Hindu supremacy. Aurobindo’s concept of sanatan dharma, Heehs writes, “was not a matter of belief but of spiritual experience and inner communion with the Divine,” the latter concept not being attached to a single religion or community but existing within and for all (p. 187). As for Aurobindo’s tacit acceptance of violence for political aims during his days as a journalist and political figure in Bengal and his subsequent abjuring of violence during his life in Pondicherry, Heehs notes that Aurobindo “never ceased to believe that Indians had the right to use violence to topple a government maintained by violence. But … he felt more than ever that terrorist acts were against India’s long-term interests” (p. 237). Concerning accusations of Aurobindo’s psychological instability based on his accounts of mystical experiences, Heehs incorporates the arguments of William James, Anton Boisen, and Sudhir Kakar, and notes that Aurobindo was found to be “unusually calm, dispassionate, and loving–and eminently sane” rather than exhibiting anxieties or signs of psychological pain that would suggest a stronger connection between mystical experience and madness (p. 247). As for the serious charges that Aurobindo’s focus on the Bengal boycott of British goods (swadeshi ) and his ignoring of the role of the Hindu elite in furthering their goals over those of the Muslim minorities played a role in the communalization of violence, Heehs points out that Aurobindo’s view of “religious violence as a purely social matter” rather than a potentially volatile political issue did impede a more concerted effort to include Muslim in the Extremists’ agenda (p. 211). Though Aurobindo and his associates did not knowingly endorse actions that would later lead to communal violence, Heehs notes that the “focus on freedom” and national autonomy was given priority over “interreligious and intercaste conflict” (p. 414). Heehs finds “no contemporary evidence that his [Aurobindo’s] actions or words exacerbated these [communal] problems”; nevertheless, Heehs acknowledges that Aurobindo’s overlooking the social dimension was one of the freedom “movement’s principal failings” (p. 212).
Throughout The Lives, the chronological and accumulative quality of the biography lends itself well especially for the final and longest sections on Aurobindo’s life, covering the period from the end of his political engagement to his “active retirement” in Pondicherry as a yogi and eventually leader of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram community. During this time, Aurobindo produced many writings for publication and kept a journal of his daily yoga practice, or sadhana (spiritual inquiry). He also wrote consistently, formulating a metaphysics that would support the aims of his yoga. Aurobindo’s writings on “spiritual” matters are not immediately comprehensible, in part due to their distinctive vocabulary, in English, and the particular intricacies of Aurobindo’s ontological categories. Heehs provides a concise as possible outline for approaching Aurobindo’s neologisms (not his word) and evolutionary framework for the governing relationships between the supermind, supramental, supramental Supernature, overmind, gnostic overmind, Divine, Spirit, and Nature. The fluid ease of Heehs’s writing in these matters of Aurobindo’s sadhana are an additional contribution of The Lives: instead of presenting this essentially devotional knowledge from the exclusive perspectives of the insider devotee or the distanced observer, Heehs articulates Aurobindo’s concepts and situates them within broader social and political contexts, including global events, such as WWI, India’s independence, WWII, and the onset of the Korean War. In particular, these sections show the challenges faced by Aurobindo and his “disciples” in attaining the higher and highest aims of yogic practice; they reveal too the various organizational and human obstacles to creating a smooth functioning devotional community and of finding ways to sustain it, at the levels of spirit and matter. Aurobindo was often short of money both during his short years as political activist, when resources for projects, journalistic endeavors, and household maintenance were often scarce and later when he headed his growing community in Pondicherry.
As the narrative unfolds in The Lives, Heehs remains a measured interpreter of the historical materials he brings forth. He is a fine weaver of details. Only now and then one may wish for some more analysis of materials and their sources. And it might be helpful to know the identities connected to Heehs’s more frequently cited sources. For example, Aurobindo’s trusted associates Ambalal B. Purani and Nirodbaran are used extensively but introduced late in the biography (p. 315, and pp. 368, 382, respectively). Heehs does occasionally address readers directly and mostly in instances where he appreciates their possible skepticism or confusion, or to offer his awareness that some aspects of a person’s inner life may best remain ineffable. These are welcome intrusions for they signal what readers may already detect, that is, Heehs’s sensitivity to his biographical subject and audience alike. Toward this, perhaps there are two small matters that are certainly not weaknesses in light of the biography’s enormous merits, but that point to a possibly inescapable problem when writing about a revered person’s actions about which others’ offense might too easily arise. On the matter of Aurobindo’s prose and poetic writings, Heehs’s seems both firm in his critical assessment and yet somewhat delicate in his critique. Noting that Aurobindo’s style is reflective of the period of his late nineteenth-century English education and observing too Aurobindo’s admirable command of Western poetic traditions, Heehs appears to avoid a fuller exegesis and critique of these writings. Infrequently, Heehs shares his own affirmative feeling for a few poetic selections, most notably for those poems where Aurobindo expresses his inner spiritual experiences.
Another dimension of Aurobindo’s life that, depending on readers’ perspective, may seem too elliptically introduced or not explicit enough are the mentions of his “yogic force” and its connection to the outcome of certain world events. Heehs writes, “When Sri Aurobindo wrote to disciples about the workings of his force, he was careful to point out that it acted under conditions, as one among many forces at play. Nevertheless, he took his force and its material effects quite seriously.” The subject of yogic force is prematurely shut off by the statement from Heehs, “To talk about the force without the basis of experience would open the way to credulity or incredulity, both of which he [Aurobindo] deplored” (p. 387). Heehs, it seems, prefers not to overly dwell on what may appear to be ineffable experiences or where an experiential foundation seems a condition for understanding. Yet Heehs has taken up the challenge of helping readers to understand a complex person who combined great learning with a personal drive to enter into the realm of the metaphysical, and who spent half of his life to attain an ontological state for which no ready proof existed of its possible attainment. Does this suggest that there are limits to the form of historical biography that Heehs has offered? More optimistically, perhaps in this instance, it would have helped readers to appreciate if not accept Aurobindo’s claims if the feelings of devotees’ concerning yogic force could have been shared. The same might be said for readers having a stronger sense of how Aurobindo’s more well-known poems, such as Savitri, continue to have tremendous resonance for devotees. Including this kind of ethnographic data, one to which it seems Heehs would have ready access, would go some ways to filling the gap between Aurobindo’s yogic teachings and the deeply individual efforts of disciples to attain the desired ontological results.
Heehs’s abilities to balance his admiration for Sri Aurobindo with a historian’s scrupulousness towards source have resulted in what may likely be the definitive biography of Aurobindo. Even then, beyond being a compelling account of Aurobindo’s many lives, Heehs’s text contains unexpected and intriguing details, some more striking by their absence than presence. What accounts for the seemingly steady stream of Gujarati disciples in Pondicherry? Could Aurobindo’s poetry be productively analyzed with Victorian, Georgian, and Modernist poetic works? It is now the task of others to consider the rich veins of information that are exposed in The Lives and to expand these into compelling texts. This invitation, moreover, would include those who have found Heehs’s version of Aurobindo’s life to be less than acceptable.
— Hanna H. Kim, Adelphi University
From Nova Religio (USA), November 2010
Sri Aurobindo Ghose (1872–1950) is one of the most well-known Indian gurus in the West. Educated in England, he remained throughout his life a prolific writer, in English, of literary theory, poetry, philosophy, social and political commentary, and history. His published work alone earns for him a respected place in both modern Indian history and the world of twentieth century letters. Of equal, if not greater, importance, however, were his achievements as a spiritual leader. He and his spiritual consort and successor, Mirra Alfassa (1878–1973), propagated (devotees would say they revealed) an elaborate, multi-tiered universe of matter and spirit. Aurobindo claimed that in his lifetime, and because of his years of concentration and meditation, the next evolutionary stage for the human species was entering our time and space. Future humanity would be as advanced beyond present humanity as human beings are advanced over animals. Aurobindo also claimed that he fought against the destructive influences of Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin, limiting their accomplishments and helping to bring the Second World War to a successful conclusion for the Allies. Today Aurobindo’s published writings are disseminated and taught by many devotees, who meet in groups and study centers in India, the United States, and other countries. The headquarters for this movement is the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, located in the Indian city of Pondicherry, formerly a French colonial possession, where Aurobindo moved in the early twentieth century after he was imprisoned by the British authorities for his activities in support of Indian independence.
Until now, most biographical information about Aurobindo was only available in the writings of devotees, and had an understandably devotional, laudatory slant regarding the details of Aurobindo’s life. Scholarship on Aurobindo has lacked a biography of Aurobindo thoroughly grounded in primary sources and written from the perspective of an outsider, or at least by a person who appreciates the conventions of sound historical writing. Peter Heehs has filled that gap with the present volume. It will undoubtedly serve for many years to come as the standard biography of this great Indian figure. Heehs is well-qualified to write this book. An American, he has lived in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram since the 1970s and was one of the founders of the Ashram’s Archives. His biography is the result of decades of work in the primary documents related to Aurobindo’s life. He has been instrumental in preparing thousands of pages of Aurobindo’s writing for publication. If anyone knows Aurobindo’s oeuvre better than any other living Westerner today, it is Heehs.
The book is divided into five parts, corresponding to Heehs’s division of Aurobindo’s life into five “lives:” Son, Scholar, Revolutionary, Yogi and Philosopher, and Guide. Going merely by the title of the book, one is tempted to classify Heehs among the writers of New Biography, who are influenced by post-structuralist and postmodernist views of identity. New Biographers assume that there is no constant personality running through the years of a given lifetime. Rather, our identities are composed of many currents, sociological, psychological and material, that reconfigure continuously. However, this is not Heehs’s approach. He assumes that Aurobindo was the same person throughout his life. The five divisions simply “highlight his many-sidedness. . . . Five lives, but in the end, only one” (ix).
Aurobindo’s early years were marked by privilege in India that gave way to penury in England. His father, a Bengali physician, was an Anglophile. English was the language spoken in Aurobindo’s home. His father sent Aurobindo and his two brothers to England for their education. Aurobindo stayed until he completed his degree at Oxford University. During these years, Aurobindo absorbed Victorian British culture and became an expert in British literature. When he returned to India as a young man to work for a local rajah, he didn’t know enough of the languages spoken on the subcontinent to communicate with his fellow Indians. Eventually he learned Bengali, and could converse and write with it, but English was always his first language.
He was the rajah’s personal secretary, and then a teacher in a school. Meanwhile, he also wrote for newspapers and magazines about issues of concern to Indians. And he composed poetry, a talent that culminated in the epic Savitri, based on a story from the Mahabharata. He worked on this poem for much of his adult life, and eventually it exceeded 20,000 lines. But as a young man the writing that propelled him into the political spotlight was about India’s subservience to Great Britain. He became embroiled in the political controversies of the Indian National Congress. After several years he emerged as a leader of the Extremists in that Congress. They were advocates of Indian independence and were impatient with compromise with the British authorities. Many Extremists, including Aurobindo’s own younger brother Barin Ghose, were willing to use violence to reach their goals. Although Aurobindo himself apparently did not participate in violent actions, he was implicated in an assassination plot. Unlike Mahatma Gandhi, the great advocate for nonviolent resistance, Aurobindo believed that violence could be useful in achieving independence.
He was arrested and spent a year in a Bengali jail. When released in 1909 he moved to Pondicherry, under French colonial rule, where he enjoyed some protection from the British. Several years before his imprisonment, he began to meditate. In Pondicherry, he and several younger male associates began living communally, first in one house, then another. Increasingly Aurobindo spent time apart from the others, alone in his room, writing and meditating. This tendency would increase as he got older. During his politically active years he wrote many essays for magazines, at that time the most effective way of disseminating one’s views. After he embarked upon a quieter life in Pondicherry, he continued to contribute essays on many subjects, from history to philosophy to spirituality, to his own magazine and to other publications. These writings attracted people from across India, although Bengalis tended to predominate among his devotees. As time passed, many individuals moved to Pondicherry to live near Aurobindo, who would regularly hold darshan (to see) with those who wished to be in his presence. These individuals eventually comprised the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, which became a more highly organized intentional community with specialized roles for all members.
Mirra Alfassa, called the Mother, entered Aurobindo’s life before World War One. She visited Pondicherry with her French husband, Paul Richard. During the war she and Richard lived in Japan, but at its conclusion she returned to Pondicherry and lived in the Ashram for the rest of her life. Aurobindo acknowledged her as the Shakti, the divine feminine power at the heart of the universe, manifested in human form. He believed that she shared with him, as an equal, in his spiritual work of bringing the Supermind, or next level of consciousness, into the world. As he grew older, he also became more of a recluse. For many years before his death, only the Mother and one or two others saw him on a daily basis. At his death, Aurobindo was considered one of the most important writers in India, as well as one of the more famous gurus. The movement continued under the Mother’s leadership until her death in 1973. She expanded the educational program at the Ashram and established another communal entity in 1968, Auroville, located in the countryside near Pondicherry. Heehs has published three books on Aurobindo, including a short biography, as well as four books on Indian history and Indian spirituality. Of these seven, four were published by Oxford University Press and one by New York University Press. He is also the author of numerous articles in professional journals like History and Theory and Postcolonial Studies. The Lives of Sri Aurobindo thus caps off his career in academic publishing in both India and the West. Unfortunately, he has not been allowed to enjoy the fruit of his labor. His book sparked controversy within the ranks of Aurobindo devotees. He was attacked in print and online, and in Indian courts, by those followers who interpret their tradition rigorously. They believe that Aurobindo’s truth was expressed in a set of philosophical, cultural, and literary conventions, and that any attempt to express that truth in other ways distorts it, and must be condemned. Currently Heehs has been relieved of his duties in the Ashram’s Archives. Meanwhile, more liberally-minded devotees have rallied in support of Heehs, fostering electronic communication worldwide on his behalf and writing letters to the trustees of the Ashram.
Although dense, I would recommend this book as the first one to read if you want to understand Aurobindo and his following. If you read only one book about Aurobindo, again, this volume would get my vote. It stands in a class all its own. There is simply no other book about Aurobindo available that does all that Heehs’s book does.
–W. Michael Ashcraft, Truman State University
From The Book Review (India), March 2011
The work under review represents several years of serious research and reflection on the life of Aurobindo Ghose (1872-1950), popularly known as Sri Aurobindo since 1926. Heehs already has to his credit a shorter biography of Aurobindo (1989), a collection of his writings and speeches (2005) and more recently (2006), an historiographical essay on how certain ideological preoccupations have led scholars belonging to both ‘Right-Fundamentalist’ and ‘Left-Secular’ camps to misread and misrepresent the ideas of Sri Aurobindo. With this intense and meticulously researched work, our author appears to have not only completed a personal journey but also affected a timely intervention, asserting how objective historical assessment may be justly separated from commonly accepted perceptions. In popular memory, Sri Aurobindo survives more on account of his reputation as a mystic, yogi or philosopher than to any acute understanding of his political ideology. His political life, though radical and dramatic in some ways, was also brief. The irony of it though is that popular understanding of his religious or philosophical views is often vague and wrenched out of context. Whereas Sri Aurobindo’s vision dwelt on expansiveness and integration, his writings, more often than not, are examined piecemeal, sometimes only to support conclusions reached otherwise. It is presumed, for instance, that by religion, Aurobindo was always referring to Hinduism or that his periodically withdrawing into meditative silence, proved socially irresponsible and politically regressive. In this book, Peter Heehs makes a commendable effort at rescuing a leading thinker of modern times from uncharitable critics.
Structurally, the book is divided into five parts, each corresponding with a particular phase in the life of Sri Aurobindo. That these are chronologically arranged helps the narrative flow and brings the reader that much closer to an understanding of how his life and thought evolved over a period of time. Heehs’s detailed and fulsome treatment also allows him to unravel hitherto little known facts about his subject. Personally, I was fascinated by the detailed recounting of his early life in British schools, his growing disenchantment with British values but an astonishingly wide-ranging interest in the European literary tradition. In his youth, Aurobindo may well have been the only Indian who could write with equal authority on Shelley, Kalidasa, Homer, Dante and the Bengali poet, Madhusudan Dutt. What I also found interesting was his near ascetic indifference to material comforts in life: good food and fancy clothes to name two. One imagines that this prepared him well in later life marked by renunciation and austerity. Importantly, the chronological arrangement notwithstanding, Heehs’s work allows us to detect complex juxtapositions and overlaps in Sri Aurobindo’s thinking. Thus, his interest in transcendentalism and yoga developed around the same time as his association with militant politics. On the other hand, even when leading the life of active retirement, his mind dwelt on some pressing contemporary issues. In 1948, to cite a few instances, he spoke in favour of linguistic states, the following year on the Kashmir problem, and still later, on the Korean crisis and the impending Chinese aggression in Tibet.
I imagine that in this work, the part dealing with the political life of Aurobindo will look quite familiar to many readers. All the same, the sheer detail in which this is documented adds substance to the book. For me, the more encouraging part is where Heehs attempts to do what historians hitherto rarely have: a critical summary of Aurobindo’s writings on yoga, spirituality and cultural hermeneutics. I can say from first-hand experience that works like The Life Divine (nominated for the Nobel Prize) or Savitri, representing the most creative, original but also the abstruse side to Sri Aurobindo, are not readily intelligible. Here, while the author’s summary may look inept or inadequate to some, what makes it extraordinary is the attempt to relate intellectually to concepts that Aurobindo himself believed did not spring from intellectual speculation. Personally speaking, I have not found a more lucid description of complex constructs like the ‘supermind’.
For the historian and the social scientist, the author brings out in clear relief, Sri Aurobindo’s disagreements with some noted contemporaries, as for instance, Gandhi and Tagore. Gandhian experiments in South Africa he found pretty ineffective and innocuous: at best these tried to secure for Indians the position of more ‘kindly treated serfs’. The use of nonviolence as a political weapon too he plainly ridiculed as ‘getting beaten with joy. Aurobindo admired the poetry of Tagore but differed with him on political issues as over the legitimacy of boycott. Whereas Tagore found this to be both morally and politically violent, in Aurobindo’s view (expressed in the paper ‘Bande Mataram’), this was a valid political weapon in the hands of the politically repressed. That apart, he also had the forthrightness and honesty to critique even those whose ideas and work might have inspired him the most. Though indebted to the memories of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda, he was of the opinion that in his day, even the Ramakrishna Mission had turned self-centred and sectarian, an error common to all churches.
Heehs readily admits (p. 414) that on the whole, Sri Aurobindo did not pay adequate attention to social and cultural (one might justly add economic) problems in contemporary India. Prima facie, this appears incompatible with his attempt at orienting higher states of human consciousness to social and practical use. In retrospect it might also appear as though in his literary style too, Aurobindo persisted with standards that were, at the time, being fast overturned. However, though what Heehs’s work seems to lack is a willingness to situate Sri Aurobindo within contemporary Indian thought. Ideally, a biography, especially that of a thinker and philosopher like Sri Aurobindo, also ought to be a history of ideas. I have the feeling that Aurobindo shares with Swami Vivekananda many more things than Heehs concedes, the most important of which are, first, the attempt to bring out the deepest subjectivities in man and second, the belief that social transformation began with the individual. The first Vivekananda called anubhav, human subjectivity that Aurobindo related to sadhana which was anchored in praxis, not textuality. The author might have also made some attempt at explaining why Sri Aurobindo too gravitates around the tropes common to neo-Hinduism: a preoccupation with Veda, Vedanta and the Gita, a revulsion towards (vamachari) tantra or the belief that Buddhism was a mere re-statement of the ‘truths’ of Veda and Vedanta. I also looked, though unsuccessfully, for some more details of his married life with Mrinalini, plainly curious to know if Sri Aurobindo also practised what he preached about sexual indulgence being a serious impediment to spiritual life. On the more flippant side, I have been equally curious to know if Sri Aurobindo and the Mother conversed in French as a matter of habit or only exceptionally. Finally, I think the book could have done with a couple of appendices, listing the main events in Sri Aurobindo’s life and his major works by date and language.
Of late, two controversies have persistently surrounded the life and work of Sri Aurobindo. First, there is the question of his relationship with the Mother (Mirra Richard), allegedly vulgarized in certain species of biographical writing. The other question is whether or not Aurobindo may be counted among the Hindus. Of the two questions, I am persuaded to comment more explicitly on the second, if only in keeping with my general academic interests. Perhaps those who strongly deny his ‘Hindu’ credentials are as much in error as those who insist on it. For one, I am not aware of Aurobindo’s categorically denying or disowning his identity as a Hindu. It would be reasonable to claim therefore, that at least culturally, he remained a Hindu. Though of a non-conformist Brahmo lineage he chose to marry a Hindu girl but more importantly, his entire cultural hermeneutics was deeply anchored in Hindu religion and mythology. This sets him apart from near contemporary figures like Krishna Mohan Bandopadhyay or Brahmabandhab Upadhyay who underwent a formal change of faith and though greatly interested in Hindu religion and philosophy, began to see these from a visibly altered perspective. I am also persuaded to say that neo-Hindu thinkers of the late nineteenth compounded the identity question somewhat by trying to adopt a universalistic posture which, practically, they found hard to sustain. To call Vedanta universalistic, culturally neutral and an effective surrogate to the word ‘Hinduism’, as indeed was done since the days of Rammohun Roy, is a good instance of this false consciousness. Rammohun’s The Universal Religion (1929) is almost entirely based on Hindu-brahminical sources. On the other hand, it will have to be admitted that Sri Aurobindo was not a Hindu in the ordinary sense of the term; the reader has only to turn to his essay ‘Two Hinduisms’ (Epistles from Abroad: 1910) to learn what kind of Hinduism he would have personally preferred . This leads me to conclude that an active dissociation from the politics of the Hindu Right need not ipso facto undermine one’s self-understanding as a Hindu. I would fervently hope that one is not contingent upon the other. Sri Aurobindo rejected Hindu nationalism and looked to a Utopia where human consciousness could rise above social and cultural ascriptions. At the same time, he was pragmatically plural; for him, if I have been able to understand him at all, human harmony lay not in effacing differences but in trying to felicitously live with them.
— Amiya P. Sen, Jamia Millia Islamia
From Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (UK), July 2011
Just how do you write a biography of an Aurobindo? Peter Heehs faces the challenge faced by all biographers when writing the life-stories of Indian holy men or of Indian politicians turned saints, both invariably avatars to their disciples. Can one maintain the criterion for the writing of history laid down by the Enlightenment? It is all too easy to set Aurobindo on a pedestal. When I visited the ashram in October 1995 I was moved by attending a meditation beside the tomb of Aurobindo and the Mother and this is how I recorded it in my diary: “At one point I grew aware of the overpowering presence of the tree over the tomb and looked up into the night sky and saw a light in the former room of Aurobindo and the Mother. It was as if they were present”. I seem, however, to have been rather less moved by a subsequent visit to their living quarters. There I saw the settee on which they would receive darshan. At one stage, however, I subscribed to a verdict that Aurobindo was the greatest Indian never to have become India’s prime-minister and maybe the truly exciting accounts of Aurobindo are just those that do subscribe to his evidently mesmeric charisma.
Peter Heehs is ideally equipped to be Aurobindo’s biographer. Following an encounter with his ideas in various yoga centres in New York in 1972 he came to the ashram and, somewhat surprisingly, for he had no formal training as archivist or historian, was invited to stay on to collect materials for his life and prepare his manuscripts for publication. His has been a prolonged encounter with the source materials on Aurobindo’s life as well as long-term membership of the ashram. However, he was soon to discover there was a limit, as he sees it, to the truthfulness with which he could write about Aurobindo. It is not as if he has set out to demythologise Aurobindo but he does seek to write a life as firmly based on evidence as he can. But he then runs up against the inherent difficulty of writing about the yogic experience. At this point he concedes “this biographer will make use of Aurobindo’s accounts of his experiences, trying to square them where possible with other sorts of evidence, but not treating them as data for psychological or sociological analysis” (p. 145). I wonder just how much of a constraint that placed on any interpretation of his thought. But Heehs is far more embattled with the way accounts of Aurobindo have been hagiographical: “from 1921 on most descriptions of Aurobindo read as though they are taken out of the puranas or the mythological texts” (p. 330). He concludes: “like all icons he is misinterpreted by his admirers as well as his detractors, praised or reviled for things he never said or did” (p 413).
As a gesture no doubt to Nethercot’s titles The First Five Lives of Annie Besant (1961) and The Last Four Lives of Annie Besant (1963), Heehs sees Aurobindo’s life in terms of several lives, son, scholar, revolutionary, yogi and philosopher, guide. This validates his narrative approach though they do not have the same shape as all those various incarnations in the life of Annie Besant, and for Aurobindo his differing lives are really only the major contrast between politician and yogi. We do of course need to know about his family background. Here was a father who began by being enamoured with British rule and set out to educate his son as British only then to turn against what he saw as heartless rule, and a mother who suffered from serious mental ill-health and in time succumbed to a manic-depressive psychosis. And Aurobindo’s English education by way of preparing himself for the ICS , initially in the home of a Congregationalist minister in Manchester, then St Paul’s and finally King’s Cambridge all with scholarships, for Aurobindo was always impoverished, left him profoundly Anglicised. English was always to remain his preferred language but he was also extremely hostile to English people in general. Having been accepted for the ICS, Aurobindo then chose to fail the riding test, for he rode in Baroda and in 1893 he joined the Baroda administration instead, only to undertake just the kind of administrative work he would have done as a member of the ICS. Intellectually this leaves him as a kind of transitional figure, rooted in British culture, above all its literature and hard-pressed to learn his native language, Bengali, let alone other Indian languages; always speaking with an English public school accent, yet undertaking a truly Gargantuan attempt to master India’s sacred literature. His life may more naturally fit into the categories of politician, writer, yogi.
Heehs queries whether Aurobindo was ever an effective politician. He was involved for but four years in the nationalist movement but, through imprisonment, only truly active for two and a half of these. His unique contribution was to write more persuasively than any other politician of the day for Indian independence, though fellow activist in the Extremist wing of Congress, Tilak, was surely his political equal. Heehs is very aware of the need to demonstrate that Aurobindo did not subscribe to any Hindutva agenda and interprets his famous Uttarpara speech of 30 May 1909, arguing that the sanatana dharma had to be the foundation of Indian nationalism was, in fact, an affirmation of universal truths. Even so, Heehs concludes: “although by no means a chauvinist, Aurobindo was convinced of the essential superiority of Indian culture” (p. 189). But even more controversial for those of a Gandhian outlook was Aurobindo’s engagement in the revolutionary movement in Bengal and his acceptance of violence. This is a story Heehs has already ably told in his The Bomb in Bengal: The Rise of Revolutionary Terrorism in India 1900–1910 and in the biography there is an extraordinary account of his time in prison during the Alipore Bomb trial, but there is no doubt that Aurobindo was aware of his younger brother, Barin’s active involvement in terrorism and Aurobindo was extremely fortunate to be acquitted. Heehs at least raises the possibility this was through the trial judge, Charles Beachcroft, being a fellow candidate in the ICS examination.
Aurobindo never wholly cut himself off from politics and made the occasional authoritative judgement from Pondicherry. Certainly many sought his endorsement, C. R. Das, Gandhi, inter alia, though without success. He came out in support of the Cripps proposal of 1942. Heehs faults him for over-privileging independence at the expense of social reform and believes he has also to share some of the blame for the rise of communalism and partition. Aurobindo saw Pakistan as the outcome of “fraud, force and treachery” (quoted p. 406) and believed India would be reunited. If Aurobindo argued for passive resistance at the same time as Gandhi was working out satyagraha in South Africa, unlike Gandhi he accepted a role that violence might play, though came to see its ineffectiveness against the overwhelming retaliatory power of the colonial state. But many may disagree with Heehs’s judgement: “it cannot be denied that violence real and threatened did as much as passive resistance to bring the British to the negotiating table. If the Government consented to deal with Gandhi, it was because they were obliged to accept him as the lesser of two evils” (p. 211). Maybe Aurobindo never ceased to be actively political, for he clearly believed that through his writing and yoga he was preparing for what he saw as primary, the spiritual life of independent India.
Will Aurobindo survive as a writer? Some see him as supremely the poet. If he was steeped in English poetry, on his return to India he set about evaluating Indian poets, Vyasa and Kalidasa, became their translator and convinced of their superiority. At any opportunity he would write verse drama, his greatest, Savitri, only completed shortly before his death. Unfortunately, this is poetry in a lachrymose Victorian style and has none of the acerbity of the modernist movement. Equally he was a journalist and the political journalism of his early career will surely survive. But then he changed content from the political of Bande Mataram to the spiritual of Karmayogin and later in the most prolific of all, Arya, initially bilingual French and English, to run from 1914 to 1920, some 4,600 pages, but written in those ‘periodic’ sentences of multiple clauses, and it is much harder going. Aurobindo brought an exceptional degree of concentration to his writing; able to write under the most adverse circumstances, and it was just this same quality that he brought to bear in his practice of yoga.
This was the central drama of his life. Heehs concludes: “it is impossible to say anything certain about the success or failure of this endeavour” (p. 414). In origin it was piecemeal, with spiritualist séances, a meeting with a yogi on the banks of the Narmadda and then, the nearest to any form of training he received, guidance from a government clerk, Vishnu Bhaskar Lele, undertaken to strengthen his resolve in the political struggle. But then came an experience of the silent Brahman, of the eternal silence and of the world as maya “It was precisely the experience that Aurobindo did not want from yoga”. Heehs interprets this: “coming at the peak of Aurobindo’s career was the most dramatic turning point in his life” (p. 144). From now on Aurobindo seems to be on auto-pilot. In jail in 1909 he experiences the active Brahman: “in a moment his mind was flooded with coolness, his heart with happiness”(p. 164). But the message was clear, turn away from the political to the divine. Aurobindo named his yoga integral, for it assimilated all three yogic paths, jnana, bhakti, karma, but in fact it went in a different direction, for whereas they all sought a transcendent absorption of the ego in the divine, Aurobindo sought to draw the divine or ‘super-mind’ and he called his system ‘supramentalism’-down into the physical. It was a this-worldly spirituality. However he came to see that human beings were not up to the task and an entirely new ‘psychic’ being would have to evolve to raise levels of consciousness. It is almost impossible to convey the melodrama of this quest. Had he on 24 November 1926 ‘crossed the threshold’? Later, Aurobindo recognised that “the descent of 1926 was rather of the Overmind, not of the Supermind proper.” (p. 345) and the quest went on, but this time in almost complete withdrawal, his version of retirement. Aurobindo described the quest in his Record of Yoga and Heehs relies on this for his description but the writing is filled with Sanskrit terminology and it can come over as rather flat. Having failed to be rid of the raj by physical force it as if Aurobindo tried to tame the divine by mental force. Courageously, Heehs raises the possibility that this yogic quest has characteristics of schizophrenia and in many ways there are parallels with Jung’s exploration of the collective unconscious through his own psychosis, and there would have been nothing shameful had this also been the case with Aurobindo, but Heehs discards the idea.
Aurobindo emerges from this biography as a pretty strange individual. For much of his life he seemed to suffer from serious self-neglect, dressing shabbily, eating indifferently. His exercise invariably took the form of pacing endlessly around his room. Maybe he lacked a woman in his life. Marriage between the 28 year old Aurobindo and the 14 year old Mrinalini – he advertised for a wife – was not the answer, and for years they lived apart, though at the time of her death from influenza in 1919 she was planning to join Aurobindo in Pondicherry. But the partnership with the wife of French politician and spiritual seeker Paul Richard, Mira Alfassa, was the answer, she was to be his Shakti, his source of energy. They first met 29 March 1914, were then separated by the war, but in 1920 she left Paul for Aurobindo and by patiently waiting was by 1926 entirely to take over his life. Certainly Aurobindo’s appearance and health markedly improved. But it came at a price. The community of sadhaks (seekers), under the Mother’s guidance, became an ashram. Aurobindo, who had formerly believed as a good democrat in being accessible to the community, assumed the role of guru and became remote, only to be seen on the four annual darshan days, and, even more seriously, what had been a kind of experimental open-ended yogic quest subtly shifted towards becoming a cult.
Heehs has endeavoured to produce an objective account of Aurobindo and it is a formidable piece of scholarship. But those who prefer an Aurobindo who is more glamorous and mysterious, there are some excellent if confessional memoirs – my favourite is by one of his doctors, Nirodbaran Twelve Years with Sri Aurobindo (1973) – I first met him on the ashram’s running track, still fighting fit in his80s – and I enjoyed Georges Van Vrekhem’s The Mother: The Story of Her Life (2000). Possibly the only way to write about Aurobindo and the Mother is through fiction and Anita Desai in Journey to Ithaca(1995) and Lee Langley in A House in Pondicherry (1995) have obliged.
–Antony Copley, University of Kent
From Religious Studies Review (USA), March 2009
Despite his massive political and spiritual influence, the twentieth century Indian revolutionary turned mystic Sri Aurobindo Ghose has been curiously neglected in Western scholarship. Heehs, one of the founders of the Aurobindo Ashram Archives, corrects this by producing what is certain to become Aurobindo’s definitive biography. Aptly pluralized, The Lives of Sri Aurobindo recovers Aurobindo as a scholar, politician, revolutionary, poet, philosopher and sage by helpfully dividing the major periods of his life from his childhood in India and England to his final years as reclusive spiritual guru with the equally enigmatic Mother at their Auroville ashram. While certainly rewarding, wading through Aurobindo’s prolific writings can be a daunting task. Heehs, therefore, has done us a great service by organizing vast amounts of primary and secondary sources, including Aurobindo’s own diaries and unpublished letters, to produce a compelling biography that intelligently discusses the main themes of Aurobindo’s epic political, literary, and metaphysical canon. He is also to be congratulated for resisting the tendency to mythologize and perpetuate the romantic mystification of earlier hagiographies. Although clearly persuaded by Aurobindo’s spiritual weight and metaphysical vision, Heehs doesn’t avoid less flattering issues such as Aurobindo’s early commitment to political violence and the neglect of his wife. The result is a clear and detailed picture of a fascinating figure whose continuing religious relevance can be seen in the contemporary popularity of many of his pioneering East-West teachings: the evolution of consciousness, an integral approach to spiritual liberation and a socially engaged this-worldly mysticism. Particularly recommended for those interested in the religious, cultural and political landscape of twentieth-century India.
— Ann Gleig, Rice University
From Yoga Journal (USA), December 2008
This meticulously reported and scrupulously footnoted account of the Bengali saint Sri Aurobindo leaves no stone unturned. Most know him as the founder of Integral Yoga, a system that synthesizes karma, jnana, and bhakti yogas and focuses on the expansion of consciousness. But many don’t realize that Aurobindo was also a poet, journalist, author, philosopher, scholar, and political leader.
The book is divided into five parts: Son, Scholar, Revolutionary, Yogi and Philosopher, and Guide. The first sections deal with his early family life in the small Himalayan village of Rangpur, India; his years of British schooling; and his work as a civil servant, journalist, and professor. Then, we see his transformation from a relatively unknown citizen to a central figure In India’s nationalism movement, which ultimately landed him in jail in 1908. The last sections focus on Aurobindo’s departure from politics and his life in Pondicherry, where he spent his final years. There, he withdrew from public life and dedicated himself to yoga and writing, developing theories on the evolution of consciousness and becoming the leader of a groundbreaking spiritual community, the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, which still exists today. In order to follow his spiritual path without distraction, he eventually communicated only through his closest disciple, known as the Mother, until his death in 1950. Heehs makes it clear that this brilliant, mysterious figure lived his truth. And that was, as Aurobindo wrote himself in his most famous book, The Synthesis of Yoga, “All life is Yoga.”
From South Asia (Australia), December 2010
Having lived such varied lives as a theoretician, a scholar of English and Sanskrit, a revolutionary political leader, a yogi, a philosopher, a tantric, and finally a guide to inner knowledge, Sri Aurobindo Ghose was one of the most enigmatic, yet highly-respected, figures in twentieth-century India. Given this complex diversity, penning his biography is challenging as most biographers tended to focus on him as a great yogi.
With this book, Peter Heehs has done the job of examining Aurobindo in his entirety with remarkable success, and has aptly titled his work The Lives of Sri Aurobindo. He has also reproduced the original picture of Sri Aurobindo which people had hitherto seen only in highly ‘retouched’ form. Heehs’ volume is 500 pages long but highly readable, meticulous and comprehensive. This is because Heehs was an archivist at the Aurobindo Ashram; he thus had access to Aurobindo’s unpublished letters and diaries.
Divided into four parts, the book consists of nine chapters. Chapter 1, ‘Early Years in India’, describes Bengal in the late 19th century and the Ghose family. Born on 15 August 1872, Aurobindo’s father was the district civil surgeon at Rangpur, not far from Calcutta. His grandfather on the mother’s side, Rajnarain Bose, was a leading member of the Brahmo Samaj, a Hindu reformist group. Although Heehs does not say-so, exposure to the Brahmo Samaj must have influenced the young Aurobindo. He went to school at Darjeeling, away from home.
Chapter 2 discusses Aurobindo’s schooling outside India. His father, Dr. Krishan Dhun Ghose, wanted his sons to be of a better breed and to make ‘giants of them’. He wanted them to receive ‘an entirely European upbringing’ (p.13) and therefore sent them to England to board with a Christian minister (William Drewett) in Manchester. Dr. Ghose hoped that at least one of them would become an Indian Civil Service (ICS) officer. There were strict instructions to the boys not to mix with any Indian. They therefore grew up without knowing India. St. Paul’s school where they studied was for middle-class boys aspiring to go to Oxford or Cambridge. Sport was often a neglected area. Aurobindo was very keen on literature, particularly poetry. Interestingly, he wasn’t a budding yogi, not even religious. His classmates thought that he and his brother were Christians (p.18). Aurobindo performed brilliantly at school. He sat exams for Cambridge and for the ICS. Having passed both, he arrived at Cambridge in 1890.There he was a member of King’s College’s elite which entitled him to a special gown, free tuition and £8 per year. Since his aim was to compete for the ICS, he did not complete an Arts degree. Instead, he passed the subjects necessary for the ICS examination. However, one of the criteria for successful completion was riding a horse which Aurobindo failed, leading to the non-completion of his ICS examination. In Chapter 3, Heehs describes Aurobindo’s return to India in 1893. With no options left, Aurobindo accepted a job in the princely state of Baroda as an ‘attaché’. Initially, most of his duties consisted of attending to the correspondence of the Baroda prince, Maharaja Sayajirao. The maharaja liked the young man and in 1895 he was made a professor of English literature at Baroda College and later on became its principal. At Baroda he keenly studied English, Sanskrit, Hinduism, yoga and asceticism. He also took a strong interest in the struggle for independence from British rule, including armed revolution as a means to this end.
Chapter 4 deals with Aurobindo’s move to Calcutta where he joined the Indian National Congress and participated in the anti-British protest. He also wrote hundreds of articles in an extremist newspaper provocatively named Bande Mataram (literally: ‘I bow to my motherland’). He was the first to use the word ‘independence’ in the struggle for freedom from the British Empire (p.117). Chapter 5 delves into Aurobindo’s role in the freedom struggle and his imprisonment by the British. His influence on the cause of independence was such that Rabindranath Tagore wrote a poem in his praise. Aurobindo was an advocate of violence in the form of bombings carried out against the British by several Bengali youths, including his brother Barin. His role was mainly that of a strategist and organiser who preferred ‘behind scene manoeuvres’ (p.212), and he was careful not to become directly involved. Nevertheless the British suspected his involvement, calling him ‘a highly dangerous character’.
Chapter 6 sketches Aurobindo’s life as a yogi and a philosopher in Pondicherry in French India around 1910. He had moved there from British India after a warrant had been issued against him for the assassination of Mr. Ashe, the collector of the Madras Presidency. He remained in Pondicherry and was able to devote himself to yoga. The only annoyance was that he was besieged by devotees. In 1912, on his birthday, he wrote that the goals of his ‘sadhana’ (spiritual practice) had been achieved; his ego was dead. This realisation of ‘parabrahman’ had given him the essential knowledge or shakti (p.232). His yoga practice kept him busy for the rest of his life. He claimed that he saw visions, heard voices, went into trances, gained knowledge of the future and had a kind of supernatural strength. Around this time he wrote several books on philosophy, social science, cultural criticism and poetry.
Chapters 7 and 8 discuss Aurobindo’s major writings between 1914 and 1920. He wrote profusely in the journal Arya which he started publishing in 1914. His essays include ‘The Life Divine’ and ‘The Synthesis of Yoga’. Being a prolific writer, he published over 4600 pages of philosophy, commentary, translations, essays etc. in his journal (p.328). Chapter 8 also discusses at some length the arrival of Mirra Richard in Aurobindo’s life. Mirra and her husband Paul Richard arrived in Pondicherry in 1920 and became close associates of Aurobindo. However, to Paul’s dismay, Mirra eventually became a close companion of Aurobindo and in his words ‘gave him the essential feminine power to complete his yogic sadhana’ (p.320). She became his shakti and was able to help him turn his sadhana outward (p.329). Mirra eventually left Paul and she and her companion Dorothy Hodgson went to stay at Aurobindo’s house. Her influence eventually led to Aurobindo stopping his consumption of alcohol and tobacco. Heehs comments that people in the Ashram were somewhat puzzled by the unexpected entry of a female into the otherwise male household. Aurobindo insisted that his relationship with Mirra was not sexual. What was important to him was Mirra’s complete autonomy. Therefore at one stage he is quoted as saying to Paul: ‘if Mirra ever asked for marriage (with Aurobindo), that is what she would have’ (p.327). Heehs, perhaps wisely, has not delved into Aurobindo’s relationship with Mirra.
In chapter 9, Heehs discusses Aurobindo’s ‘active retirement’. In the 1940s, Sri Aurobindo’s life had taken on a regular pattern. Mirra, now called ‘the Mother’, took over the organisation of the house. While people came to his ‘darshan’ every day, every four years there was a special ‘darshan’ ceremony. Devotees flocked to take the ‘darshan’ of the ‘Master’ with the ‘Mother’ sitting on his right. By then he had become an international celebrity. Aldous Huxley regarded his book The Life Divine as a remarkable piece of philosophic and mystic literature. Gabriella Mistral and Pearl Buck, both Nobel laureates, proposed his name for the Nobel Prize for literature. Life and Holiday magazines carried illustrated stories on him. Visitors to the Ashram felt that he had such an aura that even a few moments in his presence was like being ‘timeless in time’. They were also impressed with the charm and serene look of the ‘Mother’. Heehs recounts the final moments of the great master at the end of the chapter. On Tuesday 5 December 1950, at the age of 78, Sri Aurobindo died (buried on 9 December), leaving a legacy of great literary and spiritual writing behind. Thousands came for his last ‘darshan’. Tributes came the next day from the president, prime minister, governors, diplomats, and many others.
In the ‘Epilogue’ Heehs discusses the reasons for Aurobindo’s greatness. He rightly says that a balanced evaluation of Aurobindo is difficult because some viewed him as an incarnation of god while others viewed him as a political reactionary. Aurobindo’s true value, he says, lies in the historical and literary evidence he left behind. His writings, although dated in style, remain a source of inspiration for his devotees. He had a great impact on India’s freedom struggle and was the first to speak openly about ‘independence’. He was the fountainhead of a spiritual movement which still flourishes across the world. Heehs is hopeful that the movement Aurobindo started will keep transforming human society forever.
Heehs’ book is laudable. However, he does not address some key questions. For example, what transformed Aurobindo from a Western-educated schoolboy in England to a revolutionary in India and subsequently from a radical revolutionary into a yogi? Finally, what was Mirra’s exact role in Aurobindo’s life? However Heehs’ non-engagement with these questions by no means devalues the book’s importance and I recommend it as an important reading for everyone interested in the remarkable life of Aurobindo who made a difference to humanity at large.
— Jayant Bapat, Monash Asia Institute, Monash University
From EnlightenNext magazine (USA), Fall/Winter 2008
In 1916, Indian poet and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore wrote of his contemporary Aurobindo Ghose: “He is a great man—one of the greatest we have—and therefore liable to be misunderstood even by his friends.” Tagore was right. The man later known as Sri Aurobindo—a Bengali-born, British-educated scholar, poet, revolutionary, philosopher, spiritual practitioner, and revered mystic—remained an enigma all his life. And in the decades since his death in 1950, a haze of hagiography, combined with the complexity of much of his own writing, has continued to obscure his greatness for many. Despite being a foundational influence in some of today’s most significant spiritual movements, including the human potential and integral movements, and one of the great forefathers of the emerging field of evolutionary spirituality, Aurobindo has never gained the recognition he deserves in the West.
Historian Peter Heehs has done the world a great service with the publication this year of a book that may finally make Sri Aurobindo and his work accessible to a broader audience. Appropriately titled The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, this meticulously researched and beautifully written scholarly biography follows its subject through five periods and personas—Son, Scholar, Revolutionary, Yogi and Philosopher, and Guide. While biographies of Aurobindo have been published before, including a short one by Heehs himself, none has ever drawn on such a vast resource of original letters, diaries, and other primary sources. Heehs brings to the task a historian’s sensibility and unparalleled access to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archive, of which he was one of the founders. The result is a rich and fascinating portrait of a spiritual pioneer.
The brief first part of the book describes Aurobindo’s early childhood in India—a “life” that lasted only seven years before his Anglophile father sent him to England with two of his brothers to receive a classical education, beginning his second life as a scholar. An outstanding student, Aurobindo won a scholarship to Cambridge. But while he had a great love for English and European literature, he had little love for the British and deeply resented their colonial grip on what he felt was the far superior culture of his birth. He wrote various “revolutionary speeches” while at Cambridge and briefly formed a secret society known as the Lotus and Dagger. Returning to India in his early twenties, he took an administrative job working for a maharajah in the remote province of Baroda. Immediately discovering “a temperamental feeling and preference for all things Indian,” he immersed himself in the history, culture, and spirit of his homeland.
Part three begins with Aurobindo’s return to Calcutta, where he took up a life of political action. During his short but outspoken political career, he was labeled by the British the most dangerous man in India, although his revolutionary weapon was the pen rather than the sword. It was during this period that Aurobindo’s spiritual awakening also began. Heehs traces the inner tensions between his growing yearning for spiritual depth and his commitment to a life of action and engagement. India’s great spiritual traditions, particularly the Vedantic school, tended to equate spiritual attainment with a rejection of worldly concerns and engagement, which were seen as “maya,” or illusion. But Aurobindo, possessed of a rare degree of spiritual independence, had decided quite early in life that many of the great luminaries in India’s spiritual canon had gotten it wrong in concluding that the phenomenal world was unreal. In his own commentary on the Upanishads, he argued that there was no contradiction between the transcendent Absolute, or Brahman, and the palpable, material universe, and therefore there was no conflict between spiritual attainment and political engagement. His attempts at reinterpretation suffered an unexpected experiential setback, however, when he first sought the guidance of a yogi, hoping to “establish a relationship with a personal Godhead and learn to follow its guidance.” He got rather more than he was asking for. Plunged within twenty-four hours into “an eternal silence . . . drowning this semblance of a physical world,” Aurobindo found himself immersed in “precisely the experience [he] did not want from yoga.”
His descriptions of this experience, while powerful, are not unique or even unusual in spiritual literature. What is rare about Aurobindo’s spiritual awakening is that it occurred at the height of a fully engaged political career to which he returned shortly after this event. In fact, it was Aurobindo’s continuing involvement with the revolutionary movement that led to the next phase in his spiritual development. Jailed for a year as a result of a failed assassination plot involving his younger brother, Aurobindo suddenly found himself with time on his hands to devote to the practice of meditation. During those months in jail, his initial experience of the unreality of the world now deepened into a recognition of the Divine as being present in the world and in all its manifest objects. As he put it, with characteristically dry humor, “The only result of the unfriendly attention of the British government was that I found God.”
It was a further result of the unfriendly attention of the British government that Aurobindo was eventually forced to take refuge in the French enclave of Pondicherry, beginning his fourth “life” as a full-time yogi and philosopher. Drawing on Aurobindo’s own diaries from the time, which were discovered only during the 1970s and later published as Record of Yoga, Heehs offers a fascinating glimpse inside the spiritual practice of an extraordinarily dedicated explorer of consciousness. Aurobindo described this time of his life as “a laboratory experiment,” and his diaries are less accounts of his subjective experience and more like a researcher’s notes, recording in matter-of-fact language and great detail his successes and failures in the many different aspects of the complex yogic path he had devised for himself. These ranged from more traditional spiritual ideals such as the attainment of knowledge, bliss, and peace, to mental powers such as telepathy, and even to attempts to alter the physical body. Heehs describes how at one point “he had succeeded with some difficulty in changing the form of one of his feet by volition, but the old shape kept returning.” Whatever one makes of such claims—and the more grandiose myths that grew around Aurobindo and his enigmatic teaching partner, “the Mother,” during the final stage of his life—what shines through Heehs’ book is Aurobindo’s single-pointed dedication to his own path, a path that led him into uncharted territories of consciousness.
Heehs has done a masterful job of pulling aside the veils of myth and giving us what must be as close to the real Aurobindo as is possible to get from our twenty-first-century vantage point—the independent young man with a deep love for his country; the reluctant revolutionary thrust into the spotlight of history; the spiritual practitioner digging through “subconscient mud” with a scientist’s dedication; and the erudite scholar with a dry sense of humor and a love of cigars and the occasional glass of wine. Throughout his account, Heehs never strays from the historian’s perspective or lets his imagination fill in the gaps or add inner dimensions to events where no first-hand source remains. The result is that his subject, in the end, still retains a certain impenetrability, which in itself seems fitting for someone who, by all reports, never quite lost the stamp of a British gentleman.
Aurobindo once described his work as an attempt to “feel out for the thought of the future.” The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, besides being a great biography and a fascinating history lesson, is also, and perhaps most importantly, a doorway into his extraordinary spiritual philosophy and vision—a body of work that does indeed, at times, seem more connected to the emerging edge of consciousness and culture today than it does to the time and place in which it was written. Heehs does not reduce the complexity and subtlety of Aurobindo’s thought into convenient sound bites, but offers enough tastes of the beauty and power of his vision to hopefully inspire a new generation of spiritual activists to get more deeply acquainted with the work of one of their greatest forefathers.
— Ellen Daly
© EnlightenNext, 2008
From The Telegraph (Kolkata), June 1, 2012
Private papers and works by the subject himself are invaluable and essential sources for a biographer. But like any other source, they need to be questioned and balanced by other kinds of historical material. This is especially true of a man like Aurobindo Ghose, who was a prolific writer and often kept detailed accounts of himself, his thoughts and his experiences. Peter Heehs’s fascinating account of Aurobindo’s life and ideas makes exhaustive uses of Aurobindo’s writings.
The plural in the title of the book is deliberate and justified since Aurobindo’s life went through many different and often contradictory phases. Heehs nicely balances the political and spiritual aspects of his subject’s career.
Aurobindo’s childhood and early life were, in many ways, unique.His father was a doctor in the districts of Bengal and his mother was mentally unstable. Aurobindo spent his childhood and early youth in London, living at times in utter penury.Hewent as a scholarship boy to St Paul’s and then again on a scholarship to King’s College, Cambridge. He was a good student whose work on the classics of European literature and thought was occasionally outstanding. He took a first in the Classics tripos but did not stay behind in Cambridge in the final year. This meant that he actually had not finished his degree even though he did not hesitate to write BA (Cantab) after his name. He left Cambridge because he qualified for the ICS, but he eventually did not join the service as he failed deliberately to appear for the compulsory riding test.
It was in Cambridge that Aurobindo, a thoroughly Europeanized young man, felt the first stirrings of patriotism. He learnt Sanskrit and Bengali even though he never became fluent in either language. English was his preferred language of communication; he also knew French and the classical European languages, Greek and Latin.
Back in India,Aurobindoworked for the maharaja of Baroda and also taught in Baroda College. Itwasduring this phase that he began writing pieces on the Indian political situation, became a practitioner of yoga and had his first spiritual experience.
The political ideas that Aurobindo began to explore in Baroda and subsequently in Calcutta had as their core the project of buildingupa secret revolutionary sect to which young men would devote their lives and work to violently overthrow British rule in India. Aurobindo emerged as a major critic of the moderates within the Indian National Congress and was among the first to advocate complete freedom from British rule. This made him a champion of the extremists. Heehs writes in detail about the battle between these two factions of the Congress and about Aurobindo’s role in it.
Aurobindo’s political ideas were articulated in the columns of a journal that he edited, Bande Mataram.During the Swadeshi Movement, he worked closely with the National Council of Education. He was also advising his brother, Barin, on various revolutionary and terrorist activities. This led to his arrest in the Maniktola Bomb Case. He was jailed but acquitted after the trial. Heehs notes very rightly that there was some irony in this since all the charges brought against Aurobindo were valid but the court did not find the evidence presented to it to adequate for a conviction.
Calcutta became too dangerous a place forAurobindo and he escaped to Pondicherry, where he remained for the rest of his life. The Pondicherry phase brought the curtain down on his political career.
In Pondicherry, Aurobindo immersed himself completely in his spiritual quest, his sadhana. The quest had started earlier with his yoga and the study of the Upanishads. His keystone was the Isha Upanishad, which he translated beautifully and commented upon at length.
Aurobindo’s spiritual path was very much his own and it is never clear what this path was in spite of Heehs’s attempts to describe it in some detail from Aurobindo’s own writings. What seems obvious is that Aurobindo saw himself as a gnostic who had access to secret and revealed knowledge of Truth and divinity. His sadhana was aided by Mirra Richards (later to be called the Mother), whom Aurobindo called his shakti. It was Mirra Richards who built the ashram in Pondicherry.
Heehs’s research leaves many aspects unexplored. In his early days in Pondicherry, Aurobindo was desperately poor, yet he lived in rented accommodation (one of the houses was rented at Rs 100 a month.)What were the sources of funds? Aurobindo’s needs were simple but he had an entourage to maintain. Heehs glosses over Aurobindo’s treatment of his wife, Mrinalini, whom he never looked after. Aurobindo smoked and occasionally drank but he insisted on celibacy. Why? Most importantly, how did he reconcile his profound immersion in the Upanishads with his advocacy of violence to gain political ends? He never did abjure this belief in violence.
Heehs relies too heavily on Aurobindo’s own words without standing back to make an evaluation. He is perhaps uneasy with the more obscure aspects of Aurobindo’s spiritual and mystical experiences and thus leaves these at the level of description in Aurobindo’s own terms. He notes the transition from Aurobindo to Sri Aurobindo, from a human to a divine figure. How did the man himself react to this?
Aurobindo was a man of laughter and humour. Had these disappeared when he began to wear the mantle of divinity? Aurobindo was a poet, journalist, political campaigner, revolutionary, seer and philosopher. He had made himself a man of inner calm and strength. Heehs brings out all these aspects and does so lucidly and in some detail. Yet the book leaves behind a sense of dissatisfaction: for the devotee it is not reverential enough, for the sceptic it is too unquestioning.
From The Week (Kochi), June 25, 2012
The Lives of Sri Aurobindo is undoubtedly the magnum opus of Peter Heehs, American author and one of the foremost Aurobindo scholars. Impressed by the master’s philosophy, Heehs came to the Aurobindo ashram in Pondicherry, from New York, in 1971. Though he had no formal training as an archivist or historian, Heehs soon became the ashram’s archivist, a perfect vantage point from where he studied Aurobindo’s life, vision and mission.
The book is divided into five parts, each marking a distinct phase of Aurobindo’s life—son, scholar, revolutionary, philosopher and guide. Aided by exhaustive research and supported by several hitherto unpublished primary sources, Heehs manages to bring out the transition in Aurobindo’s life, from bureaucracy to politics and, ultimately, to spirituality—what he deemed as his final call. Yoga was his preferred path and his quest was to bring the divine down into the physical, rather than the other way round.
Heehs reconstructs with remarkable finesse Aurobindo’s abstruse thought and philosophy, especially his understanding of the Isha Upanishad and its impact on his spiritual, political, literary and academic pursuits. He has also made an honest attempt to demystify some of Aurobindo’s complex narratives like The Life Divine, and make it intelligible to the average reader.
However, the book has courted controversy, and is presently banned in India. Heehs’s references to Aurobindo’s relationship with Mother Mirra, his lack of physical courage in his younger days, and his mother’s mental instability and its probable impact on Aurobindo’s spiritual experiences have not gone down well with many of his followers. Heehs, though in respectful tones, questions the divinity of Aurobindo and the claim that he possessed supernatural powers. The book records Aurobindo’s famous disagreements with his contemporaries like Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore.
The book attempts a critical evaluation of Aurobindo. It is comprehensive, empirical, historically accurate and a formidable piece of scholarship. Though his followers may disagree, the book manages to humanise Aurobindo for the common man.
Ajish P. Joy
For a review in the New Indian Express (February 27, 2009) by François Gautier, click here
For a review in AntiMatters (February 21 and April 24, 2009) by Marcel Kvassay, click here (Part 1) and here (Part 2).