Le Trait-d’union, vol. lxvi, no. v (mai 2010)
What does the name “Sri Aurobindo” mean to the people of Pondicherry?
For many it is simply the name of a street (which has the respectful “Sri” cut off). A significant minority knows more than this, their conception of him rising from the philosopher to the yogi, and for some going so far as to regard him as almost divine, the object of a devotion inspiring pilgrims to go and bow down at his tomb in the Ashram. In fact the Ashram ranks as one of India’s favorite places of pilgrimage, and people come by the busload from the four corners of India while making the rounds of the sacred places in the region. In the town, people are often disturbed by this influx of “outsiders.”
April 4 is the centenary of the coming of this sage to Pondicherry. Here he remained until the end of his earthly life on December 5, 1950.
Those who would like to have a more precise knowledge of this extraordinary being ought to read the book The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, which was published recently by Columbia University Press, New York.
It can be ordered through the Internet and is delivered quickly.
The title should not frighten the reader: the plural “lives” is not meant to suggest that the book is enormous; the idea rather is to get the reader ready to tackle the story of the life of this exceptional being, traced through the various stages of life, each quite different from the other.
The book, which is around 500 pages long, is remarkable. It is an exhaustive biography of the thinker covering all the different facets of his life, starting from his birth on August 15, 1872, in Calcutta. His name “Aurobindo” means “lotus” in Sanskrit. He passed his childhood in the small provincial town of Rangpur, where his father, a doctor, held an important position in the medical department. Convinced of the superiority of English culture, which he wanted his children to absorb, his father insisted that English, not Bengali, be spoken in his home. It therefore was in English that Sri Aurobindo thought and expressed himself during his childhood. The father had great ambitions for his children. He wanted them to get a real English education so that they could pass the prestigious competitive examination of the ICS (the equivalent of the National School of Administration in France), something very few Indians could hope to do. He therefore left India with his whole family, and settled his three sons in England. Aurobindo was then 7 years old. He studied up to the secondary level in Manchester, then went to Cambridge for two years. Here he immersed himself enthusiastically in Greco-Roman literature as well as classical French culture. But he did not like England or the English. At Cambridge he adopted the point of view of Indian nationalism, and gave eloquent speeches on this subject. This was enough to bar him from an ICS career, in which he had no interest. All this was far from his father’s dreams, but he did not dare announce his lack of interest openly, and took part in the competitive examination, but was disqualified for his inability to pass the riding test.
He made his way back to India, leaving England in January 1893. But around this time his father died suddenly after receiving the incorrect news that the ship he thought Aurobindo would be traveling by had been lost at sea. For years afterwards, the young man carried the bitter memory of this death associated with his return.
Before his departure, he had been introduced to the Maharaja of Baroda, who was then passing through London. The Maharaja offered him an appointment in the administration of his state. Baroda thus became Aurobindo’s destination when he returned to India. He stayed there for 13 years, first as an official and then as a teacher. But he did not like Baroda. Literature was his favorite preoccupation. He wrote poems, some of which have survived. His emotional ties were with his family in Bengal. In 1901, during a brief stay in Calcutta, he got married.
In Peter Heehs’s book we follow Aurobindo’s journey to Calcutta and then to Pondicherry. He spent 4 years in Calcutta, years that were marked by a host of activities: political action, prison, spiritual practices, and then the secret departure to Pondicherry. To the people of the city, the long concluding part of Aurobindo’s life is the best known, but they will have much to learn if they read this fast-paced and interesting book.
Peter Heehs shows himself to be a very serious historian who bases his conclusions on documents that are carefully cited in the endnotes. A bibliography completes the book, which is far indeed from being a hagiography. We are surprised to learn that there will be no Indian edition, and that this work is the subject matter of several court cases. It is hard to believe this. What is the source of these attacks? Devotees concerned that the image that they had constructed of their idol has been shaken? Relatives of the persons spoken of in this work? My mind overflows with conjectures. Peter Heehs presents his characters and facts with restraint. He speaks for example about Sri Aurobindo’s few lady acquaintances in a neutral fashion and with discretion. Those who were hostile to Aurobindo and wronged him are not made the subjects of pejorative comments attempting to discredit them; on the contrary the author attempts to find the reasons why they opposed Aurobindo. The author’s objectivity becomes clear as we read the book. And yet we are informed that this book has sparked wild reactions in India.
The author has given us a model biography, which is accessible to the general public.
For this he deserves our thanks.
La Revue d’Auroville, no. 26 (janvier-mars 2009)
The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, a biography by Peter Heehs, who has worked for many years at the Archives of the Ashram, was published in the United States last year, but it does not seem likely that it will be published in India in the near future.
Unlike other books relating the life of Sri Aurobindo, Heehs’s study follows the norms of historical writing as practiced in universities, and is based on a large number of authentic sources. Peter Heehs has done a great deal of research lasting many years, working in archives in Delhi, Calcutta, Baroda, London, and Paris.
Three serious problems must be faced by anyone who would write a biography of Sri Aurobindo.
First and most important: is it necessary or even possible to attempt such a tast? One remembers a well-known remark of Sri Aurobindo’s: “Neither you nor anyone else knows anything at all about my life; it has not been on the surface for man to see.”
Second problem: if the biography is intended for academic or intellectual readers interested in Sri Aurobindo the poet or the revolutionary, it follows that any attention given to his spiritual life will be considered superfluous, incomprehensible, or belonging to the domain of psychoanalysis and needing to be treated as such.
Third problem: if the book is written for those who are disciples of Sri Aurobindo, will they not be shocked by any description or account that alters the image they have created of their guru, an image that they venerate deeply.
In my view – and I know this will sound like a paradox – Heehs’s biography does not contradict the statement by Sri Aurobindo quoted above. After the reader closes the book, Sri Aurobindo seems, even more than before, to be unseizably immense, unfathomably deep. In the end, all the incidents that the author reports, all the detailed documents and varied testimony he cites, do indeed come together to form a silhouette – not that of a man called Sri Aurobindo, but rather the silhouette of a Sri Aurobindo that will remain forever ungraspable, and behind which can be felt the touch of the infinite. And this evokes in the reader a renewed sense of the marvelous. This brings to mind a remark by Madhava Vidyaranya, a biographer of Shankaracharya, about his effort to tell the life of this great being: “In a small mirror, it is possible to see clearly even the enormous brow of an elephant.”
As for the different expectations of readers who are devotees and readers who are academics, Peter Heehs seems to have found a fine and subtle balance. Take for example the crucial moment in 1908 when Sri Aurobindo met the yogi Vishnu Bhaskar Lele, meditated with him and had the experience of absolute silence, the formless Brahman. The author lays stress on the dramatic turning point that this experience represented at that particular juncture. Sri Aurobindo had reached the most intense moment of his political life: “He had arrived in Baroda [where he had arranged to meet Lele] as a leader of a movement that involved the lives and energies of thousands of people. Its demand—independence from the world’s dominant imperial power—had enormous potential consequences. As a journalist and organizer, Aurobindo’s authority was exceeded only by Tilak’s; as an inspiration to the revolutionaries, his influence was unrivalled. And for both politicians and revolutionaries, it was a moment of crisis. The terrorists had struck in Narayangarh and the police were on their trail. The Congress had split and the Extremists were in danger of being shut out from the organization. It would thus be safe to say that when Aurobindo left Surat, he had a number of things on his mind. Now, by his own account, his mind was ‘full of an eternal silence.’ ” Sri Aurobindo’s experience of the impersonal Brahman remained unchanged for several months. In fact, as he would explain later, it remained with him for years, so that he could write in 1936 that it was “there now though in fusion with other realisations.”
How is a biographer to deal with such a statement? Up to this moment in Sri Aurobindo’s life, Peter Heehs was able to satisfy the insistence of critical readers for objective verification. But once Sri Aurobindo begins to speak of his own experiences, such verification is no longer possible. And yet Heehs knows well that to refuse to deal with Sri Aurobindo’s experiences would be to ignore the most important part of his life. Therefore he attempts to recount these experiences, making use of what Sri Aurobindo himself said about them, without transforming or reducing them to psychoanalytic or sociological data.
One is therefore surprised to learn that this book has raised an outcry in India. Some readers are so scandalized that they are trying to block the publication of the book in India. A petition was circulated accusing the author of “bringing down Sri Aurobindo very low” and supported only by the sweeping and astounding statement that “foreigners are incapable of understanding Indian spirituality or the spiritual gurus of India”. It is likely that most of the people who signed the petition never even read the book. It may well be that a number of sincere disciples of Sri Aurobindo were shocked by some of Heehs’s analyses, for example his criticism of some of Sri Aurobindo’s poetical works or his remarks on Sri Aurobindo’s approach towards the married state. But it is likely that these disciples are not the ones who are protesting. Such people know that Sri Aurobindo is too vast to be diminished by one or another point of view, interpretation, or possible error of judgment.
Speaking for myself, I found the book full of new things to learn and admire. What is astounding is that a many books published in India written by “eminent historians” of the Left, even books used in schools, show Sri Aurobindo in an extremely unflattering light. I remember reading in one such book (a so-called reference work on the freedom movement) that Sri Aurobindo “fled” to Pondicherry out of “fear” of the British. As far as I know, no one has tried to suppress that book…