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A letter from “Anonymous Devotee”

January 19, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Hello Everyone,

Many of us witnessing the latest round of exchanges on The Lives of Sri Aurobindo by Peter Heehs may be doing so with a sense of déjà vu . On one hand we have the ‘Right wing’, who insist Peter Heehs deliberately denigrates Sri Aurobindo, and on the other the ‘Left wing’, who praise the book and its author and justify everything he writes in the name of academic freedom and because his target readership excludes devotees. Then there are the ‘harmony’ types, who look upon both parties as warring children who must learn to respect and accommodate each other – it feels and sounds good to say such things, except that such noble entreaties remain in the realm of generalities and few concrete suggestions as to how to actually achieve reconciliation are made. The majority remain silent on the subject. Mulling over this unchanging situation, I asked myself a question. Is there at all a middle path, one that comes as close as possible to reconciling the extreme positions, at the same time perhaps encapsulating the views of the silent majority who witness these developments with sadness and some bewilderment? This letter is a modest attempt to capture this middle ground, perhaps one of the few ways left to initiate a true process of coming together.

First, a look at the scene around us. On the Right we have a medley of characters. Enough has been written about Sraddhalu, whom I tried to dissect in my original email and who has remained conspicuously silent since, at least in public. And the less said about the rather incoherent rants of the blogger of tomorrow, the better. But then there is Dr. Alok Pandey. He must be complimented for having perfected the politician’s art of saying a lot of things without actually saying anything. To his credit he ensures the discourse stays civil, but when confronted with direct questions point blank he displays a tendency to either confuse the issue with a volley of counter-questions, or to retreat, tail firmly between the legs, and lurk in the background till the dust settles and he can start pontificating from the rooftops all over again. When things get too precise and specific for comfort, there is always Plan B: hurl a few accusations that are so general and unverifiable in nature, dripping with apparent wisdom, that the poor accused are left reeling with no idea where to even start defending themselves against the alleged spiritual crimes. This is then followed in the same breath by pseudo-modest denials of any ambition or agenda, and prostrate pleadings of forgiveness if he has crossed any line. It does not matter that the very gravity of his accusation strips the victim of the moral and spiritual stature that is a requisite to forgive in the first place – after all how many will catch these inherent contradictions? What matters more is how good the whole thing sounds in one reading.

Vijay Poddar says that the level of consciousness from which one writes would permeate one’s entire writing and therefore the entire book is shot through with the same ‘poison’. Point taken, but what if that consciousness is simply an ordinary mental consciousness? By definition this consciousness, based on intellectual conjecture, gropes in the dark, and should one expect that in all its detailed conclusions it would reflect a uniform and consistent level to each one’s objective criteria? No, there are bound to be parts that are enlightened and parts that are misguided, which in itself does not mean that everything is written with hostile intent. Why stretch oneself to accommodate a tortuous explanation when a simple one stands before us? And to consult one’s psychic is the perfect solution in theory, but in practice who is to judge another’s sincerity and extent of inner opening? Can anyone convince another on this basis? I dare say that to suggest standing before the Mother and reading out passages from the book perhaps hints at playing on a guilty conscience and therefore presupposes some insincerity on the part of others. Does this suggestion create the best conditions for reconciliation?

Many would have asked themselves if it is a coincidence that several on the Right are either published authors or figures on the limited Ashram lecture circuit. Some used to be ‘competitors’, but have now found common cause. It has been amusing to see them morph into a band of mutual backslappers. Is there more to all this than meets the eye?

At the same time, on the Left we have, for example, those who set up the Integral Yoga Fundamentalism website. They were right in warning against the dangers of a sentimental religiosity creeping into the public space, but lost a golden opportunity when they themselves adopted too strident a tone and in the process lost some of their credibility. They as well as others have lionized Peter as someone having the courage to face the realities of the ‘outside world’ from the inside, but fail to see that some of his ‘objective analysis’ is actually just speculation, not necessarily of the highest intellectual standard, or needless nitpicking on irrelevant side-issues. However there is little doubt that on the whole the Left has been more willing to go into the nitty-gritty and discuss the details – one of the tests of sincerity. The Right often tends to avoid the real issues and chooses to go round in circles based on the same old assumptions. Take Larry Seidlitz’s thorough examination of the accusations against Peter, a document that has unfortunately slipped under the radar. Has anyone on the Right actually tried to dissect it and show where Larry might have gone wrong? He takes a neutral, open stance, analyses the allegations against Peter in detail, concludes in some instances that this statement here, that assertion there, is perhaps unnecessary or misplaced, but there are no signs of hostility anywhere. Why has no one on the Right dared to challenge him head on?

It would be unfair however to see both sides as symmetrical poles. First of all, it is the Right that created the Left by insisting that their stance be taken as the only correct one. The Left is essentially a reaction to the Right and in the economy of things was sorely needed to act as a counterweight; else the entire public space would be swamped with the Rightist clamour. The Left essentially believes in living and letting live – they do not impose themselves on others like the Right has tried to. Some of them have radical, even stubborn views, but they respect the right of others to have theirs too as long as they don’t insist everyone else follow their way as the only way. Of course, one cannot too rigidly compartmentalize into categories, as there are elements on both wings that have shown flexibility and professed a willingness to reach out to the other side.

There is a pressing need to keep the debate simple and clutter-free. In a recent exchange on the SAICE forum Arindam says while presenting the views of those who do not think the book is denigrating: “While presenting Sri Aurobindo to a larger world audience and especially to the academic world, the author had to deal with the prevailing bias that spiritual and mystical experiences are signs of madness.” But is there really any such prevailing bias? Peter seems to have exaggerated this point. Dr. Pandey as a professional in this line would know better, but some basic research shows that this “bias” is a fringe view and not at all likely to be prevalent amongst those, even academically oriented, who would at all take an interest in reading the book in the first place. Peter labours to show that Sri Aurobindo did not actually show signs of madness. If he were really hostile, would he not draw different conclusions, or at least leave the question open? So then, what is the purpose of this entire exercise? It just seems totally redundant, and the book would lose nothing by eliminating it completely.

When Peter says that the Mother thrived on ceremony, he seems to have missed the point altogether. There were rumours of another biography of the Mother in the pipeline, but if at all these rumours had any basis in truth, which is in itself doubtful, hopefully this controversy would have put paid to any such project. It is not hard to see that Peter’s speculative tendencies would manifest in an even more provocative manner in the case of the Mother, given the unique modes of expression of her infinite spiritual personality.

Our world of devotees is a very, very small one. Sri Aurobindo’s message is for all humanity. In the years ahead many will open to him through the mind and not at first through devotion. These seekers too have legitimate questions and needs, and must be approached in a manner that is very different from the majority of us engaging in this debate, who have been privileged to have our eyes opened to Their Light and Grace from a young age. To believe otherwise is myopic. Yet we have seen some extreme expressions of this tendency of our community’s sense of collective identity expanding to swallow the whole world, e.g. as seen in allegations of a vast and sinister conspiracy behind the work of some elements in the Archives Dept, even suspecting the CIA or the Vatican! All one can say about those who propound this utterly laughable theory is that they think like ostriches – our institution simply does not yet have that kind of visibility on the world stage to provoke operations of such scale and scope.

If one makes a conscious effort to keep the requirements of a different kind of readership in mind, a large number of the so-called offending passages no longer seem that bad. But not all of them are thus resolved, and this is something the Left must recognize if they wish to find common ground. Several passages from Peter reflect nothing but pure personal speculation that has no place in a biography purporting to be an objective record of facts and events. The most striking example of this type concerns his treatment of Sri Aurobindo’s motives in writing the play Vasavadatta. This is just plain silly, so silly that one should not even take offence to it. Sri Aurobindo explored all facets of human nature in his literary creations, and to think that what he wrote must be an echo of his own inner thoughts and feelings is baseless. But again, is it hostile? To say so is simply giving Peter too much ‘credit’, if one may use the word, for his abilities, as this would imply a level of subtle shrewdness that he nowhere shows himself capable of – he wields his pen more like a bludgeon than a scalpel. Being foolish and deliberately trying to denigrate Sri Aurobindo are completely different things, and we are doing a disservice to ourselves and the community by mixing them up – this point cannot be repeated enough. Could not Peter simply be trying to be too clever by half, to fulfill his desire to somehow be accepted by mainstream academia, something that has not yet come his way? When this obvious and straightforward option of explaining his excesses is available, why must we overestimate his capacities, his scholarliness, and posit something far-fetched and complicated that just isn’t there? Here lies the delicious irony: both the Right and the Left overrate the calibre of Peter Heehs – the difference is one side sees masterly Machiavellian manipulativeness, and the other sheer academic brilliance. The boring reality is that Peter has done a commendable job of gathering information, in many places his account is highly readable and refreshingly objective, but, again ironically, he is guilty of the same shortcoming he himself has seen in hagiographical accounts: in parts he could not resist inserting his own personal opinions amidst the recounting of the events in the life of Sri Aurobindo. And with refinement and subtlety not being his forte, he was always bound to ruffle some feathers. Yet we must not forget that the arguably offending passages are relatively few in number in a book of over 500 pages, and these should not be allowed to colour too strongly our perception of the book as a whole – herein lies the importance of reading at least substantial parts of the book before forming an opinion, because then one sees that the hostility hypothesis put forward by Rightists who quote selectively does not hold water.

I should mention in this context that Manoj Das Gupta’s 18-page Reflections is one of the most balanced analyses of the various sides of the issue that one will find. It is unfortunate that this too seems to have slipped under the radar, as it answers many of the questions and accusations still doing the rounds.

I could not help recalling Sri Aurobindo’s many letters to disciples in the 1930s where he cautioned that every setback, every obstacle in yoga need not be blamed on the hostile forces – many were simply the mechanical forces of nature at play. Do we have a parallel here? Are we simply making too much of the book, a natural human tendency to exaggerate, glorify, vilify? When we cringe before something that does not agree with us, we often need to find something extraordinary to explain and justify our reactions. Sometimes we find it even when it does not exist.

And yet by making a gigantic fuss about the book we are simply giving more strength to the very elements we fear. Can The Lives of Sri Aurobindo be condemned as a bad book? It depends, but does it really matter? Is it insensitive? Sensitivity depends on a sense of hurt, and hurt is necessarily subjective. For any devotee it is difficult not to squirm in one’s seat when one reads some of the passages in the book. But what is certain is that we are giving the matter way too much importance. To the Right goes the credit of elevating Peter Heehs to the level of a topic worthy of intense and sustained discussion.

So much for the book itself. The question then reduces itself to what action the Trust should have taken against Peter. If one accepts the central position expressed in this letter, one sees that this question is no longer of the earth-shaking importance it has been made out to be. The trustees, like in every decision, have a right to apply their discretion as they see best. They may or may not be right, but it is no different from the many decisions they take on a range of administrative matters. Why then is so much being made out of this issue and not others?

Much of what is happening would be hilarious had it not been for the stark reality of a court case against the Ashram. Those who believe that the litigants can be convinced to change their views might be mistaken. There are other motives and forces at work, axes to grind. Positions have been committed to, and perhaps they have gone too far to turn back, though I hope I am wrong about this. Yet if the majority of observers can agree on the basic premise that possibly not many have clearly articulated, that the book has some mindless, unnecessary, awkward passages, but that there is no evidence to show that the intention is hostile, and if this majority makes it presence felt by openly endorsing this common-sense view, then the monopoly on the debate currently occupied by the Left and the Right would diminish, and a ‘Centre’ that has remained silent for too long would emerge that would force both sides to see that there is a balanced middle ground and thus automatically gravitate towards it, rather than continue an endless exchange of accusations and counter-accusations leading nowhere.

I do not expect those strongly entrenched on either side to agree with me – rather it is those who have taken no firm position in particular thus far who might help save the day by keeping the dialogue where it should belong – in the realm of common sense, reasonableness, mutual tolerance and good will.

  1. January 19, 2011 at 11:43 am

    Dear Anonymous Devotee,

    Would you be so kind as to give us an example of what you consider “too strident a tone”? Sometimes we went as far as to call a spade a spade, but on the whole we aimed at maintaining a measured tone.

    With warm regards,
    The editors of IYF

  2. Debashish Banerji
    January 24, 2011 at 11:52 am

    This comment has been upgraded to a post. — auroleaks

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