Home > serious posts > “Anonymous Devotee” replies to Debashish Banerji

“Anonymous Devotee” replies to Debashish Banerji

January 24, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Dear Debashish (I’m so sorry I am unable to extend you the privilege of reciprocating and addressing me by first name!),

Thank you for the feedback, and for finding most of my comments clear-headed. I am in sync with quite a lot of what you say in your email to me too. A group of four have taken up this subject of madness, and their transparent efforts must be lauded. If in their meetings with the dissenting group they are able to explain why Peter took up this issue and that his intent was essentially good, they would have served a great purpose. Arindam has himself proclaimed that they are not concerned with what might be unnecessary in the book, but with what has been alleged to be wrong with it. Therefore what we are going into here, whether Peter’s bringing up this issue in his book was at all necessary, is secondary. It was not at all central to my original essay, but as you have raised it, I answer. We may agree to disagree on it and it essentially does not matter – let not a difference on a relatively minor and admittedly debatable point come in the way of achieving our largely converging goals.

I do not believe that what Peter presents on the issue of madness is wrong – I just thought it occupies a place of disproportionate importance in the book. I’ll tell you why I think so, resisting the temptation to couch my language in academic phraseology. I’d rather discuss things in terms of plain logic and common sense than from a technical viewpoint.

You say that “someone claiming the properties mentioned above would be summarily dismissed as a crank at best and dangerously deluded at worst.” Excuse me, but I think this is a wee bit simplistic. We aren’t concerned here with strangers that one might walk up to and say, “Hey, this is what Sri Aurobindo claimed about the Second World War.” We are concerned with people who actually take the trouble to read Peter’s book, a book about an Indian sage, philosopher and visionary. And here the complexion of the question changes.

You perceive a widespread “premise of equating madness and claims of yogic experience.” Then I suppose you also see a premise of equating madness and claims of religious experience, as for the materialistic mind both appear similar in nature and outside the realm of possibility, even if they differ in the details. Do a large number of books about religious and other figures intended for a mainstream or academic audience also labour so defensively to show that their subjects are sane and not suffering from mental illnesses? Or is Peter the first man ever to write about a figure from this world for a wider readership?

Whatever the answer to those questions might be, I find this talk of madness somewhat circular. The first and most basic premise of Sri Aurobindo is that something superhuman, something other and higher than the mental, exists. Nothing he wrote, be it on yoga, philosophy, sociology, or even literature, could be said to be divorced from that premise. Even in The Life Divine Sri Aurobindo did not try to prove this basic truth. He said it is not essentially a book of philosophy or metaphysics. It is fundamentally an exposition of his vision, expressed in a logical and internally consistent framework in order to point the human mind in the direction of the truth. Sri Aurobindo’s entire system of yoga is built on the possibility that there is something more-than-human, if you will, and its entire complex superstructure arises from this. If one accepts it, there is no reason not to accept any of the myriad possibilities and forms that flow from it. For example, the fulcrum of Sri Aurobindo’s integral yoga is the concept of the psychic being, the seat of the inner Divine. He also talks about the power of prayer, of aspiration to some higher entity. On the other hand he also alludes to a range of occult experiences and powers – which may manifest in the form of hearing voices, influencing physical events, etc. From a scientific mind’s point of view, is there any reason to believe that one set of possibilities is more preposterous than the other, just because one sounds more similar to conventional notions of madness than the other? In my opinion, those who believe so are only selectively applying their own rules of being objective and of thinking things through thoroughly before arriving at conclusions. It ultimately boils down to not accepting Sri Aurobindo’s basic premise at all. In other words, readers either don’t need to be convinced at all of Sri Aurobindo not being mad, or if they do need such convincing, they represent a mindset that will not agree with almost anything about Sri Aurobindo that Peter says anywhere else in the book anyway. There are far more direct and less cynical ways of coaxing these sceptics to believe Sri Aurobindo is valid, than trying to show he is not hereditarily insane.

Which brings us to the question: Is Peter writing for those with whom it is by definition impossible to agree? Or has he taken on himself the massive task of convincing them of the existence of the superhuman? If so, isn’t he overreaching to a section of society that lies way beyond the scope of a book on Sri Aurobindo?

To sum up, venturing to read about Sri Aurobindo requires at least a tiny bit of readiness to look beyond the human mind. Otherwise the subject matter of the book could have been restricted strictly and exclusively to Sri Aurobindo’s political or literary contributions, which is not the case. And the moment one admits that whiff of readiness, schizophrenia should not even emerge as a possibility to explain away Sri Aurobindo’s experiences, for the very simple reason that there is no more any need for an explanation at all.

Now, on another note, let me start by quoting from Wikipedia:

Religion in the United States has both a very wide diversity in religious beliefs and practices, and a high adherence level. According to recent surveys, 83 percent of Americans claim to belong to a religious denomination, 40 percent claim to attend services nearly every week or more, and 59 percent claim to pray at least weekly. A majority of Americans report that religion plays a “very important” role in their lives.…59% of Americans living in Western states (the “Unchurched Belt”) report a belief in God, yet in the South (the “Bible Belt”) the figure is as high as 86%.

I think it’s safe to conclude that the admittance of the possibility of supernormal experiences is not something fantastically alien to American society at large. True, religions do not talk like Sri Aurobindo about a divinized state in a human body, but they do admit much that is beyond the ken of science, including the possibility of “remote effects on persons and events.” If you believe that “someone claiming the properties mentioned above would be summarily dismissed as a crank at best and dangerously deluded at worst,” then it could well be the same for the entire religious hierarchy, starting with the Pope. The basic premise that I keep referring to is common to religion and spirituality, even if the forms and methods can vary greatly. One of the marvels of modern society is the mostly peaceful coexistence of the scientific and religious spirit, especially in Western society. The high percentages quoted above show that this compatibility extends to individuals’ private spaces as well, as there is clearly an overlap in the prevalence of the scientific and religious tempers. That the religious may be entrenched in conservative Christian views is another matter – we’re talking here of the acceptance of God and of paranormal phenomena. It is true that the religious sections of society may be less likely than the sceptical secular ones to open to the revolutionary ideas propounded by Sri Aurobindo, but again that is beside the point.

Thanks for pointing out that “Sri Aurobindo did not see his yoga as a specialized exercise to be restricted to a few initiates.” We merrily agree here, as I’ve said basically the same thing in my essay.

I must say I have enjoyed large parts of Peter’s book. The author’s admiration of Sri Aurobindo shines through. On a more reflective, less rigorous note, the curious thing is that in a way the mass of his writings itself takes care of any misgivings he might have about his readers’ perceptions of the foundations of Sri Aurobindo’s yogic experiences. Those who are not touched by what he says throughout the book are either unlikely to agree with his arguments against madness either, or are too deadened to care less one way or the other.

I can now finally explain what I meant by “fringe view”. Those who accept the ‘basic premise’ and take interest in the book, and yet need it to be hammered into their heads that Sri Aurobindo is not crazy, would be in a minority as I have myself laboured to explain above. Yet if Peter felt it necessary to deal with this, so be it. If you too find it useful, we can respectfully disagree. As for me, not only do I think it was superfluous, but in a sense, dangerous, as it invited a slew of false allegations from the Right wing that could easily have been avoided altogether. If at all, a briefer, more superficial dealing would have served the author’s stated purpose, whatever its validity, and yet warded off the frenzied accusations. For after all, there is no doubt that Peter meant well.

I was intending to stay quiet after writing to David Hutchinson, but had to reply to the very legitimate points you raise. I hope I will not have to make another exception and continue this discussion.

Warmly,

A.D

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  1. Debashish Banerji
    January 25, 2011 at 3:00 am

    Dear AD,

    Yes, we may have to agree to disagree on this one. Just as you have (quite correctly) pointed out that “the Right” includes more than the radical elements who may more properly be called “fundamentalists,” let me point out that those who may find the notion of individual omnipresence, omnipotence, omniscience or remote agency in wars to be preposterous in our times are not all die-hard materialists. They include (from personal experience) those who believe in a God, go to churches of various kinds, and even admit of some amount of paranormal and religious experience of a subjective nature, such as religious ecstacy, trance, visitations from supernatural entities, etc.

    An “age” or “epoch” is characterized by a kind of unconscious faith (in Indian parlance, known as yuga-dharma and in contemporary philosophese, zeitgeist or episteme) that a majority population hold unquestioningly. Changes of an age are often marked by the questioning of the premises of such a faith and expansions of knowledge and experience based on such questioning. Those who would dismiss extreme claims of extra-normal agency as delusive, mad or schizophrenic in our times partake of its predominating faith without necessarily having thought out why they do so. Here, to say that “readers either don’t need to be convinced at all of Sri Aurobindo not being mad, or if they do need such convincing, they represent a mindset that will not agree with almost anything about Sri Aurobindo that Peter says anywhere else in the book anyway” is to be, from my viewpoint, the very thing that you claim for me – “a wee bit simplistic.”

    To repeat, the argument about spiritual objectivity being nothing but madness is part of “the materialist denial.” The materialist denial forms the backbone of the faith of our times, and infects, in various ways and degrees, even many of those who believe otherwise by natural proclivity. If we were to assume that this was meant to remain what it is, then there would be no need either for many parts of The Life Divine or for Peter’s arguments. This said, I am in complete accord with you that this is a minor point “that essentially does not matter… to our largely convergent goals.” And of course, there is some interpretation involved here, a matter of degree, not kind. And hence, neither you nor I can be proved right or wrong, unless we set out to conduct empirical studies on readers of the Lives, which I for one am not inclined to spend my time over. Yet I hope I have presented my case clearly so that my perceptions on the matter are understood and accepted by those who see eye to eye with them.

    With warm regards,
    Debashish Banerji

  2. auroleaks
    January 25, 2011 at 12:35 pm

    Dear Anonymous Devotee,

    It is heartwarming indeed to see the discussion moving towards rationality and the issues shrinking to saner proportions. Here I shall submit some of my own conclusions from dealing with a variety of academic types who, as stressed by Debashish, constitute the primary intended audience of the Lives. You are right in saying that

    We aren’t concerned here with strangers that one might walk up to and say, “Hey, this is what Sri Aurobindo claimed about the Second World War.” We are concerned with people who actually take the trouble to read Peter’s book, a book about an Indian sage, philosopher and visionary.

    There are many reasons why one may take up a book about a sage or visionary (Indian or otherwise), though the primary reason among academics will definitely not be the search for spiritual enlightenment. Indeed, for them, equating madness and claims of yogic experience is all but synonymous with equating madness and claims of religious experience. Even someone as open-minded as Ed Kelly, co-author of Irreducible Mind, wrote in a private letter that Sri Aurobindo’s “statements related to his possible influence on world affairs … give me the heebee-jeebies, to be perfectly honest.”

    You ask,

    Do a large number of books about religious and other figures intended for a mainstream or academic audience also labour so defensively to show that their subjects are sane and not suffering from mental illnesses?

    My answer would be: On the contrary, a large number of books about religious and other figures intended for a mainstream or academic audience labour aggressively to show that their subjects are insane and do suffer from mental illness. You must be aware of the slew of books by academics berating the religious-minded as dangerously misguided, Richard Dawkins with his notorious The God Delusion leading the pack. Sri Aurobindo’s works go further than any religious or spiritual text or author ever went, and yet the Lives have found an academic publisher of considerable repute. Is this not all the more reason, indeed the author’s “sacred” duty, to stress if not harp on the point that Sri Aurobindo was anything but mad? Apparently the Publisher (or someone working for them) was sufficiently enlightened to take seriously someone making such seemingly outlandish claims. Probably this is a first, although I have insufficient data to assert that Heehs was indeed the first to ever paint for an academic audience a positive and even inspiring portrait of such a figure.

    You seem to believe that ultimately there are but too options: either not to accept Sri Aurobindo’s fundamental tenets at all or to accept him as one’s Guru. Excuse me, but if anything is a wee bit simplisitic, it is this. It is a fact beyond debate that some people, who have read the Lives only because it was an academic publication, have through it come to realize the Immensity of Sri Aurobindo and have expressed their gratefulness for it. Others, already familiar with Sri Aurobindo, have arrived through it at a deeper appreciation of his life and work and again have expressed their gratitude. Nothing in this colorful world is therefore so black-and-white as you suggest when you ask,

    Is Peter writing for those with whom it is by definition impossible to agree? Or has he taken on himself the massive task of convincing them of the existence of the superhuman?

    The answers, of course, are No and No. There are other worthy reasons for writing a biography of Sri Aurobindo.

    I am afraid your “safe” conclusion “that the admittance of the possibility of supernormal experiences is not something fantastically alien to American society at large” is beside the point, for that admittance is indeed something fantastically alien to the primarily intended audience of the Lives.

    A final point: You argue that Peter’s dealing with the question of Sri Aurobindo’s possible madness was dangerous, inasmuch “as it invited a slew of false allegations from the Right wing that could easily have been avoided altogether.” Perhaps this was meant to happen? Perhaps it was meant to force a fundamentalist mind-set detrimental to Sri Aurobindo’s cause to reveal itself in order to be vanquished? I am not saying that anything like that was on the author’s conscious mind. But there is a quotation by the Mother on our About page, where she marvels how

    EVERY SECOND [the supreme Consciousness] makes you do or say or see or know ex-act-ly what is needed for everything … to move forward. … it’s a movement … that makes use of everything to lead towards the goal, even “errors” — which aren’t errors because when the Consciousness is there, the error isn’t one committed by ignorance: a thing is said or done because that’s what needs to be said or needs to be done — it may in appearance be even a blunder, yet it’s ex-act-ly what is needed for everything to move forward (same innumerable round gesture), move forward luminously towards the desired goal.

    Warmly,

    The Auroleaks Adminstrator

  3. Anonymous Devotee
    January 25, 2011 at 9:00 pm

    Dear Admin,

    Thank you very much for setting up the web page, and also for your comments.

    Perhaps it is my failing, but it appears that I might not have been able to get my nuanced arguments across to some readers.

    I certainly do not expect academics to pick up TLoSA for spiritual enlightenment.

    I am aware of many books written for a mainstream readership on religious and other figures, both critical and laudatory, that do not bring in at all the question of sanity. Evidently in our experiences we seem to be coming across different types of books.

    Indeed it is wonderful that CUP took up Peter’s book. That was quite a feat.

    Nowhere do I believe or suggest that there are but the two options you suggest. I am sorry to put it bluntly, but I do not say anything even remotely similar to the admittedly simplistic belief you attribute to me. If one accepts Sri Aurobindo’s ‘fundamental tenets’, one can begin to appreciate something of what Sri Aurobindo stands for. Accepting him as a Guru is still far away. But if this was all just the product of his allegedly insane mind, it invalidates everything, renders it meaningless — the whole edifice of Sri Aurobindo would crumble. Which brings us back to the acceptance of the tenets in the first place. This is where I saw a hint of circularity. In a sense I was ‘doing a Peter’ by taking a premise and expanding all its consequences. I matched this with the contrarian premise and tried to show how this seemed to lead to slightly absurd questions, which I posed rhetorically.

    Please do not take the above as a complete and self-sufficient summary of my point of view, else we will keep debating the point, which I am not really in a position to do. I tried hard to express myself in different ways so that my point was not lost, but from what you say I apparently needed to elaborate even further.

    You say, “that admittance is indeed something fantastically alien to the primarily intended audience of the Lives.” I am not sure, but perhaps you are saying that the targeted readership excludes anyone who is ready to admit paranormal phenomena. Well, I don’t know about that!

    Thanks again and all the best!
    A.D.

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