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Debashish Banerji responds to “Anonymous Devotee”

January 24, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

The following letter was originally submitted as a comment. — auroleaks

Dear Anonymous Devotee,

While I find most of your comments clear headed, factual and laudable, I take exception to some of your conclusions on the need for the author of The Lives of Sri Aurobindo to address certain issues, for example, that of madness. You write:

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.

Of course, the central point you make, that “Peter labors to show that Sri Aurobindo did not actually show signs of madness,” cannot be questioned (except by those who have retarded reading skills, pre-existing biases or ulterior political motives). But could you provide some evidence on the “basic research” you claim to support your view that the premise of equating madness and claims of yogic experiences is “a fringe one?” What kind of research did you conduct? Literature survey? Statistical fieldwork?

The Lives of Sri Aurobindo
is a biography of an enigmatic 20th c. personality who claimed to have arrived at a stable condition of “divinity” (generally taken to be characterized at least by the properties of omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence and eternity/immortality) and also claimed the possibility of such a condition for all humanity. The personality in question also claimed to have had remote effects on persons and events, including wars such as World War II. The book was published by an academic press in the USA, with a targeted readership constituting firstly professors and students in departments of south asian studies, history, sociology, culture studies and secondly, the wider population of western readers of non-fiction of an academic interest. I happen to be among both constituents of its targeted readership and have spoken to a large enough cross-section of its population to know that someone claiming the properties mentioned above would be summarily dismissed as a crank at best and dangerously deluded at worst. What Alok Pandey, being a psychiatrist thinks or does not think about academia today has no bearring on this targeted population, which is certainly still dominated by Freudian or neo-Freudian (eg. Lacanian) views of these matters. There are already such critiques abroad in these circles on the “preposterous” claims of Sri Aurobindo (eg. read Asish Nandy).

What Peter has done is try to open a crack in these arguments by his discussion of madness and the scope of yogic experience, in relation to Sri Aurobindo. I would like to draw your attention to the fact that Sri Aurobindo did not see his yoga as a specialized exercise to be restricted to a few initiates, but as a general possibility for mankind to transition to a new species as part of an evolutionary movement. The last few chapters of The Life Divine make it amply clear that if a spiritual aim in life cannot become a general goal within modern civilization, the destiny of humanity might be foreclosed. For such a possibility, the kind of opening Peter has attempted is crucial and should be lauded instead of the cynicism and worse, witch-hunt, with which it has been met.

With warm regards,
Debashish Banerji

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