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The making of a decision

To: SAICE@yahoogroups.com
From: xxx
Date: Mon, 28 Mar 2011 21:18:12 +0530
Subject: [SAICE] DECIDE FOR YOURSELF – The making of a decision

Dear all,

In August 2008, Auroville Today published an interview of Peter Heehs along with a review of his book The Lives of Sri Aurobindo. Around the middle of September 2008, some individuals sent out extracts from the book over the internet claiming that Peter Heehs had denigrated Sri Aurobindo. The extracts were circulated to a wide audience including the SYG. At the same time printed copies of the extracts were also distributed in and around the ashram. Some persons started writing letters to the Trustees asking for action against the book and the author; some also began a signature campaign with a view to bring about public pressure on the Trustees.

At the same time, the Ashram received several letters from devotees who claimed to have read the book, and they expressed an opinion that was diametrically opposed to the opinions of those who disliked the book. There was another group of persons who felt that they liked the book on the whole, barring a few passages. Some also felt that too much was being made about an issue that didn’t deserve so much attention, and they preferred to remain unconcerned about the controversy.

Over a period of time the voice to take action against the author and the book from one section of the people became more and more shrill and this concretized into a demand for removing Peter Heehs from the ashram. Around February 2010, a second mass-petition was floated. In around June 2010, Manoj Das Gupta wrote a piece entitled, “Reflections…..” where he put forth his own perceptions regarding the controversy. Quite many people responded postivitely to the perceptions contained therein, and this helped to clarify many doubts, and gave a lie to many wild rumours and allegations.

In August 2010, five individuals claiming to be inmates of Sri Aurobindo Ashram, filed a suit against the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust in the district court of Puducherry under section 92 of the Civil Procudure Code. This section deals with public charitable trusts and under this any beneficiary with bona fides can approach the court of law if he or she feels that the trustees are not discharging their duties and have committed a breach of trust. The five persons said in their affidavit that the book The Lives of Sri Aurobindo is “a sacrilegious book which falsely portrays Sri Aurobindo as a liar and a mentally imbalanced person, and ridiculing his spiritual encounters and experiences as an outcome of Sri Aurobindo’s tantric sexual indulgence and schizophrenic state of mind.” And, according to them, the trustees have committed a breach of trust by continuing to harbour, defend and openly extending support to Peter Heehs instead of promoting Sri Aurobindo’s tenets and philosophy. They further claim that the trustees’ refusal to expel Peter Heehs from the ashram on their insistence and that of others constitutes a breach of trust. Furthermore, given the breach of trust, the present trustees need to be removed and new trustees will have to be appointed and the trust administered as per a scheme to be put in place by the Court.

While it is clear that the group of five individuals who have filed this suit clearly sees things this way, it is not clear if a majority of the ashram community, inmates, ex-students and devotees, see things the same way. From our interactions with various people it has occurred to us that apart from some notable supporters and sympathizers, a vast majority of the people do not approve of this court case. There is however a sense of doubt in people’s mind on whether the trustees could have handled the situation better. We have probed this doubt, discussed this with people inside and outside the ashram, and have grouped together some perceptions which we would like to present here. We will also try and validate these perceptions in the light of some basic reasoning. At the end we will also state some facts which are critical to understanding the issue.

The Decision

The first thing that struck some people was the tenacity with which the trustees stuck to their decision of not expelling Peter. While some call this a sign of stubborness bordering on arrogance, there are others who say that this was a sign of courage and conviction. After all, this was just a question of letting one individual go and given the public pressure at that time, a decision to expel Peter would have made the trustees instantly look like “hero warriors”. This brings us to some fundamental questions: Given its nature and aim, is public opinion a legitimate way to govern the ashram? Are the interests of the ashram inmates best addressed through public opinion? And if so, what can be consitituted as “public” and what not and how does one measure public opinion? Is public opinion always right? In spiritual life, where does the jurisdiction of public opinion begin and where does it end? These are questions to which one may not have any clear answers. Now that there is a court case these questions will perhaps be dealt with in great detail and it is quite possibile that legal minds, social scientists and bureaucrats will come up with formulations to “govern” a spiritual institution.

But does this serve the nature and aim of the ashram? For those supporting the court case, the formulation of public opinion and the current deliberations are a road to panacea. For them governance is an issue and what we see today are the pangs of a new birth, the birth of a new administrative structure that will bring in better lives for the inmates and devotees. However, for many others, it seems like a road to disaster. It seems to them that manufacturing public opinion and taking recourse to mass movements to achieve a certain objective is essentially a political act which is not in consonance with the ashram ethos. For them, an institution that aims to provide maximum opportunity to an individual to develop one’s being, each person is expected to go by his/her individual opinion rather than by the opinion of others. He/she is neither expected to follow others’ opinion nor expect others to follow his/hers. The basis of ashram life is not to bother about others but focus on one’s own inner development. Processing petitions, holding dharnas and resorting to legal action may not be an option. It does appear that public opinion in a spiritual institution is a dicey subject and it may not be entirely incorrect to say that if one is unsure of its usefulness one is best advised to keep away from it.

However, in this case, as some have pointed out, if public opinion was not a valid basis, was the sense of “public hurt” a basis on which the trustees should have acted? Although this looks like a fair question it does leave itself open to further questions. First, is “public hurt” any different from “public opinion”? And, how does one assess the credibility of the person who comes and says that he/she is hurt even when the person has not read the book? The petition contains signatures of some people who can barely read or write English. It was apparent as it is now that most of the people who were raising objections to the book had not read the book. It has also come to light from our discussions that some people who had signed the petition had not even read the extracts. There were others who signed just because they were told by their friends and peers and they simply complied. After all, everyone knows how signature campaigns are conducted! Moreover, one may argue that feeling “hurt” whether private or public, is a subjective response of the ego, and while one can sympathize with it, it cannot be held up as a justifiable and/or mandatory ground for decision-making in a spiritual institution, whose raison d’etre, voluntarily accepted by all its inmates, is to provide conditions for the transcendence of the ego, not its enablement. Was this kind of a petition credible enough for the trustees to take a decision to expel a fellow-inmate? The trustees apparently did not think so.

But then what about those who had read the book, those devotees and intellectuals, who in their best judgment, found that the book had denigrated Sri Aurobindo? Most of these people had written letters to the trustees and some had even taken the onus of explaining to the larger body of devotees across the world over the internet that Peter had transgressed all the rules of being a devotee and an ashram inmate. Unfortunately, in reality, while these devotees and intellectuals were busy criticizing Peter’s book and posting their views on the internet, there were others who started praising the book and started writing letters to the trustees stating to the contrary. Were these persons any less devoted to Sri Aurobindo and The Mother because they did not find the book to be denigrating Sri Aurobindo? There was already another opinion emerging from certain sections of the ashram community who found the book not only informative but also uplifting. A debate had already set in and it was no longer possible to decide one way or the other. It was apparent as it is now that there were multiple views on the book. The book may not have been to the taste of some devotees, but it did not mean that it was condemnable. One could accept its values as well as its limitations. Was it fair to expel a fellow-inmate based on the opinion of one section of the ashram community? The trustees apparently thought this was unfair.

It could however be argued that if the conviction and reasoning were clear why didn’t the trustees come out with a clear statement explaining their stand? This brings us back to the first issue of public opinion. Wasn’t it public opinion that wanted the trustees to come out with a public statement? As we have seen, if the very concept of public opinion in a spiritual institution remains a matter of debate is it in the best interest of the ashram to come out with public statements? Will such statements represent the voice of all the inmates and devotees or a section of them? And would such statements satisfy one and all? After all, if one goes down the path of public opinion there will perhaps be no end to “opinions” and “statements” and the ashram notice board will be filled with statements much like the press briefings dished out by political parties and leaders every day. On the other hand, those who had “individual” opinion on the issue could always go to the trustees and get their doubts sorted out. In this case, the trustees, to the best of their judgment, took a firm decision that nothing further needed to be done apart from what they had already done. And, an ashram inmate or a devotee, being truthful to his/her purpose of being in the ashram, ought perhaps to realize that this decision does not make any material difference to one’s spiritual life.

Dwelling on the administrative boundaries of the trustees it is important to understand that the prestige of the ashram lies in the spiritual values it upholds. These values are nurtured by the psychological freedom that the inmates enjoy. This freedom is such that the ashram does not seek to define The Mother and Sri Aurobindo and their yoga in any manner. It is left for each individual to perceive and follow one’s path. If one may draw an analogy, the ashram is not a crystal but a nebula where there is space around everybody. The primary responsibility of the trustees is to provide material needs and preserve this space around everyone. It is also to be understood that maintaining harmony is not the sole responsibility of the authorities as it is not anywhere in any instititution. The members of the institution are as much responsible. They are responsible by way of their willingness to co-exisit with others who may not feel alike and think alike. And finally, maintaining harmony does not mean appeasing one section of the people just because they are vocal.

And now some facts:

  1. In the “Acknowledgements” section of The Lives of Sri Aurobindo Peter says that “The Sri Aurobindo Ashram is in no way responsible for the selection, arrangement, interpretation, or presentation of material in this biography. The author alone is responsible for the contents of the book.”
  2. The trustees had not read the manuscript of the book prior to publication. It may be noted that the Trust does not require to approve any book by any inmate on any subject. Many books have been written without the permission or approval from the Trust.
  3. There were two mass petitions. The first one was circulated in September 2008. This was signed by about 360 persons – ashram inmates, ex-students and devotees. The specific actions demanded in the first petition were (1) Peter should be removed from the Archives (the trustees, seeing the hysteria being whipped up by the detractors of the book, took a practical step, requesting Peter to stay away temporarily from the Archives) and (2) The book should be withdrawn (this demand did not make sense since the ashram was not the publisher, and the Ashram felt that any effort to ban any book would be counter productive).
  4. The second mass-petition was circulated around February 2010. In hindsight it appears that this was a preparation towards the filing of Sec.92 case, though most of the signatories were probably not aware of the same. As per the petitioners’ own admission in court, this petition was signed by (to be verified) 184 ashramites (most, if not all of them, also signatories to the first petition) and 1700 odd devotees from around India. This second mass-petition never reached the Ashram. It was sent to Government of India officials, such as the Prime Minister and others. Incidentally, this in itself is a violation of a stated rule of the Ashram that no inmate of the Ashram should write to any government officials without express consent of the Board of Trustees.
  5. It was alleged that the Trustees did not investigate the issue. On the contrary, Peter was asked to give an explanation by the trustees and he provided his explanation in the form of a letter, relevant parts of which were extracted by Manoj Das Gupta in his “Reflections on……”.
  6. Peter did not violate any copyright rules. It was not even necessary for him, just as it is not necessary for anyone undertaking a study, to take any permission from the copyright holder to quote from the Works of Sri Aurobindo. The Copyright Act which governs and regulates all matters relating to copyright has specific provision to this effect.
  7. Contrary to what has been alleged, Peter did not take out any material from Archives and send them to anyone outside. In fact copies of various historical documents (over which Ashram cannot claim to have any copyright, since the originals exist in other places and under others care like Baroda State Records, National Archives etc.) were taken by Peter at his own personal initiative from those places, and after his purpose had been served, he had himself placed such copies at the disposal of the Archives so that they may be accessible to all.
  8. There is no evidence to suggest that Peter has indulged in acts intended to “outrage religious feelings”, if at all such feelings are advisable for a community that aspires to be spiritual. Both the criminal cases filed against him in Orissa have been stayed by the High Court of Orissa.
  9. The Writ in the High Court of Madras seeking Peter’s deportation has been dismissed.
  10. There is still no conclusive evidence to suggest that Peter has denigrated Sri Aurobindo in his book.

Ajit, Arindam, Bulu & Gautam

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