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A letter to the Secretary of the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture

It is noble to pardon thine own injurers, but not so noble to pardon wrongs done to others. Nevertheless pardon these too, but when needful, calmly avenge. — Sri Aurobindo, Essays Divine and Human, p. 462.

Ulrich Mohrhoff has kindly permitted us to publish his letter of 28 January 2009 to the Secretary of the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture:

January 28, 2009

Respected Swami Sarvabhutananda,

Thank you very much for sending me a copy of the beautifully produced Proceedings of the Conference Understanding Consciousness: Recent Advances, to which it was my great honour to contribute the paper titled “The Veil of Avidya” (pp. 106–127).

I wish I could end my letter to you on this happy and grateful note. Yet I consider it my duty to share with you certain misgivings concerning the unscrupulous activities of Mr. Sraddhalu Ranade.

I am aware of, and deeply regret, the publication of Jeffrey Kripal’s appalling book Kali’s Child (The University of Chicago Press, 1995). Last year an outstanding biography of Sri Aurobindo, The Lives of Sri Aurobindo by Peter Heehs, was published by Columbia University Press. On its back cover one finds four positive appraisals, one by Professor Kripal. These appraisals were invited by the publisher. As far as The Lives of Sri Aurobindo is concerned, the connection between Heehs and Kripal ends there. Mr. Ranade, on the contrary, claims that the two authors are birds of the same feather, and that Heehs’s book is as defamatory of Sri Aurobindo as Kripal’s is of Ramakrishna Paramahansa. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In his widely praised anthology Indian Religions: A Historical Reader of Spiritual Experience and Expression (New York University Press, 2002), Heehs writes (pp. 27–28):

Scholar of religion Jeffrey Kripal gives much attention to Ramakrishna’s experiences, but he looks at them from the standpoint of a rather dogmatic Freudianism. Reading closely the Bengali text of the Kathāmṛta, he isolates and interprets a number of passages that, “taken together”, add up to what he believes to be “a convincing argument for the ‘secret’ erotic nature of Ramakrishna’s mystical experiences” (1995: 317). Kripal exposes this “secret” in a somewhat roundabout way; his disciples are less circumspect: the secret is that Ramakrishna was a homosexual. There is no direct evidence of this in the Kathāmṛta or anywhere else, and Kripal himself admits that his interpretations are often “speculative”…. Psychoanalytic theory is put to more productive use by the “post-Freudian” psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar. Recognising that “theoretical uncertainties in contemporary psychoanalysis… threaten its basic paradigm”, Kakar does not accept “the earlier equation of the mystical state with a devalued, if not pathological, regression comparable to a psychotic episode” (1991: 3–4). …in the end Kakar avoids Freudian reductionism: “Mystic experience”, he concludes, “is one and — in some cultures and at certain historical periods — the pre-eminent way of uncovering a vein of creativity that runs deep in all of us” (34).

This is about as critical of Kripal’s methods and conclusions as a decent academic writer can get. As to the Lives of Sri Aurobindo by Peter Heehs, permit me to reproduce here my own review on the Amazon.com website:

This painstakingly researched and expertly written biography is a perfect antidote to the many hagiographies on Sri Aurobindo. While the latter may be inspiring and uplifting to some, they can also be disappointing, even infuriating to someone looking for a well-documented, fact-based biography that meets contemporary standards of historical research. Not only does an Avatar have a human side, his human side is precisely what makes him one of us and proves that we can follow the path he has cut through the subliminal and superconscient jungle of human nature. Sri Aurobindo’s human side therefore deserves to be treated with the same respect as his unparalleled spiritual achievements, and The Lives of Sri Aurobindo is the first book that does this. As co-founder of the Sri Aurobindo Archives, historian Peter Heehs has been eminently equipped for this task, having had full access to a vast resource of original letters, diaries, and other primary sources. Despite his strong influence on the founders of some of today’s most significant spiritual movements, including the human potential and integral movements, in the West Sri Aurobindo has never gained the recognition he deserves. Heehs and Columbia University Press have done the world a great service with the publication of a book that may finally make Sri Aurobindo and his work accessible to a broader audience.

In a widely circulated email dated January 13, 2009, Ranade conjures up the possibility of a split of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, of intervention by the Government of India, and more dire threats, and claims that all of them have been “created by PH and his book — deliberately and maliciously. All the rest has followed.”

What actually happened was that an excellent biography of Sri Aurobindo was published in New York, and that South Asian rights for the book were sold by the publisher to Penguin India. “All the rest” means that a few individuals including Mr. Ranade started and vigorously pursued a campaign against this book, and that these individuals spearheaded an attack against the managing trustee of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, who cannot be praised enough for the courage and wisdom he displayed in the midst of the controversy they had created. Ranade then makes a series of outrageous claims, beginning with the words:

If the conclusions of PH are accepted by academia then our textbooks will teach coming generations that (1) Sri Aurobindo was a frequent liar, and that (2) he lied about his supramental experiences.

Here is what Heehs actually wrote (emphasis added):

He [Aurobindo] had [while in school, that is, between the ages of 12 to 17] few of the qualities that English schoolboys find interesting. Weak and inept on the playing field, he was also — by his own account — a coward and a liar. Years later, when he became known as a revolutionary leader, his former classmates could hardly believe the reports. ‘It would have been difficult in those days to regard him as a firebrand!’ one exclaimed.

“While admitting in his later life that he was subject as a boy to ‘all human imperfections,’ Aurobindo drew the line at one thing: he was “not a serious prig.” Neither was he a ‘budding yogi’; he was not even religious. (pp. 17–18)

“He agreed to go [to take his riding examination] on October 26, but did not turn up. An official then asked him to meet the riding instructor to make another appointment. He did not bother to see the man. Called to the office to explain, Aurobindo told a series of lies. (p. 30)

“He was rejected simply because he did not pass the riding examination. He was not given another chance to pass because he did not follow instructions, keep appointments, or tell the truth.” (p. 32)

All quotations are supported with ample references in the endnotes of the book. No other mention of Sri Aurobindo’s “lying” occurs in the book. Nowhere in the book is there a statement even remotely resembling Ranade’s item (2). Nor does any statement in the book even remotely resemble Ranade’s item (3) “that supermind is an ‘erotic power’ created by suppressed sexual desire the proof of which is found in his [Sri Aurobindo’s] Record of Yoga.” Nor does the phrase “erotic power” appear anywhere in the book. The following two items on Ranade’s list likewise fail to even remotely resemble any statement in The Lives of Sri Aurobindo:

(4) that his [Sri Aurobindo’s] spiritual life began as the culmination of a series of frustrating phases of failures in his life (the fifth phase as PH puts it) which was in itself a failure as he failed to transform his body and was chasing an impossible fantasy that he already knew would not succeed, (5) that all the importance given to him by disciples is exaggerated, and (6) that Sri Aurobindo’s writings are not worth reading.

Item (6) is particular incomprehensible in light of Heehs’s highly appreciative, 44-page discussion of Sri Aurobindo’s major works and appreciative discussions of his other works totalling perhaps 30 pages. But for me the meanest and most painful allegation is Ranade’s item (7) “that he [Sri Aurobindo] had romantic affairs with the Mother involving veiled tantric sexual practices.” There is again no statement or suggestion even remotely resembling this in the book. On page 325 there is a scene in which the Mother holds Sri Aurobindo’s hand:

After dinner those present tended to cluster in two groups: Aurobindo and Mirra [the Mother] on one side, Paul [Richard, Mirra’s husband] and the others on another. Sometimes, when they were alone, Mirra took Aurobindo’s hand in hers. One evening, when Nolini found them thus together, Mirra quickly drew her hand away.

When I read this, I was deeply touched, and my bhakti for both Sri Aurobindo and the Mother increased manifold by this moving manifestation of bhakti by the Divine Mother for our Lord and Master. Only a sick and perverted mind — or else someone with an ulterior motive — can see in this an ordinary romantic relationship. As for “trantric sexual practices,” Heehs mentions in an appropriate context “the esoteric sexuality of certain forms of tantrism” but hastens to add that it has no place in Sri Aurobindo’s yoga. Heehs:

“How can the sexual act be made to help in spiritual life?” he [Sri Aurobindo] asked a disciple who posed the question. It was necessary, in the work he was doing, for the masculine and feminine principles to come together, but the union had nothing to do with sex; in fact it was possible in his and Mirra’s case precisely because they had mastered the forces of desire.” (p. 329)

It would be a total waste of your valuable time here to address the remaining items on Ranade’s list. What deserves mention, though, is that (according to an Indo-Asian News Service report dated November 6, 2008) the Orissa High Court has stayed the release of Heehs’s biography

over allegations that it has objectionable content and distorted facts about the late spiritual leader…. Geetanjali Bhattacharya, a devotee, filed a petition in the court seeking a ban on the book ‘The Lives of Sri Aurobindo’ and action against the writer…. The court has directed the publisher not to release the book in India without obtaining a no-objection certificate from the information and broadcasting ministry and the home ministry.

Mrs. Geetanjali Bhattacharya happens to be the wife of Mr. Jayant Bhattacharya, who happened to be a class mate and still is a close pal of Mr. Sraddhalu Ranade. While there can be no doubt that this stay order was instigated by Ranade, he is likely to deny it, as he denied his entire role in the campaign against The Lives of Sri Aurobindo when questioned by a person who sponsored his recent trip to the U.S.A., and who was understandably most upset by Ranade’s nefarious activities in India.

On December 30, 2008, the Telegraph (Kolkata) further reported:

First a prohibition was clamped on the publication of The Lives of Sri Aurobindo. Now, the court of Cuttack (Sadar) sub-divisional judicial magistrate has summoned its author Peter Heehs. The court issued the summons after a preliminary hearing of a complaint petition filed by Balasore-based Gitanjali Devi, the wife of Jayant Bhattacharya, under Sections 500, 501 and 275(a) of the IPC.

Section 500 covers punishment for defamation, Section 501 addresses “printing or engraving matter known to be defamatory,” Section 275 (a) does not seem to exist though Section 275 covers sale of adulterated drugs! In this connection permit me to quote from a letter to Dr. Karan Singh dated November 12, 2008, by Michael Murphy, co-founder of the Esalen Institute:

the publication of Peter Heehs’s Sri Aurobindo biography by the Columbia University Press is opening new doors to us among American opinion leaders who have not until now appreciated his importance for the world-at-large. The book is receiving a VERY favorable reception among academics, artists, scientists, journalists, and others who will slowly but surely further America’s knowledge of Sri Aurobindo and his historic work. For this we owe Manoj Das Gupta and other Ashram trustees a debt of gratitude. They have provided courageous support for the Ashram Archives and the magnificent research going on there. And we are grateful to you. You are a great protector of the Aurobindo legacy.

But my colleagues and I are also aware of the case now in front of the Orissa high court which seeks to stop the book’s Indian publication. That effort, as well of others to suppress Heehs’s research into Sri Aurobindo’s vision and influence, puzzles and disturbs my American and European colleagues. Let us pray that wisdom prevails in these matters. My entire life’s work has been inspired by Sri Aurobindo, and like others so-inspired I want his influence to spread. Heehs’s book is helping our cause.

The ulterior motive of Ranade and other spearheads of the anti-Heehs campaign is not difficult to fathom. Ranade has travelled and lectured widely in India and abroad, at Sri Aurobindo Centres and other spiritually oriented institutions. He has worked hard to establish himself as “Sri Aurobindo’s Vivekananda” (if I may say so), at least in the eyes of the more gullible devotees. What he has not achieved is an entry into and recognition by the academic world. This Heehs has achieved through his biography of Sri Aurobindo. He is now the one legitimate academic authority on the life of Sri Aurobindo. Ranade’s motive is called “jealousy,” and in his case it has taken pathological proportions, as a psychiatrist-friend who knows him well assures me.

I close with apologies for bringing this disturbing matter to your attention. If you have met Mr. Ranade in person, you will surely have seen through him, in which case it was probably unnecessary to write this letter.

With profound regards,

Yours sincerely,

Ulrich Mohrhoff

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