Home > serious posts > T.N. Chaturvedi: The Uncalled-For Controversy About the New Biography of Sri Aurobindo

T.N. Chaturvedi: The Uncalled-For Controversy About the New Biography of Sri Aurobindo

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This article by Sri T. N. Chaturvedi appeared in the August 2012 issue of the Hindi Monthly Magazine Sahitya Amrit.

Triloki Nath Chaturvedi, a retired IAS officer who held the office of Comptroller and Auditor General of India from 1984 to 1990 and was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 1990, was the governor of Karnataka from 2002 to 2007. He was also the governor of Kerala from 25 February 2004, following the death of Sikander Bakht, until June 2004, when he was replaced by a newly appointed governor.

The first section of this article, reproduced below in the original Hindi followed by an English translation, deals with

The Uncalled-For Controversy About the New Biography of Sri Aurobindo

Translation:

15th August is Sri Aurobindo’s birthday. The Sahitya Amrit family bows in reverence to this remembrance of Sri Aurobindo. He is remembered as a great patriot, seer-revolutionary, thinker, writer, professor and educationist, poet, philosopher and yogi. Abandoning the career of an I.C.S. officer he returned home. While working for the Maharaja of Baroda, he joined the Swadeshi movement and became active in the revolution for Indian Independence. Charged in the Alipore Bomb case and defended by Sri Chittaranjan Das, he was acquitted in the trial. At 37, he withdrew from active politics to Pondicherry, firmly convinced that India was assured of her freedom. He spent the rest of his life in yoga-sadhana and at the service of literature. He never left Pondicherry. Rabindranath went to see him there, many of the prominent leaders tried to persuade him to re-enter politics. However, his decision to go to Pondicherry was for him an adesh (command) from the Divine and his life’s principal work was the pursuit of yoga-sadhana in order to make the divinization of Man possible. On 15th August 1947 in a message to his countrymen on All India Radio, Sri Aurobindo declared that the fact that India had obtained swarajya (self-rule) was not sudden but a divinely ordained certitude. The message he gave then is as relevant today and should be inspirational for our future. His magnum opus is available in 25–26 volumes. Much has been written about his life and his contributions. In 2008 a new biography written by Peter Heehs, The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, was published by Columbia University Press (New York). When its cheaper Indian edition was to be brought out, a controversy was started by a handful of people who claimed that Peter Heehs had written some insulting and false things about their Guru (although Sri Aurobindo never claimed to be anybody’s Guru). In an attempt to block the Indian edition, a petition was filed in the Odisha High Court, which the Court accepted. The opponents of the book did not go to the Madras High Court under whose jurisdiction the territory of Pondicherry falls. Copies of the American edition, which costs 2000 Rs., reached only a few people. I ordered a copy from America in order to read it.

I have been going to Pondicherry since 1963–64 and have kept constantly in touch with the people connected to this place. Without reading the book, a few people residing in the Ashram and nurturing ambitions to occupy the Trustee’s chair, have raised this ruckus. They caught hold of a couple of MPs and the issue was raised in the Parliament and the controversy reached the print and television media as well. Several former and sitting MPs began a signature campaign. God alone knows how many of these had read the book, let alone seen it! A few MPs like Jairam Ramesh, who had read the book, declared that they should not get entangled in this dispute. Respected historians of the country wrote articles and urged the Home Minister that the demand for the termination of Peter Heehs’s visa was unjustified. Peter Heehs’s visa was, however, extended by a year. Now this visa-question will come up once again. It has come to light that behind this above-mentioned movement is the hand of developers who sent to some MPs a distorted version of this affair. Their game-plan is to install their puppets as Trustees, the puppets being these people who pretend to be followers of Sri Aurobindo and proclaim themselves to the world as the chosen interpreters of his writings, so that they can lease out the Ashram lands and each pursue their vested interests. This does not seem to be an affair about Sri Aurobindo’s being insulted but a stratagem to capture real estate. This is an attempt by a few people to want to become Trustees. When the controversy began, Peter Heehs agreed to amend for the Indian edition those parts that seem to have attracted a few people’s objections. But these so-called pundits and expounders of Sri Aurobindo’s teachings refused to accept this. There are some among them who also bear some kind of jealousy vis-à-vis Peter Heehs. Peter Heehs has lived in the Ashram since 1971. The Ashram Trustees have now asked him to stay away from the Ashram, although they do not nurture any grudge against him. Peter Heehs was entrusted by the Ashram with managing and sorting out the vast treasure-trove of manuscripts of Sri Aurobindo’s writings. Because of some people’s protests he was stripped of this responsibility. As a direct consequence of this controversy, the work of bringing out the new edition of the collected works of Sri Aurobindo’s writings has been interrupted and slowed down. I have also subscribed to this new edition and we have not received any new volume for quite some time now. Whatever Peter Heehs has written is based on the existing writings and records. He has provided clear references to each and every matter in the book. Peter Heehs’s book is not a controversy-ridden but a historically researched biography. He has not called his new book Life of Sri Aurobindo but he has used the word ‘Lives’. Sri Aurobindo’s life has been divided in phases. The book is a composite picture of his evolving life. Gandhi-ji himself acknowledged his flaws and that has not diminished but increased his greatness. We need to examine and evaluate this book as a whole. Two books about Ramakrishna have been published overseas alleging a lot of unpleasant things but the Parliament has rightly decided that by banning these books, they would only receive additional unnecessary publicity. I hear that illegal cheaper prints of Peter Heehs’s book are being sold in the market. Even if Peter Heehs had written something inappropriate, our conduct should have been one of restrained dignity and tolerance. What does he get who spits at the moon? In any case, Peter Heehs has written a very elaborate biography of Sri Aurobindo. It only increases our sense of pride at his greatness. Sri Aurobindo is too great to be touched by such senseless controversy.

It is important to mention that Peter Heehs first wrote a shorter biography of Sri Aurobindo which has run into several reprints. He has also written two other books connected with Sri Aurobindo. He has penned another book on the Indian Freedom movement and for which he probably got an award from the Indian Government. These were published by Oxford University Press which is known for its thoroughly well-researched publications. This whole affair is also connected with the right of the freedom of expression. Why aren’t the adversaries of Peter Heehs doing the needful to rectify and correct these discrepancies? We are told that the former and sitting MPs signed the petition having been insufficiently informed about the whole matter and some of them have now withdrawn their support. Let us hope the others will also pursue the whole truth. We have infinite faith in Sri Aurobindo. We must not, therefore, turn him into a cult and belittle his vast personality and work by straitjacketing him down to such petty limits.

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  1. auro plumbers
    August 9, 2012 at 4:35 pm

    “On his 140th birth anniversary that falls on August 15, when India celebrates its 65th Independence Day, it is a national tragedy that the best biography of India’s foremost political activist and spiritual leader continues to be smothered in a quagmire of vested interests,” the Hindustan Times writes. After quoting extensively from (our translation of) TN Chaturvedi’s article, it proceeds to address the question of what the Ashram does with its coveted real estate.

    “It runs a school, Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education…. As someone who follows the Indian economy, I can say with some conviction that these lands would be worth thousands of crores of rupees (the price of an apartment around the Ashram is Rs 17,000 per sq ft). The school that charges a tuition fees of Rs 1,000 per annum and hostel fees of Rs 750 per month, offers complete education — physical, vital and mental — to students, can easily be converted into a hotel and the school moved elsewhere. It stands bang in the middle of the French quarters of Pondicherry.

    “The Park Guest House at the corner of the Beach Road overlooks the sea and offers a view that no amount of money can buy…. The room cost: Rs 700 per night, which, if leased out to these real estate sharks, can easily command 10 times or more. And even then, you can’t buy the silence in the area — though I would think it is not silence that developers would be seeking. Similarly, there are Ashram lands across the city and beyond. All these, in the hands of a compliant Trustee, can spew gold all around.”

    The Hindustan Times article concludes with these words:

    “According to a senior minister, who has read the book, ‘this is not the best biography of Sri Aurobindo, it is the best biography I’ve ever read.’…

    “India’s 65th Independence Day would be a good time to review what’s going on and free this book from the shackles of vested interests. India needs this book.”

  1. August 8, 2012 at 9:08 pm
  2. August 13, 2012 at 12:05 pm

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