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Rambahadur Rai: The real target are the Ashram Trustees

October 17, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Pratham Pravakta issue cover

We present here a translation of an article by noted Hindi journalist Rambahadur Rai, which appeared in Pratham Pravakta, a Hindi fortnightly magazine published from New Delhi.

A scanned copy of the original article is available here.

It is good to see that more and more people are beginning to appreciate the stand taken by the Ashram Trust on the controversy over the book. Also, it is quite clear that sensible people are beginning to see the real motives behind the controversy.

There is an insert that is particularly interesting — a piece on Bijon Ghosh who was seen during the infamous dharna.

The Life of Sri Aurobindo: A controversy over words

By Rambahadur Rai

Has Peter Heehs’ book insulted Rishi Aurobindo? This is the root question around which a stormy controversy has been raging for the last four years. Although the dust-storm has abated somewhat, it is not yet possible to say that it has ended. On one side you have a huge list of accusations, on the other, the explanations given by the Trustees of the Ashram which, despite the assault of such a controversy, is still standing firmly on its spiritual base. This is indeed what makes Sri Aurobindo Ashram unique, its spiritualness as a place. There is here diversity, plurality and total freedom in one’s spiritual search. And in such a place, in the name of Sri Aurobindo, devious ploys and attacks have been going on. The strangest thing is that those involved in this face-off are the very people who are connected with this place in one way or another. How can the residents of the Ashram be immune to it? They too are filled with doubts.

The flames of this controversy have reached Delhi as well because 68 MPs signed a petition listing out some demands. Two things emerge from these demands: one, that Peter Heehs has hurt the sentiments of the followers of Sri Aurobindo’s path and some examples of this have been provided in the petition; two, Peter Heehs does not deserve to live in the Ashram but he is being protected by the Ashram authorities. What is the truth behind these accusations?

In order to understand this, one needs to look at its different but convoluted aspects. And this for several reasons. The place of controversy is Pondicherry. The fight is being fought by MPs. How many among these MPs are acquainted with the ground-reality of Pondicherry? The 68 MPs who have signed this charge-sheet are not even capable of finding out if their names are not being misused by someone. The principal coordinator in this affair is Kartikeshwar Patro. He is a former MP thanks to the ‘grace’ of the people. He is taking full advantage of all the privileges of a former MP and lives in Bhubaneshwar. He wrote a letter to Manoj Das Gupta, the Managing Trustee of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, asking him to provide clarifications related to Peter Heehs’ book.

If Dr Kartikeshwar was sincere in his desire to know what the connection was between Peter Heehs’ book and the Ashram, then the controversy would have been resolved last May itself. He had gone to Pondicherry then. On his request a meeting of the Board of Trustees was called from which he came out satisfied. Only he can tell us as to what happened subsequently that he had to mysteriously ask the Ashram for clarifications. Nobody else can answer that question. The letter that Manoj Das Gupta wrote to him just proves one thing: that Kartikeshwar Patro is being manipulated by someone else. The letter of 12th June contains the proof of this. On 2nd June he reached the office of the Pondicherry Ashram. First he met Nirmal Chandra and then Matriprasad. Until then he was under the mistaken notion that 14, Saint Gilles Street in front of which he was standing, was the residence of Sraddhalu. When he realised that he was standing in front of the Ashram Office, he asked where Sraddhalu’s house was. When he was told, he turned around exclaiming he would return after dropping in to see Sraddhalu. It becomes clear that Kartikeshwar Patro is dancing to someone else’s tune. Is it Sraddhalu? This gentleman is a member of the Ashram and resides in the Ashram.

The Board of Trustees receives a letter written on 5th May by a Lok Sabha MP, Jyoti Mirdha, representing Nagaur in Rajasthan. Then a second letter, written on 22nd May and similar to the one of 5th May, is addressed to the Board of Trustees. Both these letters are given to the Board of Trustees via Manoj Das Gupta, the Managing Trustee. The second letter has 67 signatures. Most of these signatures have also the division number written on the side. The second letter also has Jyoti Mirdha’s signature. Both the letters look amazingly alike. Not a word is different nor any new questions have been added. The first three paragraphs are the same and then the 7 bulleted points for which clarification is sought. It is clear that the letter has been drafted somewhere else. Both the letters are identical. Isn’t it bewildering then that the paper on which the Members of Parliament have affixed their signature does not contain a single word that has emanated from them, except their signature?

Manoj Das Gupta, the Managing Trustee, at once replied to Kartikeshwar Patro on 12th June. In this letter every point of clarification has been dealt with. In that letter he asked for the addresses of the signatory MPs so that he could send them the clarifications by post. This letter is in fact a document and its contents cover 8 sheets. Relevant corroborative annexures are attached with the clarifications so as to authenticate the clarifications. The curious point is that this respected gentleman, Mr Patro did not take the trouble to provide the addresses of those signatory MPs. Doesn’t this betray a desire to intentionally perpetuate doubt and confusion? At first sight, on this basis then, the odds seem to be tilted in favour of the Managing Trustee. The odds seem always tilted in favour of truth, whatever the circumstances might be.

It would be much too hasty to affirm that the root cause of this controversy is the book. Or is there something else behind? It is amply clear that each side is trying to prove that they are right and they wish to convince the other side too of the same. However, it might not be wrong to say that the problems began with Peter’s book, which later turned into a concerted campaign. But why do the instigators of this campaign forget that Peter Heehs has not left the Ashram for the last 40 years. Before publishing The Lives of Sri Aurobindo he had edited articles written by Sri Aurobindo on politics, social issues and culture and that this compilation has been distributed by Orient Longman. This book presents the thought of Sri Aurobindo and contains subjects like nationalism, religion and other related subjects.

This campaign has not spared the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust either. The charge is that the Trust is protecting Peter Heehs. However, Manoj Das Gupta’s letter disproves this allegation. The Ashram seems to be quite conscious of its responsibility when it reiterates its stand that “Sri Aurobindo is known nationally and internationally.” And the Trust sees, examines and acts always keeping this in mind. The controversy over the book is now four years old and this has affected the life and the residents of the Ashram. As far as the book is concerned there are two opposing views. Triloki Nath Chaturvedi, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Ramachandra Guha, the President of the Philosophical Research Institute have all come out in praise of the book. The Progressive Writers Association of Tamilnadu has expressed its concern that some people are promoting religious bigotry in the name of Sri Aurobindo.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta holds the opinion that those who are targeting Peter Heehs’ book are in fact exposing their understanding of Sri Aurobindo. This, he feels, is the first book that has sought to explain the relationship between Sri Aurobindo’s sadhana and his philosophy. There are three allegations against the book which are ridiculous. Pratap Bhanu has elaborated on these at length in his article that appeared in the English daily the Indian Express. The historian Ramachandra Guha considers Peter Heehs a veritable scholar and according to his perception The Lives of Sri Aurobindo is an extraordinary book. He believes the writer has put in the labour of a lifetime into writing it.

The centre of this campaign is Odisha. That is where the High Court gave its ruling. The State government proscribed the book. MPs and ex-MPs jumped into the fray. This creates the illusion that they have the full support of the people of the State. But the truth is otherwise. The Ashram received a petition which contained the signatures of those who are part of the Sri Aurobindo Study Circle there. 28 reputed professors wrote a letter to the Prime Minister and the then Home Minister, P. Chidambaram, that Peter Heehs’ visa should not be terminated. When one sees so many people stand up in support of the book, it becomes obvious that the book is but a pretext. The real target are the Ashram Trustees. T.N Chaturvedi has stated this very clearly in his editorial. (See box for the article) T.N Chaturvedi is an extraordinary human being. He has had considerable experience in governance. Although he has headed such posts that were always embroiled in controversy, he has always managed to stay clear of them. Needless to say that when such a man points out that the intention is not honest, then people cannot but listen, because a man like him never expresses an opinion on anything unless he has examined it minutely.

Some MPs have sided with the truth and have decided to stand up for the Ashram. Whoever gets to see the full picture will alter their point of view. The story begins in August of 2008. Auroville Today published an interview of Peter Heehs. A review of the book also came out. The controversy erupted in the following month. There are three streams of thought in the Ashram as regards the book. There are, first, those who appreciate the book and feel that after reading the book their knowledge is enriched. A second group of people thinks that the book is fine but certain things in it ought to be removed. The third group is totally against the book. Because of these three streams of thinking a demand arose to expel Peter Heehs from the Ashram. The ‘counter-petition’ battle started at this point. A problem that was strictly the Ashram’s was taken by some people to the courts. A case was filed against the Ashram Trustees in the Court charging them with neglect of their duties. In these people’s view, the book was an insult to Sri Aurobindo. On this basis they wanted the Trustees to be removed and a new board of Trustees appointed to run the Ashram.

The question now arises whether these five Trustees have the complete support of the residents of the Ashram. Those who have delved into this aspect of the matter have concluded that most residents feel that this is futile mischief-making by some. The second question that comes up is whether the Trustees are truly not fulfilling their responsibilities. Before getting the answers to this question, it is necessary to understand what the real purpose of the Ashram is. Is it the same as those innumerable Trusts that are formed for religious purposes? In the rules governing a Trust no provision exists that provides for a special clause for spiritual practice. In such a situation the same law applies to all with some minor variations. The difference lies in the conduct. The Sri Aurobindo Ashram has always demonstrated by its conduct that this is a place that facilitates the furtherance of a spiritual atmosphere. And it fulfils its required responsibility by helping the Ashramites to move towards the fulfillment of this goal of life. This Board of Trustees is not a regulatory body. When you see the particular nature of this Ashram then you can have no complaint against the present Board of Trustees. And that is how the Ashram will be able to retain its unique character . The most distinctive feature of this Ashram is that it is a spiritual centre of practice both at a national and an international level.

Besides, Sri Aurobindo has given very clear guidelines as regards the organization of the Ashram. In his own words:

It is a rule of the Asram that resident sadhaks shall not engage in any kind of public or propagandist activity political, social or religious; it is only our special permission which could dispense any member of the Asram from conformity to this rule. The Asram exists solely for Yoga and for a purely spiritual purpose; it is not a political or social or religious institution and it abstains from all these activities, this abstention is necessary for its existence.

Those who flouted these rules during Sri Aurobindo’s time were expelled from the Ashram. This rule is still applicable in the Ashram today.

If you focus on those parts of the book that were objected to and which have been widely and gleefully circulated, it becomes clear that they have been presented totally out of their context. The ones who are leading the campaign against the book have been distributing an ‘Information’ handbook which contains all these extracts explaining how, for the readers, in the light of these sentences, Sri Aurobindo falls from his elevated status. If you were to base your judgement on what they have written or said, it would appear that Peter Heehs has called Sri Aurobindo a liar, a coward and a tantric in whose practices the Mother was also involved. This misinformation could deeply offend those who look upon Sri Aurobindo as an Avatar. They constitute a very large number both in India and abroad. But when Sri Aurobindo says something about himself and Peter Heehs simply gives a gist of it then the charge that he has insulted Sri Aurobindo falls flat.

WHO IS Bijon Ghosh ?

It was 20th January 1999 when an advocate of the Supreme Court, Bijon Ghosh, filed a suit in the highest Court of the country. In his petition he requested the Court to restrain the Sri Aurobindo Trust from printing, publishing, translating or selling the ‘corrected’ edition of Savitri. But this did not happen. On 8thFebruary, the Supreme Court dismissed his petition. The story did not end there. 23 days later another suit was filed in the Kolkata High Court. This was done by Supradeep Ray, a lawyer. Here too the suit referred to the very same allegation that the Supreme Court had dismissed.

An important bit of information was cleverly left out of the suit filed in the Kolkata High Court: that this petition had already been dismissed by the Supreme Court. However, the Kolkata High Court too, in its discerning judgment, dismissed Supradeep Ray’s petition on 16th April 1999. Bijon Ghosh, in the meantime, continued to remain active. He wrote a letter to the Pondicherry governor on 15th March 1999 in which he raised doubts about the accounting practices of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust and pleaded to institute an enquiry into the matter. The Pondicherry government sent a letter to the Trust asking for clarifications. Following this an Additional Secretary of the Pondicherry government even scrutinised the account-books.

In spite of all this, in June of 1999, at the district court of Krishnanagar yet another suit in connection with Savitri was filed. This was filed by Marjana Guha who is the sister of Bijan Ghosh but after hearing the petition on 5th July 1999, the court declined to impose an interim injunction on the Trust. In the end, Bijon Ghosh himself wrote a letter to Sri Aurobindo Ashram. It was written on 18th August 1999 and in it along with the tampering with the works of Sri Aurobindo, he accused the Ashram of mismanagement and favouritism as well. The Trust replied to this on 5th October but before this the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Beneficiaries’ Welfare Association distributed Bijan Gosh’s letter in the form of a printed booklet. At that time this was referred to as a notice against the Ashram by Supreme Court advocate Ghosh. During the hearing of the suit filed by Marjana Guha, Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust had placed on record the judgment of the Kolkata High Court. Marjana Guha’s lawyer countered this by saying that Patitpabon Ghosh had filed a complaint with the West Bengal Bar Council.

Now, although the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust had raised an objection to Marjana Guha’s suit on 1st October 1999, the complaint that her lawyer referred to as having been filed by one Patitpabon Ghosh, was, in fact, filed only 9 months later on 17th July 2000. This chronological description of events makes it clear that this complaint too was filed by Marjana Guha and Bijon Ghosh. Subsequently when the Trust wanted more information about the complaint filed by Patitpabon Ghosh, the opponents retorted that Patitpabon Ghosh did not deem it necessary to reply to the Trust. But then the Ashram Inmates’ Association spoke on behalf of Patitpabon Ghosh and declared that it was they who had asked Patitpabon to file this complaint. It does not appear surprising at all that Bijon Ghosh is the principal puppeteer in this play. Even Supradeep Ray later admitted that it was on Bijon Ghosh’s prodding that he had filed the suit in the Kolkata High Court. He also said that the latter had concealed from him the fact of the suit having been dismissed in the Supreme Court. However, Bijon Ghosh is still active. It is being said that he is sowing confusion in the minds of the people. He keeps instigating the devotees by sending them messages constantly. It is also alleged that under the pretext of ‘safeguarding’ the writings of Sri Aurobindo he has been collecting money. Marjana Guha filed yet another suit in 2011 in the Pondicherry District Court. This time the demand was for the Trustees to be replaced and it pleaded with the Court to give some direction and order to the organisation of the Ashram. Although the name in the petition is Marjana Guha’s, the real petitioner is Bijon Ghosh himself. In this matter Pratham Pravakta tried to get Bijon Ghosh’s version of the story too.

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  1. Rishabh Rai
    October 22, 2012 at 11:05 pm

    Ram Bahadur Rai Ji’s article removes conceptions as well as misconceptions on Peter Heeh’s book. It also throws light on Aurobindo Ashram established for spiritual evolution of man is being maligned with vacuous propaganda by few self-proclaimed devotees. This is ironical that many of those involved in creating furore have garnered respect in public life from their connection with ashram. Such personalities for the sake of their self-interest are subverting the teachings of The Mother and Sri Aurobindo. They must realise that ordinary citizens who have high regard for Sri Aurobindo may form bad impression due to ongoing battle. At least, if they forget what ashram has given them, they must care for people’s emotional linkage with ashram. Having and maintaining faith on spiritual person is not an easy task. This faith is such a delicate thread that it can be broken by our mischievous acts even if it is inadvertently.

  2. Ex Naive Aurobindonian
    October 23, 2012 at 2:32 pm
  3. Visu
    October 24, 2012 at 9:59 am

    Ex Naive Aurobindonian :
    Isn’t Jyoti Mirdha’s husband Narendra Gehlaut Managing and Executive Director of Indiabulls Real Estate?…

    Its better not to go personal…..That should not be part of Ashrams strategy or policy.

  1. October 20, 2012 at 12:09 pm
  2. July 4, 2014 at 6:45 pm

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