The quandary with the latest biography of Sri Aurobindo by his own follower Peter Heehs, The Lives of Sri Aurobindo published by the Columbia University Press, is that many times we get caught up in vitanda (which means, it is wrong because you are saying it—and using quotes to justify your side) and kutarka (wrong logic).  Every argument is taken up, twisted and compared with some other argument. The rational mind keeps moving between various arguments never knowing where conclusion lies!

 

Assuming this book was written with honest intent then, there is one fundamental question which must be answered: Is this book useful for spreading the message of Sri Aurobindo? Is it?

 

To me, this is a question, above all, of vibratory power. This book vacillates; it comes across as insipid and inconclusive. It doesn't drive home the argument that, yes, I can improve my life by taking up Integral Yoga. If this is supposed to be a primary biography written by an Ashram inmate and follower of the Path, then it must be held to a higher standard.

 

1) Except for the chapter on Major Works, Pondicherry, 1914-1920, Chapter 7, pp. 264-307, most the other chapters of the Lives come across like a soap opera, kind of "they met; he felt like this; she said that”—stuff.  Even in this chapter there is no scholarly depth or insight expected with such a long association with the writings.

 

2) The constant use of double quotes through the text seems to indicate a lack of grasp of the subject matter. The plain question is: if you are an acclaimed expert, then why not write in your own words?

 

3) The work fails to present the basic theory of Integral Yoga forcefully in a concise manner. Isn't that what Sri Aurobindo is important for? It miserably fails to state that Sri Aurobindo was doing sadhana for the Earth. All we have are statements here and there like "he came down into the physical; he told someone the tail of the supermind has descended; by their own account, they never lost touch of the higher planes of consciousness." People might turn aside with a smile if they read some of this gibberish. Shouldn't the book try to explain what these statements mean in terms of the ancient Scriptures? Why is Sri Aurobindo different from other Sages and Rishis who lived in the past centuries?

 

4) The life of a Saint or a Yogi or a Rishi should be judged by the people he affected. Yet, there is little or no information about the major disciples like Nolini, Nirod, Amal, Pavitra, Amrita, Purani, Dilip Roy, Champaklal, Anilbaran, and many others. How did Sri Aurobindo change the lives of others? I presume, if I’ve to put it from the author’s point of view, this information cannot be included in the biography because, these people cannot be regarded as (trustworthy?) primary sources.  So there is a basic conflict with the approach of the biographer and the life of the person he seeks to represent.

 

5) The epilogue is disappointingly incomplete.  No information is given on various centers and institutions which have sprung up and the wide variety of people who embrace the philosophy and continue the work. Again, all we have are some ambiguous statements, like the following: "We are now in the second generation after Sri Aurobindo’s passing. His work continues… A superficial look at the organizations he inspired might give the impression that they constitute a movement of the sort he warned against in The Human Cycle. But a deeper look, not at organizational forms but at the practice of individuals, might give a different impression. And in the end any attempt to transform human society must begin with the individuals.” (p. 415) In support of this statement a quotation from Sri Aurobindo follows to close the book. The obvious suggestion is, the failure of the Aurobindonian attempt towards the transformation of the human society.

 

6) The Mother has been excluded—as if the author has a strong aversion towards her, a psychological barrier in accepting or acknowledging her contributions. Sri Aurobindo exits the stage and we are supposed to move on as if nothing happened after that.

 

7) The author has spent 35-40 years in the Archives.  He must know for sure that Vivekananda visited Sri Aurobindo in Alipore jail. Yet here we find this strange statement, "Years later, he wondered whether its source was actually the spirit of Vivekananda." (p. 178) There is no reference for this statement as far as the primary sources are concerned. Evidently, meticulous scholarship also has its limits, but it is bad when it gets manipulated.

 

On this same page, we also read that Sri Aurobindo heard "all sorts of voices". The reference given to back up this claim of "all sorts of voices" seems to be some letter written to a disciple in Letters on Yoga, instead of something Sri Aurobindo said about himself. So this reference is obviously incorrect. Decontextualised quotations cannot give authenticity to the claims. These kinds of statements create doubt in the mind of the reader about Sri Aurobindo's sanity. Actually, what happened is that, after the Nirvana experience with Lele in December 1907, Sri Aurobindo only heard one voice of the Divine which spoke at various times and guided him. 

 

8) A rumour about kidney trouble as the cause of Sri Aurobindo’s illness and ‘death’ has been included. (p. 406) Is this another example of meticulous scholarship? It creates doubt in the mind of the reader that perhaps Sri Aurobindo had kidney trouble all his life, in spite of his assertions to the contrary. It is worthwhile to go through the accounts of the doctors who actually attended on Sri Aurobindo.

 

9) There were all kinds of mischievous statements about Sri Aurobindo and the Mother made by strong lobbies in Pondicherry of those days. In order to dismiss such impressions, Jatindranath Sen Gupta, friend of one of the members of the Ashram, offered to write a piece for the daily Hindu of Madras, published in May 1927. (p. 358) Our author considers it more an "exercise in public relations than an example of balanced reporting."  But, historically speaking, we must well understand that people in that age in India had no idea about marketing; Sri Aurobindo always made decisions based on spiritual motives. The author's mind is trying to judge these things based on his own upbringing, missing the perspective of space and time.

 

10) A reference is made to the Evening Talks recorded by AB Purani in the context of the passive attitude of the Hindus towards the Muslims. "Why don't the Hindus strike [on the Muslims]?”— that is what Sri Aurobindo is reported to have said. But our author adds that Sri Aurobindo asked his attendants this question “more than once when he heard of Muslim atrocities." (p. 395) We do not know wherefrom this "more than once" comes. Let me quote Nirodbaran from his Twelve Years with Sri Aurobindo:

 

…during the Hindu-Moslem riot in Calcutta constant frantic appeals were coming to him seeking advice, guidance, succour. When the Hindus were getting beaten in the first few days, Sri Aurobindo remarked, "Why don't the Hindus strike?" The very next day the scene changed; there was a tremendous counter-move. Lest people should be shocked to hear Sri Aurobindo advising violence, I refer them to Essays on the Gita where he discusses this question. Here I shall quote something from my correspondence. He says, "There is a truth in Ahimsa, there is a truth in Destruction also Non-violence is better than violence as a rule, and still sometimes violence may be the right thing"

 

And here is what Sri Aurobindo himself wrote in a letter dated 19 October 1946:

 

As regards Bengal, things are certainly very bad; the conditions of the Hindus there are terrible and they may even get worse in spite of the Interim mariage de convenance at Delhi. But we must not let our reaction to it become excessive or suggest despair. There must be at least 20 million Hindus in Bengal and they are not going to be exterminated,—even Hitler with his scientific methods of massacre could not exterminate the Jews who are still showing themselves very much alive and, as for Hindu culture, it is not such a weak and fluffy thing as to be easily stamped out; it has lasted through something like 5 millenniums at least and is going to carry on much longer and has accumulated quite enough power to survive. What is happening did not come to me as a surprise. I foresaw it when I was in Bengal and warned people that it was probable and almost inevitable and that they should be prepared for it. At that time no one attached any value to what I said, although some afterwards remembered and admitted, when the trouble first began, that I have been right; only CR Das had grave apprehensions and he even told me when he came to Pondicherry that he would not like the British to go out until this dangerous problem had been settled. But I have not been discouraged by what is happening, because I know and have experienced hundreds of times that beyond the blackest darkness there lies for one who is a divine instrument the light of God's victory. I have never had a strong and persistent will for anything to happen in the world—I am not speaking of personal things—which did not eventually happen even after delay, defeat or even disaster. There was a time when Hitler was victorious everywhere and it seemed certain that a black yoke of the Asura would be imposed on the whole world; but where is Hitler now and where is his rule? Berlin and Nuremberg have marked the end of that dreadful chapter in human history. Other blacknesses threaten to overshadow or even engulf mankind, but they too will end as that nightmare has ended. I cannot write fully in this letter of all things which justify my confidence—some day perhaps I shall be able to do it.

 

Both the references are given in the biography but the context is totally lost.

 

11) And here is the famous account about the disciples of Sri Aurobindo: “As a rule people spent most of their time in what Sri Aurobindo called the lower consciousness, caught up in the play of ordinary thought and emotion. They did their work, but sometimes argued with their colleagues. They met their neighbours, and sometimes slandered them behind their backs. At home they read Sri Aurobindo’s works, or indulged in sexual daydreams. They attended pranāms, and sometimes were consumed by jealousy because the Mother smiled more warmly at another. Then, while walking on the pier or sitting at home or dusting books in the library, they might again be lifted above the mind and perceive the one soul in all, or plunge into their heart and feel the fire of the psychic being.” (p. 373)