First Published : 27 Feb 2009 03:52:00 AM IST
There is no greater mystery than the Divine incarnating Itself upon earth, what in India is called the Avatar or the Guru concept. It is also a story of Ultimate Sacrifice: Jesus Christ was crucified physically, but every guru is crucified by his or her disciples, even if he or she does not end on a cross. It is the mysterious alchemy of how the All-Perfect, the All-Powerful, agrees to don a human body, along with not only the suffering that goes with it, but also the imperfections a human life is endowed with, which makes it so powerful. Peter Heehs, an American historian, who lives in the Sri Aurobindo ashram, Puducherry, has attempted to recount the life of 20th century’s greatest avatar, in The Lives of Sri Aurobindo (Columbia University Press, May 2008).
It created a furore even before it was released in India, as extracts were circulated on the Net. This led to a lot of unpleasantness for Heehs.
Someone slapped a case against him in Orissa, stopping the book from being published in India. He was asked to leave the archives of the Sri Aurobindo ashram, where he worked for two decades; and it is rumoured that he was even assaulted by a student of the Sri Aurobindo school.
All biographies of gurus and saints face a painful choice: should they paint over human blemishes and glorify them, as it helps the devotees better focus on the divine? Or should they give the entire picture of a journey from the human to the perfect? Most religious texts and scriptures have chosen the first option. But Peter Heehs went for the second one — and we are grateful for that. For his work will be regarded by future generations as the absolute biography of Sri Aurobindo, avatar extraordinary, poet, revolutionary, philosopher and yogi. Not only is the book remarkably well researched but, as the title indicates, he has really covered all aspects of Sri Aurobindo’s life.
When an Avatar or a Master comes upon earth, he or she delivers a teaching adapted to the times, the language and the mentality of the period, for they always live in the present moment. But when the Master goes — and sometimes even during his or her lifetime — the disciples start the process of making a religion out of their teaching and make him or her in their own little image. Thus many of the sadhaks of the Mother have swept under the carpet Sri Aurobindo’s revolutionary years, which are very important, as he is the true father of the Indian nation, being the first to openly ask for outright independence.
Most of today’s disciples in the ashram or Auroville do not know, for instance, that Sri Aurobindo allowed his brother Barin to manufacture bombs in his own house and secretly endorsed early assassinations of select Britons, thereby re-enacting 5,000 years later Krishna’s message to Arjuna.
But how does that tally with ideas about spirituality, which we basically associate with non-violence? This aspect of Sri Aurobindo’s life, protecting dharma, standing for what is good and true and noble, by force, if necessary, is today ignored and not applied to the enemies of modern India.
It is difficult to write about something close to us, as one often tries to make a distance by being too critical.
It is thus true that Heehs is harsh in some of his assessments — but not where he has been pilloried by disciples of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo.
Like most Western Indologists, for instance, he has a deep suspicion of Hinduism. He therefore glosses over the famous Uttarpara speech, where Sri Aurobindo clearly defines what he calls the Sanatana Dharma, as the spirituality which is contained in the Hindu religion: “That which we call the Hindu religion is really the eternal religion, because it is the universal religion which embraces all others”.
But Peter only mentions that “left wing critics use the Uttarpara speech as a proof that Sri Aurobindo’s nationalism was Hindu to the core; and right-wing enthusiasts regard the speech as an expression of the imperishable Indian spirit” (p.187). Heehs also passes some judgments on Sri Aurobindo, which are at best puerile: he calls him “intransigent”, which tended “to limit his effectiveness” (p.212); he also finds “his poetry and prose outdated” (p.414). But Savitri, Sri Aurobindo’s Magnum Opus, will be read hundreds of years from now, and compared to the Iliad and the Odyssey, with the prophetic and supramental element added.
This stated, I have to say that reading this book has been one of the most uplifting literary experiences: it has refreshed and upgraded my relationship with Sri Aurobindo. I have understood better the extraordinary mystery of avatarhood and the terrible sacrifice made by all great gurus of all religions.
The rhythms of that book accompanied me in my sleep, primed my mornings and touched my heart to the deepest. Thank you, Peter Heehs.
I hope some sensible judge will quickly lift the ban and that all your detractors will have the courage to read this remarkable biography and change their opinions.