Despite a few shortcomings, Peter Heehs's book on Sri Aurobindo, which has landed him in trouble with the Pondicherry ashram as well as earned a notice to quit India, could open the eyes of many more Indians (and Westerners) on the master's vision and the true destiny of India. It would certainly be a good contribution, says Claude Arpi
It is not well-known, but in November 1982, a Constitution bench of the Supreme Court of India ruled that the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother (Sri Aurobindo's French collaborator) were not of a religious nature; they simply represented a philosophy, a vision of the evolution of humanity.
Though Sri Aurobindo's philosophy covers 35 volumes, a sentence written in 1914 encapsulates his entire vision: 'At present mankind is undergoing an evolutionary crisis in which is concealed a choice of its destiny... Man has created a system of civilisation which has become too big for his limited mental capacity and understanding and his still more limited spiritual and moral capacity to utilise and manage, a too dangerous servant of his blundering ego and its appetites '
Sri Aurobindo foresaw that humankind would go through a grave crisis which would trigger a planetary change of consciousness. This could take a few centuries of chaotic process, as witnessed everywhere on the planet today, but the race will eventually mutate into a gnostic species, just like the monkey once evolved into a 'thinking mental' being.
As the Mother said, it is more important to 'change' (to transform one's nature) than to 'adore'.
It is necessary to be aware of this background if one wants to understand the controversy around the book of Peter Heehs, the American historian who has received a Quit Notice to leave the country after spending more than four decades in Pondicherry.
During all these years, Heehs was closely associated with the Sri Aurobindo ashram's archives which have been one of the main sources for his research into the life of the great revolutionary, poet, seer and visionary leader.
Home Minister P Chidambaram recently told reporters: 'The decision to cancel the visa was noticed by me and I understand that the FRRO (Foreigners Regional Registration Office) Puducherry passed the order. I have asked for a suo motu review and am told that the file would be submitted to me.' The minister promised a quick decision.
Many historians and other personalities protested the decision to cancel Heehs's visa, considering this move an infringement on the freedom of expression.
It may be true, but there is more to it, as two visions of Sri Aurobindo's teachings seem to oppose each other.
'Dissident' members of the ashram who have mounted a crusade against Heehs have been clashing for a long time with the ashram trustees who have taken a softer, less religious approach; though, the ashram management also believe that the US historian should not have used his privileged access to archival materials to write an 'academic' work.
In September 2010, the trustees issued a statement clarifying: 'Sri Aurobindo ashram trust does not approve and has nothing to do with the book entitled The Lives of Sri Aurobindo written by Peter Heehs and the Sri Aurobindo ashram trust is not in any way responsible for the contents or the interpretations of the material contained therein.'
Heehs was therefore requested to stop his association with the archives and his book, without being banned, was not to be sold in the ashram bookstores (for the US edition, as the Indian edition is not being published as yet).
The group who opposed the trustees wants more: they want The Lives of Sri Aurobindo to be banned (as has become very fashionable to do these days in India) and Heehs out of the country.
The 'dissident' group has been campaigning against Heehs for many years. For them, Heehs's sin is to have mixed up the styles: academic history and hagiography. Being a member of the ashram, Heehs's detractors believe that he should have left the master on his pedestal and should have not dealt with some parts of his pre-Pondicherry life (before 1910) or even discuss in detail his relations with the Mother.
Another example, an ashramite asked: "Why does Heehs use 'Aurobindo' instead of 'Sri Aurobindo' right from the beginning of his writings?"
The argument is that there is a difference between the previous person known as 'Aurobindo' and the guru 'Sri Aurobindo'.
Heehs's critics find extremely distasteful that someone who has spent four decades "at the feet of the master", does not use 'Sri'. The majority of readers are not hurt by such details. Would Sri Aurobindo have been offended? Probably not, he would have used his humour to demonstrate the derision of the situation. Once when it was brought to his notice that a disciple wanted 'his (Sri Aurobindo's) ashes to be sent by post', the master told his secretary to inform the disciple that 'he was not yet dead'.
Many in the ashram believe that Heehs's detractors are only a small minority and worse: "It is only a pretext to get at the ashram trustees with whom they do not agree on the management of Sri Aurobindo's legacy."
During the last few months, several demonstrations were held in front of the ashram gate; they received some coverage in the local press too.
With reference to Heehs's book, a young ashram inmate wrote to the home minister: "Most of the people who have been protesting against the book have not even read the book. It may be noted that the book is not even readily available in India due to the pending court case in Orissa."
This is probably true, though nobody can deny that Heehs did not care to ask for the necessary permissions to use the material 'discovered' by him in the ashram archives. Permission and credits are normally the rule in all archives of the world.
Did he do so as a provocation? Did he expect censure? It is difficult to say. In any case, he is today paying a heavy price.
Perhaps more serious than this passing controversy is the fact that Sri Aurobindo's work and vision are practically unknown in India. Even a great historian like Ramachandra Guha (who defends Heehs) does not consider the Bengali sage in his Makers of Modern India. Such ignorance!
Sri Aurobindo, in his Foundations of Indian Culture, envisioned a three-point programme for a 'renaissance in India': 'The recovery of the old spiritual knowledge and experience in all its splendour, depth and fullness is its first, most essential work; the flowing of this spirituality into new forms of philosophy, literature, art, science and critical knowledge is the second; an original dealing with modern problems in the light of Indian spirit and the endeavour to formulate a greater synthesis of a spiritualised society is the third and most difficult.'
This is a vast programme, beyond religion and sectarianism.
Despite a few shortcomings, Peter Heehs's book could open the eyes of many more Indians (and Westerners) on the master's vision and the true destiny of India, particularly if an Indian version is published (Heehs has promised to remove some of the controversial parts). It would certainly be a good contribution.
And why could not other books, more hagiographic, also be written and introduce Sri Aurobindo's Integral Yoga to many more devotees?
Let us not forget that Sri Aurobindo started his major work, The Synthesis of Yoga, with these four words: 'All Life is Yoga'.
The young ashramite quoted earlier said, "[Heehs] has not broken any law of the land. He is also not telling us that this is the only approach. Those who do not like this approach can always write another book or read another book."
Sometimes, I have the feeling that Sri Aurobindo is smiling at the controversy and waiting for India to look and walk into her future.