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Like the main character in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Sachidananda Mohanty seems to have a split personality. There is the academic — let us call him Dr. M — who praised the work of Peter Heehs and warned of the danger of “collective bigotry” in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. And there is the writer of a letter to the Trustees — we may call him Mr. S — who has condemned The Lives of Sri Aurobindo and joined the movement calling for Heehs’s expulsion. The contrast between the two makes an interesting study.
In the introduction to Sri Aurobindo: A Contemporary Reader (New Delhi: Routledge, 2008), Sachidananda Mohanty expressed regret that, in some quarters, Sri Aurobindo has been transformed into a “cult figure... the leader of a movement where unqualified acceptance of the Guru in wholly exclusive terms is the watchword.” He noted that “the idea of ‘the Ashram’ where like-minded seekers reside for collective progress, can degenerate... into collective bigotry or egoism. History of all major religions is witness to such aberrations.” Therefore in contrast to a “foundational ‘devotee approach’ to reading Sri Aurobindo,” Dr. Mohanty proposed “to offer an objective account from a sympathetic standpoint.” (pp. 3–4) As a precedent for this approach, he cited Peter Heehs’s Sri Aurobindo: A Brief Biography (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1989). In Mohanty’s view, Heehs’s book represented “a balanced approach – sympathetic and objective at the same time.” (p. 35, note 4)
The Lives of Sri Aurobindo was in the press when Mohanty’s valuable compilation was published. A few months later, after Heehs’s new biography had appeared, the Sri Aurobindo Ashram was shaken by a severe outbreak of the kind of “collective bigotry” that Mohanty had warned against. One might have expected him to take a stand in support of the rights of the scholar or, if he was unwilling to take that risk, to stay out of the controversy. Instead, he joined the movement against Heehs and wrote a letter to the Trustees urging the Ashram to “demand the withdrawal of Peter Heehs as a professional from the Archives.”
Like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, SM appears to suffer from a split personality (now termed “dissociative identity disorder”). The person who wrote the letter reproduced and commented on below hardly seems to be the one who recently cited Heehs’s writings in support of his own broad-minded attempt “to underline some of the futuristic ideas of Sri Aurobindo and to look at him in the context of the crisis of contemporary culture that confronts us today.” (Contemporary Reader, p. 4) Yet both Dr. M and Mr. S claim to be the same Sachidananda Mohanty.
DEPARTMENT OF ENGLISH
UNIVERSITY OF HYDERABAD
HYDERABAD 500 046, (A.P.) INDIA
Dr. Sachidananda Mohanty
Professor and Head
17 September 2008
The Trustees of Sri Aurobindo Ashram
Pondicherry 605 002
Sub: Peter Heehs’ book: The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, Columbia University Press, 2008.
I do not quite know in what capacity I am writing this letter. Technically, I am an “outsider”, but ideologically and spiritually, I consider myself a member of the larger Ashram community. I had the good fortune to be admitted by the Mother into the SAICE, and my career there spanned from 1966-1975. Currently, I am the Professor and Head [of the Department of English], at the Hyderabad Central University. As some one who sees his life deeply connected with the upbringing he received at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, allow me to share my thoughts regarding the sense of dismay many have felt following the publication of the above mentioned biography by Peter Heehs. Perhaps as an academician, my comments may be germane to the discussion at hand.
SM is right to wonder in what capacity he wrote this letter. His academic credentials would make him competent to review Heehs’s biography if he chose to do so, but he hardly makes a serious attempt at that. His vague remarks on the book contradict his own previous position on the value of Heehs’s work, without offering any explanation for the discrepancy. On the other hand, he offers advice to the Trustees about the running of the Ashram. Here his academic qualifications are irrelevant and he is indeed an outsider who should perhaps have given more thought to the option of minding his own business.
I shall divide my response to the present issue into three parts. I shall avoid what other correspondents have already said in their letters to the trustees. In Section I, I shall respond briefly to the academic side of the question since this seems to constitute the main line of defense of Peter Heehs, and his apologists. In Section II, I shall suggest some correctives to the impasse, and finally, I shall offer some reflections for the future well being of our community. I believe the last is a collective responsibility.