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Sri Aurobindo’s scholarship and literary contributions
A fourth major criticism of the book is that denigrates and devalues Sri Aurobindo’s major writings, including The Life Divine, The Synthesis of Yoga, and other works. Peter includes a chapter called “The Major Works,” subtitled “Pondicherry, 1914-1920” focusing on the writings of the Arya. Included are concise treatments of Sri Aurobindo’s writings for Secret of the Veda, the Upanishads, Essays on the Gita, The Life Divine, The Synthesis of Yoga, The Ideal of Human Unity, The Human Cycle, The Foundations of Indian Culture, The Future Poetry, and a few less important works. The chapter focuses on describing the main arguments of each of the major works, and in my view is exceptionally well done. Peter also offers brief assessments of some of these works: most of these assessments are positive, some of them include thoughtful criticism. In the following pages, I examine Peter’s evaluative comments, where and to the extent they are provided, on each of Sri Aurobindo’s major works.
Starting with The Secret of the Veda, Peter quotes Sri Aurobindo on his discovery of “a considerable body of profound psychological thought and experience lying neglected in these ancient hymns,” and adds that Sri Aurobindo “attempted to bring out this underlying significance in a series of incomplete commentaries…” (p. 265) Peter presents some examples, and compares Sri Aurobindo’s approach to that of Sayana, the fourteenth century commentator, who used a ritualistic interpretation, revealing the stark contrast of Sri Aurobindo’s psychological approach. Peter explains that Sri Aurobindo’s “essays provide a sketch of his theory, but he [Sri Aurobindo] was never satisfied with them and did not republish the Secret during his lifetime.” (p. 266) He concludes his assessment with this sentence, “What is important to readers of the Secret is whether the “new aspects and issues” that Aurobindo’s reading brought into focus are of living value to them.” (p. 266)
Peter turns next to Sri Aurobindo’s writings on the Upanishads. He focuses particularly on Sri Aurobindo’s rendering of the Isha Upanishad, pointing out its view of the Brahman or Absolute as both “unmoving and at the same time present in the activities of the world.” (p. 267) He explains how Sri Aurobindo’s extensive work on the Upanishads led to the “sketch of a new philosophy.” In summing up, Peter says, “Isha Upanishad is the pithiest of Aurobindo’s works. Its carefully chiseled sentences leave much for the reader to reflect upon, unlike his ordinary expositional prose …” (p. 267) Peter quotes Sri Aurobindo to show that whereas he started out his philosophical writings “to re-explain the Veda and Vedanta (Upanishads) in the ancient sense which I [Sri Aurobindo] have recovered,” several years later he took a more self-reliant stand to show that the truths of his own philosophy “were not inconsistent with the old Vedantic truth.” (p. 268) His assessments point to the originality of Sri Aurobindo’s own philosophy, while explaining that it was based on the Veda and Upanishads.
In his discussion of Essays on the Gita, Peter describes in general Sri Aurobindo’s rendering of the ancient scripture. Using a quote from the book, he emphasizes that Sri Aurobindo’s aim was to extract from the Gita “the actual living truths it contains, apart from their metaphysical form, to extract from it what can help us or the world at large and to put it in the most natural and vital form and expression that we can find that will be suitable to the mentality and helpful to the spiritual needs of our present-day humanity.” (p. 269). There is no direct evaluation of Sri Aurobindo’s success in this aim, but the author does show that Sri Aurobindo’s rendering of the Gita was consistent with his own philosophy and also mentions its bearing on political events in the country at the time, citing as an example its inconsistency with Gandhi’s insistence on “Ahimsa, on non-injuring and non-killing, as the highest law of spiritual conduct.” (p. 269)
Peter then presents an excellent five page summary of the main arguments of The Life Divine. After this is a one page explanation that the work was not so much based on philosophy as on spiritual experience. He says:
The only works that Aurobindo regularly cited in The Life Divine were the Gita, Upanishads, and Rig Veda. His philosophy, he explained, “was formed first “by the study of these works, which were also “the basis on my first practice of Yoga; I tried to realise what I read in my spiritual experience and succeeded; I fact I was never satisfied till experience came and it was on this experience that later on I founded my philosophy.” But his experience was not confined to confirming the insights of ancient sages. He once wrote in a personal note that as he sat in meditation, ideas from the intuitive levels linking mind and supermind “came down in a mighty flood which swelled into a sea of direct Knowledge always translating itself into experience, or they were intuitions starting from an experience and leading to other intuitions and a corresponding experience…All sorts of ideas came which might have belonged to conflicting philosophies but they were here reconciled in a large synthetic whole. (pp. 276-277)
Next, Peter explains that “to merit acceptance as philosophy, it has to be defended by logical arguments; otherwise it joins other infallible revelations that depend on faith for acceptance and persuasion or coercion for propagation.” Therefore Sri Aurobindo “used logic to present and defend it — but not, he stressed, to arrive at it. In reaching his conclusions, he owned nothing, he said, “to intellectual abstractions, ratiocination or dialectics; when I have used these means it was simply to explain my philosophy and justify it to the intellect of others.” (p. 277)
Finally, Peter ends this section with a one paragraph assessment: “How does Aurobindo rank as a philosopher?” He continues, “Most members of the philosophical profession — those who have read him at all — would be loath to admit him to their club. His methods simply do not fit in with the discipline as it is currently practiced.” (p. 277) Peter notes that even a philosopher sympathetic to Sri Aurobindo’s thought had to conclude that Sri Aurobindo wrote The Life Divine not as a philosopher, but as a “spiritual preceptor.” Finally Peter concludes his assessment with this statement: “Yet this preceptorial philosopher created a synthesis of spiritual thought that bears comparison with the best of similar systems: those of Plotinus, Abhinavagupta, and Alfred North Whitehead. Even if his critics deny him the label of philosopher — a label he never claimed for himself — his philosophical writings will continue to be studied by lay and academic readers.” (p. 279)
In a prelude to his discussion of The Synthesis of Yoga which follows, Peter explains that Sri Aurobindo made it clear throughout The Life Divine that the “justification for his philosophical theories lay in spiritual experience rather than logical argument.” For Sri Aurobindo, the mind was an instrument “to organize and express ‘the ignorance,’ that is, the relative knowledge of words and things.” True knowledge was knowledge of the Absolute, the Brahman, which was accessible to human beings directly through experiences of identity with it, or indirectly, through intuition. Accordingly, a second aim of the Arya was to present “practical methods of inner culture and self-development” by which people could experience for themselves the true knowledge. Peter adds, however, that the Synthesis did not provide easy-to-follow techniques. He presents a brief explanation for this by quoting an article Sri Aurobindo published in the Arya saying that it was necessary to first provide “a deep study of the principles underlying the methods rather than a popular statement of methods and disciplines.” (p. 279)
Peter follows with an eight page concise explanation of Sri Aurobindo’s Yoga as described in The Synthesis of Yoga, including its four main parts. He concludes with a one paragraph assessment of the work:
The Synthesis of Yoga is a formidable piece of work even in its incomplete state. It surveys familiar and unfamiliar systems of yoga and points out how they can be harmonized. What it gives remarkably little of is what the author promised in the prospectus: “practical methods of inner culture and self-development.” It occasionally offers a technique of thought control or a tip about the development of intuition. But there is very little how to-advice. It explains the principles of yoga, but requires the reader to provide the link between principle and practice. To some this is a disappointing approach, but in a way it is the only one possible. As Aurobindo explained in an early chapter, the power of the yoga works differently in each individual. One might almost say that “each man [or woman] in this path has his [or her] own method of Yoga.” Nevertheless, there are “certain broad lines of working common to all which enable us to construct not indeed a system, but yet some kind of Shastra or scientific method of the synthetic Yoga.” These “broad lines” are what he lays down in the Synthesis, at the same time acknowledging that “no written Shastra … can be more than a partial expression of the eternal Knowledge. (p. 287)
Peter next takes up The Ideal of Human Unity and The Human Cycle. He notes that these works form the third side of Sri Aurobindo’s main writings for the Arya, “the application of our ideas to the problems of man’s social and collective life.” (p. 288). Peter notes that is important to keep in mind when reading The Ideal of Human Unity the period in which it was written, during the First World War, because the world order was changing. The book was largely based on the world order before the war, when Britain, France, and Germany dominated most of the world, but this soon changed. As a result, he says, “Its interest lies not so much in its treatment of contemporary events as in its sketching of large historical trends.” (p. 289) He notes that even before rise of Communist Russia and two decades before the rise of Nazi Germany, the main purpose of the book “was to show the dangers of a coercive world-state and to suggest an alternative: a free world-union.” (p. 289) Sri Aurobindo further indicated that such a world-union would have to be “a confederation of free self-determining nationalities,” and would require not only administrative and economic reorganization, but intellectual and psychological change. There would be required a growth of the living idea of our common humanity, not only an intellectual understanding that we were one, but a growing spiritual realization of our oneness. Peter says this explains how Sri Aurobindo’s ideal of world-union was integrally linked to his spiritual philosophy and his psychological discipline of yoga.
Peter also lays out the main argument of The Human Cycle — that societies can be viewed as passing through stages: the symbolic, a typal, a conventional, an individualistic, and finally a subjective stage. Based on a theory by Karl Lamprecht, Sri Aurobindo “developed it in his own way.” He first applied the theory to the spiritual and intellectual history of India. Afterwards he applied the theory to European history. He showed how development in the two societies differed — that India had languished in the conventional stage, receiving the influence of individualism indirectly by contact with the West, while the West was gradually moving from the individualistic into the subjective stage. The growth of rationality in the West was not the highest possible level of development, what was necessary was a development into a still higher suprarational or spiritual age. He felt that this could not be accomplished by religion, but rather would require a large number of individuals to undergo an inner change powerful enough to influence society as a whole. Peter does not provide any evaluative comments on the book or the theory. (pp. 291-293)
Next Peter outlines Sri Aurobindo’s three works, The Renaissance in India, Is India Civilized?, and A Defense of Indian Culture, which together constituted his views on Indian civilization. Peter sets the historical context for the Renaissance; it was a point in time at which there were signs that a renaissance in India might be starting up. A book by the same title was published by James Cousins, an Irish poet and critic teaching in south India, focusing on Indian writers and artists. Sri Aurobindo’s book focused instead on a resurgence of the Indian spirit. He believed that spirituality was ingrained and dominant in the Indian culture, but felt that this spirit was not merely abstract or other worldly, a notion he attributed to European writers, but that it was practical and spiritual at the same time. While he championed India’s past, he sought to bring outs its riches into a new light for fresh creation and evolution. Peter does not provide any further evaluation of this work. Peter characterizes Sri Aurobindo’s next work, Is India Civilized?, as being
starkly dualistic, positioning Indian culture as spiritual, aesthetic, and profound and Western culture as rationalistic, mechanistic, and superficial. In a conflict of cultures, one must never lay down ones arms; to do so is “to invite destruction.” But toward the end of his treatment, Aurobindo arrived at a broader view. Indians needed “the courage to defend our culture against ignorant occidental criticism and to maintain it against the gigantic modern pressure,” but they also needed the “courage to admit not from any European standpoint but from our own outlook the errors of our culture.” (p. 295)
Peter next discusses Sri Aurobindo’s critique of William Archer’s book India and the Future written under the title "A Rationalistic Critic on Indian Civilization" (later changed to A Defence of Indian Culture). Peter explains Sri Aurobindo arguments in the first six installments where he lays out the nature of cultural criticism. Afterwards Sri Aurobindo turns to Archer’s negative criticisms. Here Peter says that “In answering Archer’s negative criticisms, Aurobindo was no more even handed than he had been in Bande Mataram when writing about the latest utterance of John Morley. A Defence of Indian Culture is polemic from start to finish, as Aurobindo closed his eyes to the critic’s positive judgments and blasted him for the slightest negative remark.” Peter adds,
Archer certainly was colonist, biased, and condescending, but he made a number of honest points that might have helped early twentieth-century Indians better understand their own culture. Like many other Westerners, Archer was horrified by caste and in particular by untouchability. Without acknowledging Archer’s criticisms, Aurobindo admitted in Defence that the “treatment of our outcastes,” which condemned “one sixth of the nation to permanent ignominy,” was “a constant wound to the social body.” But this was just one of those “errors” that Indians had to deal with “not from any European standpoint but from our own outlook.” This is not very comforting. Hindu Indians had done nothing about their outcastes for more than a thousand years and were content even in the twentieth century to let the “permanent ignominy” continue. (p. 296)
In discussing Sri Aurobindo’s treatment of Indian religion in the work, Peter says “In five pugnacious chapters, he laid down the fundamentals of Indian religion, sketching its evolution from the Vedas to its final flowering in the medieval bhakti movement.” (p. 297) However, he suggests that for Sri Aurobindo, “Buddhism, with its two thousand year history in India, was just an extreme restatement of the truths of Veda and Vedanta — a characterization that no Buddhist would accept.” (p. 297) Peter praises Sri Aurobindo’s treatment of the next two sections: “The chapters on Indian architecture, painting, and sculpture were insightful and richly detailed. Even better were those on Indian literature. In this field, where India’s achievements were self-evident and Aurobindo’s expertise broad and deep, his tone became confident and understated… “ (p. 297) In the section on India polity, after discussing some of Sri Aurobindo’s views, Peter notes that “somewhat paradoxically given his lack of interest in Muslim India, Aurobindo had a number of positive things to say about the Mughal Empire, “a great and magnificent construction” in whose creation and maintenance “an immense amount of political genius and talent was employed.” (p. 298).
Peter’s critique of A Defence of Indian Culture is more strong and detailed than any other of Sri Aurobindo’s major works, no doubt due to his own knowledge of the subject, but it is throughout a balanced and thoughtful commentary. In discussing The Future Poetry, Peter explains that:
The ideas that Aurobindo developed in these chapters need to be placed in historical context. It was a commonplace of European Romanticism that nations had souls that expressed themselves in distinctive cultural forms. Later thinkers, including Karl Lamprecht, combined this notion with that of development through stages. The idea that literatures evolved followed naturally from this. In his “Study of Poetry,” Matthew Arnold offered a sketch of the development of English poetry that anticipated Aurobindo’s. In On the Study of Celtic Literature (1866), Arnold opposed the spiritual and imaginative Celt to the earthy and utilitarian Anglo-Saxon. Aurobindo’s originality in dealing with these issues was to link them with his theory of spiritual evolution and with the idea of poetry as mantra. (p. 304)
After explaining the main ideas of the book, Peter again assesses the views of the book in the context of the times:
Aurobindo wrote The Future Poetry between December 1917 and August 1920, that is, during and after the World War I. Among its other works of destruction, the war succeeded in killing off the intellectual and artistic assumptions of the nineteenth century. Belief in God, progress, and social stability were replaced by skepticism and irony. The last vestiges of Romanticism were swept away, along with ideas of literary and artistic form that had prevailed for millennia. By 1920 the Modernists were changing the face of European and American literature, and many of the ideas on which The Future Poetry was based had become antiquated curiosities before any important poet or critic could read the book. Aurobindo’s own poetry, rooted deeply in the soil of the nineteenth century, was out of date before it saw print. (p. 306)
Peter continues with his view of the impact of these historical changes on the assessment of Sri Aurobindo’s poetry:
Aurobindo witnessed the rise of Modernism and found it difficult to align with his own ideas of beauty and significance…As the Modernist movement progressed, Aurobindo became out of touch with contemporary developments in poetry. As a result his poetry and criticism must now be judged by the standards of the past, or else taken — so far with little support — as harbingers of a future yet to be glimpsed. (p. 306–307)
We find in this critique a rather pessimistic view of Sri Aurobindo’s theory of poetry as well as his poetry. Peter does not denigrate his theory or his poetry as such. Rather, he argues that because they were written at time of rapidly and drastically changing values and literary styles, and written with the values and style of the earlier period, they quickly became antiquated. He further suggests that this change in values was not necessarily positive: “Belief in God, progress, and social stability were replaced by skepticism and irony.” It is a thoughtful critique of Sri Aurobindo’s theory and poetry, and while disappointing and perhaps not the last word, it is an interesting and valid perspective.
Peter does not provide any assessment of Savitri, which he says Sri Aurobindo considered to be “his most important literary project.” Peter discusses an early version of the poem written during the Arya period, relating its general plot. When he returns to it late in the book, he notes that the “story became, through successive revisions, a vast symbolic account of his yoga. But the poem was not just a record of his experiences, it was also a ladder that helped him reach higher levels of poetic expression.” (p. 378). He notes, using a quote from Sri Aurobindo, that on the technical side, he was trying “to catch something of the Upanishadic and Kalidasian movements, so far as that is a possibility in English.” He was seeking, again quoting Sri Aurobindo, “to enlarge the field of poetic creation and find for the inner spiritual life of man…not a corner and a limited expression such as it had in the past, but a wide space and as manifold and integral an expression…as has been found in the past for man’s surface and finite view and experience of himself.” (p. 378–379) He also comments that “One is tempted to mine Savitri to make up for the lack [of first-hand accounts of Sri Aurobindo’s sadhana after 1941]: Sri Aurobindo’s accounts of Aswapathy’s voyage through the worlds of matter, life, and mind before reaching “the kingdoms of the greater knowledge,” and Savitri’s transit through the “inner countries” until she reaches the inmost soul certainly are based on his and the Mother’s experiences; but the poem is a fictional creation, and Sri Aurobindo said explicitly that “the circumstances of this life have nothing to do with “its plot” (p. 398).
Peter also writes little about Sri Aurobindo’s later poetry. Earlier I quoted him as writing: “Sri Aurobindo also took up established forms, using them to express his inner experiences with a vividness and immediacy that has few precedents in mystical writing.” (370) Peter later notes that “Sri Aurobindo wrote a great deal of poetry during the years of the war. In September 1939 he resumed work on a series of sonnets he had begun before his accident. By the time he paused eight weeks later, he had written thirty-eight new sonnets. They are among the most intimate expressions of spiritual experience he ever wrote.” (p. 389) Peter also mentions that in 1942 Sri Aurobindo’s
secretary decided to bring out a collection of “his previously published poetry, drama, and translations, to be released on his seventieth birthday. Sri Aurobindo went through the typescripts and proofs of these works, some of them written in England more than fifty years earlier (and hardly deserving to be published with his more mature poetry), and made significant revisions…Collected Poems and Plays was politely reviewed in India after its August publication. The Times Literary Supplement gave the book to Ranjee G. Shahani, an Indian writer living in London. Unimpressed by Sri Aurobindo’s poetry (“his technical devices are commendable; but the music that enchants or disturbs is not there”), Shahani chose to turn his review into a consideration of the author’s entire oeuvre. “As an Indian scholar and critic he is second to none,” Shahani wrote, citing such works as Essays on the Gita and The Secret of the Veda. Sri Aurobindo’s literary judgments matched Coleridge’s and Heine’s in their “piercing and instantaneous insight,” while The Life Divine was, “it is not too much to say, one of the master-works of our age.” (p. 389)
A little later in the narrative, near the end of the book, Peter provides a more powerful assessment of Sri Aurobindo’s major writings from an international point of view:
The meeting in New York [celebrating Sri Aurobindo’s 75th birthday] was chaired by the novelist Pearl Buck and addressed by Pitirim Sorokin, a professor at Harvard and one of the world’s leading sociologists. Sorokin said that “from the scientific and philosophical standpoint, the works of Sri Aurobindo are a sound antidote to the pseudo-scientific psychology, psychiatry and educational art of the West.” He and other American academics were trying to bring Sri Aurobindo’s works into the university curriculum, with limited success. Philosopher Edwin Burtt lectured on The Life Divine at Cornell; Frederic Spiegelberg, professor of comparative religion at Stanford, assigned Essays on the Gita to his graduate students. The Indian’s reach would be wider, Spiegelberg believed, if American philosophy departments were not “under the anti-metaphysical influence of John Dewey and his Instrumentalists, which is the American form of what is called Logical Positivism in Europe.” The same influence kept discussions of The Life Divine out of philosophical journals in England and the United States, but nonacademics published positive assessments in World Review and even the Chicago Daily News. Continental thinkers were more open to his thinking than were the Anglo-Saxon counterparts. French scholar Alfred Foucher noted that Sri Aurobindo, like the Existentialists, stressed individual responsibility, but unlike them, condemned egocentrism. One of Foucher’s French Academy colleagues, l’Abbe Breuil, wrote that The Human Cycle was one of two books that had “interested me most deeply and stimulated most thought. In the Americas, Sri Aurobindo’s influence was felt most by the literary elite. Expatriate English novelist Aldous Huxley considered The Life Divine “a book not merely of the highest importance in regard to content, but remarkably fine as a piece of philosophical and religious literature.” Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral regarded Sri Aurobindo as the “highest of mystics,” as notable for his spiritual attainments as for his “beautifully austere and classical prose.” Both writers supported a snowballing movement to have Sri Aurobindo awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. Mistral, laureate in 1945, joined with Pearl Buck, laureate in 1938, in announcing her willingness to nominate him for the honor, while thirty-six Indian notables — cabinet ministers, governors, premiers, maharajas, vice-chancellors, and others — signed a memorandum to the Swedish Academy outlining his literary and spiritual attainments. Around the same time an Indian academic proposed Sri Aurobindo ‘s name for the Nobel Peace Prize. This was one of thirty-four official nominations considered by the Norwegian Nobel Committee in 1950. (p. 404).
I have attempted to demonstrate so far in this essay that the four most serious criticisms that have been publicized about The Lives of Sri Aurobindo are unfounded, and that the book, overall, is a fair and positive treatment of Sri Aurobindo’s life and work. The allegations that it undercuts Sri Aurobindo spiritual attainments by suggesting they were delusional, and by suggesting that his relationship with the Mother was romantic, are baseless and false. The book consistently presents Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual experiences and realizations as valid and of the very highest status, and it presents his major written works both through detailed summaries and through its evaluations when these are offered as overwhelmingly positive and of the highest rank. Where criticisms are offered, they are generally thoughtful and valid perspectives, rather than malicious.