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Whereas most of the offending comments listed by the book’s critics are about less important aspects of Sri Aurobindo’s life and works and a smaller number are on things more central, the tone of the comments must also be considered. I would argue that in the large majority of the offending comments, the tone is balanced, but in some of them, it is harsh. I give one characteristic example of a harsh criticism that was not noted in the list provided by the book’s critics. It concerns Sri Aurobindo’s writings on the Isha Upanishad: “Its carefully chiseled sentences leave much for the reader to reflect upon, unlike his ordinary expository prose, in which clause is added to clause and refinement to refinement until the sentences become almost unreadable.” (p. 267) The complement given to the writings under consideration is immediately undercut by a sharp stab at the rest of his expository prose. Whereas Sri Aurobindo’s readers will understand that there is a grain of truth in the criticism, its harsh tone gives a shock, and is applied too indiscriminately and without sufficient historical context. It also fails to appreciate that many find the style highly appealing and not only readable but unsurpassed in clarity and precision. Although some historical context discussing the popularity of this style of writing in the nineteenth century is provided later in the book, that does not soften the blow given here. So although the tone of most of the critical passages in the book is moderate and balanced, the fact that the tone is harsh in some of them probably has contributed to the strong reaction by some readers against the book and its author. For readers who react disapprovingly to even balanced criticisms of minor writings, the use of harsh language in more important matters, such as Sri Aurobindo’s character as a child, or about ceremonial displays of devotion, may be interpreted as a lack of respect and even a malicious attack. It is likely that reactions to a handful of such harsh criticisms have spilled over to color the interpretation of other aspects of the book as well.
The cultural difference between the American author and his Indian critics has surely contributed to the situation. Evidence of this is shown by the generally positive reaction to the book in America and Auroville. Many Americans and other Westerners have gone through a period of questioning and even rejecting many of their religious traditions and values, and are long accustomed to investigating and throwing open all kinds of cultural taboos. Especially in the academic arena — and this is a book targeted to an academic readership — anything and everything is open for criticism and debate. No person, issue, idea, religion, or spiritual figure is off-limits. This has had both positive and negative consequences. It has helped bring the light of reason and change into many areas that were previously closed and encrusted in false ideas and forms. On the other hand, it has contributed to skepticism, rebellion, disrespect for authority, and in some segments of the society, a collapse of moral and religious values. This cultural development has not happened in India, at least not so completely, and its various religious and spiritual traditions are still held strictly sacred and sacrosanct. They are not to be questioned or sullied in any way. The respect and devotion given by Indians to their gods, spiritual teachers, and various religious traditions is a very beautiful thing, and is no doubt an important reason why many Westerners are drawn to India. But the cultural difference is not erased by a mere change of physical location, it is something much more deeply ingrained in the psyche. The disagreement and conflict about this book is then an occasion where all those involved, Indian and Western, can learn something important about each other.
A related factor that seems to account for the infuriation of many of the book’s critics is discussed in the Preface to book.
The genre of hagiography, in the original sense of the term, is very much alive in India. Any saint with a following is the subject of one or more books that tell the inspiring story of his her birth, growth, mission, and passage to the eternal. Biographies of literary and political figures do not differ much from this model. People take the received version of their heroes’ lives very seriously. A statement about a politician or poet that rubs people the wrong way will be turned into a political or legal issue, or possibly cause a riot. The problem is not whether the disputed statement is true, but whether anyone has the right to question an account that flatters a group identity. (p. xii)
I believe this passage identifies the main “problem” with Peter’s book: it contains statements that rub people the wrong way, and it sometimes questions accounts that flatter Sri Aurobindo’s followers’ group identity. From this standpoint, any negative evaluation or comment about anything related to Sri Aurobindo’s life or actions would be grounds for censure. That a sizable number of the offending passages listed by its critics are relatively innocuous suggests that this viewpoint has played a role. If this is the standard by which the book is to be judged, it certainly is a failure, for there are statements that do rub people the wrong way and it sometimes questions views flattering to the group identity of Sri Aurobindo’s followers. No matter how praiseworthy the book may be about Sri Aurobindo’s life and work overall, no matter how much scholarship has gone into it, no matter how many new insights or research it may present, no matter how valid its criticisms may be, no matter how many scholars or lay readers it may influence in the world outside the Ashram walls, it is unacceptable and its circulation should be prevented to the extent possible and the author should be severely punished.
But we may question whether this is the right way to evaluate the book. We may ask whether Sri Aurobindo’s life history and his writings are alive and dynamic or they are unquestionable dogma? We may consider whether a wider distribution and circulation of Sri Aurobindo’s thought in the academic community, open to both appreciation and criticism, is a useful endeavor. We may consider how Sri Aurobindo and the Mother promoted freedom of thought and inquiry, how they did not want to impose fixed ideas and forms on their disciples. We may reflect on their own common sense, generosity, equality, patience, forbearance, and love when dealing with their disciples. If we take a more balanced approach, it becomes necessary to consider and evaluate the book as a whole, rather than on the basis of any one or small number of passages. What is the overall character of the book? What is the import of its negative comments and assessments? How serious are they in their overall context? What is the impact of the book likely to be on its target readers? How faithful is the book to the truth?
When examined overall, there seems to be little substantive content in the book that is objectionable. Peter’s negative evaluations and critical comments pertain primarily to issues that are not central to Sri Aurobindo’s life and work, and for the most part are reasonable and presented in contexts balanced by positive comments and evaluations. The book is extremely informative and well documented. It presents useful and interesting critiques of various aspects of Sri Aurobindo’s life and literary works. It is likely to make Sri Aurobindo’s life and teaching more widely known in academic circles and the world at large, and to inspire many people to investigate Sri Aurobindo’s life and work more deeply. The tone of a small number of critical comments is disparaging and may be interpreted by some readers to be disrespectful. A few offending passages pertain to his childhood and student days, a fair number to his early plays and poetry, and some to his political activities. The few criticisms of Sri Aurobindo’s major works are minor compared to the praise bestowed upon them overall. There are a few criticisms of the atmosphere of demonstrative devotion and ceremony surrounding Sri Aurobindo, but little or no criticism of Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual experience, status, or comport. On the contrary, the nature and development of Sri Aurobindo’s sadhana and spiritual stature over his lifetime, as recorded in his own writings as well as by observers, is examined meticulously and faithfully and is explained clearly. Similarly, Sri Aurobindo’s major writings are explained concisely and are evaluated very positively overall. The book clearly portrays Sri Aurobindo to be a great rishi who continued to develop in spiritual stature throughout his later life, and as one who is accepted by many of his followers to be an Avatar.