In this essay, Larry Seidlitz, a resident and scholar at Pondicherry, examines the charges being made against the author of The Lives of Sri Aurobindo and attempts to put to rest the exaggerations and misreadings which have been circulated by the ringleaders of the "anti-PH movement" and which have become "authorized truths" to a vast range of "followers" of these ringleaders, most of whom have not read the book.
In this essay, I consider and evaluate various public objections that have been made against Peter Heehs’ book The Lives of Sri Aurobindo. I, like many others, was shocked by what was being reported about the book by my respected colleagues in the Ashram. I received an email with excerpts from the book which were disturbing in that they seemed to portray Sri Aurobindo in a very bad light. When I received another email from Peter showing these same excerpts in a larger context, I was somewhat relieved, but not wholly satisfied. Soon I received another email from another respected colleague excoriating Peter for the book and suggesting that he remove himself from the Archives where he has worked for the last 40 years. After some time I received another lengthy email making more specific and more damaging claims about the book and about Peter’s malicious intent. At the same I heard of efforts that were underway to remove Peter from the Ashram, and to stop publication of the Indian edition of the book that was scheduled for release in November (only the American edition had been published). During this period of time I also read a favorable review in Auroville Today, and later, some more favorable reviews from colleagues in America. This moved me to obtain a copy of the book and read it for myself in order to see whether such serious charges and actions were justified. The following is a report of my findings.
Sri Aurobindo’s “madness”
Probably the most important charge against the book is that it suggests that Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual and mystical experiences are due to “an inherited streak of madness.” In the matter of insanity, my reading of the book is as follows.
After a lengthy section on the Record of Yoga which begins with a concise, detailed overview of the structure and character of the Yoga that Sri Aurobindo was practicing, followed by extended excerpts from Sri Aurobindo’s diary describing numerous mystical experiences and the implementation of supernormal powers illustrative of this practice, the author interrupts to deal with a “question that may have occurred to some readers.”(p. 245) He notes that whereas such mystical experiences are common to the Indian mythological and mystical literatures, in the psychiatry and clinical psychology literatures they bear similarity to symptoms of schizophrenia. He cites Freud's view that they "should be understood on the pattern of the individual neurotic systems familiar to us." (p. 246) In the next sentence, he counters that "a defender of mysticism would argue that the truth value of mystical experience is so much greater than the truth value of psychiatry — a discipline based on dubious assumptions — that any attempt by the latter to explain the former is absurd." Then to support a neutral stance, he says "But unless the defender was an experienced mystic, this would just be substituting one set of unverified assumptions for another. When I speak of Aurobindo’s experiences, my aim is not to argue either for their veracity or for their delusiveness; I simply present some of the documented events of his inner life and provide a framework for evaluating them." (p. 246)
So what is this framework for evaluating these mystical experiences? In the next paragraph, Peter discusses William James’ view that “such experiences had to be interpreted ’in the immediate context of the religious consciousness.’ The correct criteria for judging them were ‘immediate luminousness,’ ‘philosophical reasonableness,’ and ‘moral helpfulness.’ Later writers continued on similar lines." (p. 246) Peter then adds Anton Boisen's view, which suggested that “’certain types of mental disorder and certain types of religious experience...[were] attempts at [personality] reorganization.’ When successful, such attempts can lead to a new synthesis; when unsuccessful they lead to insanity." Peter clarifies that "Neither Boisen nor James attempted to erase the line between mysticism and madness." He then adds Sudhir Kakar’s view "that the distinguishing sign of psychosis in such cases was ‘painful or anxious affect.’ In the absence of psychological pain or anxiety, ‘certain types of mystical experience’ could be regarded as having ‘their ground in creativity, akin to the heightened fantasy of an artist or a writer, rather than in pathology.’” (p. 246)
Peter then goes on to consider the evidence bearing on such an evaluation of Sri Aurobindo's mystical experiences in light of this psychological framework:
Most of Aurobindo's experiences are familiar to the mystic traditions of India and elsewhere. He wrote about them in language that is reasonable and luminous, though often hard to understand. Some of this writing is in the form of diary notations that were concurrent with the experiences. Around the same time he also wrote more than a dozen books on philosophy, textual interpretation, social science, and literary and cultural criticism, along with a mass of miscellaneous prose and poetry. Numerous scholars admire these works for their clarity and consistency; thousands of readers believe that they have been helped spiritually or mentally by them. No contemporary ever remarked that Aurobindo suffered painful or anxious feelings as a result of his experiences. In one or two letters written in the 1930s, he wrote that his life had been a struggle, and hinted at dangers and difficulties as great as any "which human beings have borne," but at no time did he give evidence to others of inner or outer stress. Indeed, virtually everyone who met him found him unusually calm, dispassionate, and loving — and eminently sane. The reports to the contrary are so rare that they can be examined individually. (p. 247)
Peter then briefly takes note of three or four individuals who suggested that Sri Aurobindo was mentally imbalanced, and then, after individually discrediting each of their claims, collectively dismisses them: "these scattered reports by people out of sympathy with him are hardly significant in themselves; viewed together with every other known report of Sri Aurobindo's character, they stand out as exceptions." (p. 247)
In the next parargraph: Peter notes that "Calm — shanti — was the first element of Aurobindo's yoga; balance — samata — was its basis. Asked in 1926 about his ability to overcome the difficulty of yoga, he replied: ‘A perfect yoga requires perfect balance. That was the thing that saved me — the perfect balance.’" (p. 247)
In a later section of the book, Peter discusses informal comments made by Sri Aurobindo to some of his disciples about his use of yogic force in support of the Allies during World War II. A few specific instances of momentous consequence are recounted. Peter closes the paragraph in which these are mentioned with this comment: “The reactions of those who heard it were “either credulous or incredulous”: some were convinced he was a wonder-working rishi, while others concluded that he was a megalomaniac.” [an endnote here provides references to several published incredulous reactions] (p. 386–387)
This paragraph is followed by another that discusses Sri Aurobindo’s explanation about the nature and use of yogic force. That paragraph closes with a statement suggesting that to pronounce on such matters required a basis of yogic experience, otherwise one’s judgments would be based on either “credulity or incredulity, both of which he deplored.”
The passage as a whole does not suggest Sri Aurobindo was mentally imbalanced. On the contrary, it suggests that using his yogic powers he turned the tide of World War II. However, perhaps to give greater scope for his scholarly and lay readers the freedom to decide for themselves, Peter adds that lacking yogic experience, acceptance of this interpretation is a matter of belief.
It would seem impossible to conclude from these passages that Peter has either openly or covertly suggested that Sri Aurobindo was mentally unbalanced or that mental illness was somehow the basis of his spiritual experiences.
Sri Aurobindo’s relation with the Mother
The second most serious allegation that has been made is that the book suggests Sri Aurobindo's relationship with the Mother was romantic, or at least suggests there may have been a romantic element in it. This allegation seems to be based on the inclusion of following passage:
On Sundays he and other members of his household visited the Richards for dinner and talk. At some of those meetings, people noticed a suprising development. After dinner those present tended to cluster in two groups: Aurobindo and Mirra on one side, and Paul and the others on another. Sometimes, where they were alone, Mirra took Aurobindo’s hand in hers. One evening, when Nolini found them thus together, Mirra quickly drew her hand away. On another occasion, Suresh entered Aurobindo’s room and found Mirra kneeling before him in an attitude of surrender. Sensing the visitor, she at once stood up. There was nothing furtive about these encounters, but they did strike observers as unusual. Neither Mirra nor Aurobindo were in the habit of expressing their emotions openly. (p. 326)
One wonders if this passage could really form the basis of allegations that Peter has implied that Sri Aurobindo’s relationship with the Mother was a romantic one. The reference to the Mother kneeling before him in an attitude of surrender, which occurs immediately after the first reference to her holding his hand, hardly seems characteristic of a romantic relationship; at least such demonstrations would be rather unusual. It would, however, be quite characteristic of a relationship of a disciple to her guru. Taken in this way, the recording of these events in the book might seem to many readers to be rather touching and beautiful. The juxtaposition of the description of the two encounters in the narrative would seem to imply that they were intended to be taken in this way. It should be further noted that earlier in the narrative, the author has already recounted Sri Aurobindo’s great spiritual experiences and realizations of the silent and dynamic aspects of the brahman, the Mother’s own high spiritual and occult attainments, and for both of them, a freedom from sexual desire (see pages 254 and 319).
Shortly after this point in the story, the author recounts an encounter between Mirra’s husband, Paul Richard, and Sri Aurobindo about the latter’s relationship with Mirra:
After a while he asked Aurobindo about the nature of his relationship with Mirra. Aurobindo answered that he had accepted her as a disciple. Paul inquired as to what form the relationship would take. Aurobindo said that it would take any form that Mirra wanted. Paul persisted: “Suppose she claims the relationship of marriage?” Marriage did not enter into Aurobindo’s calculations, what was important to him was Mirra’s autonomy; so he replied that if Mirra ever asked for marriage, that is what she would have. (pp. 326–327)
Peter’s interjection, “Marriage did not enter into Aurobindo’s calculations, what was important to him was Mirra’s autonomy,” seems meant to clarify that Sri Aurobindo was not interested in either marriage or a romantic relationship but rather in his disciple’s autonomy to pursue her spiritual path and her devotion and surrender to her guru. The statement seems to suggest that Sri Aurobindo told Paul this so that it might assist her in gaining autonomy from Paul. Nevertheless, given the ambiguous nature of the verbal exchange, it is perhaps possible that at this point in the text some readers may remain uncertain about the nature of Sri Aurobindo’s relation with the Mother. Their relationship is therefore clarified in a passage on the following two pages.
One thing is clear, however: the arrival of Mirra Richard had an enormous impact on his practice. With her help, he told Barin, he completed ten years of sadhana in one. Her assistance was especially important in turning his sadhana outward. If he had been concerned only with his own transformation or with transmitting his yoga to a limited number of people, he could have done it on his own. But for his work to have a lasting effect in the world, he needed a shakti, a female counterpart.
Shakti, as Aurobindo explained in The Synthesis of Yoga, is the conscious power of the divine. “By this power the spirit creates all things in itself, hides and discovers all itself in the form and behind the veil of its manifestation.” Systems of yoga that aim at liberation regard shakti as, at best, a force that can help the individual obtain release from the limitations of mind, life and body. But systems aiming for perfection, such as tantric yoga or the way of the siddhas, see shakti as the power needed to transform oneself and the world. Tantrics and siddhas worship shakti in the form of goddesses such as Kali; some also worship women as embodiments of the divine force. This is the rationale behind the esoteric sexuality of certain forms of tantrism. The consecrated union of a human male and female is seen as a reenactment of the cosmic act of creation. Some schools of tantric yoga put so much stress on this relationship that they require male practitioners to have female sexual partners. Aurobindo made it clear that this was not the case in his yoga. “How can the sexual act be made to help in spiritual life?” he asked a disciple who posed the question. It was necessary, in the work he was doing, for the masculine and feminine principles to come together, but the union had nothing to do with sex; in fact it was possible in his and Mirra’s case precisely because they had mastered the forces of desire.(pp. 328–329)
There follows an important statement bearing on their relationship a few pages later: [Referring to the period of the early 1920’s] "There was only one rule: strict observance of brahmacharya, or celibacy. Otherwise members of the household could do as they liked.” (p. 332) The nature of their relationship is clarified still further in the next chapter.
In his philosophical works, Sri Aurobindo gave special importance to the Mother-force or shakti. In The Life Divine he wrote: “If we would realise a higher formation or status of being, then it is still through her, through the Divine Shakti, the Consciousness-Force of the Spirit that it has to be done; our surrender must be to the Divine Being through the Divine Mother.” Evidently when he began to refer to Mira as the Mother, he regarded her as more than a particularly advanced disciple. He made no claims on her behalf in his published writings, not even in The Mother. But it was natural for those who practiced his yoga to take the descriptions in the book as applying to Mira. One reader asked whether “our Mother,” that is, Mira, was the individual form of the Divine Mother who, as Sri Aurobindo wrote, “embodies the power of these two vaster ways of her existence [transcendent and cosmic], makes them living and near to us and mediates between the human personality and the divine Nature.” Sri Aurobindo replied with a simple “yes.”
In letters to disciples in Pondicherry and outside, Sri Aurobindo was more explicit about the role of Mira, the Mother, in the practice of his yoga. “I no longer take direct charge of people’s sadhana,” he wrote in March 1927, “all is in the hands of Sri Mira Devi.” No exceptions to this rule were permitted.” (p. 354)
[It should be noted that in the book Peter discusses the change in how people referred to the Mother — from Mirra, to Mira or Sri Mira Devi for a brief period, and finally to the Mother. Peter follows a coterminous usage in his own references to her, and switches in the course of the chronological narrative. Similarly, he switches from Aurobindo to Sri Aurobindo at the appropriate point in the narrative.]
In light of these passages, there seems to be no basis to the assertion that Peter has characterized Sri Aurobindo's relationship with the Mother as a romantic one. Whereas the initial references to their relationship mentioned above, when taken out of context, may appear to be ambiguous, taken as a whole — in the context of the previous text, in light of the clarifications that Peter inserted in the initial references, in light of the long passage about the nature and role of the shakti on the following page, and in the context of the passages in the following chapter about the nature of the Mother, it seems either mistaken or misleading to assert that he has either cast doubt about or characterized Sri Aurobindo's relationship with the Mother as being romantic.
Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual stature
A third serious allegation that has been made about the book is that it undercuts Sri Aurobindo’s greatness as a yogi and spiritual being. A corollary argument that has been made in this connection is that the book dismisses as invalid certain types of evidence bearing on Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual realization and experience because they are “subjective” and cannot be verified, including Sri Aurobindo’s own personal statements. Another argument asserts that Peter ends his discussion of Record of Yoga in the year 1913, and on a particularly disappointing entry. It may be pointed out that these two latter arguments contradict each other because the Record of Yoga is, in fact, Sri Aurobindo’s own account of his inner experiences. But the assertion that the entries from the Record of Yoga end in 1913 and conclude on a note of doubt, disappointment, and failure is also false. The particular point in the narrative to which this allegation refers (p. 245) — the end of a long section in which Peter first introduces the Record in extensive detail and presents numerous excerpts both positive and negative — concludes with several quotes that might be considered by some to be negative. However, I would consider the final quote in this section to be a prophetic overall self-assessment of Sri Aurobindo’s sadhana that augured tremendous promise for the future but also a limitation. It seems to me an especially appropriate conclusion to this long introduction to the Record. However one chooses to interpret the conclusion to the section, the main point is that it is not the last entry pertaining to the Record as the critics have claimed. Peter presents additional reports of Sri Aurobindo's entries from the Record of Yoga later in the text up until the very last entry.
For example, there is a very positive entry from the Record from 1917 that “gives the reader a hint of what it is like to be a yogi.”
In the morning [February 5, 1917] sudden efflorescence of a perfect shuddha [pure] anandamaya-vijnanamaya [blissful-gnostic] vision of universal beauty. Every detail is seen in its perfect, divine sense and faery loveliness and in its place in the whole and the divine symmetry of the whole based on its “brihat” [large] Idea, even in what appears to the mind unsymmetrical. This was realised in things yesterday, today in faces, figures, actions, etc. It is not yet stable, but strong and returns in spite of the force that depresses the vision and attempts to return to the diffuse mental view of things.” (p. 312)
Later, Peter goes to the very end of the Record in 1927. He notes again periods of advancement followed by periods of retrogression. He characterizes the entries of the period as follows:
Many entries are concerned with the transformation of "T3" (telepathy-trikaldrishti-tapas) and "T2" (trikaldrishti-tapas) into a superior power "above the Telepathic and above the Tapasic trikalsiddhi [mastery of the three times] and above the combination of these things." This power, called "T" or "Gnostic T", was the true and invincible supermind, which he had been seeking for more than a decade. Around the same time he recorded advances in many other elements of his yoga, such as samadhi (yogic trance), drishti (the power of vision), and ananda (delight on all levels of the being). (p. 348)
This mixed advance and retrogression continued until October 31, when Sri Aurobindo wrote what would be the last surviving dated entry of Record of Yoga:
Today T2 (anishwara [without full power]) has acquired the supramental and gnostic character. Not that all movements have entirely eliminated the mental element, but all are supramental or supramentalized or else even (now to some extent) gnostic overmind. Infallible T2 is beginning more freely to emerge...
Ananda [bliss] is taking possession and becomes automatic, needing only memory or a little attention to act at once. All vision, hearing, smell, taste, touch is now anandamaya [blissful]; even all that is seen, heard, sensed is beginning to be felt as full of ananda and even as if made of Ananda. Sahaituka [stimulated] Ananda of all except event is now automatic. Ahaituka [unstimulated] Ananda within the body shows signs of reaching the same state, but has not quite reached it. This is the only physical siddhi that promises to be soon initially complete; for arogya [health] is still hampered by obstinate minute fragments of illness. (p. 349)
Peter goes on to examine some later "scattered notes and letters" about Sri Aurobindo's sadhana. These notes focus on the supramentalizing of the overmind. Peter sums up this section saying that "This supramentalizing of the overmind would be the keynote of Sri Aurobindo's sadhana after 1927." (p. 351) In addition to these more “covert” aspects of Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual life, Peter also mentions that he was engaged in inner activities that produced results in the outer world:
He never spoke at length of what his inner action consisted of, but he occasionally remarked in letters that he used his spiritual force to produce tangible results in the world. When the persons affected were known individuals, they could sometimes vouch for the outcome, as when sick disciples reported that they were cured after he “sent his force” to help them. But Sri Aurobindo believed that his force was “not limited to the Ashram and its conditions”; it also could be used to bring about “change in the [wider] human world.” He never claimed to have brought about specific terrestrial effects, but he asserted more than once that he was doing his sadhana not for himself but for the earth consciousness. This obliged him to come down from higher levels of experience to work on “the physical,” that is, the physical nature in himself and the world at large. (p. 363)
Somewhat later in the text, supporting his earlier characterization of Sri Aurobindo’s sadhana after 1927 as being concentrated on the supramentalization of the overmind, Peter quotes a letter dictated by Sri Aurobindo in July 1947, "his last known utterance on the state of his sadhana":
My present effort is not to stand up on a high and distant Supermind level and change the world from there, but to bring something of it down here and to stand on that and act by that; but at the present stage the progressive supramentalization of the Overmind is the first immediate preoccupation and a second is the lightening of the heavy resistance of the Inconscient and the support it gives to human ignorance which is always the main obstacle in any attempt to change the world or even to change oneself. (p. 399)
In addition to the numerous references to The Record of Yoga and to Sri Aurobindo’s other letters and comments on his sadhana and spiritual experiences, Peter quotes some of Sri Aurobindo’s poetry as they bear on his inner life:
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. These lines are from a sonnet called “Transformation”:
My breath runs in a subtle rhythmic stream;
It fills my members with a might divine:
I have drunk the Infinite like a giant’s wine.
Time is my drama or my pageant dream.
Now are my illumined cells joy’s flaming scheme
And changed my thrilled and branching nerves to fine
Channels of rapture opal and hyaline
For the influx of the Unknown and the Supreme. (p. 370) …
Some lines he jotted down in September 1938 suggest more clearly than pages of The Life Divine what it might be like to view the world from the perspective of the cosmic consciousness:
I look across the world and no horizon walls my gaze;
I see Paris and Tokio and New York,
I see the bombs bursting on Barcelona and on Canton streets.
Man’s numberless misdeeds and rare good deeds take place within my single self.
I am the beast he slays, the bird he feeds and saves.
The thoughts of unknown minds exalt me their thrill,
I carry the sorrow of millions in my lonely breast. (pp. 380–381)
In addition to Sri Aurobindo’s own descriptions of his inner experiences, Peter refers to other people’s perceptions and experiences of his spiritual status. For example, he quotes Rabindranath Tagore’s famous statement about Sri Aurobindo after his visit (see p. 360). In wrapping up the book, Peter includes this assessment of an American visitor coming to the Ashram for the first time for the last darshan of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother in November 1950:
As I stepped into a radius of about four feet, there was the sensation of moving into some kind of a force field. Intuitively I knew it was the force of Love, but not what ordinary humans usually mean by the term. These two were “geared straight up”’ they were not paying attention to me as ordinary parents might have done; yet, this unattachment seemed just the thing that healed. Suddenly, I loved them both, as spiritual “parents.”
Then, all thought ceased, I was perfectly aware of where I was; it was not “hypnotism” as one Stanford friend later suggested. It was simply that during those few minutes, my mind became utterly still. It seemed that I stood there a very long, an uncounted time, for there was no time. Only many years later did I describe this experience as my having experienced the Timeless in Time. When there at the darshan, there was not the least doubt in my mind that I had met two people who had experienced what they claimed. They were Gnostic Beings. They had realized this new consciousness which Sri Aurobindo called the Supramental. (p. 408)
These passages clearly demonstrate that when viewed as a whole the book does not denigrate or undercut Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual greatness or attainments. It extensively uses Sri Aurobindo’s own writings about his inner experiences and realizations as the principle source of evidence. In utilizing The Record of Yoga, it includes extremely rare and exalting experiences, as well as limitations and temporary retrogressions. Sri Aurobindo himself explained that his path of yoga was often characterized by cyclic advances and retrogression, and this is clearly the character shown in the Record. Peter’s inclusion of both aspects is appropriate and balanced. The types of experiences that are described — such as the triple-time vision, telepathy, ananda in all the parts of the being, supramentalization of the Overmind and the bringing down of the supramentalized Overmind into the physical — are exceptionally high and rare. Peter’s treatment of Sri Aurobindo’s inner life and sadhana is extensive and very positive.
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.
In a document widely circulated and discussed around the Ashram and on the internet, which was based on “a painstaking analysis,” 49 offending passages were copied from the book, categorized by subject, and presented. The offending passages ranged in length from about one page to one sentence, in all they extended to about ten pages. While they do not exhaust every statement in the book that may be considered offensive, they probably include the most serious ones, and provide a reasonable representation. For many people in the Ashram, this list is perhaps their only direct contact with the text of the book. Because the passages were taken out of their context, their nature and intent and was often misleading.
When these passages are examined, the vast majority of them are found to be minor criticisms of relatively less important aspects of Sri Aurobindo life. Ten of the passages are critical comments made about Sri Aurobindo’s early plays and poetry, most of which were written before he came to Pondicherry, two of them during his early years there. Eight more passages include critical statements made about other works made in the context of other positive evaluations; most of which have been covered earlier in this essay. Another offending passage deals with articles and poetry written by Sri Aurobindo’s disciples in Ashram journals, suggesting they were more interesting as examples of devotional expression than as original contributions to scholarship or literature, and that Sri Aurobindo “appears to have given little encouragement to intellectual or literary originality.” Nine more of the offending passages deal with critical remarks made about Sri Aurobindo’s various political activities as a leader of the early independence movement, which in the book are presented in contexts that are balanced with other positive evaluations. Overall, he is portrayed as a great political leader who was the first to put forward the ideal of Indian Independence openly and to popularize it in the mind of the nation, the major intellectual and inspirational force behind the movement in its early years, and an important organizer of revolutionary activities. The three most serious of the offending passages suggest that the Extremists, under Sri Aurobindo’s leadership, gave the movement a Hindu slant, and thereby contributed to the Hindu-Muslim conflict that later developed. In one of these, Peter writes, “But could anything said or done in 1907 have changed the outcome forty years later? Probably not. Still, partition and the bloodletting that accompanied it were the movement’s principal failings, and Aurobindo and his colleagues have to take their share of the blame.” (p. 212)
Whether or not one agrees with this assessment, it appears to be a balanced and reasonable critique. One passage ascribes several negative qualities to Sri Aurobindo’s character as a child, the worst of these provided in Sri Aurobindo’s own words. Two passages deal with college reports that he lied about his failure to appear for the riding examination for the Indian Civil Service at the end of his student career, and one about his failure to pass a medical examination. These criticisms should be read in the context of the overall characterization of Sri Aurobindo’s childhood and student career which is overwhelmingly positive. Two more offending passages deal with his marriage and sexual life, the first suggesting that sex “was presumably a factor in his decision to get married, but it does not seem to have been an important one,” and the second, a footnote to this passage, explaining Peter’s interpretation of evidence in the Record of Yoga suggesting that Sri Aurobindo had had experience of ordinary sexual delight. Two more offending passages deal with the issue of mental imbalance about which I have previously shown do not suggest there was an imbalance, but on the contrary argue that there was not. Two other passages deal with the issue of Sri Aurobindo’s relationship with the Mother, which I have also previously explained. Two more passages deal with the Mother: one is a mixed assessment of her early painting (“excellent technique and classical balance, if little originality”), and another about the lack of evidence in the Record of Yoga that Sri Aurobindo regarded her as more than “a European yogi of unusual attainments,” followed by the qualification, “But it need not be assumed that he put down all he felt in his diary,” and a subsequent statement by Sri Aurobindo that “he was aware at once that Mirra’s aptitude for yoga was extraordinary.” Another long passage deals with the issue of hagiography and its presentation in the preface of the book.
Of the offending passages more central to Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual life, three concern the ceremonial atmosphere of the darshans and the reverential way in which disciples bowed at his feet. One of these suggests that Sri Aurobindo may not have favored such displays, but that the Mother encouraged them. Another passage notes a Western disciple’s shock at seeing this, and the disciple’s statement that “Sri Aurobindo did not seem to “to be deceived or befuddled by these extravagant manifestations.” (p. 400) Another passage suggests that after 1921, descriptions of Sri Aurobindo became increasingly characterized by hyperbole, which “may be ascribed to the charisma that was building up around the inaccessible, mysterious Aurobindo.” (p. 331) While it is understandable that such statements may be offensive to many devotees of Sri Aurobindo, it should be noted that they are not directed against Sri Aurobindo, but rather reflect an apparent disapproval of demonstrative displays of devotion.
Another passage deals with Sri Aurobindo’s adesh to go to Chandernagore. It reads, “Years later Aurobindo explained that when he heard Ramchandra’s warning, he went within and heard a voice – an adesh – that said “Go to Chandernagore.” He obeyed it without reflection. Had he given it any thought, however, he would have found good reasons to comply.” (p. 204) The offense here is that the last sentence may be seen to cast doubt on whether Sri Aurobindo actually had the adesh. The paragraph continues, “Chandernagore was a French possession, one of five scattered enclaves that made up the French settlements in India. Outside the jurisdiction of the British police, it had become an important center of nationalist activity. For a man with a British warrant against him, it was the best place near Calcutta to go…” (p. 204) In the next paragraph Peter adds, “But this is not to suggest that he thought all this through when he decided to leave Calcutta. By his own account, his “habit in action was not to devise beforehand and plan but to keep a fixed purpose, watch events, prepare forces and act when he felt it to be the right moment.” The moment for his departure had come.” (pp. 204–205) It is understandable that the particular sentence could be construed to cast a subtle doubt on the adesh, but this interpretation is questionable, given the reassurance given in following paragraph.
The two other offending passages concern the issue of avatarhood. The first of these says that Sri Aurobindo “never made any such claim on his own behalf; on the other hand, he never dissuaded anyone from regarding him in this way, and wrote openly that the Mother was an incarnation of the Shakti. She reciprocated when speaking about him with disciples, but insisted on “great reserve” when people wrote articles for the general public.” There is nothing offensive in this, but the passage continues, “Whether spontaneous or conventional, a reverential attitude was becoming the only acceptable way to approach Sri Aurobindo.” The second passage states, “His followers and their spokesmen present him as an avatar or incarnation beyond any sort of criticism…To accept Sri Aurobindo as an avatar is necessarily a matter of faith, and matters of faith quickly become matters of dogma.” It should be noted that neither of these passages dispute Sri Aurobindo’s avatarhood, rather, they challenge the idea that this is the only acceptable way to approach or view him. The second passage continues: “Besides, the term “avatar” has lost much of its glow in recent years. Once reserved for “descents” that come “from age to age”, it now is applied to any spiritual leader with a halfway decent following…The value of Sri Aurobindo’s achievements can only be gauged by examining the historical and literary evidence and assessing the nature and effects of his thought and action. For this, assertions of supernatural influences are no more help than assertions of ideological certitude.” The latter statement is simply Peter’s interpretation about how the question of Sri Aurobindo’s avatarhood should be assessed — that is, through an examination of historical and literary evidence assessing his impact — it is not an assessment of Sri Aurobindo’s avatarhood. Naturally, many devotees may disagree with this interpretation and would prefer to base their faith in Sri Aurobindo’s avatarhood on other criteria, but it seems to be a reasonable assertion to put forth for consideration without censure.
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.