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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.