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Excerpt from The Lives of Sri Aurobindo by Peter Heehs have been circulated as part of an attempt to discredit the author for writing this biography. Decontextualized passages were chosen to misrepresent the author's intentions, by systematic distortions, deliberate misattributions, and selective omissions. These passages are here reproduced with omitted texts and notes restored. Clarifications and corrections by the author demonstrate how these passages actually read in their proper context.
The portions of the text that have been lifted to suit the purposes of those with an agenda against the author are in black. The missing portions of the text that are needed to provide the entire context of the narrative, including footnotes and clarifications, are in bold red.
(Preface: xii) 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 or 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.
Aurobindo has been better served by his biographers than most of his contemporaries have. But when I began to write articles about his life, I found that there were limits to what his admirers wanted to hear. Anything that cast doubt on something that he said was taboo, even if his statement was based on incomplete knowledge of the facts. Almost as bad was anything that challenged an established interpretation, even one that clearly was inadequate.
Figure 2 is a photograph of Aurobindo that was taken around the same time as figure 1. Note the dark, pockmarked skin, sharp features, and undreamy eyes…To me it is infinitely more appealing than figure 1, which has been reproduced millions of times in its heavily retouched form. I sometimes wonder why people like figure 1. There is hardly a trace of shadow between the ears, with the result that the face has no character. The sparkling eyes have been painted in; even the hair has been given a gloss. As a historical document it is false. As a photograph it is a botched piece of work. But for many figure 1 is more true to Aurobindo than figure 2….
Hagiographers deal with documents the way that retouchers deal with photographs. Biographers must take their documents as they find them. They have to examine all sorts of materials, paying as much attention to what is written by the subject’s enemies as by his friends, not giving special treatment even to the subject’s own version of events….
Such an approach is possible and necessary when dealing with public events. But what about mystical experiences? In trying to trace the lines of Aurobindo’s sadhana, a biographer can use the subject’s diaries, letters, and retrospective accounts. There are also, for comparison, accounts by others of similar mystical experiences. But in the end, such experiences remain subjective. Perhaps they are only hallucinations or signs of psychotic breakdown? Even if not, do they have any value to anyone but the subject?
Those who have had mystical experiences have always held that they are the basis of a kind of knowledge that is more fundamental, and thus more valuable, than the relative knowledge of words and things. Absorbed in inner experience, the mystic is freed from the problems that afflict men and women who are caught in the dualities of knowledge and ignorance, pleasure and pain, life and death. A mystic thus absorbed often is lost to the human effort to achieve a more perfect life. But this is not the only possible outcome of spiritual practice. Aurobindo’s first major experience was a state of mystical absorption, but he was driven to return to the active life, and spent the next forty years looking for a way to bring the knowledge and power of the spirit into the world. In this lies the value of his teaching to men and women of the twenty-first century.
(17) As a rule, however, he kept to himself. Most of his classmates were too much older than he to be his friends. A few patronised him on account of his childishness; the rest paid him scant attention. He had few of the qualities that English schoolboys find interesting. Weak and inept on the playing field, he was also — by his own account — a coward and a liar.
Source of first statements given in footnote 26, “Government of India, Home Department Proceedings, series D, June 1908, 13: 3, National Archives of India.” Sri Aurobindo’s “own account”, not quoted verbatim and therefore not footnoted, is from a talk of 28 June 1926 recorded by A.B. Purani: “I was a most terrible liar and perhaps no greater coward on earth.” Cited by Purani in Sri Aurobindo in England, p. 18.