Fundamentalism in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram
We, the writers on this site, are concerned about recent actions by a vocal minority among the followers or devotees of Sri Aurobindo, and reactions by impressionable masses inside and outside the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. There are signs of attempts to turn the Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother into a religion with some of the characteristics of fundamentalism.
Coined around 1920 to refer to certain sects of Protestant Christians in the United States, the word "fundamentalism" it now is applied to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and members of other religious groups that claim to be the exclusive repositories of truth. But as the word began to be used more broadly, its meaning became vague. To avoid misuse, we will clarify what we mean by “fundamentalism” and show why certain persons inside and outside the Ashram might be called “fundamentalists”.
The Integral Yoga and Religion — An Historical Overview
Sri Aurobindo made it clear on many occasions that it was not his intention to found a new religion or to revive an old one. The most famous statement to this effect, which comes at the end of Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, written in the third-person in February 1934, is worth recalling:
It is not his [Sri Aurobindo’s] object to develop any one religion or to amalgamate the older religions or to found any new religion, for any of these things would lead away from his central purpose. The one aim of his Yoga is an inner self-development by which each one who follows it can in time discover the one Self in all and evolve a higher consciousness than the mental, a spiritual and supramental consciousness which will transform and divinise human nature.
→ Sri Aurobindo on religion
As the Ashram took form during the 1930s, Sri Aurobindo and the Mother encouraged their disciples to leave aside conventional religious practices or to fill them with a larger yogic significance. Practices which could become vehicles of bhakti or devotion were permitted, even promoted, for bhakti is a primary component of the Integral Yoga. Sri Aurobindo distinguished practices like pranam, which had “living value”, from “old forms” like sraddha for the dead or namaz, which he believed might eventually fall away (Letters on Yoga, p. 850). At the same time he and the Mother did not rule out all external forms of worship: “There is no restriction in this Yoga to inward worship and meditation only," he wrote in a letter. "As it is a Yoga for the whole being, not for the inner being only, no such restriction could be intended” (Letters on Yoga, p. 777).
As the years passed, various forms of outward worship developed in the Ashram, and it became generally understood that an overt devotional attitude differing little from conventional religion was the one right way of approaching Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. For a while, this attitude remained a matter of personal choice; but in recent years it has become more and more obligatory. Anyone who did not follow the dictates of the crowd in what they said and did, risked general condemnation.
There is nothing in Sri Aurobindo’s writings to justify such an attitude. He always insisted that yoga had to be based on individual effort, not surrender to the dictates of the crowd. He even wrote, in The Synthesis of Yoga, that
the perfection of the integral Yoga will come when each man is able to follow his own path of Yoga, pursuing the development of his own nature in its upsurging towards that which transcends the nature. For freedom is the final law and the last consummation.
The Situation Today
Recently the conflict between individual freedom and the resistance of the mass mind has risen to an unprecedented level in connection with the book The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, by Peter Heehs, an American member of the ashram. An outline of the issues may be found here:
→ An Outbreak of Fundamentalism?
→ Larger Issues of the Lives of Sri Aurobindo Controversy
From the beginning, the movement against Heehs and his biography of Sri Aurobindo expressed itself in forms that differed considerably from those generally used in the discussion of historical literature. Heehs’s opponents have not checked his references, questioned his arguments, or suggested alternative interpretations. Instead, they have launched a mass movement demanding his immediate expulsion from the Ashram or at least from the department (the Ashram Archives) in which he worked, banning the publication of his book in India and calling for the destruction of all previously sold copies. When their demands were not met in full by the Ashram Trustees, they launched civil and criminal cases against Heehs, and otherwise attempted to intimidate him.
At this writing, the movement against Heehs and his book is still in full swing. Frustrated by their failure to bring about Heehs’s expulsion, the leaders of the movement continue their work through court cases, incendiary blogs, mass emailings, signature campaigns, dharnas ("peaceful demonstrations" that have turned out less than peaceful on occasion), gossip, and other attempts to influence the mass mind in the Ashram and outside. So far their efforts have been remarkably successful.
We intend this site to serve as a platform or network for those who are opposed to these attempts to turn the Integral Yoga into a fundamentalist religion. We fear that if this movement is allowed to continue, it might corrupt and delay the fulfilment of Sri Aurobindo’s work. At worst it might — to quote from a letter that Sri Aurobindo wrote in 1934 — reduce his work “to a pompous farce from which the Truth that was coming down recedes into secrecy and silence.”