Sri Aurobindo Ghose (1872–1950) is one of the most well-known Indian gurus in the West. Educated in England, he remained throughout his life a prolific writer, in English, of literary theory, poetry, philosophy, social and political commentary, and history. His published work alone earns for him a respected place in both modern Indian history and the world of twentieth century letters. Of equal, if not greater, importance, however, were his achievements as a spiritual leader. He and his spiritual consort and successor, Mirra Alfassa (1878–1973), propagated (devotees would say they revealed) an elaborate, multi-tiered universe of matter and spirit. Aurobindo claimed that in his lifetime, and because of his years of concentration and meditation, the next evolutionary stage for the human species was entering our time and space. Future humanity would be as advanced beyond present humanity as human beings are advanced over animals. Aurobindo also claimed that he fought against the destructive influences of Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin, limiting their accomplishments and helping to bring the Second World War to a successful conclusion for the Allies. Today Aurobindo’s published writings are disseminated and taught by many devotees, who meet in groups and study centers in India, the United States, and other countries. The headquarters for this movement is the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, located in the Indian city of Pondicherry, formerly a French colonial possession, where Aurobindo moved in the early twentieth century after he was imprisoned by the British authorities for his activities in support of Indian independence.
Until now, most biographical information about Aurobindo was only available in the writings of devotees, and had an understandably devotional, laudatory slant regarding the details of Aurobindo’s life. Scholarship on Aurobindo has lacked a biography of Aurobindo thoroughly grounded in primary sources and written from the perspective of an outsider, or at least by a person who appreciates the conventions of sound historical writing. Peter Heehs has filled that gap with the present volume. It will undoubtedly serve for many years to come as the standard biography of this great Indian figure. Heehs is well-qualified to write this book. An American, he has lived in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram since the 1970s and was one of the founders of the Ashram’s Archives. His biography is the result of decades of work in the primary documents related to Aurobindo’s life. He has been instrumental in preparing thousands of pages of Aurobindo’s writing for publication. If anyone knows Aurobindo’s oeuvre better than any other living Westerner today, it is Heehs.
The book is divided into five parts, corresponding to Heehs’s division of Aurobindo’s life into five “lives:” Son, Scholar, Revolutionary, Yogi and Philosopher, and Guide. Going merely by the title of the book, one is tempted to classify Heehs among the writers of New Biography, who are influenced by post-structuralist and postmodernist views of identity. New Biographers assume that there is no constant personality running through the years of a given lifetime. Rather, our identities are composed of many currents, sociological, psychological and material, that reconfigure continuously. However, this is not Heehs’s approach. He assumes that Aurobindo was the same person throughout his life. The five divisions simply “highlight his many-sidedness. . . . Five lives, but in the end, only one” (ix).
Aurobindo’s early years were marked by privilege in India that gave way to penury in England. His father, a Bengali physician, was an Anglophile. English was the language spoken in Aurobindo’s home. His father sent Aurobindo and his two brothers to England for their education. Aurobindo stayed until he completed his degree at Oxford University. During these years, Aurobindo absorbed Victorian British culture and became an expert in British literature. When he returned to India as a young man to work for a local rajah, he didn’t know enough of the languages spoken on the subcontinent to communicate with his fellow Indians. Eventually he learned Bengali, and could converse and write with it, but English was always his first language.
He was the rajah’s personal secretary, and then a teacher in a school. Meanwhile, he also wrote for newspapers and magazines about issues of concern to Indians. And he composed poetry, a talent that culminated in the epic Savitri, based on a story from the Mahabharata. He worked on this poem for much of his adult life, and eventually it exceeded 20,000 lines. But as a young man the writing that propelled him into the political spotlight was about India’s subservience to Great Britain. He became embroiled in the political controversies of the Indian National Congress. After several years he emerged as a leader of the Extremists in that Congress. They were advocates of Indian independence and were impatient with compromise with the British authorities. Many Extremists, including Aurobindo’s own younger brother Barin Ghose, were willing to use violence to reach their goals. Although Aurobindo himself apparently did not participate in violent actions, he was implicated in an assassination plot. Unlike Mahatma Gandhi, the great advocate for nonviolent resistance, Aurobindo believed that violence could be useful in achieving independence.
He was arrested and spent a year in a Bengali jail. When released in 1909 he moved to Pondicherry, under French colonial rule, where he enjoyed some protection from the British. Several years before his imprisonment, he began to meditate. In Pondicherry, he and several younger male associates began living communally, first in one house, then another. Increasingly Aurobindo spent time apart from the others, alone in his room, writing and meditating. This tendency would increase as he got older. During his politically active years he wrote many essays for magazines, at that time the most effective way of disseminating one’s views. After he embarked upon a quieter life in Pondicherry, he continued to contribute essays on many subjects, from history to philosophy to spirituality, to his own magazine and to other publications. These writings attracted people from across India, although Bengalis tended to predominate among his devotees. As time passed, many individuals moved to Pondicherry to live near Aurobindo, who would regularly hold darshan (to see) with those who wished to be in his presence. These individuals eventually comprised the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, which became a more highly organized intentional community with specialized roles for all members.
Mirra Alfassa, called the Mother, entered Aurobindo’s life before World War One. She visited Pondicherry with her French husband, Paul Richard. During the war she and Richard lived in Japan, but at its conclusion she returned to Pondicherry and lived in the Ashram for the rest of her life. Aurobindo acknowledged her as the Shakti, the divine feminine power at the heart of the universe, manifested in human form. He believed that she shared with him, as an equal, in his spiritual work of bringing the Supermind, or next level of consciousness, into the world. As he grew older, he also became more of a recluse. For many years before his death, only the Mother and one or two others saw him on a daily basis. At his death, Aurobindo was considered one of the most important writers in India, as well as one of the more famous gurus. The movement continued under the Mother’s leadership until her death in 1973. She expanded the educational program at the Ashram and established another communal entity in 1968, Auroville, located in the countryside near Pondicherry.
Heehs has published three books on Aurobindo, including a short biography, as well as four books on Indian history and Indian spirituality. Of these seven, four were published by Oxford University Press and one by New York University Press. He is also the author of numerous articles in professional journals like History and Theory and Postcolonial Studies. The Lives of Sri Aurobindo thus caps off his career in academic publishing in both India and the West. Unfortunately, he has not been allowed to enjoy the fruit of his labor. His book sparked controversy within the ranks of Aurobindo devotees. He was attacked in print and online, and in Indian courts, by those followers who interpret their tradition rigorously. They believe that Aurobindo’s truth was expressed in a set of philosophical, cultural, and literary conventions, and that any attempt to express that truth in other ways distorts it, and must be condemned. Currently Heehs has been relieved of his duties in the Ashram’s Archives. Meanwhile, more liberally-minded devotees have rallied in support of Heehs, fostering electronic communication worldwide on his behalf and writing letters to the trustees of the Ashram.
Although dense, I would recommend this book as the first one to read if you want to understand Aurobindo and his following. If you read only one book about Aurobindo, again, this volume would get my vote. It stands in a class all its own. There is simply no other book about Aurobindo available that does all that Heehs’s book does.
W. Michael Ashcraft, Truman State University
Published in Nova Religio, Nov 2010, Vol. 14, No. 2