Published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Volume 21, Issue 03, pp 383–386.
Just how do you write a biography of an Aurobindo? Peter Heehs faces the challenge faced by all biographers when writing the life-stories of Indian holy men or of Indian politicians turned saints, both invariably avatars to their disciples. Can one maintain the criterion for the writing of history laid down by the Enlightenment? It is all too easy to set Aurobindo on a pedestal. When I visited the ashram in October 1995 I was moved by attending a meditation beside the tomb of Aurobindo and the Mother and this is how I recorded it in my diary: "At one point I grew aware of the overpowering presence of the tree over the tomb and looked up into the night sky and saw a light in the former room of Aurobindo and the Mother. It was as if they were present". I seem, however, to have been rather less moved by a subsequent visit to their living quarters. There I saw the settee on which they would receive darshan. At one stage, however, I subscribed to a verdict that Aurobindo was the greatest Indian never to have become India's prime-minister and maybe the truly exciting accounts of Aurobindo are just those that do subscribe to his evidently mesmeric charisma.
Peter Heehs is ideally equipped to be Aurobindo's biographer. Following an encounter with his ideas in various yoga centres in New York in 1972 he came to the ashram and, somewhat surprisingly, for he had no formal training as archivist or historian, was invited to stay on to collect materials for his life and prepare his manuscripts for publication. His has been a prolonged encounter with the source materials on Aurobindo's life as well as long-term membership of the ashram. However, he was soon to discover there was a limit, as he sees it, to the truthfulness with which he could write about Aurobindo. It is not as if he has set out to demythologise Aurobindo but he does seek to write a life as firmly based on evidence as he can. But he then runs up against the inherent difficulty of writing about the yogic experience. At this point he concedes "this biographer will make use of Aurobindo's accounts of his experiences, trying to square them where possible with other sorts of evidence, but not treating them as data for psychological or sociological analysis" (p. 145). I wonder just how much of a constraint that placed on any interpretation of his thought. But Heehs is far more embattled with the way accounts of Aurobindo have been hagiographical: "from 1921 on most descriptions of Aurobindo read as though they are taken out of the puranas or the mythological texts" (p. 330). He concludes: "like all icons he is misinterpreted by his admirers as well as his detractors, praised or reviled for things he never said or did" (p 413).
As a gesture no doubt to Nethercot's titles The First Five Lives of Annie Besant (1961) and The Last Four Lives of Annie Besant (1963), Heehs sees Aurobindo's life in terms of several lives, son, scholar, revolutionary, yogi and philosopher, guide. This validates his narrative approach though they do not have the same shape as all those various incarnations in the life of Annie Besant, and for Aurobindo his differing lives are really only the major contrast between politician and yogi. We do of course need to know about his family background. Here was a father who began by being enamoured with British rule and set out to educate his son as British only then to turn against what he saw as heartless rule, and a mother who suffered from serious mental ill-health and in time succumbed to a manic-depressive psychosis. And Aurobindo's English education by way of preparing himself for the ICS , initially in the home of a Congregationalist minister in Manchester, then St Paul's and finally King's Cambridge all with scholarships, for Aurobindo was always impoverished, left him profoundly Anglicised. English was always to remain his preferred language but he was also extremely hostile to English people in general. Having been accepted for the ICS, Aurobindo then chose to fail the riding test, for he rode in Baroda and in 1893 he joined the Baroda administration instead, only to undertake just the kind of administrative work he would have done as a member of the ICS. Intellectually this leaves him as a kind of transitional figure, rooted in British culture, above all its literature and hard-pressed to learn his native language, Bengali, let alone other Indian languages; always speaking with an English public school accent, yet undertaking a truly Gargantuan attempt to master India's sacred literature. His life may more naturally fit into the categories of politician, writer, yogi.
Heehs queries whether Aurobindo was ever an effective politician. He was involved for but four years in the nationalist movement but, through imprisonment, only truly active for two and a half of these. His unique contribution was to write more persuasively than any other politician of the day for Indian independence, though fellow activist in the Extremist wing of Congress, Tilak, was surely his political equal. Heehs is very aware of the need to demonstrate that Aurobindo did not subscribe to any Hindutva agenda and interprets his famous Uttarpara speech of 30 May 1909, arguing that the sanatana dharma had to be the foundation of Indian nationalism was, in fact, an affirmation of universal truths. Even so, Heehs concludes: "although by no means a chauvinist, Aurobindo was convinced of the essential superiority of Indian culture" (p. 189). But even more controversial for those of a Gandhian outlook was Aurobindo's engagement in the revolutionary movement in Bengal and his acceptance of violence. This is a story Heehs has already ably told in his The Bomb in Bengal: The Rise of Revolutionary Terrorism in India 1900-1910 and in the biography there is an extraordinary account of his time in prison during the Alipore Bomb trial, but there is no doubt that Aurobindo was aware of his younger brother, Barin's active involvement in terrorism and Aurobindo was extremely fortunate to be acquitted. Heehs at least raises the possibility this was through the trial judge, Charles Beachcroft, being a fellow candidate in the ICS examination.
Aurobindo never wholly cut himself off from politics and made the occasional authoritative judgement from Pondicherry. Certainly many sought his endorsement, C. R. Das, Gandhi, inter alia, though without success. He came out in support of the Cripps proposal of 1942. Heehs faults him for over-privileging independence at the expense of social reform and believes he has also to share some of the blame for the rise of communalism and partition. Aurobindo saw Pakistan as the outcome of "fraud, force and treachery" (quoted p. 406) and believed India would be reunited. If Aurobindo argued for passive resistance at the same time as Gandhi was working out satyagraha in South Africa, unlike Gandhi he accepted a role that violence might play, though came to see its ineffectiveness against the overwhelming retaliatory power of the colonial state. But many may disagree with Heehs's judgement: "it cannot be denied that violence real and threatened did as much as passive resistance to bring the British to the negotiating table. If the Government consented to deal with Gandhi, it was because they were obliged to accept him as the lesser of two evils" (p. 211). Maybe Aurobindo never ceased to be actively political, for he clearly believed that through his writing and yoga he was preparing for what he saw as primary, the spiritual life of independent India.
Will Aurobindo survive as a writer? Some see him as supremely the poet. If he was steeped in English poetry, on his return to India he set about evaluating Indian poets, Vyasa and Kalidasa, became their translator and convinced of their superiority. At any opportunity he would write verse drama, his greatest, Savitri, only completed shortly before his death. Unfortunately, this is poetry in a lachrymose Victorian style and has none of the acerbity of the modernist movement. Equally he was a journalist and the political journalism of his early career will surely survive. But then he changed content from the political of Bande Mataram to the spiritual of Karmayogin and later in the most prolific of all, Arya, initially bilingual French and English, to run from 1914 to 1920, some 4,600 pages, but written in those 'periodic' sentences of multiple clauses, and it is much harder going. Aurobindo brought an exceptional degree of concentration to his writing; able to write under the most adverse circumstances, and it was just this same quality that he brought to bear in his practice of yoga.
This was the central drama of his life. Heehs concludes: "it is impossible to say anything certain about the success or failure of this endeavour" (p. 414). In origin it was piecemeal, with spiritualist séances, a meeting with a yogi on the banks of the Narmadda and then, the nearest to any form of training he received, guidance from a government clerk, Vishnu Bhaskar Lele, undertaken to strengthen his resolve in the political struggle. But then came an experience of the silent Brahman, of the eternal silence and of the world as maya "It was precisely the experience that Aurobindo did not want from yoga". Heehs interprets this: "coming at the peak of Aurobindo's career was the most dramatic turning point in his life" (p. 144). From now on Aurobindo seems to be on auto-pilot. In jail in 1909 he experiences the active Brahman: "in a moment his mind was flooded with coolness, his heart with happiness"(p. 164). But the message was clear, turn away from the political to the divine. Aurobindo named his yoga integral, for it assimilated all three yogic paths, jnana, bhakti, karma, but in fact it went in a different direction, for whereas they all sought a transcendent absorption of the ego in the divine, Aurobindo sought to draw the divine or 'super-mind' and he called his system 'supramentalism'-down into the physical. It was a this-worldly spirituality. However he came to see that human beings were not up to the task and an entirely new 'psychic' being would have to evolve to raise levels of consciousness. It is almost impossible to convey the melodrama of this quest. Had he on 24 November 1926 'crossed the threshold'? Later, Aurobindo recognised that "the descent of 1926 was rather of the Overmind, not of the Supermind proper." (p. 345) and the quest went on, but this time in almost complete withdrawal, his version of retirement. Aurobindo described the quest in his Record of Yoga and Heehs relies on this for his description but the writing is filled with Sanskrit terminology and it can come over as rather flat. Having failed to be rid of the raj by physical force it as if Aurobindo tried to tame the divine by mental force. Courageously, Heehs raises the possibility that this yogic quest has characteristics of schizophrenia and in many ways there are parallels with Jung's exploration of the collective unconscious through his own psychosis, and there would have been nothing shameful had this also been the case with Aurobindo, but Heehs discards the idea.
Aurobindo emerges from this biography as a pretty strange individual. For much of his life he seemed to suffer from serious self-neglect, dressing shabbily, eating indifferently. His exercise invariably took the form of pacing endlessly around his room. Maybe he lacked a woman in his life. Marriage between the 28 year old Aurobindo and the 14 year old Mrinalini - he advertised for a wife - was not the answer, and for years they lived apart, though at the time of her death from influenza in 1919 she was planning to join Aurobindo in Pondicherry. But the partnership with the wife of French politician and spiritual seeker Paul Richard, Mira Alfassa, was the answer, she was to be his Shakti, his source of energy. They first met 29 March 1914, were then separated by the war, but in 1920 she left Paul for Aurobindo and by patiently waiting was by 1926 entirely to take over his life. Certainly Aurobindo's appearance and health markedly improved. But it came at a price. The community of sadhaks (seekers), under the Mother's guidance, became an ashram. Aurobindo, who had formerly believed as a good democrat in being accessible to the community, assumed the role of guru and became remote, only to be seen on the four annual darshan days, and, even more seriously, what had been a kind of experimental open-ended yogic quest subtly shifted towards becoming a cult.
Heehs has endeavoured to produce an objective account of Aurobindo and it is a formidable piece of scholarship. But those who prefer an Aurobindo who is more glamorous and mysterious, there are some excellent if confessional memoirs - my favourite is by one of his doctors, Nirodbaran Twelve Years with Sri Aurobindo (1973) - I first met him on the ashram's running track, still fighting fit in his80s - and I enjoyed Georges Van Vrekhem's The Mother: The Story of Her Life (2000). Possibly the only way to write about Aurobindo and the Mother is through fiction and Anita Desai in Journey to Ithaca(1995) and Lee Langley in A House in Pondicherry (1995) have obliged.
Honorary Senior Research Fellow, University of Kent