By Gopu Mohan: Chennai, Mon Apr 09 2012
In the early 1970s, when the world was discovering Indian spirituality, a young man from Chicago set out to gather the education necessary to understand the abstract ideas of Sri Aurobindo better.
Peter Heehs reached the Aurobindo Ashram in Puducherry in 1971.
Forty years on, Heehs is among the most acclaimed experts on Aurobindo. Yet he has been made to feel unwelcome for having come up with what is arguably the most thorough biography of the spiritual philosopher.
The Lives of Sri Aurobindo is at the centre of a controversy after a section of devotees objected to some of its portions. Their opposition has made him stay away from the archives department of the ashram, which he has been part of right from the early days, and has threatened the renewal of his visa, which has been pending for the past few years.
Heehs claims the controversy was manufactured by a minority, who have culled certain portions from the book and distributed it among the devotees to create the wrong impression. “They have de-contextualised portions of the book and presented it to the devotees with the insinuation that I was purposely offending. They have taken pains to type out those portions and distributed them as a computer file, because in a photocopy there is an option to question and find out what is said before and after the particular section of text,” he said.
The book, published first in New York by the Columbia University Press in 2008, could not be published in India as was planned because of the outrage and a series of cases filed against the author, the charges including blasphemy.
“I am not writing for the devotees; for them there are books, magazines and souvenirs,” he said. “This is a work meant for a certain section of the people who are primarily academicians and historians, and even devotees who have such inclinations.”
The trouble broke out within the department and then reached the trustees’ level, followed by a signature campaign. When the controversy affected its release in India, he listed out the objections raised, which were found not significant by the commissioning editor of his Indian publisher. Heehs said he still suggested a set of revisions and started working on those, which meant the publication had to be rescheduled to February 2009. Then Heehs came up with another idea: he would get a subsidiary right to reproduce the book in an abridged format that would not have the objectionable portions. This was to be meant for devotees who are interested in “knowing the details but not all the details”, to be sold only through ashrams and other such book depots.
“While collecting the works of Aurobindo, I have read numerous hagiographies that still contained tiny gems of information. This book was to be a truthful account of his life, but keeping in mind the concerns of the devotees... there were to be three versions — the original, the Indian one with minor changes, and finally the abridged one for the devotees. But perhaps I should not have taken the pains; this was not a discussion but mere screaming. Nothing was going to satisfy them because their aim is different,” he said.
The book was in fact an extension of his previous works including a brief biography of Aurobindo and some on the freedom struggle in Bengal during the late 19th and 20th centuries, a culmination of all the information he collected from the archives in Delhi, Kolkata and then England — where Aurobindo spent over a decade.
Heehs is being accused of bringing down the dignity of the ashram. His opponents are led in part by Kittu Reddy, a nephew of former President Sanjeeva Reddy and a senior member of the administration who has been associated with the ashram for decades. Reddy, who has been a part of the ashram since 1941 when he was five years old, charged that by writing the book, Heehs has hurt the feelings and sentiments of disciples, devotees and well-wishers of Sri Aurobindo. He demanded that the ashram take all efforts to stop the publication and distribution of the book and sever all contact with Heehs.
“There is nothing objectionable academically or in terms of history. I am ready to answer any question any day on the aspects of scholarship and history,” said Heehs.
When he first came to India, Heehs had a tourist visa that was subsequently upgraded to an entry visa which is to be renewed every few years. The last time it came up for renewal was in 2009 when the controversy erupted and his opponents campaigned against it, leaving the scholar with a legal status of “ person with application pending”. Recently, the Foreigner Regional Registration Office at Puducherry informed him that that his visa will not be extended beyond April 15.
A group of peers and others who are familiar with Heehs’s work have come to his aid, including Union Minister Jairam Ramesh who wrote to Home Minister P Chidambaram, Romila Thapar and Ramachandra Guha among 28 scholars and experts. They have approached the Home Minister and the Prime Minister, stating that “factional disagreements in Mr Heehs’s hometown should not receive the implicit support of the Indian state, which would happen if the Home Ministry were to deny him a visa allowing him to continue in India. It would be greatly to the detriment of our country to be seen as having driven out an internationally recognised scholar who is committed to writing biography and history of the highest calibre.”
The matter is now under the review of the Home Minister.
As the indecision continues into the third year, Heehs has been keeping away from the archives department, an “extended leave” as he downplayed it. In the break, he worked on another book that is close to getting published. “Writing it kept my sanity.”
Objections & Heehs take
In a letter to the managing trustee of the ashram trust in 2008, Heehs argued that the controversies broke because people were misled by the duplicitous excerpts they had been given.
In the book, Heehs expressed the opinion that some of the early artistic works by the Mother (Mirra Alfassa, a Parisian who became Aurobindo’s spiritual collaborator) “show excellent technique and classical balance, if little originality”; this was considered defamatory.
Heehs paraphrased Aurobindo’s own description of his youth that he was “a most terrible liar and perhaps no greater coward on earth”. Heehs wrote, “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.”
In another portion, he considered “a question that may have occurred to some readers” whether Aurobindo’s inner experiences might, after all, be symptoms of madness. Heehs claimed in his letter to Gupta that it was not a far-fetched concern. “It is a fact that mysticism and madness have been connected in people’s minds for centuries, that at least some madmen have believed that they were mystics, and that some mystics have passed through periods when those around them wondered whether they had lost their balance,” he wrote. He justified it by adding that he concluded that Aurobindo was anything but unbalanced.
There are also allegations that the portions include, apparently, a relationship between Aurobindo and The Mother.