by Pratap Bhanu Mehta : Thu Apr 12 2012
Crossfire over Heehs’s work says much about our public culture of readership
India’s visa policy for scholars has long been a scandal unworthy of a liberal democracy. But the public culture of readership is even more disconcerting. Indian democracy now has to be defended book by book.
The crossfire over legalities and free speech is obscuring a deeper point. Why is our public culture so hostile to arguments that display the slightest degree of sophistication? Why do we not want to look at any argument that nudges us out of our comfort zones? Peter Heehs’s The Lives of Sri Aurobindo is a good case study for these questions. It is a historically adroit and intellectually acute work of scholarship. It goes without saying that an author’s rights must not be dependent on whether the book is a worthy one. But it should be disturbing that serious works can be so easily maligned. The tactics used reflect a wider culture of readership that does not bode well for a liberal culture: reduce complex arguments to sound bites, quote out of context and absolutely refuse to countenance any arguments that might actually elevate us. Those who attack Heehs are unwittingly revealing how little they understand Aurobindo. But they are also exhibiting symptoms of a wider cultural crisis.
I have had a long professional interest in Aurobindo. Heehs’s book was a revelation, one that elevates its subject rather than diminishes him. It is a first-rate piece of intellectual history at many levels. Its reconstruction of Aurobindo’s difficult and often obscure thought is remarkably precise. It is the first book to get the relationship between Aurobindo’s sadhna and his philosophy almost exactly right. It is a measure of its acuteness that it has grasped a deep philosophical fact: that most of Aurobindo’s oeuvre, including the The Life Divine, is an extended reworking of the Isa Upanishad. Its descriptions of Aurobindo’s own sadhna, are vivid; its reconstruction of his political theory, and the later Aurobindo’s surprising and insightful political judgements splendid. Why would such a book draw ire?
There are three ridiculous charges against the book. The first is Aurobindo’s self-confessed lack of physical courage and tendency to dissimulate in his young days. But this is understandably human; Aurobindo would be diminished if he never had fears and never lied. The remarkable story is the story of his transformation. The second is the alleged association of spiritual experience with madness. This charge is rubbish. Heehs discusses the biographical fact of madness in the family. He briefly refers to the theory that the line between a heightened state of awareness and madness is a thin one. But the thrust of the book is Aurobindo’s remarkable self-possession; the reference to this possible theory only heightens the sense of constancy in his career. The question is pertinent for Aurobindo since the whole point of his own quest was to distinguish a true spiritual experience from the simulacrum of one. Aurobindo’s own struggle had this caution: If you are going to explore the frontiers of consciousness, don’t be too confident that you understand what you have experienced. The third charge is an alleged relationship with Mother (Mirra). As a historian, Heehs simply recounts two incidents for which there is eye witness evidence that requires interpretation. On the face of it the incidents don’t tell you all that much about the relationship, though it is hard to describe even within the traditional categories of Shakti. But the reactions tell you a great deal about the fragility and close-mindedness of those who are shocked.
So the explanation for why people are offended has little to do with the content of the book. It has more to do with two failures. The first is a failure of liberal education that leaves you completely unprepared to handle complexity. I am not a fan of psychoanalytic interpretations of dubious value, an industry that often gets scandalously more academic respectability than it deserves. But in India a book that has the slightest hint of curiosity about the unconscious recesses of the mind is destined to be condemned. Even in Ramanujan’s great essay on the many Ramayanas, now banished from Delhi University, the parts that actually cause discomfort in students are the hints of Freudian interpretation; it is not the claim about diversity. How could it be otherwise for an undergraduate culture that has never read Freud and therefore does not know how to respond even when they disagree? For a culture whose texts are remarkably adventurous in exploring both the higher reaches of consciousness and its lower depths, this unthinking and unconfident recoil at a mere mention of psychological possibilities is a reflection of our cramped education.
But the second failure is among the so-called believers to cultivate a proper religious sensibility. Heehs is accused of writing from the standpoint of a non-believer, even though the book is an extraordinary work of sraddha. Aurobindo himself was conscious of two things. First, that the reconstruction of fragments of tradition was hard; the meaning of many sacred texts was simply inaccessible to us. Despite working laboriously, Aurobindo more or less admitted that he had not been able to recover the meaning of the Vedas. Most who read him on the subject cannot either, but do not have his self-confidence to admit it. Rather than admitting the inherent difficulty of the enterprise, the response is to draw a protective curtain and monumentalise tradition, as if to raise difficult questions is to commit an offence.
Second, following the Upanishads, the central category for most modern Indian intellectual history is not faith but experience. After all is said and done, the authority of any claim derives not from its antiquity or its revealed character, but its relation to experience. This is a kind of enlarged empiricism, albeit of a curious kind. The relationship between “higher experiences” and ordinary life, the relationship between the transcendent and the social, has also continuously plagued modern Indian intellectual history. For figures like Aurobindo and Vivekananda, this tension is resolved at the plane of their consciousness. But it is never even remotely resolved at the level of social existence. For followers, bereft of the experience, what remains is the assertion of faith. We put ourselves under the yoke of the Divine when we feel its presence the least.
Aurobindo wanted to “prepare India for Truth”. But the relentless assault on scholarship, the cramped sensibility with which we approach tradition, and the reduction of intellectual life to questions of identity suggest one thing: we are not prepared for any truth, whether it comes with a small “t” or a capital “T”.
The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi