A two-page document, "The Role of Peter Heehs in the Archives," was submitted to the Trustees of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram around the beginning of September, 2008. This was perhaps the first definite act of hostility in what quickly grew into a full-blown campaign against Heehs. It was soon followed by several longer and in some cases even more virulent letters which were widely circulated to mobilize opinion and force the Trustees to take action. This letter by colleagues of Heehs in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives is of special interest, not only because it seems to have marked the beginning of what would soon become a raging controversy, but because it shows clearly the personal nature of the attacks on the biographer. The writers of the letter had admittedly not read the book. But it seems that they know the author from having tea with him in the Archives until he had to suspend his work there as a result of the movement they began. His "attitude" — or their impressions of it gathered from casual conversation — is their main focus. This letter will be commented on in detail in order to get the facts straight and put the issues in perspective.
This document, headed “The Role of Peter Heehs in the Archives,” was circulated anonymously and is undated. It has been attributed on some websites to Ranganath Raghavan. Ranganath is reported to have given a letter (presumably this one) to the Trustees around the beginning of September 2008 along with Raman Reddy, the compiler of the “Extracts,” who is also a member of the Archives; “we” in the letter probably includes Raman. Ranganath and Raman are referred to below as R&R. The annotations are intended to correct misstatements and present an alternative viewpoint.
The Role of Peter Heehs in the Archives
Sri Aurobindo once wrote, while discouraging someone from writing his biography, that he did not want to be murdered in cold print by his disciples. That is exactly what has happened, under the lofty banner of “Objectivity and Realism”.
R&R begin by alluding to Sri Aurobindo’s statement: “If I am to be murdered in cold print, it had better be done without my disciples becoming abettors of the crime.” He was referring to a biography being written in the 1930s by an unknown person outside the Ashram, who had little reliable information and could hardly be expected to do better than commit the “murder” that Sri Aurobindo anticipated with typical humor. But several disciples (including A. B. Purani, the recipient of Sri Aurobindo’s letter) were later permitted to write biographies. R&R assume that Sri Aurobindo’s remark does not apply to those biographies, but only to the one by Peter Heehs. Yet they admit to not having read it.
1. For a long time, it has been known, to the Archives members at least, that Peter’s attitude to Mother and Sri Aurobindo is at best dubious and very ambiguous. He has on many occasions expressed himself as not being a devotee. In fact he frankly and freely takes pride in his attitude of objectivity towards Sri Aurobindo. For the Mother, his attitude could be described as a shade of suppressed hostility. He has often enough denigrated the devotional attitude of Indians towards Mother and Sri Aurobindo. At best, for him, they are remarkable human beings: no question of divinity, which is an immature, irrational attitude.
R&R claim to speak on behalf of all members of the Archives. But their impressions about Heehs would be disputed by others in the department and elsewhere. Before the controversy started, several readers of his book wrote to him expressing reactions such as “one can feel your love for Sri Aurobindo.” In any case, sadhaks of the Integral Yoga have never been required to be devotees in the Indian bhakti tradition. Sri Aurobindo and the Mother did not use the word “devotee” for their own disciples. As Sri Aurobindo reminds us, “men differ in nature and therefore each will approach the sadhana in his own way — one through work, one through bhakti, one through meditation and knowledge — and those who are capable of it, through all together. You are perfectly justified in following your own way, whatever may be the theories of others — but let them follow theirs. In the end all can converge together towards the same goal.” (Letters on Yoga, pp. 532-33)
2. Now he has crossed all limits. His latest book, “The Lives of Sri Aurobindo” has angered, outraged and revolted most ashramites who have had occasion to read the article in “Auroville Today”.
If the ashramites had had some yogic control over their vital movements, they would not have been so easily “angered, outraged and revolted.” The matter could then have been handled in a manner worthy of a spiritual community. Actually it was R&R, and others after them, who “crossed all limits” by instigating a mass movement against an individual sadhak, an act unprecedented in the history of the Ashram. Many people throughout the world have been, rightly or wrongly, “angered, outraged and revolted” by the movement they initiated.
His book has been released in USA and is not available in India.
The book would have been released in India in November 2008, but its publication has been delayed due to the controversy that R&R were instrumental in igniting. There was nothing unusual about the book being published first in the USA. The Foundations of Indian Culture, for example, was published in America in 1953 and did not appear in India until 1959.
3. The absolute contradiction of calling himself “a practitioner of the Integral Yoga” and yet seeing nothing wrong in denigrating his own gurus, is blatantly apparent to all, provided he agrees to be called a devotee!!! Is it possible to be a practitioner of the Integral Yoga and yet not accept Sri Aurobindo as a guru?
Sri Aurobindo and the Mother often warned sadhaks about passing judgment on other members of the Ashram. Some of these admonitions are quoted in the last section of Rules of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram (2003). The Mother said, for instance: “Do not trouble yourselves with what others do, I cannot repeat it to you too often. Do not judge, do not criticise, do not compare.” If a person considers himself to be a practitioner of the Integral Yoga, who has the right to say he is not? The Managing Trustee of the Ashram has written that “the Mother had given her tacit approval to Jayantilalda when he informed her, through Champaklalji, that PH would be working with him in the new Archives Department. Mother had seen PH.” The relation with the guru is a personal matter which does not concern anyone but the sadhak and the guru.
4. Peter has been using all the materials and facilities (documents, originals, computers, Xerox, email and even the labour of the sadhaks working there) for his personal work. And all this for selfish, commercial use.
Upon inquiry, it is found that from the beginning of Heehs’s writing career — that is, for the past twenty years — he has voluntarily given all his earnings from books, magazine articles, speeches, etc. to the Ashram Trust, minus a small percentage to cover his expenses. In the case of books consisting primarily of extracts from Sri Aurobindo’s works, 100% of the royalties go directly to the Trust without passing through Heehs’s hands. He has always repaid the Archives for any xeroxes, printouts etc. that he has made using Archives equipment. He has sometimes asked his colleagues for help in the composition of books. The fees for this work went directly to the Ashram Trust without passing through Heehs’s hands. The persons concerned understood this very well.
While the work of the COLLECTED WORKS OF SRI AUROBINDO, lies languishing for more than a decade, he is occupying himself with writing articles and books, going to conferences and holidays and the work of CWSA is likely to spill over to anything from five to ten years more. Those who have paid the full amount more than a decade ago, are waiting and complaining but it makes not the slightest difference to Peter, who glibly justifies the delay in a most cavalier fashion.
Twenty-seven volumes of THE COMPLETE WORKS OF SRI AUROBINDO have been finished (including two in the press) and work on most of the remaining volumes is at an advanced stage. This work has involved the meticulous reading of many thousands of pages of manuscripts and early editions of Sri Aurobindo’s works. The original estimate of when it would be completed was clearly unrealistic, but it does not sound as if the project has been “languishing.” It is surprising that members of the Archives would make such an allegation when they surely know how long this work takes. No other department of the Ashram has ever taken up such a huge and demanding project. It is a team effort and if there is a “delay,” no one person can be held responsible. At any rate, R&R seem to have done hardly a fraction of the work that Heehs has done. The logic of expelling one of the chief editors in order to speed up the process is baffling. According to reliable sources, it is since the expulsion of Peter Heehs that the work is indeed languishing, as this has deprived the Archives of an essential member with unique and irreplaceable expertise gained through thirty-five years of experience going back to the founding of the department. Heehs wrote articles and books in his spare time, but never neglected his work at the Archives. He has spent less time attending conferences, etc., than the writers of most of the letters in this section.
5. Although we have not yet read the book, the article and the review in “Auroville Today” is enough to create the impression among the general public that the Ashram is encouraging, or at least permitting one of its own departments to denigrate, criticize and drag down Mother and Sri Aurobindo, not merely to an ordinary human level, but even below that!!!
Here R&R lose all semblance of balance. Admitting that they have not even read the book and do not know what they are talking about, they endorse the alleged general “impression” that it drags Sri Aurobindo and the Mother down “not merely to an ordinary human level, but even below that!!!” These are wild words “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
6. We feel it is our duty to record our protest and strong disapproval, if not our utter disgust, at this development. A department of the Ashram pulling down Mother and Sri Aurobindo to a low level cannot be permitted to do so and immediate action is called for to ensure that such a thing is not possible in the future. It seems that he is already collecting materials on the Mother, for another possible book.
Heehs says that he has never considered writing a book on the Mother (much less would he write one in order to pull her “down... to a low level”). R&R evidently suffer from a severe case of what Sri Aurobindo called “one of the universal illnesses,” namely, the “habit of criticism — mostly ignorant criticism of others — mixed with all sorts of imaginations, inferences, exaggerations, false interpretations, even gross inventions.... It is a disease of the vital aided by the physical mind which makes itself an instrument of the pleasure taken in this barren and harmful pursuit of the vital.” (Letters on Yoga, pp. 1557-58) R&R’s letter has already provided several examples of “imaginations, inferences, exaggerations, false interpretations.” Here we have an instance of “gross inventions.” Such false rumors are often the most readily believed, since, as the Mother said, “most of the people here [in the Ashram] seem to live only for gossip and falsehood.” (CWM vol. 13, p. 100)
7. It may be pointed out that his own view of objectivity, broad-mindedness, catholicity, cannot be applicable in this case.
The objection to “broad-mindedness” is developed in the next item, where R&R write: “All pretence of ‘wide-mindedness, freedom of speech, catholicity of views’ becomes untenable in a spiritual life....” But when the Mother was asked, “What are the rules of conduct You consider indispensable in our community?”, she answered by listing several qualities, of which “broad-mindedness” was one: “Patience, perseverance, generosity, broad-mindedness, insight, calm and understanding firmness, and control over the ego until it is completely mastered or even abolished.” (CWM vol. 12, p. 375)
An outsider writing ill of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo in newspapers, or other magazines can do so and we have the right of reply and rebuttal. But when one of our own members indulges in this sort of calumny (it is nothing short of that!!), the situation is totally different and we can certainly do something about it.
With regard to outsiders “writing ill” of Sri Aurobindo, some of the most effective replies and rebuttals to these critics, especially academic ones, have been made by Heehs himself. Few others in the Ashram have earned enough respect among intellectuals in India or abroad that they can exert an influence on their views. Heehs has done so and has attempted to raise Sri Aurobindo’s standing in the eyes of the world. He has been rewarded for this with vilification and ostracism by his own community.
8. The spiritual life demands complete obedience, surrender and faith in the gurus.
Lacking the physical presence of the gurus, obedience should at least include, for ashramites, obeying the rules of the Ashram. By rushing to the Trustees with a grievance against another member of the Archives without first approaching the head of the department, R&R violated Rule No. 16 of the “Rules and Regulations for the Inmates of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 2003.” This reads as follows: “All internal problems of the Ashram or conflicts or differences of opinion among the inmates should be sorted out within the community. If an inmate has a grievance in respect to any other inmate or a complaint of any nature, the grievance or complaint should be expressed either to the person in charge of one’s department or residence or to the Internal Advisory Committee constituted for this purpose. Under no circumstances should an inmate bring in an outside agency for intervention in these matters. After due discussion, if necessary, the Board of Trustees may be approached for appropriate action, and the decision of the Board of Trustees in this regard shall be final and binding.”
It is unthinkable to find fault with them [the gurus], let alone rush into print about their alleged shortcomings.
Since R&R had not read the book before writing this, the “alleged shortcomings” can only be those mentioned at the beginning of the review in Auroville Today. According to the reviewer, the recognition of the limitations that Sri Aurobindo overcame through his Yoga “makes Sri Aurobindo immensely more interesting and his achievements far more impressive.” Others have reacted differently. But in any case, these “shortcomings” belong to Sri Aurobindo’s early life or at most to the early stages of his Yoga before he had an ashram and disciples. They have nothing to do with his mature spiritual stature or his authority as a guru, which Heehs does not question. Heehs’s depiction of his development is perfectly consistent with Sri Aurobindo’s own statement: “I had no urge towards spirituality in me, I developed spirituality. I was incapable of understanding metaphysics, I developed into a philosopher.... I transformed my nature from what it was to what it was not. I did it by a special manner, not by a miracle and I did it to show what could be done and how it could be done.” (On Himself, pp. 148-49)
All pretence of “wide-mindedness, freedom of speech, catholicity of views” becomes untenable in a spiritual life, where these relatively shallow values of an open society are not applicable.
Ironically it seems that R&R justified their breach of the Ashram rules (in complaining directly to the Trustees and letting their letter be circulated to fuel a public controversy) by saying that they were exercising their freedom of speech. But when it suits them, they reject freedom of speech along with wide-mindedness and catholicity of views as shallow modern values.
Extremely private, confidential and sensitive material is at his disposal long before others, even in the Archives, have access to it.
R&R know that this is a lie. The Archives Manuscript Issue Register reveals that most of the manuscripts removed from the Archives Cold Storage in recent years were taken by Raman Reddy, who has had free access to letters and private diaries. During the same period, Peter Heehs took no manuscripts out of Cold Storage. The records showing this have been made available to the Trustees. Raman has also published articles making use of information found in Purani’s notes, the most controversial source cited in Heehs’s biography.
And he is using all these letters, diaries of sadhaks for his own personal commercial use. The availability of such sensitive documents to him must be put an end to.
The allegation of “commercial use” is false. In any case, new rules restricting access to such materials (not only “to him” but in general) have been adopted by the Archives in the last few months. This has been one of the few constructive outcomes of the present controversy.
10. In the life of any great man, let alone an Avatar, there is always something that is mundane, common and down to earth. The value of a life does not lie in these things. Rather one has to focus and see the highest achievements that have contributed to mankind’s forward march. One does not discuss and emphasise the common elements, even if they are true.
Here R&R lay down the law about what a biographer of a great man, particularly an Avatar, can discuss. They forbid the mention of “common elements” on the assumption that taking any notice of these will detract from the man’s highest achievements. But there can be different motives for leaving out nothing from the account of the life of such a man. In Ramakrishna and His Disciples, Christopher Isherwood describes the attitude of “M,” the author of The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, toward the depiction of his Master: “His firm belief in the divinity of Ramakrishna’s nature was just what stopped him from presenting his Master as the glorified figure of a holy man. Anything that Ramakrishna says or does is sacred to him; therefore he omits nothing, alters nothing. In his pages, we encounter Ramakrishna as an authentic spiritual phenomenon; by turns godlike and childlike, sublime and absurd, now expounding the highest philosophy, now telling funny animal stories as parables, now singing and dancing, now staggering in ecstasy like a drunkard, now admonishing his devotees with the mature wisdom of a father, now dropping his wearing-cloth and walking naked like a baby.” (1974 ed., p. 278)
A really perceptive biographer will enter the mansion that is Sri Aurobindo’s life and seek out the highest, open-to-sky terrace from where he can glimpse the infinity of a clear, star-lit firmament! He does not go down to the dirty cellar or look for a blockage in the sewage system so that he can gleefully and perversely report it to the world at large.
The preoccupation of Heehs’s critics with sewage is puzzling. Alok Pandey also wrote to Peter: “Anyway, your road to fame is open through the backdoor, nay the sewage pipe through which some choose to enter a palace.” The numerous admirers of Heehs’s biography, many of whom feel that it reveals new dimensions of Sri Aurobindo’s greatness, may wonder what is behind this kind of language.
12. In his own words, he takes Sri Aurobindo’s yoga “quite seriously”, not whole-heartedly or with full faith as any self-styled “practitioner of the Integral Yoga” should do.
Some practitioners of the Integral Yoga do not have the temperament that makes them feel like trumpeting their deepest feelings to all and sundry. It is not at all clear that Sri Aurobindo and the Mother would have considered this a disability for the practice of the Yoga. In fact, they generally advised sadhaks not to speak to others about their inner life. The need to proclaim one’s faith in public shows a religious more than a spiritual attitude.
13. Why is it necessary for him to consider other critics’ negative comments about Sri Aurobindo’s poetry? Why is it necessary to speak of the “delusiveness” of Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual experiences?
Heehs has exercised “the right of reply and rebuttal” admitted by R&R themselves in item 7 above. This cannot be done if one is barred from even mentioning these criticisms. Heehs himself does not present Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual experiences as “delusive,” but argues against such a view.
14. Peter says Sri Aurobindo “passed all (his) tests”. Is this an attitude of a sadhak or of an arrogant authority sitting in judgment over One, whose peon or menial servant Peter could not possibly be?
The attitude reflected in Heehs’s remark is by no means unknown in the Indian spiritual tradition. Swami Nikhilananda writes in his biography of Vivekananda: “For five years Narendra closely watched the Master, never allowing himself to be influenced by blind faith, always testing the words and actions of Sri Ramakrishna in the crucible of reason. It cost him many sorrows and much anguish before he accepted Sri Ramakrishna as the guru and the ideal of the spiritual life. But when the acceptance came, it was wholehearted, final, and irrevocable. The Master, too, was overjoyed to find a disciple who doubted, and he knew that Naren was the one to carry his message to the world.”
15. The repeated use of negative comments by others, clearly establishes his veiled antagonism, which he is passing off as “objectivity, open-mindedness and catholicity”, which is not going to deceive even a child!!!
Even a child could see that R&R have an axe to grind. But in fairness to them, in spite of their highly disputable attribution of “veiled antagonism” to Heehs as his motive for referring to “negative comments by others” (generally in order to refute them; see the comments on items 7 and 13 above), they stop short of ascribing “diabolic” intentions to him as some others have done. Their personal contact with Heehs, although it may have antagonized them, seems to have saved them from the excesses of demonization that came so easily to those who could let their imaginations run riot about someone they hardly knew.
16. Action has become imperative and inaction will prove very costly.
The “action” demanded is not specified. But R&R’s aim is clear: to impose a particular approach to Sri Aurobindo as the only permissible one, and to expel from the community anyone with a different temperament. The inquisitorial attitude of R&R and the writers of most of the letters that followed is the opposite of the Mother’s outlook. A passage from one of her last talks in the 1950s is worth quoting in full, in order to leave no doubt as to her view of the matter:
“It is good for you, that is all that is needed. If you want to impose it on others, whatever it may be, even if it is perfect in itself, it becomes false.
“That is why religions are always mistaken — always — because they want to standardise the expression of an experience and impose it on everyone as an irrefutable truth. The experience was true, complete in itself, convincing — for the one who had it. The formulation he made of it was excellent — for himself. But to want to impose it on others is a fundamental error which has altogether disastrous consequences, always, which always leads far, very far from the Truth.
“That is why all the religions, however beautiful they may be, have always led man to the worst excesses. All the crimes, the horrors perpetrated in the name of religion are among the darkest stains on human history, and simply because of this little initial error: wanting what is true for one individual to be true for the mass or collectivity.
“The path must be shown and the doors opened but everyone must follow the path, pass through the doors and go towards his personal realisation.
“The only help one can and should receive is that of the Grace which formulates itself in everyone according to his own need.” (CWM vol. 9, pp. 407-8)
Annotated by Angiras