The Lives of Sri Aurobindo reviewed by Alan for Auroville Today.
As Peter Heehs put it in his previous short introduction to Sri Aurobindo’s life and work, published in 1989, “No one has tried to deal evenly with all the different aspects of his life: domestic, scholastic, literary, political, revolutionary, philosophical, spiritual.” The new fuller biography sets out to do justice to all these ‘lives’.
Peter’s approach is scholarly. Wherever possible he goes to primary sources. He also, on occasions, quotes different perspectives on events as well as on Sri Aurobindo himself. Some of these are unflattering, even antagonistic: this is far from being one-dimensional hagiography. Peter himself is not uncritical. He feels that Sri Aurobindo was “complacent” regarding the threat posed to Indian unity by the All-India Muslim League; he wonders whether Sri Aurobindo’s political “intransigence” aided or hindered the formation of an effective political force to oppose the British; and, in the domestic sphere, he notes “Sri Aurobindo could hardly be called a good husband”. (By the by, Peter is the first biographer to speculate, albeit briefly, about the nature of Sri Aurobindo’s sexual experience.)
Unlike those devotee biographers who present Sri Aurobindo’s life as an unfolding series of superlatives - a brilliant student, the most influential Indian politician of the early 1900s, a literary prodigy, the yogi who effortlessly attained the highest realisations etc. - Peter takes a more objective view. Thus the young Aurobindo was weak and inept on the playing field and, in his own words, “a coward and a liar”. As a student he was only really outstanding in Greek and Latin (although he was exceptionally widely-read). Sri Aurobindo was not a great public speaker. He had a shrill, high-pitched voice and generally spoke in English, ensuring that the majority of his audience could not understand him: Tilak emerges from this account as the more effective and influential politician. Sri Aurobindo’s early poetry was derivative and even much of his later poetry is outmoded and today appreciated mainly by devotees - Sri Aurobindo never came to terms with the Modernist movement in literature. Even in the spiritual sphere, it is clear that Sri Aurobindo had to work very hard before attaining most of his realizations, sometimes taking wrong turns, mistaking the nature of the experience or underestimating the difficulties involved.
To this reader at least, all of this makes Sri Aurobindo immensely more interesting and his achievements far more impressive.
Perhaps the most compelling sections of the first part of Peter’s biography are provided by his description of Sri Aurobindo’s role as a revolutionary in the early 1900s. Many previous biographers have played up his defiance of the authorities but skirted the issue of Sri Aurobindo’s actual involvement in revolutionary activities. Peter makes it clear that while Sri Aurobindo did not believe that killing a few officials would overthrow the British Government, he did not oppose assassination and, while he may not have known in detail about Barin’s - his brother’s - and his associates’ bomb-making and allied activities, he clearly had a general sense of what was going on. Asked in 1938 why he had not stood in the way of those plotting assassination, he replied, “It is not wise to check things when they have taken a strong shape, for something good may come out of them.”
Sri Aurobindo later came out against assassination, but not on moral grounds. Rather, he judged it inexpedient given the efficiency of the British military machine and the scale of their reprisals.
Sri Aurobindo’s real influence in the early years of the 20th century - and this was considerable - was as an inspirational journalist and political theorist. Sri Aurobindo was the first major figure to call for complete independence from Britain, and through his articles in the Karmayogin and Bande Mataram he succeeded in inculcating this demand in the popular mind. As a theorist, he laid out a distinct political agenda for the ‘Extremists’, the party or faction that opposed the ‘Moderates’’ efforts to seek an accommodation with the British government. While his tendency during heated debates was to sit back or to work ‘behind the scenes’, he later admitted he had a fighter’s temperament and derived “vital enjoyment and satisfaction” in the rough and tumble of political action.
Peter clarifies that Sri Aurobindo’s ‘lives’ were not sequential but frequently overlapped or were interwoven. Thus his political activity did not immediately stop or even abate after his first great spiritual experience. Indeed, Sri Aurobindo later understood that his subsequent imprisonment was forced upon him by a greater Power in order to make him sever contact with his outer work. Similarly, Sri Aurobindo’s subsequent inner explorations and discoveries were only ‘non-political’ in a narrow sense of the word. For once he was inwardly assured independence would come, he turned his attention to what he hoped Indian independence would presage for humanity as a whole - a new species inhabiting a new world.
The second half of the book examines in some detail his personal sadhana, which aimed at bringing what he termed ‘supermind’ down into matter. It also deals with his major writings, almost all of which were written initially for the periodical the Arya between 1914-20. Peter’s approach to Sri Aurobindo’s inner work and realizations is “not to argue either for their veracity or for their delusiveness; I simply present some of the documented events of [Sri Aurobindo’s] inner life and provide a framework for evaluating them.”
Particularly important in this regard is his Record of Yoga, which records in scrupulous detail the results of his inner experimentation between 1912-20 and again in 1927. This is a difficult read but Peter offers an explication of the arcane terminology. He is also very assured in his summaries of the major works.
Peter devotes less space to Sri Aurobindo’s plays and poetry. This may reflect a personal preference but it seems questionable for a biographer to pass so quickly over Savitri, the epic poem which Sri Aurobindo called his most important work and which contains some of the finest and most evocative descriptions of the ‘inner territory’. Peter also seems less assured with the plays. At one point, abandoning his fine poise as an objective biographer, Peter surmises “if [Sri Aurobindo’s] earlier plays suggest that he was searching for his ideal life partner, Vasavadutta seems to hint that he had found the woman he was seeking and was waiting for the moment when she would join him.” Peter provides no evidence to substantiate this judgement, which seems to belong more to the Mills and Boon school of criticism than to a serious academic study.
Columbia University Press has also provided a confusing index to what is otherwise a handsome edition.
These are minor quibbles, however, more than offset by Peter’s skill in analysing the Alipore bomb trial, or in rescuing Sri Aurobindo’s Uttarpara speech from a narrow Hindutva interpretation, or in clarifying the complex political situation in India at the turn of the 20th century. Above all, it is evident in his clear exposition of the essential nature of Sri Aurobindo’s yoga and the nature and significance of the inner work he was undertaking. Here, of course, biographers ultimately are confronted by a void. For while Sri Aurobindo documented certain aspects of his inner work and hinted at others, a huge amount of what he was doing was known only to himself and The Mother. As he famously put it, when trying to put off yet another prospective biographer, “The attempt [at biography] is bound to be a failure, because neither you nor anyone else knows anything at all of my life; it has not been on the surface for men to see.”
Even though, by the nature of its subject, Peter’s biography cannot claim to be all-embracing, all-explaining, it is a fine piece of scrupulous and intelligent research. It sets a new and very high standard by which biographers of Sri Aurobindo, both past and future, will be judged.