November 13, 2008
You have perhaps heard of some of the hubbub surrounding the publication of Peter Heeh's recent biography of Sri Aurobindo, The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, published by Columbia University Press. As a professor teaching Art History at Pasadena City College and UCLA, I can see the beginning of a new opening to the message of Indian spirituality and the special contribuition of Sri Aurobindo as a result of scholarly attention to this book. All those I know who have read the book have been positively impacted by the horizons of human possibility represented in Sri Aurobindo's life through the book's unsentimental portrayal.
To give an instance, one of my colleagues, Dr. Nalini Rao, professor of Art History at Soka University in Irvine and daughter of renowned archaeologist, Dr. S. R. Rao, hearing about the controversies that have surrounded the book, at first reacted in a strongly negative manner to the text's purported denouncement of hagiography, saying that hagiography is the form of Indian sacred biography and "a foreigner" should not be running it down. I asked her whether she had read the book and she answered that she had not. About a week later, she called me to say that she had bought and read the book and could just not understand what the problem was. She said she enjoyed reading the book and felt inspired by Sri Aurobindo's life. In fact, she is now taking a group of 12 students to Auroville to learn about the kind of spiritual society that Sri Aurobindo and the Mother have set up as a model experiment.
This is the case of an Indian academic in America. Western academics are more unreserved in their appreciation. Dr. Christopher Chapple, head of the Comparative Theology department at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, was all praise for the book, hailing it as a way by which the very necessary work and message of Sri Aurobindo could get out to a larger sphere of those who concern themselves with the problems of the modern world and of human destiny.
The book reviews have also started coming in and they are also unequivocally positive in their assessment. Here, for example is Choice Reviews for Academic Libraries.
...Many expositions and commentaries on Sri Aurobindo's principal works have been written, especially on The Life Divine, but this reviewer believes that Heehs's book stands out as the very best by enabling readers to understand the various circumstances that led Sri Aurobindo to his final destination. Heehs (independent scholar) richly deserves congratulations for the first-class research and scholarship evident in this rare work. Excellent notes, bibliography, and index enhance the book's value. All students and scholars of Sri Aurobindo will find this extraordinary book most rewarding. Summing Up: Essential. Graduate students and faculty/researchers; general readers. — R. Puligandla, Emeritus, University of Toledo.
In the light of this reception, it is extremely disheartening to see that a handful of zealous disciples in India have taken it upon themselves to denounce the book, force its author out of the archives (they have succeeded in this) and the ashram and now, to ban the book from Indian publication. Perhaps you are aware of all the circumstances around these activities, but I felt compelled to draw your attention to some of these activities, specially since you are the Chairman of the Advisory Council for Ananda Reddy's University of Tomorrow. The zealots who have utilized methods of distorted mass propaganda to achieve a universal ill-will towards the book and its author in India, are unfortunately, mostly teachers with academic pretensions. It is Ananda Reddy, Sraddhalu Ranade, Kittu Reddy, Alok Pandey, R.Y. Deshpande, Vijay Poddar and Sacchidananda Mohanty, all figures, who by dint of teaching Sri Aurobindo, have set themselves up as controllers of opinion in the Sri Aurobindo community, that have used their power over the masses irresponsibly to achieve fundamentalist and cultist religious and political ends, completely contrary to what Sri Aurobindo and the Mother have stood for.
My intent in this letter is not to urge you to any specific action, Karan-ji. I respect and admire your clarity of vision and inspired support of Sri Aurobindo and India's spiritual contribution to the modern world and humanity at large. At a time when the mass of Sri Aurobindo's Indian followers seem swayed by the religious rhetoric of these leaders of opinion, there is a madness which passes itself off as sanity and the forces of enlightenment have no place to stake their claim on truth. My words are only an expression sent to a respected elder and fellow-traveler to the goal of universal oneness and harmony, so that you may give your attention to the serious damage being done here and act according to your best judgement.
With love and respect,