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25 September 2008
During a conversation the other day, you asked me whether I would write a brief note to clarify what I was trying to do when I wrote my recent biography….
I decided to write about Sri Aurobindo, first, because I find him tremendously interesting. I won’t go any farther than this. You will recall that I explained to you once that I find it difficult if not impossible to proclaim from the housetops my feelings about things that mean a lot to me. I’ve always been amazed to find that others do not have this problem, and that they talk with perfect strangers about things that are deeply important to them.
I decided to write a biography because the genre, and the discipline of history of which it is a part, interest me a lot. I began to collect biographical material at Jayantilal’s request during the early 1970s, and have continued this work up to the present. Realizing around 1977 that writing was part of the work of a historical researcher, I began to publish articles in local magazines and later in international research journals. In 1988, I began to publish books from Indian and then American university presses.
I thought that research journals and university presses were good places to send the sort of things I was writing because they have high editorial standards and insist that writers follow the established methodology of the discipline of history. In contrast, ashram journals, souvenirs of Sri Aurobindo organizations, and so forth, have virtually no editorial standards (as generally understood), and seem to be intended mainly for the promotion of Sri Aurobindo and his yoga in ways that he discouraged. I believe that this promotional approach will, in the long run, hamper the diffusion of Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy and yoga in the world.
In all the books I have published since 1988, I made it clear that the Ashram bore no responsibility for anything I published. The Ashram has, however, chosen to list my publications in its annual research reports.
My first biography of Sri Aurobindo, Sri Aurobindo: A Brief Biography, was published by Oxford University Press in 1989. It has been reprinted at least five times since then. It was well received abroad, in India and even, for the most part, in the ashram.
I began work seriously on a proposed larger biography of Sri Aurobindo sometime in the late 1990s, using material and notes I had accumulated since the early 1970s. My purpose in writing it was, in brief, to enlarge the biographical narrative I published in 1989. I hoped to have the new biography published by a major US university press. The audience I imagined for it were the sort of people who read books published by university presses. My primary intention was to bring the life, works, philosophy and yoga of Sri Aurobindo to an audience who had either never heard of him or had only a hazy idea of who he was and what he had done.
Here I may remark that there is an appalling lack of interest in Sri Aurobindo in academic circles and, more generally, in the world at large (by this I mean the world outside the ashram and the wider Sri Aurobindo community in India and abroad). When interest appears, it often is based on a distorted idea of his life and thought. For example, when Sri Aurobindo is cited by politicians and political journalists, it usually is as a supposed forefather of the modern Hindu Right. The Right adopts him; the Left condemns him for being adopted by the Right. Nobody actually reads his works with the exception of a handful of extracts from his speeches that are presented out of context. I have gone to the trouble of writing several articles to show that both the Right and the Left get Sri Aurobindo wrong. The same sort of misunderstanding is apparent when Sri Aurobindo is cited in discussions of literature, philosophy, and spirituality. I have always considered this unfortunate.