Alok Pandey is a featured speaker at this year's AUM Conference.
Some of the letters that stirred up feelings against The Lives of Sri Aurobindo were written by cultured individuals who have revealed an unexpected side of themselves in this controversy. One of these is the psychiatrist Dr. Alok Pandey, who led the way in inventing the myth of the book’s “diabolic” intent.
Alok Pandey addressed an undated letter to the Trustees of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram early in September 2008, around the time that Ananda Reddy wrote his letter to the Managing Trustee (see A Cultural Misunderstanding). In this widely circulated letter, Pandey tried to show the "diabolic" intent of The Lives of Sri Aurobindo. This demonization of the author was readily accepted by devotees and quickly became a part of Aurobindonian mythology. The emotionalism aroused by the efforts of Pandey and others soon stifled the possibility of intelligent discussion.
In subsequent e-mails which Pandey addressed formally to Heehs (whom he does not know), but sent to a large mailing-list, he resorted to other tactics of dehumanizing the enemy. He accused Heehs of finding a road to fame through the "sewage pipe" and likened those who appreciate his work to "rats and moles" and "bandicoots and lizards and serpents." Employing such subtle methods of argument, reminiscent of the rhetoric of Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda, Pandey used his prestige and abilities to contribute to the creation of an atmosphere of hysteria in the Ashram, destroying Heehs's reputation and disrupting the work of the Archives.
Pandey prefaced his letter to the Trustees with two quotations by the Mother to give the impression that she would have sanctioned his actions. As we will see below, the first quote is misleading and the second inconclusive.
Letter to the Trustees, by Alok Pandey
I was painfully shocked when I heard the translation of the leaflet you are distributing here in the Ashram. I never imagined you could have such a complete lack of understanding, respect and devotion for our Lord who has sacrificed himself totally for us. Sri Aurobindo was not crippled; a few hours before he left his body he rose from his bed and sat for a long time in his armchair, speaking freely to all those around him. Sri Aurobindo was not compelled to leave his body, he chose to do so for reasons so sublime that they are beyond the reach of human mentality. And when one cannot understand, the only thing to do is to keep a respectful silence.— 26 December 1950 [CWM 13:7-8]
"I was painfully shocked...." Strategically placing these words of the Mother at the top of his letter, Pandey achieved most of his purpose with one stroke by creating an emotional impact that numbed the thinking faculties of most of those who read it. But The Lives of Sri Aurobindo says nothing resembling what "shocked" the Mother in the leaflet in question. Most of the readers of Pandey's letter had no way of knowing this.
Let us compare The Lives with the Mother's statements. First, she said: "Sri Aurobindo was not crippled; a few hours before he left his body he rose from his bed and sat for a long time in his armchair, speaking freely to all those around him." Describing the events of 4 December 1950, Heehs writes: "He rested for a few hours, got up, went to the bathroom, then sat for a while in his armchair." There is no contradiction here.
Second, the Mother said: "Sri Aurobindo was not compelled to leave his body, he chose to do so for reasons so sublime that they are beyond the reach of human mentality." Heehs writes: "The doctors asked whether he was using his yogic power to cure himself. He replied with a simple no. 'Why not?' they insisted. 'Can't explain. You won't understand.'" Here again there is no disagreement. The second quotation by the Mother appears at first sight to be more relevant:
It is not a question of disobedience. I know nothing about your additions to the Life Sketch or the sources from which they were taken. My point of view is this, that anything written by a sadhak about Sri Aurobindo which brings him down to an ordinary level and admits the reader to a sort of gossiping familiarity with him is an unfaithfulness to Him and His work. Good intentions are not sufficient, it is necessary that this should be understood by everybody.— 3 June 1939 [CWM 13:27]
The date of this quotation — 1939 — is significant. Over thirty years later, in the Foreword to Twelve Years with Sri Aurobindo, Nirodbaran mentioned that people had been "very eager to know something about the outer life" of Sri Aurobindo, but the Mother "was not so far willing to let us lift that veil." Her statement in 1939 expressed her refusal at that time to allow anything but a brief outline of Sri Aurobindo's outer life to be published; a proposal to expand it was rejected on principle, whatever the additions might have been (she admitted that she knew nothing about them). But, as Nirodbaran went on to say, "either because of Sri Aurobindo's Centenary Year or for other reasons, when I proposed to write an account of our historic personal association with the Master during the last twelve years of his life, the Mother warmly approved of it." We do not know exactly why she revised her policy, but clearly she relaxed the austere rules of the 1930s with respect to writing about Sri Aurobindo. Evidently what she said decades ago regarding a specific matter (as opposed to a general statement of spiritual truth) is not automatically applicable today.
No one knows what the Mother would say about The Lives of Sri Aurobindo if she was physically present now. Her reactions often surprised people. When someone objected to passages in a certain book as being "repulsive," she asked that person to write them down. As she commented in a conversation on 17 April 1971, "among them was one that was just the one I liked best!"
Since the question of what the Mother would have said in this situation is unanswerable, we are left with conflicting human reactions to The Lives. The idea that it brings Sri Aurobindo "down to an ordinary level" in some unacceptable way has been vigorously propagated by Pandey and others and accepted by many who have not read the book and do not intend to do so. But the opposite response has also been common. The contrast can be shown by translating a passage from the French review by Christine Devin: "After the reader closes the book, Sri Aurobindo seems, even more than before, to be unseizably immense, unfathomably deep. In the end, all the incidents that the author reports, all the detailed documents and varied testimony he cites, do indeed come together to form a silhouette - not that of a man called Sri Aurobindo, but rather the silhouette of a Sri Aurobindo that will remain forever ungraspable, and behind which can be felt the touch of the infinite. And this evokes in the reader a renewed sense of the marvellous." (La Revue d'Auroville, no. 26, janvier-mars 2009)
After the two quotations from the Mother, the body of Pandey's letter begins:
Sri Aurobindo Ashram
Pondicherry - 605002
You may be already aware by now of the 'backlash' on Peter Heehs' biography of Sri Aurobindo: 'The Many Lives...'
There is no biography called "The Many Lives..." Pandey claims to have read The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, yet he cannot remember the title.
When faced with such a controversy, there is a general tendency in a certain kind of intelligentsia to take such reactions as 'over-reaction', 'sentimentality', etc and justify the diabolic nature of the writings by using terms such as 'we should be broad-minded', 'Sri Aurobindo is not affected by these things', 'everyone has his freedom of expression', 'we should give people chance to change' so on and so forth. The purpose of this note is to point out the fallacy of this argument in the present context.
Hence, put forth below are some reasons as to why the book is objectionable and the intent behind it a diabolic one.
The "intelligentsia" do not "justify the diabolic nature of the writings." They simply do not accept the far-fetched claim that the biography is diabolic in its intent. Obviously, much depends on Pandey's spiritual authority to pronounce on occult matters. Diabolicism cannot be proved by "reasons" even if they were much better than those he proceeds to give.
1. The title of the book is itself a deceptively misleading one. Though to those familiar with Sri Aurobindo's thought it may give an impression of a complex personality. But to the general reader (for whom the book is supposedly meant) this would most certainly mean a multiple personality, or worse still the hidden sides. Such a title may indicate that behind the known public life of Sri Aurobindo as a revolutionary and a yogi, there is a private side, a 'human side,' the side that is of a commoner and as ordinary as you and me and the author is going to bring it out. Finally, the title may indicate a 'multiple personality', something that is generally used in a derogatory sense.
On the first page of his Preface, Heehs explains what he means by the title. He points out that Sri Aurobindo "was, for a moment, the most important political leader in the country, the first to say clearly that the goal of the national movement was independence. But he was also a scholar, a poet, a philosopher, and above all, a yogi and spiritual leader. His diverse achievements at various times can make it seem as though he led four or five different lives in a single lifetime." One wonders why the author's straightforward explanation of his own title should be rejected for a fanciful theory that it "would most certainly mean a multiple personality, or worse still the hidden sides."
2. The author's claim to 'objectivity' is not only invalid, it again carries an under-current which means; 'the other biographies have been more of a sentimental devotee type'.
The author has not made exaggerated claims to "objectivity." The word "objective" occurs only where he explains that in dealing with outward events he has tried, in the manner expected of a scholarly biographer, "to satisfy the insistence of critical readers for objective verification." (p. 145) He goes on to point out that such verification is not possible in writing about the spiritual experiences which are the most significant part of Sri Aurobindo's life. In presenting these he makes use of Sri Aurobindo's own accounts of his experiences, refraining (except in one passage meant to refute a psychoanalytic interpretation) from the psychological or sociological analysis in which some scholars would have indulged. It is hard to see any legitimate objection to this approach of letting Sri Aurobindo's statements speak for themselves.
Apart from this logic denigrating some well-known biographers whose sincerity cannot be questioned, this statement implies two things:
Heehs writes that Sri Aurobindo "has been better served by his biographers than most of his contemporaries have." (p. xii) This does not sound as if it was intended to denigrate them or question their sincerity.
First, the devotee biographers simply exaggerate certain qualities which are not really there. Now, our Mr. Objective will show us through his objectifying lens how they are wrong, that Sri Aurobindo is really not as great (read as divine) as they make him to be.
To the extent that The Lives presents a more objective picture, the result is not to diminish Sri Aurobindo's greatness, but to make it more convincing so that even skeptics cannot deny it.
It also implies by default that his words do not necessarily carry the same absolute authority as it did, that he can be flawed, mistaken and err as most of us human beings do!
Divinity is often confused with infallibility. Correcting this misunderstanding, Sri Aurobindo wrote:
Men's way of doing things well is through a clear mental connection; they see things and do things with the mind and what they want is a mental and human perfection. When they think of a manifestation of Divinity, they think it must be an extraordinary perfection in doing ordinary human things - an extraordinary business faculty, political, poetic or artistic faculty, an accurate memory, not making mistakes, not undergoing any defeat or failure.... All that has nothing to do with manifesting the Divine. ... These human ideas are false.
The Divinity acts according to another consciousness, the consciousness of the Truth above and the Lila below and It acts according to the need of the Lila, not according to man's ideas of what It should or should not do. This is the first thing one must grasp, otherwise one can understand nothing about the manifestation of the Divine." (Letters on Yoga, pp. 410–11)
Well, this strikes the very foundation of yogic life wherein a disciple is supposed to have an implicit trust in the Guru's words. But our Mr. Objective does not feel comfortable with it. So he must measure the Master's stature with his scale and rod with exactness and thoroughness of a tailor and restitch his attire for us to see. He must tell us his true size and stature which is less than what the devotee ignorantly believes!
Much of this controversy could be resolved simply by remembering what kind of reader the book was written for and admitting that different types of presentation may be appropriate for different audiences. Pandey acknowledges (in his first paragraph) that The Lives was intended for the general reader, but then forgets that fact and writes as if it was written for disciples and devotees and should be judged accordingly.
Second, what is meant by the word 'objective' here, — studying 'dispassionately', 'without any preconceived ideas/beliefs etc', 'as someone who studies from outside as one studies an object!' In any case, it means taking into note and highlighting the most objectively verifiable details.
We should keep in mind that Sri Aurobindo himself preferred an account of his life that was "so written as to give only the grey precise surface facts, nothing more." (On Himself, p. 377)
The rest is left to the readers to conclude, whether things like self-realisation, Supermind, etc 'claimed' by Sri Aurobindo are true or delusive.
How can the readers be forced to accept the truth of Supermind, etc.? Without an inquisition to impose conformity of belief, an author would seem to have no choice but to leave the readers free to form their own conclusions.
He almost stops short of suggesting that they could be considered 'schizophrenic' by some. Who are these some, one may ask?
Pandey co-authored with Dr. Soumitra Basu an article on "Mystics and Psychotics" (NAMAH 3:2, pp. 20-21) which discussed the same questions as Heehs raises with regard to apparent similarities between psychotic and mystic states. Pandey and Basu concluded — exactly as Heehs does — that in spite of certain parallels, there are essential differences. "The mystic swims, the schizophrenic drowns," they quote Laing as saying. In another article in NAMAH, "Mysticism and Schizophrenia," Hemant Kapoor asks with specific reference to Sri Aurobindo as a mystic par excellence: "what separates the mystic from the schizophrenic and both from the natural man?" (NAMAH 14:4, p. 32) In answering this question, Kapoor draws on Ken Wilber's chapter on "Schizophrenia and Mysticism" in The Atman Project where Wilber, like Heehs, quotes Anton Boisen. Pandey is an editor of NAMAH. Until now, he does not seem to have considered the discussion of such questions to be taboo.
It means focusing much more on the external outer life rather than inner. It means seeing the Illimitable with the small physical mind rather than with the psychic feeling and vision. Here too, our Mr. Objective is quite selective. He seems to be much more interested in producing stray letters, diary notes, some odd comments and questionable observations or reports as 'objective facts' and lays much less stress on the much more obvious and glaring facts of the massive correspondence, Savitri, The Life Divine and many many other things.
Just as Pandey could not remember the title, so his complaint that Heehs has neglected Sri Aurobindo's correspondence, The Life Divine, etc., casts further doubt on how much of the book he has read.
And how about the countless devotees and their testimonies,— blind faith, superstition, sentimentality,— or the historians willful blindness. Is it simply a case of ignorance or a deliberate mischief to underplay few things and insert certain footnote that would colour the perceptions and give a different hew [sic] and taste to the whole thing. Such a misrepresentation of truth taken out of context or half-quoted and misplaced is one of the standard strategies of the asura in man who falsifies things very subtly and craftily.
Neither Pandey nor others have shown that the book contains such misrepresentations. However, the extracts from The Lives of Sri Aurobindo that were circulated by Pandey's collaborators soon after his letter were full of misrepresentations of the book, due to passages being taken out of context or half-quoted. In fact, the compiler of the extracts has admitted that they were never intended to be representative; yet they are all that many people have read or will ever read of the biography. The wrong that has been done to the author is obvious. But such injustices are all too common in human life. There is no need to bring in the asura and demonize the perpetrators.
3. Oh, yes, it is interesting to note that a book on Sri Aurobindo is funded from outside, released outside and is not yet available for the Indian public at large. Is there a fear-factor, an underlying guilt or a deliberate attempt to subvert the work outside India?
In this section, Pandey sketches the outlines of a conspiracy theory which was later developed in more detail by Sraddhalu Ranade. The theory is based mostly on misinformation. The only element of truth in it is the fact that the book was released "outside," a few months before its scheduled publication in India (now blocked by the legal maneuvers of Pandey's friends). Interestingly, The Foundations of Indian Culture was published in America six years before it appeared in India. Was that also because of "a fear-factor, an underlying guilt or a deliberate attempt to subvert the work outside India"?
As far as I know, the individual who has funded the book is one of those who has already usurped Sri Aurobindo's works and is using His vision to further his name.
This statement seems to refer to Michael Murphy, who supports the book but has not funded it. Murphy has used his name to further Sri Aurobindo's vision, not the other way around. To say he has "usurped Sri Aurobindo's works" is preposterous.
Now, by trying to show that Sri Aurobindo was human he is stealthily putting him at par with an ordinary humanity. The standard plea is that it brings Sri Aurobindo 'closer to us'. Strange, as if we need Peter Heehs' biography and all its nonsense to feel Him closer. What it really means is that Sri Aurobindo is like one of us, very human with all the human follies. There is really no need to think of him to be Divine etc as all that is sentimental stuff. The author would concede him human greatness at best which would put him at rank with some great writers at most (though this too is left a question mark by him). In other words, he is trying to tell us, look if you wish to admire Sri Aurobindo you may do so, but there is really no need to call him divine etc.
Sri Aurobindo wrote: "The Avatar is not supposed to act in a non-human way — he takes up human action and uses human methods with the human consciousness in front and the Divine behind. If he did not his taking a human body would have no meaning and would be of no use to anybody. He could just as well have stayed above and done things from there." (Letters on Yoga, p. 409) Even with regard to "the Divine behind," Sri Aurobindo never announced this to the world, nor did he encourage others to do so. He wrote, "why should the Avatar proclaim himself except on rare occasions to an Arjuna or to a few bhaktas or disciples?" (Letters on Yoga, p. 418) But if an Avatar wants to be discreet about himself, why should a biographer, especially one who is writing for the general public, go against his wishes?
Pandey cynically paraphrases what he imagines Heehs "is trying to tell us." But he overlooks the fact that Heehs is addressing not "us," the bhaktas and disciples, but another audience. In writing for the larger public, especially in the West, it would be inappropriate and contrary to Sri Aurobindo's intentions to insist on his divinity.
It is a very subtle and a crafty way, almost a cunning way to attack the human aspiration and faith in its own Divine possibility. Should we encourage it? For what really is left of the true significance of Sri Aurobindo's life if it is not to show us, by an example, the human transforming itself into the Divine.
The human cannot be shown transforming itself into the Divine without depicting the human. The gradual transformation shown in the book is perfectly consistent with what Sri Aurobindo said about himself: "I don't know about Avatars. Practically what I know is that I had not all the powers necessary when I started, I had to develop them by Yoga.... My own idea of the matter is that the Avatar's life and actions are not miracles. If they were, his existence would be perfectly useless, a mere superfluous freak of Nature." (On Himself, p. 149)
But the book does not show that, it over-emphasises the human (at times even less than human aspects) raises a question mark on the divinity (almost on that count) and leaves us almost confused as to what he is trying to tell us.
What are these "less than human aspects"? We are left more than confused as to what this psychiatrist is talking about.
Incidentally, one of the persons behind the book, who is also a friend of the funding institute has already written a damaging book on Sri Ramakrishna and is now keen to write one on Sri Aurobindo's life.
Jeffrey Kripal, who is obviously meant here, is not "one of the persons behind the book." Kripal has no connection with The Lives other than that he was approached by the publisher — not the author — for an endorsement. Heehs has criticized Kripal in a previous book for the sensationalism of his study of Ramakrishna. Nor does Kripal have any interest in writing a book on Sri Aurobindo.
4. The bogey of broad-mindedness is silly here. It is not being broad-minded to say that Krishna was a flirt and a playboy and then leave a question mark over the Gita.
Who says Krishna was a flirt and a playboy and what does it have to do with The Lives of Sri Aurobindo?
It is being 'surface minded' or 'physical minded'. In fact the devotee is much more 'broad-minded' since he not only accepts the human side but also the Divine side of Sri Aurobindo, not only what his mind says but also his heart and sees things not only as they seem to the surface intelligence but also to the psychic vision.
According to Sri Aurobindo, when the devotee "has grasped the power that shall raise him," his devotion "in the end purifies and enlarges him as effectively as knowledge can." Unfortunately, before that happens, "devotion without knowledge is often a thing raw, crude, blind and dangerous, as the errors, crimes, follies of the religious have too often shown." (The Synthesis of Yoga, 1999 ed., p. 548) The recent behavior of many devotees of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother seems to provide more evidence of the dangers of devotion than of its purifying and enlarging power.
A historian like Peter Heehs is anything but broad-minded. His vision, understanding, and action, everything is small, narrow and diabolic. To accept and laugh it off is to accept his vision, even tacitly sanction it as it is authored by an Ashram inmate from the Archives.
The demonization of Heehs is Pandey's distinctive contribution to the discussion of the biography. "Demonization of 'the other', the reduction of the world to Manichaean dimensions, is the stuff of fundamentalist discourse," notes Malise Ruthven in A Fury for God: The Islamist Attack on America (2004, p. 25). At a time when the world is plagued with proliferating fundamentalisms, surely the followers of Sri Aurobindo should be capable of better things than to imitate the worst that others are doing.
5. It is also interesting that this man had already written a brief biography of Sri Aurobindo which did raise a few eyebrows. Was it just a feeler? What impelled this second biography? And what would prevent a third one,— has he not already conceded that he has more material but did not/could not put it as it may be considered 'objectionable'.
Again Pandey lets his fantasy run wild.
So, should we wait for a third, even more 'objective' biography micro-analyzing (read psychoanalyzing) Sri Aurobindo while leaving out the very best, the very highest still more vague and dim. What good is gained by measuring the shadow of greatness or by analyzing the mud in which the lotus has cast its roots and chooses to make its home and bloom! Should he, under such circumstances continue in the Archives? Is it because one believes he will change or because he is held in great awe of his 'mighty unquestioned intellect' who will tell us what none could say. Is he being indulged because one is helpless or is it because we don't care as long as our personal reputation is safe? As to the 'Guru's' life, how does it concern us?? Why don't we then adopt the same yardstick and the same broad-mindedness when our personal reputation or the Ashram's reputation is attacked? Is the Master greater or lesser than the institution and individuals who constitute it? To remain silent would be, in my view at least, not an act of charity and benevolence, but one of cowardice and one may dare say, guru-droha.
The Mother considered it to be an act of faithfulness to the Divine's work to keep silent when one has nothing pleasant to say about something or somebody in the Ashram (CWM 17:219, reproduced in Rules of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 2003). If I have ventured to present another view of some of the points raised by Pandey, it is not out of a personal lack of respect, but only to redress the one-sidedness of the debate.
Those who know the quality of Pandey's published writings or have heard him speak may find it hard to believe that his polemics against a fellow sadhak were written by the same person. One might have preferred to pay no attention to these documents, but they have done too much damage to be dismissed as inconsequential. Moreover, they are evidently part of the history of the formation of a religion based on the worship of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, who repeatedly warned of the danger of creating a religion in their names. This is a matter of serious concern for those who have dedicated their lives to Sri Aurobindo's work.
Pandey's letter ends with a further section stating his demands. This will not be reproduced here because it concerned only the Trustees and should never have been made public.
Annotated by Angiras