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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: