Matters of spirituality demand quiet contemplation in tranquil settings. The Aurobindo Ashram, intended as just such a transcendental commune, is today anything but. All-too-worldly intrigues and base-level controversies have periodically disrupted the peace here over the past few years, and profoundly so in recent months. At the centre of the storm is Peter Heehs, 63, the American historian and author of the controversial The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, who faces expulsion from the ashram, his home of 41 years, if his visa isn’t renewed. A small group of long-term ashram residents (about 1,300 live here on a permanent basis) deem portions of the book “blasphemous”. They have also called for the ouster of the trustees of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust. There’s another faction in the ashram whose “sentiments have been hurt”, but don’t want to see Heehs expelled. Besides the insider camps duking it out, there are public intellectuals and prominent historians who view this case as an infringement on Heehs’s freedom of expression and rail against his being forced out.
Controversy has hounded Heehs ever since his book was brought out in New York in 2008—and proscribed soon after by the Orissa High Court, thus barring its publication in India. Since then, it has served as a pretext for ashramites to undertake a public wash of their dirty linen, attacking both Heehs and the ashram. A small sample of remarks about Heehs: “A scholar of very low calibre”, “a college dropout”, “a taxi driver in New York before coming to Pondicherry”, he “gets royalties and does not pay taxes”. And those are just the mild ones.
Speaking with Outlook, Heehs shrugs off the sniping, claiming his royalties are modest. He pays taxes in the US and donates 75 per cent of his earnings to the ashram. Underneath the surface though, there are valid, fundamental questions about how he could be a part of the ashram and yet write such a book. Kittu Reddy, who with fellow ashramites Sraddalu Ranade, Ananda Reddy, Raman Reddy and Jayanta Bhattacharya, has been marked as a spearhead of the agitation says, “If you have joined an institution voluntarily, it is not fair to criticise it from within. As an outsider, you can write anything.” Prashit Bhattacharjee, a devotee who’s made Pondicherry his home, says, “Sri Aurobindo doesn’t need any individual to interpret or reinterpret his personality and work. Fortunately for humanity, unlike many prophets, he’s extensively written on his work. Hence, what Peter Heehs writes is of no consequence. What will stand the test of time is his (Aurobindo’s) writing and message for the New Age.”
The quarrel hinges on three charges: that Heehs allegedly projected Aurobindo as a “schizophrenic”; that he suggested a romantic relationship between the guru and The Mother (Mirra Alfassa, the Frenchwoman who joined Aurobindo in 1920 and succeeded him); and that he “branded the guru a terrorist” for his role in India’s national movement. Despite the ban, pirated editions of Heehs’s book are in circulation. Aurofilio Schiavina, a devotee, has read it and considers it “non-offensive” when viewed in context. The “objectionable” passages have been typed (as opposed to scanned) and are blogged and e-mailed about by detractors that do not give readers the benefit of a contextual projection.
‘Blasphemous’ Ashramites stage a sit-in against Heehs
What has really riled devotees is the alleged hinting at a “sexual” relationship between Aurobindo and The Mother. A devotee says, “Westerners cannot think of a relationship between man and woman without a sexual dimension.” Heehs refers to a passage in his book that quotes from an archival record and talks about The Mother holding Aurobindo’s hand and withdrawing it hastily when someone enters the room. “To me, it is modesty, but they think I am saying she is feeling guilty. There was no romance,” says Heehs, adding that both Aurobindo and The Mother “had a divine and a human quality that some see clearly but others refuse to recognise because they feel the two must only be venerated.”
“Certain quarters deal with Aurobindo in a hagiographic way and others believe he should be approached in an academic, rational way. I can’t simultaneously satisfy both a western rational approach and the Indian devotional approach.” As a writer, he adopts the former, saying the book is intended primarily for a ‘western or westernised Indian’ academic audience. “I’m still ready to publish for an Indian audience after rewriting the book to have another approach. I myself have no problem with religion and guru worship. But fundamentally, there has been an intolerance.” When asked if he feels he’s being victimised like Salman Rushdie, Heehs says, “While I don’t compare myself with someone like him, I can see what he and Taslima Nasreen went through.”
He thinks his success has fostered resentment and sees “personal motivation” in the attacks. His backers say the book has become a victim of the prevailing climate of “fundamentalism” and “increasing religiosity”. But the naysayers claim he wrote the book to trigger controversy, and get mileage. “What he has done is guruninda (betrayal of the guru). He should be thrown out,” says an ashramite.
It is an irony that Heehs finds himself pitted against people who lecture, conduct seminars or upload their thoughts about Aurobindo on YouTube. “There’s a hypocrisy there,” says Aurofilio. Arindam Das, who has lived here for 29 years, dismisses the protest as “manufactured” and claims that devotees were brought on trains with the lure of a special darshan and shoved into the agitation. “Some of the signatures on the petition demanding Heehs be thrown out were signed in Bengali, Oriya and Hindi. This means the book, which is in English, could not have been read by them,” he says. His question: “If there was widespread support in Pondicherry, why did they not file cases against Heehs in Pondicherry?”
An insider says Heehs’s book has bothered those who feel they are the rightful inheritors of Aurobindo’s intellectual tradition. Not Heehs, who has written nine books and several articles on him over 40 years. The Ashram trust says it has received many petitions appreciating the book as also those condemning it. In a public statement, the trust says it does not tell followers what to read or not read. Matri Prasad, a trust secretary, says, “Aurobindo was inclusive. The ashram is a haven of peace and will remain so.”
”To me, it is modesty that made The Mother remove her hand. The relationship between Aurobindo and The Mother had a divine and human quality. I am not saying they had a romance.”
The people raising a stink over the Peter Heehs book on Sri Aurobindo (A Heretic Believer, Apr 23) need to remember that the right to offend is an intrinsic part of the right to freedom of speech.
Narendra Kaushik, Gurgaon
Heehs has a way of gravitating towards baseless conclusions in the name of documented research. He insinuates that the Mother and Sri Aurobindo had a romantic relationship, that the latter’s personality had traces of schizophrenia, which is what explained his supernatural experiences. Further, he calls this great patriot a terrorist, and even puts some of the blame of Partition on him. These kind of denigrating observations run through the book.
Jitendra Sharma, Calicut
Heehs’s detractors know he has not written anything beyond the facts culled from available records. Some people do not like humanising the Mother and Sri Aurobindo, who themselves never claimed to be anything other than enlightened human beings. Behind these orchestrated protests lie a story of a power struggle in the ashram. This is just a way to embarrass and oust a senior official by a group of people.
Vasudevan V., on e-mail
How can a person who has no sense of "belongingness" to Sri Aurobindo and The Mother
is allowed to live and work in an Ashram designated by Their Name ?
He has maligned Sri Aurobindo , a Noble Son of India , and one of Her prominent Icons,
and now Govt.of India must be bold enough to deport him to USA , The "state" where he belongs to.
If one needs a proof of the declining quality of education in India, he/she has only to read your letter. Nothing more is needed.
What is the big deal if Aurobindo is criticized? None of the "shatterpoints" are shattering.
For instance, what is wrong in labelling him a terrorist? If I remember correctly, he was involved in bomb manufacturing with the express intent of using it against the British. Where in the world it says freedom fighters cannot be terrorists? Vanchinathan, who murdered Ash was a terrorist and a freedom fighter.
The whole protest seems manufactured.
American writer Peter Heehs, without any academic qualification, has
written the jinxed book “The Lives of Sri Aurobindo”. He dons the garb
of a researcher,a devotee and an impartial biographer. He writes a few
pages in the book insinuating that Sri Aurobindo and the Mother had a
romantic relationship and Sri Aurobindo’s personality had some
elements of ‘schizophrenia’, inherited from his mad mother, which were
the root causes of his mystical yogic powers and supernatural experiences.
He blames Sri Aurobindo for India’s partition. After sowing such seeds of
wild suspicions in the minds of readers, Heehs makes a sudden u- turn that
the relationship between Sri Aurobindo and the Mother might have been
spiritual. Even though all Indians respect Sri Aurobindo as a freedom fighter,
Heehs calls him a terrorist. This kind of incendiary, inflammatory, defamatory,
objectionable, denigrating and abusive observations run through the entire
fabric of the book. This book is full of intentional distortions, innuendos,
false fabrications, misleading out-of context references and baseless
conclusions in the name of richly-documented research. A discerning reader
feels unmistakable hostility of Heehs towards Sri Aurobindo. To gain credibility
of readers, he falsely claims to be one of the founders of Sri Aurobindo Ashram’s
Archives. He intentionally omits all positive historical evidences in favour of Sri
Aurobindo and provides a ready collection of adverse tidbits to belittle his
Indian Government does not permit freedoms of speech and expression
beyond a certain point. Delhi High Court had recently asked Google, Yahoo
and Facebook etc. to censor all objectionable material. They had shown some
bad comments and pictures that had maligned Sonia Gandhi. Similarly, when
M.F. Husain had painted Indian Goddesses in nude, the Indian Government
had not supported him.
I have read this blasphemous hagiography (or rather Heehography?!) twice.
It brought tears to my eyes. Does this book denigrate Sri Aurobindo or
not? We all await a final judgment of a Court of Law with a bated breath.
Here are Mother’s relevant words:
“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
unfaithfulness to Him and His work. Good intentions are not sufficient.”
- The Mother (Collected Works of the Mother, Vol. 13, Page 27)
- Dr. Jitendra Sharma
Head, Department of French
St. Joseph’s College, Devagiri
The people raising a hullaballo against Heehs' book need to remember that right to offend is intrinsic part of right to freedom of speech.
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