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Corrections to textual excerpts of The Lives of Sri Aurobindo by Peter Heehs
There is a movement of folks in Pondicherry who are so upset by the biography that Peter Heehs has written entitled The Lives of Sri Aurobindo that they have instigated a movement to discredit the author. Some people have even become so embolden as to try and have him ejected from the Ashram itself. The folks who have spurred this on have in the course of their attacks on Mr. Heehs openly distorted his text by decontextualizing portions of it or by a series of selective omissions to make it suit their own interpretation of events that facilitate their own story they wish to tell.
Because of this movement I have decided to post all the portions of the text that have been decontextualized or omitted and reprint them with corrections to demonstrate how the text from the book actually reads in its entire context. The portions of the text that have been lifted to suit the purposes of those with an agenda against the author of The Lives of Sri Aurobindo are in black, the missing portions of the text that are needed to give the entire context of the narrative are in red. As everyone will see there is a lot of red in the text.:
Extracts from The Lives of Sri Aurobindo by Peter Heehs
<With systematic and deliberate distortions and misrepresentations corrected by restoring omitted text and notes and providing brief clarifications. Restored text in red. Footnotes and explanations in red and in angle brackets. Text in black is the entire contents of the file as originally typed.> <ver.3>
<Copyrighted material. Cannot be excerpted or used without permission.>
(Preface: xii) The genre of hagiography, in the original sense of the term, is very much alive in India. Any saint with a following is the subject of one or more books that tell the inspiring story of his or her birth, growth, mission, and passage to the eternal. Biographies of literary and political figures do not differ much from this model. People take the received version of their heroes’ lives very seriously. A statement about a politician or poet that rubs people the wrong way will be turned into a political or legal issue, or possibly cause a riot. The problem is not whether the disputed statement is true, but whether anyone has the right to question an account that flatters a group identity.
Aurobindo has been better served by his biographers than most of his contemporaries have. But when I began to write articles about his life, I found that there were limits to what his admirers wanted to hear. Anything that cast doubt on something that he said was taboo, even if his statement was based on incomplete knowledge of the facts. Almost as bad was anything that challenged an established interpretation, even one that clearly was inadequate.
Figure 2 is a photograph of Aurobindo that was taken around the same time as figure 1. Note the dark, pockmarked skin, sharp features, and undreamy eyes…To me it is infinitely more appealing than figure 1, which has been reproduced millions of times in its heavily retouched form. I sometimes wonder why people like figure 1. There is hardly a trace of shadow between the ears, with the result that the face has no character. The sparkling eyes have been painted in; even the hair has been given a gloss. As a historical document it is false. As a photograph it is a botched piece of work. But for many figure 1 is more true to Aurobindo than figure 2….
Hagiographers deal with documents the way that retouchers deal with photographs. Biographers must take their documents as they find them. They have to examine all sorts of materials, paying as much attention to what is written by the subject’s enemies as by his friends, not giving special treatment even to the subject’s own version of events…
Such an approach is possible and necessary when dealing with public events. But what about mystical experiences? In trying to trace the lines of Aurobindo’s sadhana, a biographer can use the subject’s diaries, letters, and retrospective accounts. There are also, for comparison, accounts by others of similar mystical experiences. But in the end, such experiences remain subjective. Perhaps they are only hallucinations or signs of psychotic breakdown? Even if not, do they have any value to anyone but the subject?
Those who have had mystical experiences have always held that they are the basis of a kind of knowledge that is more fundamental, and thus more valuable, than the relative knowledge of words and things. Absorbed in inner experience, the mystic is freed from the problems that afflict men and women who are caught in the dualities of knowledge and ignorance, pleasure and pain, life and death. A mystic thus absorbed often is lost to the human effort to achieve a more perfect life. But this is not the only possible outcome of spiritual practice. Aurobindo’s first major experience was a state of mystical absorption, but he was driven to return to the active life, and spent the next forty years looking for a way to bring the knowledge and power of the spirit into the world. In this lies the value of his teaching to men and women of the twenty-first century.
(17) As a rule, however, he kept to himself. Most of his classmates were too much older than he to be his friends. A few patronised him on account of his childishness; the rest paid him scant attention. He had few of the qualities that English schoolboys find interesting. Weak and inept on the playing field, he was also – by his own account – a coward and a liar.<Source of first statements given in footnote 26, “Government of India, Home Department Proceedings, series D, June 1908, 13: 3, National Archives of India.” Sri Aurobindo’s “own account”, not quoted verbatim and therefore not footnoted, is from a talk of 28 June 1926 recorded by A.B. Purani: “I was a most terrible liar and perhaps no greater coward on earth.” Cited by Purani in Sri Aurobindo in England, p. 18.>
(28) Aurobindo failed to pass his medical examination the first time on account of “something found wrong with his urinary organs.”<source in footnote 83, “Government of India, Home Department Proceedings, series D, June 1908, 13: 3, National Archives of India.”>
<N.B. “urinary organs” is a Victorian euphemism for “kidneys”. For the significance of this problem in Sri Aurobindo’s life, see Lives, pages 220-221, 406, 408, 409.>
(30) In October, the ICS commissioners wrote Aurobindo asking him to fix a date to take his riding examination. He agreed to go on October 26, but did not turn up. An official then asked him to meet the riding instructor to make another appointment. He did not bother to see the man. Called to the office to explain, Aurobindo told a series of lies. <Source in footnote 93: “India Office Records L/JP/6/333, Memorandum by the Senior Examiner, Civil Service Commission Respecting the Examination in Riding, November 16, 1892; India Office Records L/JP/6/325, Hennell to Under Secretary of State, November 17, 1892.” See also quotation under (17) above.>
(32) He was rejected simply because he did not pass the riding examination. He was not given another chance to pass because he did not follow instructions, keep appointments, or tell the truth.<Same sources as above>
(56) The usual desire for gratification, as Aurobindo has the guru call it [in his upanishadic dialogue quoted at length immediately above in the text, ref. The Upanishads, 138-139], was presumably a factor in his decision to get married, but it does not seem to have been an important one. His later writings show that his knowledge of human sexuality was more than academic, but the act seems to have held few charms for him. (see full endnote below) Consummation may have been delayed because of Mrinalini’s youth, and his own stoicism, partly innate and partly learned from philososphers such as Epictetus, would have helped him to keep his sexual tendencies in check.
Endnote: For Sri Aurobindo’s general knowledge of human sexuality,
see his letters to disciples on sex, which occupy more than forty
pages, 1507-1549, of Letters of Yoga. For his experience of
maithunanda, see Record of Yoga, 204, 300,
302, 329, 431, 464, 774, and 1456.
Maithunanda means literally the bliss, ananda, of coitus, maithuna.
In the Record it refers to a particular intensity of spontaneous
erotic delight, but some references, notably
on page 204 (“equal
to the first movements of the actual maithuna ananda”) seem to
imply a knowledge of ordinary maithuna.
Aurobindo never spoke directly about his experience or lack of
experience of sex, but he did refer to the
subject indirectly. In
1936 he wrote to his disciple Nirodbaran, who was complaining
about the difficulty of
overcoming anger and sexual desire, “I was
also noted in my earlier time before Yoga for the rareness of anger.
a certain period of the Yoga it rose in me like a volcano and I
had to take a long time eliminating it. As for
sex—well. You are
always thinking that the things that are happening to you are unique
and nobody else ever had
such trials or downfalls or misery before.”
See Nirodbaran, ed., Correspondence,
When Nirodbaran asked
him why spiritual teachers such as Confucius
or Sri Aurobindo got married, he replied: “Perfectly natural—they
marry before the [spiritual] change—then the change comes and the
marriage belongs to the past self, not to the
new one.” See
Nirodbaran, ed., Correspondence,
A half-century later, Nirodbaran alluded to this exchange
in a talk
about Mrinalini. He concluded: “Why did Sri Aurobindo marry? As far
as I have understood his
philosophy of life, he was from the
beginning holding the view that life is not an illusion; he refused
even to accept a
yoga which rejected life. The wholeness, the
integrality of the experience of life was his doctrine. . And
marriage playing a very important role could not be
excluded from the pursuit of his avataric mission which meant
change the world. That experience left out would not give the seal of
completeness to that mission or enable him
to say to us, ‘This
experience also I have had.’” See Nirodbaran, Mrinalini
For Sri Aurobindo’s own
views on the avatar and sex, see
Nirodbaran, ed., Correspondence,
and N. Doshi, ed., Guidance,
<The following discussion on pages 318-319 omitted in its entirety:
About their connubial relations nothing is known. Her father summed up the situation in a sentence: “There was no issue of the marriage.”<Footnote 25> After Aurobindo entered what he called “the sexual union dignified by the name of marriage,” [allusion to a letter quoted on page 316-317] he seems to have found the state bothersome and uninteresting. “Marriage,” he wrote later to a disciple, “means usually any amount of trouble, heavy burdens, a bondage to the worldly life and great difficulties in the way of single-minded spiritual endeavour.” Many of these difficulties, for most people at least, are related to sex and the desires that accompany it. Aurobindo appears to have had few problems in that regard. He was probably alluding to his own experience when he wrote to a disciple that there were “some who can eliminate it [the sexual propensity] decisively by a swift radical dropping away from the nature.” On another occasion he said more directly: “I for one have put the sexual side completely aside, it is lying blocked so that I can make this daring attempt” at spiritual transformation.<Footnote 26>
<Text of Footnotes 25 and 25
25. B. Bose, note on Mrinalini Ghose, in SAAA, reproduced in Sri Aurobindo: Archives and Research 2 (December 1978): 208.
26. Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga, 1528, 1512; Sri Aurobindo, talk of December 13, 1923, partly published in Sri Aurobindo Circle 9 (1953): 207.>
(112) His “voluntary self-effacement” was put to the test on December 12 when an officious secretary printed his name as editor-in-chief where Pal’s name used to be. Aurobindo was furious when he saw it. It gave him publicity he did not want, and also ran counter to an earlier decision that the editor of the paper would not be named. He spoke to the secretary “pretty harshly” about it. Hemendra Prasad, who witnessed the outburst, thought Aurobindo was more than just harsh. “Well, if you take the clothes away there remains little to distinguish one human radish from another,” he noted in a Shakespearean allusion. A day later, he was more explicit: “Babu Aurobindo Ghose is an extremely strange man. And I suspect a tinge of lunacy is not absent in him. His mother is a lunatic. And it is not at all strange” – not strange, that is, that the madness in Aurobindo’s family might express itself in him as an intensity that exceeded the norm.<footnote 31>
<Footnote 31 gives source of “pretty harshly” as Sri Aurobindo, On Himself, 59 and of Hemendra’s Prasad quote as : Diary of Hemendra Prasad Ghose, December 12–13, 1906.>
Sri Aurobindo’s Politics
(104) When people asked to her Aurobindo speak, Pal replied “Try to assimilate what I am telling you. When he speaks, he will speak only fire.”
reticence was only partly due to his temperament. He was incapable of
addressing a meeting in Bengali, and had trouble understanding the
East Bengal dialects.
<This is common knowledge, commented on by Sri Aurobindo himself. See Karmayogin, p. 43 (speech of 1909): “I have spent the earlier part of my life in a foreign country from my very childhood, and even of the time which I have spent in India, the greater part of it has been spent by me on the other side of India where my mother tongue is not known, and therefore although I have learned the language like a foreigner and I am able to understand it and write in it, I am unable, I have not the hardihood, to get up and deliver a speech in Bengali.” Even now, people from West Bengal who know standard Bengali perfectly have trouble understanding the dialects of Mymensingh, Sylhet and other districts of East Bengal (now Bangladesh). Sri Aurobindo’s Bengali was far from perfect at this time (1906).>
(130) His unwillingness to compromise was his strength as well as his weakness. He was – as he wrote in a letter of 1920 – the right person to call on “when there is something drastic to be done, a radical or revolutionary line to be taken.” <Footnote 92> In the give-and-take of day-to-day politics he was less effective. He approved of but could not follow Tilak’s advice that a politician should be ready to accept half a loaf, and then demand the rest. Cotemporaries and historians questioned his right to be called an effective politician. Certainly, he was not a great builder or steady worker. But his radical interventions opened up paths that others could hardly imagine.
<Footnote 92: Sri Aurobindo, On Himself, 433>
<Other sources drawn upon here include a statement by Sri Aurobindo quoted on page 212 of the book: “I was more suited for intellectual pursuits like poetry than for politics.” <Source in footnote 152: V. Chidanandam, ed., “Sri Aurobindo at Evening Talks,” Mother India 23 (February 1971): 22>
(149) “Without making any effort at oratory,” another listener recalled, Aurobindo managed to hold the audience with his “impassioned eloquence” – this despite his being far from impressive as a speaker: short, thin, with a drawn and angular face and a voice high-pitched to the point of shrillness.< Footnote 137>
<Text of footnote 137: T. Sastry, “My First Meeting with Sri Aurobindo,” 232; letter from A. K. Chowdhury to Sudha Sundaram, January 10, 1981, in SAAA; P. Chandwani, “Sri Aurobindo: A Few Reminiscences,” 469; B. Ghose, “Sri Aurobindo,” 33C; A. Purani, Reminiscences, in SAAA.>
Surat session of the Congress
(140) As the
Extremists followed their leader [Sri Aurobindo] as he walked out of
the room, one of Ban
The next morning tempers were still frayed, but most of the delegates wanted to see the thing through.
<Text of footnote 14o: B. Ghose, Barindrer Atmakahini, 19–20; B. Ghose, “Sri Aurobindo,” 48.>
(141) Years later Aurobindo observed in a letter that his advice was, in effect, “the order that led to the breaking of the Congress.” This gives too much importance to a single factor in a complex chain of events. The differences that brought about the split had been building for months. Even without Aurobindo’s “order”, Tilak’s stance and the attack against him would have led to a free-for-all.<This opinion would be supported by most if not all historians who have studied the period. It does not deny the importance of Sri Aurobindo’s order; rather it contextualizes it.>
(187) The Uttarpara speech has been printed and cited innumerable times since its delivery, mostly because it was the first and the last occasion that Aurobindo spoke of his spiritual experiences in public. As such, it is an important document for scholars of mysticism. But historians, political scientists, and politicians also discuss the speech. Left-wing critics hold it up as proof that Aurobindo’s nationalism was Hindu at its core, and suggest that this bias encouraged the growth of communalism, which made the partition of the country inevitable. Right-wing enthusiasts regard the speech as an inspired expression of the imperishable Indian spirit, citing passages of the speech out of context to make it seem as if Aurobindo endorsed their programs. These readings are both partial and thus both false; Aurobindo’s “universal religion” was not limited to any particular creed. It had been given classic expression in the Upanishads and Gita, but it was also at the core of such scriptures as the Bible and the Koran. More important, “its real, most authoritative scripture is in the heart [of every individual] in which the Eternal has His dwelling.”<footnote 70> The true sanatana dharma was not a matter of belief but of spiritual experience and inner communion with the Divine.
<Text of Footnote 70> “Sri Aurobindo, Karmayogin, p. 26.” Passage quoted here for convenience: “This sanatana dharma has many scriptures, Veda, Vedanta, Gita, Upanishad, Darshana, Purana, Tantra, nor could it reject the Bible or the Koran; but its real, most authoritative scripture is in the heart in which the Eternal has His dwelling. It is in our inner spiritual experiences that we shall find the proof and source of the world’s Scriptures, the law of knowledge, love and conduct, the basis and inspiration of Karmayoga.”>
<For Heehs’s papers in historical journals refuting the Right-wing claim that Sri Aurobindo’s position was proto-Hindutva, and the Left-wing charge that his writings and speeches encouraged communalism, see Heehs’s website: http://peterheehs.net. References to his papers on these subjects may also be found on the back of Heehs’s 2008 booklet Sri Aurobindo and Hinduism, where they were listed at the request of the booklet’s editor, Dr. Mangesh Nadkarni.>
(115-116) A hundred years later, the East Bengal riots are remembered not as occasions of Hindu self-assertion, but as early examples of the communal violence – to use a term that had not yet been invented – that continues to the present day. Aurobindo and other Extremist are sometimes accused by liberal and left-wing historians of preparing the way for communalism by giving a Hindu slant to the movement.<See note in angle brackets above. For a balanced discussion of the East Bengal riots and how they are remembered today, see Suranjan Das, Communal Riots in Bengal: 1905-1947. (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1991).>
(190) But he did not turn his back on political issues such as the Hindu-Muslim problem. In the issue of July 17, 1909 he wrote that there was “absolutely no reason why the electoral question should create bad blood between the two communities.” Union could never be achieved “by political adjustments”; it had to be “sought deeper down, in the heart and the mind, for where the causes of disunion are, there the remedies must be sought.” Sound psychology, but few Muslims were comforted by his assertion that “our Musulman brother” was an Indian as any Hindu, since “in him too Narayan dwells and to him too our Mother has given a permanent place in her bosom.” <footnote 82> Only highly cultivated men like Abul Kalam Azad could see the sense behind the Hindu imagery. Azad visited Aurobindo a few times in the Karmayogin office and was briefly in contact with one of the revolutionary groups.<footnote 83> But most Muslims stayed away from Extremist politics, which appeared to them to be dominated by Hindu interests.
<Texts of footnotes 82 and 83:
82. Sri Aurobindo, Karmayogin, 29–31
83. A. Azad, India Wins Freedom, 4.>
(212) He tried, half-heartedly, to bring Muslims into the movement, but he never gave the problem the attention that hindsight shows that it deserved. But could anything said or done in 1907 have changed the outcome forty years later? Probably not. Still, partition and the bloodletting that accompanied it were the movement’s principal failings, and Aurobindo and his colleagues have to take their share of the blame. <If not, then all the blame falls on the British and the Muslims. No serious historian could advance this view, however comforting it might be to some.>
(199) In an effort to explain the “marvellous change” of an “obscure school-master” into a national political leader, [Jitendra Lal] Bannerji proposed to give his readers what was needed to plumb the “secret of that mysterious personality which has drawn to itself so much love, hope and reverence.” Glowing portraits of Rajnarain Bose and Dr. K. D. Ghose were followed by a potted biography of Aurobindo that stressed his intelligence and self-sacrifice. Released from jail after a year’s confinement, he “is like gold, thrice tested in fire.” Some called him a visionary and a dreamer. Jitendra Lal had no quarrel with that: “Yes, Aravinda Ghosh is a dreamer – but he has dreamed golden dreams for his country and people – visions of glory and triumph.” <Footnote 115> This article may be said to mark the beginning of the Aurobindo legend, which would assume new forms in the years to come. But Aurobindo does not seem to have been taken Jitendra Lal’s article too seriously. In December he published a letter by a professor named Hiralal Haldar that scoffed at Jitendra Lal’s hero-worshipping tone.<Footnote 116>
<para> Critics of Aurobindo could be as zealous in detraction as Jitendra Lal was in praise. Annie Besant again proclaimed him dangerous, even fanatical on account of “his refusal to work with any Englishmen.” <Footnote 117> Members of government used the same terms to describe the man they were trying to imprison. Some added that they thought he was slightly off his head: “There is madness in his family,” wrote the Viceroy to the secretary of the state, “and he probably has a bee in his bonnet.” Minto seems to have picked up this notion from R.C. Dutt, a onetime friend of Aurobindo’s, who had been asked for information by the political agent of Baroda. “Arabindo’s mother was off her mind,” Dutt volunteered, “and Arabindo himself was eccentric.”<Footnote 118>
<Rest of paragraph and long citation from Sri Aurobindo omitted>
<Text of footnotes:
115. J. Bannerji, “Aurobindo Ghose—A Study,” 476–487.
116. Letter from Hiralal Haldar, November 5, 1909, published as “Comment and Criticism” in Karmayogin 1 (December 11, 1909): 5.
117. Besant in Central Hindu College Magazine 9 (September 1909): 210.
118. Minto to Morley, April 14, 1910, Minto Papers; Diary of R. C. Dutt, August 7, 1909, Baroda State Papers.>
Sri Aurobindo’s adesh
(204) Years later Aurobindo explained that when he heard Ramchandra’s warning, he went within and heard a voice – an adesh – that said “Go to Chandernagore.” He obeyed it without reflection. Had he given it any thought, however, he would have found good reasons to comply. Chandernagore was a French possession, one of five scattered enclaves that made up the French settlements in India. Outside the jurisdiction of the British police, it had become an important center of nationalist activity. For a man with a British warrant against him, it was the best place near Calcutta to go. The adesh also came at an opportune moment. Aurobindo had written ten days earlier that he would “refrain from farther political action” until a “more settled state of things supervenes”—something that was unlikely to happen very soon. This period of political paralysis coincided with his own wish to retire from politics and spend more time practicing yoga. In December, he had looked into the possibility of buying land outside Calcutta to found a spiritual ashram.<footnote 134> Nothing came of this idea, but his urge to leave politics remained. It was only his awareness that his party depended on him that kept him in the field. But the return of Shyamsundar and the other deportees meant that the movement would not be leaderless if he left. In addition, the arrival of his uncle Krishna Kumar Mitra meant that his last family duty—looking after his aunt and her children—had come to an end.
This is not to suggest that he thought all this through when he decided to leave Calcutta. By his own account, his “habit in action was not to devise beforehand and plan but to keep a fixed purpose, watch events, prepare forces and act when he felt it to be the right moment.”<footnote 135> The moment for his departure had come. As he sailed up the Hooghly in his little wooden boat, he probably was not looking further ahead than the next few days.
<Texts of footnotes 134 and 135:
134. Government of India, Home Department Proceedings, series A, January 1910, 141–142: 4.
135. Sri Aurobindo, On Himself, 18.>
Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual experiences
Before continuing it is necessary to consider a
question that may have occurred to some readers. In writing and
speaking about his sadhana, Aurobindo
made the following claims: that he saw visions, heard voices, and had
other sources of knowledge independent of the senses and reason; that
he could read people’s minds and had knowledge of the future; that
by means of mental power he could change the course of events, cure
diseases, and alter the form of his body; that he went into trance;
that he felt physical pain as pleasure and experienced spontaneous
erotic delight; that he had a sort of supernatural strength; that he
was in touch with goddesses and gods; that he was one with God. Those
familiar with Indian mythological literature will not be surprised by
these powers and experiences, as they are commonplace in the epics
The question of the relationship between mysticism and madness has been discussed since antiquity. In the folklore of many cultures, a man or woman of exceptional ability has often been thought closer to the lunatic than to the ordinary mortal. Indian tradition offers hundreds of examples of yogis, mystics, and sufis whom others regarded, at least sometimes, as out of their minds. India assigns an honored place to the divine madman and madwoman once their spiritual credentials have been accepted. In the West, someone who acts eccentrically and claims divine influence is more likely to be considered a psychotic with religious delusions. Recent psychiatry has barely amended Freud’s idea that “religious phenomena are only to be understood on the pattern of the individual neurotic systems familiar to us.”<Footnote 91> A defender of mysticism would argue that the truth value of mystical experience is so much greater than the truth value of psychiatry—a discipline based on dubious assumptions—that any attempt by the latter to explain the former is absurd. But unless the defender was an experienced mystic, this would just be substituting one set of unverified assumptions for another. When I speak of Aurobindo’s experiences, my aim is not to argue for their veracity or for their delusiveness; I simply present some of the documented events of his inner life and provide a framework for evaluating them.
of Religious Experience, William
James examined the experiences of “religious geniuses,” some of
whom were considered unbalanced by their contemporaries. James
insisted that such experiences had to be
interpreted “in the
immediate context of the religious consciousness.” The correct
criteria for judging them were
“philosophical reasonableness,” and “moral helpfulness.”
Later writers continued on
similar lines. Anton Boisen felt that
there was “an important relationship between acute mental illness
functional type and those sudden transformations of character”
known as conversion experiences. “Certain types of
and certain types of religious experience” were, he wrote,
“attempts at [personality]
reorganisation.” When successful, such
attempts can lead to a new synthesis; when unsuccessful, they lead to
Boisen nor James attempted to erase the line between mysticism and
They acknowledged that many people who claimed to have
mystical experiences suffered from psychological
made them incapable of leading productive lives. They also noted
that certain well-known mystics
passed through periods of apparent
madness. Sudhir Kakar, who discussed this with reference to
felt that the distinguishing sign of psychosis in such
cases was “painful or anxious affect.” In the absence of
psychological pain or anxiety, “certain types of mystical
experience” could be regarded as having “their ground in
creativity, akin to the heightened fantasy of an artist or a writer, rather than in pathology.”<Footnote 93>
of Aurobindo’s experiences are familiar to the mystic traditions of
India and elsewhere. He wrote about them
in language that is
reasonable and luminous, though often hard to understand. Some of
this writing is in the form of
diary notations that were concurrent
with the experiences. Around the same time he also wrote more than a
books on philosophy, textual interpretation, social science,
and literary and cultural criticism, along with a mass of
miscellaneous prose and poetry. Numerous scholars admire these works
for their clarity and consistency;
thousands of readers believe that they have been helped spiritually or mentally by them. No contemporary ever re
marked that Aurobindo suffered painful or
anxious feelings as a result of his experiences. In one or two
written during the 1930s, he wrote that his life had been a
struggle, and hinted at inner dangers and difficulties as
any “which human beings have borne,” but at no time did he give
evidence to others of inner or outer
stress. Indeed, virtually everyone who met him found him unusually calm, dispassionate, and loving – and eminently
reports to the contrary are so rare that they can be examined
individually. As noted earlier, while
working as editor-in-chief of
Aurobindo sometimes was severe and occasionally angry. After
witnessing a tongue-lashing Aurobindo gave to another,
Prasad Ghose wrote in his diary that he thought
Aurobindo might have
inherited “a tinge of lunacy” from his mother. R.C. Dutt, asked
by the government for
information about Aurobindo, also mentioned
Swarnalata’s madness and suggested that her son was “eccentric”.
After Aurobindo had spoken of his vision of Krishna in the Uttarpara
speech, a few of his associates murmured
that he had lost his
balance. These scattered reports by people out of sympathy with him
are hardly significant in
themselves; viewed together with every
other known report of Aurobindo’s character, they stand out as
anger was remarkably rare and did not leave scars. A few months after
noting down the
outburst that had surprised him, Hemendra Prasad
wrote to Aurobindo that he would “always look back with
the period of my life during which I had the privilege of
working with you for a cause.”<Footnote 94>
some of Aurobindo’s political opponents considered him eccentric or
unbalanced is not surprising. When
people asked him about his claim to have seen Krishna, the calmness
and lack of self-assertion of his answer
convinced them that he was anything but unbalanced.
the first element of Aurobindo’s yoga; balance—samata—was
its basis. Asked in 1926
about his ability to overcome the
difficulties of yoga, he replied: “A perfect yoga requires perfect
balance. That was
the thing that saved me—the perfect balance.
First I believed that nothing was impossible and at the same time I
could question everything.”<Footnote 95> Record
of Yoga is
remarkable not only as a chronicle of unusual
experiences, but as the self-critical journal of a practitioner who was never satisfied with anything short of perfection.
<Text of Footnotes:
91. Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism, quoted in R. Hood, “Mysticism, Reality, Illusion, and the Freudian Critique of Religion,” 58.
92. W. James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, 24–33; A. Boisen, The Exploration of the Inner World, ix.
93. S. Kakar, The Analyst and the Mystic, 26.
94. Diary of Hemendra Prasad Ghose, July 28, 1907, in SAAA.
95. Talk of November 11, 1926, quoted in A. Purani, Life, 205.>
Sri Aurobindo as Guru
mythological texts. “The atmosphere round the
Master was surcharged with pure vibrations of peace, light, power and
Ananda [bliss]. One could feel the fragrance of
lotuses from his transparent, luminous body”; “His God-like face
radiated profound peace and serenity. His intent and faraway look
indicated to me that he was not of the
remarked that he was tall, though his height remained unchanged at
five feet, four
inches. Much of the hyperbole may be ascribed
to the charisma that was building up around the inaccessible,
mysterious Aurobindo, who was reputed, like all certified holy men of
India, to possess supernatural powers. Be that
as it may, all descriptions of Aurobindo’s appearance from this and
later periods lay stress on its singularity. He was,
A. B. Purani
wrote, “cast in a mould of arresting majesty, of regal splendour.
We saw that uncommon majesty
manifested in every look, in every
gesture, in every movement of his. His deportment was kingly yet
natural, his voice
was melodious yet soft, pleasing yet firm. A born
aristocrat, he could be easily spotted in a crowd. He was and looked
so uncommon, so out of the ordinary.”<Footnote 65>
<N.B. It is common knowledge that to the popular mind in India a yogi is one who possesses extraordinary powers.>
<Text of footnotes:
64. T. Rao, At the Feet, 41; V. Chidanandam, “Sri Aurobindo and the Mother as I Saw Them,” 2.
65. A. Purani, “An Intimate Glimpse of the Master,” Sunday Times, December 17, 1950, 2.>
birthdays began to be celebrated with some pomp. “From early
morning,” reads one contemporary
account, the house was “humming
with various activities. . All are eager to go to the Master for
his Darshan [formal
viewing]. As the time passes there is a tide in
the sea of rising emotion. It is ‘Darshan’—we see him
every day, but
today it is ‘Darshan’! Today each sees him
individually, one after another. In the midst of these multiple
consciousness gets concentrated.” Climbing the staircase, they found him seated “in the royal chair in the verandah
—royal and majestic. In the very posture there is divine
self-confidence. In the heart of the Supreme Master, the great
Yogin.” Those present were filled with emotion: “is it a flood
that mounts or a flood that is coming down on humanity?
who have experienced it can know something of its divinity.” As
they approach, “all doubts get
assurance. . Love and grace flow on undiminished. The look! enrapturing and captivating eyes! Who can ever forget?
—pouring love and grace and ineffable divinity.”<footnote 112>
<para>There is no way to know what Aurobindo thought about the outpouring of emotion. Basically British in his upbringing, he was always reticent and reserved, never encouraging demonstrations of feeling. He was familiar with the conventions of the Indian guru-shishya relationship, such as bowing down before the master <note singular number> and elaborate gestures of devotion, but he resisted attempts by his followers to practice them. He may have regarded such customs as examples of those “ancient ideas and forms” that India had such difficulty getting beyond. <The reference here is to a passage from a letter cited and discussed on page 339.> But if Aurobindo was indifferent or opposed to ceremony, Mira thrived in it. <As will be evident when the passage is read in its entirety, the “ceremony” referred to here comprised the special acts performed on Sri Aurobindo’s birthday by the disciples, which Mira (the Mother) was “happy to see”. There is no mention bowing down to her.> She was happy to see the sadhaks spending hours stringing garlands and preparing special dishes, and later, during the darshan, bowing down at Aurobindo’s feet.
<Text of Footnote 112
A. Purani, Life, 196–197. Purani places this description with events of the year 1924, but it is more likely that it belongs in 1923.>
(399-400) Early in the afternoon the Mother rejoined him, and they walked together to the small outer room where they sat together on a sofa, the Mother on Sri Aurobindo’s right. Here they remained for the next few hours as ashramites and visitors – more than a thousand by the end of the 1940s – passed before them one by one. “There is no suggestion of a vulgar jostle anywhere in the moving procession,” a visitor noted. “The mystic sits bare-bodied except for a part of his dhoti thrown round his shoulders. A kindly light plays in his eyes.” Sri Aurobindo looked directly at each person for a moment. “The moving visitor is conscious of a particular contact with these [eyes] as he bends down to do his obeisance. They leave upon him a mysterious ‘feel’ that baffles description. The contact, almost physical, instils a faint sense of a fragrance into his heart and he has a perception of a glow akin to that spreading in every fibre of his being.” <Footnote 147> Most visitors had similar positive experiences. But some, particularly from the West, were distracted by the theatricality of the setting and the religiosity of the pageantry. Vincent Sheean, a well-know American journalist, had read some of Sri Aurobindo’s books before coming and was deeply impressed by them. But as he stood in line to have darshan, with incense swirling around him and people throwing themselves at the guru’s feet, he was hit by “a shock of sledge-hammer quality, to see human beings worshipped in this way.” Failing to make sense of it, he at least was glad to see that “whatever others may think or say”, Sri Aurobindo did not seem to “to be deceived or befuddled by these extravagant manifestations.”<Footnote 148>
<Text of footnotes 147 and 148
147. R. Ganguli, “Pondicherry’s Mystic,” Amrita Bazar Patrika, February 22, 1950.
148. V. Sheean, “Kings,” 75.>
had been the case for years, the only time anyone could see him was
during the darshan
now had less than a minute before him, but most went away
impressed. A French professor spoke of being filled
with “a feeling
of certitude, stability—an impression I had received often before
on seeing a huge mountain.” He
was sure, from the first glimpse,
that this “was what I had so long searched for, the solution of my
Bengali writer who had admired the political Aurobindo thirty years
earlier now found
him the very picture of “the venerable ‘Rishi’
of old which we have in our mind’s eye with long grey hairs and
beard—a picture of purity, a living deity—calm, collected,
serene, cheerful and loving,—at whose sight the head
stoops low spontaneously in esteem and reverence.”<Footnote 88>
Whether spontaneous or conventional, a reverential attitude was becoming the only acceptable way to approach Sri Aurobindo. Disciples took it for granted that he was an avatar, or incarnation of God. He never made any such claim on his own behalf; on the other hand, he never dissuaded anyone from regarding him in this way, and wrote openly that the Mother was an incarnation of the Shakti. She reciprocated when speaking about him with disciples, but insisted on “great reserve” when people wrote articles for the general public.<Footnote 89>
<Footnote texts [both misnumbered]: “G. Monod-Herzen, “Reminiscences of Sri Aurobindo,” 497; Sri Aurobindo, Letter of Novembe 25, 1933, in SAAA.”
the half-century since Sri Aurobindo’s death, his reputation has
continued to grow. Discussed by historians,
literary critics, and social scientists, and admired, even
worshipped, by thousands of spiritual seekers, he
numbered among the most outstanding Indians of the twentieth
Like all icons, he
misrepresented by his admirers as well as his detractors, praised
or reviled for things he never said or did.
opinions of him to be shaped by authorities.
His followers and their spokesmen present him as an
incarnation beyond any sort of criticism. Conservative
writers and politicians seize on aspects of his thought that
to support their agendas, ignoring or suppressing other aspects,
while other writers and critics cite his works
out of context to
present him as one of the causes of India’s social, political, and
literary ills. Still others reject the
religiosity of the devout and
the zeal of one-sided critics and admirers in an attempt to arrive at
a more balanced idea
of what Sri Aurobindo was and what his legacy is and will be.
is difficult to offer a balanced assessment of a man who is regarded
by some as an incarnation of God and by
others as a social and
To accept Sri Aurobindo as an avatar is necessarily a matter of
and matters of faith quickly become matters of dogma. Besides,
the term “avatar” has lost much of its glow in
recent years. Once
reserved for “descents” that come “from age to age,”<Footnote
now is applied to any
spiritual leader with a halfway decent
for the label “reactionary,” it is itself a reaction against Sri
Aurobindo’s appropriation by members of the Hindu Right, who claim
his posthumous endorsement for their
value of Sri Aurobindo’s achievements can only be gauged by
examining the historical and literary evidence
and assessing the
nature and effects of his thought and action. For this, assertions of
supernatural influence are no
more help than assertions of
ideological certitude. Sri
Aurobindo’s role in changing the course of India’s freedom
struggle is evident from contemporary sources. Before him, no one
dared to speak openly of independence; twenty
years later, it became
the movement’s accepted goal. His focus on freedom made him give
to social and cultural problems that continue
to haunt the country, such as interreligious and intercaste conflict.
there is no contemporary evidence that his actions or words
exacerbated these problems. Some of his ideas might,
in fact, help to
solve them—for example the idea that India’s religious and
ethnic diversity was “a great advantage
for the work to be done” in the future.”<footnote 11>
<Followed by 753 words dealing with Sri Aurobindo’s posthumous reputation and legacy>
<Text of footnotes 9–10:
9. See, e.g., “The 100 Indians Who Shaped Our Century,” Gentleman (February 1986); “100 People Who Shaped India in the Twentieth Century,” India Today, The Millennium Series, vol. 1 (2000); “Indians of the Century,” The Times of India (2000), originally published online at http://www.timesofindia.com/century/vote.html, archived at http://web.archive.org/web/20000301113723/http://timesofindia.com/century/vote.html, accessed July 31, 2007.
10. Bhagavad Gita 4.8.>
11. Sri Aurobindo, letter of November 17, 1932, in SAAA. See also Sri Aurobindo, Bande Mataram, 642–643; Karmayogin, 23; The Human Cycle, The Ideal of Human Unity, War and Self-Determination, 286, 288, 307–308.
Sri Aurobindo’s Writings
<Most of the following has to do with matters of aesthetic judgment. No point will be served by debating this. Readers should be aware that a great many admirers of Sri Aurobindo, Indians as well as Westerners, do not admire Sri Aurobindo’s early poetry from the point of view of English literature, though they consider it to have much youthful charm and considerable historical and biographical interest. The same is true of Sri Aurobido’s earliest (Baroda period) essays on the Upanishads, etc.>
<A few passages whose omission results in deliberate distortion of the author’s views are restored in red. For the author’s treatment of Sri Aurobindo’s mature poetry see pages 298-307, 369, 370, 381, 389, 394, 398, 402, 407, etc.>
Songs to Myrtilla
(25) One would be ill-advised to read, as one of Aurobindo’s biographers did, as confessions of infatuations with a half-dozen girls. Still, memory may sometimes have cued his imagination. “Edith,” whom he addresses in “Night by the Sea”… was the name of Mr Drewett’s younger sister-in-law, who lived with his family in Manchester.
(50) Few people in London would have agreed that the book showed promise.
(50) Written in the late Victorian style of Tennyson and Arnold, it contains little of lasting interest.
<Compare Sri Aurobindo’s own later opinion of the poem:
“I don’t think I have the Urvasie, neither am I very anxious to have this poem saved from oblivion.” (Letter of 5 February 1931). “On Sunday also I shall look at the Urvasie. It is a poem I am not in love with—not that there is not some good poetry in it, but it seems to me as a whole lacking in originality and life. However, I may be mistaken; a writer’s opinions on his productions generally are.” (Letter of 5 April 1935) “But Love and Death was not my first blank verse poem—I had written one [Urvasie] before in the first years of my stay in Baroda which was privately published, but afterwards I got disgusted with it and rejected it. (Letter of 4 July 1933).” All from Letters on Poetry and Art, pp. 223-224>
Love and Death
(52) Dedicating Love and Death to Manmohan, Aurobindo spoke of it as “the first considerable effort of my powers.”<footnote 57> It certainly was the poem in which he found himself, and this meant, in part, freeing himself from his indebtedness to his brother. Other literary influences remained: Stephen Phillips’s blank verse narratives, Arnold’s Sohrab and Rustum, Keats’s Hyperion.<Footnote 58> It is against such poems that Love and Death must be judged. At its best, it bears comparison with them:
[Twelve lines quoted]
Although certain of the quality of Love and Death, Aurobindo was in no special hurry to have it published. Twenty years passed before it finally appeared in print. By then the shock of World War I and the beginning of literary modernism had so transformed the poetic landscape that a late Victorian blank-verse narrative had no hope of attracting favourable notice.
<Text of footnote 57: Sri Aurobindo, Supplement, 160)>
<Text of footnote 58: Sri Aurobindo, On Himself, 267)>
<Compare Sri Aurobindo’s own remarks on the recognition of his poetry:
“It is a misfortune of my poetry from the point of view of recognition that the earlier work forming the bulk of the Collected Poems belongs to the past and has little chance of recognition now that the aesthetic atmosphere has so violently changed, while the later mystical work and Savitri belong to the future and will possibly have to wait for recognition of any merit they have for another strong change.”
“I might perhaps take refuge in the supposition that the lack of recognition is the consequence of an untimely and too belated publication, due to the egoistic habit of writing for my own self-satisfaction rather than any strong thirst for poetical glory and immortality and leaving most of my poetry in the drawer for much longer than, even for twice or thrice the time recommended by Horace who advised the poet to put by his work and read it again after ten years and then only, if he still found it of some value, to publish it.” Letters on Poetry and Art, p. 349, 351>
(79) The language of Aurobindo’s dialogue is heavy and pedantic, the characters shallow and unconvincing, but the work shows evidence of much original thought.
Viziers of Bassora
(80) The underlying plot of this wonder tale is one that Aurobindo returned to repeatedly in his dramatic writing: a beautiful young woman, noble but in bondage, and a handsome young hero, sensitive yet strong, fall irretrievably in love. The hero must battle entrenched inferiors to gain his birthright. In the outer world of action, Aurobindo never sought help from anyone. In the imaginary world of his dramas, his protagonist was never without a partner.
(96) A tragedy in verse on the Shakespearean model now seems to be such a throwback that it is hard to evaluate Rodogune as literature. Viewed as drama, it is original and well-plotted, owing little to Corneille except the basic story. Viewed as poetry, it can hold its own against contemporary plays in verse by Stephen Phillips and Laurence Binyon. Its primary defect is flat allegorical characters. Antiochus never says an ignoble word or does an ignoble deed. Timocles comes across as a comic buffoon, not a tragic figure, while Rodogune is too colorless to inspire either devotion or jealousy.
Perseus the Deliverer
(106) Aurobindo turned the story into a Shakespearean romance, complete with clowns, soubrette, soldiers, monsters, royalty, and hoi poloi. Even more than Rodogune, Perseus belongs in style and conception to a bygone era. Chained to the rock, Andromeda muses:
I will not die! I am too young,
And life was recently so beautiful.
It is hard, too hard a fate to bear.
In the face of such passages, it is easy to dismiss Perseus as intolerably mawkish. But the play is not without psychological interest.
(203) The philosophical articles take up, in a non-academic way, some of the classic problems of the discipline: the relation between the individual and the cosmos, the puzzle of free will and fate, the origin and significance of evil. His essays on these subjects are clear and well expressed, though not particularly original. Many of them try to harmonise the Upanishads and late Victorian science by means of evolution. Some of his arguments now seem rather quaint. A seed grows into a certain sort of tree, Aurobindo wrote, because “the tree is the idea involved in the seed.” In the light of molecular biology, this is at best a vivid metaphor.
(277) <The passage that follows is the only part of the author’s highly appreciative, 2800 word treatment of The Life Divine that is quoted>
How does Aurobindo rank as a philosopher? Most members of the philosophical profession – those who have read him at all – would be loath to admit him to their club. His methods simply do not fit in with the discipline as it is currently practised. Even Stephen H. Phillips, the author of a sympathetic monograph on Aurobindo’s thought, had to admit that Aurobindo wrote The Life Divine not as a philosopher, but as “ ‘a spiritual preceptor’, in a long tradition of intellectual, but hardly academic ‘gurus’.<Footnote 35> Yet this preceptorial philosopher created a synthesis of spiritual thought that bears comparison with the best of similar systems: those of Plotinus, Abhinavgupta, and Alfred North Whitehead. Even if his critics deny him the label of philosopher – a label he never claimed for himself – his philosophical writings will continue to be studied by lay and academic readers.
<Text of footnote 35: S. Phillips, “Mutable God: Hartshorne and Indian Theism,” 119.>
Synthesis of Yoga
(279) <The passage that follows is the only part of the author’s highly appreciative, 3200 word treatment of The Synthesis of Yoga that is quoted>
The Synthesis of Yoga, the work in which he presented his methods [of yoga], is almost abstruse as The Life Divine, containing no easy-to-follow techniques.<What is the problem? Compare the following well-known passage from SY 46-47: “There are three outstanding features of this action of the higher when it works integrally on the lower nature. In the first place it does not act according to a fixed system and succession as in the specialised methods of Yoga, but with a sort of free, scattered and yet gradually intensive and purposeful working determined by the temperament of the individual in whom it operates, the helpful materials which his nature offers and the obstacles which it presents to purification and perfection. In a sense, therefore, each man in this path has his own method of Yoga.”>
Renaissance of India
(295) Much of Aurobindo’s Is India Civilised? is starkly dualistic, positioning Indian Culture as spiritual, aesthetic, and profound and Western culture as rationalistic, mechanistic, and superficial.
(296) The Defence of Indian Culture is a polemic from the start to finish, as Aurobindo closed his eyes to the critic’s positive judgments and blasted him for the slightest negative remark.
<Compare Sri Aurobindo’s own 1949 opinion of the book: “The Defence of Indian Culture is an unfinished book and also I had intended to alter much of it and to omit all but brief references to William Archer’s criticisms. That was why its publication has been so long delayed. Even if it is reprinted as it is considerable alterations will have to be made and there must be some completion and an end to the book which does not at present exist.”>
(297) To Aurobindo, Buddhism, with its two thousand-year history in India, was just an extreme restatement of the truths of Veda and Vedanta – a characterisation that no Buddhist would accept.<This is self-evident.>
(299) From a literary point of view, Aurobindo’s plays are the least interesting of his works. Biographically speaking, they may offer insights into movements of his imaginative life. If his earlier plays suggest that he was searching for his ideal life partner, Vasavadutta seems to hint that he had found the woman he was seeking and was waiting for the moment when she would join him.
Ahana and other Poems
(301-302) A century after its publication, it is difficult to offer a balanced assessment of Ahana and Other Poems. All of the pieces in the collection, even those written in Pondicherry, bear the stamp of late-Victorian romanticism. The ideas in them may not have occurred to a Tennyson or Swinburne, but striking ideas in metrical form do not of themselves make poetry…Cousins wrote…At its best, his poetry stood “self-existent in its own authenticity and beauty”; at it worst it was “poor minted coin of the brain”.
<These are Cousins’s opinions; reference given in footnote. Heehs’s 800 word discussion of Ahana and Other Poems omitted.>
The Future Poetry
(306) By 1920 the Modernists were changing the face of European and American literature, and many of the ideas on which The Future Poetry was based had become antiquated curiosities before any important poet or critic could read the book. Aurobindo’s own poetry, rooted deeply in the soil of the nineteenth century, was out of date before it saw print.
(307) As the Modernist movement progressed, Aurobindo became out of touch with contemporary developments in poetry. As a result his poetry and criticism must now be judged by the standards of the past, or else taken – so far with little support – as harbingers of a future yet to be glimpsed.
Collected Poems and Plays
(389-90) Collected Poems and Plays were politely reviewed in India after its August publication. The Times Literary Supplement gave the book to Ranjee G. Shahani, an Indian writer living in London. Unimpressed by Sri Aurobindo’s poetry (“his technical devices are commendable; but the music that enchants or disturbs is not there”) Shahani chose to turn his review into a consideration of the author’s entire oeuvre. “As an Indian scholar and critic he is second to none,” Shahani wrote, citing such works as Essays on the Gita and The Secret of the Veda. Sri Aurobindo’s literary judgments matched Coleridge’s and Heine’s in their “piercing and instantaneous insight,” while The Life Divine was, “it is not too much to say, one of the master-works of our age.”
Shahani, like Younghusband, began his review by lamenting that Sri Aurobindo was practically unknown in England and the United States. Both reviewers contrasted this neglect with his growing fame in his own country. Shahani added that in India “there are no criticisms, only praise, “which not infrequently rose “to a crescendo of adulation.”
<Note that all the opinions are Shahani’s as published in his Times Literary Supplement review (referenced in the footnotes).>
(393-4) A printing establishment was set up in 1945, and within a few years was producing books that set a standard for excellence in India. Before long all of Sri Aurobindo’s works were being published by the Ashram Press. Around the same time, ashram-related organizations began to bring out quarterly or annual journals. The first canto of Savitri appeared in the Sri Aurobindo Pathamandir Annual (Calcutta) in August 1946. Subsequent cantos appeared in The Advent (Madras), while poems like “A God’s Labour” and “The Infinitesimal Infinite” were published in Sri Aurobindo Circle (Bombay). The rest of the material printed in these journals – poems and essays by ashramites and other disciples – are more interesting as examples of devotional expression than as contributions to scholarship or literature. Sri Aurobindo read through some of these productions, but appears to have given little encouragement to intellectual or literary originality. His disciples’ poems simply imitate his images and rhythms; their articles summarise or plagiarise his ideas.
(251) Her works of the period, many of them quiet interior studies, show excellent technique and classical balance, if little originality.
<This is a brief aesthetic opinion about a certain group of paintings. The Mother’s considerable literary, musical and artistic abilites are not treated at any length in the book, which is a biography of Sri Aurobindo.>
Mother’s spiritual capacity
(261) There is no special mention of Mirra Richard [in a certain Record entry], nor evidence in earlier Record entries that he regarded her more than a “European yogi” of unusual attainments. <The reference here is to a letter by Sri Aurobindo cited and discussed on page 258; the key passage is: “They [Paul and Mirra] were, he wrote Motilal, “rare examples of European Yogins who have not been led away by Theosophical and other aberrations.” ” This quotation is followed by this sentence by Heehs: “As for Mirra, she seemed [to Sri Aurobindo] to have a capacity for spiritual surrender that rivaled that of the great Indian bhaktas or devotees.” Re Record of Yoga, Sri Aurobindo does not, in fact, discuss the Mother’s spiritual capacity anywhere in the earlier Record entries.> But it need not be assumed that he put down all he felt in his diary. Years later he explained that he was aware at once that Mirra’s aptitude for yoga was extraordinary, while Paul’s was at best mediocre.
<Dozens of positive references to “Mother’s spiritual capacity” by the author, with or without supporting citations from Sri Aurobindo, have been omitted.>
The Mother’s relation with Sri Aurobindo
(326-327) After dinner those present tended to cluster in two groups: Aurobindo and Mirra on one side, Paul and the others on another. Sometimes, when they were alone, Mirra took Aurobindo’s hand in hers. One evening, when Nolini found them thus together, Mirra quickly drew her hand away. On another occasion, Suresh entered Aurobindo’s room and found Mirra kneeling before him an attitude of surrender. Sensing the visitor, she at once stood up. There was nothing furtive about these encounters, but they did strike observers as unusual.
<Compare this to the following from Nirodbaran in Twelve Years with Sri Aurobindo (1972 edition, p. 31-32): In the morning, the Mother arrived in his room with a flower, probably a red lotus, knelt before the ‘Lord’, placed the lotus on his bed and bowed down to receive his blessings, and his sweet smile. This was the second time I saw her doing pranam to him. The first time was on her birthday, 21 February . It was a revelation to me because I didn’t expect her to bow down in the Indian way. On every darshan day since then I enjoyed the sight. On other days she used to take his hand and gently kiss it.>
<paragraph on (326) continued> Neither Mirra nor Aurobindo were in the habit of expressing their emotions openly. The young men, already somewhat unhappy about the inclusion of women in their circle, and the consequent erosion their bohemian lifestyle, were somewhat nonplussed by this turn of events. Paul Richard took it more personally. At times he could be heard muttering a phrase of garbled Tamil, setth ay pochi, by which he meant “the calamity has happened.”<Footnote 49>
After a while he asked Aurobindo about the nature of relationship with Mirra. Aurobindo answered that he had accepted her as a disciple. Paul inquired as to what form the relationship would take. Aurobindo said that it would take any form that Mirra wanted. Paul persisted: “Suppose she claims the relationship of marriage?” Marriage did not enter Aurobindo’s calculations, what was important to him was Mirra’s autonomy, so he replied that if Mirra ever asked for marriage, that is what she would have.<Footnote 50>
<Note that on page 254 that Mirra explains to Paul early in their acquaintence “that the animal mode of reproduction was only a transitional one and that until new ways of creating life became biologically possible her own motherhood would have to remain spiritual.” Also that on page 319 Sri Aurobindo says that he had “put the sexual side completely aside”. There is therefore no room for someone who has actually read the book that there was any question of marriage in the conventional sense.>
Paul took the matter with his wife. According to Mirra, recalling the events forty years later, the confrontation was stormy. Aware more than ever that Mirra had made his literary and spiritual accomplishments possible, Paul demanded that she give her primary loyalty to him. Mirra simply smiled. Paul became violent, came close to strangling her, and threw the furniture out of the window. Mirra remained calm throughout, inwardly calling on the divine. For all intents and purposes this was the end of their relationship. A year later Paul confided to the novelist Romain Rolland that it had been a time of “violent crisis” in his life. He had been forced to fight “a dreadful inner battle, which threw me, alone, face to face with death… into the immense and glorious void of the Himalayan ‘Ocean’”. In his diary, Romain translated this into more mundane language: “In fact”, he wrote, “his wife…left him.”<Footnote 51>
Mirra and her friend Dorothy Hodgson continued to live at 7 rue Saint-Martin. The monsoon was heavy that year, and the roof began to leak. One day a warehouse on the rue d’Orléans collapsed in the incessant rain. Concerned that the same thing might happen at 7 rue Saint-Martin, Aurobindo suggested that the two women move into his house, and they agreed.
<Texts of footnotes 49-51
49. Purani Talks manuscripts 9: 80; 5: 98. Richard, who knew virtually no Tamil, seems to have combined two phrases, seththup pochchi, which is colloquial Tamil for “he/she died,” and aypochchu, which means “it is over.”
50. Purani Talks manuscripts 5: 76. In the interest of coherent dialogue, I have expanded and slightly amended Purani’s notes regarding this incident, which read: “(One day P. R. came & asked him in what way he (A. G.) related to Mirra. He said she was his disciple. But what was her attitude towards him. He said in whatever way the disciple will aspire for me he will get me as such [possibly an allusion to Bhagavad Gita 4.11]—Suppose she claims relations of marriage. ‘Well she will have that’—).” In a report of what appears to be a separate conversation between Aurobindo and Richard, Purani writes that in reply to a question from Richard about Mirra “A. G. simply said she had offered herself to him & she had been accepted. It was her lookout to do what she wanted to do.—”
51. The Mother, L’agenda de Mère, vol. 2: 409; R. Rolland, Inde: Journal 1915–1943, 28.
<The following passage from page 349, two pages after the above passage, was omitted in its entirety:
The consecrated union of a human male and female is seen [by Tantrics] as a reenactment of the cosmic act of creation. Some schools of tantric yoga put so much stress on this relationship that they require male practitioners to have female sexual partners. Aurobindo made it clear that this was not the case in his yoga. “How can the sexual act be made to help in spiritual life?” he asked a disciple who posed the question. It was necessary, in the work he was doing, for the masculine and feminine principles to come together, but the union had nothing to do with sex; in fact it was possible in his and Mirra’s case precisely because they had mastered the forces of desire.<footnote 59>
<Text of footnote 59> A. Purani, ed., Evening Talks with Sri Aurobindo, 339.
<Also omitted (pp. 354-55): By August 1923 there were fifteen full-time residents in the two houses. Almost half of them were Bengalis; most of the rest were from Gujarat and the Madras Presidency. Mirra and Datta were the only full-time women, though the wives of two or three of the men were also allowed to stay on the condition that they and their husbands renounced sex.>
<Also omitted (p. 359): “As for the “ugly rumours [about the ashram that had been circulated],” Sen Gupta insisted [in an article approved by Sri Aurobindo] that they were false. “An absolute mastery of the sex movements and entire abstention from the physical (animal) indulgence are the first conditions” of Sri Aurobindo’s way of yoga. Accordingly “sensual indulgence” was “absolutely forbidden” and even “such comparatively innocent habits as smoking were discountenanced.””
(381-82) Around two o’clock that morning, while crossing to the bathroom, Sri Aurobindo stumbled over the tiger skin and fell. There was a sudden flash of pain. After years of practice he had developed the ability to transform most types of discomfort into ananda or bliss, but the pain he was feeling went beyond his threshold. He tried to get up and failed, then lay back quietly. After a short while, the Mother entered. Attuned inwardly to her partner, she had felt in her sleep that something was wrong.
<Heehs had to ask around to find out what the problem was. The term “partner”, in the sense of “spiritual partner”, has been used to describe the relationship between Sri Aurobindo and the Mother by numerous authors whose attitude towards Sri Aurobindo and the Mother is, like Heehs’s, highly respectful. See for example George Feuerstein, Ph.D., The Yoga Tradition, p. 77, or else perform a simple Google search.>
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