Reviewed in the West as the only decent biography of Sri Aurobindo Goshe, from politician, to poet and guru. This guy lived a fascinating life and Peter Heehs describes as many aspects of it as the Sri Aurobindo archives can help enlighten us on.
In India this is a controversial book. It’s even been banned in Orissa. The ban is due to the book not putting everything Sri Aurobindo did in a starry light. It deigns to suggest psychological motives, finding them in the plays Aurobindo wrote as well as his letters.
From a Western perspective, the suggestion that the man had personal motives as well as spiritual ones, doesn’t detract from his stature. However, many Indian devotees perceive them as an insult to his name. It’s called ‘Freudian Psychoanalys’ by some – when there really isn’t a word of Freudian psychology in the whole book.
I’m hoping to go the Sri Aurobindo Ashram for a few months next year, and thought I’d read up on their tradition. So I ordered three books – this biography, a book featuring the teachings of The Mother and a similar book about Aurobindo’s spiritual teachings.
I just love biographies: they transport one back in time into the life of people who generally led interesting and admirable lives. Sri Aurobindo’s life is perhaps everything in the extreme. He lived the first years of his life in India, moved to England because his father wanted a good education for him and his brothers – and then lived their with his brothers taking care of themselves.
Though Aurobindo was the third of the three brothers, his scholarship money ended up taking care of the three of them when they went to college. He was a brilliant scholar. However, he avoided his father’s wish of joining the Indian Civil Service (the British government controlled Indian Civil Service) by refusing to take riding lessons. Yes – this was a different time: it was considered essential that the people in charge of India’s administration be able to ride a horse.
Aurobindo avoided direct refusal because of respect to his father and the rest of the family. This is an Indian pattern: one doesn’t stand up to family directly, one instead creates circumstances that make their wishes impossible.
Anyhow, Aurobindo ended up in the service of one of the princely rulers of India. These semi-independent kingdoms were ruled by Indian kings and princes who worked with the English government while also having autocratic power over their subjects.
While doing that, Aurobindo also taught. studied Indian languages like Sanskrit and Bengali, and wrote his first pieces on an Independent India. We’re still talking the 19th century here. Aurobindo was the first to publicly claim India needed to be independent of British rule. Unlike Gandhi, he felt armed resistance was a viable course, though when the extent of modern arms became clear – he changed his mind. Not out of principle, but out of a practical insight in the harm of violent retribution by the government.
Aurobindo, by nature not very sociable, ended up a very public figure for a few years. His brother lead a group of insurgents, who tried bombing prominent people. This backfired and the whole group was arrested. The government tried to convict them all – including Aurobindo, but the judge (an old Cambridge acquaintance) thought there was not enough evidence to convict Aurobindo.
In the meantime Aurobindo had been practicing yoga and meditation and he felt the transformation these exercises caused in him were more important than politics. Fleeing the police to French ruled Pondicherry, South of Madras (now Chennai), he ended up spending the rest of his life there, founding an ashram. This is what he’s most famous for in spiritual circles in the West: his Ashram, his Integral Yoga and his spiritual relationship with Mirra Alfassa, aka The Mother.
The book misread
As said, The Lives of Sri Aurobindo is a controversial book. In online discussions of this controversy things come out which I did not find in the book when I read it. For instance:
The parts found offensive include those which suggest that the Bengal revolutionaries, under Sri Aurobindo’s leadership, gave the freedom movement a Hindu slant, and thereby exacerbated the communal divide.
The book is clear on this: Aurobindo was not as aware of communal tensions as in hindsight he ought to have been. It is clear that his own spiritual inspiration was traditional: The Upanishads, Rig Veda and The Bhagavad Gita. He was quite ready to work with Muslims, but thought independence more important than actively pulling them in.
Now that may sound like a confirmation of the above, but Aurobindo did very little active organization work. He wrote and he stimulated others to organize. And in that inspiration he let them very much free to do what they wanted, whether he agreed or not. He felt that once things have taken a certain form, they had better continue.
Perhaps, the most important charge against the book is that it apparently suggests that Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual and mystical experiences were due to “an inherited streak of madness”.
What Heehs notes has been historically noted throughout the ages: mysticism and madness are often hard to distinguish from the outside. The same goes for creativity BTW. The difference ultimately seems to be that mysticism ends up a positive for not only the person who experiences it, but also those around him or her. Heehs observes that while some have linked Aurobindo’s mysticism to his mothers madness, the accounts on Aurobindo’s sanity are overwhelmingly positive: noting his wisdom and emotional self control.
Devotees in Puducherry, where Aurobindo settled in 1910 after abruptly ending his political career, said the book also makes unacceptable remarks about Aurobindo and his spiritual collaborator, Mirra Alfassa, referred to as the Mother, and hints that their relationship was “romantic”. They accuse Heehs of depicting Aurobindo’s wife Mrinalini and senior-most disciple Nolini Kanta Gupta in a poor light.
I did not get from the book that The Mother and Sri Aurobindo had a romantic relationship. In fact, it makes it quite clear that they were both – and had been for decades – celibate. That there was emotion involved in their relationship is obvious, but it is rather a leap to go from friendship and working closely together to romance.
For me the culture shock in reading the book was rather the dismissive attitude towards sex that they shared. I mean – I’m single and likely to continue like that, but still – an ashram in which sexual activities are forbidden totally?
Sri Aurobindo’s many names
In India names were, and to some extent still are, varied things – especially in Latin letters. Aurobindo’s name changed with the local where he was working. What is usually spelled as Aurobindo, is the Sanskrit ‘Aravinda’, also spelled as: Aravind, Arabinda, Aurobindo, Arvind etc.
The man who was known as Sri Aurobindo at the end of his life, was named Aurobindo Acroyd Ghose at his birth. Aurobindo meaning ‘lotus’ and Acroyd for an English friend of his father’s: Annette Akroyd. When Aurobindo became active in the Indian Independence movement, he dropped the middle name and usually called himself Aurobindo A. Ghose. When an ashram developed around him, he was increasingly called ‘Sri Aurobindo’.
- Hardcover: 528 pages
- Publisher: Columbia University Press (June 27, 2008)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0231140983
- ISBN-13: 978-0231140980
- Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.1 x 1.5 inches