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’.
- The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, Peter Heehs
- 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
What’s Sri Aurobindo’s most important contribution?
Sri Aurobindo contributed on many levels of Indian life. He taught at university, he wrote about Indian independence, he stimulated people who used violence towards that goal, he studied and practiced yoga at a high level and he studied and wrote about Indian Philosophy – coming to a new synthesis ‘Integral Yoga’. He as also a poet and a translator.
What do you think was most important about Sri Aurobindo? (results of a poll on another site to which I have contributed)
- 14% His insight into India’s future
- 10% His work for India’s independence
- 34% His yogic attainment
- 38% His philosophical teachings (Integral Yoga)
- 3% His poetry and literature
Sri Aurobindo Ghose Biography
Sri Aurobindo (Aurobindo Ghose) (15 August 1872 – 5 December 1950) was an Indian nationalist and freedom fighter, major Indian English poet, philosopher, and yogi. He joined the movement for India’s freedom from British rule and for a duration (1905–10), became one of its most important leaders, before turning to developing his own vision and philosophy of human progress and spiritual evolution.
The central theme of Sri Aurobindo’s vision is the evolution of life into a “life divine”. In his own words: “Man is a transitional being. He is not final. The step from man to superman is the next approaching achievement in the earth evolution. It is inevitable because it is at once the intention of the inner spirit and the logic of Nature’s process”.
The principal writings of Sri Aurobindo include, in prose, The Life Divine, considered his single great work of metaphysics,The Synthesis of Yoga, Secrets of the Vedas, Essays on the Gita, The Human Cycle, The Ideal of Human Unity, Renaissance in India and other essays, Supramental Manifestation upon Earth, The Future Poetry, Thoughts and Aphorisms and several volumes of letters. In poetry, his principal work is “Savitri – a Legend and a Symbol” in blank verse.
Peter Heehs biography
Peter Heehs is an American historian living in Pondicherry, India who writes on modern Indian history, Indian spirituality and religion. Much of his work focuses on the Indian political and spiritual leader Sri Aurobindo. His publications include nine books and more than forty articles in journals and magazines.
Peter Heehs was born and educated in the United States but has lived in India since 1971. He has worked as an editor at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives since its founding, and has contributed to the editing of the Sri Aurobindo Birth Centenary Library and The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo.
As a historian of modern India, Heehs has written on the swadeshi period of the Indian independence movement and on the early phase of the Indian revolutionary movement. His 1992 study The Bomb in Bengal highlighted the importance of the Maniktala secret society, which was a predecessor of the Jugantar Group. In this book and other publications, Heehs made it clear that the Indian freedom struggle had a violent as well as a non-violent side, and that the violent revolutionaries helped prepare the country psychologically for the later mass movements lead by Mahatma Gandhi. In the second edition of The Bomb in Bengal (2004), Heehs distinguished the aims and methods of early Indian revolutionaries from those of later terrorists in India and elsewhere.
Heehs has also written on problems of Indian historiography in History and Theory, Postcolonial Studies, and other journals. He has also contributed to popular magazines such as History Today.
As a scholar of religion, Heehs has edited the textbook Indian Religions and has contributed to journals and edited volumes dealing with new religious movements in India. He has also discussed the problems of Indian communalism.
Heehs’s ninth book, The Lives of Sri Aurobindo (Columbia University Press, 2008) was intended for scholarly readers. It received positive reviews in the United States, but was objected to by conservative devotees of Aurobindo, who have delayed the publication of the book in India.
A controversial book – Write a review, add a comment, or debate someone who disagrees with you.
To an Indian audience this book is so controversial, that a whole website has been devoted to it. I guess I’m too Western to fully understand that. To me this book is respectful and positive about Sri Aurobindo. It just doesn’t erase the human from the yogi.
What did you think?