The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, Peter Heehs

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?

Quotes from ‘The Times of India, Chennai’

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?

9 thoughts on “The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, Peter Heehs”

  1. I have diligently read Peter’s book. It is interesting reading but there is nothing objectionable in it. On the contrary Peter disproves the popular notions against Sri Aurobindo especially in relation to mysticism and madness. The remarks on Sri Aurobindo’s ‘ tinge of lunacy’ was made by Hemedraprasad Ghose and ‘ eccentricity’ by R C Dutt. Ghose made the remark when Sri Aurobindo lost temper for a few moments while working for Bande Mataram. The British Govt. extracted the word ‘ eccentric’ from R C Dutt when he was asked to comment on Sri Aurobindo. In fact Peter made the assessment that ‘ whoever spoke to Aurobindo found him to be calm, dispassionate and of course – eminently sane’. Please do not kill a dog by giving it an unnecessary bad name. Too much of devotion is also suspicious. Had he lived, even Sri Aurobindo wouldn’t have liked it. Thanks to Peter for presenting a true picture of his ‘ Guru’. This is the best ‘pranam’ you have given to this Great Soul.

    Nirmalya Mukherjee
    West Bengal

  2. Katinka,

    If you have time to prepare for your visit to Sri Aurobindo’s ashram after reading the works you mentioned, I very strongly recommend The Life Divine. I know that the phrase “life changing” has become hackneyed and commercialized, but in my case, reading The Life Divine was exactly that. A little light got turned on at a certain point when I read this masterwork, and all of my Judeo-Lutheran theological studies in college suddenly made sense (as a partial and distorted formulation of the great truth articulated in this book). IMHO, Sri Aurobindo is the only writer who can give Franklin Merrell-Wolff a run for his money. Check it out.
    Can’t wait for your travelogue.

    1. Glad to hear you enjoy Aurobindo’s work. However, I’ve decided not to go to the Aurobindo ashram, because of the controversy surrounding the Heehs book. Dealing with theosophical controversy is enough for me. I would not be able to keep OUT of the controversy, outspoken as I am, but I really have no business being in the middle of it either. As Aurobindo and the Mother are just not my thing (having read a bit of both now – not much, just a taste).

  3. I do admire Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. But from India Aurobindo could be the only one who could be somewhat compared to them for seminal literary and philosophical works that might have helped the humanity see new things in new light even for small periods. All 3 had worked for a better material life somewhat linked to pscyhiatry and medicinal treatment, economic freedom and a fuller and better utilization of money and distribution of resource and spirituality embedded in a form of divinine life to create a better human being and a human society based on Fraternity and just not on Liberty and Equality as the last 2 could only be the corollaries of the former. Mahabharata found the unevenness in humans and Dr Freud, Dr Karl Marx and Sri Aurobindo tried to resolve it. But there was no final solution as Krishna who himself was a victim of that uneveness could not overcome it. To err is human to forgive is divine but of course not for the evil. Peter’s book has indeed brought out a new Aurobindo but later there could be more. Then why do we unnecessarily go on blaming Peter. Fanaticism and Fundamentalism are the biggest blocks to better human life. There is a Duryodhana a Dhritarashtra and a pretending Karna in every body’s life. But then again there is Krishna. We should look for Krishna.

    Nirmalya Mukherjee


    It is unfortunate that certain rumours are being circulated that the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust is in some way endorsing, supporting or promoting the book “The Lives of Sri Aurobindo” by Peter Heehs. We would like to re-iterate what has been our consistent stand since October 2008 namely:

    “Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust does not approve and has nothing to do with the book entitled “The Lives of Sri Aurobindo” written by Peter Heehs and Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust is not in any way responsible for the contents or the interpretations of the material contained therein….”

    This is to re-affirm that the stand of the Ashram Trust has been consistent and has remained unchanged. The book is not sold from any department of the Ashram.

    The Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust is fully aware of its responsibilities and its actions are determined keeping in view the vision and values it is meant to uphold.

    For The Board of Trustees
    [Signed: Manoj Das Gupta]
    Managing Trustee
    Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust

  5. Thanks to SAAT for staying away from fanatics. Even Peter had said so in the opening remarks of his book ascribing nothing to the Ashram Trust. He is candid. But his problem is with those out of power and been given a silent cold shoulder by the Trust. Most, who are critical of Peter are only reflected glories and shadows of their past primary resources. If anybody could tell about Sri Aurobindo as a primary source is the still alive Amal Kiran ( K D Sethna) (105) yrs after Nirodebaran passed away. The Reddy’s and the Ranade’s around the Ashram are only trying to prove their authenticity taking advantage of the silence of Amal Kiran, now that he is already overtime with a naturally failing memory and usual alertness. We should not encourage these people to invade the Ashram as they are fanatics and something more which Sri Aurobindo himself might have hated the most.

    We hope the Trust all success in future so that they might be able to hold back the Aurobindo eccentrics and give place to well meaning Aurobindo scholars, who would be more objective in learning things and less reverent in unlearning issues of natural choice. It is really unfortunate that Sri Aurobindo has already been split open into 4 parts 1) Aurobindo for Aurobindonians 2) Aurobindo for eccentrics 3) Aurobindo the nation builder and an original spiritual thinker 4) Aurobindo who has mostly been heard and not read ( Asis Nandy – The Intimate Enemy). As matters stand, for the moment, I think Mr. Nandy was not wrong.

    The day one realises like Prof. Frederick Speigelberg of Heidelberg University that `One does not read the Life Divine but is instead read by it (Life Divine’), one might unfathom some of Sri Aurobindo (Aravinda Ackroyd Ghose) – India’s modern Vyasa. As he said, ` To move humanity one has to move oneself and that might sound egoistic or individualisitic. But it isn’t. It is Common Sense’. ( The Human Cycle, SA). Thanks to Peter he found the `umbilical chord’. May you give us some more of these documents in future. But it is also bad that you have become an antonym for the Indian Vyasa. It is ridiculous for those who made you so. To us you are a prime Aurobindo Scholar and is just one of us. Be with us. We are with you.

    Nirmalya Mukherjee

  6. How can we praise a person who is said to have tampered, twisted, misquoted and damaged Sri Aurobindo’s writings? There is little to bother about what one says about Sri Aurobindo and The Mother. Most of the great people in the world are misunderstood and misinterpreted by the human mind; there is nothing new in it. But it must be a serious matter of concern when their works are done away with in the name of research. Does you approve this? lives of sri aurobindo

    When the work of a person and for that matter the very person gets controversial it is imperative that they prove their transparency if they care for their readers and have no evil intention behind their work. Why should I be very fond of letting a controversy continue so long around me if I am confident about my work and the research? I must have guts to make my research public, prove my transparency and finish the controversy for good. Because a true and responsible writer values their readers and cannot be heedless about them.

    Anyway the truth will explode itself one day and prevail. This is the law of the Nature. Sri Aurobindo teaches about one truth. Truth is One and then it becomes many. Similarly a life of a person is one, not many.What seems us many is the myriad expression of the One! So how could there be lives of Sri Aurobindo? How absurd it is indeed!

  7. Even for Sri Aurobindo, ` it was less of Bhakti and more of ` Vichara’. He also wouldn’t have encouraged a hagiography as had been done of him. Moreover, is your icon so fragile that few pages could destruct him ? If so, then either we have misread and misunderstood Sri Aurobindo or not have read him at all.

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