An important new biography, The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, has just been published in the U.S. Written by Peter Heehs of the Ashram Archives, it is the product of many years of painstaking research. Auroville Today spoke to him about the challenges involved in writing about Sri Aurobindo.
Auroville Today: Why do we need yet another biography of Sri Aurobindo?
Peter Heehs: What justifies a new biography is new material or a new interpretation. Most biographies of Sri Aurobindo published before 1989 were based on his reminiscences, supplemented by an assortment of secondary sources. The idea that a historical work must be based on archival sources had apparently not occurred to the writers. It might not have occurred to me either if my first boss at the Ashram Archives, Jayantilal Parekh, had not suggested that I make a chronology of Aurobindo's life, basing it on “authentic documents”. With his encouragement, I spent a few years working on and off in archives in Delhi , Calcutta and Baroda , and later in London and Paris . It wasn't always easy – the records of Baroda College were stored in gunny sacks covered with bat droppings, heaped up in an unused attic – but all this research provided me with a lot of new material.
When you do biographical research, you find out things about your subject by going to primary sources that state that such and such happened. But that's not the end of it. You have to compare various sources for each event because no single source gives the whole story. Sometimes there are contradictory accounts, and you have to figure out who you want to trust in any particular case. It's a very complex process of gradually getting to know the ‘whole' of things.
The problems are aggravated when limits are set as to what can be said or thought about a subject. The person who advised me to search for “authentic documents” felt squeamish about using certain documentary accounts. One of the most detailed accounts of Aurobindo's life in school was written by a classmate who sent a report to the Government of India after Sri Aurobindo's arrest in the Alipore Bomb Case. It was clear from his language that he did not like Sri Aurobindo. My advisor thought that the document should not be published or even referred to. This obviously is not the right way for a historian to proceed.
When you finally sit down to write, you do it against the background of a general understanding, a conventional account of the subject. In effect what you're doing is correcting what's generally known about the subject. The result is a new interpretation that modifies or replaces the conventional account.
So what does your new biography contain? New facts or a new interpretation?
It would have been easy for me to fill a biography with hundreds of new facts, many of them relatively insignificant, but new all the same. But if I had shovelled every new bit of information I had ever found into the book, it would have become almost unreadable.
I believe what is significant about the new book is not the presence or absence of new facts – though there are plenty of them there – but rather the overall picture that emerges. I believe that the Sri Aurobindo that emerges from the new biography is much more lifelike, more unpredictable, more complex, than the Sri Aurobindo of earlier biographical writing, including my own.
And when I say “emerges”, I mean emerges in the mind of the reader, for I tried hard not to impose any specific point of view, but rather allowed the reader to use the material to construct his or her own Sri Aurobindo.
One of the problems you have with a figure like Sri Aurobindo is, as he put it, his life “has not been on the surface for men to see”. How does a historian deal with his inner life?
We're fortunate in having quite a lot of documentary material about his inner life, mostly, of course, written by him. We have both contemporary accounts (in the Record of Yoga) and retrospective accounts (his letters etc.). Then there are accounts by others of similar experiences. If spiritual experience is something which is not merely subjective but represents a human capacity, one would expect to find such accounts. I made a study of comparative mysticism, and this informed what I wrote in the biography to some extent; but I did not go too far with this, because it wasn't the point of the book.
But, with the exception of the Mother, no one else seems to have experienced and worked with supermind. How does a historian deal with a ‘singularity' for which no other accounts exist?
At a certain point you have to say something like, “by his own account, this is what he was doing”, and leave it at that. Because there's nothing more you can say.
Such an approach may be fine for devotees. But won't this lose you a wider readership?
When I began writing this book, I had to decide who I was addressing. Among people interested in Sri Aurobindo there are, first, the devotees. But there are also many people in the academic world who are interested in Sri Aurobindo not as a spiritual figure or object of devotion but because of his writings or because he was a revolutionary.
Both readerships have legitimate needs that have to be taken into consideration by a biographer. But both have limitations: there are topics they consider inappropriate, materials they don't want to hear about, preconceptions that they consider unquestionable verities.
For various reasons, I gave a certain priority to the academic approach. As a contributor to historical journals, I have developed an admiration for the scrupulousness and rigour of academic discourse. I feel comfortable with this approach, and feel uncomfortable with the loose, ‘devotionalistic' or ‘New Age' sort of expression that is popular among many people who write about spiritual figures.
On the other hand, I knew I had to write about Sri Aurobindo's spiritual life in a non-reductionist way. I didn't want to treat Sri Aurobindo's spiritual experiences as so much data for social scientific analysis, as many academics might have felt compelled to do. I am, after all, a practitioner of Sri Aurobindo's yoga, and I take what he has written about his own practice of yoga, and the yogic discipline he recommends to others, quite seriously.
My ideal reader is therefore a sort of composite of the devotee and the academic: a devotee willing to look at things in a new way, an academic open to the possibility of spiritual experience and transformation. I don't expect any reader to agree with everything I say. What I am hoping is that each reader will use the book to enhance his or her understanding and appreciation of Sri Aurobindo in all his complexity.
But haven't you, at times, reduced that complexity by excluding certain information? For example, you treat Sri Aurobindo breaking his leg and, later, his death as simple physical facts. You exclude any occult explanation, even though the Mother referred to both happenings in these terms.
You correctly put your finger on a special difficulty of dealing with a life like Sri Aurobindo's. When, as historians, we speak of physical events, there's an established way of dealing with them, using documents to corroborate what we say. When we talk about a person's spiritual experiences, we have that person's own account of what took place. But when we talk about occult workings and effects, we are talking about spiritual things having an impact on physical events. But the influence of the inner world on the outer is not verifiable in ordinary terms. I could have used the Mother's accounts of his death etc. as she is certainly an authority in these matters; but the kind of the biography I wanted to write had to be based upon verifiable facts.
When I think about things like Sri Aurobindo's death, I certainly take what the Mother said about them into consideration. But I didn't put everything I think into this book.
Apart from basing yourself upon facts, you have also been willing, at times, to adopt a critical stance regarding your subject, for example when writing about his poetry.
It has to be acknowledged that many people have difficulty with Sri Aurobindo's poetry because it is written in a certain mode. Much of his poetry is quite remarkable, but people who think that everything Sri Aurobindo wrote from Songs to Myrtilla onwards was mantric and, therefore, beyond criticism, are doing no favours to his poetic reputation.
You also wonder if Sri Aurobindo and his colleagues, when they were trying to throw off British rule, could not have done more to include the Muslims.
Certain historians and political journalists insist that the rhetoric of Sri Aurobindo and his colleagues during the Swadeshi period was responsible for bringing about communal violence between Muslims and Hindus. I went back to his actual statements and read them as they would have been read at the time, and concluded that such charges are unsustainable. At the same time, it is true that Sri Aurobindo didn't think that ‘social problems', such as Hindu-Muslim tensions, needed to be dealt with then because India was engaged in a struggle with the colonial power and that had to take precedence. In retrospect, had more attempts been made at the time to create a united front, to engage in give-and-take with Muslim organizations, things might have worked out better.
All in all, Sri Aurobindo stands up very well to the critical approach. Devotees think they have to be protective of him, that any criticism will destroy him and all his work. This is ridiculous. His accomplishments in various fields are so strong and lasting that he emerges firmer and stronger from a critical treatment that deals squarely with difficult questions.
Writing a scholarly biography and practising sadhana are not generally seen as complementary. In your case, did the one assist the other?
I wouldn't recommend writing a biography as a means of sadhana. It may be that a simple devotional approach is best. But I don't think, given my personal temperament, that I could have gone very far with that. And, as it happened, this biographical work just fell into my lap.
My appreciation of Sri Aurobindo has definitely been enhanced by my study of his life. First, because I now know a lot more about him and, secondly, because as a biographer I had to critique my material, and Sri Aurobindo passed all the tests.
Sri Aurobindo was an extraordinarily complex individual. And over the years I've developed a complex attitude towards him: that of a person who follows his path but has moved beyond an unthinking appreciation to one informed by the results of scholarly research, which perhaps can better understand his complexity.
From an interview by Alan
Photo caption: Sri Aurobindo, circa 1915.
Photo credit: Photo courtesy Sri Aurobindo Archives