Biographer of Indian mystic gets to
stay By Dinesh Sharma
At the behest of many eminent historians,
including Ramachandra Guha, Romila Thapar, Ashis
Nandy and Rural Development Minister Jairam
Ramesh, India's Home Minister Palaniappan
Chidambaram has finally extended the visa of an
American historian who has lived in India for the
past 40 years.
The controversy surrounded
the book The Lives of Sri Aurobindo,
authored by Peter Heehs, who has been a devotee
and the archivist at the Aurobindo Ashram in
Puducherry in the southeast
of the country. Heehs
produced a full-length biography detailing the
varied personalities of the turn-of-the-century
politician and poet, who was once a revolutionary
for Indian nationalism, later became a yogi, and
according to some historians of religion was
perhaps "India's greatest philosopher of the 20th
Heehs' biography of Aurobindo
has attracted court cases against the author and
the Aurobindo Trust by a small group of devotees
who claim Heehs has breached the confidence of the
community, also prompting his visa difficulties.
On Friday, Chidambaram conveyed to officials in
Puducherry that he had granted the extension to
the author, overruling the recommendation of
ministry and immigration officials.
in Calcutta in August 1872 to an Anglicized
father, Aurobindo was sent to England at age seven
to have a Western education. Studying first at St
Paulís, London and then the Classics at Kings
College Cambridge, he became aware of his
country's plight under the British Empire while at
the latter. Becoming gradually more committed to
overthrowing London's rule, he deliberately failed
an opportunity to join the British civil service
by failing to turn up for the horse riding test
after passing all his exams. He return to India at
the age of 21 and threw himself into revolutionary
The controversy over Heehs'
biography follows on the heels of similar public
condemnations of books written by Western or
liberal Indian thinkers, who wish to interpret the
lives of spiritual figures and the great Indian
traditions with a loving but a critical eye.
Fueled partly by the rise of the nationalist
ideology of Hindutva, anything that smacks of
blasphemy angers some factions of a political
group, creating uproar in the media.
all, why would an early 20th-century Indian
mystic, who fought for India's liberation from the
British and then retreated into the French-Indian
hamlet Puducherry, have any great significance
today, especially as India embraces economic
liberalization, double-digit growth and enjoys a
coveted seat on the United Nations' Security
Council? The reason is simple: Aurobindo was the
only Indian nationalist who tackled the perennial
spiritual questions of life and offered a
"spiritual evolution" for all of humanity.
Heehs told me in an interview from
Puducherry, where Aurobindo moved to in 1910 to
dedicate himself to spiritual and philosophical
pursuits, and write his most important works,
"While there were other leaders, [Mahatma] Gandhi,
[Bal Gangadhar] Tilak, [Jawaharlal] Nehru,
[Rabindranath] Tagore, who wrestled with these
questions, Sri Aurobindo went the farthest on this
spiritual path because he had left politics."
Today, we take a cultural synthesis of
East and West almost for granted, while doing
yogic postures, sipping chai-latte, and listening
to world music, but during the colonial period
arousing such aspirations for universal human
ideals and values was not easily achieved.
Aurobindo almost took on the whole empire to find
his corner of the earth to live in freedom, and to
offer his vision of a better, more "integrated"
world on the horizon.
Along with Sri
Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananada, Aurobindo was
a widely-read mystic of the modern Indian
renaissance who flourished in Bengal during the
late colonial period and turned towards the
movement for violent overthrow of the British
rule. Aurobindo's life seems more interesting and
harder to decipher due to his early education in
England, which neither Ramakrishna nor Vivekananda
had an opportunity to acquire.
acculturation inherent in extended exposure to the
West included among other things a certain loss of
the native or rustic discourse, without which the
central concerns of Aurobindo's life are not "on
the surface for men to see". Unlike Gandhi, whom
he presaged in India's non-violent freedom
struggle, Aurobindo was not a full-time karma yogi
nor did he equal Gandhi's Augustinian confessional
style, acquired during his years in the West.
More "sophisticated" than Ramakrishna, who
was a native or folk mystic, more reclusive,
poetic and literary than Gandhi, clearly a
saint-politician, and a contemporary of
Vivekananda in age, outlook and temperament,
Aurobindo clearly fits the portrait of a modern
Drawing upon both Western
as well as Indian religious and literary sources,
evoking in both modern Indians and Westerners the
vision of a dawning new age, his 30 collected
works as well as several unabridged books are
still available under several headings - religion,
occult, mysticism, literature, politics - in
bookstores and libraries the world over.
Indeed, significant comparisons have been
drawn between Aurobindo's life and thought and
several Western philosophers. For instance,
bibliographers note striking parallels between
Aurobindo's ideas of human evolution and Henri
Bergson's "creative evolution", Pierre Teilhard de
Chardin's "future of man", and some of Alfred
North Whitehead's ideas on "process and reality"
and many others. However, unlike Western
intellectuals, Sri Aurobindo actually practiced
these ideas and lived in a heightened state of
consciousness, suggested Heehs.
from within transpersonal psychology, Ken Wilber
has advanced an exact congruence between some of
the "conventional" or Western psychological
templates for human development, such as Jean
Piaget's theory of cognitive development, Margaret
S Mahler's theory of "psychological birth of the
infant", Jane Loevinger's stages of ego
development, Lawrence Kohlberg's moral development
theory, and the more contemplative schemes of
human development reflected invariably in the
borrowings from the Eastern meditative traditions.
Included here with other sage-philosophers of the
East are Aurobindo's ideas about stages of the
Heehs has offered a labor of
love which most Indians themselves have not had
the courage to undertake. The controversy is not
about the portability of cultural ideas but rather
about what US president Abraham Lincoln called the
"mystic chords of memory" that obviously propelled
Aurobindo's superhuman quest.
and educated in the US, Heehs reached the
Aurobindo Ashram in Puducherry in 1971 and has
been there since, serving as director of
historical research. He is the author of several
works on Indian history and Indian spirituality,
particularly on the swadeshi period of the
Indian independence movement and on the early
phases of the revolutionary movement.
There is no doubt that Aurobindo was a
genius and a sage, except Heehs has written a
biography not a hagiography. On this point, Heehs
treads very carefully through the evidence, but in
my opinion he does not go far enough with his
interpretations. For instance, we have a lot more
knowledge today about religious behavior and
mystical personalities than we did a century ago.
It is possible to understand Aurobindo
historically, biographically and psychologically
without diminishing the man or the mystic; by
embracing the full thrust of Aurobindo's life and
work we do not shrink him or try to put him on the
The controversy stirred by Heehs
represents a flashpoint in the culture wars that
have also been igniting in Indian or Hindu studies
in the US. I don't intend to inject myself into
these debates, except to reinforce a particular
type of cultural analysis that allows for some
semblance of rational discussion, which includes a
psychological interpretation of the Hindu mind in
all its manifest and latent representations.
Mysticism as quest for higher
union David Aberbach, an expert on Jewish
mysticism and comparative religion, in his essay
on "Grief and Mysticism" makes a persuasive case
for stage-like progression for experience of
mystical feelings on the basis of a schematic
ordering of creative literature.
advances four although crude yet clearly
distinguishable experiential realms, that is,
incremental gradients of mental states as
projected through poetry and creative fiction to
explain how grief specifically may first
precipitate and then highly determine the
transformation of the wish to unite with the lost
object represented in the quest for a mystical
In explicitly positing a hypothesis
that Aurobindo did indeed suffer maternal loss
when his mother became ill and when he was sent
away to study abroad during most of his childhood.
This was one of the significant if not the central
factor in determining the course of his mysticism
a brief categorization of his
"mystical-developmental arc" may be instructive.
Here only the personal life story,
ontogenetic and cultural differences set Aurobindo
apart from the rest of the well-known mystics,
since these stages appear somewhat universal, much
like early loss seems to be a common factor for
almost all mystics, irrespective of religion,
gender, history and even the personal style of the
The first stage consists of "the
identification of a lost person with animate or
inanimate objects". Here, the aspirant appears to
be in perpetual daze, looking for the lover in
everyone and everything. The mood is often
foreboding, ominous and macabre. The natural world
reminds the lover of the lost object and he wishes
to even court death to reunite with the beloved.
In English fiction, Emily Bronte's
Wurthering Heights, with its hero
Heathcliff, is a perfect instance of this stage.
In Aurobindo's case, his memories at school in
Darjeeling immediately following separation from
his home and mother carry features of this stage.
He feels he is in alien surroundings despite the
beauty of nature and reports a highly dark and
depressing memory from exactly this period.
Furthermore, this "tamas" (darkness), as he
put it stayed with him for 14 years during his
schooling in London and lifted only upon arrival
Next, Aurobindo takes on the
cause of freedom of his motherland, which given
his highly charged descriptions of nationalism,
was indicative of personal investments beyond mere
political ambitions. Indeed, he explicitly evokes
the idea of India as mother who needs blood
sacrifices in order to inspire the masses.
His speeches and letters on nationalism
are unique and filled with grave tensions,
reflecting the second stage of the
"mystical-developmental-arc", "detachment of
objects from the lost person". Here, the lover or
the bereaved begins to see, hear, feel or resonate
with a particular object, entity or activity as he
might with the actual lover.
language, and this was very true of Aurobindo.
Poets feel a special connection with words and
with the very activity of putting down words in a
manner that arouses their earlier impressions,
memories, and sensibilities. William Wordsworth
who separated from his family at around seven
years of age is a particularly apt example given
his love of nature. Unfortunately, for Aurobindo
the images, emotions and ideas which surfaced from
this period were sometimes violent and ghastly,
all part and parcel of his love of mother India.
During the next stage of "identification
and mystical union of the bereaved with these
objects" the aspirant begins to show first signs
of merger with a substitute object, after first
having fully detached from the partner's image,
presence, affective tone, memories etc.
The mystic here claims to be united with a
symbolic object and re-experiences lover's
presence in the animate and inanimate environment.
The theme of incorporation of original loved
object in mystical union with substitute objects
clearly sets this stage apart from earlier stages.
Martin Buber's I-Thou experiences are
perfect examples of this realm, especially, in
light of his mother's disappearance when he was
only three years old. Aurobindo during this period
began resonating to Kali's image, the mother deity
of Hindu pantheon, and shortly thereafter to the
Krishna-Kali personality. This gradually developed
into a more profound experience of oneness and
union with Mira Alfassa Richards, his female
consort, where she was the mother and Aurobindo
In the final phase of his
life, before dying in December 1950 Aurobindo
claimed to have resided in the highest most
stratum of consciousness, sachidananda,
while he was busy with his attempts to bring down
the supramental consciousness for all of humanity.
Even though these states are hard to grasp for us
common folks, this fits exactly with what mystics
claims to be engaged in, that is, aiming for
"cosmic consciousness", after having established a
union with the symbolic love-object near at hand.
Richard M Bucke's work on "cosmic
consciousness" and his own experiences are an
ideal instance of this final stage. In compiling
the accounts of mystics who had experienced such a
state, he overlooked the fact that almost all of
them not unlike himself, had suffered early loss.
This stage is called "union of the bereaved with
Indeed, as Aberbach states
it: "Hardly a single characteristic of the grief
process - such as withdrawal, yearning and
searching, depression and despair, 'finding'
union, gaining a 'new identity', return to normal
social life-does not have a parallel in the
mystical process. While mysticism cannot be
equated with grief, especially that deriving from
childhood loss, it might provide a framework
within which unresolved grief can be worked
through and overcome. In some cases, presumably,
grief might lead to mysticism."