INTERVIEW East meets West,
Peter Heehs is an American historian whose
visa from India was last month on the verge of
being revoked due to his authoritative and
controversial study of Sri Aurobindo Ghose, the
20th-century Indian nationalist and revolutionary
After many Indian historians and
intellectuals petitioned on his behalf, India's
Home Ministry finally extended his visa for a year
on April 16. However, court cases against him
Heehs was able to travel
"out of India" without any concerns and worries
about returning to Pondicherry, India, where he
has lived for the past 40 years. He landed up in
Stone Harbor, New Jersey, where I caught up with
him. Strolling along the beach, he talked
about Sri Aurobindo, his
journey and how the new India is changing.
Many well-meaning public thinkers in India
have been influenced by Aurobindo's life and work
and thrown their support behind Heehs.
Born, raised and educated in the United
States, Heehs travelled to Sri Aurobindo's
Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry 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
independence movement and on the early phases of
the revolutionary movement.
Aurobindo has been immortalized by Heehs, whose
biography will be read and interpreted by many
more interested readers. Yet, even Heehs was
pleasantly surprised by the deep reservoir of
support Sri Aurobindo's work still garners among
Sri Aurobindo, born
in Calcutta in 1872, was sent to England at age
seven to have a Western education, becoming aware
of his country's plight under the British Empire
while studying the Classics at Cambridge. He
returned to India at 21 to throw himself into
revolutionary politics, but in 1910 he retreated
to Pondicherry where he founded an ashram and
wrote important works.
In this interview,
Heehs talked about some of the reasons behind Sri
Aurobindo's continuing and deep impact on the
subcontinent and around the world.
Dinesh Sharma: You're not an
academic, but you've written what appears to be
the authoritative historical book on Sri
Aurobindo. How did this happen?
Peter Heehs: When I came to
the Ashram in 1971, I met Jayantilal Parekh, who
was looking for people to help him set up what
eventually became the ashram archives. One of the
first things he asked me to do was to organize the
biographical material that had been collected by A
B Purani, author of The Life of Sri
Jayantilal sent me to
archives in different parts of India in order to
collect biographical material on Sri Aurobindo. I
did this for a number of years. At a certain point
I began to write short articles based on this
material for a journal we were publishing, "Sri
Aurobindo: Archives and Research."
later, I wrote a book on the freedom movement,
which won a prize in a textbook competition.
Jayantilal suggested that I offer it to Oxford
University Press [OUP], which accepted it and
published it in 1988. This was the start of my
career as a writer of academic history.
Later, I wrote several other books that
were published by OUP and other academic
publishers as well as a couple of dozen research
papers published in journals like "History and
Theory" and "Modern Asian Studies". You could say
I learned to write academic history by doing it.
DS: When you went to India
in 1971, there were hardly any Indians in the US,
but now that has significantly changed. While
India is becoming more Westernized post-1991
liberalization. How do you feel about this?
PH: It's obvious that
Indians are making important contributions in a
number of different fields in the US and Europe.
This is good for the US and Europe and good for
the Indians who find an outlet for their energies
in these places.
is East, West is West, never the twain shall
meet." Is the East and West meeting now in
Clearly the increasing interaction of people from
different parts of the world is changing the world
in innumerable ways.
does Aurobindo's work fit into this "cultural
transition", given he was an anglicized Indian who
later became a revolutionary yogi?
PH: He was one of the first
Indians to benefit from a full European education,
but he did so in a colonial context. You could say
that he used European political ideas to engage in
anti-European revolutionary politics in India.
DS: Aurobindo offered a
"spiritual evolutionism", partly because his
father was a Darwinian, trained in medicine in
Aberdeen around the time "Origins of Species" was
published. Please explain this important
Aurobindo's father arrived in the UK just when
Darwinian ideas were beginning to penetrate
British culture. He clearly was deeply influenced
by these ideas - a letter he wrote shortly before
his death in which he mentions Darwin, shows that
he had become an agnostic on the Victorian model.
By the time Sri Aurobindo came to England
Darwinian ideas had penetrated British culture to
such an extent that he picked them up without
taking any courses in science. Later, like others
of the period, he tried to find a way to
synthesize European science and Eastern
Aurobindo tap into states of consciousness that
other Western philosophers and mystics have
intimated and talked about?
PH: It's clear from his
diary and his letters that he did.
DS: What was Aurobindo's
"French connection", philosophically, culturally
and historically that runs throughout his life and
PH: While in England
he studied French and French literature and
history and developed a strong sympathy for French
culture. He taught French at Baroda College.
Pondicherry, where he settled in 1910, was a
French colony and he came in contact with many
French people, primarily, of course, Mirra
Alfassa, who became the "mother" of the Sri
DS: As an
Aurobindo follower, how do you reflect on your own
journey 40 years later? Have you found what you
were looking for? PH: Well,
I've found a yoga path that I am trying to follow.
I won't make any claims about my progress. I find
it rather irrelevant when people speak about their
yogic "achievements". This is not the sort of
thing that should be spoken about publicly.
DS: Tell us about your next
book, which is on the history of the self, due out
sometime next year?
Briefly, it's a study of the development of the
idea of the self, told with reference to
first-person writings (memoirs, diaries, etc) by
people from various cultures.