Academic Reviews

Published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Volume 21, Issue 03, pp 383–386.

Just how do you write a biography of an Aurobindo? Peter Heehs faces the challenge faced by all biographers when writing the life-stories of Indian holy men or of Indian politicians turned saints, both invariably avatars to their disciples. Can one maintain the criterion for the writing of history laid down by the Enlightenment? It is all too easy to set Aurobindo on a pedestal. When I visited the ashram in October 1995 I was moved by attending a meditation beside the tomb of Aurobindo and the Mother and this is how I recorded it in my diary: "At one point I grew aware of the overpowering presence of the tree over the tomb and looked up into the night sky and saw a light in the former room of Aurobindo and the Mother. It was as if they were present". I seem, however, to have been rather less moved by a subsequent visit to their living quarters. There I saw the settee on which they would receive darshan. At one stage, however, I subscribed to a verdict that Aurobindo was the greatest Indian never to have become India's prime-minister and maybe the truly exciting accounts of Aurobindo are just those that do subscribe to his evidently mesmeric charisma.

Having lived such varied lives as a theoretician, a scholar of English and Sanskrit, a revolutionary political leader, a yogi, a philosopher, a tantric, and finally a guide to inner knowledge, Sri Aurobindo Ghose was one of the most enigmatic, yet highly-respected, figures in twentieth-century India. Given this complex diversity, penning his biography is challenging as most biographers tended to focus on him as a great yogi.

With this book, Peter Heehs has done the job of examining Aurobindo in his entirety with remarkable success, and has aptly titled his work The Lives of Sri Aurobindo. He has also reproduced the original picture of Sri Aurobindo which people had hitherto seen only in highly 'retouched' form. Heehs' volume is 500 pages long but highly readable, meticulous and comprehensive. This is because Heehs was an archivist at the Aurobindo Ashram; he thus had access to Aurobindo's unpublished letters and diaries.

Divided into four parts, the book consists of nine chapters. Chapter 1, 'Early Years in India', describes Bengal in the late 19th century and the Ghose family. Born on 15 August 1872, Aurobindo's father was the district civil surgeon at Rangpur, not far from Calcutta. His grandfather on the mother's side, Rajnarain Bose, was a leading member of the Brahmo Samaj, a Hindu reformist group. Although Heehs does not say so, exposure to the Brahmo Samaj must have influenced the young Aurobindo. He went to school at Darjeeling, away from home.

Ineffable or Not: Understanding and Writing about Sri Aurobindo

In recent years, authors writing about ancient to more modern traditions, communities, and divine and not necessarily divine persons connected to South Asia have sometimes found themselves to be virtually and, thankfully more rarely, literally assailed for their interpretations. These authors and their critics, one could argue, are part of a shared discursive context, one where technologies, global circulation of ideas, and the ease of joining in on conversations can support a wonderfully diverse audience but where the consequences of a perceived misstep in interpretation may require more than a thick skin. Into this milieu, a new biography of Sri Aurobindo Ghose has arrived. The Lives of Sri Aurobindo (hereafter The Lives), by Peter Heehs, joins his already impressive roster of publications, many concerning Aurobindo and unpublished materials from the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives of which Heehs is one of the founders. The new work covers the whole of Aurobindo’s life (1872-1950). It is engagingly written and supported by a bounty of historical materials. Students of India with little familiarity of Aurobindo will discover that Heehs offers a multisided portrait of a brilliant and enigmatic man whose lifetime spanned a momentous period in modern Indian history and whose various accomplishments bear closer examination for their content and for their discursive revelations on a variety of subjects, including revolution, violence, nationalism, poetry, metaphysics, Indian culture, Hindu texts, yoga, religion, and spiritual communities. For those already aware of Aurobindo’s role in early Indian nationalist politics and his subsequent transformation into a revered “spiritual” leader and founder of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Heehs’s biography adds many fine details from Aurobindo’s own diaries and retrospective writings alongside accounts from family, friends, associates, and foes. The overall result is a masterful and inspiring biography that provides a solid foundation for further Aurobindo studies and offers plenty of cues for other kinds of historical, textual, and exegetical work that could enhance our understanding of the multiple sites in which Aurobindo lived and worked.

The work under review represents several years of serious research and reflection on the life of Aurobindo Ghose (1872-1950), popularly known as Sri Aurobindo since 1926.

Heehs already has to his credit a shorter biography of Aurobindo (1989), a collection of his writings and speeches (2005) and more recently (2006), an historiographical essay on how certain ideological preoccupations have led scholars belonging to both ‘Right-Fundamentalist’ and ‘Left-Secular’ camps to misread and misrepresent the ideas of Sri Aurobindo. With this intense and meticulously researched work, our author appears to have not only completed a personal journey but also affected a timely intervention, asserting how objective historical assessment may be justly separated from commonly accepted perceptions. In popular memory, Sri Aurobindo survives more on account of his reputation as a mystic, yogi or philosopher than to any acute understanding of his political ideology. His political life, though radical and dramatic in some ways, was also brief. The irony of it though is that popular understanding of his religious or philosophical views is often vague and wrenched out of context. Whereas Sri Aurobindo’s vision dwelt on expansiveness and integration, his writings, more often than not, are examined piecemeal, sometimes only to support conclusions reached otherwise. It is presumed, for instance, that by religion, Aurobindo was always referring to Hinduism or that his periodically withdrawing into meditative silence, proved socially irresponsible and politically regressive. In this book, Peter Heehs makes a commendable effort at rescuing a leading thinker of modern times from uncharitable critics.

Most books on Sri Aurobindo are hagiographical, with little or no biographical information; in keen contrast, this book covers in great detail the various stages of his life. The book consists of a preface, epilogue, and five parts--part 1, "Son": "Early Years in India, Bengal, 1872-79"; part 2, "Scholar": "Growing up English, England, 1879-93" and "Encountering India, Baroda, 1893-1910"; part 3, "Revolutionary": "Into the Fray, Calcutta, 1906-08" and "In Jail and After, Bengal, 1908-10"; part 4, "Yogi and Philosopher": "A Laboratory Experiment, Pondicherry, 1910-15" and "The Major Works, Pondicherry, 1914-20"; and part 5, "Guide": "The Ascent to Supermind, Pondicherry, 1915-26" and "An Active Retirement, Pondicherry, 1927-50." Many expositions and commentaries on Sri Aurobindo's principal works have been written, especially on The Life Divine, but this reviewer believes that Heehs's book stands out as the very best by enabling readers to understand the various circumstances that led Sri Aurobindo to his final destination. Heehs (independent scholar) richly deserves congratulations for the first-class research and scholarship evident in this rare work. Excellent notes, bibliography, and index enhance the book's value. All students and scholars of Sri Aurobindo will find this extraordinary book most rewarding. Summing Up: Essential. Graduate students and faculty/researchers; general readers.

Ramakrishna Puligandla, University of Toledo, published in Choice (USA), October 2008

Despite his massive political and spiritual influence, the twentieth century Indian revolutionary turned mystic Sri Aurobindo Ghose has been curiously neglected in Western scholarship. Heehs, one of the founders of the Aurobindo Ashram Archives, corrects this by producing what is certain to become Aurobindo's definitive biography. Aptly pluralized, The Lives of Sri Aurobindo recovers Aurobindo as a scholar, politician, revolutionary, poet, philosopher and sage by helpfully dividing the major periods of his life from his childhood in India and England to his final years as reclusive spiritual guru with the equally enigmatic Mother at their [Pondicherry] ashram. While certainly rewarding, wading through Aurobindo's prolific writings can be a daunting task. Heehs, therefore, has done us a great service by organizing vast amounts of primary and secondary sources, including Aurobindo's own diaries and unpublished letters, to produce a compelling biography that intelligently discusses the main themes of Aurobindo's epic political, literary, and metaphysical canon. He is also to be congratulated for resisting the tendency to mythologize and perpetuate the romantic mystification of earlier hagiographies. Although clearly persuaded by Aurobindo's spiritual weight and metaphysical vision, Heehs doesn't avoid less flattering issues such as Aurobindo's early commitment to political violence and the neglect of his wife. The result is a clear and detailed picture of a fascinating figure whose continuing religious relevance can be seen in the contemporary popularity of many of his pioneering East-West teachings: the evolution of consciousness, an integral approach to spiritual liberation and a socially engaged this-worldly mysticism. Particularly recommended for those interested in the religious, cultural and political landscape of twentieth-century India.

Ann Gleig, Rice University, in Religious Studies Review 35 (1) March 2009

Sri Aurobindo Ghose (1872–1950) is one of the most well-known Indian gurus in the West. Educated in England, he remained throughout his life a prolific writer, in English, of literary theory, poetry, philosophy, social and political commentary, and history. His published work alone earns for him a respected place in both modern Indian history and the world of twentieth century letters. Of equal, if not greater, importance, however, were his achievements as a spiritual leader. He and his spiritual consort and successor, Mirra Alfassa (1878–1973), propagated (devotees would say they revealed) an elaborate, multi-tiered universe of matter and spirit. Aurobindo claimed that in his lifetime, and because of his years of concentration and meditation, the next evolutionary stage for the human species was entering our time and space. Future humanity would be as advanced beyond present humanity as human beings are advanced over animals. Aurobindo also claimed that he fought against the destructive influences of Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin, limiting their accomplishments and helping to bring the Second World War to a successful conclusion for the Allies. Today Aurobindo’s published writings are disseminated and taught by many devotees, who meet in groups and study centers in India, the United States, and other countries. The headquarters for this movement is the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, located in the Indian city of Pondicherry, formerly a French colonial possession, where Aurobindo moved in the early twentieth century after he was imprisoned by the British authorities for his activities in support of Indian independence.