The Heehs biography controversy is unfortunately a symptom of a much deeper crisis in the Integral Yoga community, with future repercussions which are hardly optimistic. In this consideration of some of the larger issues involved, the editors of SCIY and other concerned viewers of the phenomenon have drawn attention to what is at stake for all those interested in the Integral Yoga. These are only a few of the more serious ramifications.
by Debashish Banerji , Rich Carlson , David Hutchinson , Angiras, Ulrich Mohrhoff
The opposition to The Lives of Sri Aurobindo raises serious issues. A few of these include:
- Whether a religion is being created
- The devotionalist narrowing of the Integral Yoga
- Language use and the reification of experience
- Control of the representation of Sri Aurobindo
- The importance of minority views in the yoga community
- The need to proclaim Sri Aurobindo’s divinity
- Criteria for membership in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram
- Changing the rules of the Ashram
- Hindutva influence
- The use or misuse of quotations by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother
- Reading skills
- Balance and distortion
- The legitimacy of ad hominem attacks and methods of character assassination
- Effects on future discussions in the Integral Yoga community
Creation of a new religion
The question arises whether the sense of outrage voiced by those opposed to this book is the symptom of a religion, whose prescribed modes of practice, belief and expression feel violated. If this is so, we have to ask whether such a religious formulation of the teaching of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother is legitimate or not. Both Sri Aurobindo and the Mother have been very explicit that they did not want their spiritual teaching turned into a religion.
Narrowing the Integral Yoga to a devotionalist approach
The attempt at an appropriation of Sri Aurobindo by an exclusive devotional tradition threatens to undermine the integrality of his Yoga and divide his followers along cultural and temperamental lines. It tends to exclude or marginalize those who are not raised in this tradition. While bhakti is an essential component of Sri Aurobindo's Yoga, genuine bhakti must be distinguished from the superficial manifestations of devotionalism. The attempt to limit its modes of expression to those of a specific tradition, let alone to narrow, intolerant forms, is a violation of the Yoga's integrality. This imperils the universality of Sri Aurobindo’s work and legacy and its continued relevance to a changing, globalized world.
Language use and the reification of experience
When the specialized yoga vocabulary of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, such as “psychic being,” “supermind,” “avatar” or “asura” are used in social conversation by those who have not experienced the reality of these things, a second order reality with constructed mental approximations is created, whose common currency can only be a reduction into the morality of “good” and “evil.” With this comes inevitably the self-appointed judges who make it their business to divide the world into “those on the side of the divine” and “those on the side of the hostile beings.” Instead of their legitimate use as inner and experiential pointers in yoga, these terms become weapons of social approval or ostracism, the conversion of the spiritual life to a priest-run orthodoxy. The judges or priests make pretentious claims of occult knowledge and their followers allow themselves to be led blindly into prisons of their collective making.
Control of representation
The “image” of Sri Aurobindo or of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram features prominently in the arguments of the opponents to the book and its author. According to them, a reader of the book would associate the “insider” status of the author with authority and thus his opinions and interpretations would be viewed as truths. If there was anything even ambiguously negative in such expressions, it would be taken as gospel leading to a negative perception of the ashram and its founder. This view would lead to the conclusions that (a) there needs to be an individual or a collective body which will control representations of Sri Aurobindo, the Mother and the ashram (with the opponents of Heehs’s book representing such a body); and (b) insiders of the ashram are not free to express their true opinions, even those that arise within their individual spiritual practice, for fear of damaging the “image” of the ashram or its founders. Such views, again, belong not to a living spiritual culture but to a policed religious space bound by prescribed man-made values.
The importance of minority views in the yoga community
The ashram (and the larger IY community) has been likened by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother to an experimental laboratory for working out the problems of human transformation. In this respect, the Mother has referred to each individual in the ashram as representing “an impossibility to be solved,” having its effects in the world consciousness. The promises and struggles of each individual in the yoga were accepted by the Mother as part of her own work of transformation. With the passing of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, the dominance of a majoritarian uniformity today threatens to wipe out all differences of interpretation or approach, thus defeating the very purpose of the ashram as a field of spiritual culture with extended effects on diverse possibilities of evolving consciousness.
Profession of belief in Sri Aurobindo and the Mother as Avatars
One of the factors cited for widespread denunciation of the book and its author is its ambiguous stance regarding the avatarhood or divinity of Sri Aurobindo. It should be remembered that Sri Aurobindo himself was ambiguous in this matter. Moreover, his interpretation of the meaning of avatarhood was more complex than what is usually understood by it and emphasized the avatar’s acceptance of human nature, especially in his early life. Wider issues related to this are the questions of whether it is necessary to profess acceptance of Sri Aurobindo as an avatar to do the integral yoga or be a member of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, and whether his divinity must be proclaimed even in writing for the general public.
Criteria for membership in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram
What constitutes the criteria for membership of the ashram? Does one need to satisfy criteria beyond being a self-professed follower of the integral yoga and accepting Sri Aurobindo and the Mother as his/her gurus (as in the case of the author)? No stipulations regarding the acceptance of Sri Aurobindo as an avatar have hitherto existed for membership in the ashram. Moreover, if a follower has a personal interpretation of the yoga which is based on the teaching of the founder, should this not be seen as that person's path and relation with the Divine? Should it be anyone's business to decide for someone else what it takes to follow Sri Aurobindo's yoga?
New rules for the Ashram
The issue of making new rules and regulations for the ashram and its followers is another important one. The opponents of the book have represented themselves as champions of the ideals of the ashram and its founders, yet they have disregarded existing ashram rules as well as exhortations by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother in the manner in which they have proceeded against another member of the ashram. To express one’s critical dissatisfaction with a book is one thing; it is a different matter to impose rules of one’s own making on other members, and it is a serious issue when these members take the enforcement of such rules into their own hands, instead of proposing them in an appropriate forum, where they can be evaluated and then either officially adopted or officially rejected.
Whether there is a Hindutva interest behind the moves of the opponents of the book and whether this supports or violates the views of Sri Aurobindo is another issue at stake.
The Uttarpara speech has been printed and cited innumerable times since its delivery, partly because it was the first and the last occasion when Sri Aurobindo spoke of his spiritual experiences in public. As such, it is an important document for scholars of mysticism. But historians, political scientists, and politicians also discuss the speech. Left-wing critics hold it up as proof that Aurobindo’s nationalism was Hindu at its core, and suggest that this bias encouraged the growth of communalism. Right-wing enthusiasts cite passages of the speech out of context to make it seem as if Aurobindo endorsed their programs. Both of these readings are partial and are inconsistent with Sri Aurobindo's major socio-political texts in which he defines his ideals of human unity. Sri Aurobindo’s “universal religion” was not limited to any particular creed. Besides, the Uttarpara speech was given at an early stage of his sadhana and does not adequately represent his later vision.
On the use of quotations
A major component of the arguments against Heehs is the highly selective use of quotations from Sri Aurobindo and the Mother creating the impression that it is illegitimate to write their biographies (though previous biographies seem to be exempted from this prohibition), and the threat of dire consequences for making Sri Aurobindo “seem human.” Quotations used for illumination, illustration or testing one’s own experience can be a valuable aid in individual and collective spiritual life, but the use of quotations as law is a typical mechanism of orthodox religious control.
A spiritual teacher’s words are uttered in a context of time, place, circumstance and recipient’s personality, as a force in action, not as a law to use as a substitute for truth. Sri Aurobindo and the Mother have responded very differently in different contexts, have warned against taking their words out of context, and have said that for every truth there is an opposite truth equally valid at its time and in its context.
Quite apart from the contents of these quotes, their intended effect is to set up those voicing the quotes as having the right to mete out justice in the name of the quotations’ authors. The use of quotations is dangerous if made into a collective judgment by a group on the sadhana of another person.
What is one to do if the majority population in a community either have little or no access to a text, have no interest in reading the text or do not possess adequate reading skills to correctly understand the text and yet overwhelmingly accept the interpretations of the text presented to them by leaders with their own motives? One of the anomalies of the present case is the apparent lack of reading skills (real or feigned) in the interpretations used to incite popular resentment against the book and its author.
Balance and distortion
It is a commonplace of Sri Aurobindo’s teaching that a balanced view of things is a prerequisite for the integral yoga. Impartiality and balance in the mind and feelings leads to equality of consciousness and allows the true proportion and relations of the parts of a thing to other parts and the whole to emerge. This is the hallmark of truth. This leads naturally to the need to grasp the whole of a thing before one can know its parts and their place, importance or significance. Decontextualized quotes selected, edited and annotated to make an impression of outrage are distortions of meaning and intent which bias the reception and understanding of a text, particularly in readers who don’t feel the need to know the whole and are inclined to jump to conclusions. A community where the culture of balance in the perception of texts, events or objects is lacking, slides easily to irrationality and becomes prey to the designs of falsehood.
Ad hominem attacks and character assassination
A major part of the movement against The Lives of Sri Aurobindo is waged by emotional language. Through the repeated use of this kind of language, a feeling is built up in the reader against a person who is portrayed as evil, untrustworthy, ill-intentioned, and out “for the kill”. These emotional words cannot be verified, which is why they have such force. Attacking the person is a common and effective method in politics. Once fixed in the public mind, these images are difficult to undo.
These “loaded” words are not arguments, but slander. In the letters attacking Peter Heehs, some of the adjectives used to describe the author, his mind or consciousness, and the book itself are: malignant; perverse; dark and perverted; dangerous; destructive; petty; shallow; small, narrow and diabolic. His intentions or designs, which the writers claim to know, are said to be: sinister; horrific; diabolic; perverse and harmful; cunning; nefarious. Some of these words are frequently repeated. He is said to have “gone way beyond any decency”; “sinned much by his defiance of all spiritual norms”; “played into the hands of the hostile forces”; etc. He “goes down to the dirty cellar” to “look for a blockage in the sewage system so that he can gleefully and perversely report it to the world at large”; his“road to fame is open through the backdoor, nay the sewage pipe through which some choose to enter a palace.” He is called “Peter Pettigrew also known as Wormtail”; he is compared to an imp or a mole; his work is hailed by rats, bandicoots, lizards and serpents.
This declamatory stripping of a person’s humanity is designed to incite mob hatred and violence.
Effects on future discussions in the Integral Yoga community
The possible future impacts of the campaign against this book are disturbing. Acceptable speech, writing, and attitudes for sadhaks in this yoga could be affected.Many discussions about Integral Yoga between individuals, in current journals, in online forums, in conferences and meetings would not be allowed under the strict boundaries that the opponents of the book are trying to impose. Many sadhaks and devotees would think twice before speaking their real thoughts. Open exploration of the yoga could be stifled. Dialogue with those outside the community would be restricted. The permissible ways of presenting Sri Aurobindo to the general public would be severely limited.
If the movement against Heehs succeeds, who would dare speak or think freely about Integral Yoga, about Sri Aurobindo or the Mother, indeed about any topic at all, for fear of bringing righteous wrath, mob violence, or even a lawsuit, down upon oneself? Condemnation and banishment is a powerful tool for keeping the community in line; it has worked for thousands of years. Self-censorship would become the norm.
Debashish Banerji , Rich Carlson , David Hutchinson , Angiras, Ulrich Mohrhoff