Peter Heehs is an American historian living in Puducherry , India who writes on modern Indian history, spirituality and religion. Much of his work focuses on the Indian freedom fighter and spiritual leader Sri Aurobindo. His publications include twelve books and more than sixty articles in journals and magazines. Peter Heehs was born and educated in the United States but has lived in India since As a historian, Heehs has written on the swadeshi period of the Indian independence movement and on the early phase of the Indian revolutionary movement. His study The Bomb in Bengal highlighted the importance of the Maniktala secret society , which was a predecessor of the Jugantar Group.
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Some generations count more than others. The United States owes an enormous debt to the men and women born between and who took part in the events of to Modern India owes as much to its own revolutionary cohort, men and women born between and who prepared and participated in the Struggle for Freedom.
In popular memory, both groups are represented by a small number of exemplars: in America, the more important founders; in India, a dozen or so political, cultural, and spiritual leaders, among them Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, B. Of these, Aurobindo is the most difficult to categorize.
He was, for a moment, the most important political leader in the country, the first to say clearly that the goal of the national movement was independence. But he was also a scholar, a poet, a philosopher, and above all, a yogi and spiritual leader.
His diverse achievements at various times can make it seem as though he led four or five different lives in a single lifetime. I have called this book The Lives of Sri Aurobindo to highlight his many-sidedness. The transitions are often abrupt, the demarcations sharp, but his five lives were not sealed off from one another. His relations with his family continued until ; his scholarly life went on until the late s; his career as a revolutionary began before he left Baroda and continued after his departure from Calcutta; he took up yoga while still a politician, and began guiding others before he accepted the role of guru.
Five lives, but in the end, only one. I first encountered Aurobindo in in a yoga center on 57th Street in Manhattan. The teacher was an elderly Polish Jew with a suitably Indian name. He gave instructions in postures and breathing for a fee, dietary and moral advice gratis. Between lessons, he told stories about his years of wandering in India.
One of them was of Aurobindo as an old man. I did not find it particularly remarkable, as the subject wore neither loincloth nor turban, and had no simulated halo around his head. Here there were just three pictures on the wall, one of them the standard portrait of Aurobindo figure 1.
I was struck by the peaceful expanse of his brow, his trouble-free face, and fathomless eyes. I started with a compilation of his philosophical works, which I could not understand. Undeterred, I tried some of his shorter writings, which seemed to make a lot of sense to me. But if they do not form part of a coherent view of life, they remain empty verbiage. His prose was good, if rather old fashioned, and he had a wry sense of humor that came out when you least expected it.
I lived in or near New York for the next four years, missing out on several events that were thought important at the time. I did a lot of reading, primarily of Aurobindo, but also writers he got me interested in: Shelley, Dante, Nietzsche, Ramakrishna, Plato, Homer, the Buddha, Kalidasa, Wordsworth, Whitman, and dozens of others, in no particular order.
I learned enough Sanskrit to struggle through the Gita , and tried to meditate as long as I could, which was not very long. All the while I was helping out at the yoga center, and at the same time working as an office assistant, stock boy, or taxi driver. Now and then I thought about traveling to India, and eventually bought a ticket for Bombay. A week after my arrival, I found myself living in the ashram Aurobindo had founded. I might not have stayed if I had not been asked to do two things I found very interesting: first, to collect material dealing with his life; second, to organize his manuscripts and prepare them for publication.
The facts of his life were rather well known; after all, he was one of the most famous men in India when he died. But it had never occurred to anyone to search systematically for biographical documents. I spent parts of the next few years digging sometimes literally in archives and private collections in Delhi, Calcutta, Baroda, and Bombay.
I was able to find material that might have lain unnoticed for years, or even been thrown out when an attic was cleaned. Later trips to London and Paris were less strenuous but equally productive. Figure 1. They confirmed that he had been an important figure in the Struggle for Freedom, but fell short of proving what his followers believed: that he was the major cause of its success.
Nevertheless, his contribution was significant and, at the time, not very well known. Accounts that had been written to correct this deficiency were so uncritical that they undermined their own inflated claims.
Aurobindo retired from politics at the age of thirty-seven and devoted the rest of his life to yoga and literature. It took several years for me and my colleagues just to organize his manuscripts. While engaged in this work, we were surprised and delighted to find much that had not been published.
The most remarkable discovery was a diary he had kept for more than nine years, in which he noted the day-to-day events of his inner and outer life. Most biographies of Aurobindo have made his sadhana , or practice of yoga, seem like a series of miracles.
His diary made it clear that he had to work hard to achieve the states of consciousness that are the basis of his yoga and philosophy. The genre of hagiography, in the original sense of the term, is very much alive in India. Any saint with a following is the subject of one or more books that tell the inspiring story of his or her birth, growth, mission, and passage to the eternal.
Biographies of literary and political figures do not differ much from this model. A statement about a politician or poet that rubs people the wrong way will be turned into a political or legal issue, or possibly cause a riot. The problem is not whether the disputed statement is true, but whether anyone has the right to question an account that flatters a group identity.
Aurobindo has been better served by his biographers than most of his contemporaries have. But when I began to write articles about his life, I found that there were limits to what his admirers wanted to hear. Anything that cast doubt on something that he said was taboo, even if his statement was based on incomplete knowledge of the facts.
Almost as bad was anything that challenged an established interpretation, even one that clearly was inadequate. Figure 2 is a photograph of Aurobindo that was taken around the same time as figure 1. Note the dark, pockmarked skin, sharp features, and undreamy eyes. As far as I know, it did not appear in print before , when I published it in an ashram journal. To me it is infinitely more appealing than figure 1, which has been reproduced millions of times in its heavily retouched form.
I sometimes wonder why people like figure 1. There is hardly a trace of shadow between the ears, with the result that the face has no character.
The sparkling eyes have been painted in; even the hair has been given a gloss. As a historical document it is false. As a photograph it is a botched piece of work. But for many, figure 1 is more true to Aurobindo than figure 2. In later life, his complexion became fair and smooth, his features full and round. It is the task of the retoucher to make the photograph accord with the reality that people want to see.
Figure 2. Aurobindo, circa Hagiographers deal with documents the way that retouchers deal with photographs. Biographers must take their documents as they find them. Accounts by the subject have exceptional value, but they need to be compared against other narrative accounts and, more important, against documents that do not reflect a particular point of view.
Such an approach is possible and necessary when dealing with public events. But what about mystical experiences? There are also, for comparison, accounts by others of similar mystical experiences.
But in the end, such experiences remain subjective. Perhaps they are only hallucinations or signs of psychotic breakdown. Even if not, do they have any value to anyone but the subject? Those who have had mystical experiences have always held that they are the basis of a kind of knowledge that is more fundamental, and thus more valuable, than the relative knowledge of words and things.
Absorbed in inner experience, the mystic is freed from the problems that afflict men and women who are caught in the dualities of knowledge and ignorance, pleasure and pain, life and death. A mystic thus absorbed often is lost to the human effort to achieve a more perfect life. But this is not the only possible outcome of spiritual practice. In this lies the value of his teaching to men and women of the twenty-first century. Dutta, P. Apologies to any individual or institution whose name I have inadvertently omitted from the above lists.
The Sri Aurobindo Ashram is in no way responsible for the selection, arrangement, interpretation, or presentation of material in this biography. The author alone is responsible for the contents of the book.
Indian personal names, when spelled with the Latin alphabet, take many different forms. These variants reflect regional differences in pronunciation and personal preferences in transliteration.
The Sanskrit word aravinda , used as personal name, can be spelled Aravinda, Aravind, Arvind, Arabinda, Aurobindo, and so forth. In the interest of consistency, I have used Aurobindo throughout except when quoting from source materials or suggesting the usage of a particular period. A similar variation exists in the spelling of the names of many other people referred to in this book. To give one example, the name of the novelist Bankimchandra Chattopadhyaya is also spelled Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Bankimchandra Chatterjee, Bunkim Chundra Chatterji, and so on almost indefinitely.
In this book I use the spelling that the person preferred if he or she wrote in English; otherwise I choose a single, recognizable form. When quoting I of course leave the spelling as it occurs in the document. Many place names that were spelled to suit the British tongue during the colonial period have recently been changed to what are presumed to be the original forms: Mumbai, not Bombay; Vadodara, not Baroda; Chennai, not Madras. In this book I use the old forms for important cities, particularly those in which Aurobindo lived, because to do otherwise would be anachronistic.
Moreover, the old forms are still in common use. For places mentioned in passing, I generally use the modern forms, as the British spellings e.
Just look at the cheek of this imposter who once labelled himself as the founder of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Archives. It only shows his own failure to do Yoga and complete inability to become part of Ashram life. Secondly, his statement is an outright contradiction as an intelligent reader has already commented on the blog. The Divine or God or Ishwara are immaterial spiritual realities which materialists refuse to believe in, so how can you be an atheist and still practise a religion or spiritual discipline? The fact that the Divine can be personal or impersonal or simply an ineffable state of consciousness such as Nirvana or the Self does not make any difference to the basic contradiction in his statement — Sri Aurobindo has explained that there is no opposition between the impersonal and personal Divine, they are two facets of the same spiritual Reality.
The Lives of Sri Aurobindo
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