Heehs’ Heresy: Sri Aurobindo would have been amused – Claude Arpi

Claude ArpiHeehs’ critics find extremely distasteful that someone who has spent four decades ‘at the feet of the master’, does not use ‘Sri’ [before Sri Aurobindo’s name]. The majority of readers are not hurt by such details. Would Sri Aurobindo have been offended? Probably not, he would have used his humour to demonstrate the derision of the situation. Once when it was brought to his notice that a disciple wanted ‘his (Sri Aurobindo’s) ashes to be sent by post,’ the master told his secretary to inform the disciple that ‘he was not yet dead.'” – Claude Arpi

The Mother & Sri AurobindoIt is not well-known, but in November 1982, a Constitution bench of the Supreme Court of India ruled that the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother (Sri Aurobindo’s French collaborator) were not of a religious nature; they simply represented a philosophy, a vision of the evolution of humanity.

Though Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy covers 35 volumes, a sentence written in 1914 encapsulates his entire vision: “At present mankind is undergoing an evolutionary crisis in which is concealed a choice of its destiny…. Man has created a system of civilisation which has become too big for his limited mental capacity and understanding and his still more limited spiritual and moral capacity to utilise and manage, a too dangerous servant of his blundering ego and its appetites….”

Sri Aurobindo foresaw that humankind would go through a grave crisis which would trigger a planetary change of consciousness. This could take a few centuries of chaotic process, as witnessed everywhere on the planet today, but the race will eventually mutate into a gnostic species, just like the monkey once evolved into a ‘thinking mental’ being.

As the Mother said, it is more important to “change” (to transform one’s nature) than to “adore”.

Peter HeehsIt is necessary to be aware of this background if one wants to understand the controversy around the book of Peter Heehs, the American historian who has received a Quit Notice to leave the country after spending more than four decades in Pondicherry.

During all these years, Heehs was closely associated with the Sri Aurobindo ashram’s archives which have been one of the main sources for his research into the life of the great revolutionary, poet, seer and visionary leader.

Home Minister P. Chidambaram recently told reporters: “The decision to cancel the visa was noticed by me and I understand that the FRRO (Foreigners Regional Registration Office) Puducherry passed the order. I have asked for a suo motu review and am told that the file would be submitted to me.” The minister promised a quick decision.

Many historians and other personalities protested the decision to cancel Heehs’ visa, considering this move an infringement on the freedom of expression.

It may be true, but there is more to it, as two visions of Sri Aurobindo’s teachings seem to oppose each other.

“Dissident” members of the ashram who have mounted a crusade against Heehs have been clashing for a long time with the ashram trustees who have taken a softer, less religious approach; though, the ashram management also believe that the US historian should not have used his privileged access to archival materials to write an “academic” work.

Manoj Das GuptaIn September 2010, the trustees issued a statement clarifying: “Sri Aurobindo ashram trust does not approve and has nothing to do with the book entitled The Lives of Sri Aurobindo written by Peter Heehs and the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust is not in any way responsible for the contents or the interpretations of the material contained therein.”

Heehs was therefore requested to stop his association with the archives and his book, without being banned, was not to be sold in the ashram book stores (for the US edition, as the Indian edition is not being published as yet).

The group who opposed the trustees wants more: they want The Lives of Sri Aurobindo to be banned (as has become very fashionable to do these days in India) and Heehs out of the country.

The “dissident” group has been campaigning against Heehs for many years. For them, Heehs’ sin is to have mixed up the styles: academic history and hagiography. Being a member of the ashram, Heehs’ detractors believe that he should have left the master on his pedestal and should have not dealt with some parts of his pre-Pondicherry life (before 1910) or even discuss in detail his relations with the Mother.

Another example, an ashramite asked: “Why does Heehs use ‘Aurobindo’ instead of ‘Sri Aurobindo’ right from the beginning of his writings?”

The argument is that there is a difference between the previous person known as “Aurobindo” and the guru “Sri Aurobindo.”

Heehs’ critics find extremely distasteful that someone who has spent four decades “at the feet of the master”, does not use “Sri”. The majority of readers are not hurt by such details. Would Sri Aurobindo have been offended? Probably not, he would have used his humour to demonstrate the derision of the situation. Once when it was brought to his notice that a disciple wanted “his (Sri Aurobindo’s) ashes to be sent by post,” the master told his secretary to inform the disciple that “he was not yet dead.”

Many in the ashram believe that Heehs’ detractors are only a small minority and worse: “It is only a pretext to get at the ashram trustees with whom they do not agree on the management of Sri Aurobindo’s legacy.”

During the last few months, several demonstrations were held in front of the ashram gate; they received some coverage in the local press too.

With reference to Heehs’ book, a young ashram inmate wrote to the home minister: “Most of the people who have been protesting against the book have not even read the book. It may be noted that the book is not even readily available in India due to the pending court case in Orissa.”

This is probably true, though nobody can deny that Heehs did not care to ask for the necessary permissions to use the material “discovered” by him in the ashram archives. Permission and credits are normally the rule in all archives of the world.

Did he do so as a provocation? Did he expect censure? It is difficult to say. In any case, he is today paying a heavy price.

Ramachandra GuhaPerhaps more serious than this passing controversy is the fact that Sri Aurobindo’s work and vision are practically unknown in India. Even a great historian like Ramachandra Guha (who defends Heehs) does not consider the Bengali sage in his Makers of Modern India. Such ignorance!

Sri Aurobindo, in his Foundations of Indian Culture, envisioned a three-point programme for a “renaissance in India”: “The recovery of the old spiritual knowledge and experience in all its splendour, depth and fullness is its first, most essential work; the flowing of this spirituality into new forms of philosophy, literature, art, science and critical knowledge is the second; an original dealing with modern problems in the light of Indian spirit and the endeavour to formulate a greater synthesis of a spiritualised society is the third and most difficult.”

This is a vast programme, beyond religion and sectarianism.

Despite a few shortcomings, Peter Heehs’ book could open the eyes of many more Indians (and Westerners) on the master’s vision and the true destiny of India, particularly if an Indian version is published (Heehs has promised to remove some of the controversial parts). It would certainly be a good contribution.

And why could not other books, more hagiographic, also be written and introduce Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga to many more devotees?

Let us not forget that Sri Aurobindo started his major work, The Synthesis of Yoga, with these four words: “All Life is Yoga.”

The young ashramite quoted earlier said, “[Heehs] has not broken any law of the land. He is also not telling us that this is the only approach. Those who do not like this approach can always write another book or read another book.”

Sometimes, I have the feeling that Sri Aurobindo is smiling at the controversy and waiting for India to look and walk into her future. – Rediff News, 12 April 2012

» Claude Arpi is French-born author, journalist, historian and tibetologist born in 1949 in Angoulême who lives in Auroville, India. He is the author of “The Fate of Tibet: When Big Insects Eat Small Insects” and several articles on Tibet, China, India and Indo-French relations. He is also the director of the Tibetan Pavilion of Auroville, also named Pavilion of Tibetan Culture.

The Synthesis of Yoga Cover

2 Responses

  1. Really Arpi?? The negative response to the book was only about the Sri in Sri Aurobindo? Did you even read the book much less hear out the main arguments against it?? What a farce your defense of Heehs is. You white liberals cannot ever be trusted. Your values keep you bunched together but they have nothing to do with Sri Aurobindo’s teachings. In your intellectual arrogance you pretend that you (but no one who opposed Heehs) know well enough that Sri Aurobindo would be “smiling” while deceitfully give most of the space in this article to describing Heehs point of view and to the views of his anonymous “young” supporter! Please concentrate on Tibet. Maybe you can do a more honest job with it!


  2. US historian Peter Heehs gets 1-year visa extension | Times of India | New Delhi | 13 April 2012

    NEW DELHI: In a reprieve for controversial US historian Peter Heehs who faced deportation from India, the Union home ministry today extended his visa by one more year with effect from April 15. Home ministry sources said the formal order on extension of Heehs’a visa was issued today.

    Heehs, whose visa will expire on April 15, had applied for extension of his stay before the Puducherry Foreigner Regional Registration Officer (FRRO). But following complaints of some of the followers of Sri Aurobindo that the American historian has allegedly depicted a distorted picture of the freedom fighter and spiritual leader in a biography, the FRRO had decided not to extend his visa.

    When the matter was reported in the media, home minister P Chidambaram had announced that he had asked for a suo motu review of the case and he would take an appropriate decision.

    The American historian, who is an inmate of Sri Aurobindo Ashram, had spent nearly four decades in India while working on a project of digitisation and archival of works of freedom fighter and spiritual leader Sri Aurobindo. Some historians had protested against the FRRO move not to extend his visa and petitioned prime minister Manmohan Singh and Chidambaram for its reconsideration.

    Chidambaram intervenes, US historian gets 1-yr visa extension | Aloke Tikku | Hindustan Times | New Delhi | 13 April 2012

    Controversial US historian Peter Heehs on Friday got a year’s visa extension, two days before the April 15 deadline set by immigration authorities for him to leave the country. Home minister P Chidambaram granted the extension to the author of The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, overruling the recommendation of ministry and immigration officials.

    “The decision has been conveyed to officials in Puducherry,” a government source said. Heehs got a one-year multiple entry visa on the recommendation of Sri Aurobindo Ashram.

    Chidambaram had ordered a suo motu review of the Puducherry Foreigners Registration Officer’s decision not to extend the visa after Hindustan Times first reported it. By then, historians Romila Thapar and Ramachandra Guha and rural development minister Jairam Ramesh had come out in Heehs’s support.

    People of India respect right to freedom of expression: Heehs | The Hindu | Chennai | 15 April 2012

    “I am looking forward to being forgotten,” remarked American historian Peter Heehs, as he spoke about the media attention that followed the extension of his visa on Friday by the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO) in New Delhi.

    Mr. Heehs, biographer of Sri Aurobindo, expressed gratitude to the Indian government for granting him the extension and said the fact that many scholars and eminent people had taken his side showed that the people of India respected the right to freedom of expression.

    “Routine matter”

    Speaking to The Hindu, Mr. Heehs said that on the surface of things, it was a “routine matter” that all foreigners went through but in his case it went all the way up to the Union Home Minister before it could be approved.

    Mr. Heehs got his visa stamped at 11 a.m. on Friday at the Regional Registration Office in Puducherry. The FRRO has granted him an extension of visa until April 15, 2013. He is also eligible to apply for a further extension next year, he said.

    The FRRO had earlier decided not to extend his visa beyond April 15, following complaints from devotees and followers of Sri Aurobindo about the contents of his book, The Many Lives of Sri Aurobindo, published by the Columbia University Press in 2008.

    The decision was revised after an appeal by several scholars. Home Minister P. Chidambaram had earlier announced that he would review the case suo motu.

    If there was any problem, it was because people who had no stake in the matter had taken an interest in the issue of his visa extension. The only people who should have been involved were himself, the trustees of Sri Aurobindo Ashram — as they are his sponsors — and the Ministry of Home Affairs, Mr. Heehs said.

    Speaking about the book and the controversy over certain passages in it, he said he was sorry for offending the devotees of the ashram but the book was written for an academic audience and initially only meant for consumption in the U.S. He had not intended the book to have an ashram audience and said he would have changed things around if he was writing for them, he said.

    The scholarly audience he was catering to had welcomed the different approach to looking at Sri Aurobindo, instead of reading an “ashram souvenir” and appreciated the arguments he had offered. In fact, he had even been criticised for being an “obvious acolyte” for his extremely positive views of Sri Aurobindo, he said.


    The main problem was that many of the protesters had not even read the book since it was not available in the country. Their opinion on it was largely based on “decontextualised” extracts, he said.

    As for his future plans, he said that since he had received a multiple entry visa, he would leave the country as scheduled on April 15 and visit Lithuania and other parts of Europe on a lecture tour before heading to the United States. He hoped to be back in India by July, he said.

    One of the trustees of the ashram speaking to The Hindu said they had done what they thought was right and the government had taken the decision it had to. The ashram had only done for Mr. Heehs what they did for all foreigners and nothing more, the member said.

    According to Jayant Bhattacharya, one of those protesting against the book and opposing Mr. Heehs’ visa extension, the case for not extending his visa was strong. If in spite of that the government had decided to grant an extension, there had to be a good reason. The protesters were still examining the case before they decided their next course of action, he said.


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