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.

Structurally, the book is divided into five parts, each corresponding with a particular phase in the life of Sri Aurobindo. That these are chronologically arranged helps the narrative flow and brings the reader that much closer to an understanding of how his life and thought evolved over a period of time. Heehs’s detailed and fulsome treatment also allows him to unravel hitherto little known facts about his subject. Personally, I was fascinated by the detailed recounting of his early life in British schools, his growing disenchantment with British values but an astonishingly wide-ranging interest in the European literary tradition. In his youth, Aurobindo may well have been the only Indian who could write with equal authority on Shelley, Kalidasa, Homer, Dante and the Bengali poet, Madhusudan Dutt. What I also found interesting was his near ascetic indifference to material comforts in life: good food and fancy clothes to name two. One imagines that this prepared him well in later life marked by renunciation and austerity. Importantly, the chronological arrangement notwithstanding, Heehs’s work allows us to detect complex juxtapositions and overlaps in Sri Aurobindo’s thinking. Thus, his interest in transcendentalism and yoga developed around the same time as his association with militant politics. On the other hand, even when leading the life of active retirement, his mind dwelt on some pressing contemporary issues. In 1948, to cite a few instances, he spoke in favour of linguistic states, the following year on the Kashmir problem, and still later, on the Korean crisis and the impending Chinese aggression in Tibet.

I imagine that in this work, the part dealing with the political life of Aurobindo will look quite familiar to many readers. All the same, the sheer detail in which this is documented adds substance to the book. For me, the more encouraging part is where Heehs attempts to do what historians hitherto rarely have: a critical summary of Aurobindo’s writings on yoga, spirituality and cultural hermeneutics. I can say from first-hand experience that works like The Life Divine (nominated for the Nobel Prize) or Savitri, representing the most creative, original but also the abstruse side to Sri Aurobindo, are not readily intelligible. Here, while the author’s summary may look inept or inadequate to some, what makes it extraordinary is the attempt to relate intellectually to concepts that Aurobindo himself believed did not spring from intellectual speculation. Personally speaking, I have not found a more lucid description of complex constructs like the ‘supermind’.

For the historian and the social scientist, the author brings out in clear relief, Sri Aurobindo’s disagreements with some noted contemporaries, as for instance, Gandhi and Tagore. Gandhian experiments in South Africa he found pretty ineffective and innocuous: at best these tried to secure for Indians the position of more ‘kindly treated serfs’. The use of nonviolence as a political weapon too he plainly ridiculed as ‘getting beaten with joy. Aurobindo admired the poetry of Tagore but differed with him on political issues as over the legitimacy of boycott. Whereas Tagore found this to be both morally and politically violent, in Aurobindo’s view (expressed in the paper ‘Bande Mataram’), this was a valid political weapon in the hands of the politically repressed. That apart, he also had the forthrightness and honesty to critique even those whose ideas and work might have inspired him the most. Though indebted to the memories of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda, he was of the opinion that in his day, even the Ramakrishna Mission had turned self-centred and sectarian, an error common to all churches.

Heehs readily admits (p. 414) that on the whole, Sri Aurobindo did not pay adequate attention to social and cultural (one might justly add economic) problems in contemporary India. Prima facie, this appears incompatible with his attempt at orienting higher states of human consciousness to social and practical use. In retrospect it might also appear as though in his literary style too, Aurobindo persisted with standards that were, at the time, being fast overturned. However, though what Heehs’s work seems to lack is a willingness to situate Sri Aurobindo within contemporary Indian thought. Ideally, a biography, especially that of a thinker and philosopher like Sri Aurobindo, also ought to be a history of ideas. I have the feeling that Aurobindo shares with Swami Vivekananda many more things than Heehs concedes, the most important of which are, first, the attempt to bring out the deepest subjectivities in man and second, the belief that social transformation began with the individual. The first Vivekananda called anubhav, human subjectivity that Aurobindo related to sadhana which was anchored in praxis, not textuality. The author might have also made some attempt at explaining why Sri Aurobindo too gravitates around the tropes common to neo-Hinduism: a preoccupation with Veda, Vedanta and the Gita, a revulsion towards (vamachari) tantra or the belief that Buddhism was a mere re-statement of the ‘truths’ of Veda and Vedanta. I also looked, though unsuccessfully, for some more details of his married life with Mrinalini, plainly curious to know if Sri Aurobindo also practised what he preached about sexual indulgence being a serious impediment to spiritual life. On the more flippant side, I have been equally curious to know if Sri Aurobindo and the Mother conversed in French as a matter of habit or only exceptionally. Finally, I think the book could have done with a couple of appendices, listing the main events in Sri Aurobindo’s life and his major works by date and language.

Of late, two controversies have persistently surrounded the life and work of Sri Aurobindo. First, there is the question of his relationship with the Mother (Mirra Richard), allegedly vulgarized in certain species of biographical writing. The other question is whether or not Aurobindo may be counted among the Hindus. Of the two questions, I am persuaded to comment more explicitly on the second, if only in keeping with my general academic interests. Perhaps those who strongly deny his ‘Hindu’ credentials are as much in error as those who insist on it. For one, I am not aware of Aurobindo’s categorically denying or disowning his identity as a Hindu. It would be reasonable to claim therefore, that at least culturally, he remained a Hindu. Though of a non-conformist Brahmo lineage he chose to marry a Hindu girl but more importantly, his entire cultural hermeneutics was deeply anchored in Hindu religion and mythology. This sets him apart from near contemporary figures like Krishna Mohan Bandopadhyay or Brahmabandhab Upadhyay who underwent a formal change of faith and though greatly interested in Hindu religion and philosophy, began to see these from a visibly altered perspective. I am also persuaded to say that neo-Hindu thinkers of the late nineteenth compounded the identity question somewhat by trying to adopt a universalistic posture which, practically, they found hard to sustain. To call Vedanta universalistic, culturally neutral and an effective surrogate to the word ‘Hinduism’, as indeed was done since the days of Rammohun Roy, is a good instance of this false consciousness. Rammohun’s The Universal Religion (1929) is almost entirely based on Hindu-brahminical sources. On the other hand, it will have to be admitted that Sri Aurobindo was not a Hindu in the ordinary sense of the term; the reader has only to turn to his essay ‘Two Hinduisms’ (Epistles from Abroad: 1910) to learn what kind of Hinduism he would have personally preferred . This leads me to conclude that an active dissociation from the politics of the Hindu Right need not ipso facto undermine one’s self-understanding as a Hindu. I would fervently hope that one is not contingent upon the other. Sri Aurobindo rejected Hindu nationalism and looked to a Utopia where human consciousness could rise above social and cultural ascriptions. At the same time, he was pragmatically plural; for him, if I have been able to understand him at all, human harmony lay not in effacing differences but in trying to felicitously live with them.

Amiya P. Sen, Jamia Millia Islamia,
published in The Book Review (Delhi), March 2011