Religious fanaticism is something psychologically lowborn and ignorant — and usually in its action fierce, cruel and base. — Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga, p. 490

Those who use the term “fundamentalism” to describe the activities of religious groups or individuals must be very clear about what they mean by the word. Over the last thirty years, fundamentalism has ceased to indicate merely a particular sort of textual literalism in religious matters. More and more, it is used to refer to a religious orientation characterized by certain psychological attitudes and habits of action. There are similarities and differences among the meanings of fundamentalist, traditionalist, conservative, zealot, ideologue, and fanatic. Each of these describes in its own way a combination of belief and action that has often made religion a divisive and reactionary force.

Sri Aurobindo never wrote about fundamentalism per se (the term was coined after he had completed his major writings, and during his lifetime was confined to its original context: Protestant Christianity), but when he wrote of religious fanaticism he characterized it in ways that modern writers on fundamentalism would have no difficulty recognizing. He put his finger on the nature of fanaticism and much of what is now called fundamentalism in the sentence quoted above. Though the two words are not synonymous, both fanaticism and fundamentalism tend to be seen as characterized by “lowborn and ignorant” habits of thought and can lead to “fierce, cruel and base” modes of action.

Words with negative connotations often degenerate into vague terms of abuse. Words commonly employed in this way include “fascism” and “fundamentalism”. We wish to avoid any loose and imprecise use of the latter term. We undertake our analysis of the writings of the leaders of a loud and potentially disastrous movement among followers of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother and practitioners or would-be practitioners of their Integral Yoga in a spirit of seriousness, marked not by enmity but by sadness. We find many troubling characteristics in the rhetoric and activities of the leaders of this movement, and believe that there are grounds for regarding their actions, prima facie, as signs of fundamentalism.

In what follows, we will see how closely the claims made and the language used by these individuals approach the characteristics of fundamentalism that are acknowledged by authorities on the subject. In our conclusion, we will consider whether the term “fundamentalism” can rightly be applied to the mindset and actions of these individuals.

We use for illustration the following letters, emails and compilations by the principal leaders of the movement (the abbreviations in parentheses are used for references in the discussion below):

These materials have been widely circulated by the leaders of the movement. Hundreds of copies have been mass emailed to people in various parts of the world, and hard copies freely distributed in Pondicherry.

Passages from these texts will be discussed under several heads, each of which represents a psychological posture or habit of action characteristic of fundamentalists, as described by Richard T. Antoun, Martin E. Marty, Judith Nagata and other authorities. (See this page.)

Characteristics of the Fundamentalist

  1. Rejection of complexity

  2. Demand for doctrinal purity

  3. Feelings of being threatened

  4. Control of information

  5. Exclusivism

  6. Opposition to discussion

  7. Abusive language

  8. Rousing the masses

  9. Atmosphere of violence

  10. Demonizing the enemy

  11. Heroic role in a great cosmic drama

1. Rejection of complexity, craving for certainty, defence of boundaries

The first document issued by the leaders was a letter written by Ranganath Raghavan and Raman Reddy (RRRR) after they read an article by Alan, editor of Auroville Today, about Peter Heehs, the author of The Lives of Sri Aurobindo. Alan summed up Heehs’s approach to his subject by heading the article “An extraordinarily complex individual”. Heehs did in fact try in his book to bring out Sri Aurobindo’s complexity. Reddy and Ranganath evidently preferred the simplistic portrayals they were familiar with, and set themselves up as defenders of established boundaries, crying “now he [Heehs] has crossed all limits” (RRRR).

Their alarm was shared by Alok Pandey, who wrote to the trustees that Heehs’s broadening of the field of inquiry into Sri Aurobindo will mean that “his words do not necessarily carry the same absolute authority as it [sic] did” (AP1).

Sraddhalu Ranade gave vent to the same attitude when he wrote: “Note also his [Heehs’s] glee at humanising and problematising Sri Aurobindo, as well as his need to complexify. The word problematising means ‘to propose problems’, ‘to pose problems’, ‘to make into or regard as a problem’” (SR1). Besides showing Ranade’s ignorance of English (“problematise” means to question common knowledge in order to arrive at a better understanding of a subject), this passage reveals his fear of complexity, and his reactionary turn towards an artificial certainty.

A corollary to the rejection of complexity is the reduction of reality to binary camps of good and evil, us and them. Fundamentalism proceeds by the invention of such a binary reality and its defense in the name of Truth or God. The result of this is the authorization of a partial and limited representation as the Truth, the policing of such a representation by self-proclaimed champions and the moral and secular punishment of those perceived to transgress the boundaries of this representation.


2. Demand for doctrinal purity

The movement against The Lives of Sri Aurobindo is in some ways a continuation of an earlier movement against the revised edition of Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri. In both cases a literary work that disturbed set notions of doctrinal and textual purity was made the excuse for an attack on the Ashram trust and the launching of civil and criminal prosecutions.

All of those involved in the anti-Heehs movement see the Lives as an attack on established notions about Sri Aurobindo and his yoga. Heehs provides references for all his statements, so his critics cannot effectively question whether his argument is based on authentic sources. Instead they question his use of sources, or else imagine some sort of scholarly trickery. Ananda Reddy complains that the Lives contains “perverted and deliberately and camouflaged comments and prejudices”, and speculates, “Has he not distorted the documents to suit his purpose?” (AR1) In a stunning example of the demand for textual purity, Reddy insists that no more “secondary writings” by Sri Aurobindo should be published: “I do not think that we need to know more than what has been given by Their major published works” (AR1).

Pandey similarly asks the trustees to make sure that the “perversion” represented by Heehs is not allowed to besmirch Sri Aurobindo’s Collected Works. He goes so far as to suggest the exclusion of certain letters written by Sri Aurobindo from an already published volume of his notes and letters (AP1).

Vijay Poddar links the question of textual purity with that of demonization (see heading 10 below): “this [the Lives] is a direct attack of a very hostile and evil force, which has been able to enter because of our lack of purity and sincerity, and which is using us as its instruments to directly malign Sri Aurobindo and the Mother and to delay their great work of transformation of humanity” (VP).

Most of the leaders are upset that Heehs does not take a stand on what they consider to be the primary doctrine of the reformed Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s avatarhood. Heehs avoids this question entirely in his biography (which, it should be remembered, is a work of scholarship intended for a broad readership). In so doing, Heehs was following Sri Aurobindo’s own wish that his disciples should avoid speaking about such matters in public. Heehs’s reticence is interpreted by Reddy as “not accepting the avatarhood of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother after living in the Ashram for more than three decades” (AR1). Pandey becomes abusive on the subject: “But please never agin [sic] try to write the biography of any great spiritual Master, leave alone the Divine Incarnate, since you understand nothing, nor are interested in understanding anything about the mystery of the Divine wearing a human guise.” (AP2)

Eggenberger voices the same desire for doctrinal purity: “Do we need to read more than that which Mother has said of Him?” (RE)

Far from being a matter of settled doctrine, the nature of the avatar in general, and how that applies to Sri Aurobindo, continues to be actively discussed in every group related to Integral Yoga. No two disciples understand or experience this in the same way. Reducing a complex and ultimately personal experience to a simple emotional (or devotional) formula is one characteristic of fundamentalism.

3. Feelings of being threatened, supported by false or delusional reasoning

The threat of the unfamiliar that evidently is felt by all the leaders of the movement is given remarkable expression by Reddy: “Now the proportions of the mischief have taken a terrifying form and it has to be countered by an inner force of faith and conviction fountaing [sic] out of the devotees and the alumni of SAICE” (AR3). Reddy also refers vaguely to Heehs’s “specific motive or veiled agenda” and “sinister intentions” (AR1). This is the language of the conspiracy theorist, which Reddy also uses in another email: “May be [sic] he is being encouraged and even paid to do so by some groups in the USA. In any case the roots of the book seem to go much deeper and I believe that there is conspiracy behind Peter’s work: the conspiracy to malign Sri Aurobindo and de-mystify him and his teachings by bring them down to the murky levels of the present human consciousnes [sic] which is itself wallowing in the mud of the vital-physical.” (AR3).

The xenophobic theme present in Reddy’s letter is common among conspiracy theorists, and is taken up by many of the leaders of the anti-Heehs movement. Pandey speculates that Heehs is being “supported from outside” (AP1). Ranade goes further, inventing a “nexus” between Heehs and Jeffrey Kripal, an American professor of religion, warning his readers of their “foul intentions” (SR2). He even concocts a meeting in the Ashram between Heehs and Kripal (who has never been to Pondicherry), during which Kripal “was reportedly taken by Peter to the Archives cold storage and shown unpublished documents of Sri Aurobindo’s life” (SR1).

Pushed to the limit and strengthened through repetition, perceptions of threat produce a paranoid attitude in the minds threatened. Ranade gives evidence of such an attitude in many places. “The scope of fraud is so widespread that on every page at least one can demonstrate such deliberate distortions and defamatory intent. Numerous passages are obviously defamatory under section 499 of the IPC. But none of this is visible to the common reader who takes it all at face value from ignorance of the real facts” (SR1). “The next step, by Peter and the interests working through him, will go all out for the kill” (SR1). Ranade, along with Reddy and others, imagine that the existence of Heehs’s book may result in the takeover of the ashram by the government. Playing upon this threat in an email, Ranade imagines that “the problem [of government takeover] has been created by PH and his book -- deliberately and maliciously. All the rest has followed” (SR2). When Ranade finds that those in authority do not take his inventions seriously, he enlarges them to include the ashram administration: “I was further appalled to discover that under your instructions Matriprasad has begun to build dossiers of information against each one of us involved in exposing Peter’s book by actively seeking out anyone who might have personal grudges from the past, in order to ‘build cases’ against us” (SR3).

Ranade alludes to his own predilection for launching legal cases in several places in his emails: “Numerous passages of the book can be easily proved to be defamatory under Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code” (SR1). “These few examples are enough to prove Peter’s perverse and harmful intentions and to demonstrate defamation according to the standards defined by Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code” (SR1). Ranade acted out his legal approach by launching, through proxies, civil and criminal cases against Heehs in Orissa. (Note that all substantive portions of the complaint against Heehs in the Orissa High Court were transferred bodily from Ranade’s email of 25 September (SR1)). These cases are being financed by Ranade’s friend and former SAICE classmate Jayant Bhattacharya (See last paragraph of this web page). Thus, ironically, it is Ranade and not Heehs who is receiving “outside help” in this affair, engaging in deliberate misinformation and distortion, “going all-out for the kill,” building cases, and promoting mischief.

4. Controlling the flow of information

Ranade’s court cases represent the leaders’ last ditch attempt to prevent the publication of Lives in India. The American edition has been in print since April 2008, but it is expensive and thus hard to obtain in India. So long as people in India were unable to read the book, the leaders of the movement could present their distortions without any possibility of verification. (This problem has been overcome to some extent by the circulation of more than 100 xerox copies in Pondicherry and Auroville, and some freely donated copies of the book.) From the beginning of the movement, the leaders’ cry was for the banning of the book and even for the collection and destruction of sold copies: “The books should be withdrawn”, said Pandey (AP1). Ranade was more specific “We must write to the publishers of the book in the USA demanding its withdrawal on grounds of academic fraud, false representation and defamation.… We must immediately block Penguin from releasing the Indian edition” (SR1).

Eggenberger laid out an entire program of censorship: “1. The Ashram [should] disavow the work, in writing, as misleading and erroneous and defamatory towards Sri Aurobindo and forbid its distribution in the Ashram. [For his point 2, see heading 5 immediately below]. 3. [The trust should] request Penguin Books not to publish the book in India” (RE).

Eggenberger’s program became the model for a broader and more aggressive message written by Kittu Reddy, which was posted on the Ashram notice board and emailed to hundreds of people in all parts of the world. “1. The distribution and sale of this book must be stopped. Attempts must be made to procure and destroy all existing copies of this book, and to stop all future editions and reprints” (KR).

5. Exclusivism and cries for excommunication

All of the leaders without exception demand that Heehs be expelled from the Ashram Archives, where he has worked since its founding in 1973, and demand or suggest that Heehs be expelled from the Ashram, where he has lived since 1971. When they found that the Ashram trustees would not accede to their demands, they circulated a vaguely worded petition against Heehs, obtaining the signatures of more than 500 people, almost none of whom had read the book. They also went to Pranab Kumar Bhattacharya, a respected elder of the Ashram, to induce him to put his considerable influence on their side. They did not succeed in getting Heehs expelled from the Ashram, but certainly tried their best to do so.

In their written communications the leaders often referred to the expulsion of Heehs under the euphemism “action”. In discussion, including widespread gossip, they were much less restrained.

“Action has become imperative and inaction will prove very costly”, write Ranganath and Raman Reddy in their first letter (RRRR).

The trust should “expel Peter Hees [sic] from the Archives to which he has brought such ill repute”, echoes Ananda Reddy (AR1: note that Reddy is not a member of the ashram).

The trust should “severe [sic] his institutional linkages that he [Heehs] has had so far”; “It would be logical and ethical for the Sri Aurobindo Ashram as an institution to demand the withdrawal of Peter Heehs as a professional from the Archives”; “Clarity of vision leads to a clarity of action”, writes Mohanty (SM: note that Mohanty is not a member of the ashram).

“2. [The trust should] deny Peter Heehs all future access to the Archives and demand the return of any materials belonging to the Ashram that he may presently have in his possession”, writes Eggenberger (RE: note that Eggenberger is not a member of the ashram and is inventing rumors about Heehs possessing materials.).

Eggenberger’s demand provided the model for Kittu Reddy’s broader and more aggressive ultimatum: “2. The Ashram should ensure that with immediate effect, Peter Heehs returns all materials belonging to the Ashram Archives that are in his possession. 3. The Ashram must then sever all contact with Peter Heehs.” (KR)

6. Opposition to open discussion

All the leaders make it clear that there is one and only one way to look at the Heehs problem, and any attempt at discussion must be forbidden. When asked by the managing trustee and others to think in terms of harmony and conflict resolution, they refused vociferously, presenting the problem as one of treason against the guru or demonic possession or both:

“It may be pointed out that his own view of objectivity, broad-mindedness, catholicity, cannot be applicable in this case. An outsider writing ill of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo in newspapers, or other magazines can do so and we have the right of reply and rebuttal. But when one of our own members indulges in this sort of calumny (it is nothing short of that!!), the situation is totally different and we can certainly do something about it.” (RRRR)

“There is a general tendency in a certain kind of intelligentsia to take such reactions as ‘over-reaction’, ‘sentimentality’, etc and justify the diabolic nature of the writings by using terms such as ‘we should be broad-minded’, ‘Sri Aurobindo is not affected by these things’, ‘everyone has his freedom of expression’, ‘we should give people chance to change’ so on and so forth. The purpose of this note is to point out the fallacy of this argument in the present context” (AP1) Note also Pandey’s “us versus them” tone, use of demonisation as a rhetorical device, and denigration of anyone with a different opinion.

“Rather than diverting our energies to bring artificial unity (which will never work) our first responsibility should be to protect from the harm that he [Heehs] has already done to Sri Aurobindo” (SR2).

The most remarkable example of this attitude is provided by Poddar. He begins, with apparent rationality, “I know that for every perception there can be a different perception, for every argument a counter argument and for every justification a reason to justify the opposite. How does one judge what is in context and what is out of context? Who can really decide what is right and wrong? And, at the mental level, perhaps there is no way by which everyone can be convinced or all led to the same conclusion.” But, he insists, “there are a few truths which no one can or will deny” After expressing “amazement that how [sic] is it that some people are not responding to it or seeing it as I am”, Poddar goes on to construct an elaborate and specious non sequitur of an argument to determine whether the question should be discussed at all: “Would you be happy to offer this book to the Mother and would the Mother be happy to receive it?” He concludes, predictably, that the answer “is an emphatic No, that the Mother would not be happy with this book”, then declares that “then the issue becomes very much more serious, and our responses upto [sic] now are not at all appropriate.” There can be, Poddar insists, “NO dialogue at all, no possibility of revision, we have to block completely the printing of the Indian edition and explore what can be done to stop the distribution of the American edition.” He closes by putting himself on the side of God (see heading 10 below): “I feel strongly that by the Mother’s Grace we can do it, and we are all willing to work together for it.” He cautions however that “If anything has to be done, it has to be done immediately, without the delay of a single day” (VP). In the event, Poddar’s call for haste went unheeded. Many people have now read the book (there is, incidentally, no sign that Poddar himself read it).

Pandey and Ranade at least claim to have read Heehs’s book. They are two of only three leaders of the anti-Heehs campaign who seem to have done so. (Others, Ananda Reddy and Eggenberger, for example, have made it clear that they not only have not read it but never will do so.) The third reader of the book is Raman Reddy, who has written no widely circulated letters or emails, but who did create one of the most influential documents in the Heehs controversy. This is “Extracts subjectwise”, a collection of extracts of Heehs’s book that has been distributed widely in paper and electronic copies (in the form of email attachments and Web posts) and must by now have reached a thousand people or more.

“Extracts subjectwise” is a collection of passages from Heehs’s Lives typed out by Reddy under various subject headings. The passages are, for the most part, correctly typed, though they contain many deliberate omissions, only some of which are marked by ellipsis points. In addition, his extracts are deliberately unrepresentative, a fact freely admitted by Reddy himself in a blog post: “There was the practical question of whether the book could be put up for sale in the Ashram’s official bookshop and the more serious consideration of taking administrative action against the author. It was under these circumstances that the Extracts were compiled, so that the reader at once knew the worst that Heehs had written. The compiler never intended them to be representative extracts of the book in order to get a brief introduction to it.”

Reddy’s “Extracts” were put into circulation on September 11, 2008 by his cousin Ananda Reddy, who wrote, in a covering email: “Here are some extracts from Peter Hees’ [sic] latest book “The Lives of Sri Aurobindo” that are malicious, to say the least! He has hurt deeply the Indian psyche in the name of intellectual approach!! Judge for yourself” (AR2). So primed, few readers of the extracts bothered to question whether they gave a truthful picture of Heehs’s book. That they did not is evident from even a cursory examination. The first typed extract from the book ends with the following sentences: “In trying to trace the lines of Aurobindo’s sadhana, a biographer can use the subject’s diaries, letters, and retrospective accounts. 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?” (RR). Reddy deliberately omitted the following paragraph, in which Heehs answered the question he posed: “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. Aurobindo’s first major experience was a state of mystical absorption, but he was driven to return to the active life, and spent the next forty years looking for a way to bring the knowledge and power of the spirit into the world. In this lies the value of his teaching to men and women of the twenty-first century.”

Reddy’s distortion of Heehs’s meaning continues unbroken throughout the eleven pages of his “Extracts”. This matter has been ably discussed by Larry Seidlitz in a web posting (reproduced here), to which interested readers are referred.

7. Abusive and misleading use of language

All intelligent readers of the campain leaders’ letters, emails and proclamations have been struck by their juvenile tone, specious arguments, and reliance on ad hominem attacks. This is especially true of Pandey’s communications to Heehs, a man he has never met. Filled with puerile abuse and immature sarcasm, they are, to say the least, surprising productions from a man with a professional background.

None of the leaders examines any statement in Heehs’s book in a scholarly or indeed in a rational manner. None, that is to say, actually apply an unemotional discussion to anything Heehs has written. What Heehs has written is “perverse”, “diabolic”, “asuric” and so forth, and therefore does not require reasoned consideration. Ranade devotes twelve pages of his email of September 25 to a detailed consideration of several points in Heehs’s book, but Ranade’s style of “argument” is simply to make assertions which turn out to be either irrelevant or false. In no case does he demonstrate that a statement by Heehs is unfounded. His only interest is to show that Heehs statements are “perverse”, “nefarious”, or at any rate not the sort of thing that should be found in a biography of Sri Aurobindo.

Here is one example of a wholly unsubstantiated assertion by Ranade. He claims, alarmingly, that according to Heehs Sri Aurobindo “had romantic affairs with the Mother involving veiled tantric sexual practices” (SR2). There is, in fact, no statement or suggestion in Heehs’s book that even vaguely resembles what Ranade asserts. There is, on page 325 of the book, a scene in which the Mother holds Sri Aurobindo’s hand: “After dinner those present tended to cluster in two groups: Aurobindo and Mirra on one side, Paul and the others on another. Sometimes, when they were alone, Mirra took Aurobindo’s hand in hers. One evening, when Nolini found them thus together, Mirra quickly drew her hand away.” This is followed, on page 329, by a discussion that makes it clear that the relationship between Sri Aurobindo and the Mother was entirely non-sexual:

Shakti, as Aurobindo explained in The Synthesis of Yoga, is the conscious power of the divine. “By this power the spirit creates all things in itself, hides and discovers all itself in the form and behind the veil of its manifestation.” Systems of yoga that aim at liberation regard shakti as, at best, a force that can help the individual obtain release from the limitations of mind, life and body. But systems aiming for perfection, such as tantric yoga or the way of the siddhas, see shakti as the power needed to transform oneself and the world. Tantrics and siddhas worship shakti in the form of goddesses such as Kali; some also worship women as embodiments of the divine force. This is the rationale behind the esoteric sexuality of certain forms of tantrism. The consecrated union of a human male and female is seen as a reenactment of the cosmic act of creation. Some schools of tantric yoga put so much stress on this rela­tionship that they require male practitioners to have female sexual partners. Aurobindo made it clear that this was not the case in his yoga. “How can the sexual act be made to help in spiritual life?” he asked a disciple who posed the question. It was necessary, in the work he was doing, for the masculine and feminine principles to come together, but the union had nothing to do with sex; in fact it was possible in his and Mirra’s case precisely because they had mastered the forces of desire.”

Ranade’s statement about “veiled tantric sexual practices” is not simply the confusion of a reader whose English-comprehension skills are not up to scratch. It is a wilful falsehood worded in such a way as to have the greatest emotional effect.

Ranade’s email of 25 September is filled with innuendo and abuse. To give a few examples: “deliberate bias”, “clever mix of facts with speculation”, “thin-end of the wedge”, “will go all out for the kill”, “intentionally placed these quotations out of their historical context”, “deliberately falsified”, “cunning strategy”, “obvious negative bias” etc. It is thus with astonishment that one reads the following sentences in his more recent emails: “Those of us who have been exposing PH’s mischievous book have limited our criticism to exposure of distortions and perverse intentions in the book. We have never attacked any individual who supports the book” (SR2: an email in which the word “perverse” is applied to Heehs three times). And, more remarkably, “We have never even criticized Peter Heehs personally” (SR3: “perverse” applied once). The evident disconnect between these statements by Ranade and the text of his emails, not to mention the court cases he has sponsored, is striking.

In his case, the signs of a split personality are particularly obvious: “I write to you in great pain on realizing how low you have let yourselves fall in sheer pettiness and foul politicking!… Your surreptitious arrangement… smacks of irresponsible and petty scheming… and all this just to serve your petty political ends and personal grudges…. History will judge you harshly for such actions. Dear Trustees, we all respect you and appreciate that you carry many responsibilities on your shoulders….” (SR3) Observe the abrupt transition from aggression to sympathy.

8. Rousing the masses

Writers like Martin E. Marty have pointed out the importance of mass movements in the propagation of fundamentalist doctrines. The leaders of the anti-Heehs movement have been aware from the first of the power of the uninformed or misinformed masses, and have done all they could to mobilize them (and at the same time, ensuring through legal maneuvers that few could have access to the book itself, or make up their own minds). Ananda Reddy’s rabble-rousing email quoted in the previous section is a good example of this approach. Another comes in Reddy’s email of September 18: “That is the work that has come upon all of us [members of the SAICE forum] for otherwise the disastrous book by Peter will become the gospel of the scholars and the critics and the Life of Sri Aurobindo would be permanently misrepresnted [sic] by a pervert [sic] man” (AR3).

Note that Reddy’s emails were written after the Ashram trust had rebuffed attempts by him, Kittu Reddy, Vijay Poddar, and others to throw Heehs out of the Ashram. Failing in this, the leaders turned from the legally constituted administration to the unorganized public. They justified this move by claiming that the rank-and-file constitute a sort of citizens’ assembly with decision-making power. Ranade writes in this connection: “PH is an inmate of the Ashram answerable to the community and to the Trust” (SR2). (At no time in the eighty-year history of the ashram has anyone or anything been answerable “to the community”.) In the same email Ranade attempts to justify the role of “collective action”, in particular discussions on “the SAICE forum” (a Yahoo group for ex-students of the Ashram school) in the Heehs matter: “I agree that collective action can prevent or at least minimise the dangers of the situation” (SR2). When Ranade’s attempts to use the masses to gain leverage against the trust did not work out as he wished, he vowed to proceed with the help of his allies: “Rest assured that our efforts to expose PH’s book will continue with or without your [the Trust’s] support” (SR3). Ranade’s demagoguery is one of the most troubling and potentially dangerous aspects of the entire movement.

9. Creating an atmosphere of violence

Mass movements often end in violence. The anti-Heehs movement has not reached this point, though it is clear that the leaders have pushed the masses in this direction. Several members on the SAICE forum, incited by Ananda Reddy and others, have posted threats against Heehs. Others have threatened him over the telephone. There have also been small but significant acts of violence: Heehs’s bicycle tire was slashed while he was in the swimming pool, and his door was kicked in by a mentally unstable person. This person is known to have been enflamed by literature provided by Ranade’s mother.

Those who create such an atmosphere often claim that they never directly incited or encouraged violence. But in this case, the leaders bear direct responsibility, when they repeatedly characterize Heehs as “demonic,” as an “asura,” “cunning,” “stealthy,” speaking of “real danger,” and then engage in repeated calls for “action.” When a highly emotional campaign is waged against a single person, using religious and absolutist language, and rousing hundreds of people against him, physical violence is a natural outcome.

10. Demonizing the enemy and claiming divine guidance

It is well known to social scientists and historians that violence against individuals and groups is often preceded by attempts to demonize them. The classic case is, of course, the Nazi demonization of the Jews before the Holocaust. The efforts by the leaders of the anti-Heehs movement to demonize Heehs, though on a much smaller scale, are nevertheless significant. Practically all of them have indulged in this pastime in surprisingly and shockingly explicit terms. Pandey, in his three page letter to the trustees, refers to Heehs’s diabolical nature no less than five times: “the intent behind the book is a diabolic one”; “the diabolic nature of [Heehs’s] writings”; “one of the standard strategies of the asura [demon] in man who falsifies things very subtly and craftily”; “everything is small, narrow and diabolic”; “the second [method employed by Heehs] is at worst a betrayal and at best diabolic” (AP1). In his letter and email to Heehs, Pandey equates Heehs with a whole menagerie of literary demons and traitors: Ravana (Ramayana), Kamsa (Bhagavata Purana), Judas (the Bible), Peter Pettigrew also known as Wormtail (Harry Potter novels). After being forced to participate in this black mass of diabolism, the reader must struggle to recall that Pandey is a qualified psychiatrist.

Ananda Reddy picks up the same theme in his email of September 18: “such asuric forces”; “Peter is only a tool in the hands of the anti-Sri Aurobindo forces and maybe he himself is not aware of it just as Hitler was in the constant sway of the Asura but he did not know about it until the end” (AR3).

Eggenberger claims to be able to perceive the satanic nature of Heehs’s book simply by looking at its cover: “I picked up the book and immediately my strong inner feeling was, ‘This is something dark’” (RE).

Eggenberger goes on to place himself on the side of God, which is the other side of any attempt to demonize the Other: “I would ask that the following be done for the Lord’s work upon earth…” (RE). The same technique is utilized by many of the other leaders, notably Ananda Reddy, who in his letter of 6 September (AR1) invokes “the Mother’s Mahakali aspect” to “save the Ashram and the devotees” from legal action and adverse publicity (this at the same time that his colleagues were preparing civil and criminal cases against Heehs that brought much negative coverage in the press).

Pandey, Ranade and others have also openly appealed to the religious and heroically crusading impulse: “With utmost goodwill and love for Them who sacrificed Their life for us” (AP1); “We certainly would not be worthy of the trust that the Mother has placed in us if we cannot do the minimum required to protect the truth and to defend Sri Aurobindo and Her” (SR1).

11. Heroic role in a great cosmic drama

At its most inflated, the rhetoric of being on God’s side reaches a point at which the writer imagines himself (none of the leaders are women) to be a protagonist in a great cosmic drama. This is a common symptom of the fundamentalist mind set. Ananda Reddy is Pondicherry’s great exemplar of the self-proclaimed cosmic hero: “Revolutions are fought to bring in new changes. One such in the sphere of Aurobindoneans is being fought at present: it is testing time for all of us and we have to ‘battle for the future’”; “that is why I have signed my name in the Army of Light of the Mother” (AR3).

In a less theatrical, but more sinister mode, Ranade brings the cosmic drama down to earth, setting himself up as Sri Aurobindo’s great defender and perhaps more: “I do not understand what games you are playing with the security of the Ashram and the reputation of Sri Aurobindo. That is your prerogative. All I can do is to request you not to ‘problematize’ the situation further, to stop harassing us and to let us do the little that we are capable of doing to protect Their reputation and the interests of the Ashram’s future. You obviously have plenty of time for petty politicking and enough energy to find creative ways to harass us. Please redirect that time and energy towards limiting damage from Peter’s book rather than causing more harm to the Ashram’s already delicate situation” (SR3).

Note how several of the fundamentalist characteristics come together. The “other” is demonized, and set apart from “us,” the trusted insider; access to information is restricted or censored; open discussion is refused; the fundamentalist uses abusive language to rouse the masses, and then characterizes himself as a great hero and crusader, calling on everyone to join him in fighting evil, asuras, and satan himself, all to censor a biography that has received critical acclaim by both long-term disciples and the public.


The passages quoted above make it clear that Raman Reddy, Ranganath Raghavan, Alok Pandey, Ananda Reddy, Sachidananda Mohanty, Sraddhalu Ranade, Vijay Poddar, Richard Eggenberger, and Kittu Reddy often exhibit the habits of thought and modes of action characteristic of religious fundamentalists. Whether it would be fair to apply the label of “fundamentalist” to all of them, all the time, is another question. Some of these leaders appear in fact to be followers. A case could be made that Mohanty and Eggenberger are simply influenced by men with more far-reaching agendas. Both give little evidence of the ambition that evidently motivates the others.

Has there then been an outbreak of fundamentalism in the Integral Yoga community? It is hard to say at this point. Clear evidence of fundamentalist thinking and action does not necessarily prove the existence of a full blown fundamentalist movement, but it has to be taken seriously. Most fundamentalist movements began as small sects within organized religions and only slowly grew to power and influence. Time will tell whether Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga has the strength to reject the fundamentalist turn that has infected it. In the meantime, those of us who love him and his works must remain vigilant.


Antoun, Richard T. 2001. Understanding Fundamentalism. Walnut Creek CA: Altamira Press.

Appleby, R. Scott, and Martin E. Marty. 2002. Fundamentalism. Foreign Policy 128 (Jan-Feb): 16–18, 20–22.

Lifton, Robert Jay. 1989. Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China. Chapel Hill NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Marty, Martin E. 1988. Fundamentalism as a Social Phenomenon. Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 42 (2 Nov): 15–29.

Nagata, Judith. 2001. Beyond Theology: Toward an Anthropology of Fundamentalism. American Anthropologist, New Series, 103 (2 June): 481–498.