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25 September 2008

Dear Manoj-da,

During a conversation the other day, you asked me whether I would write a brief note to clarify what I was trying to do when I wrote my recent biography....

I decided to write about Sri Aurobindo, first, because I find him tremendously interesting. I won''t go any farther than this. You will recall that I explained to you once that I find it difficult if not impossible to proclaim from the housetops my feelings about things that mean a lot to me. I''ve always been amazed to find that others do not have this problem, and that they talk with perfect strangers about things that are deeply important to them.

I decided to write a biography because the genre, and the discipline of history of which it is a part, interest me a lot. I began to collect biographical material at Jayantilal''s request during the early 1970s, and have continued this work up to the present. Realizing around 1977 that writing was part of the work of a historical researcher, I began to publish articles in local magazines and later in international research journals. In 1988, I began to publish books from Indian and then American university presses.

I thought that research journals and university presses were good places to send the sort of things I was writing because they have high editorial standards and insist that writers follow the established methodology of the discipline of history. In contrast, ashram journals, souvenirs of Sri Aurobindo organizations, and so forth, have virtually no editorial standards (as generally understood), and seem to be intended mainly for the promotion of Sri Aurobindo and his yoga in ways that he discouraged. I believe that this promotional approach will, in the long run, hamper the diffusion of Sri Aurobindo''s philosophy and yoga in the world.

In all the books I have published since 1988, I made it clear that the Ashram bore no responsibility for anything I published. The Ashram has, however, chosen to list my publications in its annual research reports.

My first biography of Sri Aurobindo, Sri Aurobindo: A Brief Biography, was published by Oxford University Press in 1989. It has been reprinted at least five times since then. It was well received abroad, in India and even, for the most part, in the ashram.

I began work seriously on a proposed larger biography of Sri Aurobindo sometime in the late 1990s, using material and notes I had accumulated since the early 1970s. My purpose in writing it was, in brief, to enlarge the biographical narrative I published in 1989. I hoped to have the new biography published by a major US university press. The audience I imagined for it were the sort of people who read books published by university presses. My primary intention was to bring the life, works, philosophy and yoga of Sri Aurobindo to an audience who had either never heard of him or had only a hazy idea of who he was and what he had done.

Here I may remark that there is an appalling lack of interest in Sri Aurobindo in academic circles and, more generally, in the world at large (by this I mean the world outside the ashram and the wider Sri Aurobindo community in India and abroad). When interest appears, it often is based on a distorted idea of his life and thought. For example, when Sri Aurobindo is cited by politicians and political journalists, it usually is as a supposed forefather of the modern Hindu Right. The Right adopts him; the Left condemns him for being adopted by the Right. Nobody actually reads his works with the exception of a handful of extracts from his speeches that are presented out of context. I have gone to the trouble of writing several articles to show that both the Right and the Left get Sri Aurobindo wrong. The same sort of misunderstanding is apparent when Sri Aurobindo is cited in discussions of literature, philosophy, and spirituality. I have always considered this unfortunate.


Part of my aim in writing a biography was to correct the distortions and misunderstandings about Sri Aurobindo that had arisen in such fields.

Another part of my aim was to speak to potential readers who were unable to approach Sri Aurobindo through the promotional literature mentioned above. Much of this literature may be termed ''devotional''. It should be clearly understood that I have no problem with devotional literature as such. Devotion – true bhakti, that is – plays a very important role in Sri Aurobindo''s synthesis of yoga. A large number of people seem to benefit from reading devotional literature about Sri Aurobindo. This doesn''t trouble me at all. But I do believe that devotionalism is not the only possible approach to Sri Aurobindo. I could cite innumerable passages from his writings to support this belief.

What I wanted to do in my book and my other writings was to open an approach to Sri Aurobindo for people who were not born with the devotional temperament or, if they were, wanted to extend their seeking beyond mere devotionalism, in the spirit of the integral yoga.

As my proposed book was not intended for devotees, I did not start with the preconceived notion that Sri Aurobindo was born a divine being or avatar whose outward or human side was only of secondary interest. The people I wanted to reach were not the sort of people who would accept such a preconception.

(Here I may add, as a philosophical aside, that Sri Aurobindo wrote a number of letters to Nirodbaran and others trying to explain that the human side of the avatar was not a ''mere sham'', that the struggles and sufferings of the avatar were real, and if they were not, then avatarhood had no meaning.)

As I saw my proposed book as a biography, that is, a life-history, I had to concentrate on verifiable events in Sri Aurobindo''s outward life. When I referred to his inner life, I did so by citing his own words.

Since I wanted to write a biography that showed all sides of Sri Aurobindo''s personality, I did not consider any part of his life to be off limits. Here a problem related to my expected readership arose. People in India and other Asian countries have traditionally believed that it is best to avoid speaking about certain aspects of life. People in America and Europe, as well as metropolitan centres in Asia, do not share this belief. In fact, they believe that to avoid speaking about these aspects of life is a sign of immaturity or self-deception. My readership, as I conceived it, fell mainly in the second category. This meant that I had to risk offending traditionally minded people if I took up certain subjects.

I could say a lot more about my intentions in writing the book and my proposed readership. But I think what I have said will do....

As I worked on my enlarged biography of Sri Aurobindo, I realized that many of the readers I wanted to reach would be people with little or no knowledge of Sri Aurobindo, little or no belief in supernatural phenomena, and a generally rationalistic approach to life. In order avoid alienating such readers, I had to adjust my voice to avoid antagonizing them.

I could enlarge on this point at some length, but this letter is already too long. I do want, however, to explain two sorts of argumentative techniques that I adopted on account of the writer–reader alignment of this particular book, because these techniques have caused a great deal of misunderstanding.

Before going into this, I have to make two remarks about English as spoken in countries where it is the native language. (I don''t suggest that English as spoken in these countries is necessarily better than English as spoken elsewhere.) English as spoken in England, North America, and so on is for the most part a ''plain and simple'' language. There is little difference between literary and vernacular English, and even poets, novelists and nonfiction writers whose styles are widely admired write in a plain and simple way.

Two things follow from this. First, English is a language of understatement. Second, English abhors euphemisms. Writers who write with native-speaking English readers in mind have to avoid over elaborate praise. If they praise too much, they produce an effect just opposite to the one they desire, and also destroy their credibility as writers. In regard to euphemism, nothing annoys intelligent readers of English more than roundabout expressions and mincing phrases.

Now for the two techniques I mentioned. The first is ''strategic concession''. This is a term of rhetoric that means conceding a minor point in order to gain a major one. I''ll give an example from my book. While talking (very briefly) about the Mother''s early artistic work, I said that some of her earlier paintings ''show excellent technique and classical balance, if little originality.'' The paintings in question are indeed beautiful, though I don''t believe that the Mother would have considered them among her best. They may well be studio studies. In any event, I think I praised them adequately by saying that they show ''excellent technique and classical balance''. If I had added that they were more original than Monet''s water-lilies, I would have weakened my positive evaluation instead of strengthening it. I strategically conceded the point that the paintings are not particularly original in order to strengthen my assertion that they are remarkable paintings.


Here''s another example from my book, one that has driven some people wild. Describing himself as a youth, Sri Aurobindo said: ''I was a most terrible liar and perhaps no greater coward on earth.'' I paraphrased this when I spoke of him as a student: ''He had few of the qualities that English schoolboys find interesting. Weak and inept on the playing field, he was also – by his own account – a coward and a liar.'' We''re talking about Sri Aurobindo at the age of 14 or 15, remember. He never had anything positive to say about himself at that age, except that he wrote good poetry and had patriotic feelings (both of which I comment on). Why did I go to the trouble of writing about his youthful frailties? Because my book as a whole shows him to be one of the most extraordinary beings who ever lived. If I began by saying that he was a star athlete and model of fortitude and probity, nobody would have given any credit to my later positive assertions – assuming they even bothered to read the book that far.

I could give many other examples of strategic concession used in my book as a means to strengthen my positive evaluations of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother''s life and works. But I want to turn to the second technique, which I will call anticipating and refuting objections. This is known in Sanskrit rhetoric as the purvapaksha-uttarapaksha form of argument. It is also well known to Western rhetoricians, debaters, and writers, many of whom use the technique without knowing its technical name.

Philosophers, debaters and writers anticipate objections in order to refute them. Aware of the sort of arguments that could be employed against their own positions, they deliberately engage with these objections in order to clear the way for a successful presentation of points that some readers might want to resist. I will give an example from my book. After spending several pages speaking about Sri Aurobindo''s inner experiences as related in Record of Yoga, I paused to ''consider a question that may have occurred to some readers'' (these are my ordinary rationalistic readers who knew nothing about Sri Aurobindo before they opened my book). The question, which I introduced as delicately as I could, is whether these experiences might, after all, be symptoms of madness. This is not a far-fetched concern. It is a fact that mysticism and madness have been connected in people''s minds for centuries, that at least some madmen have believed that they were mystics, and that some mystics have passed through periods when those around them wondered whether they had lost their balance. So the ''question'' is one that the writer of my biography (whose readers will include ordinary rationalistic people unacquainted with Sri Aurobindo''s spiritual stature) was almost obliged to consider. I did so in the book, for two or three pages, citing a variety of evidence, before concluding that Sri Aurobindo ''was anything but unbalanced''. I ended the passage: ''Record of Yoga is remarkable not only as a chronicle of unusual experiences, but as the self-critical journal of a practitioner who was never satisfied with anything short of perfection.'' In going through the exercise of raising an objection that I then refuted, I may have helped some dubious readers realize just how extraordinary Sri Aurobindo was. If people in India (most of whom have not read the book but only Raman''s deliberately misleading extracts) understand my purpose to be the opposite of what it was, it is not my fault.

At this point, you or others might object: ''strategic concession and anticipating objections seem like good techniques for ordinary subjects, but they certainly are not good when writing about Sri Aurobindo''. In both techniques, you raise the possibility of a negative interpretation. The moment you make a strategic concession or anticipate an objection, people will seize on the negative statement and use it against Sri Aurobindo. Everybody will begin saying bad things about Sri Aurobindo, with the result that his spiritual work will be undermined, his disciples mocked, and his ashram closed.

People who make this sort of objection seem to feel that Sri Aurobindo and his yoga are embattled outposts of truth in an entirely hostile world. Everybody is against him, and he has to be protected at any cost. This attitude is much in evidence in recent blogs (postings on the internet) and newsgroups (online discussion groups, such as that of the ex-students), which list the powerful enemies of Sri Aurobindo that people are worried about: America, the Vatican, the communists, asuras, and so forth. If you think I am making this up, please read the blogs and newsgroups.

Another possible objection to the use of the techniques is that Sri Aurobindo is so sacred that even suggesting, say, that mysticism and madness have sometimes been associated together and discussing this in connection with Sri Aurobindo (to show that he was, in fact, anything but unbalanced) is the same as saying that Sri Aurobindo was mad, hence the same as throwing mud at Sri Aurobindo.

I think such objections are ridiculous. To begin with, Sri Aurobindo and his teachings are beyond the reach of petty negative criticisms. The image that comes to my mind is throwing pebbles at the Himalayas. (Perhaps I got this image from you.) The notion that the Vatican or CIA are interested in toppling the integral yoga is, I think, symptomatic of psychosis. And while my discussing negative possibilities in connection with Sri Aurobindo (in order to refute them) may have caused discomfort to some, to others it has had the result of enhancing Sri Aurobindo''s stature.

Many people who have written me about the book have told me that it has made Sri Aurobindo''s greatness more apparent to them than it had been before. I quote from one such reaction:

''I think that it [the book] is not only a great achievement as a biography per se, but that it will also draw many to Sri Aurobindo who would never have given him more than a passing thought. This, more perhaps than anything else, makes me hope that you remember that the world is a big place and that you won't be too fraught by the flak which would seek to belittle or destroy the accomplishment: not a dead statue, but a living presence.''

I have received many similar comments from others, some of which I quoted in an earlier letter to you. Looking over these comments, I notice one common factor. All the writers are native speakers of English or speak the language as well as native speakers. They are familiar not only with English vocabulary but also with some of the subtleties of English style and tone. And they all have read a lot of books that make use of complex forms of argumentation. In other words, they are the sort of people I was writing for. A lot those of who have missed the point of my book are (I''ll try not to sound patronizing when I write this) people who have a limited knowledge of English, misunderstand many words and phrases (if not whole chapters), and have little sense of tone or style. (Moreover, most of them have not read the book itself but only as excerpted in a duplicitous way by Raman Reddy.)

I suppose it could be said that I should have written my book for such inexperienced readers. But they were not the sort of audience I was trying to reach. There are more than enough books, magazines and souvenirs published for such readers. Writers who are interested in reaching such readers can and should go through my book to find material that they can present to them in appropriate ways. But to find such material, the writers will have to give the book an honest reading.

Peter