15 September 2008

Dear Manoj-da,

The basic question raised by Peter's biography and the reactions to it is whether different approaches to Sri Aurobindo can be tolerated. Peter has adopted a typically "Western" approach. Otherwise Columbia University Press would not have been interested in the book and Sri Aurobindo would have remained unknown to most of those who are now reading it. I imagined that its publication in America would be welcomed by Sri Aurobindo's followers as a step in the fulfilment of his dream of the gift of India's spiritual knowledge to the world. Instead, we are told that this book has hurt the Indian psyche. This is puzzling. Can the soul of India be hurt so easily?

I hope I am mistaken, but for the first time in nearly thirty years that I have lived in the Ashram I seem to be noticing a polarisation between Indians and Westerners based on differing reactions to The Lives of Sri Aurobindo. There are exceptions, of course, but this appears to be the general trend. Perhaps we should remember Sri Aurobindo's words:

Here in this Ashram I have found the members of it who came from the West (I include especially those who have been here longest) typically occidental with all the quality and also all the difficulties of the Western mind and temperament and they have had to cope with their difficulties, just as the Indian members have been obliged to struggle with the limitations and obstacles created by their temperament and training. No doubt, they have accepted in principle the conditions of the yoga, but they had no Hindu outlook when they came and I do not think they have tried to acquire one. Why should they do so? It is not the Hindu outlook or the Western that fundamentally matters in yoga, but the psychic turn and the spiritual urge, and these are the same everywhere. (SABCL 23:557)

In his preface, Peter discusses two photographs of Sri Aurobindo, one that was retouched and one that was not. He compares his approach as a biographer to the second photograph. This photograph happens to be the one that is less appealing to most devotees. But is there any need to decide which is the "true" photograph and suppress the other? Surely both photographs — and both kinds of biography — should be available and people should be free to choose.

I am accompanying this letter with a selection of representative passages from the book. If you read these pages, you will get a glimpse of how some major aspects of Sri Aurobindo's life and work have been presented. I think you will see why I expect this biography to have a positive impact among open-minded people, especially overseas.


Richard Hartz