July 14, 2009

Dear Mr. Dasgupta:

I am a Professor of Religion at Truman State University in the United States. I recently wrote a review of Peter Heehs's biography, The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, for a refereed journal. For many years I have been interested in Sri Aurobindo's life and work.

I was very happy to learn that Heehs had written a biography of Sri Aurobindo, and read that biography with enthusiasm. Heehs's work answered many questions that I have had for a long time about Sri Aurobindo. As a scholar, I also appreciate the care that Heehs has taken in producing a fine book. He is a first-rate historian, and has given readers a first-rate account of Sri Aurobindo's life.

I heard about the controversy surrounding Heehs and this book. I recently found a website entitled "A critique of the book The Lives of Sri Aurobindo by Peter Heehs". Clearly the creators of this website do not like Heehs's book. I assume that their positions resemble those of others who also object to the book. In the following paragraphs, I will respond to criticisms of Heehs found on this website as my way of supporting Heehs and his book.

In a section of the website entitled "Background", critics made a list of criticisms against Heeh's biography of Sri Aurobindo. The first criticism on this list was that Heehs hid information contrary to his "defamatory" thesis. I can't speak about him hiding information, but his thesis, in my opinion, is anything but "defamatory". Reading this book as an outsider with a keen interest in Sri Aurobindo, I thought that Heehs went out of his way to present Sri Aurobindo's life in a very balanced fashion. Certain of his observations that devotees might interpret as "defamatory" came across to me as simply the efforts of a conscientious biographer who wanted to show that opinions about Sri Aurobindo were not always positive, and yet mostly positive things were said about Sri Aurobindo throughout this biography.

Another criticism in the list was that Heehs tended toward "bias to quote extensively from people who question Sri Aurobindo's credibility and sanity; outright rejection of any person or quotation offering appreciation or praise of Sri Aurobindo". Nowhere in this book did I find any hint that Sri Aurobindo was not credible or sane. I never got that impression once while reading the biography. I fail to see where in the book one could possibly interpret Heehs's words in that light. As for rejecting praise of Sri Aurobindo, I found numerous instances throughout the book where devotees, as well as people not directly involved in Sri Aurobindo's Yoga, offered very complimentary, laudatory observations about Sri Aurobindo. If anything, the positive observations seemed to outweigh the negative ones, although I did not actually count them.

Yet another criticism in this list was that Heehs was guilty of "crude application of Freudian analysis to Sri Aurobindo and the Mother". There is in fact no Freudian analysis to speak of, much less a crude application of it. Heehs's book is remarkably free of psychological speculation, especially when compared with most scholarly biographies produced these days.

Later in this section of the website it is claimed that Heehs's biography asserts:

• "that Sri Aurobindo does not hold integrity as a person,
• that he was morally of loose character,
• that his claims to spiritual powers are questionable and irrelevant,
• that his spirituality emerges from a streak of inherited madness,
• that there is nothing new in his writings and thoughts,
• that his poetry is expressive of sexual frustration, and its style outdated,
• that his relationship with the Mother was of a romantic nature."

Each of these statements so distorts what I found in the biography that I am baffled that anyone could find any of these things in this book. I came away from reading the biography certain that, whatever an outsider may think of Sri Aurobindo's Yoga, he was undoubtedly a man of integrity, hardly "of loose character". In fact, far from being "of loose character," Heehs takes pains to show that Sri Aurobindo's behavior with members of the opposite sex was consistently gentlemanly throughout his life.

Sri Aurobindo's "claims to spiritual powers" can be neither confirmed nor denied by an outsider, and I withheld judgment on their truth or falsity while reading Heehs's book, but I certainly did not find anything in this biography to suggest that Sri Aurobindo's spirituality was "questionable and irrelevant". If anything, Heehs shows that that spirituality is more relevant today than ever before. Anyone who is at all sensitive to the desperate and gargantuan needs of millions of suffering people around the world would pause to consider the hopefulness of Sri Aurobindo's Yoga, even if they did not take the next step of embracing that Yoga. Nowhere in the book did I get the impression that Sri Aurobindo's "spirituality emerges from a streak of inherited madness". Heehs noted the psychological history of Sri Aurobindo's mother's side of the family, but he never used it as a means of explaining Sri Aurobindo's spirituality. Rather, he makes a compelling argument that Sri Aurobindo's spirituality emerged as he came into contact with deep wells of Indian spirituality after he returned to India from England. As the years passed, his spirituality, his Yoga, became more complex, more textured, deeper and richer, but that wasn't because he was mad. People would not have been drawn to him in droves if he was mad.

The critics say that Heehs points out that there's "nothing new in ... [Sri Aurobindo's] ... writings and thoughts." How they got that from the biography is beyond me. Granted Sri Aurobindo followed many of the conventions of the time in composing both his poetry and his prose. But Heehs makes a compelling case that Sri Aurobindo was a world-class writer, who deserved but never received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Writers at that rarified level of accomplishment produce many new ideas for the rest of us to think about, and Heehs makes it quite clear throughout his book that Sri Aurobindo's ideas were often new, provoking others to think about many of the most important and basic issues of life in new ways.

Finally the critics of Heehs claim that he described Sri Aurobindo's relationship with the Mother as "of a romantic nature". Romance was never in the picture. I cannot think of one instance in all the pages of this book where Heehs deals with that relationship that you could construe what Heehs says as being at all romantic.

In conclusion, I would simply like to reiterate that I believe Peter Heehs is a responsible and careful writer of Sri Aurobindo's life. For my dissertation, which was later a book, I wrote about the spiritual philosophy of a group that was sensitive to being represented fairly to the general public. I can appreciate both their concerns and those of the scholarly writer. It is not easy to portray someone to a general and especially a scholarly reading audience whom people regard so highly as many regard Sri Aurobindo. Inevitably the author of such a book will fail to satisfy everyone. Yet based upon the academic practices that both Heehs and I follow as scholars, I can say without hesitation that his book is fair-minded, meticulously constructed, and generous to a fault in describing for a broad readership a man whose most important accomplishments, those of the spiritual realms, lie beyond the usual means of analysis and evaluation used to understand historical figures. Heehs makes Sri Aurobindo accessible to many people who heretofore were puzzled by the concepts and terminology of Sri Aurobindo's Yoga and philosophy.


W. Michael Ashcraft

Professor of Religion
Truman State University
Kirksville, Missouri, USA