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I trust you won't mind if I reflect on past experiences and express some thoughts on a topic of mutual interest; spiritual life. I began the study of Sri Aurobindo's writings in 1955, and first visited his ashram in Pondicherry in 1957, having obtained the written permission of the Mother, Mirra Alfassa, to do so. The ashram was not an open institution at that time and housed just a few hundred dedicated spiritual aspirants. Even so, those who did not have sufficient inner strength and sincerity could suddenly vacate overnight after having come face to face with the intense spiritual energy the Mother focused on every individual sadhana. Standing in the early morning under her balcony for Darshan was an inner phenomenon impossible to describe adequately — and which I am sure each one would do so differently — yet I am sure no one would deny that various levels of the consciousness were stirred up for change to occur, sometimes quite disturbingly.

Sri Aurobindo did not necessarily wish anyone to join the Ashram, but later handed this responsibility to the Mother. His view was to allow only some individuals to spend time there; ideally, with the aim of them returning to the area and culture in which they were born. His ashram was to be a place where they could charge batteries and focus their energies for them to contribute a greater truth and understanding in the unfolding of the world, but in the environment which, he said, had been chosen purposely for or by them. Only close disciples and some others were acknowledged as permanent residents. And of course, a core population is required for administration of the ashram's various functions.

The atmosphere when I visited was peaceful, quiet and respectful of the work to be done and of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother for what they had set out to accomplish; like a rather special educational institution where one felt wanted, loved and privileged to be. There was no sense of a hierarchy, and there were no religious elements whatsoever — that would have been inconceivable — just community activities such as meditation in the playground every evening, the Mother sitting with us, and Darshan occasionally held peacefully and informally in the ashram courtyard. On all of my visits, including one year (I think 1967) when the Mother withdrew from all outward activities, I met briefly with her. One could also see her taking a drive, and I sometimes watched her playing tennis. She was involved in everyday activity and did not set herself apart.

I visited Pondicherry and Auroville for short periods on a number of occasions over subsequent years up until the early 1990s, and have continued to refer to Sri Aurobindo's major works including his letters to disciples and followers during the whole period up until now. I practise a spiritual life and have found much to educate, interest and inspire me in his profound philosophy and yogic path; although, while holding him in high regard, I did not choose to become his disciple, having from my earliest years led an independent spiritual life.

What I read now about the ashram and some attitudes to both Sri Aurobindo and the Mother are a cause of sadness. Something seems to have gone awry, at least in some minds, and the real nature and purpose of The Integral Yoga and both its principal figures has to a degree been lost sight of. The ashram embraces the shrine of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, yes, but it is not a temple or a religious institution. Sri Aurobindo and the Mother stood for the transcendence of all religious beliefs, religiosity itself, rituals and symbols, and rather, for the realization of universal spiritual brotherhood in the oneness of Supreme Being. Sri Aurobindo reluctantly allowed the ashram to come into being for the sole purpose of aiding in the transformation of human nature, one that would enable a descent of the supramental into human kind and allow a greater degree of spiritual truth to be harboured and expressed in this unfolding world; an extraordinarily difficult task that he long sought to test, define and make practical for others in a never-ending, dedicated sadhana; a work into which he welcomed those of all races, religions and cultures.

Sri Aurobindo was born of India but grew to be universal in thought. He imbibed the strengths of British and European culture during his formative years in England, including political and social standards, knowledge of languages, myths and symbols, and learned to express himself poetically, inspired by the writings and values of ancient Greeks and Romans as well as European writers and composers. In order to claim India's right to complete freedom he took extreme action against British rule for a while after returning home, but then patiently looked for a better way to release India's inner qualities and reveal them to the world. He retained all that he felt to be good in his earlier experience and never discriminated against anyone on the basis of race or culture. The Mother soon became a partner and their spiritual path became one. She of course — while her family was from Middle-Eastern roots — was entirely the product of European culture and spirituality, but by neither the mother nor Sri Aurobindo was there ever promoted any concept of cultural or racial divide. Such a thought was completely foreign to them for they knew that all beings reflected the life of one infinite Supreme Being, various in manifestation. The ashram is a physical and ideological symbol of that truth, and Auroville a statement of its practicality in the 'ordinary' world. I know of no other institutions in India which represent a universal spiritual aspiration to the degree that transcends nationality as they do.

In and through the influence of the ashram, the work still to be accomplished is the transformation of human nature. The promoters of any different goal may be well-meaning, but perhaps they don't grasp the real meaning of Sri Aurobindo's life and purpose. It is a tough challenge. Even Sri Aurobindo and the Mother were disappointed not to have completed their goal by bringing down the supramental fully into the material mind, finding the lower ranges of consciousness more inert and much more resistant to change than they expected. Yet, that is the work to be continued and I suggest that we should not be deflected by lesser concepts that might have crept forward to make their claim, those that are designed to suit different more self-centred purposes.

To continue with this sacred legacy, particularly without the immediate presence of its founders and role models, all the knowledge and information that might throw light on the task is needed. I have recently read The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, by Peter Heehs, and the book contributes to this in a major way. It is virtually priceless. But we see evidence in the ashram and environs of a contrary movement, an attempt to limit the availability of unique and precious information and to control the way in which it is to be interpreted. It is really the same as shooting oneself in the foot. I am concerned that legal action against the author is planned by some with a view to preventing the further distribution of his book. It is a retrograde move for which I for one can see no justification either in principle or substance.

Throughout my adult life I have been connected with theatre and then with documentaries and narrative dramas such as feature films for commercial cinema release as a director and producer. As a consequence I have had experience in writing; not only for film, but in authoring a number of essays and two books, one of which is solely about India and my experience of it. I am presently nearing completion on the writing of another book focusing on the consciousness of Krishna of the Bhagavad Geeta and of Jesus, the Nazarene. In this manuscript I refer to Sri Aurobindo, whom I believe could be seen as one of two outstanding pathfinders and revelators of spiritual truth that have come forward in the last 150 years. Given this experience I might be in a position to make a reasonably informed appraisal of The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, not only as a written work but with regard to its content.

Peter Heehs' work is well-researched and well-written. It is properly broad in coverage so as to enable a reader to reach an informed and balanced view of Aurobindo's character and his development and achievements throughout his life by comparison to the cultures in which he lived. It is a work that has been comprehensively researched and written by a writer whose own development and inner sense has made it possible for him to understand the nature of Sri Aurobindo's view of himself and purpose in life. Mr Heehs has also placed Aurobindo's life in context, intellectually, spiritually and physically, and has understood the effect his dedicated activity has had on those in the world around him. We have no right to expect the work to be perfect (although I have no quarrel with it) and I do feel that Peter Heehs' publication is a very valuable one indeed. I know of no other comparable, exhaustive and enlightening study on this subject.

A lesser writer than Mr Heehs — whom I have not met — would not have been as thorough in providing such a full description of the philosophical and spiritual environment in which Sri Aurobindo existed, and on which his progressive political and spiritual views and yogic practice have had such an influence. Peter Heehs' objectivity and fairness has led him to portray the life events, thoughts and actions of his subject impartially and without fear or favour; essential for every reader — whether a disciple of Aurobindo, a philosopher or a general but interested reader — who attempts to properly understand and evaluate the detailed nature and worth of Sri Aurobindo's work.

The book is very revealing and full of insight into a difficult and complex topic, and Mr Heehs has not used the opportunity to hold the subject to ransom and to fashion Sri Aurobindo's image according to his own whim. He has left the reader free to make his or her own judgement, having been resourceful as well as careful to provide all the elements reasonably necessary to make such an assessment possible. I believe in this sense that The Lives of Sri Aurobindo is genuine and accurate, and I don't think one can ask more than that.

It is disappointing and a cause for concern that action has been initiated by anyone to challenge free access to The Lives of Sri Aurobindo; especially by persons who might not have the knowledge, understanding and experience evidenced by the author in the writing of his book, or even by a genuine sadhak in the practice of The Integral Yoga. Anyone who does this opposes the principles of free speech which the world has long fought for. It is an ideal that has been achieved and is now jealously guarded in most cultures; a further reason why it would be helpful for the principles of free-speech and the dissemination of knowledge to be defended in this case. Less protection means more potential for the abuse of free and rational thinking in the minds of others.

Those who are opposing the distribution of The Lives of Sri Aurobindo in India, where it could do much good, no doubt believe themselves to be well-intentioned. But their action might arise from not being fully appreciative of the true aim and style of the path Sri Aurobindo defined, or of the function of the ashram in that work. Perhaps they have an unwarranted fear that their guru is under attack, when it is certainly not the case. On the often lonely spiritual journey within we can sometimes see what we want, or even what we don't want to see, and create a fiction. Whatever the reason, I doubt that those persons can be accepted as adequate arbiters of a book of this type. Those who have not read the work and, remarkably, claim a right to oppose it, introduce a sad note to the ongoing debate. I think it is fortunate that the Ashram, Sri Aurobindo's followers and other researchers, have the advantage of Peter Heehs' painstaking biography. I can say that it didn't strike any wrong note for me given my experience in considering Sri Aurobindo's thoughts and aims. I think it will help maintain a proper understanding and balance about his life and work.

Sri Aurobindo fought hard for India's freedom from colonial rule. I am sure he would, if in this situation, also fight hard for everyone to have free access to as much accurate knowledge and information as there is available, for or against. When he recognized a mistake he had made, he admitted it. And he knew that that is what a spiritual, yogic life is about, growing and expanding into greater truth, the truth of Absolute Being. Generally, I suggest we cannot allow study to be arbitrarily curtailed.

With kind wishes,

John B. Murray (Australia)
27th June, 2009