Getting beyond the Conventions of Biography – and Hagiography Too: A Post by Peter Heehs

cover The Lives of Sri AurobindoThe following post is by Peter Heehs, author of The Lives of Sri Aurobindo

How do you write about a man who is known to some as a politician, to others as a poet and critic, to still others as a philosopher, and to a not inconsiderable number as an incarnation of God? This is one of the problems a biographer of Sri Aurobindo (Aurobindo Ghose, 1872-1950) has to face. Known in the West mostly to specialized audiences (people interested in South Asian history, literature, philosophy, and spirituality), Aurobindo is renowned in his native India as one of the most outstanding, and most many-sided men of the twentieth century. This has not prevented his legacy from being bitterly disputed.

Some historians and politicians see him as one of the forerunners of Mahatma Gandhi, others as a precursor of today’s aggressive Hindu nationalists. Admirers of his writings see his epic in iambic pentameter as the harbinger of a new kind of poetry, but most contemporary poets and critics dismiss it as a throwback to the Victorian era. The opinions of amateur and professional philosophers are polarized along the same lines. There is general agreement among students of religion that Aurobindo was a remarkable mystic, but few are willing to swallow the claim of some of his followers that he was an avatar, like Krishna, Chaitanya or Christ.

In The Lives of Sri Aurobindo I made Aurobindo’s many-sidedness the foundation of the structure of the book. Each of the five parts deals with one of his “lives”: the family man, the scholar, the revolutionary, the yogi and philosopher, and the spiritual guide. The first three go together pretty well, since the conventions of literary and political biography are similar. The writer is expected to present the significant events of a notable life in a chronological narrative, supporting the story with a scholarly apparatus based on primary sources. It was easy for me to do this when I wrote about Aurobindo’s life in politics. Discussing his role at the Surat Congress of 1907, for example, I was able to draw on government files, police reports, newspaper stories, Aurobindo’s reminiscences, and the reminiscences of others in English, Bengali, and Gujarati. But what was I to do with the information that a few days after the Congress, Aurobindo sat with a guru who taught him a meditation technique, and that, as Aurobindo later put it, “In three days – really in one, my mind became full of an eternal silence” – by which he meant the mental stillness and freedom from ego known as Nirvana.

It certainly is legitimate to cite Aurobindo’s own statements about this and other inner experiences. But personal reminiscences don’t count for much in scholarly biographies unless they are backed up by objective data and analysis. But what sort of objective data was I to look for? (Nobody knew what was going on in Aurobindo’s head.) If I wanted to discuss this inner event, did I have to switch (in mid stream) from the conventions of scholarly biography to the conventions of spiritual biography, that is, hagiography? Or could I get beyond the conventions of both genres?

Hagiography in its original sense, writing about the lives of saints, has been practiced since the first century CE (the Gospels, the Buddhacarita). What distinguishes the hagiographic from the critical approach is not that hagiographers are sympathetic to their subjects, but that they base their accounts on unverifiable assumptions that are likely to be accepted only by members of the discursive community that they belong to. Few modern non-Catholic readers are likely to take seriously the claims of Angelo Pastrovicchi that Joseph of Cupertino could fly. On the other hand, Pastrovicchi’s eighteenth-century work remains a vital source for any anyone wishing to write about the Italian saint. A scholar may reject levitation as inconsistent with what we know about gravity but still accept that Joseph had visions, as Pastrovicchi claims.

Aurobindo spent the last forty years of his life immersed in the practice of yoga. He wrote about his yogic experiences in a diary, the Record of Yoga, and in letters to his followers. Are these the sort of sources that a scholarly biographer can cite? It certainly would be uncritical to accept at face value all that Aurobindo wrote about his inner life; but it would be a different sort of negligence to refuse to consider accounts of inner experience a priori grounds, or to explain them away according to the assumptions of one or another social-scientific orthodoxy.

I think that William James had the right approach to this sort of material. “One cannot criticize the vision of a mystic,” he wrote in “A Pluralistic Mystic,” “one can but pass it by, or else accept it as having some amount of evidential weight.” I couldn’t simply close my eyes to Aurobindo’s accounts of his mystical experiences, so I accepted them as evidence of a vivid, if sometimes enigmatic inner life. I wonder however whether James got it right when he said we “cannot criticize the vision of a mystic.” Many spiritual traditions – the Catholic Christian and Tibetan Buddhist, for example – recognize a distinction between true and misleading visions. I don’t have the necessary discernment to criticize Aurobindo’s visions as visions; but I recognize – as Aurobindo himself did – that inner visions and experiences are open to different interpretations.

What about the assertion that Aurobindo was an avatar? I can’t say that the question interests me very much. Aurobindo never claimed the distinction for himself, and I don’t think anyone alive is in a position to say one way or the other. The Aurobindo that interests me is the one who turned from a life of hectic action to a life of contemplation, but was able, during his forty-year retirement, to write a shelf full of books on philosophy, political theory, and textual criticism, along with thousands of letters and, yes, that epic in iambic pentameter. People will continue to differ about the significance of his work, but its very mass is there for all to see. His life as a yogi and spiritual leader is more difficult to quantify, but it certainly will not be forgotten soon. I tried to do justice to all sides of this versatile man, but to do so I had to be unconventional in more ways than one.

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