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Phillips, Stephen

Book reviews

 Heehs, Peter. Sri Aurobindo: A Brief Biography

Phillips, Stephen. Book reviews -- Heehs, Peter. Sri Aurobindo: A Brief Biography. By. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1989. Pp. x + 172. / University of Texas, Austin // Citation: Philosophy East & West. v41 n4, Oct 1991. Page: 575. Length: 3 page(s). Number: 9609190119. Publisher: University of Hawaii Press.- ISSN: 0031-8221


Peter Heehs has directed the Sri Aurobindo Archives and Research Center in Pondicherry since its origination, editing the Center's journal from its first issue, April 1977. He also led the indexing project for the Centenary Edition (1973) of the collected works of Aurobindo. This short biography of the Indian nationalist, philosopher, and mystic is, then, as one might expect, well researched. It is also elegantly written and eminently readable. Heehs' India's Freedom Struggle (OUP, 1988) received a Government of India prize, and his publications include a book of poetry.

Heehs begins by providing sketches of Aurobindo's parents and grandparents, and details his education in England, his revolutionary activity in Bengal, and political writing, as well as his early years in Pondicherry, where he was both exile and recluse practicing yoga--in the book's first seven or eight chapters. Then, in a second part, Heehs attempts to reflect Aurobindo's own understanding of his yogic accomplishments. He also provides there context concerning Aurobindo's extensive writing during the latter half of his life, and summarizes the main themes of Aurobindo's principal works: the philosophy of The Life Divine, the discipline or yoga of The Synthesis of Yoga, the futuristic social and political thought of The Human Cycle and The Ideal of Human Unity, and the aesthetics and literary criticism of The Future Poetry. Then, in a separate chapter toward the end of the book, Heehs uses ideas of The Future Poetry and Aurobindo's letters to gloss, explain, and give context to Aurobindo's poetry. Aurobindo viewed poetry--and in particular his epic Savitri--as the most appropriate way to express his mystic life and spiritual experiences.

In a preface, Heehs quotes L. Gordon's characterization of previous Aurobindo biographies as "hagiographies," that is, as attempts to "read back the holy man into the earlier stages of his career" (p. ix), and distinguishes these from his own intention to steer clear of glorification. And indeed in Part One he succeeds in chronicling Aurobindo's history--especially the important political events in which Aurobindo was involved--without much speculation about the yogi-to-be's inner life. But Aurobindo's education in London and at Cambridge University and his work for a Maharaja and as a professor along with his role in the Bengal political upheaval reads at such a fast pace--the entire story is told in less than seventy pages--that little room is left for psychological interpretation, whether adulating, "reductionist," or whatever. And few are likely to notice the absence of it, the story is so intrinsically interesting for anyone who loves tales of the Indian nationalist movement or of life during the British Raj, whatever the interest in Aurobindo. Such is not the case with Part Two. The division in Heehs' book may reflect a natural break in Aurobindo's life--roughly, the years prior to his taking up residence in French-ruled Pondicherry and those after--but this prompts a radical change in Heehs' writing. In his Pondicherry years, Aurobindo presents his biographer with no such curious and exciting events to sustain a narrative as in the years before. So Heehs in Part Two inaugurates "biography" of a highly unusual sort. Part Two is an interpretive venture that is less successful than the chronicle of Part One.

Heehs does not do a bad job in identifying the dominant themes of Aurobindo's world view and mystic teaching. In fact, I know of no better summary of comparable brevity. But brevity seems just the problem. The entire discussion of the metaphysics in particular is far too cursory, a sketch so merely adumbrative that it could be understood in multiple ways. There is just not enough said to make much at all clear.

Heehs does a better, more adequate job, it seems, in presenting Aurobindo's account of his own yoga and mystic life, although here, too, he is too brief. His account begs for greater argument in support of his reading, for example. (It may seem unfair to criticize faults related to brevity since Heehs announces the brevity in his very title; however, the faults remain.) Also, Heehs relies too heavily on writings published posthumously (in the journal he edits). A rather cryptic, personal Record of Yoga Aurobindo kept during the years 1912 to 1920 is cited many times--and disproportionately, considering how numerous are Aurobindo's previously published letters (more than a thousand) and how extensive are his statements about himself that he had published during his lifetime. (On the other hand, this Record is interesting in its frank and notebook-like style, though one has to worry about the accuracy of the interpretation and context Heehs provides.) Near the beginning of Part Two, Heehs writes: "Together they [Aurobindo's own writings and accounts of his spiritual experiences] may constitute the richest documentation of the spiritual development of an advanced yogin that has ever been made available." Here in marked contrast to the overcondensed presentation of the metaphysics, Heehs' book has great strength, my small complaints notwithstanding, in distilling this documentation into as easily manageable and comprehensible story as could be imagined that Aurobindo himself would endorse. Students of world mysticism will find much of interest in these chapters.

But one must keep in mind that the approach is that of one who is, if not a disciple, highly sympathetic. Heehs identifies as best he can with Aurobindo's perspective. Highly disputable points of Aurobindo's mystic psychology, for example, are presumed, and there is no effort-or at least very little-to achieve critical distance or leverage. Heehs sometimes even sounds as though he is speaking himself as a yogi (for example, on p. 137). The overall effect is not, however, didactic. Heehs makes the assumptions that it seems to him natural to make, and I doubt that even those who are most unsympathetic to the face value of Aurobindo's claims will find Heehs' treatment offensive. This is an excellent introduction to Aurobindo as a nationalist, mystic, and religious figure, and its shortcomings in sections of its interpretive part do not much detract from its considerable merits.