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Zinkin, Taya

Heehs, P. Sri Aurobindo: A Brief Biography

Book Review

Zinkin, Taya. Book Review -- Heehs, P. Sri Aurobindo: A Brief Biography. O.U.P., 1990. Pp. 172. Bibliog. Index. 4.95. Pb. // Asian Affairs. v22 n1, Feb 1991. Page: 90. Length: 2 page(s). Number: 9604010346. Publisher: Royal Society for Asian Affairs. - ISSN: 0306-8374


Peter Heehs is an archivist at the Aurobindo Ashram in Auroville. Presumably a devotee of that charismatic but debatable guru, he writes well and has avoided producing a hagiography. His book, a preliminary to an extensive study of Sri Aurobindo, is in two parts, the guru's formative years, and his teachings.

The book makes fascinating reading because of the light it casts not just on Sri Aurobindo but upon a generation of Bengalis who were more British than the King. His father, a doctor, was so enamoured of everything British that he did not allow his children to have anything to do with things Indian. English was spoken at home; his wife, who went mad - a family illness - when Aurobindo was five wore dresses and went riding. His three sons were sent to England at a very young age in the care of a Congregational minister in Manchester with the caveat that they should not meet any Indians or be influenced by anything Indian. The idea was to prepare the boys for the Indian Civil Service. Aurobindo eventually won a scholarship, to St Paul's, a school which in those days concentrated exclusively on the Arts. This suited Aurobindo well; a brilliant scholar, he was already a master of Greek, Latin and French, and while at school he taught himself German, Italian and Spanish to read their classics. Aurobindo then won an open scholarship to King's College, Cambridge. By that time he and his brothers had been starving in London because their father kept forgetting to send them money. Disillusioned with the British, the latter was beginning to sink into the alcoholism which killed him at 48.

While in Cambridge Aurobindo became so disenchanted with the kind of people who were, like himself, preparing for the I.C.S. that he decided, against his father's wishes, not to serve the Raj. He sat the examination, and passed despite the fact that he had not taken the preparatory work seriously, but he deliberately failed the compulsory riding test. Fortunately, since his father had by then spent all the family money, he was offered a post in Baroda by the Maharajah who boasted that he had got an I.C.S. officer on the cheap. It was during his preparation for the I.C.S. that Aurobindo came into contact with things Indian, and decided that he would do all he could to free India from British domination.

In Baroda he taught at the Government College. Most revealing of the way his mind worked are the four objectives he laid down for teachers: 1) not to teach the student but help him teach himself. 2) to be concerned with what the student understands, not what he remembers. 3) to find a way of interesting the student in subjects under study. 4) to create a proper environment for learning.

From Baroda Aurobindo moved to Calcutta and dived into extremist politics, eventually organising political murders. Two innocent women, a child and their servant were killed by a bomb intended for an I.C.S. officer. Later while under arrest, he had an accomplice whose testimony would have implicated him killed. Aurobindo, who had already begun on his study of the Vedas and his experiments with yoga, was not troubled by such mundane matters as conscience because of his belief that the end justifies the means. Thanks to the murder of the informer, Aurobindo was eventually acquitted for lack of evidence.

So much for the politician. Having fled from British justice to Pondicherry, Aurobindo met Mme Richard - the Mother - and soon became a recluse. He spent twenty-four years locked in three rooms, accessible to his devotees only through the Mother. During that time his philosophical outpourings were gargantuan; whether they are profound is debatable. However, what is remarkable is that during the time in spent in seclusion, emerging only a few times a year for brief blessings of his devotees, he kept walking back and forth for ten hours every day, wearing a channel two feet deep in the floor of his three rooms.

The author, who devotes the last part of his book to the philosophy and the writings of Sri Aurobindo, is more than discreet about the part played by the Mother and presents a picture of Ashram austerity and saintliness which is at variance with this reviewer's memory of the facts.