As I am just finishing the reading of Peter Heehs’s The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, I find it hard to understand the negative reactions and controversies it has triggered. The book offers a balanced and nuanced (non-hagiographical) perspective on the life and work of Aurobindo. The most original aspect of the book is its treatment of Aurobindo’s role in the Indian struggle for independence. I always considered Neo-Hinduism as a by-product of British Colonialism, far inferior to what traditional Hinduism has ever produced. I also remained totally unmoved by a short visit ten years ago to Auroville. This book contributed to give me a much more positive image of Aurobindo and a better understanding of his importance in the intellectual history of modern India (a total enigma to me before reading this work).
The book raises a few important questions that nobody except Aurobindo’s most zealous devotees can afford to ignore: the authenticity of his spiritual experiences as he departs more and more from traditional Hinduism; the nature of the influence of the Mother onto him; finally the (classical) problems related to the development of an ashram around him. Peter Heehs confronts these questions without giving definitive answers. (I would add that in general, Peter Heehs always favors the most charitable explanations.)
My recent interest for Aurobindo is directly related to the research I am pursuing about Voegelin and Hinduism. By Voegelinian standards, Aurobindo (like Ibqal at the same period) was a kind of gnostic. His attempt at re-enchanting modernity amounts to a form of immanentisation of Hindu eschatology. Like the Tantra, Aurobindo rejects the doctrine of Mayavada (the characterization of a the world as an illusion). He went further however than the Tantra in teaching a form of “process theology” centered on a dynamic conception of the Absolute, influenced by modern evolutionism. The goal of Aurobindo’s sadhana was not individual Deliverance but a collective enlightenment unknown to traditional Hindu theology and the descent of the supramental consciousness onto earth. Aurobindo’s community is an interesting chapter in the history of modern utopias.
Aurobindo’s parousianism influenced Western adepts of the New Age but also played a key role in the development of the Hindu nationalist “political theology”. Originally a “blood and soil” ideology with no intellectual substance, Hindu Nationalism started to borrow from other sources (Gandhian socialism, eco-feminism but also Aurobindo’s mystical theology) by the late 1970s. (The process is well studied by Meera Nanda in her book Prophets Facing backward). If Aurobindo distorted the Hindu eschaton, the Hindu Nationalists equally distorted Aurobindo’s teaching. The distortion of a distortion was unfortunately not a return to the original.