If you choose to write a biography of a man when certain of his followers (and, more broadly, certain cultural forces) would prefer a hagiography, you are going to encounter difficulty with the book's reception. People will question your credentials, your motivations. They will argue with your facts - usually by simply denying them rather than showing up your errors. They will accuse you of disrespect or worse. They will vilify and vituperate forgetting most of the values impressed upon them by the very person they purport to defend.
All this, and more, has greeted Peter Heehs' biography of the Indian sage, Sri Aurobindo. No doubt this intemperance is raised to its heights by the fact that Heehs is an 'insider', has been (or still is) a member of the Aurobindo ashram and has helped collate and develop its archives.
Knowing this before reading the book (and admiring Aurobindo myself), I prepare for the worst - for the insensitive, scurrilous and reductionist account but it never came.
In its place is a model of scrupulous and intelligent biography. It is a biography that never wants to go beyond what is feasibly demonstrable. This means it must necessarily suspend judgement about a number of the claims made for Aurobindo with regard to his (and the Mother's life) and its impact on the world. This conservatism is grounded not only in the empirical biographer's art but also in Aurobindo's own reservation about courting 'credulity or incredulity' about spiritual conditions that can only be justified by their being experienced, not discussed.
This by no means devalues the text. Heehs gives a rounded account of an extraordinary man who had multiple lives - as an administrator and teacher in a princely state, as a campaigner, journalist and politician; and, as a spiritual philosopher/poet and practitioner of a 'new' yoga that aimed (and aims) at transforming the world. These lives were both separate and yet run into one another - no former life being wholly abandoned in the new; not least, because Aurobindo's yoga is aimed an integration of the spiritual and the material. The path of ascetic separation (or of imagining the world as simply 'maya', an illusion) was to be superseded with a new emphasis on the spiritual consciousness seeking to leaven every activity towards a deeper wholeness while respecting the unique particularity of every given thing. Aurobindo was the first Indian thinker to think of the progress of consciousness (and the world) in evolutionary terms (with deep resonances, however different the context, with his contemporary, the Jesuit Priest, Teilhard de Chardin). At every step Heehs' descriptions of Aurobindo's complex thought is admirably clear and compelling.
Most remarkable too in the text is Heehs' use of Aurobindo's own spiritual diary that, almost telegramaticaly, records his own 'sadhana' or spiritual development as it moves through different levels of consciousness, stages of development, successes and retrenchments. It is one of the most detailed (if fractured) accounts of a saint's development (my description) I have come across and shows that the holiness of the person does not always according with a completed wholeness. This may be another reason for the followers' distress - seeking a misplaced perfection - rather than a dynamic and evolving vulnerability and an accompanying (and resultant) compassion.
There are moments in the text when Heehs comes close to providing, unnecessarily I suspect, hostage to his detractors not least in a discussion on the relationship between mysticism and madness but only to dismiss such a relationship in Aurobindo's case.
Overall Peter Heehs has left us an accomplished testament of the man who first dared to popularise the notion of India's independence through to the seeker and sage whose works demand the close engagement of anyone looking for a genuinely contemporary and universal spirituality that honours the individual's experience and the world's needs (and that subverts dogmatism)!