Who is an avatar? Literary, it means descent in Sanskrit, the roots of the word are ava meaning ‘down’ and tri meaning ‘to pass.’ The avatar is the embodiment of the Supreme Lord in a human form; in other words, he is an incarnation of the Divine. Sri Aurobindo writes about the avatar: “It is a coming down of the Divine below the line which divides the divine from the human world or status.” Elsewhere he adds: “The Divine puts on an appearance of humanity, assumes the outward human nature in order to tread the path and show it to human beings, but does not cease to be the Divine.” And he continues: “An Avatar or Vibhuti have the knowledge that is necessary for their work, they need not have more…An Avatar even does not manifest all the Divine omniscience and omnipotence; he has not come for any such unnecessary display.”
An avatar comes to fulfill a particular and special mission on earth. And this is evident if we study the roles played by the avatars—from the Fish to the Buddha—who had descended on earth. However, if we study the roles played by the ten avatars, we would observe a unique evolution of which Sri Aurobindo writes: “The Hindu procession of the ten Avatars is itself, as it were, a parable of evolution, the progression is striking and unmistakable.” The tortoise, that followed the fish, represented the amphibian, the boar represented the mammal, the Narasimha or the Man-Lion represented the ‘transitional being’ between the hominid and the animal, the dwarf represented the actual hominid, Parashurama represented the homo habilis, Rama represented the mental being followed by Krishna who represented the Overmental being, the Buddha represented the Absolute. Regarding Kalki, Sri Aurobindo has written: “…too much importance need not be attached to the details about Kalki, they are rather symbolic than an attempt to prophesy details of the future.” Sri Aurobindo too, on his part, had come to continue this process of evolution, that is, from man human to man divine. The part of this evolution was unknown and it was Sri Aurobindo who, with the Mother, became the path-finder. The work of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother was to take evolution a stupendous leap forward, to transform mankind and activate the supramental power and manifest it in the earth-substance. In Savitri, Sri Aurobindo writes about his mission:
Into the abysmal secrecy he came
Where darkness peers from her mattress, grey and nude,
And stood on the last locked subconscient’s floor,
Where Being slept unconscious of its thoughts
And built the world not knowing what it built.
There waiting its hour the future lay unknown,
There is the record of the vanished stars.
There in the slumber of the cosmic Will
He saw the secret key of Nature’s change.
However, Peter Heehs in his new book on Sri Aurobindo titled The Lives of Sri Aurobindo has dared to denounce Sri Aurobindo as an avatar despite being an inmate of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram for the past thirty-seven years. He went to the extent of saying (p. 380): “Disciples took it for granted that he was an avatar, or incarnation of God. He never made any such claim on his own behalf; on the other hand, he never dissuaded anyone from regarding him in this way.” He wrote his book on Sri Aurobindo based on new materials and records that were “stored in gunny sacks covered with bat droppings, heaped up in an unused attic.” His book, according to him, is unique because all the books written on Sri Aurobindo till date “were based his reminiscences, supplemented by an assortment of secondary sources.” And in a blog posted at Columbia University Press, he has declared:
“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…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.” And he adds: “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.”
Thus, in a few words, Peter Heehs has described how he has portrayed Sri Aurobindo in his The Lives of Sri Aurobindo. He has taken into consideration the views of some of the ‘students of religion’ who does not consider Sri Aurobindo to be an avatar. And what about those students and believers who consider Sri Aurobindo an avatar? Has he considered them? First of all, the concept of a series of avatars does not exist in Christianity where only Jesus Christ is recognized and regarded as the ‘Saviour’ and ‘Son of God.’ Similarly, in Islam Prophet Muhammad is hailed as the incarnation of the Divine. It is only the Hindu tradition that speaks of the ten avatars. However, according to Rishi Vyasa, the author of Mahabharata, there would be twenty-four avatars. The descent of the Divine in human form is made to carry out a special mission for a special purpose; just as Sri Aurobindo had come to take evolution a step further. Along with the avatar his workers come to execute his work. Nolini Kanta Gupta writes about the avatar and his associates:
“When the Avatar comes down, we know, there comes down with Him a whole host of His comrades and followers. They form a unit, a nucleus, of the new creation that the Avatar initiates…It is said that the Avatar descends with His family repeatedly age after age pushing forward the Earth’s march towards its divine goal.”
This statement explains the meaning of the following words of the Mother: “We have all met in previous lives…and have worked through ages for the victory of the Divine.”
Peter Heehs says that Sri Aurobindo never claimed himself as an avatar—it was his disciples and followers who had taken for granted that he was an avatar. Did Parashurama declare that he was an avatar? Did Rama declare that he was an avatar? Krishna revealed himself only when he made Arjuna have the Viswarup Darshan. Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa revealed his true being some time before his mahasamadhi when he said that He who had been Rama and Krishna was now Ramakrishna. Just because Sri Aurobindo never made any such declarations denote that he was not an avatar! What an assumption!
Sri Aurobindo and the Mother hardly declared anything about them openly. Whatever details we know about their inner lives are obtained mainly from their personal writings, correspondence and intimate talks which they had with some of their disciples. It is true that Sri Aurobindo never made any declaration of his being an avatar directly but if one reads his writings, one can easily identify him as an avatar. The following passages from his letters to his disciples would reveal the essence of his avatarhood:
1. “As for the Mother and myself, we have had to try all ways, follow all methods, to surmount mountains of difficulties, a far heavier burden to bear than you or anybody else in the Ashram or outside, far more difficult conditions, battles to fight, wounds to endure, ways to cleave through impenetrable morass and desert and forest, hostile masses to conquer—a work such as, I am certain, none else had to do before us. For the Leader of the Way in a work like ours has not only to bring down and represent and embody the Divine, but to represent too the ascending element in humanity and to bear the burden of humanity to the full and experience, not in a mere play or Lila but in grim earnest, all the obstruction, difficulty, opposition, baffled and hampered and only slowly victorious labour which are possible on the path.”
2. “I have borne every attack which human beings have borne, otherwise I would be unable to assure anybody: ‘This too can be conquered.’ At least I would have no right to say so…The Divine, when he takes on the burden of terrestrial nature, takes it fully, sincerely and without any conjuring tricks or pretence. If he has something behind him which emerges always out of the coverings, it is the same thing in essence even if greater in degree, that there is behind others—and it is to awaken that that he is there.”
3. “As for faith, you write as if I never had a doubt or any difficulty. I have had worse than any human mind can think of. It is not because I have ignored difficulties, but because I have seen them more clearly, experienced them on a larger scale than anyone living now or before me that, having faced and measured them, I am sure of the results of my work. But even if I still saw the chance that it might come to nothing (which is impossible), I would go on unperturbed, because I would still have done to the best of my power the work that I have to do, and what is so done always counts in the economy of the universe.”
And in his book On the Mother, Sri Aurobindo writes: “The Divine puts on an appearance of humanity, assumes the outward nature in order to tread the path and show it to human beings, but does not cease to be the Divine. It is a manifestation that takes place, a manifestation of a growing divine consciousness, not human turning into divine.”
And again: “It is not for personal greatness that I am seeking to bring down the Supermind. I care nothing for greatness or littleness in the human sense…If human reason regards me as a fool for trying to do what Krishna did not try, I do not in the least care…It is a question between the Divine and myself—whether it is the Divine Will or not, whether I am sent to bring that down or open the way for its descent or at least make it more possible or not. Let all men jeer at me if they will or all Hell fall upon me if it will for my presumption,—I go on till I conquer or perish.”
Not only was Sri Aurobindo an avatar but a modern avatar or a scientific avatar as well. While moving in the ‘virgin forest’ to find the ‘path’, he experimented day and night to seek the destination he was aspiring. To quote his own words:
“I think I can say that I have been testing day and night for years upon years more scrupulously than any scientist his theory or his method on the physical plane. That is why I am not alarmed by the aspect of the world around me or disconcerted by the often successful fury of the adverse Forces who increase in their rage as the Light comes nearer and nearer to the field of earth and Matter.”
Because: “To form no conclusions which are not justified by observation and reasoning, to doubt everything until it is proved but to deny nothing until it is disproved, to be always ready to reconsider old conclusions in the light of new facts, to give a candid consideration to every new idea or old idea revived if it deserves a hearing, no matter how contradictory it may be of previously ascertained experience or previously formed conclusion, is the sceptical temper, the temper of the inquirer, the true scientist, the untrammelled thinker.”
When Sri Aurobindo was asked by a disciple what he and the Mother were doing in their previous births while it was only in this life that they had shown their divinity, Sri Aurobindo had replied: “Carrying on the evolution.” When asked to elaborate, he wrote back: “That would mean writing the whole of human history. I can only say that as there are special descents to carry on evolution to a farther stage, so also something of the Divine is always there to help through each stage itself in one direction or another.” When he was asked that since the Mother and he were on earth continuously from the beginning, what was the need for the avatars to descend on earth ‘one after another’, Sri Aurobindo answered: “We were not on earth as Avatars.”
About the avatar, Sri Aurobindo has written: “The Avatar is one who comes to open the Way for humanity to a higher consciousness.” And here are some more words from a letter he had penned to his disciple: ‘I have said, “Follow my path, the way I have discovered for you through my own efforts and example. Transform your nature from the animal to the spiritual, grow into a higher divine consciousness. All this you can do by your own aspiration aided by the force of the Divine Shakti.” That, if you please, is not the utterance of a madman or an imbecile. I have said, “I have opened the way; now you with the Divine help can follow it.” And in this very letter, he speaks about “the Path I have opened, as Christ, Krishna, Buddha, Chaitanya, etc. opened theirs.”
Thus, Sri Aurobindo has explained how he and the Mother had taken up human bodies to carry on the work of evolution. The Mother and Sri Aurobindo were not different—they had the same consciousness (that’s why they are called the ‘dual avatars’), their path, tasks and even sufferings were identical. The only difference was that Sri Aurobindo hardly spoke about how much he had to suffer while finding the path whereas the Mother revealed her sufferings in her conversations with Satprem recorded in the Agenda. He called himself ‘a path-finder hewing his way through a virgin forest’; likewise the Mother too had said: “I am really hewing a road in a virgin-forest. What is the road? Is there a road? Is there a procedure? Probably not.”
Every avatar had to struggle and fight against several odds; Sri Aurobindo too had to struggle about which he writes in his autobiographical poem A God’s Labour:
I had hoped to build a rainbow bridge
Marrying the soil to the sky
And sow in this dancing planet midge
The moods of infinity…
He who would bring the heavens here
Must descend himself into clay
And the burden of earthly nature bear
And tread the dolorous way…
I have been digging deep and long
Mid a horror of filth and mire
A bed for the golden river’s song,
A home for the deathless fire…
My gaping wounds are a thousand and one
And the Titan kings assail,
But I cannot rest till my task is done
And wrought the eternal will…
A voice cried, “Go where none have gone!
Dig deeper, deeper yet
Till thou reach the grim foundation stone
And knock at the keyless gate.”
I saw that a falsehood was planted deep
At the very root of things
Where the grey Sphinx guards God’s riddle sleep
On the Dragon’s outspread wings.
I left the surface gods of mind
And life’s unsatisfied seas
And plunged through the body’s alleys blind
To the nether mysteries.
I have delved through the dumb Earth’s dreadful heart
And heard her black mass’ bell.
I have seen the source whence her agonies part
And the inner reason of hell.
Did Peter Heehs not come across these writings? Or was he impudent enough to ignore the inner messages and meanings of these declarations?
The Mother too, in several messages of hers, has declared and described the avataric yoga of Sri Aurobindo. Some of them are as follows:
1. “What Sri Aurobindo represents in the world’s history is not a teaching, not even a revelation; it is a decisive action direct from the Supreme.”
2. “Sri Aurobindo came upon earth to announce the manifestation of the supramental world. Not only did he announce this manifestation, but he also partially incarnated the supramental force and gave us the example of what we must do to prepare ourselves for this manifestation. The best way for us is to study everything he told us, strive to follow his example and prepare ourselves for the new manifestation. This gives life its true meaning and will help us to overcome all obstacles.
Let us live for the new creation and we will become stronger and stronger, while remaining young and progressive.”
3. “Sri Aurobindo has come on Earth not to bring a teaching or a creed in competition with previous creeds or teachings, but to show the way to overpass the past and to open concretely the route towards an imminent and inevitable future.”
4. “Sri Aurobindo has given up his body in an act of supreme unselfishness, renouncing the realization in his own body to hasten the hour of the collective realization.”
5. “Sri Aurobindo has come to announce to the world the beauty of the future that will be realised. He has come to bring not a hope but the certainty of the splendour towards which the world is moving. The world is not an unfortunate accident: it is a miracle moving towards its expression.”
But Peter Heehs did not bother to accept the statements issued by the Mother nor Sri Aurobindo’s own indirect statements declaring his avatarhood. On the contrary, he preferred to listen to the ‘students of religion’ who were reluctant to accept Sri Aurobindo as an avatar. In a way, he has dared to defy the Mother and Sri Aurobindo! By the way, did anyone ask him how many ‘students of religion’ has refused to accept Sri Aurobindo as an avatar? We would love to know the answer.
Peter Heehs, in his book, has called the Mother Sri Aurobindo’s ‘partner.’ Was the Mother only a partner of Sri Aurobindo? Time and again Sri Aurobindo ahs written about the Mother:
1. “The Mother is not a disciple of Sri Aurobindo. She has had the same realization and experience as myself.”
2. “The Mother’s consciousness and mine are the same, the one Divine Consciousness in two, because that is necessary for the play.”
3. “There is no difference between the Mother’s path and mine, we have and have always had the same path, the path that leads to the supramental change and the divine realization; not only at the end, but from the beginning they have been the same.”
4. “What is known as Sri Aurobindo’s Yoga is the joint creation of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.”
5. “When I came to Pondicherry a programme was dictated to me from within for my Sadhana. I followed it and progressed for myself but could not do much by the way of helping others. Then came the Mother and with her help I found the necessary method.”
6. “All creation and transformation is the work of the Mother.”
As mentioned earlier, Sri Aurobindo and the Mother were dual avatars; they had the same consciousness and realization despite being in different bodies. The Mother too had declared she “has descended upon earth to participate in nature [of her children]. Because if she did not participate in their nature, she could not lead them farther. If she remained in her supreme consciousness where there is no suffering, in her supreme knowledge and consciousness, she could not have any contact with human beings. It is for this that is obliged to take on the human consciousness and form: to be able to enter into contact with them.” Therefore, the word ‘partner’ is a cheap word to describe what the Mother was to Sri Aurobindo and his Yoga.
Peter Heehs calls himself a sadhak of the Integral Yoga. What kind of a sadhak is he who refuses to accept the writings of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo? Swami Vivekananda has said in his Inspired Talks: “Worship your Guru, but do not obey him blindly; love him heart and soul but think for yourself. No blind belief can save you.” As a historian and critic, Peter Heehs is most welcome to follow his observations and hence, come to his own conclusion but before doing so, he has to think twice or thrice about the credibility of his own judgment. He has portrayed Sri Aurobindo as a mortal whereas the Mother has said repeatedly that nothing was mortal about Sri Aurobindo. Is it at all possible to write about Sri Aurobindo and the Mother’s inner lives? No, never. It is improper to mentalize supramental realizations.
Sri Aurobindo never wished to have his biography written. To one of his early biographers, he had written: “I see you have persisted in giving a biography—is it really necessary or useful? The attempt is bound to be a failure, because neither you nor anyone else knows anything at all of my life; it has not been on the surface from men to see.” The Mother too saw to it that no one represented Sri Aurobindo’s life in a way which was far from reality. That’s why she guided Satprem in every step while he was penning his masterpiece on Sri Aurobindo (Sri Aurobindo or The Adventure of Consciousness) and that explains why the book was such a success. On another occasion, when it was suggested to complete Rishabhchand’s Sri Aurobindo: His Life Unique (the book ends at Sri Aurobindo’s coming to Pondicherry), the Mother strongly objected and said:
“That’s enough. There’s no need to add anything, just a note—a sentence or two will do. There’s nothing to say about his life here…Basically no one really knows the life he led here. I am afraid they’ll write a lot of nonsense. I would prefer that nothing be said—they can say he retired to Pondicherry to lead the life of Yoga and henceforth only that mattered, and it’s better not to speak of it. That’s all…We have everything he wrote, and it’s much better than anything we can say about it.”
Despite being associated with the Sri Aurobindo Ashram for such a long period, Peter Heehs has failed to trace any divinity in Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. And yet he calls himself a practitioner of the Integral Yoga! What a joke!
Those who have a sympathetic attitude towards Peter Heehs and the controversy created by him have written:
“Anybody who is acquainted with the dynamics of the publishing industry a bit is aware of how authors are gradually drawn into the vortex of a gigantic greed machine, and consequently, they cease to be independent and impartial. What the author writes is actually “commissioned” in advance and he becomes a pawn in this promotional strategies. Thus, one can understand the plight of Peter Heehs, for without succumbing to these he cannot publish otherwise.
The other aspect is in the course of a person’s life a phase may come where his faith is depleted and rationality rules the roost. But such lean periods pass away with time, and everything is forgotten. May be Peter Heehs is passing through such a phase because of the predominantly empirical nature of his daily work. Besides, the continued stress of witnessing the Ashram metamorphosing into a variant of Hindu religion might have taken its toll.” (12.9.2008)
“Writing an irreverent book is not a crime, and therefore, punishing someone for this sole reason is patently illogical. As an author and researcher, Heehs deserves our respect, support, and goodwill and in that we should not be wanting at this crucial juncture.” (19.9.2008)
I would like to request them to read the following excerpts from an interview of Peter Heehs that had appeared in Auroville Today in August 2008:
“I believe what is significant about this new book is not the presence or absence of new facts—though there are plenty of them there—but rather the overall picture that emerges. I believe that the Sri Aurobindo that emerges from the new biography is much more lifelike, more unpredictable, more complex, than the Sri Aurobindo of earlier biographical writing, including my own…
When I began writing this book, I had to decide who I was addressing. Among people interested in Sri Aurobindo there are, first, the devotees. But there are also many people in the academic world who are interested in Sri Aurobindo not as a spiritual figure or object of devotion but because of his writings or because he was a revolutionary.
Both readerships have legitimate needs that have to be taken into consideration by a biographer. But both have limitations: there are topics they consider inappropriate, materials they don’t want to hear about, preoccupations that they consider unquestionable verities.
For various reasons, I gave a certain priority to the academic approach. As a contributor to historical journals, I have developed an admiration for the scrupulousness and rigour of academic discourse. I feel comfortable with this approach, and feel uncomfortable with the loose, ‘devotionalistic’ or ‘New Age’ sort of expression that is popular among many people who write about spiritual figures.”
This particular interview proves that neither did Peter Heehs succumb to the pressure of the publishing industry nor did his faith get depleted. Whatever he wrote in his book and whatever he said in his interview was done in the full presence of his mind and senses. And therefore he should not be pardoned or excused. Because if one Peter Heehs is pardoned today, a thousand Peter Heehs would rise in future and dare to repeat this crime.
And history tends to repeat itself.
Born on 13 October 1984, Anurag Banerjee is an essayist, biographer, poet and researcher. His first book, Nirodbaran: The Surrealist’s Journey was published in December 2006. He wrote the biography of Dilip Kumar Roy at the age of twenty in 2005 and translated 100 poems of Sri Aurobindo into Bengali at the age of twenty-one in 2006. His published works include Nirodbaran: The Surrealist’s Journey (2006), Achinpather Dibyapathik (2008), and Debotar Shrom (2008). Anurag Banerjee
- Amal Kiran on the Mind of Light
- André Morisset
- Aspects of Amal Kiran
- Attaining immortality
- Datta (Dorothy Mary Hodgson)
- Dilip Kumar Roy
- Dr. Govindo Gopal Mukhopadhyay
- Krishna Chakravarti
- Nirmal Singh Nahar on Satprem and Sujata
- Prithwi Singh Nahar
- Rijuta (Patricia Noonan)
- Sri Aurobindo’s Birth Place
- Suresh Chandra Chakravorty (Moni)