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Facts and Values Apropos of The Lives of Sri Aurobindo

by on June 16, 2012

Looking at the Lives’ remark that Savitri is a “fictional creation”, we must say that it actually becomes a question of facts and values in poetry. One may scour for facts in government attics and warehouses. One may scrape inside the gunnysacks lying in old official godowns for worn-out bits and pieces of papers such as marriage certificates or examination mark sheets or administrator memos or property registrations; one may even look into personal diaries and private letters written to friends and relatives; then one may also at times try to read a text in between the lines. One may well justify all this by saying that “there are no little events in life, those we think of no consequence may be full of fate, and it is at our own risk if we neglect the acquaintances and opportunities that seem to be casually offered, and of small importance.” However, none of the facts would add to much if the values are not recognized, which is also true for a chemical compound. An example of values vis-à-vis facts can be seen in the speech on National Education Sri Aurobindo gave in Bombay on 15 January 1908. While speaking about the teaching of history in schools he said,

… it cannot just be when and how a certain king was crowned and how long he ruled over his kingdom, or when was the Battle of Plassey fought. Such are not the aspects on which we lay emphasis. In what manner in ancient days did the Aryans form the nation, or how today’s Marathas became Marathas, or the Bengalis became Bengalis, or the Punjabis became Punjabis,—such are the things we teach in history. In the process it will not matter much if a student fails to tell when was the Battle of Plassey fought.

Contrast this with the Publishers’ Note on the blurb of The Lives of Sri Aurobindo: “Heehs’s biography is a sensitive, honest portrait of a life that also provides surprising insights into twentieth-century Indian history.” Nothing can be far from truth than this. The biography is neither “sensitive” nor “honest”. It picks up facts that suit the intentions of the author; what it gives by the right hand it takes away with a dozen left hands. All this is written on every page of it, including the Preface. Commenting on a photograph of Sri Aurobindo he had seen for the first time, he says: “I was struck by the peaceful expanse of his brow, his trouble-free face, and fathomless eyes. It would be years before I learned that all of these features owed their distinctiveness to the retoucher’s art.” All that is presented of Sri Aurobindo is therefore a sham, made-up except his account of him, his own biography! Notice the sleight of hand again, in this: “Aurobindo’s view of life seemed to me to be coherent, though not always easy to grasp. His prose was good, if rather old fashioned, and he had a wry sense of humor that came out when you least expected it.” To know this legerdemain is to know the double counting. We do not know to which parts of Sri Aurobindo’s prose writings the author is referring to while talking of the “wry sense of humor” in them. Is he referring to his grandest The Life Divine with its “organ music”, or The Essays on the Gita, or The Synthesis of Yoga? When making such a swift and damaging comment, almost in a slapdash-careless way, without any obligation for the author to give at least a couple of examples, one begins to wonder why he should be taken seriously at all. He should have given some examples of the “wry sense of humor” but these are absent. In fact one also starts wondering at the wisdom of the Publishers too, about their statement that “Heehs’s biography is a sensitive, honest portrait”. If only it were so!

Let us take an example. Speaking about heredity, Sri Aurobindo writes to Nirodbaran:

It is true that we bring most of ourselves from past lives. Heredity only affects the external being and all the effects of heredity are not accepted, only those that are in consonance with what we are to be or not preventive of it at least. I may be the son of my father or mother in certain respects, but most of me is as foreign to them as if I had been born in New York or Paraguay.

3 June 1935

Note the naturalness and amazing spontaneity in his use of the Fifth Commandment in the last sentence: “Honour your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.” (Exodus 20:12) Our author, of The Lives of Sri Aurobindo, opens his biography with the following:

I may be son of my father or mother in certain respects, but most of me is as foreign to them as if I had been born in New York or Paraguay.

And here is the twist given by him—yet he inherited traces of madness from his mother! With clever innocence, if we may say so, the author writes: “… madness in Aurobindo’s family might express itself in him as an intensity that exceeded the norm.” This is a big commentary on the life of Sri Aurobindo, but neither reasoned out nor founded on scientific facts. And is it this kind of a thing the biographer would have liked to look for in Savitri although he calls it a “fictional creation”?

But let us read what Sri Aurobindo himself has said about his life: “First of all what matters in a spiritual man’s life is not what he did or what he was outside to the view of the men of his time (that is what historicity or biography comes to, does it not?) but what he was and did within; it is only that that gives any value to his outer life at all. It is the inner life that gives to the outer any power it may have, and the inner life of a spiritual man is something vast and full and, at least in the great figures, so crowded and teeming with significant things that no biographer or historian could ever hope to seize it all or tell it. (9 February 1936)

And then: “This idea of a ‘Life’ going into details and personalities is itself an error. I wrote the brief life given to Dilip as containing all that I wanted to be said about me for the present. The general public can know about my philosophy and Yoga and general character of my work, it has no claim to know anything about the personal side of my life or of that of the Ashram either.” (30 October 1935 )

If an author still persists in scouring facts about the personal life of Sri Aurobindo then he is simply disregarding Sri Aurobindo himself. He might live for forty years in his Ashram and yet remain forty or forty thousand miles away from his spirituality. But that is a concern between his soul and the Master-Yogi. However, “what matters in a spiritual man’s life is not what he did or what he was outside to the view of the men of his time (that is what historicity or biography comes to, does it not?) but what he was and did within.” Who can say anything about what he did within? Even if he is to record his experiences these will be so personal to him that it will be impossible for anyone else to read them unless one enters into them. If we have the luminosity of spiritual faith then there is a possibility of getting an intuitive glimpse of it, in this case from what the Mother has disclosed to us about Sri Aurobindo. If we have the simple brightness of receiving the Word of Truth, then the whole of Savitri is there to get a feeling of the Poet’s inner life, “what he was and did within”.

The difficulty not to see these deeper-brighter verities of the inner and higher life is the typical problem of the modern mind, entrenched with its analytical exclusiveness, caught in the paraphernalia of the Mind and its tools, the senses, of without realizing the fact that there are other superior faculties also, faculties of cognition going all the way up to comprehending the objective reality by projecting something of us on it, what the Upanishad calls with the Eye behind the eyes and the Ear behind the ears, the Sense behind the senses, samjnāna. Facts belong to Mind, Values to Samjnāna.

The Wikipedia says about fact-value as follows: “The fact-value distinction is a concept used to distinguish between arguments that can be claimed through reason alone and those in which rationality is limited to describing a collective opinion. In another formulation, it is the distinction between what is (can be discovered by science, philosophy or reason) and what ought to be (a judgment which can be agreed upon by consensus). The terms positive and normative represent another manner of expressing this, as do the terms descriptive and prescriptive, respectively. Positive statements make the implicit claim to facts (water molecules are made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom), whereas normative statements make a claim to values or to norms (water ought to be protected from environmental pollution).”

This is the contribution of Enlightenment, but this was contextual Enlightenment in the sense that arose as an answer to obscurantist Religion, that had lost contact with the inner Spirit, that which succumbed to the forces of unregenerate vital, that Religion had become a political instrument for Power. A distinction must be made between this Enlightenment and the realized Enlightenment of a spiritual individual, that of a Yogi. In it he sees not only the positive but also the normative, what is and what ought to be. David Hume is clear about “is–ought problem” that “it is not obvious how we can get from making descriptive statements to prescriptive”.

If one lives with Hume’s Law, accepts Hume’s Guillotine, one only remains in the world of enlightened Reason which unfortunately banishes Nature from the world of man; Reason of course had a purpose to serve at the time, to counter Faith the Obfuscator, even the Degrader. But Reason is the helper, and Reason is also the bar—as we have in one of Sri Aurobindo aphorisms. This Reason is that which lends “illusive sense” to superior things, illusive because it itself is bound by senses; sense perception is not always infallible, it depends upon how we are preconditioned; generally we see an object but we don’t see what the object by itself is, in its own right, with its characteristic qualities, its swabhāva. Above the reason’s brilliant slender curve there are broad spaces of vision calling the seeker to infinite discovery. The fact is “our reason cannot sound life’s mighty sea.” Reason, the “squat godhead artisan”, comes armed with lens and measuring-rod and probe, and looks upon an object universe trying to see what could be made of these strange things. Finally all that happens is, Reason strives but only to reduce to rules the mystic world, in measures and analyses, knowing nothing that was hoped to know. Savitri summarises it as follows:

…not by Reason was creation made
And not by Reason can the Truth be seen.

One could almost say that, by following a rationalist ‘enlightenment’ one simply lands oneself into another weird obscurantism, the Obscurantism of the Rationalist which is practically the same as the Obscurantism of the mediaeval Religionist. Zealous insistence by either eventually turns out to be hardened fundamentalism, of one brand or the other, leaving not much to choose this or that, both dark in their thick colours. One could then with equal disdain ignore the hollow noises made often by the swift-tongued intellectuals, essentially of the leftist variety.

Thomas Paine accepting reason in place of revelation was a historical necessity, but history has to move forward also. Institutionalised religion can never have the legitimacy of faith which is actually too personal to be seen in a crowd or collective even if it were open-hearted. Reason as a part of rational society had the relevance of the time when the western world was divided by religious and national hostilities. These hostilities did not have their origin in nature, but were a product of perhaps desirable temporal and geographical factors.

While to debunk “the idea of nature as a standard for political existence” is perfectly acceptable, there has to be revision of our formulations and opinions about the laws of nature itself; beyond the material and efficient causes are intrinsically present the formal and final causes. These might be indiscernible to our sense of immediate or conventional observations, but that indiscernibility does not mean their non-existence.

This then easily goes beyond the trans-Baconian formulation even as interpretational element starts becoming the underlying feature of modern science. If we are to rush to a conclusion we can say that facts have a value, but their value is set in in values. Nietzsche has a point when he says that a table of values hangs above every greatness. It lies in the act of valuing. “The idea that one value-system is no more worthy than the next, although it may not be directly ascribed to Nietzsche, has become a common premise in modern social science.”

The upshot of this entire discussion is simple: to dismiss the specious argument that The Lives of Sri Aurobindo is based on facts, facts gathered from various sources over a period of time, even scraping the containers where the official records are kept. Of course it will be ridiculous to look for these in a creative work such as Savitri, a notion wrongly harboured by the biographer. In the process, he has further exposed himself by calling Savitri a fictional creation. This collection of facts may be a laudable piece of work, but perhaps has absolutely no relevance with the life of a spiritual person, here Sri Aurobindo the Yogi. But even in the world of facts there are issues. Selection of facts from reams of papers is never a straightforward process and subjective decisions are never uncommon. So, the situation is like this: the author himself dismisses the aspects of values which is tantamount to dismissing them from his life; presentation of facts gets tailored to suit the biases of the writer making these again false and fake, counterfeit if one looks at them with sufficient care. We feel extremely sorry that such a book on Sri Aurobindo should have come out with the official permission from the Ashram authorities for the use of the copyright material. This must be revoked.

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