Courtesy: "Enlighten Next" Magazine, Issue 47, 2011
Rajib Roy met American historian Peter Heehs during his visit to Shillong
WHILE GRADUATING in a college in Philadelphia, the idea of Vedanta and general spiritual thinking started making sense to American historian Peter Heehs. He was in Shillong for a seminar – Interrelation between Sanskrit and Indian culture with special reference to Sri Aurobindo – jointly organized by New Delhi-based Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan and the city based Sri Aurobindo Institute of Indian Culture (SAIIC) on its campus. His paper was on Aurobindo as a forward looking traditionalist.
Addressing a select group at Asian Confluence in Laitumkhrah, Heehs said how he was influenced by Aurobindo’s philosophy, which made him visit Pondicherry for the first time in 1971 at age 22 and making Sri Aurobindo Ashram there his home for more than 40 years now.
Asian Confluence is an initiative to promote an open space for creating a better understanding of the northeastern region. It is a space for cultural and intellectual exchange, which acts as a hub for civil society initiatives and is the brainchild of Sabyasachi Dutta, son of former Shillong parliamentarian BB Dutta.
Heehs was born in Illinois and spent most of his boyhood in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, New York and New Jersey before coming to India. He developed an interest in India after coming across Indian swamis, spiritual gurus and sitar exponent Ravi Shankar in Philadelphia. He then got associated with Indian Cultural Centre in New York where the in-charge was an India-enchanted French lady. “I read about Aurobindo and made up my mind to visit Pondicherry. There I was entrusted with setting up the archives of Aurobindo’s works,” said Heehs.
Heehs’ works fall into four categories – studies of the life and thought of Aurobindo, history of modern India, history of Indian philosophy and religion, general historiography and the history of ideas. He has authored several books and is being acclaimed as an outstanding authority of Aurobindo and Divine Mother’s vision and thoughts. He has a permanent residency stay visa sponsored by the Ashram.
Working at this archive was a learning process for Heehs as he was involved in identifying and sequencing the personal manuscripts of Aurobindo helping him get a close look at the life of the great yogi. “I was given work under Jayantilal Parekh, a longtime disciple of Aurobindo and his French collaborator, the Mother (Mirra Alfassa). In 1973, the Mother authorized Jayantilal to set up an archive and research library as a department of Sri Aurobindo Ashram. I was among those who were given the task of building up the resources of this institution. Jayantilal asked me to collect biographical material from the National Archives of India, the Baroda Record Office, the West Bengal State Archives and other places in India,” he said.
Heehs who later continued this work at archives and libraries in the UK, France, USA and Bangladesh said, “This was my initiation into biographical and historical research. At the same time my colleagues and I were completing an inventory of the manuscripts of Aurobindo. We made sequences of the books and his personal manuscripts and discovered that like Bhabani Bharati, which was talked upon largely in the seminar, much had not yet been published and we launched the semi-annual journal Aurobindo: Archives of Research, in which we brought out some of these new materials along with biographical documents and research articles. This journal ran from 1977 to 1994, after which we began work on The Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo.”
But collecting material for setting up this archive was not an easy task as Heehs had to gather data about Aurobindo’s political career for which he had to make a study of the Indian freedom movement in general in order to place his contribution in context. However, this research has served a dual purpose for him because apart from material collection for the archives it also resulted in several books published by different university presses, as well as numerous articles published in historical journals and magazines.
The study and research undertaken by Heehs also gave him a deep insight into Indian spirituality, religions and traditions. He found that although Aurobindo’s teaching was not a religion, it draws on various spiritual traditions, especially the Vedanta tradition of India as preserved in the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita, and the earlier Vedic tradition. “Following his lead, I studied the texts of these traditions in English translation and to some extent in the original Sanskrit. This reading led me to the texts of other spiritual traditions as well. Although uninterested in conventional religion, I found much of interest in writings that are usually regarded as religious, and I wrote several articles and one book on Indian religious traditions,” he said.
Aurobindo referred to western science monolithic knowledge and yet at the same time he would refer to Indian model predated to the western models, such as Sankhya, Tanrtra evolutionary development then he took the model of the ten avatars of Vishnu as evolution not to side of western authority but to do with an ancient Indian model. “So it is a kind of mixture of both, taking the idea of Vedanta and giving it an evolutionary dynamism. He was a synthetic thinker and so his approach,” he said.
However, Heehs was completely surprised by the quality of Aurobindo’s works as the yogi did so much of writing and learning. “He (Aurobindo) was not only a man who sat down with a pen and wrote the stuff out but if you look at his manuscripts there was no cutting marks as everything from start to finish was fresh. To put it in a nutshell in between 1920-21, he started a monthly journal Arya of which all the 64 pages were handwritten in immaculate texts as he had greater fluency in writing English besides he was simultaneously working on his various other disciplines, such as, The Life Divine, The Future Poetry, Translation of Vedas, The Ideal of Human Unity and more in addition to the 64 page monthly journal. He was incredible,” said Heehs adding he would start working again on Arya’s next edition.
Heehs sported questions on his book “The Lives of Sri Aurobindo” that created controversy and a furor recently. He said that there is a small dissident group in Pondicherry Ashram which is always interested in discrediting the Ashram Trust and capture power and he being a foreigner with greater access to the archives and records and thereafter writing critically, became an automatic target of this dissident group.
Heehs shared his experience of meeting the Mother a couple of times. His upcoming books are on encountering various problems of historiography in his research into India’s political and religious history. He has also published several articles on the subject in American and Indian journals.