Saturday, 21 August 2010

Aurobindo Ghose

An influential guru figure was Aurobindo Ghose (1872-1950). Born at Calcutta, his father was a surgeon. The pater desired his children to have a British education. The young Aurobindo was accordingly sent to Manchester with two brothers, and there he was tutored by an Anglican clergyman. In addition to Englsh literature, he also learned Greek and Latin. He entered King’s College, Cambridge, following paternal wishes for a career in the Indian Civil Service.

Aurobindo lost enthusiasm to serve the British, and instead entertained revolutionary ideas. When he returned to India in 1893, he joined the bureaucracy of the Gaekwad of Baroda. He penned speeches for that maharaja, and became a professor at Baroda College. He made a private study of Bengali literature, Sanskrit, and other subjects. More to the point, he became part of the emerging nationalist campaign against British rule.

In 1901, Aurobindo married the daughter of an Indian government official. In 1906 he moved to Calcutta, and was in close contact with resistance groups in Bengal. He criticised Congress for a moderate policy on national education. Aurobindo became a major contributor to the nationalist newspaper Bande Mataram. In 1907 the British government moved to prosecute that newspaper, which was regarded as a goad to violence and lawlessness. That year Aurobindo was arrested by the police on a charge of sedition, though subsequently acquitted because of failure to establish his editorship of the insurgent newspaper.

The American historian Peter Heehs has revealed how the Indian freedom struggle of this early phase had both violent and non-violent aspects. Passive resistance was only part of the story. There was a tendency to terrorism in the 1900-10 decade of the Bengali resistance. In more general terms, Heehs has also penetrated the hagiography attaching to Aurobindo.

During 1907-8 Aurobindo travelled to Poona (Pune), Bombay, and Baroda as an emissary of the nationalist cause. In May 1908 he was again arrested, this time as a suspect in the Manicktola Conspiracy, also known as Alipore Bomb Case. His younger brother Barindra Kumar Ghose was leader of a group of young Bengali revolutionaries at Calcutta who resorted to a bomb in April 1908. Their plan was to bomb the horse carriage of a British magistrate. This punitive action made a mistake in bombing the wrong carriage, killing two innocent British women. About thirty men were arrested, including Aurobindo. The Manicktola property of the extremists was raided by police, who discovered “inflammatory literature, loads of explosives, arms and ammunition, along with detailed written instructions on the techniques of manufacturing higher explosives.” Quotation from Alipore Bomb Case (2009).

Barindra admitted to responsibility in the lengthy trial that followed. The verdict of the court initially entailed death sentences, though deportation to the Andaman Islands was finally decided for a number of the accused. Aurobindo and over fifteen others were acquitted in 1909.

Meanwhile, Aurobindo was detained in solitary confinement for one year in Alipore jail; there he studied the Bhagavad-Gita. He subsequently reported a number of spiritual experiences during his incarceration. After being freed, he commenced two new weekly journals, and promoted his radical ideas on national education. His anti-British tendency caused the Viceroy (Lord Minto) to regard him as the most dangerous man amongst the revolutionaries.

In 1910 Aurobindo retired from the political arena. He took refuge in the French colony of Pondicherry (in Tamil Nadu), after receiving news that the Indian police were looking for him again. Now he opened a new chapter in his career, devoting himself to Yoga (one of his former subsidiary interests). Some critics have viewed this phase as an escape route from political problems, though Aurobindo was evidently quite sincere in the subsequent and extensive cycle of mystical writings which appeared in his new monthly journal Arya from 1914 onwards. In that mode, his major works first emerged in a serialised format, notably including The Life Divine and The Synthesis of Yoga.

The former political agitator was now the exponent of an avant garde Hinduism, “developing a philosophical system inspired by Vedanta, but integrating elements from Yoga, Tantra and the theory of evolution” (Gavin Flood, An Introduction to Hinduism, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 270).

Afterwards, in 1926 was founded the Aurobindo Ashram, with a core of 24 disciples. That same year, Aurobindo withdrew into seclusion, appointing a woman as the ashram leader. This was Mirra Richard, also called Mirra Alfassa (1878-1973), who became known as “the Mother.” She was a Parisian of Turkish and Egyptian parentage. She had settled at Pondicherry in 1920, and Aurobindo acknowledged her as his major disciple.

During the 1930s, his correspondence with disciples formed his main literary output, eventually becoming the Letters on Yoga (3 vols). He also worked on a lengthy poem entitled Savitri. Aurobindo did not revert to political agitation, and during the Second World War, he supported the Allied cause against Hitler, whom he described as an oppressor.

His major work is The Life Divine, first published in 1914-19 in serial form, and later revised and enlarged for publication in book format (2 vols, 1939-40). The lengthy contents expound his version of spiritual evolution. An accompanying work, The Synthesis of Yoga, formulates what is known as Integral Yoga, which Aurobindo regarded as a unique innovation. The declared objective is transformation of the individual, including physical, psychic, and mental dimensions. The acquisition of an “inner Yogic consciousness” has the objective of “supramentalisation.” This version of Yoga is often described as uniting the dispositions of bhakti, jnana, and karma yoga as mentioned in the Bhagavad-Gita, a popular Vedantic text in Hinduism.

Aurobindo opposed aspects of Advaita Vedanta, including mayavada, the doctrine that the world is an illusion. He also diverged from the Vedantic belief that an ascetic life of withdrawal was the means to liberation. He improvised the concept of Supermind, which he also described as gnosis. He has been credited with introducing the concept of evolution into Vedantic thought, though his version of evolution was not that of Darwinism, which Aurobindo regarded as a materialist limitation.

A disputed feature of his doctrine is that of a new supramental or gnostic human species envisaged for the future. This theme became influential in the subsequent American “new age” variation associated with the Esalen Institute of California. See Aurobindo and Esalen (2008). Some think that Aurobindo was more realistic in referring to the “intermediate zone,” meaning a danger area of deceptive spirituality located between mundane consciousness and the genuine spiritual achievement. One surely sees far more of this drawback than anything “gnostic” in the pretentious new age.

Specialist scholarship in Vedic texts has disagreed with Aurobindo’s theme of an esoteric meaning in the ancient RigVeda. Via such works as The Secret of the Veda and Hymns to the Mystic Fire, Aurobindo asserted that the Rig was composed in a symbolic language, the outer meaning relating to religious rituals, and the inner meaning relating to a spiritual knowledge. In contrast, Professor Jan Gonda viewed this as an erroneous interpretation, one in which the Vedic sacrifices are all symbolic, and which treats the Rig ritualism as an “infallible authority for spiritual knowledge”; however, the Indologist did not deny an intuitive dimension to the poetry of the Rig rishis (Gonda, Vedic Literature, Wiesbaden 1975, pp. 53-4).

After Aurobindo’s death, the town of Auroville was founded near Pondicherry in 1968. The ideal was an international habitat transcending creed and politics. Auroville is recently reported to have over 2000 inhabitants, mainly Indians, French, and Germans. See Wikipedia Aurobindo (accessed 09/08/2010) and Wikipedia Auroville (accessed 09/08/2010) See also Aurobindo.

See further the Collected Works of Sri Aurobindo (30 vols, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1972); Aurobindo, The Life Divine (first edn 1939-40; seventh edn, Pondicherry, 2006); Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga (Pondicherry, 1996)); Aurobindo, Secret of the Veda (Pondicherry, 1995); A.B. Purani, The Life of Sri Aurobindo (Pondicherry, 1978); P. Heehs, The Bomb in Bengal: The Rise of Revolutionary Terrorism in India, 1900-1910 (Oxford University Press, 1993; second edn, 2004); P. Heehs, The Lives of Sri Aurobindo (Columbia University Press, 2008).

Kevin R.D. Shepherd
August 21st 2010

ENTRY no. 30

Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Meher Baba

A prominent aspect of the “alternative” vogue in Western countries has been that of enthusiasm for Eastern gurus and other mentors. A number of these entities transpired to exhibit complicating traits, causing disillusionment amongst their followers. Meher Baba was not one of these, his activities dating to an earlier period.

The career of Meher Baba (1894-1969) evidences a clean moral record. He visited the West in the 1930s and again in the 1950s, thereafter remaining mostly in seclusion until his death. The major criticism levelled at him is that of the avataric claims he made in his later years. The word avatar signifies divine incarnation, and is derived from Hinduism.

Meher Baba (Merwan Sheriar Irani) fits a rather unusual category of “guru” in that he was not a Hindu but an Irani Zoroastrian. Both his parents were émigrés from Central Iran. Though born in India (at Pune), he was not a Parsi, as is sometimes mistakenly assumed. This ethnic complexity has made his career more interesting to me, though my attitude is critical and quite independent of the devotional movement forming in his name.

Pune was formerly known as Poona, then a centre of the British Raj. There, while attending the Deccan College in 1913, young Merwan Irani encountered Hazrat Babajan (d. 1931), an aged female saint of Muslim birth who has Sufi associations (see Shepherd, A Sufi Matriarch, 1986). The interaction changed his life completely.

In general, Meher Baba has not been favoured by the “new age,” the adherents of which have been far more enthusiastic about Hindu gurus like Shri Aurobindo, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Sathya Sai Baba, and Swami Muktananda. Indeed, the Esalen Institute of California endorsed Aurobindo during the early years of that enterprise, promoting his doctrines to such an extent that these are well known by comparison with teachings of other figures. The Findhorn Foundation favoured Rajneesh and Sathya Sai Baba during the 1980s and 1990s.

The Meher Baba movement has not displayed the belligerence towards outsiders that characterised the Rajneesh sect in the 1980s, a drawback more recently mirrored in the American branch of the Sathya Sai Baba sect. See further Internet Terrorist (2009). Certain developments on Wikipedia have been viewed with suspicion, implying collusion between a pseudonymous Meher Baba supporter and a militant defender of Sathya Sai Baba. See Wikipedia Anomalies: Arguments (2010). However, in general the Meher Baba movement does not appear to favour web aggression and libel. It may therefore still be possible for outsiders to comment on the figurehead without fear of hate campaign.

A partisan of Meher Baba has considerately sent me notification that reference to myself appears in a recent devotee work. As such matters are now of interest to some investigators, I will accordingly cite the reference here: “Though no devotee of Meher Baba and a sharp critic of Meher Baba’s followers, Kevin Shepherd turns a critical eye on [Paul] Brunton’s account, in Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal, pp. 146-76.” Quotation from Meher Baba’s Early Messages to the West: The 1932-1935 Western Tours, ed. W. Parks (Myrtle Beach, S.C.: Sheriar Foundation, 2009), p. 223 note 31. The editor evidently approved of my scepticism concerning Brunton, though he should perhaps have grasped that I did not criticise all the followers, as specific statements in Iranian Liberal do confirm. (Another reference to the same book of mine, and in relation to Rom Landau, occurs in Early Messages to the West, p. 224 note 32).

With regard to Paul Brunton (1898-1981), there are strong doubts about the reliability of his report on Meher Baba in A Search in Secret India (1934). An obvious discrepancy has struck many readers. Brunton referred to the low and receding forehead of the Irani, which could mean that the British reporter suffered from an optical deficiency. In reality, the cranium of Meher Baba was well proportioned, and also of substantial size in relation to his body. See further my web entry Meher Baba (2009).

The Irani mystic was notably averse to the caste system. He refused to sanction that problem, and instead championed the cause of the untouchables. This was a feature of his activity during the 1920s, when he established his first ashram at Meherabad (Arangaon), near Ahmednagar, a city in Maharashtra. The fact is that, after an initial resistance, he eliminated caste at his ashram, not permitting the ranking or dining protocol generally found in other Indian ashrams.

Another feature that tends to distinguish the outlook of Meher Baba from that of other gurus is his attitude to miracles. Although in some early statements, he seems to have acknowledged the existence of “miracles,” in later years he frequently gave that subject a low rating, disowning the performance of miracles in his own case. “Many miracles have been attributed to me, but I do not perform miracles. I do not attach importance to miracles.” (Quoted in Shepherd, Investigating the Sai Baba Movement, 2005, p. 110).

Meher Baba was also strongly critical of tendencies in other followings to create an instinct for “miracle” phenomena. In relation to both Shirdi Sai Baba (d. 1918) and Upasni (Upasani) Maharaj (d. 1941), both of whom he had personally encountered, he was disapproving of the hagiographical preference of devotees for miraculous events. He had been the disciple of Upasni for several years, commencing in 1915.

In 1925, Meher Baba commenced silence, a discipline which he maintained until his death. He continued to communicate by means of an English alphabet board, and later a distinctive gesture language. In this manner he dictated numerous messages and discourses, and also two books on spiritual evolution, only one of which was published during his lifetime (in 1955). That contribution is unusual for an eclectic vocabulary employing Sanskrit/Marathi and Persian terms drawn from the Vedantic and Sufi traditions (though the Hindu component was not exclusively Vedantic).

Meher Baba was fluent in Persian and Marathi (also Gujarathi and English). He gained Muslim followers in addition to Zoroastrian and Hindu devotees. He was quite familiar with Sufism, though he did not identify with that tradition, and remained non-denominational. This intercultural complexion of his teaching is another factor of difference with the Hindu gurus.

Meher Baba’s evolutionism remains distinctive. His exposition incorporates reincarnation, though in a rather comprehensive form which rigorously exposits a sequence of progression through the diverse species-forms until the human stage is reached. This rationale is not in any explicit opposition to Darwinian formulae, though the metaphysical dimensions are pronounced.

This evolutionism explains the growth in consciousness attendant upon evolution, a factor of exegesis not always found in mystical accounts. Further, there is the advantage of description in terms of impressions (sanskaras), again quite methodically elaborated. Consciousness is composed of impressions, and in this light, the reincarnation process is made more explicable. The exposition of Meher Baba differs from more well known versions of transmigration that do not clarify such complexities, and which exhibit discrepancies in terms of, e.g., retrograde incarnation from human to animal.

The presentation under discussion differs from traditional Vedanta in the evolutionist criteria supplied. There is also a divergence from canonical Sufism, which does not teach reincarnation. Some Muslims of earlier centuries inclined to versions of transmigration (tanasukh) associated with the Pythagorean heritage.

See further Meher Baba, God Speaks: The Theme of Creation and its Purpose (New York, 1955; second edn, 1973); Meher Baba, Infinite Intelligence (Myrtle Beach, S. C., 2005); Meher Baba, Discourses (7th edn, Myrtle Beach, S.C., 1987); C. B. Purdom, The God-Man: The Life, Journeys and Work of Meher Baba (London, 1964); B. Kalchuri, Meher Prabhu: Lord Meher (20 vols, Ashville, North Carolina, 1986-2001); Shepherd, Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal (Cambridge, 1988), with bibliography; idem, Investigating the Sai Baba Movement, Part Three, “Meher Baba of Ahmednagar” (Dorchester, 2005).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
August 12th 2010


ENTRY no. 29

Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Swami Vivekananda

Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) was anti-caste in many of his recorded emphases. He was an unusual mystic of the more daring and radical kind in terms of social extension. Yet he identified with the traditional philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, strongly associated with Shankara (c. 800 CE), a legendary exponent whose extant and attributed treatises are a subject of complex scholarly appraisal.

Vivekananda, alias Narendra Nath Datta, was born in Calcutta, where he attended college. He studied European history and philosophy, and gained a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1884. He became influenced by the Brahmo Samaj, a reforming movement which advocated belief in a formless God, and who were in opposition to popular Hinduism. Narendra came from a low class background, being a kayastha by birth. That sub-caste gained an increased status in Bengali society under British rule, often working as clerks and secretaries. His father was a prosperous attorney at the Calcutta high court.

In 1881 Narendra encountered Ramakishna of Dakshineswar (1836-1886), a brahman saint who lived in a Kali temple near Calcutta. The latter was not at all typical of the priestly caste; he would not touch money and spoke in very simple language, as distinct from the formal didactic of the pundits. The tendency of Ramakrishna was eclectic with regard to Hinduism, and included reference to Advaita Vedanta.

Narendra at first rejected Advaita, deeming this an extremist philosophy. Ramakrishna’s esteem for the goddess Kali was also repugnant to reformist tastes. Yet prior to 1886, the year of Ramakrishna’s death, Narendra had changed orientation completely, becoming a full-fledged disciple of the mystic.

The young disciples of Ramakrishna opted for a monastic existence at his death, living in a dilapidated house at Baranagore. A number of them took formal vows, and Narendra assumed the name of Swami Vivekananda. In 1888, he left Baranagore to live as a wandering monk (sannyasin), and for several years he travelled throughout India, frequently travelling on foot, though also resorting to the railway when given tickets by wellwishers. He encountered priestly pundits and maharajas, but also saw at firsthand the widespread poverty and suffering of the masses, which evidently weighed upon him deeply.

At the end of 1892, he arrived at Cape Comorin (the southern tip of India). There he gained the much reported insight that the situation of so many wandering renunciates teaching religion was seriously discrepant. Instead the objective should be one of raising the masses from ignorance and hunger.

In 1893, Vivekananda visited America as an outspoken teacher of Vedanta and Yoga. He first lectured at the Chicago Parliament of Religions, gaining both admirers and critics, the latter including missionaries to India. For over three years he stayed in the West, lecturing in America and England, though suffering poor health as a consequence of the strain. He declined two offers of an academic chair in Eastern philosophy at Harvard and Columbia Universities, explaining that he could not accept such career vocation as a wandering monk.

In early 1897, Vivekananda arrived back in India, being welcomed as a national hero on account of his recent fame. He travelled from Colombo to Calcutta and Almora, frequently giving lectures that included exhortations to an upliftment of the masses and the elimination of caste stigmas. He also favoured the study of Western science in addition to Vedanta. The implications of a national reorientation were taken seriously in some directions, and later political figures like Mahatma Gandhi and Radhakrishnan (entry no. 27) acknowledged Swami Vivekananda as an inspiration. Independence from British rule was one repercussion, though Vivekananda did not mount that sort of campaign. Instead, his immediate opponent was the conservative priestly caste.

He detested what he called the “kitchen religion” of that caste, which entailed a taboo on food being defiled by the shadow of any untouchable. “Kick out the priests who are always against progress,” said Vivekananda. “The modern student of sociology may well be surprised at the depth and objectivity of his observations.” Quotes from F. R. Allchin, “The Social Thought of Swami Vivekananda,” in S. Ghanananda and G. Parrinder, eds., Swami Vivekananda in East and West (London: Ramakrishna Vivekananda Centre, 1968), pp. 89ff., 102. See also my web memo.

At Calcutta in 1897, Vivekananda founded at Belur the Ramakrishna Math (monastery). This was accompanied by the Ramakrishna Mission, an extension in social service. Some Christian critics have implied that the Mission was inspired by Christian models. The new monastic organisation later gained a centre in Madras.

During 1899-1900, he again visited America and Europe, creating Vedanta centres in San Francisco and New York, and also attending the Paris Congress of Religions (1900). His failing health meant that he was unable to meet an invitation to the subsequent Congress of Religions in Japan. Vivekananda died peacefully at the Belur monastery, while lying down after meditating.

An Indian historian observes that Vivekananda “was often strongly anti-Brahmin, if not also anti-Brahmanical, and held saints and sadhus no less responsible for the continuing oppression of the masses. Reformers, in his view, never really touched the pulse of India.... Vivekananda’s panacea for India’s several ills was mass education: training in useful sciences and crafts, manual skills, and manufacture.” Quote from Amiya P. Sen, ed., The Indispensable Vivekananda: An Anthology for our Times (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2006), pp. 33-4.

A generally obscured matter is that Vivekananda drew from both the Sankhya and Vedanta systems of philosophy. He emphasised features of Sankhya psychology, and admitted the indebtedness of Vedanta to Sankhya; serious doctrinal differences existed between those two traditions (ibid., p. 40).

A Western scholar has commented: “Although the Ramakrishna movement is not considered an orthodox sampradaya [religious tradition] by the more conservative Hindus, it has nevertheless captured the imagination of a great many modern and progressive Hindus and is held to be a non-sectarian and universal expression of a new, reformed Hinduism.” Quote from K. K. Klostermaier, A Survey of Hinduism (State University of New York Press, 1989), p. 45.

The Ramakrishna Order now claims over 170 branch centres worldwide. There is an online partisan biography of Vivekananda by Swami Nikhilananda. See also the Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (nine vols, Mayavati, 2001), and web version. Relevant is S.N. Dhar, A Comprehensive Biography of Swami Vivekananda (2 vols, Madras, 1975-6); A. P. Sen, Swami Vivekananda (New Delhi, 2000); idem, Social and Religious Reform: The Hindus of British India (New Delhi, 2003). See also Amiya Prosad Sen.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
August 6th, 2010


ENTRY no. 28

Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.