On page 178 of the biography, Heehs surreptitiously debunks the well-known fact that Sri Aurobindo received guidance from Swami Vivekananda in Alipore jail. It is astonishing that so many people have read the biography but not one seems to have noticed this glaring inaccuracy. Perhaps it is because while reading, people tend to gloss over the incidents in Sri Aurobindo’s life that they are already familiar with, or they trust that the author is telling the truth, or they have not bothered to investigate and determine what the primary sources actually contain.
Anyway, here is the passage from the biography:
Faced with this problem, he heard a voice within that he took to be that of Swami Vivekananda. The voice said “certain things about the processes of the higher truth consciousness,” in particular the workings of the level of consciousness that Aurobindo later called the intuitive mind. This was something completely new to him. After two or three weeks, the voice fell silent, having “finished all it had to say on that subject.”When Aurobindo began to apply what he had learned, he found that it was “precise even in the minutest details.”44Aurobindo heard “all sorts of voices” while meditating in jail, but he was careful not to follow them all. An inner discrimination helped him distinguish helpful from unhelpful or even deceptive influences. The voice of Vivekananda seemed to him worth heeding because it offered verifiable knowledge and seemed to come from a trustworthy source; the sense of Vivekananda’s presence carried conviction. He might still have doubted what he heard, for “one can always doubt”; on the other hand “one can’t get very far like that.” So he went forward, cautiously, and discovered that the voice had not misled him. Years later he wondered whether its source was actually the spirit of Vivekananda. It might, he thought, have been “a part of my own mind separating and taking [another] form.” In any case, what the voice told him proved to be very valuable.
The source of the statement: “He might still have doubted what he heard, for “one can always doubt”; on the other hand “one can’t get very far like that.” is still unknown. Let’s ignore that for now.
We will focus on the remark: “Years later he wondered whether its source was actually the spirit of Vivekananda. It might, he thought, have been “a part of my own mind separating and taking [another] form”. I am told the source of this quote is Chidanandam’s Evening Talks. Let’s see what it says:
What gave guidance to me in the jail may be Vivekananda or it may be a part of my own mind separating and taking form. Many of these things are thought-images. At that time I was opening up the vital plane and all sorts of voices used to come. The voice of Vivekananda spoke to me about the Supermind, not the highest but the preliminary phases. At that time I did not know anything about it and it gave me a tremendous push.
(Chidanandam, Sri Aurobindo at the Evening Talks, pp 25-26)
All of Chidanandam’s Evening Talks have been recorded before the Siddhi Day of 24 November 1926. This is the editorial note to Chidanandam’s Sri Aurobindo at Evening Talk published in Mother India September 1969, p 544:
These Notes were not taken on the spot. They are recollections of the talks at which their author, V. Chidanandam was present. Whatever in these talks seized the young aspirant’s mind was jotted down the next day. Neither complete continuity not absolute accuracy could be maintained. But in reconstructing from memory the author sought to capture something of the language no less than of the thought-substance. In places, later editing has been found necessary in order to clarify notations which has served merely as signposts.) (Editorial Note: MI September 1969, p 544)
A few points to consider while evaluating Chidanandam’s recording:
- Chidanandam’s evidence noted before 1926 is second hand, remembered and noted down the next day whereas there are several primary sources of earlier as well as later date (read below) which are quite explicit in affirming Swami Vivekananda’s guidance. Heehs seems to privilege one dubious source over five other sources, perhaps because the former serves his purpose.
- It is possible to construe that Sri Aurobindo spoke in a general manner in 1926 and not specifically regarding Vivekananda’s voice, which Chidanandam might have misquoted and misunderstood.
- Even in Chidanandam’s record, Sri Aurobindo does finally confirm that he heard the voice of Vivekananda in spite of the earlier remark which seems to suggest that he doubted it. (see the end of the paragraph above where it says: “…The voice of Vivekananda spoke to me about the Supermind, not the highest but the preliminary phases”). Why does Heehs zero in on the first sentence and ignore the last?
A historian is expected to judiciously evaluate and synthesize disparate primary sources, but in this case, Peter has ignored the plethora of information (presented below) where Sri Aurobindo always affirms that he had indeed received guidance from Swami Vivekananda.
Source 1 : Letter to Motilal Roy dated August 1912 or after :
Remember also that we derive from Ramakrishna. For myself it was Ramakrishna who personally came & first turned me to this Yoga. Vivekananda in the Alipore jail (again, not physically but in the occult plane) gave me the foundations of that knowledge which is the basis of our sadhana.
(CWSA Vol 36 Autobiographical Notes, p 179)
Source 2 : Letter from Sri Aurobindo to Pavitra (Philippe Barbier Saint Hilaire) dated 13th Sept, 1946, offering clarifications on Lizelle Raymond’s biography of Nivedita :
It is a fact that I was hearing constantly the voice of Vivekananda speaking to me for a fortnight in the jail in my solitary meditation and felt his presence, but this had nothing to do with the alleged circumstances narrated in the book, circumstances that never took place, nor had it anything to do with the Gita. The voice spoke only on a special and limited but very important field of spiritual experience and it ceased as soon as it had finished saying all that it had to say on that subject
(CWSA Vol 36 Autobiographical Notes, p 97)
Source 3 : Nirodbaran’s version of the Evening Talks dated 18 December 1938:
It was Vivekananda who, when he used to come to me during meditation in Alipore Jail, showed me the intuitive plane. For a month or so he gave instructions about intuition. Then afterwards I began to see the still higher planes
(Nirodbaran, Talks with Sri Aurobindo, Vol 1, p 35)
Source 4 : Nirodbaran’s version of the Evening Talks dated 23 November 1939:
Dr Manilal: You said Vivekananda came to you in jail.
Sri Aurobindo: When he came he could not yet have taken birth again.
(Nirodbaran, Talks with Sri Aurobindo, Vol 1, p 35)
Source 5 : Purani’s version of the Evening Talks, dated 18 December, 1938:
It was Vivekananda who used to come to me in Alipore Jail and showed to me Intuitive plane and for about two to three weeks or so gave me training as regards Intuition. Then afterwards I began to see still higher planes
(A.B. Purani, Evening Talks with Sri Aurobindo, Vol 3, p 31)
So we have five primary sources, four of which are dated much later than Chidanandam’s notes, which unequivocally confirm Swami Vivekananda’s guidance to Sri Aurobindo, but Peter gives the false impression of finality when he declares: “Years later he wondered whether it was the voice of Vivekananda…“. He is concealing from the reader the fact that “years later, he was still convinced…“. Reading page 178 makes you wonder if Sri Aurobindo was actually experiencing cosmic consciousness or going insane.