April 11 2010
Stories: India’s (Jewish) Mother
Outside the Manakula Vinayagar temple in Pondicherry, a former French colony in the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, a temple elephant named Lakshmi collects offerings of rupees with her trunk, blessing devotees and tourists alike with a pat on the head. White curlicues are painted on her face, bells hang around her neck, and silver jewelry adorns her ankles. Behind her, little stalls sell religious knickknacks—faux-sandalwood figurines of Hindu gods and a great profusion of framed pictures. It looks, in other words, like thousands of other temples throughout India, until you examine the pictures more closely. They’re of an old woman with hooded eyes and a cryptic closed-mouth smile who looks a bit like Hannah Arendt. Everyone refers to her as “The Mother,” but she was born Mirra Alfassa. The de facto goddess of this town is a Sephardic Jew from France.
Over the past 150 years, many Westerners have sought spiritual transcendence in India, and quite a few have been accepted and absorbed into Indian culture. The British radical Annie Besant, once one of the world’s most famous atheists, moved to India in the 1890s embracing Theosophy, the grandmother of modern new age movements. She became a major figure in the Indian independence movement and at one point was even elected president of the Indian National Congress. But even by India’s historically flamboyant standards, the spiritual career of the late Mirra Richard—Alfassa’s married name—is astonishing.
By chance, when I showed up in Pondicherry in February, it was the 50th anniversary of Mirra’s founding of the Sri Aurobindo Society, which is devoted to propagating the ideas of her close spiritual collaborator, the Indian freedom fighter-turned-yogi Sri Aurobindo. The society, which is headquartered in Pondicherry, sponsored an exhibition in a pavilion by the beach to commemorate the occasion. The Mother’s empty chair, draped in marigold silk, was part of the display, her old sandals in a glass box at the foot. Visitors, mostly Indian but a few Westerners too, bowed before it.
Though The Mother’s image is everywhere in Pondicherry, it’s not easy for the visitor to learn much that’s concrete about her life; the books for sale all tend toward dreamy, magic-filled hagiography. I got a useful clue, though, when I visited the Aurobindo Ashram in the town’s picturesque French quarter. On a bulletin board, there was a typed declaration from the ashram’s late director of physical education, a position that, I later learned, carried significant influence, because The Mother was serious about exercise. It warned Ashramites about a book called The Lives ...More