Friday, January 20, 2012


Early in the trip, we went to Auroville, a utopian community started by a woman called The Mother to live by the teachings of a sage by the name of Sri Aurobindo. Sri Aurobindo was educated in Great Britain, but later renounced his active life and settled in Pondicherry. He died in the early 1950s. His spiritual companion, the Mother, led the community and supervised the building of the shrine you see here.

So we are in the museum, looking at materials about the Mother, whose name was Mirra Alfassa, and who is variously described as a Frenchwoman and an Egyptian. I take a look at her name and her biography--she was French-speaking; she studied mathematics in Paris and became involved with mystical thinkers whose names come back to me from graduate school a zillion years ago. I look at this and I think: Jew. A  Sephardic Jew. So I ask my two obvious colleagues, Lesleigh who studies Judaism and Bruce who studies Egypt and the Middle East. They think, hmm, maybe, maybe not.

Last night, almost a week after we returned, an old friend comes over (he is not connected to Colgate). He's really anxious to hear about Pondicherry. I had known, but never really focused on, the fact that he had had a close Indian friend, an associate of his father's, who took him to India in 1975 and was very important in his life. So it turns out that this Indian friend was a disciple of Sri Aurobindo. And there's my friend talking about The Mother, which is even odder because he's a complete Jewish atheist. Turns out he owns Sri Aurobindo's collected works, bound in silk, plus a letter from the Mother in her own hand. So, I say, was she a Jew? Of course, says my friend.


It's called pattern recognition. You hang around a field long enough, you start to understand what you are seeing.

If anybody is motivated or skeptical enough to check this out with google, what you'll find is that she is the French-speaking daughter of an Egyptian mother and a Turkish father. I can't authenticate what my friend said any further, but this is a classic Sephardic Jewish background. With lots of wiggle room for avoiding the uncomfortable.


  1. This post touches on a series of questions and thoughts that recurred to me as we experienced the religions of India. I had known, intellectually, that the umbrella of Hinduism is very big, that the religion manifests itself in a wide variety of ways. It was astounding to see this in person - to see many different types of temples as well as to travel to a site like Auroville and be assured by Eliza, our resident scholar of Hinduism, that the Mother's utopians can be comfortably situated under that broad umbrella. This is not an easy thing to get a Jewish brain around: although Judaism manifests itself in a variety of ways, it is a much smaller umbrella. This may be why a woman like Mirra Alfassa found her spiritual fulfillment outside of Judaism - and why, as Harvey Cox noted in his 1978 book "Turning East: Why Americans Look to the Orient for Spirituality - And What That Search Can Mean to the West," Hinduism has had a strong appeal to many Jews. Cox noted that although Jews represented only 3% of the US population in the 1960s and 70s, they made up about 20% of the Americans who turned to Hindu and Buddhist spiritual religious practices in that period. Cox notes that many Jews perceived Hinduism and Buddhism as more mystical and more open than their native religion--or, perhaps, as being bigger umbrellas.

  2. Hi Lesleigh--

    That comment by Cox reflects what I remember of being in college and graduate school in the 1970s. I think that Hinduism and Buddhism broadly conceived struck those people--at least the ones I knew and observed--as (1) way more cool, and (2) easier to access, meaning that there were lots of texts in English and lots of--again, cool--teachers willing to instruct neophytes. Anti-western rebellion was a part of it, and the Jews who became involved, at least the ones I knew, were raised in Reform Judaism. Which they saw (not incorrectly, either) as part of The System. So much for them. But Mirra Alfassi was something else. She was Sephardic, for one thing. And fifty years earlier. And we know nothing about her. But what all the bios do say is that she had some kind of mystical experiences from her childhood. Judaism would not have been receptive to that at all.