Mirra Alfassa in Pondicherry, circa 1969. (Sri Aurobindo Ashram)

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 of Sri Aurobindo. “The distribution and sale of this book must be stopped,” it said. “Attempts must be made to procure and destroy all existing copies of this book, and to stop all future editions and reprints.”

Mirra Alfassa as a child in France, circa 1885

Mirra Alfassa as a child in France, circa 1885.
CREDIT: Courtesy Sri Aurobindo Society

Naturally, I went to track it down. The book, published by Columbia University Press, was actually written by the ashram’s chief archivist, Peter Heehs, but it takes a historical rather than devotional approach, enraging Aurobindo hardliners. Perhaps thanks to the Ashramite’s efforts, it’s not available in India, but you can read large parts of it online. From it, I learned about Alfassa’s early life in Paris in the late years of the 19th century, her art-school education and career as a painter, and her journey through Parisian occultist circles. “As a painter and wife of a painter, Mirra associated with artists, musicians and writers—among them Matisse, Auguste Rodin, Cesar Franck, Anatole France and Emile Zola,” Heehs writes. She reached adulthood in the midst of the Dreyfus affair, so while she was secular, her Judaism must have marked her. Perhaps it influenced her quest for a universal spirituality that could unite all of humanity.

For a while, Mirra was a follower of a mysterious figure named Max Théon (né Bimstein), a Polish Jew who had founded an organization called the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor in Algeria, whose precepts may have been based on Kabbalah. So, by the time Mirra met Aurobindo, she was a seasoned spiritual seeker. She ended up in Pondicherry in 1914, when her second husband, a French lawyer named Paul Richard, sought political office there. At the time, the colony was still a part of France—indeed, that’s why Aurobindo made it his home. Before turning to spirituality, the Cambridge-educated Aurobindo had been an Indian freedom fighter and sought safety in French territory when he was wanted by the British.

In 1914, Mirra was 36, “a handsome woman, striking in her heavy makeup and high fashion,” in the words of Jeffery Paine, author of Father India: Westerners Under the Spell of an Ancient Culture. Soon, she and Aurobindo were working together intimately, pursuing a kind of East-West spiritual fusion, and under her organization, the Aurobindo ashram grew larger and more organized. As Mirra and Aurobindo became closer, they began to deify each other. “What Sri Aurobindo represents in the world’s history is not a teaching, not even a revelation, it is a decisive action direct from the Supreme,” she said at one point. Aurobindo, meanwhile, declared that Mirra was an incarnation of divine energy, the universal mother made flesh. In 1926, he gave her spiritual authority over all his disciples. Until he died in 1950, he communicated almost entirely through her.

Her teaching is almost indecipherable unless you’re willing to enter fully into her mental and symbolic world. One key event in her cosmology, for example, is “The Descent of the Supermind,” which is said to have happened on February 29, 1956. This involves a vision in which Mirra, in a “form of living gold, bigger than the universe,” shattered a massive golden door separating the worldly from the divine.

Yet as ethereal as all this sounds, Mirra, who died in 1973, succeeded in making some of her visions strikingly concrete. About eight kilometers outside of Pondicherry is Auroville, a utopian community Mirra founded in 1968 with the aim, as she wrote, of realizing human unity and hastening “the advent of supramental Reality upon earth.” Today, about 2,000 people from around 30 countries live there, spread out between 100 or so settlements with names like Sincerity and Surrender. Almost half are Indians, but there are hundreds of Europeans, around 75 Americans, a couple of dozen Israelis, and handfuls from countries are far-flung as Ethiopia, Japan, and Brazil. It’s separate from the Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry—indeed, since The Mother’s death, there have been some ugly legal battles between the two institutions. But she’s worshipped in both places.

The Matrimandir, or Temple of the Mother, in Auroville

The Matrimandir, or Temple of the Mother, in Auroville.
CREDIT: Wikimedia Commons

Aurovillians, as they call themselves, are free to build their own houses, though they don’t own them—everything belongs to Auroville. There are fairly basic huts but also big modernist homes—I saw one, in a settlement of mostly French and German families, with a small pool. A few hundred feet away was a café and gallery that I was told served Israeli food, but it was Saturday, and it was closed. Throughout Auroville, there are all sorts of experimental projects going on, many related to sustainable agriculture and renewable energy. It feels like a cross between a commune and the Dharma Initiative.

In the center of the community, both geographically and physically, is a massive spherical gold-plated structure called the Matmandir, or Temple of the Mother. According to Mirra, it is the “symbol of the Divine’s answer to man’s aspiration for perfection.” It looks like some sort of UFO and leaves one agog at Mirra’s spiritual audacity.

She wasn’t the first Jew who sought to remake the world into a place where ethnic and nationalist categories were obsolete. And Auroville, which Mirra imagined as a futuristic city of 50,000 that would transform the world, has obviously fallen short of that goal. Living there, with its strange combination of anarchism and cultish orthodoxy, would probably be a nightmare. Still, its very existence in this obscure, murderously hot place has a touch of the miraculous about it.

Michelle Goldberg is the author of Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism and The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World.