ABSTRACT

A FOREIGN WOMAN WHO WAS TREATED BY SOME AS DIVINE DURING HER LIFE time but was a proponent of "advanced" feminism was La Mere, the "Mother" ofPondicherry, Blanche Rachel Mirra Alfassa (1878-1973 ), soul-mate of one of India's most famous sages, Sri Aurobindo. She was born in Paris, not of French origin as is commonly believed, but of a Sephardic Jewish family from Cairo. Her father, Maurice Alfassa, was a banker originally from Turkey, and her mother, Mathilde Ismaloun, was from Egypt. In Cairo, French influence was strong in elite circles and Mirra Alfassa's mother and grandmother, who were both very independent women, were closely linked with the cultural and social life of France. Her mother took the family to Paris after being forced to leave Egypt because she had allegedly snubbed the Khedive (Nahar 1985:29). Mathilde, it seems, was a positivist and an atheist. Satprem claims that she was

Mirra Alfassa was an art student at the Ecole des Beaux Arts and was part of the artistic avant-garde of Paris at the turn of the century; she knew the painters Monet, Degas, Renoir, and the writer Anatole France (Wilfried I986:8, 15 ). In 1897 she married and had a son by the artist Henri Morisset. He was a pupil of the painter Gustav Moreau, who used Indian themes in his paintings, and whose other pupils included Georges Rouault and Henri Matisse. Her interest in spiritualism also developed during this period when there was an increase of such groups in France; writing of her early years, Alfassa said: "Between the ages of eighteen and twenty I had attained a conscious and constant union with the divine presence." She had read Vivekananda's Rajayoga and was given a copy of the Bhasavad Gita by an Indian who advised her to "envisage Krishna as the immanent Godhead, as the Divine within ourselves" (ibid:1o ). By 1906, Mirra Alfassa was a part of a group called Idea which met regularly to discuss occult experiences and spiritual realization.