Today we are publishing Alexandra David-Néel’s reminiscences of Sri Aurobindo.
Born as Louise Eugénie Alexandrine Marie David on 24 October 1868, Alexandra David-Néel was the only daughter of Louis David (a friend of Victor Hugo) of Huguenot ancestry and a Catholic mother of Scandinavian origin. Very early in life she displayed her most characteristic personality traits, in sharp contrast with her severe, austere, bourgeois parental environment. She was a proud, fiercely individualistic child, yearning for freedom. She ran away from home several times to flee this dour loveless home, attracted by travels to faraway initiatory lands, to satisfy the need for escape she felt to the end of her life. In 1886 when Alexandra was 18 years old, she left for Spain from her home in Brussles without informing her parents on a heavy fixed pinion bicycle with her belongings on the handlebars. On the way there, she made a detour to the French Riviera and another through Mont-Saint-Michel on the way back. To travel from one place to another, all her life she chose the longest itinerary and the slowest means of transportation. After a stay in London, Alexandra began to study Oriental philosophy along with the English language. After turning twenty-one she left her family and settled in Paris at the Theosophical Society and audited classes in Oriental Languages at the Sorbonne University and Collège de France. She spent a great deal of her time in library of Guimet Museum where she listened ‘to the silent calls of the pages’. The Guimet Museum became a sort of a temple to her as she used to prostrate herself before the statues of the Buddha. Her quest for knowledge made her devour the texts of the Bhagavad Gita, the Rig Veda, the Dhammapada and other scriptures. At the same time, she joined various secret societies—she would reach the thirtieth degree in the mixed Scottish Rite of Freemasonry—while feminist and anarchist groups greeted her with enthusiasm. In 1899, she wrote an anarchist treatise Pour la vie prefaced by the anarchist geographer Elisée Reclus which the publishers refused to print due to the fear of sedition. The book was eventually published by her companion Jean Haustont. Alexandra also studied music and voice and performed on the stage (she became the chief singer at the Hanoi Opera in 1895 where she performed under the pseudonym of Alexandra Myrial), where she achieved considerable success in certain roles, such as Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust, the title roles in Massenet’s Manon and Bizet’s Carmen. But she did not quite enjoy her career as an actress since she craved to travel; she longed to visit deserts and Tibet whose captivating music (which she had heard during her visit to India in 1890-1891 where she had spent over a year) and the gong of the monasteries seemed to call her. In 1900 she met a Railway Engineer Philippe Néel in Tunis whom she married in 1904. In August 1911 Alexandra promised her ‘understanding husband’ whom she lovingly called ‘Mouchy’ to return to him within eighteen months but she returned fourteen years later in May 1925. Alexandra travelled for the second time to India, to further her study of Buddhism. She was invited to the royal monastery of Sikkim by the crown prince, Sidkeon Tulku. She also met the 13th Dalai Lama twice in 1912, and had the opportunity to ask him many questions about Buddhism—a feat unprecedented for a European woman in that era. Through her visits to the Buddhist monasteries, she increased her knowledge of Tantric Buddhism. In 1928 Alexandra legally separated from Philippe but they remained the best of friends till the latter’s demise in 1941. In 1928 Alexandra settled in Digne where she built Samten-Dzong, her fortress of meditation. She also undertook lecture tours in France and Europe. She penned several books on her travels and successfully commented on the theories of the mystics and magicians she had approached. Her list of books include Voyage d’une Parisienne à Lhassa (My Journey to Lhasa), Mystiques et Magiciens du Tibet (Magic and Mystery in Tibet), Initiations Lamaïques (Initiations and Initiates in Tibet), La vie Surhumaine de Guésar de Ling le Héros Thibétain (The Superhuman Life of Gesar of Ling), Grand Tibet; Au pays des brigands-gentilshommes, Le lama au cinq sagesses, Magie d’amour et magic noire; Scènes du Tibet inconnu (Tibetan Tale of Love and Magic), Buddhism: Its Doctrines and Its Methods, Sous des nuées d’orage; Recit de voyage, Au coeur des Himalayas; Le Nepal, Ashtavakra Gita; Discours sur le Vedanta Advaita, Les Enseignements Secrets des Bouddhistes Tibétains (The Secret Oral Teachings in Tibetan Buddhist Sects), Avadhuta Gita, Immortalite et reincarnation: Doctrines et pratiques en Chine, au Tibet, dans l’Inde to name a few. She continued her study and writings till the eighteenth day before her demise on 8 September 1969 at the age of 101 (it is interesting to note that she had gone to renew her passport during her centenary year). According to her last will and testament, her ashes and those of Yongden were mixed together and dispersed in the Ganges in 1973 at Varanasi, by her friend Marie-Madeleine Peyronnet.
Alexandra David-Néel came to India in 1911 before leaving for her extensive tour of Tibet and met Sri Aurobindo in Pondicherry about whom she was informed by Paul Richard. Her impressions of Sri Aurobindo have been published in her books L’Inde où j’ai vécu (The India where I lived) and Journal de voyage: lettres à son mari. The following passages of her reminiscences are quoted from the book The Mother: The Birth and Growth of a Flame published by Overman Foundation.
With warm regards,
Alexandra David-Néel’s reminiscences of Sri Aurobindo.
‘The room where we met contained only a table and two chairs that faced each other, on either side of the table. Sri Aurobindo was sitting in one of the chairs, his back to a wide-open window. Nothing could be seen through the window, neither building nor tree. The vast green sky of India filled it entirely like a screen on which the outline of the guru was traced. Was it a deliberately planned effect? I cannot say for sure that it was…
‘While Sri Aurobindo spoke with me, four young men stood by a corner of the table. Their attitude of adoration and ecstasy was extraordinary. Tall, robust, immobile, their eyes fixed on their master, they resembled a group of statues.
‘At one point, wishing to ask Sri Aurobindo certain personal questions, I felt I would like to be alone with him. I don’t know whether he read my thoughts or whether he felt the same way as I, but all at once, without his having said a word or made a gesture, all four disciples trooped out in a single movement, stiff, silent, like robots drawn invisible wires.’
Adyar-Madras, 27 November 1911
‘In the evening I had a conversation with a Hindu about whom I may have never spoken to you, since I have not been in correspondence with him, but know him only through the good opinion of friends. I spent two wonderful hours reviewing the ancient philosophical ideas of India with a man of rare intelligence. He belongs to that uncommon category that I so much admire, the reasonable mystics. I am truly grateful to the friends who advised me to visit this man. He thinks with such clarity, there is such lucidness in his reasoning, such lustre in his eyes, that he leaves one with the impression of having contemplated the genius of India such as one dreams it to be after reading the noblest pages of Hindu philosophy.’
Adyar, Madras, 19 December 1911
‘…One of these days I’m going to write to that Hindu of Pondicherry I mentioned earlier. He has a keen power of analysis, and a critical turn of mind… Calling his attention to the experiments he himself is conducting with careful and meticulous control, I will ask him: “Am I entering samadhi, am I really touching Nirvana, or is it just fatigue, or perhaps my sensations are being dulled by age? … Are my indifference, my beatitude, of a transcendental kind, or is it only torpor, the beginning of my decline?” … I imagine that the question will make him laugh, as he laughed so sweetly the day I told him, in regard to something similar: “One reaches a point where one no longer knows whether one is becoming prodigiously wise, or taking leave of one’s senses…”’
[Calcutta on 14 February 1912]
‘ …This morning I went to Government House. I am going to be given a set of letters of introduction and recommendations which will continue to facilitate access to many things and many people. Of course it was known, here too, that I had been to Pondicherry and seen Aurobindo Ghose. I had no idea he was such an important man. If I had known, I would have tried to make him speak on politics to see what sort of political ideas would germinate in the brain of a Vedantic mystic. But though I knew he had been involved in a political trial, I did not know the precise reason. This morning the private secretary to the Viceroy told me, “I think he considers our civilisation, our education and all our modern progress to be godless, and therefore condemns them.” This may very well be. Hindus look at the world from a different angle than we do. If our interview had not been limited to a few hours at twilight. In the monastic house in Pondicherry, I might have picked his brain and discovered where the cracks in our Western materialistic civilisation lie…But it may be that I owe a beautiful memory to my being insufficiently informed about him—false and illusory, no doubt, like most beautiful memories: the vast empty room, the window open on the mauve sky of the evening, and Aurobindo Ghose and I speaking of the supreme Brahman, the eternal existence, and for a moment crossing the threshold of the Beyond, where life and death cease, and living the dream of the Upanishads…’
‘I knew that this philosopher had taken a political stance that was not pleasing to the British, but naturally I was discreet enough not to speak of that. Besides, we were soaring far above politics. But while we soared, others were content to remain on the ground. I am speaking of the English police. When I arrived in Madras the head of the C.I.D. was waiting for me in person. He asked me—very civilly and politely, I must say—what I had been doing in Pondicherry in the house of this suspicious character. I was not surprised. I knew in advance that my visit would be taken note of. Moreover I made no efforts to conceal it.
‘Good Heavens, how petty and paltry it all seems—their agitation, their cowardliness, their distress. What a different atmosphere there was in that silent house in Pondicherry! Through it passed the breath of the things that are eternal. In the calm evening, seated by a window that looked out over the rather funereal gardens of this defunct city, it seemed as if we could see beyond life and death… And when I think of the proud disdain with which he seems to regard the couch of the ascetic, which beckons me even now, and of his promise of dreams other than those that haunt the feverish brains of those poor lunatics!’