Mirra Alfassa: The Global Life of a Female Guru
January 2022 – June 2022
My project is concerned with Mirra Alfassa, daughter of Egyptian Jewish parents living in France, effective head of Sri Aurobindo’s ashram, and founder of Auroville, an experimental ‘universal township’ in Pondicherry, French India, as a hybrid global religious actor. From the nineteenth century onwards, religion became one of the main avenues of women’s global mobility, and of negotiating gendered roles. Historical research on this phenomenon is growing, yet Alfassa’s role has only been the subject of in-house publications, while a scholarly study of her life is still lacking. Drawing on Alfassa’s published works and archives mainly in India, this study takes up recent suggestions for a global microhistory in order to explore the role of religion and gender in global history during the political metamorphosis from colonialism to decolonization.
Macrohistorical studies on global history during the nineteenth and twentieth century often turn a blind eye on women and religion. As research on female transnational actors shows, however, religion and colonialism served as catalysts of women’s global mobility and negotiations of gender. Women’s global mobility in the context of colonialism also allowed them to engage in colonial civilizing missions and forge alliances with anti-colonial actors.
The present project seeks to bring together research on religion, (anti-)colonialism and women’s global mobility and research on transnational organizations as producers of global religious knowledge by focusing on the life of Mirra Alfassa.
In terms of methodology, this project combines a global history with a microhistory approach. As recent contributions underline, these are not mutually exclusive approaches. A microhistory focus allows implementing one of the central aims of global history, the critical re-assessment of established master narratives. Alfassa’s biography also permits investigating gender not as a stable category, but rather as one negotiable in the cultural encounter. Finally, her case as both a transimperial (Egypt/France and French India) and a transreligious subject offers the opportunity to further develop the concept of hybridity while employing a concept of culture as open-ended and heterogeneous in order to avoid essentialist assumptions on Alfassa’s identity. At the same time, there are pitfalls in a biographical approach, most notably the “biographical illusion” (Bourdieu),
i.e. the urge to construct continuity and coherence both on part of the autobiographical narrator and the historian. As a consequence, this study will pay attention to gaps, silences, and contingencies in Mirra Alfassa’s life, employing a notion of the subject as a “contingent product of symbolic orders” (Reckwitz).
Julia Hauser served as Assistant Professor of Global History at the University of Kassel, Germany, from 2014 to 2021. She is interested in cultural history, especially the history of gender, religion, and knowledge, and just concluded a study looking at the history of vegetarianism between South Asia, Britain, Germany, and the United States. She is the author of German Religious Women in Late Ottoman Beirut, Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2015, and the co-editor of Insatiable Appetite, Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2019. She also co-edited, with Harald Fischer-Tiné and Ashok Malhotra, a special section in JSAS on Nutrition, Identity and the Improvement of the Indian Body Politic (2020).