Alexandra David-Néel in India

Alexandra David-Néel was a Belgian–French explorer, spiritualist, Buddhist, anarchist and writer. She is most known for her 1924 visit to Lhasa, Tibet, when it was forbidden to foreigners. The following excerpt is from an extremely entertaining biography of her by Barbara and David Foster, The Secret Lives of Alexandra David-Néel. Here is AD-N in India, warming up for her future adventures in Tibet, staying at the decidedly crackpot Theosophical Society in Adyar.

Alexandra had the amusing faculty of denouncing the colonial bureacracy while occasionally sounding like the most chauvinistic of them. She compared Madras to a heap of rags and denounced the entire Brahmanic system based on the Vedanta (the sacred Vedas, or scriptures) and caste. The Brahmins, by suppressing Buddhism in the land of its birth, had brought India to the state of slavery in which it found itself. Besides, the homes of the Brahmins, contaminated by the habits of their domestics, were too filthy for her to eat in. So she avoided invitations by moving to the comfortable headquarters of the Theosophical Society at nearby Adyar.

Here Alexandra voiced complaints of a different sort. She luxuriated in a vast room in a house that resembled the Trianon of Louis XIV. The grounds by the sea were extensive, and in the evenings a collection of what she termed lunatics wandered over them, lanterns in hand. There was a European count, a beautiful circus performer turned missionary, a contingent of mature ladies. A certain Herr Grünewald peered through gold-rimmed glasses at old texts in the
library to ascertain how medieval rabbis had manufactured golems, robots that did their will. A Swedish girl who vowed to starve herself
to death for the experience was only dissuaded by a last minute cable from Annie Besant.

The meditating Theosophists were equally indifferent to the venomous snakes on the grounds. Alexandra wrote her husband how one might encounter a king cobra, marked with the sign of Shiva. When he rose upon his coil, neck swelling, eyes like fire, the victim could only pray. The cobra’s bite meant a quick but agonizing end. Alexandra, after scaring Philip, assured him that she was in no real danger. Agitating and then pacifying her – husband was part of her program to manage him from a distance.

Nights enthralled David-Neel, who sat in the dark listening to nature’s tropic symphony. Many of the disciples, determined to concentrate on some assigned mantra, couldn’t bear the uncanny racket of birds and insects humming, buzzing, whistling, and flying joyously about in search of nourishm ent or their mates. Alexandra cleverly made this creative chaos the subject of her meditation. In the darkness hum an vanity shrank to its proper insignificance. The night
sounds were the voice of truth.

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