In the Ashram


Sixty years ago the first disciple of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother from the West breathed her last in the Ashram. Her life has been associated with the Mother’s since the time she was known as, not the Mother of Sri Aurobindo Ashram, but Mirra Richard, wife of Paul Richard. She was the first person to address Sri Aurobindo as ‘Lord’ while the other inmates considered him nothing more than a friend and a guide. Her entire life was consecrated to the Divine only, and despite being one of the early members of the Ashram her life has been an unsung song. We are talking of Dorothy Mary Hodgson who is better known as Datta.

 

Data was born on 2 September 1884 in Sydenham, England. She was an Irish by birth. At a very early age she suffered a grave bereavement when her fiancé to whom she was supposed to get married soon passed away. His death removed all the desires of starting a household and having a family from her heart forever and she decided to remain a spinster for the rest of her life. When she met Mirra Richard, she chose to follow the path of Yoga and in Mirra she found “a tremendous support and a ready counsellor and Guru.” [1] But she continued to wear a locket around her neck which contained a miniature portrait of her deceased fiancé and she never parted with it.

 

It is not precisely known where Dorothy had met Mirra. According to KRS Iyengar, Dorothy knew Mirra in France and had come with her to Japan as one inseparable from her friend and mentor. But Shyam Kumari in her book More Vignettes of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother writes that Dorothy first saw Mirra among the cherry blossoms of a garden in Japan where the former was a professor in a college (p. 143). What we know is that Dorothy had met Mirra in 1916. Paul and Mirra, after their return from Pondicherry, stayed in Paris till the beginning of March 1916. On 11 March they boarded the ship Kamo Maru which reached Yokohama on 18 May. But we find that Dorothy Hodgson too had accompanied the Richards in the same ship. So keeping these records in mind, we can arrive at the conclusion that Dorothy had indeed met Mirra in France and not in Japan.

 

Dorothy had once told one of her companions about her early meetings with Mirra: “In the afternoon, the Mother would visit a cherry garden. We met and spoke in that garden. At first sight I saw the Divinity in her. I adored and worshipped her like a goddess but she would call me her friend. I used to carry her things—handbag, etc. When we became very close, I prepared salads for her. She would take very little food.” [2]

 

Dorothy was particularly close to Dr Shumei Okawa and his wife—Shumei Okawa had been a student of Indian Philosophy at Tokyo Imperial University and was a university professor in Tokyo where he taught Asian History and was also a member of the Black Dragon Society and a leading spirit of the pan-Asiatic movement in Japan; he was also quite interested in Sri Aurobindo after reading an article on him—with whom Paul and Mirra spent their first year of stay in Japan and Dr Kobayashi and his wife Nobuko (with whom the Richards stayed for three years in Kyoto; almost forty years later Nobuko would meet Mirra, then known as the Mother of Sri Aurobindo Ashram, in 1959 when she visited Pondicherry). It was from Mirra that Dorothy learnt about Sri Aurobindo and his sadhana. According to KRS Iyengar, Dorothy must have been informed of the Arya that Sri Aurobindo was bringing out from his ‘Cave of Tapasya’ at Pondicherry and she may have helped Mirra in translating her work for the Arya.  

 

In 1920 Mirra asked Dorothy whether she would like to accompany her to Pondicherry. Dorothy readily agreed. Paul and Mirra Richard left Japan with Dorothy in March 1920 and arrived in Pondicherry on 24 April. At first, the Richards and Dorothy stayed at Marie’s Hotel from where they moved to Subbu’s Hotel in Rue St Louis near Rue François Martin ‘due to inconvenience’ and finally they shifted to a rented house named ‘Bayoud House’. Paul Richard stayed in Pondicherry till November 1920 and then he left for the Himalayas where he tried to live like an ascetic; however, he returned to France after two or three years from where he went to England.   

 

On 24 November 1920, there was a heavy storm with rainfall and since the house where Mirra stayed with Dorothy was old and “looked as if it was going to melt away.” [3] Sri Aurobindo said that under such a weather condition Mirra and Dorothy cannot be allowed to stay in that house, so he asked them to move into the house where he was staying with his companions. Thus, Mirra and Dorothy came to live with the other inmates. However, the moving in of Mirra and Dorothy caused an understandable amount of uneasiness among the young men (namely Suresh Chandra Chakravorty alias Moni, Bejoy Nag and Saurin Bose) who were living with Sri Aurobindo since 1910. They were living a camp-life and they viewed the arrival of the two European ladies as “sudden invasion.” AB Purani also notes that their arrival had created a sense of dissatisfaction in the minds of the inmates and he adds: “…men imbued with strong nationalism would find it difficult to accept one who apparently is a foreigner as an inmate of the house.” KRS Iyengar explains the reasons for the dissatisfaction due to the ‘moving in’ of the ladies:

 

“But as for the young men themselves, taste and appetite weren’t to be quite so easily transcended. Nevertheless, with their sunny disposition and boundless faith in Sri Aurobindo, they had been carrying on gallantly for years. But this sudden ‘invasion’ by two European ladies—however unavoidable under the circumstances—was a jolt to the kind of unconventional camp-life they had been living so far. They were excited, they were also puzzled. What would the ladies think? There were hundreds of books—in English, Bengali, Sanskrit, Latin, Greek, French—but there were no book-shelves in the house; and bamboo-strips had to serve the purpose. For the most part, mats had to do duty for furniture; and there was but a single servant to do the shopping—among other things, daily three or four annas worth of fish! Cooking was done on a cooperative basis: Nolini did the rice, Moni the pulses (dāl), and Bejoy the curry and the vegetables. There was a pariah cook, perhaps, for part of the time, and what he prepared was not to the taste. And in such a situation, to have to feed two European ladies too! It was not surprising that uneasiness crawled in the wake of the coming of Mirra and Dorothy… to Sri Aurobindo’s house.” [4]

 

But this uneasiness was short-lived and gradually Mirra and Dorothy were accepted whole-heartedly by the other inmates. And therefore KRS Iyengar adds: “While with some it was only a temporary uneasiness in the presence of the apparently exotic, with some others it was perhaps a half-admitted irrational suspicion about all that was ‘foreign’. But such misgivings were no more than the shadowy mists that prowl around for a little while, till they disappear with the rise of the Sun of all-revealing knowledge. Mirra’s crystalline goodness of heart and unfailing understanding of men and affairs, Datta’s amiable sweetness and kindness of disposition, their total self-consecration to Sri Aurobindo, and the striking sea-change their presence and unobtrusive ministry effected in the very atmosphere of the place, all dispelled the earlier annoyance and the uneasiness, and only trust and love and sunniness prevailed.” [5]

 

 

On 1 January 1922 Sri Aurobindo asked Mirra, whom he had begun to address as the ‘Mother’, to take charge of the management of the house. Since the number of inmates were increasing and the need for additional accommodation was felt, the ‘Library House’ at Rue de la Marine was rented where Sri Aurobindo, the Mother, Dorothy and a few others shifted in September 1922. It was during this time that Dorothy received the name of ‘Vasavadatta’ from Sri Aurobindo, meaning “one who has given herself” but she was addressed as Datta.  T Kodandarama Rao, who met Sri Aurobindo in 1920 and stayed with him between 1921 and 1924 recalls: “Miss Hodgson was supervising the kitchen and serving tea in the morning and evening to the inmates.” [6]

 

While Sri Aurobindo, the Mother, Datta and the others who formed the ‘embryo of the future Ashram’ [7] were still residing at 41 Rue François Martin, there took place in December 1921 the famous incident of stone throwing. The Mother has recounted the incident in her conversations and so has Sri Aurobindo in one of his letters to Dilip Kumar Roy; what follows is a synopsis of the incident: there was a cook named Vatel who had a bad temper and “did not like being reproved concerning his work” and he was in touch with some Muslims who knew black magic. Once, he was scolded by Datta for doing something bad and he was furious and he threatened that the inmates would be compelled to leave the house. After two or three days, someone came and informed the Mother that stones covered with moss were falling in the courtyard and gradually the number of stones falling increased significantly till it became a regular bombardment and one of the stones hit Datta as she was crossing the courtyard. The inmates kept a careful eye to find out who were throwing the stones but were quite baffled when they could not find the source and moreover, stones started falling in closed rooms as well. Eventually Sri Aurobindo and the Mother understood that it was due to some black magic and they also understood that Vatel was behind this act; they hurled the evil forces back and then Vatel’s wife came and informed them that he was desperately ill (because the occult force was recoiled back upon him) and she begged mercy. Sri Aurobindo forgave him saying: “For this he need not die.” And Vatel recovered soon after.

 

Then came 24 November 1926 when the descent of the Overmind Consciousness took place in Sri Aurobindo’s body. Datta was one of the twenty four disciples who were witness to this great event. Soon after the descent she made a proclamation which has been recorded by the other inmates differently. For instance, according to A.B. Purani Datta has said: “The Lord has descended into the physical today.” Champaklal recalls Datta saying:

 

Krishna the Lord has come.

He has ended the hell of suffering.

He has conquered pain.

He has conquered death.

He has conquered all.

He has descended tonight.

Bringing Immortality and Bliss.

 

Nolini Kanta Gupta remembers Datta declaring: “The Lord has descended. He has conquered death and sorrow. He has brought down immortality.” Now let’s read what Rajani Palit has written about that day: ‘Now Datta came out, inspired and declared: “The Master has conquered death, decay, hunger and sleep.” And according to Rajangam, Datta’s declaration was:

 

He has conquered Life.

He has conquered Death.

He has conquered All.

Krishna the Lord has descended.

 

The difference in the versions state that the exact words uttered by Datta were not recorded precisely by the inmates but the inner message she tried to convey was understandable from the versions and that is: Krishna has descended into the body of Sri Aurobindo who has conquered mortality. (Almost nine years later, Nirodbaran had asked Sri Aurobindo about Datta’s proclamation on 29 August 1935: “Datta seems to have declared on that day that you had conquered sleep, food, disease and death. On what authority did she proclaim it then?” Sri Aurobindo replied: “I am not aware of this gorgeous proclamation. What was said that the Divine (Krishna or the Divine Presence or whatever you like) had come down into the material. It was also proclaimed that I was retiring—obviously to work things out. If all that was achieved on the 24th [November] 1926, what on earth remained to work out, and if the Supramental was there, for what blazing purpose did I need to retire? Besides are these things achieved in a single day! If Datta said anything like that she must have been in a prophetic mood and seen the future in the present!”) [8] Two days later when the Mother observed the Day of Immortality in the Ashram, Datta and Champaklal were the only persons who were present on the occasion.

 

The Ashram in those days was quite different from what it is today. In the earlier times no one guarded the Ashram gate. It was only in 1927 when a Dr Sloni who had gone straight to Datta and had ‘worried’ her with a ‘battery of questions’ that the Mother asked Dyuman to take a chair and sit at the gate and keep a watch. Since then someone is always there at the gate from 4:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. and since 1947 there has been an arrangement for two persons to sit at the gate during the day.

 

 

In the initial years Datta stayed in the Ashram main building where she occupied two rooms and a separate bathroom was provided to her. The room to the left on the top of the staircase of the Library House belonged to Datta (it was given to Rajangam later). During the early years, every evening the Mother came from the Meditation House to the Library House which she entered through the room that later became Champaklal’s room (and eventually his aunt Motiben’s) and after freshening up there, she went to Datta’s room from where she went to Prosperity where on the first of each month, she distributed articles ascertained to the inmates of the Ashram. The names that were given to Datta’s rooms were quite interesting: her main room was called ‘Vital Conversion’ and the second room she occupied was given the name of ‘Psychic Centre’ while her bathroom was called ‘Water’. After a few years she shifted to 14 Rue de la Marine, the house that is situated on the west of the Ashram main building; she occupied the room that was later used by Ichchaben and slept in the corner room.

 

Ever since she became a part of the Ashram Datta served the Mother whole-heartedly. She did all the chores for the Mother and prepared food in her own room. Apart from the work she did in the Mother’s dressing room, she also cleaned her bathroom. She would prepare a big bowl of salad and carry it to the Ashram and in the afternoon she would prepare something for Sri Aurobindo as well. Her entire life revolved around the Mother and Sri Aurobindo. So close was she to the Mother that even when the latter went for her bath, Datta used to accompany her. Pujalal used to get the bathroom ready and while the Mother was in the tub, behind the curtain Datta used to stay near the door where she either meditated or cleaned certain things. Her day started early and she used to come to the Ashram at eight in the morning with soup for the Mother and worked in the Ashram till 1 p.m. when she returned to her own room. The entire verandah of her apartment was occupied by a big table that was used to iron the Mother’s clothes. There used to be a stool on the either side of the table; Datta would sit on one side of the stools preparing salads while Margaret Woodrow Wilson alias Nishtha washed the utensils used by the Mother and which were wiped by Madame Monod-Herzen, an Italian lady who was given the name of Jwalanti by Sri Aurobindo. Another lady named Swarna would carry the trays on which the vessels were kept to the terrace for wiping. Sahana Devi recalls: “We all knew where the tray of our cooked offering [for Sri Aurobindo and the Mother] had to be placed and at what hour of the day, or it was given into Champaklal’s hands…In the evening again we used to bring back our trays containing their ‘prasad’, which some of us shared… Datta… often took in the tray from us and kept it in its appointed place.” [9]

 

In October 1931 the Mother fell seriously ill and from 18 October to 24 November she withdrew completely and suspended all her activities including Darshans and meditations. So critical was her illness that she could hardly move her limbs. In a letter to a disciple, Sri Aurobindo wrote expressing his concern over her illness: “The Mother has had a very severe attack and she must absolutely husband her forces in view of the strain the 24th November will mean for her. It is quite out of the question for her to begin seeing everybody and receiving them meanwhile—a single morning of that kind of thing would exhaust her altogether.” [10] To Dilip Kumar Roy, he wrote: “The Mother has been ‘seeing’ nobody and even now and for some time to come all visits and talk must be refused until she is stronger. Certain people come here for their usual work, or to do necessary things, or to bring food or letters, etc. (dealt by me, not by the Mother!) but the Mother has not been wasting her strength in receiving them…” [11] At that time Datta and Chinmayee (who came to the Ashram in 1927) nursed her day and night till she recovered.

 

In the early years of the Ashram, the Mother used to play certain symbolic games with the inmates. In one of such games one had to write what he/she craved. Questions like “What do you want”, “What is Yoga”, or “Realization” were answered by the inmates differently. What follows are the answers that Datta had given to the aforesaid queries:

 

(1) What do you want?

“To be taken right into the Beyond in surrender.”

 

 (2) What is Yoga?

“To be so entirely cleansed of falsehood that there may be purity to know the     Divine Will and respond to the Call at any moment.”

 

(3) Realization: “The star of your Realisation is rising.”

 

Datta wore ochre saris; in fact she was the only lady in the Ashram to wear such saris and among the male members only Dilip Kumar Roy and Poornananda wore ochre robes. At that time the Ashram was not as prosperous as it is today and Datta shared the financial hardships that the Ashram had to undergo. Narayan Prasad writes in his book Life in Sri Aurobindo Ashram about Datta: “When none of us knew who the Mother was, there was one who gave her whole life to her even from when she was very young… Her spirit of dedication was above all bargaining, truly matchless. It is said of her that she was prepared even for sweeping work if that was assigned to her. She was so simple, so free from taint of ego that during the pre-Ashram days she used to wear pieces of old clothes (dhotis) of sadhaks at night, herself darning the torn pieces. With the birth of the Ashram she used the ochre garb and adhered to it till the last…her whole life was a living illustration of her self-giving.” [12] Sahana Devi too remembers: “The very sight of this lady [meaning Datta] was indeed a pleasure, she seemed to us a pure white flower consecrated to the Divine.” [13] Narayan Prasad notes in his book how a sadhak who had narrated the story of Datta to him folded his hands repeatedly in reverence to her memory. [14]

 

 

Those who have seen Datta remembers her as a very serious but very humble person and a silent worker of the Mother’s Work but who hardly interacted with anyone. But there were some like Nishtha, Jwalanti and Swarno with whom she interacted as they were her companions in her work for the Mother. One day she smiled broadly and told her companions: “I have good news for you.” Nishtha asked: “What is the news?” Datta answered: “Today the Mother said, ‘I have four flowers there.’” Jwalanti asked: “Four flowers?” “Yes,” Datta replied, “The Mother said, Jwalanti is Fire, Nishtha is Consciousness, Datta is entirely Self-giving and little Swarno is Service.” On another occasion Datta had told Swarno: “How nicely you embroider! Once I embroidered a blouse for the Mother for which I copied a pattern from a book. Later when I saw that some of you do such nice embroidery, I felt like throwing the blouse away. I told the Mother, ‘Don’t wear it. They are embroidering such beautiful things. This is not nice.’ But the Mother replied, “No! No! I will wear it.”  [15]

 

Here is another incident: once a sadhika, who used to sew and repair the Mother’s clothes, was asked to darn a handkerchief. She told Datta: “This handkerchief has been darned so often that there is hardly any of the original material left.” Datta told her: “No matter. Once I told the Mother, ‘This handkerchief is too torn’ and I put it to one side. ‘It has served me so long, so nicely, and you are throwing it away!’ With these words the Mother jumped up from her chair, picked up the handkerchief and held it on her lap. Since then I never say anything.” 

 

Another small but interesting piece of information for the reader: when Sri Aurobindo wrote The Life Divine, Datta and Arjava were the fortunate ones who read the handwritten sheets.

 

But as Datta did not socialize at all, the inmates hardly knew anything about her. She also never spoke about herself or her inner life. While there were some inmates who drew their own conclusions (like Barindra Kumar Ghose, Sri Aurobindo’s younger brother), there were some (like Nirodbaran) who had asked Sri Aurobindo about her. For instance, in Correspondence with Sri Aurobindo, we find Nirodbaran asking Sri Aurobindo (on 3 November 1935):

 

By the way I learned that Datta once belonged to this lamenting and repining group and spent almost 5 years in such a crisis! True? who will believe it now?”

 

Sri Aurobindo replied: “You are asking very delicate questions. I can only say that Datta has been with the Mother from the pre-Asram, even the pre-Yoga-times—her case is uniquely difficult.

 

The next day Nirodbaran wrote to Sri Aurobindo: “About Datta, it was in one of a series of articles written by Barin. So everybody knows what I know.” Sri Aurobindo answered: “Ah, then I understand. Barin’s statements are always inaccurate. The 5 years must have been his own construction.”  [16]

 

 

Apart from her daily visits to the Ashram Datta hardly went out of her house and whenever she went most of the time it was due to some work that the Mother would give to her. When Sarala (the daughter-in-law of Shivji-bhai, an old follower of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother who came to the Ashram for the first time on 13 August 1934) gave birth to her daughter Aruna on 5 January 1944, Datta had gone, on the Mother’s instruction, to her house to see the child. Let’s read about it in some detail:

 

In those days the Mother did not see young children…Sarala…had to rent a house situated in the market place, near the Indian Coffee House. One morning she and her mother were taking bath to be ready for the Mother’s Darshan in the Meditation Hall. Just then the servant with whom her daughter was playing called out from outside, “Datta Amma has come.” Wondering at this, Sarala hurried with her bath, asking the servant to request Datta to wait awhile. She was surprised at this honour, for Datta usually did not go out of the Ashram and for her to come to the market was surely to be marvelled at. The servant reported that Datta had said, “I will not stay, I have come to see the child,” and saying this she left before Sarala could come out. After her bath when Sarala and her mother reached the Meditation Hall to do the Pranam the Mother said, “I have heard the child is very nice.” Then Sarala understood that the Mother must have asked Datta to go and see her daughter. [17]

 

Those who have seen her recall meeting her only on the road while she was either going to or coming from the Ashram main building. As said earlier, she hardly interacted with anyone in the Ashram and carried on for nearly two decades in the same manner. Physically she was never stout and she continued to become frail. Champaklal noted in his diary (on 9 December 1944): “Datta was not keeping well. Mother went to see her and after coming from there, she told Sri Aurobindo: “Peaceful, detached.” Datta continued with her work silently till her health completely broke down in 1949 and she breathed her last on 2 July 1949. Champaklal noted (on 10 July 1949):

 

After Datta passed away, Surendra [Surendra Mohan Ghose settled in the Ashram in 1930; he was an efficient manager who was in charge of several departments of the Ashram] brought upstairs, with the help of some boys, a big box containing her things. As Mother was looking at them, someone pulled out an old mirror. It was a Japanese mirror and one corner of its frame had been eaten away.

 

At once I asked: “Mother, what are you going to do with it? Is this not the same mirror that Sri Aurobindo was using in Library House?”

 

Mother: “Yes, but it is in a very bad condition. I will give it for repair.”

 

Champaklal: “No, Mother, I would like to keep it as it is, without making any change. I shall only give it to Risabhchand to treat it with solignum so that there [may] not be further decay.” Mother placed the mirror in my hands very happily.

 

Champaklal: “Mother, there was also a copy of The Mother, where Mother had written

in Sanskrit the name Mira. Where is that book?”

 

Mother found it along with other books which had her autograph and gave all of them to me. [18]

 

 

From the aforesaid passage we come to know how some of the possessions of Datta were passed on to Champaklal after her demise, just as her responsibilities were taken up by Chinmayee who succeeded her as the Mother’s attendant and continued her work for the Mother till her own death in 1953. It is interesting to note how Datta kept certain objects used by the Mother and Sri Aurobindo with herself whose existence was probably not remembered by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.

 

Datta lived up to the name that Sri Aurobindo had given to her—“One who has given herself”. She was the epitome of devotion and dedication and her entire life was a perfect example of dedicated service. Apparently her life was a very ordinary one with hardly any ups or downs. But who knows about her inner life about which she never revealed anything? But there were depths in her which was simply unfathomable. And that is why she is still remembered even after sixty years of her physical departure. Such was Datta—someone really very special.

 

References

[1] KRS Iyengar, On the Mother, p. 182

[2] Shyam Kumari, More Vignettes of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, p. 143

[3] Nolini Kanta Gupta, Reminiscences, p. 69

[4] On the Mother, pp. 210-211

[5] Ibid., p. 211

[6] T Kodandarama Rao, At the Feet of the Master: Reminiscences, p. 20

[7] Georges Van Vrekhem, The Mother: The Story of Her Life, p. 229

[8] Nirodbaran, Correspondence with Sri Aurobindo, pp. 294-295

[9] MP Pandit, Breath of Grace (ed), p. 165

[10] The Mother: The Story of Her Life, pp. 294-295

[11] Sri Aurobindo To Dilip, Volume I, pp. 112-113

[12] Narayan Prasad, Life in Sri Aurobindo Ashram, p. 363

[13] Breath of Grace, p. 165

[14] Life in Sri Aurobindo Ashram, p. 363

[15] More Vignettes of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, pp. 143-144

[16] Correspondence with Sri Aurobindo, pp. 373-374

[17] Shyam Kumari, How They Came to Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Vol. II, p. 52

[18] Champaklal Speaks, p. 157

In Japan: extreme left with the Mother and Paul Richard

Datta’s sketch drawn by the Mother