Savitri Era Basics









                                    Anurag Banerjee



Hers is a story of faith; of aspiration and complete surrender at the Feet of the One whose writings had kindled her latent seeking of the Unknown. She has been defined as “mysterious”; she was the eldest daughter of one of the most influential and powerful persons of the world and was good-looking and elegant and admired by many; yet she kept behind her past, her family and friends for the sake of the One on whom she had unshakeable and impregnable faith. And she herself was the embodiment of faith. She is Margaret Woodrow Wilson who was given the name of Nishtha by Sri Aurobindo.

    On 28 December 1856, a son was born to Reverend Dr. Joseph Wilson (1822-1903) and Janet Woodrow (1826-1888). The child was named Thomas Woodrow Wilson. Joseph, who was from Steubenville (Ohio) where his father was an abolitionist newspaper publisher, was one of the founders of the Southern Presbyterian Church in the United States. He was the first permanent clerk of the Southern Church’s General Assembly and was its Stated Clerk for a period of 33 years from 1865 to 1898 as well as the Moderator of the P.C.U.S. General Assembly in 1879. His third child Thomas Woodrow Wilson who was born in Staunton, Virginia and suffered from dyslexia, spent a considerable period of his childhood years in Augusta where Joseph served as a Minister of the first Presbyterian Church. Till the age of twelve, Thomas did not know how to read but he studied under the tutelage of his father and attended classes in a small school in Augusta where he stayed till he turned fourteen. Moreover, as a teenager he taught himself shorthand to compensate for the limitations he had suffered from. He spent four years (from 1870 to 1874) at Columbia, South Carolina where Joseph was the Professor at the Columbia Theological Seminary. In 1873 he spent a year at Davidson College in North Carolina; then transferred to the College of New Jersey (now known as Princeton University) from where he graduated in 1879. The same year, he attended the University of Virginia’s Law School for one year though he never graduated. In January 1882, he decided to commence his law practice in Atlanta and was invited by his classmate at Virginia University named Edward Ireland Renick to join him as a partner in his law practice. In May 1882, Woodrow Wilson joined his friend’s firm. He passed the Georgia Bar and appeared before Judge George Hillyer on 19 October 1882 to take his examination for Bar. At the same time he started working on his thesis Congressional Government in the United States. In April 1883 he applied to the new John Hopkins University to study for PHD in History and Political Science. Three months later, in July, he left his partnership with Edward to pursue his academic studies. That very year, in summer, he met Ellen Louise Axson.[1]

    Born on 15 May 1860 in Savannah (Georgia), Ellen Louise Axson was the eldest daughter of Reverend Samuel Edward Axson and Margaret Hayt Axson; she was followed by two brothers Stockton and Edward and a sister Margaret. Ellen, who graduated in 1876, was described as “5’3″ tall, with dark reddish brown hair, pilled high on a pompadous style, away from her face, and brown eyes…had soft feminine features and a good figure.”[2] Her mother died in 1881 while giving birth to a child that made her father sink into depression; he was taken to a mental asylum and he died on 28 May 1884; his death was considered to be a “probable suicide.”

     Woodrow and Ellen fell in love and got married on 24 June 1885. In due course, they were blessed with three daughters—Margaret (1886-1944), Jessie (1887-1933) and Eleanor Randolph (1889-1967). Though both Wilson and Ellen were religious, yet Ellen was considered to be more open-minded than her husband. She encouraged him to go on lecture tours and also encouraged his interest in politics as well.

   Meanwhile Woodrow, after earning his doctorate from John Hopkins University in 1886, began to teach at Bryn Mawr College, near Philadelphia; next he taught at Wesleyan College in Connecticut. In 1890, he joined Princeton University as a Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Economy and was associated with it for twelve years. His political career began with his election to the post of Governor of New Jersey in 1910 and two years later, he was nominated for President of United States by the Democratic Party. His campaign, known as the New Freedom, promoted individual and states’ rights and he was nicknamed “School Master in Politics.” With Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft dividing the Republican Party vote, Woodrow Wilson was elected as the 28th President of the United States. He remained in office for two terms from 4 March 1913 to 4 March 1921. Considered by some to be one of the greatest Presidents of America, a number of important legislations were passed during his administration, namely, the Underwood Act—a tariff reduction act, the Federal Reserve Act (which was successful in providing the United States with elastic money, Revenue Act 1913, Federal Farm Act 1916, National Park Service Act 1916, Jones Act 1917, Espionage Act 1917, Sedition Act 1918 and Clayton Antitrust Act. He also supported a law to prohibit child labour and one that limited the work day of railroad workers to eight hours.

    Meanwhile, the health of Ellen who was a constant source of support and inspiration to Woodrow, began to fail. She was stricken with kidney problems since the birth of her youngest daughter Eleanor in 1889. Called “the Angel in the White House” by the staff for her gentle manners, she contracted Bright’s Disease due to which she became ‘puffy’ and appeared tired all the time. Her second daughter Jessie’s wedding on 25 November 1913, which was a gala affair, depleted her small reserve of strength and in March 1914, she fell in her bedroom which shook her already weak body. Her physicians did not inform her about the nature of her illness for a long time. When she understood that her end was near, she insisted Woodrow to have the Alley Dwelling Bill passed which was eventually done shortly before her death. On the day before she passed away, she made her doctors promise to tell Woodrow ‘later’ that she hoped that he would remarry. And she murmured at the end: “Take good care of my husband.” She died on 6 April 1914 and was buried in Myrth Hill Cemetery, Rome near her parents.

   After Ellen’s death, it was her eldest daughter Margaret who took over all of Ellen’s responsibilities as the First Lady. Born on 16 April 1886 in Gainesville (Georgia), she was educated in Goucher College and Peabody Conservatory of Music. Besides, she also received training from a number of private music tutors.

   Doug Wead writes about the Wilson sisters: “In an age before television, when the public might not instantly recognize a presidential child on the street, the Wilson girls took malicious delight in flitting about Washington, testing public opinion for themselves. Margaret, the firstborn, once instigated a sightseeing tour of Washington, with the sisters disguised as “hicks” from out of town. They patiently waited in line, bought tickets and then proceeded to ratchet up the farce by asking inane questions of the tour guide. With a whiny, high pitched voice, Margaret relentlessly implored the guide to let them go inside the White House itself. They wanted to see the family quarters, she said, where the Wilson girls actually slept. The exasperated guide patiently explained that it could not be done and then patronized them with his authority on the subject of the White House and his “authentic” stories of the first family. Neither, he, nor the other sightseers, caught on to their true identities. Later, upstairs in the White House alone, the Wilson girls convulsed with laughter.”[3]

    Though Margaret stepped in as the hostess after Ellen’s death, yet she did not quite like the role as well as the pressure that were on her shoulders. In a note she had written to Jessie, she apologized for not writing sooner and explained that she had to entertain the houseguests and the callers “every minute.” She had to attend a number of meetings and public functions as well; the newspaper coverage of one such meeting is given below:


                            MISS WILSON QUICK AT ‘RABBLE’ QUERY

          President’s Daughter at Meeting to Advocate Public Use of Schoolhouses

                                           FRANK P.WALSH SPEAKS


        Miss Margaret Woodrow Wilson, Dr. Katherine Bement Davis, the new Commissioner of Correction, and Frank P. Walsh, Chairman of the Industrial Relations Commission appointed by President Wilson, were guests at a luncheon given under the auspices of the League for Political Education at the Hotel Astor yesterday. It followed a meeting of the League at the Hudson Theatre at which Mr. Walsh was the speaker. He advocated the use of the public school buildings for public meetings and polling places.

      At the close of the meeting, when the President’s daughter was meeting the people in the audience informally, one woman said to her referring to the use of public school houses: “But how about the rabble that would go there?”

   “What do you mean by the ‘rabble’”? asked Miss Wilson quickly.

   Miss Wilson, wearing a dark green suit of silk ratine, sat upon the platform with Mrs. Edward Brown, a first cousin of Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, and Mrs. McDonald Sheridan. Miss Wilson, who is specially interested in the subject discussed by Mr. Walsh, “Public Opinion and the Social Centre”, did not speak, and had asked that she should not be asked even to bow to the audience.[4]


    Both Jessie and Eleanor got married during Woodrow Wilson’s first term as the President. But Margaret did not do so; in fact she remained a spinster throughout her life. She had many admirers and lovers; however she never found the right man for her. One of her lovers was Boyd Archer Fisher who apart being a graduate from Harvard University was also a writer, a social worker and efficiency expert from New York. Ellen, who liked Boyd, described him as “quick to take not only an idea but a point of view or an impression.” Margaret was friendly with him but she was not in love with him. To win her heart, Boyd wrote a one-act play using it as an instrument to describe his jealousy over a singing career (referring to Margaret’s) with which he was unable to compete. Boyd’s protagonist in the drama tells her character: “When I think about you, you begin to radiate until I think you are the most beautiful girl in the world.” The significance of this statement lies in the fact that Margaret was the ‘least attractive’ of the Wilson sisters.

   Doug Wead writes about Margaret and Boyd: “In one of his letters to her, Boyd described how he was attempting to make something of himself so she didn’t have to be ashamed of him, just in case “you do decide to take me.” He was her date at a party in Greenwich Village on February 14, 1914, after which Margaret was portrayed in a New York Times article as being the “chief factor in the evening’s success.” The article said that Boyd Fisher claimed Margaret for the first dance and “a share of the others,” but he was not able to monopolize her evening. “Miss Wilson distributed her time among the two hundred men and women, boys and girls at the party so evenly that when it was over she had exchanged a few words with every one of them.”[5] Their friendship did not culminate into marriage but they remained pals throughout their lives. Margaret was not quite inclined towards marriage; she wanted to have a successful career in music.


    In 1915, Woodrow Wilson met Edith Galt and fell in love with her. He married her that very year on 18 December. His remarriage created a scandal in Washington as his remarriage took place less than a year and a half after the death of Ellen. But the Wilson sisters were aware of the fact that how devastated Woodrow Wilson had been following the demise of Ellen and he had become ‘desperately lonely’ as he depended much on her. So they welcomed Edith into the family.

   Now that Woodrow Wilson was married and Edith became the First Lady, Margaret was released from her responsibilities in the White House and she concentrated whole-heartedly on her musical career for which she took lessons in voice and piano for several years.

   Margaret commenced her concert tour in 1915. However, her performances received mixed reviews. The Baltimore Sun reported: “…there are many voices that appear bigger, but hers is so clear, so pure, that it carries…just as a Stradivarius does.” Another newspaper said that her lyric soprano and personal charm would “command recognition quite independent of her distinguished parent.” Another reported that her “Ave Maria” was “an act of worship”. The New York Times reported on 20 April 1915:


                                     MARGARET WILSON SINGS

            President’s Daughter Displays a Soprano of Sympathetic Quality


            Miss Margaret Woodrow Wilson, daughter of President Wilson, was one of a group of pupils of Ross David, who appeared in a recital in the diminutive Bandbox Theatre yesterday afternoon. It was really Miss Wilson’s recital, for she was allotted nearly as many numbers as the others combined, and the audience seemed to be made up largely of her personal friends.

      Miss Wilson sang three groups of songs, the first made up of German songs by Hermann, Grieg and Brahms: the second of Schubert’s “Ave Maria” and “Le Nil”, by Leroux, and the third a miscellaneous collection. Miss Wilson has a soprano voice, whose sympathetic quality is its most commendable attribute. She sings with intelligence and feeling and without affectation. A slight tremolo in the high notes and a husky quality most noticeable in the upper and lower registers, were her most serious faults.

    Mrs. Howe-Cathron soprano, a niece of the President, who suggested her cousin in appearance and the timbre of her voice: Melville A. Clark, harpist, and Carmine Fabrizio, violinist, were the others on the program. Miss Marion David and George Wilran were the accompanists.

    Margaret sang once with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1915 in Syracuse during Woodrow Wilson’s term as the President but the critics were not impressed. Her performances were ‘damned with faint praises’. She also sang for Columbia Gramophone Company which released a record of “The Star Spangled Banner” sung by her in May 1915 as a fund raising souvenir for the American Red Cross from the Panama Pacific International Exposition, held in San Francisco, California. The record was released with a message by Margaret printed on its cover:

    “This Record of my voice if sold by the Columbian Gramophone Company shall yield to the American Red Cross the sum of 25 cents covering my entire royalty.”   

    The advertisement announcing the release of “The Star Spangled Banner” is as follows:


                                   MARGARET WOODROW WILSON

                                        (Daughter of the President)

                                      Makes Record for War Relief

                                  A Patriotic Record for a Patriotic Cause


 Through the generosity of Miss Margaret Woodrow Wilson, daughter of the President of the United States, every record buyer is put in a position to aid in the relief work in the European countries at war.

    The first lady of the land has made a recording of the first song of the land—“The Star-Spangled Banner”. It is a record that will not only carry a duel appeal to American patriotism and American generosity, but will also bring a full share of enjoyment with it because Miss Wilson has recorded this martial air with all the fervor with which it should be rendered. The reverse of the record carries a medley of National Airs stirringly played by the Columbia Band.”


    From October 1915 to March 1918 Margaret and her accompanist travelled to every training camp in the country and gave concerts for the soldiers of the First World War. She had a sold-out concert for 12000 people in Denver and on the following day a free concert was held for the 13000 people who had been turned away on the previous night. All the proceeds of her concerts were given to charity. Porter Oakes, a young journalist for the National War Committee of the YMCA writes about one such concert that was held at twilight. He described that ten thousand soldiers, “a sea of bronzed faces” awaited Margaret to sing. They had just been informed that they would be shipped to the warfront and according to Oakes, Margaret’s songs made “a chain of musical memories to be carried away”. He reported that the soldiers wept as through the music, they saw through the love of their parents or sweetheart and their tears “loosened up and washed away that tight-around-the-heart feeling that came with the knowledge that there would be no furloughs home before the big movement began.”[6]

   Margaret would travel 20 miles down the artillery-blasted roads to perform for the thousands of wounded soldiers. She did so even after much bigger performances which were already strenuous for her. Not only did she tour around America but also went to the frontiers of war-torn France to sing. When the war ended, it was found that her tireless travels had strained her voice ‘beyond repair’. She also had nervous breakdown due to the experiences and horrifying sights of battlefields. “Recuperating some months after the war at Grove Oak Inn in North Carolina, General John J. Pershing and his staff asked her to sing. When she told them how she had lost her singing voice, General Pershing rose and lifted his glass. “To Miss Wilson,” he said, “just as much a victim of war service as were the soldiers who filled this country’s hospitals.”[7]

   Margaret’s dream of having a successful career in music ended prematurely. Though she made several recordings around 1918, yet she “wandered through life, dreaming of a success that appeared constantly just out of reach”.[8]


   Woodrow Wilson’s second term as President coincided with the First World War that started in 1914. Reelected President for the second time in 1916 on a narrow margin, Woodrow Wilson raised billions of dollars through liberty loans, imposed income taxes, set up the War Industries Board, promoted labour union growth, supervised agriculture and food production through the Lever Act, took control of the railroads and suppressed anti-war movements during his tenure. His provisions for food and funds helped America in the war. In 1919, he went to Paris to create the League of Nations and shape the Treaty of Versailles. He also received the Nobel Peace Prize in that year for his contributions. But at the same time he had to witness the after-effects of the war to which America was subjected to. His post-war treaty was in shambles and in order to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and gain support for the League of Nations from the American citizens, he undertook a major but disastrous trip of 8000 miles which he travelled in twenty-two days during which he gave 32 major speeches and 8 minor ones. His health was unable to bear the strain and he collapsed on the trip and was brought to the White House where he suffered a stroke on 2 October 1919 which paralyzed his left side and made his left eye blind. Edith Wilson meticulously looked after him and also took over some of his major routine responsibilities. However she was “accused of being the Lady President, the Regent, the Iron Queen, the ‘Petticoat Government’” etc. Margaret, who was then living and working in New York would come to be with her father during weekends.

   Woodrow Wilson left his office on 4 March 1921 and shifted to a house in the Embassy Road Section of Washington D.C. with his wife. He died on Sunday, 3 February 1924 at 11:56 a.m. in the company of Edith, Margaret and his physician. Jessie and her husband Francis Bowes Sayre (U.S. High Commissioner to the Philippines, 1939-1942), who were living in Siam could not come. Eleanor and her husband Senator William Gibbs McAdoo rushed home and found Margaret moving about in a daze and unresponsive to conversation.

   Woodrow Wilson had bequeathed his modest estate to his wife and had arranged for a payment of 2500 dollars to be paid annually to Margaret as long as she remained unmarried which she remained throughout her life. “Rent consumed half of her stipend, leaving her little to live on.”[9] She returned to New York where she had settled in 1923.


    Nothing much is known about Margaret’s life in New York. She worked as a saleswoman and advertising writer; she also worked as a consultant in Biow Agency, an advertising firm. She also tried her luck in the stock market but burnt her fingers while speculating in oil stocks. “It is not known”, writes Doug Wead, “whether she actually sold the stock or just introduced people to brokers. However, a letter from Helen Bones, the cousin who had lived with the Wilson’s in the White House, indicated that she had received repayment from Margaret. Helen Bones said she had entered the venture knowing it was a risk, and that it was not Margaret’s fault. However, she kept the money, knowing also that it meant much to Margaret’s sense of pride and honor to pay back everyone of his friends.”[10]

   Margaret was far away from her life at the White House. Bur she was happy as she had the ‘time for concentrated thought’ to quote Woodrow Wilson. She read books on Philosophy and strove for a higher life based on profound principles. Despite privation, she had to appear in court in March 1926 when two teenagers were arrested for committing burglary in her apartment. However, Margaret refused to press any charge against them. When the magistrate told her that if the boys were not prosecuted, they won’t learn their lesson. Margaret smiled and replied: “The best lesson for them is the lesson of kindness.” The Next day, the Time published an editorial on her saying that Margaret was more kind than wise.

    In the 1930s, Margaret was introduced to Indian spirituality and mysticism by her friend Eliot, an English army officer and follower of Sri Ramakrishna. Paramahansa Yogananda, the founder of Self-Realization Fellowship and Yogoda Satsanga Society, remembers: “I met [Margaret] in New York; she was intensely interested in India.”[11] She also edited Swami Nikhilananda’s[12] translation of the Gospels of Sri Ramakrishna along with Joseph Campbell[13], the noted author.


   In 1936, Margaret came across Sri Aurobindo’s Essays on the Gita in the New York City Public Library. She sat down in the main reading room of the library and became so engrossed that she lost sense of time and a guard had to tell her that the library was closing. She returned on the following day and by the time she had finished reading the book, she realized that she had found her path, her ‘missing aim’ which she had been searching throughout her life and above all, her Guru. She wrote to Sri Aurobindo and expressed her wish to practise the Integral Yoga and asked him the nature of the discipline followed to convert ‘mental seeking into a living spiritual experience’. Sri Aurobindo wrote a long letter to her in September 1936 which is quoted below:                      

    “To find the Divine is indeed the first reason for seeking the spiritual Truth and the spiritual life, it is the one thing indispensable and all the rest is nothing without it.  The Divine once found, to manifest Him,—that is, first of all to transform one’s own limited consciousness into the Divine Consciousness, to live in the infinite Peace, Light, Love, Strength, Bliss to become that in one’s essential nature and, as a consequence, to be its vessel, channel, instrument in one’s active nature.

   To bring into activity the Principle of Oneness on the material plane or to work for humanity is a mental mistranslation of the Truth—these things cannot be the first or true object of spiritual seeking. We must find the self, the Divine, then only can we know what is the work the self or the Divine demands from us. Until then our life and action can only be a help or means towards finding the Divine and it ought not to have any other purpose. As we grow in the inner consciousness, or as the spiritual Truth of the Divine grows in us, our life and action must indeed more and more flow from that, be one with that. But to decide beforehand by our limited mental conceptions what they must be is to hamper the growth of the spiritual Truth within. As that grows we shall feel the Divine Light and Truth, the Divine Power and Force, the Divine Purity and Peace working within us, dealing with our actions as well as our consciousness, making use of them to reshape us into the Divine Image, removing the dross, substituting the pure gold of the spirit. Only when the Divine Presence is there in us always and the consciousness transformed, can we have the right to say that we are ready to manifest the Divine on the material plane. To hold up a mental ideal or principle and impose that on the inner working brings the danger of limiting ourselves to a mental realisation or of impeding or even falsifying by half way formation the true growth into the full communion and union with the Divine and the free and intimate outflowing of His will in our life. This is a mistake of orientation to which the mind of today is especially prone and we are glad to see that you are free from it. It is far better to approach the Divine for the Peace or Light or Bliss that the realisation of Him gives than to bring in these minor things, which can divert us from the one thing needful. The divinisation of the material life also as well as the inner life is part of what we see as the Divine Plan, but it can only be fulfilled by an outflowing of the inner realisation, something that grows from within outward, not by the working out of a mental principle…

    You have asked what is the discipline to be followed in order to convert the mental seeking into a living spiritual experience. The first necessity is the practice of concentration of your consciousness within yourself. The ordinary human mind has an activity on the surface, which veils the real self. But there is another, a hidden consciousness within behind the surface one in which we can become aware of the real self and of a larger deeper truth of nature, can realise the self and liberate and transform the nature. To quiet the surface mind and begin to live within is the object of this concentration. Of this true consciousness other than the superficial there are two main centres, one in the heart (not the physical heart, but the cardiac centre in the middle of the chest), one in the head. The concentration in the heart opens within and by following this inward opening and going deep one becomes aware of the soul or psychic being, the divine element in the individual. This being unveiled begins to come forward, to govern the nature, to turn it and all its movements towards the Truth, towards the Divine, and to call down into it all that is above. It brings the consciousness of the Presence, the dedication of the being to the Highest and invites the descent into our nature of a greater Force and Consciousness, which is waiting above us. To concentrate in the heart centre with the offering of oneself to the Divine and the aspiration for this inward opening and for the Presence in the heart is the first way and, if it can be done, the natural beginning; for its result once obtained makes the spiritual path far more easy and safe than if one begins from the other way.

    That other way is the concentration in the head, in the mental centre. This, if it brings about the silence of the surface mind, opens up an inner, larger, deeper mind within which is more capable of receiving spiritual experience and spiritual knowledge. But once concentrated here one must open the silent mental consciousness upward to all that is above mind. After a time one feels the consciousness rising upward and in the end it rises beyond the lid which has so long kept it tied in the body and finds a centre above the head where it is liberated into the Infinite. There it begins to come in contact with the universal Self, the Divine Peace, Light, Power, Knowledge, Bliss, to enter into that and become that, to feel the descent of these things into the nature. To concentrate in the head with the aspiration for quietude in the mind and the realisation of the Self and Divine above is the second way of concentration. It is important, however, to remember that the concentration of the consciousness in the head is only a preparation for its rising to the centre above; otherwise one may get shut up in one’s own mind and its experiences or at best attain only to a reflection of the Truth above instead of rising into the spiritual transcendence to live there. For some the mental concentration is easier, for some the concentration in the heart centre; some are capable of doing both alternatively—but to begin with the heart centre, if one can do it, is the more desirable.

    The other side of discipline is with regard to the activities of the nature, of the mind, of the life-self or vital, of the physical being. Here the principle is to accord the nature with the inner realisation so that one may not be divided into two discordant parts. There are here several disciplines or processes possible. One is to offer all the activities to the Divine and call for the inner guidance and the taking up of one’s nature by a Higher Power. If there is the inward soul-opening, if the psychic being comes forward, then there is no great difficulty—there comes with it a psychic discrimination, a constant intimation, finally a governance which discloses and quietly and patiently removes all imperfections, brings the right mental and vital movements and reshapes the physical consciousness also. Another method is to stand back detached from the movements of the mind, life, physical being, to regard their activities as only a habitual formation of general Nature in the individual imposed on us by past workings, not as any part of our real being; in proportion as one succeeds in this, becomes detached, sees mind and its activities as not oneself, life and its activities as not oneself, the body and its activities as not oneself, one becomes aware of a Being within—mental, vital, physical—silent, calm, unbound and unattached which reflects the true Self above and be its representative; from this inner silent Being proceeds a rejection of all that is to be rejected, an acceptance only of what can be kept and transformed, an inmost Will to perfection or a call to the Divine Power to do at each step what is necessary for the change of the Nature. In most cases these two methods emerge and work together and finally fuse into one. But one can begin with either, the one that one feels most natural and easy to follow.

    Finally, it will help you in your meditation and practice to keep yourself turned towards us and call for our help in all difficulties; for where personal effort is hampered, the help of the Teacher can intervene and bring about what is needed for the realisation or for the immediate step that is necessary.”[14]                

    Since Margaret was desperately desirous to be near the Mother and Sri Aurobindo irrespective of her ill-health, Sri Aurobindo advised her in the same letter:

    “We are doubtful about the advisability of your coming here the next winter. Your illness and the fact that you suffer from the heat stand in the way, for in Southern India the heat is extreme. The sudden change of climate and ways of life may be hard to bear. Moreover there will not be truly competent medical aid and advice available here as it would be in America. Finally, you do not know perhaps that I am living for the present in an entire retirement, not seeing or speaking with anyone, even the disciples in the Ashram, only coming out to give a silent blessing three times in a year. The Mother also has not time to give free or frequent access to those who are here. You would therefore probably be disappointed if you came here with the idea of a personal contact with us to help you in your spiritual endeavour. The personal touch is there but it is more of an inward closeness with only a few points of physical contact to support it. But this inner contact, inner help can very well be received at a distance. We have not any disciples in America, though several Americans have come recently here and became interested in the Yoga. But we have disciples in France and some of these have been able already to establish an inner closeness with us and to become aware of our nearness and help in their spiritual endeavour and experience. We would advise you therefore to try this way where you are rather than face the difficulty and inconveniences of a journey and stay here which, if necessary, could be undertaken with more advantage after you have gone some way in the path rather than at present.”

   At the same time he also assured Margaret: “You can write to us always about your experiences or difficulties and we shall give the necessary replies—between the written letter and reply there will necessarily at this distance be a rather long interval; but the silent answer and help can always go to you immediately—for here distance does not count.”


    Margaret’s life changed for ever. She continued her practice of the Integral Yoga as directed by Sri Aurobindo. Meanwhile she also arranged the publication of an article on Sri Aurobindo and his Yoga written by Swami Nikhilananda in the American paper Asia. Two years later in October 1938, she came to Pondicherry ignoring the warning of her physicians regarding the ill effects of the climate of South India on her severe arthritic condition. On 5 November, Sri Aurobindo gave her the name of Nishtha meaning “one-pointed, fixed and steady concentration, devotion and faith in the single aim, the Divine and the Divine Realisation.” On receiving her new name, she wrote to her sister Eleanor: “Do you remember those beautiful words in the Bible? And I shall keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed (or fixed) on me? That is what we must do, learn to stay our minds on Him.”

   Came the night of 23 November 1938.The next day was the scheduled ‘Darshan Day’ when the devotees and followers of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother were to have their Darshan. Nirodbaran writes:

    “Visitors had swollen the even flow of our life; among them, Miss Wilson, daughter of President Wilson, had come from far-off America for the Master’s Darshan. His book Essays on the Gita had cast an earthly spell upon her. That there could be someone who could write such a wonderful book in this materialistic age was beyond her imagination. She could hear the Voice of the Lord saying to man, “Abandon all dharmas. Take refuge in me alone. I shall deliver thee from all Sin.” The book was her Bible. She decided she must have the Darshan of such a unique person.”[15]

     But on that night Sri Aurobindo met with an accident; he stumbled over a tiger-skin in his room and fell with his right knee striking the head of a tiger, thus resulting in a fracture. The Darshan was cancelled. Nirodbaran continues: “All hopes and aspirations of hundreds of people were set at naught by this single blow. They gathered in the courtyard of the Ashram to know the truth and went back sullen-hearted with a fervent prayer addressed to the Mother and the Lord for his speedy recovery…The Mother, out of compassion for the disappointed devotees, gave darshan to all in the evening. Thus she wiped away their gloom with the sunshine of her smile and the power of her touch.”[16]

        And about Nishtha, Nirodbaran writes: “Miss Wilson accepted Fate’s decree with a calm submission.” When on 18 December, Dr. Manilal who was treating Sri Aurobindo asked him that Nishtha must have been disappointed because of the lack of Darshan, Sri Aurobindo replied: “No. She has taken it with the right attitude—unlike many.”[17]


   In her first interview with the Mother, Nishtha was told by her that the members of the Ashram were free to follow their own ‘promptings’ and that there were no pledges of any kind as they were untrue. “Here it is only the Divine,” the Mother had told Nishtha. Soon after, Nishtha wrote to her friend Lois Kellogg Roth: “That pregnant saying I am only gradually learning to recognise, the significance of this place. I am beginning to see that all the bondage here as elsewhere and everywhere are our own making—that the Divine imposes no bondage of any kind whatsoever.”[18]

   That year (1938) on 25 December, Christmas was celebrated in the Ashram for the first time at ‘The Red House’ which was owned by Udar Pinto. The guests included Nishtha, Ambu (the Hatha yoga teacher who also looked after Nishtha) and François Sammer (one of the architects of Golconde). “Nishtha made a big star to place on the top of the tree that year,” remembers Gauri Pinto[19]


   On 24 April 1939, Nishtha had her first darshan of Sri Aurobindo with the Mother sitting on his right. Fulfilled was her heart’s desire, fulfilled was her soul’s craving! She wrote to her friend Lois: “Since seeing Sri Aurobindo and the Mother together, I have been surer than ever that their way is my way—that my soul brought me here where it belongs.” She spent her days in the Ashram in prayer and meditation. She was assigned work in the flower garden of the Ashram and she also helped in typing Sri Aurobindo’s writings on her Corona typewriter. Another privilege that she enjoyed was washing Sri Aurobindo’s dishes. She contributed one hundred dollars a month to the Ashram from the stipend that her father had arranged for her; from whatever money that remained, she brought fresh fruits for her and her favourite facial lotions which Eleanor used to send to her from America.

   The Mother too took extreme care of Nishtha. She provided Nishtha with a spacious building across the Playground building for accommodation (this building was converted into ‘Sri Smriti’ in 1989)The Mother made Nishtha feel comfortable in the best possible ways; she was given a special cook and a servant. Once the Mother told Nishtha in Lalita’s[20] presence that since she was unaccustomed to vegetarian diet, she must not hesitate to have non-vegetarian food if her health required it. Nishtha replied: “No, Mother, I will not have it—even if I have to die as a result.” Later, in 1941 she had to resort to non-vegetarian diet when she began to suffer from gout.

    When the United States joined the Second World War, the then President Franklin D. Roosevelt instructed the evacuation of all Americans residing in India as Japan had threatened to invade India. But despite extreme pressure and requests from her family, friends and the U.S. government, Nishtha refused to leave India and return to America. “Few can show the strength of character which came so easily to her,”[21] writes Amal Kiran about Nishtha.


    What follows are excerpts from Nishtha’s letters to her friend Lois Kellogg Roth regarding her thoughts, spiritual experiences in the Ashram and above all, Sri Aurobindo and the Mother:

     ‘Sometimes I feel as if the Divine were whispering to my soul and I, in order to catch the faintest word, am listening as I have never listened before. Sometimes it is as if the Beloved and I were telling each other secrets that none can share except in a wordless communion with “us”.’

    ‘But I will note, simply as one notes a “happening”, that the closer I feel to Mother and Sri Aurobindo, the closer I feel too as an immediate result sometimes, to those other dear ones.’                   

   ‘…I was transported into an inner plane of being which I recognise as the same one I was in inwardly at certain moments when my singing was more than ordinarily subjective.’

   ‘But when I look at the Mother in the morning sunlight on her terrace from which she sends each of us a shaft of love more brilliant than any light that was ever seen on snowy crests, or when in the evening I see her standing in the meditation hall, still in the immutable calm, the Unchanging One, I know that the vast stillness of Mont Blanc is but a faint imitation of that other Peace that She is.’

  ‘Oh Lois, one cannot talk about Sri Aurobindo and the Mother—once can only suggest in some such words as these that they are what we are seeking, that which we will be in the outer man as now we are in the inner Reality. They are consciously that.’

   ‘…One day in a California garden, when the intensity of my enjoyment provoked the rather humourous thought—“I wonder if God enjoys this in exactly this way—if he doesn’t , I’m sorry for him”—then came the idea as a kind of realisation, “it is He that is enjoying this way—perhaps that is the reason for me.’[22]

   About Sri Aurobindo, Nishtha said: “Here is one on earth whom one can love all one’s life and in whom one can lose oneself.”


     Nishtha’s reference is also found in the talks Sri Aurobindo had in his room with some of his disciples. We quote a few of them; the readers would have a glimpse of Sri Aurobindo’s deep sense of humour from the talks that follow:


       Purani: Is anything being tried in America to get your works published? Did Vaun[23] do anything?

      Sri Aurobindo: No. The Americans are not easily attracted to profound things. The article an American wrote some time back on me was very superficial. But Nishtha said that it was originally quite deep; the editor of the paper said it wouldn’t do. He thought the Americans wouldn’t be interested in such deep things. So he made it what it is.[24]          




     Purani: Indian music, especially South Indian, has been preserved by the temples; expert musicians come there on occasions and play and sing.

      Nishtha is all praise for many Indian things she sees here. For example, she finds great beauty in the way Indian women walk. She said to me, “You won’t understand it, but I can because I have seen our European women walking. Your women walk as if they were born dancers. They have a beautiful rhythm in their movements.”

     Sri Aurobindo: That is true. It is, I suppose, due to their having to carry pots on their heads. This practice requires balance of the whole body.


    Purani: Nishtha praises the Indian saris and says that our women have a keen sense of colour.

    Sri Aurobindo: She is right. I hope our women are not going to give up saris under the Western influence.[25]  (24.1.1939)                                                                     



    Purani: King Leopold’s mother is said to be a German.

    Sri Aurobindo: German? I see. Who said so?

    Purani: Jwalanti [the mother of Gabriel Monod-Herzen]. Nishtha also says that she is an enigma. During the last war’s peace negotiations, her face used to be like a mask. Nobody knew whether she sided with Germany or with the Allies. Nishtha has met her.[26]

                                                                                                                     (3. 6.1940)


    Sri Aurobindo: Have you read that the Belgian consul has become furious with the Amrit Bazar and calls it a gossip-monger? He praises Churchill and the Hindu. But now Churchill says that one can form one’s own opinion about the conduct of Leopold…Nishtha met him in America. She says that he is a man underhanded dealings. When she heard of his defection, the first thing she said was, “Oh, it must be his mother.”[27] (7.7.1940)



      Nirodbaran: Roosevelt has invited Wilkie, the Republican candidate, for a talk.

      Sri Aurobindo: Yes, to discuss the defence policy—to ask whether he will follow the same policy. He is also pro-Allies.

      Purani: Nishtha says nobody knew him in America and he is a big businessman.

      Sri Aurobindo: Because he is from the West? Perhaps.[28]   (29.7.1940)



      Nirodbaran: Nishtha was asking again whether, since the Mother doesn’t know everything, she has to tell everything to the Mother, every detail. She also says that everything comes from the Divine. In that case there is no need to do Yoga, I said. She is wondering whether it wouldn’t be better for her to resume the vitamin pills she was taking before and says that the suggestion may have come from the Divine.

    Sri Aurobindo: The suggestion to stop may have come from the Divine too.

    Nirodbaran: I told her what you said to us the other day about the Mother knowing things. She thinks that mental prayer is not sincere and so won’t be heard by the Divine. The prayer must come from a deeper source.

    Sri Aurobindo: Of course, the deeper the source it comes from, the better it is. But why can’t the Divine hear? Is he deaf to mental prayer?

    Nirodbaran: I said any sincere prayer is heard.

    Sri Aurobindo: He may hear but whether it is answered is different.[29]  (27.12.1940) 




    [Dr. André and Nirodbaran, who were treating Nishtha were puzzled about her case as her health was deteriorating and no definite diagnosis could be arrived at. Dr. André called Dr. Manilal who, after conducting a check-up of Nishtha, diagnosed her illness as gout and advised her to take fish and chicken. However the difficulty of arranging non-vegetarian cooking could not be solved easily and when it was solved, some other difficulties came up which made Nishtha upset.]

     Sri Aurobindo [after hearing the report of the entire episode from Nirodbaran]: Vichy negotiations finished? (laughter)

    Nirodbaran: Yes. It is all about the cooking arrangement. Nishtha finished about half a chicken yesterday, though the chicken was very tough.

   Sri Aurobindo: S it is anorexia carnivore? (laughter)[30]   (3.1.1941)



   Dr. Manilal: Nishtha seems to have been completely metamorphosed, Sir! She was actually running.

   Sri Aurobindo: The Divine Force is great but the force of the chicken seems to be greater. (laughter)

   Nirodbaran: She is doing very well with the chicken and fish. Now she waits eagerly for her meals. After finishing half a chicken, she kept the other half for the next day! [31]

                                                                                                               (3.1.1941, evening)




   Nirodbaran: In Nishtha’s case, is it the Force that has produced this rapid improvement or is it the right medicine?

   Sri Aurobindo: You can infer or believe as you like.

   Nirodbaran: If the Force, why then was there no effect for such a long time but as soon as the right medicine was given she improved?

   Purani: It may be that the right conditions were absent before and now they have been brought about and so there is a cure.

   Sri Aurobindo: But does the right medicine always cure?

   Dr. Manilal: No, Sir.

   Nirodbaran: If the right medicine can be found, yes.

   Sri Aurobindo: There are many instances where the right medicine has no effect. According to the French doctor, the medicine is an excuse; it is the doctor that cures.

   Nirodbaran: If that were true, why couldn’t André, who has been treating Nishtha all along, cure her before and is only now able to do it?

   Sri Aurobindo: It is the French doctor’s opinion, not mine.

   Nirodbaran: What is yours then?

   Sri Aurobindo: As for me, there is the Force, the doctor and the medicine. It is the combination of all these that brings about the cure. From my point of view, a disease is a play of forces. If you make a combination of one kind of forces, it gives one result, a different combination a different result. But in Nishtha’s case the main credit, goes to the chicken (laughter) and one can say that the doctor has hit on the right medicine.[32]



   On 21 January 1943, Herbert L. Matthews, a correspondent of New York Times interviewed Nishtha in Pondicherry who told him that she was very happy as a follower of Sri Aurobindo. She also told him that she did not want to return to the United States for she was not homesick. “In fact, I never felt more at home anywhere,” she said. In a report titled “Dishta of Pondicherry” published in Time on 8 February 1943, Herbert writes:

   ‘Margaret Woodrow Wilson, now 56, and a spinster, broke with her family’s Scotch-Irish Presbyterian traditions years ago when she stalked from church during Communion service. Flicking through catalogue cards in the New York Public Library four years ago, she came upon Sri Aurobindo’s Essays on the Gita. For no special reason she took out this 300-page commentary on India’s famous religious and philosophic poem, whose origin is lost in history. She read how “the lower in us must learn to exist for the higher in order that the higher also may in us consciously exist for the lower, to draw it nearer to its own altitudes.” Fascinated, she read on until the guards closed the library. Next day she was back again.

   Aurobindo’s ashram (a retreat for disciples of a religious teacher) is only one of many in mystic-minded India. Best known is Mohandas Gandhi’s. Much more worldly, and very pro-British is Aurobindo’s, which he set up 33 years ago. There Margaret Wilson responds to the name of Dishta [the correspondent had made a mistake in the name], meaning in Sanskrit the discovery of the divine self.

   Cambridge-educated, 70-year-old Aurobindo keeps to his own room, appears only four times a year to his followers. If they wish advice they write him a letter. He may reply, may not. Active management of the ashram falls on a 66-year-old-French woman, Madame Alfassa, known to disciples as Mother of the Universe.

  Since the ashram can hold only a handful of followers, many of them, including Margaret Wilson, live in up-to-date houses in the town. Her religion, not concerned with mortifying the flesh, permits her to wear American clothes, read magazines and newspapers, puff an after-dinner cigaret[sic]. When she first arrived in india she tried to be a vegetarian, but she lost so much weight that the Mother of the Universe put her back on meat. She spends most of her time trying to acquire “a state of serenity.” Each evening she goes to the ashram to spend half an hour in meditation to achieve this purpose. She finds it “extremely hard.”’

   Though, according to the correspondent of New York Times, Nishtha found meditation to be ‘extremely hard’, yet the following excerpt from her letter to Lois revealed that she was progressing in her sadhana:

   “…I think I can say that some kind of ‘experience’ has began for me, for I strike a quiet nearly every day now in meditation in which the consciousness is purer, more whole than in the ordinary state. One of the disciples says that I am beginning to touch the Purusha. The consciousness that I touch, just barely touch (it seems), is situated in the heart centre and Lois, it is so sweet and so clear that now-a days I feel that those moments are my only conscious moments of the day. That the rest of the time, which is of course most of the time, I am in a sort of unconscious state! If I can have this feeling when I have barely touched something, still thru a veil, what must the unveiled Purusha consciousness be! There is such a thing as getting near the central psychic being and feeling its influence. And the luminousness of mind that comes afterwards makes me feel as if I have never lived or understood anything at all before! I feel like a discoverer every day. The other day in amusement at myself for my excitement over my “petites decouvertes” I said to myself “Why, little Christopher Columbus is discovering India at last!” It is true that America must discover India’s secrets before she can discover herself.”[33]


   But Nishtha’s health, which was unable to cope up with the hot climate of South India, began to fail. She suffered from periodic occurrences of kidney problems. Once, when her condition became serious, one of her doctors asked her: “Why don’t you go back to America? American doctors are far more advanced than we are in the medical field. If you go back to America, the doctors there will take care of you and cure you.” Nishtha flatly refused and replied: “True, the doctors in America can take care of my body but who will take care of my soul? My soul is infinitely more important to me than my physical body. I shall stay here.”

   Nishtha’s condition grew from bad to worse. She hovered between life and death for several days due to uremia. Finally on 12 February 1944, she left her body at the age of fifty eight. She was buried in the cemetery of Pondicherry where her tombstone bears this simple inscription: “Ci-git la dépouille mortelle de Nishtha, Margaret Woodrow Wilson, 16 avril 1866- 12 février 1944.”

   “So lived Nishtha,” writes a member of the Ashram, “in her spacious apartment fanned by the fresh breeze from the sea and caressed by the palmy breath of her garden blossoms. So she thought and felt and dreamed; so she loved God and her fellow men…Suddenly, like a flower, she drooped and languished and faded away. But the unfading bloom and aroma of her soul still hovered over the atmosphere in which she aspired and prayed and adored her beloved Lord.”[34]


   How did Sri Aurobindo respond to Nishtha’s passing? Sri Aurobindo who was known to be extremely impersonal, responded in an unusual way and it was observed by Nirodbaran. At the moment the news of her demise was reported to him, Nirodbaran saw a soft shine in the Master’s eyes. ‘Never before or after has the attendant caught on the imperturbable face of the Super-Yogi a reflected hint of what a Virgilian phrase in Savitri calls “the touch of tears in mortal beings.”’[35]




                                                      Reference and Notes:


[3] Doug Wead, The Mysterious First Daughter (

[4] New York Times, 25 January 1914

[5] The Mysterious First Daughter

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Sandra L. Quinn Musgrove, America’s Royalty: All the Presidents Children, p. 165

[9] The Mysterious First Daughter

[10] Ibid.

[11] Paramahansa Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi, p. 431

[12] Swami Nikhilananda (1895-1973) was initiated by the Holy Mother Sarada Moni, the wife of Sri Ramakrishna. In 1933 he founded the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Centre of New York and remained its head till his death. His greatest contribution was the translation of Ramakrishna Kathamrita from Bengali to English titled The Gospels of Sri Ramakrishna in 1942 with a foreword by Aldous Huxley.

[13] Joseph Campbell (26 March 190430 October 1987) was an American mythology Professor, writer and lecturer famous for his work in comparative mythology and comparative religion. His books include A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, The Masks of God, Myths to Live By, The Mythic Image, The Flight of the Wild Gander: Explorations in the Mythological Dimensions etc. 

[15] Nirodbaran, Twelve Years With Sri Aurobindo, p.2

[16] Ibid.,p.5

[17] Nirodbaran, Talks With Sri Aurobindo, Volume I, p. 33

[19] Udar Pinto’s daughter who is a teacher in Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education

[20] Lalita was Amal Kiran’s first wife. She was known as Daulat before she joined the Ashram in 1927. Sri Aurobindo had renamed her as ‘Lalita’.

[21] K.D. Sethna, Our Light and Delight, p. 142

[23] Vaun was one of the earliest sadhaks from the West who joined the Ashram in the 1920s. His wife Janet was named Shantimayi.

[24] Nirodbaran, Talks With Sri Aurobindo, Volume I, p. 145

[25] Ibid., p. 203

[26] Ibid., Volume II, pp. 685-686

[27] Ibid., p. 694

[28] Ibid., p.767

[29] Ibid., pp. 993-994

[30] Ibid., p. 1003

[31] Ibid., p. 1004

[32] Ibid., pp. 1009-1010       

[34] The mysterious presidential daughter

[35] Our Light and Delight, p. 143




EllenWilson (x1), Margaret (x9), Woodrow (x3)   

                                   Born on 13 October 1984, Anurag Banerjee is an essayist, biographer, poet and researcher. His first book Nirodbaran: The Surrealist’s Journey was published in December 2006. He wrote the biography of Dilip Kumar Roy at the age of twenty in 2005 and translated 100 poems of Sri Aurobindo into Bengali at the age of twenty-one in 2006. His published works include Nirodbaran: The Surrealist’s Journey (2006), Achinpather Dibyapathik (2008), and Debotar Shrom (2008). 

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Tusar N. Mohapatra

Director, Savitri Era Learning Forum
SRA-102-C, Shipra Riviera, Indirapuram, Ghaziabad - 201014 (UP) India + 91 96500-65636
Aadhaar No. 3628 2075 7337
SELF posits a model of counselling and communicative action as an instrument in order to stimulate the public sphere. The model aims at supplementing the individual’s struggle for a successful social adjustment with more aspirational inputs so as to help one take an informed and balanced attitude towards life as well as society.
Savitri Era of those who adore,
Om Sri Aurobindo & The Mother.

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