Mirra Alfassa - Biography
Mirra (or Mira) Alfassa was born in Paris in 1878, of a Turkish Jewish father, Maurice, and an Egyptian Jewish mother, Mathilde. She had an elder brother named Matteo. The family migrated to France the year before she was born. For the first eight years of her life she lived at 62 boulevard Haussmann.
Alfassa describes experiences she had as a child in Paris. She says that at age five she realised she did not belong in this world, and her sadhana (spiritual discipline) began then. She claims that she would lapse into bliss and go into a trance sometimes when she was placed in an easy chair or during a meal, much to the annoyance of her mother, who regarded this behaviour as a social embarrassment.
Between eleven and thirteen, she claims, a series of psychic and spiritual experiences revealed to her the existence of God, and man's possibility of uniting with Him. At age 12 she was practicing occultism and claimed to be travelling out of her body.
One of the experiences she claims she had, at the age of 13 for nearly a year every night, was of going out of her body and rising straight above the city:
At age 14 Alfassa was sent to a studio to learn art, and a year later she wrote as a school essay a mystical treatise named The Path of Later On (Alfassa 1893). In 1893 she travelled to Italy with her mother. While at the Doge's Palace in Venice she claims to have recalled a scene from a past life where she was strangled and thrown out into the canal (The Mother - Some dates). (Later, for instance in Agenda, she would describe other incarnations, but she alternately describes these past lives as emanations.) At 16 she joined the Ecole des Beaux Arts where she acquired the nickname "the Sphinx", and later exhibited at the Paris Salon.
In 1897 she married Henri Morisset, a student of Gustave Moreau. They lived at Atelier, 15 rue Lemercier, Paris, and Alfassa became a part of the Paris artistic circles, befriending the likes of Auguste Rodin and Monet.
Alfassa claims that between nineteen and twenty she had achieved a conscious and constant union with the Divine Presence, without the help of books or teachers. Soon after, she discovered Vivekananda's Raja Yoga, which enabled her to make further rapid progress. She says about a year or two later she met an Indian in Paris who advised her to read the Bhagavad-Gita, taking Krishna as a symbol of the inner or immanent Divine. She obtained a French translation which—she relates— was quite poor but still enabled her to understand the substance of it. Alfassa claimed that in her meditations she saw several spiritual figures, all of whom offered her help of one type or another.
In 1898 she and Morisset had a son, André.
Around 1904 she encountered in her dreams a dark Asiatic figure whom she called ‘Krishna’. She said that this figure guided her in her inner journey. She came to have total implicit faith in Krishna, and was hoping to meet him one day in real life (Karmayogi no date). Around 1905 she met the occultist Max Théon, who explained her psychic experiences to her. She paid two extended visits (on the second one she was accompanied by or later joined by Morisset) to Théon's estate at Tlemcen, Algeria, to live with and learn occultism firsthand from Théon and his wife, Alma Theon. Alfassa had a very high regard for Madame Théon, whom she describes as having exceptional psychokinetic powers. Later, when she had become known as "the Mother", she would often relate some of the extraordinary experiences she had at Tlemcen.
In 1908 Alfassa divorced Morisset, and moved to 49 rue de Lévis, Paris.
Around this time Alfassa had regular meetings with students and seekers who were attracted to psychical phenomena or to mysticism. In 1906, with her brother Matteo, she founded in Paris a group named l'Idée Nouvelle ("The New Idea"), which met at her home on Wednesday evenings, first at rue Lemercier and then at rue des Lévis, and later at 9 Rue du Val de Grace. Her book "Words of Long Ago" (vol.2 of the Collected Works) is the account of one of these meetings, along with talks she gave to the L'Union de Pensée Féminine, which was a new study group she had established. In a conversation with Prithwindra Mukherjee, one of the members of this group, Alexandra David-Neel, recalled those meetings and of Alfassa: "We spent marvellous evenings together with friends, believing in a great future. At times we went to the Bois de Boulogne gardens, and watched the grasshopper-like early aeroplanes take off. I remember her elegance, her accomplishments, her intellect endowed with mystical tendencies. In spite of her great love and sweetness, in spite even of her inherent ease of making herself forgotten after achieving some noble deed, she couldn't manage to hide very well the tremendous force she bore within herself."
In 1912 Alfassa organised a group of around 20 people named Cosmique, who had the aim of gaining self-knowledge and self-mastery. Although she had not yet met Sri Aurobindo, some of her ideas at the time paralleled his. These were later included at the start of her small book, Conversations.
In 1910 she had what she described as an experience of a reversal of consciousness in which she realised the Divine Will at the very center of her being, and from that moment onwards was no longer motivated by personal desire, but only wanted to do the Divine Will.
Around this time she married Paul Richard. Richard had travelled to India, seeking election to the French Senate from Pondicherry, and while there had met Sri Aurobindo in Pondicherry in mid-April 1910. This seems to have been when Sri Aurobindo first heard about Alfassa and her Idea group. Richard informed Alfassa of Sri Aurobindo and Sri Aurobindo remained in "material and spiritual correspondence" with the Richards for the next four years.
Alfassa studied philosophy with Richard, as well as correcting his dictation (The Mother - Some dates). They lived at 9 rue du Val de Grace, in a small house at the back of a garden or courtyard. André, then around twelve, was a regular visitor. This was the house where Alfassa would receive Alexandra David-Neel almost every evening. During this period, she also met `Abdu'l-Bahá Inayat Khan and other spiritual teachers (Van Vrekhem, 2001).
In 1912 she wrote her first Prayers and Meditations (the original entry probably dating to the previous year). These would later be published as part of the Collected Works (Mother's Birth Centenary Edition vol. 1).
Meeting Sri Aurobindo
On 7 March 1914, Alfassa and Paul embarked for India aboard the steamer Kaga Maru, reaching Pondicherry on the 29th. She later said that when she saw Sri Aurobindo for the first time, she recognized him as the person she saw in her visions of a dark Asiatic figure, whom she had earlier referred to as "Krishna". The next day she noted in her journal, “It matters not if there are hundreds of beings plunged in densest ignorance. He whom we saw yesterday is on earth; his presence is enough to prove that a day will come when darkness shall be transformed into light, when Thy reign shall be indeed established upon earth."
Years before Sri Aurobindo first met Alfassa and Paul, he had given up his revolutionary activities for Indian independence from British rule, and retreated to Pondicherry (where he was safe from arrest by the British) to work on the spiritual transformation of humanity and of life on earth.
After a short period of intense sadhana, Sri Aurobindo would sometimes give evening talks. In 1913 he moved to No.41 Rue François Martin, called the Guest House, where he would receive visitors in the morning (this would have been when Alfassa and Paul Richard met him), and after the group meditation (usually about 4. p.m.) he would host informal evening gatherings of his early disciples.
Alfassa said that when she first met Sri Aurobindo, she found that her thoughts ceased to run, her mind became quiet, and silence began to gather momentum, until two or three days later there was only the silence and the yogic consciousness. In 1958 in the Agenda (vol I pp. 163–4) she told that the two experiences, the consciousness in the psychic depths of the being realised in 1910, and the stillness connection with the Divine above the head realised when first meeting Sri Aurobindo, have remained with her ever since.
On 29 March Paul suggested that Sri Aurobindo publish a journal dealing with a synthesis of the latter's philosophical ideas. The journal was named Arya, and it became the vehicle for most of Aurobindo's writings, which would later appear in book form (The Mother - Some dates). The first issue of the monthly journal came out on 15 August 1914, Aurobindo's birthday.
Alfassa and Paul stayed at Pondicherry until February 1915, but had to return to Paris because of the First World War. They spent a year in France before traveling to Japan where they stayed for four years, first in Tokyo (1916 to 1917) and then Kyoto (1917–1920). They were also accompanied by Dorothy Hodgson, an Englishwoman who had known Alfassa in France (Das p. 209) and who regarded Alfassa as her guru.
During her stay, Alfassa adopted the Japanese way of life, mannerisms and dress, and visited many Buddhist places of pilgrimage (Das 1978 p. 173) One Japanese friend recalled much later: "She came here to learn Japanese and to be one of us. But we had so much to learn from her and her charming and unpredictable ways" (Madame Kobayashi, in Das 1978 p. 193). In 1919 she met Rabindranath Tagore, who was staying at the same hotel. A group photograph in the Rabindra Museum collection at Santiniketan includes the two. Tagore presented Alfassa with the typewriter he was using at the time; she later gave it to Prithwindra Mukherjee in the mid-50s for "writing good poems"; this still remains at the Sri Aurobindo ashram (ibid p. 206). Many years later (in 1956) she also recounted meeting Tolstoy's son while in Japan.
On 24 April 1920 Alfassa returned with Paul to Pondicherry from Japan, accompanied by Dorothy Hodgson. On 24 November, she moved to live near Sri Aurobindo in the Guest House at Rue François Martin. Richard did not stay long; he spent a year traveling around North India (Das 1978 p. 209; The Mother - Some dates) as a sanyasi. (Some time later he initiated divorce proceedings, having already remarried in the meantime). Dorothy Hodgson meanwhile received the name Datta ("Consecrated") and was one of the earliest western devotees, even before the Ashram was established in 1926.
In 1921, when Sri Aurobindo said that they had brought the Supermind down to the Vital Plane, Alfassa appeared (according to witnesses and her own accounts) to have a body like that of an eighteen- or twenty-year-old, while Sri Aurobindo was also glowing with health. But these changes were lost when they took the Supermind down to the work of transformation in the "Subconscient".
In January 1922, Alfassa, already called "the Mother" by Nolini, and some other disciples began regular evening talks and group meditations. In September or October of that year, Sri Aurobindo and Alfassa moved to no.9 Rue de la Marine, where the same informal routine of Sri Aurobindo's evening gatherings of his early disciples (and Alfassa's talks and meditations) continued. As the number of disciples arriving increased, Alfassa organised what would later become the ashram, more from the wish of the sadhaks then her or Sri Aurobindo's own plans.
"The Mother" of the Ashram
On the 24 November 1926 (Siddhi Day) Sri Aurobindo reported himself to have had an important realisation which would open the path for bringing down the Supramental consciousness on earth.
This was also the official founding of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. At the time there were no more than 24 disciples in the Ashram (ibid pp. 233–4).
In December of that year, Sri Aurobindo decided to withdraw from public view. At this point he identified Alfassa with the Divine Mother, and instructed his followers to do the same. He informed his disciples that henceforth Alfassa would take full charge of the ashram and he would live in retirement. Alfassa later said that Sri Aurobindo had not consulted her prior to the declaration nor did he inform her of his intention, but that she had heard the news for the first time along with the disciples (Karmayogi no date).
Sri Aurobindo considered Alfassa to be an Avatar (incarnation) of the Supreme Shakti. In 1927 he wrote:
- The Mother p.19.
Sri Aurobindo's letters and instructions to his disciples taught the path of spiritual surrender through devotion to Alfassa; a form of Bhakti Yoga.
In 1927, Sri Aurobindo and Alfassa moved to Rue François Martin, where they stayed for the remainder of their lives (The Mother - Some dates).
In the early years, Alfassa appeared on the ashram balcony to initiate the day with her blessings. She would also meet the heads of the various departments of the growing ashram every morning, and then the sadhaks individually. Once again, in the evening at 5:30 PM, she conducted meditation and met each sadhak once more.
In 1938 Margaret Woodrow Wilson, the daughter of US President Woodrow Wilson, came to the Ashram and chose to remain there for the rest of her life.
Henry Ford had also heard of Alfassa and wanted to meet her. On the eve of his departure, World War II broke out and prevented his coming to India.
During the war, Sri Aurobindo and Alfassa declared their support of the Allies. They said that victory of the Nazis would have been a disaster for the spiritual work, and professed to have participated in world history, changing the course of World War II by working on the subtle levels (e.g. Purani 1982 p. 746, Reddy 2000, Van Vrekhem 2001).
Through letters, Alfassa had remained in contact with her son Andre Morisset ever since leaving for Japan. In this way she kept him apprised of the development of the ashram and her and Sri Aurobindo's sadhana. He became increasingly interested, but was prevented from visiting by the outbreak of World War II. In 1949 he finally arrived at Pondicherry.
The first issue of the Bulletin of Physical Education was published in 1949. In 1951, as a tribute to Sri Aurobindo's conception of pedagogy, she founded the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education: for children who had come to the ashram with their parents during World War II seeking shelter. Then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru did all he could to concretise his appreciation of Alfassa's efforts in this field.
Alfassa was encouraged by Sri Aurobindo to wear saris and she acquired a collection of about 500. When she was offered 100,000 rupees for one, she called all the sadhikas and distributed or sold them (along with her ornaments) to raise funds for the ashram during the financially difficult years following the Master's death.
She considered flowers of spiritual significance, and gave names to 800 different types, according to the spiritual quality they convey (Flowers and Their Messages, Flowers and Their Spiritual Significance). These would be presented to disciples, as a vehicle for conveying her blessings and grace. Satprem records being presented with various flowers during his visits, each described according to its spiritual quality.
Attempted physical transformation
Sri Aurobindo said that in Alfassa he found surrender to the Divine down to physical body itself, the cells of the body (not merely the mind and emotions), the likes of which could not be found in any human being.
In 1950 Sri Aurobindo died. Alfassa related that, upon his death, she came to stand beside the bed on which he lay, "and -- in a way altogether concrete -- concrete with such a strong sensation as to make one think that it could be seen -- all this supramental force which was in him passed from his body into mine".
After Sri Aurobindo's passing, Alfassa fully took up her promise to Sri Aurobindo to attempt the physical transformation. On 29 February 1956 ("Golden Day") she announced an experience in which she had a vast cosmic golden form and broke open the golden door that separated the Universe from the Divine, allowing the Supramental force to stream down to Earth in an uninterrupted flow. She later (24 April) announced "The manifestation of the Supramental upon earth is no more a promise but a living fact".
From 1960 till her death in 1973, Alfassa had a number of near-weekly meetings with one of her closest disciples, Satprem. There she discussed her progress in her physical transformation, world events and her effect on world events, the new workings of the supramental consciousness in the world, her earlier life's experiences including her spiritual experiences, the changes and spiritualisation in the functioning of her physical body, her visions of the new race, and many other topics. These conversations were kept and were published in French and English in the 13-volume set known as The Agenda.
In 1961 a friend of John F. Kennedy took interest in Alfassa and examined in depth the philosophy and yoga of Sri Aurobindo. He met Alfassa and asked her what were the external signs by which one could discern the attainment of the Supramental consciousness in a person. Alfassa explained to him the conditions that would reveal the attainment of the Supramental consciousness and told him that of the three, equality, was the most significant. The visitor arranged for Kennedy to visit Alfassa, but it could not take place.
In 1962, at the age of 84, she was forced by an illness to withdraw from close physical contact with disciples (Agenda vol.3), although she continued to give public Darshans four times a year, at which a few thousand devotees gathered and received her Grace. But she continued her inner work, concerning the transformation of the physical and cellular consciousness.
In her discussions, she is alleged to have had a number of formidable spiritual experiences in the 1950s through the 1970s. Her experiences are supposed to have intensified through the later 1960s and 70s.
In later years she met with other renowned individuals, including the king of Nepal. She had a significant meeting with the Dalai Lama who had recently escaped from Chinese occupation of Tibet.
Concurrent with her work on the inner transformation, she worked on the outer as well. In 1956 she established the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Delhi Branch, together with Surendranath Jauhar and Alfassa's International School. In 1967 plans were made and some land acquired to found a universal city of spiritual seekers in Gujarat, which she named Ompuri. This project, like earlier plans of 1957, did not go any further. But in 1968, Alfassa, working with architect Roger Anger, began Auroville as a 'more external extension' of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram (Mirapuri - Biography).
Alfassa died on 17 November 1973; three days later her body was placed in the Samadhi, the vault in the courtyard of the Ashram where Sri Aurobindo's body was placed in 1950.
In the 1960s, it was Alfassa's dream to create a place where humanity could seek the Divine without having to dredge for food and shelter. Alfassa wanted a place where "normal people" from all over the world could live together in harmony, a place where people can seek spirituality and bring it into the world. She named this place Auroville or City of Dawn. It now has a population of more than 2,300 people.
The city has several zones. The "Soul of Auroville" is the Matrimandir (literally, "Mother's temple"). It is constructed as a futuristic-looking sphere that houses in its center a Chamber, all white with a transculent globe at the centre lit by single ray of sunlight. this signifies "future realisation". In 1968, Alfassa formally inaugurated the new city, and the soil of 124 nations (all the independent countries in the world at that time) was placed in a lotus-shape urn at the centre of the future city.
- Anon., The Mother - Some dates
- Alfassa, Mirra (1893) The Path of Later On
- Aurobindo Ghose (1972), Collected Works of Sri Aurobindo, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, Birth Centenary Edition
- ----- (1972b) The Mother, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry
- Iyengar, K.R.S. (1978), On the Mother: the chronicle of a manifestation and a ministry (2 vols, continuously paginated), Pondicherry, 1978 (2nd ed)
- Karmayogi (date?) Life and Teachings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Mere Cie, Inc. online
- The Hindu (2001) The Mother and the biographer's dilemma
- Lohman, Ruud (1986), A House for the Third Millennium: essays on the Matrimandir, Alain Grandcolas
- Alfassa, Mirra (1977) The Mother on Herself, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry
- ----- (1978) Collected Works of the Mother, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry Centenary Edition (17 vol set)
- ----- (1979- ) Mother's Agenda (Engl. transl) Institute for Evolutionary Research, New York, NY (13 vol set)
- (1980) Notes on the Way - vol.11, Collected Works of the Mother - Centenary Edition, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry
- (1982) Conversations, Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, Pondicherry
- (date?) Flowers and Their Messages, Sri Aurobindo Ashram
- (date?) Flowers and Their Spiritual Significance, Sri Aurobindo Ashram
- Das, Nolima ed., (1978) Glimpses of the Mother's Life vol.1, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry
- Mukherjee, Prithwindra, Sri Aurobindo, Desclée de Brouwer, Paris, 2000; "samasamayiker chokhe sri aurobindo, Calcutta, 1969, 2003
- Norelli-Bachelet, Patrizia, 'The 10th Day of Victory', 2004, Aeon Books.
- Rawlinson, Andrew (1997) The Book of Enlightened Masters: Western Teachers in Eastern Traditions. Chicago and La Salle, Illinois: Open Court.
- Reddy, Ananda (2000) The Supramental Harbingers: Sri Aurobindo and The Mother online
- Nahar, Sujata (1986) Mother's chronicles Bk. 2. Mirra the Artist, Paris: Institut de Recherches Evolutives, Paris & Mira Aditi, Mysore.
- (1989) Mother's chronicles Bk. 3. Mirra the Occultist. Paris: Institut de Recherches Evolutives, Paris & Mira Aditi, Mysore.
- Nirodbaran (1972) Twelve Years with Sri Aurobindo Pondicherry vol.1, (vol.II 1973, vol.III 1988)
- Satprem (1982) The Mind of the Cells (transl by Francine Mahak & Luc Venet) Institute for Evolutionary Research, New York, NY
- Purani, A.B., (1982) Evening Talks with Sri Aurobindo, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry
- Van Vrekhem, Georges: The Mother - The Story of Her Life, Harper Collins Publishers India, New Delhi 2000, ISBN 81-7223-416-3 (see also Mother meets Sri Aurobindo -- An excerpt from this book)
- Van Vrekhem, Georges: Beyond Man - The Life and Work of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, HarperCollins Publishers India, New Delhi 1999, ISBN 81-7223-327-2
- ----- Hitler and his God - The Background to the Hitler phenomenon, Rupa & Co, New Delhi 2006
- Commentaries on the Dhammapada, Lotus Press, Twin Lakes, WI 2004, ISBN 0-940985-25-X
- Flowers and Their Messages, Lotus Press, Twin Lakes, WI ISBN 0-941524-68-X
- Search for the Soul in Everyday Living, Lotus Press, Twin Lakes, WI ISBN 0-941524-57-4
- Soul and Its Powers, Lotus Press, Twin Lakes, WI ISBN 0-941524-67-1