History of Mirra Alfassa

Mirra Alfassa (21 February 1878 – 17 November 1973), also known as The Mother, was the spiritual collaborator of Sri Aurobindo. Her full name at birth was Blanche Rachel Mirra Alfassa.

She came to Sri Aurobindo's spiritual retreat on 29 March 1914 in Pondicherry, India. Having to leave Pondicherry during World War I, she spent most of her time in Japan where she met the Nobel laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore. Finally she returned to Pondicherry and settled there in 1920. After 24 November 1926, when Sri Aurobindo retired into seclusion, she founded his ashram (Sri Aurobindo Ashram), with a handful of disciples living around the Master. She became the spiritual guide of the community.

The experiences of the last thirty years of Mother's life were captured in the 13-volume work The Agenda. In those years she attempted the physical transformation of her body in order to become what she felt was the first of a new type of human individual by opening to the Supramental Truth Consciousness, a new power of spirit that Sri Aurobindo had allegedly discovered. Sri Aurobindo considered her an incarnation of the Mother Divine and called her by that name: The Mother. When asked why he called her the Mother, Sri Aurobindo wrote a seminal book The Mother by introduction to the Mother's outstanding personalities, portions and embodiments of her divinity. That's how she came to be known as The Mother.

Early Life

Mirra (or Mira) Alfassa was born in Paris in 1878, of a Turkish Jewish father, Moïse Maurice Alfassa (5 July 1843 - 13 September 1918), and an Egyptian Jewish mother, Mathilde Ismalun (26 August 1857 - 9 December 1944). She had an elder brother named Mattéo Mathieu Maurice Alfassa (13 July 1876 - 12 August 1942) who held numerous important French governmental posts in Africa. 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 in Paris.

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:

“ I used to see myself clad in a magnificent golden robe...and as I rose higher, the robe would stretch...to form a kind of immense roof over the city. Then I would see men, women, children...coming out from every side; they would gather under the outspread robe, begging for help, telling their miseries... In reply, the robe... would extend towards each one of them individually, and as soon as they had touched it they were comforted or healed, and went back to their bodies happier and stronger... Nothing seemed more beautiful to me.... and all the activities of the day seemed dull and colourless... beside this activity of the night... ”

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 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

On 13 October 1897 she married Henri Morisset (6 April 1870 - 15 November 1956), a student of Gustave Moreau. Mirra and Henri had a child named André Morisset (23 August 1898 - 29 March 1982). The Morisset family lived at Atelier, 15 Rue Lemercier, Paris, and Mirra became a part of the Parisian artistic circles, befriending the likes of Auguste Rodin and Monet.

Madame Alfassa recounts 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. Madame Alfassa recounts that in her meditations she saw several spiritual figures, all of whom offered her help of one type or another.

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. Madame 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.

Mirra and Henri separated in 1908, and Mirra then moved to 49 Rue des Lévis, Paris.

Around this time Mirra had regular meetings with students and seekers who were attracted to psychical phenomena or to mysticism. In 1906 Mirra and her brother Mattéo founded in Paris a group named l'Idée Nouvelle ("The New Idea"). This group met at her home on Wednesday evenings, first at Rue Lemercier, then at 49 Rue des Lévis, and finally at 9 Rue du Val de Grace. Her book "Words of Long Ago" (vol.2 of the Collected Works) is an 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-Néel, recalled those meetings and of Madame 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 Madame 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.

On 5 May 1911 Mirra married Paul Antoine Richard (17 June 1874 - June 1967). 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. Richard informed Madame Alfassa of Sri Aurobindo and Sri Aurobindo remained in "material and spiritual correspondence" with the Richards for the next four years.

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, Madame 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 recognised him as the person she saw in her visions of a dark Asiatic figure, whom she had earlier referred to as "Krishna". 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 Madame 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 Madame 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.

Madame 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 Sri 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, Sri Aurobindo's birthday.

Madame 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 Madame Alfassa in France (Das p. 209) and who regarded Madame Alfassa as her guru.

During her stay, Madame 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 Madame 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 Madame 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, Madame 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, Madame Alfassa, already called "The Mother" and some other disciples began regular evening talks and group meditations. In September or October of that year, Sri Aurobindo and The Mother moved to no.9 Rue de la Marine, where the same informal routine of Sri Aurobindo's evening gatherings of his early disciples[22] (and Mother's talks and meditations) continued. As the number of disciples arriving increased, Mother organised what would later become the Ashram, more from the wish of the sadhaks than her or Sri Aurobindo's own plans.

"The Mother" of the Ashram

On 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 Mother with the Divine Mother, and instructed his followers to do the same. He informed his disciples that henceforth Mother would take full charge of the Ashram and he would live in retirement. Mother 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 Mother to be an Avatar (incarnation) of the Supreme Shakti. In 1927 he wrote:

“ The One whom we adore as the Mother is the Divine Conscious Force that dominates all existence, one and yet many-sided that to follow Her movement is impossible even for the quickest mind and for the freest and most vast intelligence. ”

The Mother p.19.

Sri Aurobindo's letters and instructions to his disciples taught the path of spiritual surrender through devotion to Mother; a form of Bhakti Yoga.

In 1927, Sri Aurobindo and Mother moved to Rue François Martin, where they stayed for the remainder of their lives (The Mother – Some dates).

In the early years, Mother 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 sadhaks.

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 Mother 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 Mother 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, Mother 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 in 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 Mother's efforts in this field.

Mother was encouraged by Sri Aurobindo to wear saris and she had in her collection of about 500, offered by devotees. When she was offered 100,000 rupees for one, she called the devotees 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 with spiritual significance, and gave names to about 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.

Auroville

In the 1960s, it was Mother's dream to create a place where humanity could seek the Divine without having to dredge for food and shelter. Mother 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. Presently 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, Mother 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.