Who was Mirra Alfassa before she became ‘The Mother’?

The Mother

An excerpt from ‘Sri Aurobindo: The Life and Teachings of a Revolutionary Philosopher’, by Roshen Dalal.

Mirra Alfassa, or the Mother, was the most important person in Sri Aurobindo’s life, and carried forward his work following his death. Some aspects of her life in association with Sri Aurobindo are offered here, though even this cannot do justice to her life. 17 volumes consisting of the collected works of the Mother have been compiled, including her own writings, her comments on Sri Aurobindo’s writings, and collections of her answers to questions. Many of the Mother’s works are originally in French, but have been translated into English. Apart from these, there are 13 volumes of conversations recorded by her disciple Satprem, titled The Mother’s Agenda, also originally in French.

Satprem was a Frenchman whose original name was Bernard Enginger (1923–2007). As a member of the French resistance during the Second World War, he had been captured and spent a year and a half in a concentration camp. In 1949, he arrived in Pondicherry, where he became the secretary to the governor for a short period. During this time, he met Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. He then travelled to various places, including Brazil and Africa, but returned to Pondicherry and joined the ashram in 1953. Even after that, he left several times on his travels, and gradually became close to the Mother and understood her experiments. He noted down and, from 1964, recorded his conversations with her, as he recognised their importance to the world. Some extracts were published while the Mother was alive, but after she left her body, he put these together in 13 volumes in French, titled L’agende de Mere, which were later translated into English. These provide an invaluable account of her life and experiences, particularly from 1960–73. They also shed light on the earlier years, as the Mother recounted aspects of these too in their conversations.

Mirra had spiritual and occult experiences from her childhood. According to her own accounts, by the age of 13 she used to travel astrally at night, clothed in a golden robe. She recollected healing people of Paris with the power of this expanding, voluminous, robe. Through her spiritual experiences, she also saw that union with the Divine, and a divine life on earth, was possible. In her sleep she met many teachers, one of whom she referred to as Krishna. 

Even while her occult experiences continued, she also focused on her studies. In 1893, after graduating from school, she studied art and developed as a talented painter. She married the famous painter François Henri Morriset on October 13, 1897. She knew many great artists, including Rodin and Matisse, and helped Henri in creating murals in the Church of St James in Pau, in southern France. Their son, André, was born in 1898. Though always aware of a divine presence, she had no interest in a Christian traditional God. She recounted that between the ages of 18 and 20, she had attained a constant awareness of the divine presence, and had done this on her own, without help or guidance. Later she came upon a book on raja yoga written by Swami Vivekananda, and this helped her realise in a few months what would otherwise have taken her years.

At age 20 or 21, she read a French translation of the Bhagavad Gita, and even though this was not a good translation, it was a transformative experience. She continued reading various texts on spirituality, but at the same time was also aware of the industrial revolution, and the scientific and philosophical works of the times, as well as the political upheavals in France and Russia. Soon she met Louis Thémanlys (1874–1943), the head of the occult group, Cosmic Movement in Paris, who was in charge of publishing the Revue Cosmique. He handed over this charge to her, and thus she came to know of the author of most of the articles, Max Théon, who was also the founder of the movement.

Max wrote in English and the articles were being poorly translated into French, but when Mirra took over she checked and corrected the French versions. She supervised the publication and distribution of the Revue Cosmique for five years. She continued to see a guide and guru in her inner visions, the one to whom she had given the name “Krishna”. Her serious occult work began around 1903–04, when she constructed “a protective path” between the terrestrial and other worlds. It took months to prepare this path which allowed for a safe crossing after death. In 1905 Mirra finally met Max Théon, who was a mysterious person, probably of Polish origin, said to know Sanskrit, to have received a spiritual initiation in India, and to have been with Madame Blavatsky in Egypt. Max was married to Mary, who was known as Alma, and who was also adept in the occult. Max and Alma lived in Tlemchen in Algeria, but Mirra first met him when he visited Paris. 

Théon’s group was one of many such spiritual groups popular in those days. Mirra then visited the Théons in Tlemchen in July 1906 and Henri joined them in August, both returning to Paris in October. In Tlemcen, Mirra had found that Max and Alma were adept occultists who could command material forces, and she learnt a lot from them. Even their dog, known as Little Boy, had occult powers! She developed a deep admiration for Alma. The Théons believed that in occult tradition there were seven successive universes, and this was the seventh and last. 

Like Sri Aurobindo, they also believed in the further evolution of the human being, towards a greater perfection. Mirra again visited the Théons in Tlemcen in July 1907, stayed for two months, and further developed her occult powers. In the occult world she also learnt of the tradition of the four great asuras, representing falsehood, darkness, death and sorrow, the counterparts of four gods or emanations of Truth, Light, Life, and Bliss. In occult beliefs, both groups are creations of the Great Universal Mother, to provide freedom of will to all beings. But the divine being has also placed love in the inconscient, that can overcome all evil forces. These Asuras were immortal but could transform themselves if they agreed to Incarnate in a body. Mirra had met the Asura of the Dark Lucifer in Tlemcen, and also believed that Théon was the Asura of Death.

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