The Story of Her Life
The Mother The Story of Her Life is a biography of the Mother (Mirra Alfassa) by Georges Van Vrekhem. Despite their essential contribution to the present world, Sri Aurobindo and the Mother are still mostly unknown outside the circles of their disciples and devotees. It is Georges Van Vrekhem’s intention in this biography of the Mother to examine all available material about her life and to present it in an accessible and interesting way. He attempts to draw the full picture, including the often neglected but important last years of her life, and even of some reincarnations explicitly confirmed by the Mother herself.
The Mother was born as Mirra Alfassa in Paris in 1878. She became an artist, married an artist, and participated in the vibrant life of the metropolis during the fin de siècle and early twentieth century. She became the Mother of Sri Aurobindo Ashram in 1926. This book is a rigorous description of the incredible effort of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo. Their vision is an important perspective allowing for the understanding of what awaits humanity in the new millennium.
Author: Georges Van Vrekhem
Print Length: 564 pages
Publisher: Stichting Aurofonds
Sold by: Amazon.com
Book format: Kindle
Part One: Convergent Roads
1. Growing Up in Paris
Daughter of the Middle East
The Early Sadhana
2. Artist among the Artists
The Julian Academy
The Artist’s Life
The Early Sadhana (continued)
At the Epicentre
3. Explorations of the Occult
Pathways for the Dead
The Reclusive Masters
Tlemcen – The First Visit (1906)
Tlemcen – The Second Visit (1907)
The Four Asuras
4. A Synthesis in the Making
On Her Own
Cranks, Seekers and Sages
She Who is Speaking to You …
A Passage to Pondicherry
5. Aurobindo Ghose
Gentleman and Scholar
In the Maharajah’s Service
Behind the Scenes
A Side-Door to Spirituality
Leader of Nationalism
In the Shadow of the Gallows
Part Two: The Road Together
6. Speaking the Word
The Launching of the Arya
The Integral Vision and the Integral Yoga
The First World War and Richard’s Expulsion
7. In Japan
8. The Seven Hidden Years
The Seal is Put
The Foreign Lady
The Coming of the Disciples
9. Three Dragons
The Word of Creation
Accepting the Mother
10. The Laboratory
Establishing the Ashram
The Mother and the Disciples
Building a World in Miniature
11. The Mother’s War
The Attack on Sri Aurobindo
‘The Lord of the Nations’  The Ashram in Difficulty
The Coming of the Children
12. Sri Aurobindo’s Descent into Death
Freedom at Midnight
Overman – the Transitional Being
The Descent into Death
Part Three: The Road Alone
13. The Yoga of the Body Cells
The Ashram School and its Education
Transformation of the Body Cells
Pondicherry Merges with India
14. The Mother’s Reincarnations
In the Earthly Paradise
Joan the Maid
The Virgin Queen
15. The Manifestation of the Supramental
The Supramental Manifestation
The Ship from the New World
The Mother Withdraws
16. What Is to Be Done Is Done
Ups and Downs
Angry Sugar Cane
The Transformation of the Body
What Would the Supramental Body be Like?
The Burden of the Forerunner
The Big Pulsations
17. The Passage Perilous
A Kind of Death
Matter, Substance, Vibrations, Light
Life on the Outside
Founding the City of Dawn: Auroville
18. The New Body
‘Happy New Year!’
Life on the Outside (continued)
The Presence and Role of the Psychic Being
The New Body
Laying Down the Body
The Caterpillar and the Butterfly
By Way of an Epilogue
The Mother The Story of Her Life
1. Growing Up in Paris
When I was a child and happened to complain to my mother … she would ask me if I was under the illusion that I was born for my own satisfaction. ‘You are born to realize the highest ideal,’ she would say and send me packing. – The Mother
Daughter of the Middle East
Paris in the 1870s, and for some decades to come, was the vibrant cultural and political capital of the world. All countries looked up to its celebrities and its trend-setting creations on canvas, on the stage and in music. Everybody dreamed of visiting, if only once in a lifetime, its exhibitions and museums, its monuments, boulevards and picturesque neighborhoods, its cafés, and the crowded nightlife with the café-concerts, theatres and dancing halls.
The creations of the Parisian haute couture, then of quite recent origin, and of the new Parisian department stores such a s La Samaritaine and Au Bon Marché, were worn and imitated wherever men, and especially women, dressed in the Western way. The French language was spoken in the upper circles of all European countries and used as the global diplomatic language. And although France had suffered a traumatic defeat at the hands of the new and threateningly ambitious Germany in 1870, its capital remained a hotbed and testing ground for all kinds of political theories and convictions, from some of the crankiest to many that would help shape history.
Such was the metropolis where she, who would become known as ‘the Mother,’ was born on 21 February 1878 as Blanche Rachel Mirra Alfassa. The propitious event took place in the parental house at 41, Boulevard Haussmann, named after Georges, baron Haussmann, who had recently given Paris its now world-famous new look. The house still exists, just opposite the department store Au Printemps and close to the Opéra.
Mirra, as the girl would be called, was not French at the time of her birth. Her father was Turkish and her mother Egyptian, and there are indications that both were also of Jewish descent. They had emigrated to France a few months before Mirra’s birth and would become French citizens only in 1890, when the head of the family would become naturalized through a presidential decree.
Her father, Maurice Moise Alfassa, was born in 1843 in the Turkish city of Adrianople, now Edirne; he was a banker by profession. Her mother, Mathilde Alfassa née Ismalun, was born in 1857 in the Egyptian city of Alexandria; she too stemmed from a family of bankers. ‘The Mother’s mother said that she had wanted to marry that gentleman because he had a lot of books! She thought that with a library that big in the house she would never get bored.’ 2 They married in 1874 and went to live in Maurice’s home town. There their first child, a boy, died from a vaccination against smallpox. A second boy, Mattéo, was born in Alexandria in 1876; he probably got his name from the Italian family into which Mathilde’s sister, Elvire, had married. (This was decidedly a family with international ramifications.) Mirra was the third child. There would be no other.
In later years the Mother sometimes reminisced about her parents. Her father seems to have been a rather easy-going man with wonderful health and an unusual stability of character, more interested in practical things than in philosophical or religious abstractions. He was so strong, the Mother once said, that he could bring a horse to its knees simply by pressing his legs into its sides. He had studied in Austria and knew French, German, English, Italian, Turkish and Egyptian. He had, moreover, an uncommon gift for numbers.
Mirra’s mother was an intelligent but very strong-minded woman – at one time compared by her daughter to ‘an iron rod’ – thoroughly influenced by the spirit of the nineteenth century and by the ideals of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. She was a confirmed materialist and atheist to whom only what one touches and sees was important, but she believed in unending progress and self-perfection. After her first baby had died, the aspiration had grown in her that her children, whom she loved with a kind of stoical love, would become the best in the world.
Why did Maurice and Mathilde leave Egypt and emigrate to France? Some say that Mathilde refused to curtsy before the Khedive, the Egyptian Viceroy of the Ottoman Empire, to which Egypt had belonged since 1517 (and would belong only for a few more years to come). If true, there must surely have been a very strong motive for such behavior towards the highest authority in the land, even from strong-minded Mathilde. The late 1870s were troubled years in Egypt, where the nationalist movement had gained ground since the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, and there were signs of revolt against foreigners and the Anglophile Khedive, Tewfik Pasha.
Whether this explosive political situation was related to the facts that forced Maurice and Mathilde out of the country, remains unknown.
Their settling down in Paris was prepared by a remarkable woman, namely Mira Ismalun née Pinto,3 Mathilde’s mother.
She was one of the very first emancipated Egyptian women and dared to travel abroad unaccompanied. She became a kind of celebrity at all the West European ‘in’ places of the period and befriended countless famous people, charming them with her wit and her glamorous exotic attire. She was unusually broad-minded, so much so that she let her daughters choose their husband; nationality and religion were no bar.
And she had a keen eye for business, for she provided the Egyptian princesses in their harem and other secluded ladies with jewels and dresses from Europe, and had their portraits painted by the best French artists. Mirra would grow very close to this grandmother and always remember her with affection.
However, an interesting library does not seem to be a guarantee of a happy marriage. Maurice and Mathilde grew apart and lived practically separate lives in their hôtel at 62
Boulevard Haussmann, where they had moved after Mirra’s birth. (Grandmother Mira was their neighbor.) The children remained attached to their father. He told them thrilling adventure stories – always with himself in the role of the hero – and he let his birds fly freely about the room which had become his private domain. He also took Mattéo and Mirra for walks in the gardens of the Tuileries, in the Bois de Boulogne or the Botanical Garden, or on a visit to an interesting museum such as the Louvre or the Guimet Museum.
And he took them to the circus, which he loved. At the time there were no less than five permanent circuses in Paris – Cirque Raney, Grand Cirque Sidoli, Cirque d’Hiver, Cirque Fernando … and some of the performers were known by the young and the old alike. There was Miss La-La, twirling high above the heads of the anxious spectators hanging by her teeth; there were the bareback riders, trapeze artists and jugglers; and there were the clowns, Footit and Chocolat, and the famous Boum-Boum. Many of them have been immortalized in the paintings of Degas, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Seurat, Picasso, and other masters.
Mirra grew up in that bourgeois family, so typical of the nineteenth century. ‘The Mother’s parents lived the life of the rich, with horses and carriages.’ 4 She had an English nanny, Miss Gatliffe, who made Mirra scream in protest against the cold baths that she forced her to take. There were family visits and luncheons for which one had to dress up and to behave in style. The house, on one of the chic boulevards, had a salon with that piece of furniture indispensable to every bourgeois family, a piano. The family members belonged to the banking world and other respectable branches of society. One cousin would become Director of the Louvre, and Mattéo himself became Governor-General of French Equatorial Africa.
But then the Panama Scandal erupted, ‘the greatest financial disaster in France for 200 years,’ rocking the country’s financial institutions and galvanizing public opinion.
Ferdinand, Count de Lesseps, having successfully completed the Suez Canal in 1869, wanted to create a passage through the land mass of the Americas by digging a canal through the Panama isthmus. This would again make the globe a smaller place and forever leave the already famous engineer’s imprint on it. Yet things went wrong financially: there was mishandling of funds, fraud and a whole series of cover-ups by the governmental authorities and the press. Count de Lesseps and other prominent persons, among them Gustave Eiffel, the builder of the famous tower named after him, were brought to justice. And the customers of Maurice Alfassa’s Banque Ottomana lost all the money they had invested in the project, as did thousands of other small savers.
‘The Mother’s papa did bad business and all of a sudden went completely bankrupt … Then life became difficult of course. And as he was a very honest man, instead of making himself scarce, as did many others, he sold everything he owned to pay off the debts of his bank, and the family situation changed considerably for the worse … Now that her father was ruined, they no longer had horse and carriage, and when the family went to visit friends, they had to go on foot instead of in a carriage. And the Mother would arrive there with dirty shoes, there was dirt on her little ankle-boots, and the other children mocked at her because her ankle-boots were dirty as she had to go on foot.’ 5 It must have been at this time that the enterprising Mathilde kept chickens to sell the eggs, and got in trouble with the revenue office because of non-payment of taxes.
On the whole, however, Mirra seems to have had a sheltered childhood. Her mother would often say that she was a rather taciturn girl, and she herself would later concede that she was not an easy character. Although Mathilde wanted her children to be the best of the best and to realize the highest ideals, she was intelligent enough not to force them and by forcing them to thwart their mental growth. Mirra learned to read only when she was seven years old and after her brother had put her to shame because of her ignorance, and she agreed to go to school only at the age of nine. In the meantime her interests proved to be many-sided. ‘I remember having learnt to play tennis when I was eight. It was a passion.’ 6 She started drawing and painting at that age, and learned to play the piano and to sing. She also played with one of the Navajo Indians brought to France by Buffalo Bill for his Wild West Show in 1889, the year of the great Paris Exhibition and the completion of, at that time, the still highly controversial Eiffel Tower. From this Red Indian friend she learned, among other things, how to tell the distance of footsteps and carriages by putting her ear to the ground.
So many were her interests that she was scolded by her severe mother for her apparent lack of deeper, permanent concerns; she never would be good at anything, said Mathilde.
Thus Mirra was promoted to the legion of the youthful good-for-nothings who, in adulthood, changed the world.
Mathilde sent her daughter to a private school for the children of the better-off class, deeming the public schools not suitable for a daughter of hers. The school enjoyed a high reputation and had a staff of excellent teachers. Mirra was always among the first in her class, simply because she wanted to understand the knowledge taught her instead of passively receiving it and memorizing it by rote. It was in that school that she wrote, in 1893, the first preserved text from her hand, a short essay entitled Le sentier de Tout-à-l’heure (The path of later on). It contains the prophetic exhortation: ‘Come … to the beautiful, the good, the true; do not be misled by indolence and weakness; don’t fall asleep in the present: come to the future.’ 7 She studied at that school from 1887 to 1895.
In the meantime her brother Mattéo was preparing for his entrance examination to the École Polytechnique, one of the Parisian super schools that gave France its best civil and military mathematicians and engineers. In addition to his successful studies at that institution, Mattéo would also graduate in arts from the not less prestigious École Normale Supérieure. Mirra was very close to her brother, who was eighteen months older. When once their father put him across his knee to slap his bottom, she stood up for him and said, with all the dignity she could muster: ‘Papa, if you ever do this again, I’ll leave this house at once!’ But she could also tease Mattéo, well aware that he had a terrible temper and would get furious at the slightest provocation. ‘My brother …
was extremely excitable in his boyhood. I was an expert in making him angry. Both of us were fond of each other, but when he was angry he lost all control of himself,’ 8 almost killing her on three occasions. When he was warned by his mother, who adored him, that the next time he might really kill Mirra, he exerted his strong self-control and never did it again.
When Mattéo was preparing for that formidable entrance examination, Mirra studied together with him, for she was that exception who found numbers and mathematics fascinating.
When she came up with the solution of a problem Mattéo was unable to solve, his astonished tutor exclaimed that it was the girl who should sit for the examination. Later, when talking about her youth, the Mother said that at the age of thirteen or fourteen she read all the books in her father’s library, some eight hundred or so. In that way her keen intelligence, so necessary for the great task awaiting her, developed and sharpened, and she acquired the stylistic mastery over the French language that she would show all through her life.