1878 – 1914 France, Algeria & Paris

1878 – 1914 France, Algeria & Paris

The Mother was born in Paris on February 21, 1878. Her parents were immigrants to France. Her father, Maurice Alfassa, was a wealthy Turkish banker from Adrianopolis and her mother, Mathilda Ismalun, came from Cairo. Turkey and Egypt are, in a way, a physical link between the East and the West. Later in her life, the Mother was to become a ‘golden bridge’ in the domain of the spirit between the East and the West. A year before her birth her parents settled in France, which in the late nineteenth century was the fountainhead of Western culture.

The Mother's childhood name was Mirra. From the beginning Mirra was an unusual child. At a very young age she became conscious of her mission upon earth:

“I started contemplating or doing my yoga from the age of 4. There was a small chair for me on which I used to sit still, engrossed in my meditation. A very brilliant light would then descend over my head and produce some turmoil inside my brain. Of course I understood nothing, it was not the age for understanding. But gradually I began to feel, ‘I shall have to do some tremendously great work that nobody yet knows.’”

Mirra went to school in Paris. Even at the age of five, she felt that she must know herself and be master of herself and not a mere plaything in the hands of other forces:

“I knew nobody who could help me and I did not have the chance that you have, someone who can tell you: ‘This is what you have to do!’ There was nobody to tell me that. I had to find it out all by myself. And I found it. I started at five.”

Mirra describes how her mother dealt with her:

“When, as a child, I used to complain to my mother about food or any such small matter she would always tell me to go and do my work or pursue my studies instead of bothering about trifles. She would ask me if I had the complacent idea that I was born for comfort. 'You are born to realise the highest ideal,' she would say and send me packing. She was quite right...”

With her studies Mirra started playing tennis, a sport she remained fond of throughout her life. To progress faster, instead of playing with her comrades of the same age, she chose older and better players. It did not matter that she lost. As she said:

“I never won, but I learned much.”

Mirra was always conscious of a more than human force behind her, often entering her body and working there in a supernormal way. This force she knew to be her own secret being. In Mirra's school there was a boy of thirteen, a bully who used to mock at girls, saying that they were good for nothing. Mirra was only seven, but one day she confronted him and asked him, “Will you shut up?” He kept mocking. Suddenly she took hold of him, lifted him up from the ground and threw him down with a thump. She later realized that this was a manifestation of the force of Mahakali, an aspect of the Divine Mother.

Mirra often liked to play in the forests of Fontainebleau. One day when she was climbing a steep hill, her foot slipped and she began to fall down. The road below was strewn with sharp flintstones. Suddenly she felt somebody supporting her, in a lap as it were, and slowly bringing her down. Her companions were glad and astonished to find that when she reached the ground she was standing safely on her feet. But the most beautiful of her experiences of this early period has been described by the Mother in her Prayers and Meditations:

“When I was a child of about thirteen, for nearly a year every night as soon as I had gone to bed it seemed to me that I went out of my body and rose straight up above the house, then above the city, very high above. Then I used to see myself clad in a magnificent golden robe, much longer than myself; and as I rose higher, the robe would stretch, spreading out in a circle around me to form a kind of immense roof over the city. Then I would see men, women, children, old men, the sick, the unfortunate coming out from every side; they would gather under the outspread robe, begging for help, telling of their miseries, their suffering, their hardships. In reply, the robe, supple and alive, would extend towards each one of them individually, and as soon as they had touched it, they were comforted or healed, and went back into their bodies happier and stronger than they had come out of them. Nothing seemed more beautiful to me, nothing could make me happier; and all the activities of the day seemed dull and colourless and without any real life, beside this activity of the night which was the true life for me. Often while I was rising up in this way, I used to see at my left an old man, silent and still, who looked at me with kindly affection and encouraged me by his presence. This old man, dressed in a long dark purple robe, was the personification—as I came to know later—of him who is called the Man of Sorrows.”

Mirra took an interest in everything but was especially fond of music and painting. At the age of sixteen she joined one of the biggest studios in Paris to learn drawing and painting. She was the youngest student there. Mirra was always grave and busy with her work. Her fellow-students called her the Sphinx. They came to her for advice, to settle some quarrel or even to take up their case before the authorities. Mirra could read their thoughts and she replied more often to their thoughts than to their words, which sometimes made people very uncomfortable.

Mirra grew up in Paris, the metropolis of the great painters of Impressionism. It was the time of Matisse, Monet, Renoir and Cezanne. Mirra lived and moved in this rich, creative cultural milieu. She completed her studies at the École des Beaux-Arts and some of her paintings were exhibited at the Salon. She also became a gifted musician.

But it was always the call of the Spirit which was foremost in her life. She later said:

“Between 11 and 13 a series of psychic and spiritual experiences revealed to me not only the existence of God, but man's possibility of uniting with Him, of realising Him integrally in consciousness and action, of manifesting Him upon earth in a life divine. This, along with a practical discipline for its fulfilment, was given to me during my body's sleep by several teachers, some of whom I met afterwards on the physical plane. Later on, as the interior and exterior development proceeded, the spiritual and psychic relation with one of these beings became more and more clear and frequent.”

Although Mirra knew little of Indian philosophy and religion at that time, she called this special Being ‘Krishna’. She was firmly convinced that one day she would meet him on earth.  This Being was none other than Sri Aurobindo.

Apart from these inner visions, Mirra had no one to turn to for guidance or help:

“[B]etween the age of eighteen and twenty I had attained a conscious and constant union with the divine Presence and ... I had done it all alone, with absolutely nobody to help me, nor even books, you understand! When I found one—there came to my hands a little later Vivekananda's Raja Yoga—it seemed to me so wonderful a thing, you see, that someone could explain something to me. This made me gain in a few months what would have perhaps taken me years to do.”

When Mirra was twenty-one, she met an Indian in France who gave her a copy of the Bhagavad Gita. It was a very bad French translation, but the Indian asked Mirra to take Krishna as the Immanent Godhead, the Divine within ourselves. For Mirra this was now the most important thing to be discovered, which had to be put before everything else. And she revealed afterwards that in one month the work was done and she had the experience:

“[W]hen I found, as I said, a book, a man, just to give me a little indication, to tell me, ‘Here you are. If you do this the path will open before you', why, I rushed headlong like a ... like a cyclone, and nothing could have stopped me.”

Mirra was deeply absorbed in her inner life, making her sometimes oblivious to her outer surroundings. However, she was always well shielded by a powerful force. Once while walking near the Luxembourg Gardens, she crossed a dangerous intersection, completely absorbed in a deep inner concentration. Suddenly she received a shock like a blow, as if something had hit her. She jumped back instinctively. The next moment a tram went past.

“...it was the tram that I had felt at a little more than arm's length. It had touched the aura, the aura of protection—it was very strong at that time. I was deeply immersed in occultism and I knew how to keep it—the aura of protection had been hit and that had literally thrown me backwards, as if I had received a physical shock.”

It was a time of one-pointed effort in the spiritual life. And though the work was all within, spiritual seekers were naturally drawn to her. It was thus in 1905 that a small group called ‘Idea’ was formed under her guidance. This was the first of many such groups which formed around her from time to time. The participants met regularly for several years on Wednesday evenings and discussed spiritual and occult matters, with Mirra taking the lead. She was then twenty-eight.

During this time, Mirra met a Polish Jew, Max Théon, and his wife Alma. Both of them were very advanced in occultism and lived at Tlemcen, near the Sahara in South Algeria. Mirra spent about two years at Tlemcen, practising occultism. She recounted one day, some very interesting incidents of that period to the children of the Ashram:

“Tlemcen is a small town in southern Algeria, almost on the borders of the Sahara. ... The population is mainly Arabs … there were very prosperous Arab merchants there and from time to time these Arabs came to pay a visit to Monsieur Théon. They knew nothing, understood nothing, but they were very interested.

One day, towards evening, one of these people arrived and started asking questions, ludicrous ones besides. Then Madame Théon said to me, 'You will see, we are going to have a little fun.’ In the verandah of the house there was a big dining-table, a very large table, like that, quite wide, with eight legs, four on each side. It was really massive, and heavy. Chairs had been arranged to receive this man, at a little distance from the table. He was at one end, Madame Théon at the other; I was seated on one side. Monsieur Théon also. All four of us were there. Nobody was near the table; all of us were at a distance from it. And so, he was asking questions, as I said rather ludicrous ones, on the powers one could have and what could be done with what he called 'magic'. ... She looked at me and said nothing but sat very still. Suddenly I heard a cry, a cry of terror. The table started moving and with an almost heroic gesture went to attack the poor man seated at the one end! It went and bumped against him. ... Madame Théon had not touched it, nobody had touched it. She had only concentrated on the table and by her vital power had made it move. At first the table had wobbled a little, then had started moving slowly, then suddenly, as in one bound, it flung itself on that man, who went away and never came back! She also had the power to dematerialise and rematerialise things. And she never said anything, she did not boast, she did not say, 'I am going to do something', she did not speak of anything; she just did it quietly. She did not attach much importance to these things; she knew they were just a proof that there are other forces than purely material ones.

When I used to go out in the evenings … I used to lock my door; it was a habit with me, I always locked my door. ... But when I returned from the walk and opened my door … I would always find a kind of little garland of flowers on my pillow. They were flowers which grew in the garden, they are called Belles de Nuit … they open in the evening and have a wonderful fragrance. There was a whole alley of them with big bushes as high as this; they are remarkable flowers …  yellow, red, mixed, violet ... When I came back, these flowers were in my room! ... She never told me how she did it, but she certainly did not go in there. Once she said to me, 'Were there no flowers in your room?' 'Ah! Yes, indeed', I said. And that was all. Then I knew it was she who had put them there.”

When Mirra returned to Paris, Theon accompanied her. While at sea they were assailed by a violent storm. The sea became very rough with high waves and the ship was tossed about so badly that the passengers got panicky. Theon looked at Mirra and asked her to stop it. The Mother described what happened:

“I went to my cabin, lay down there, and leaving my body went freely to the open sea. There I found innumerable formless beings were madly jumping about and creating havoc over the waters. I approached them and very humbly and sweetly appealed to them to stop this mischief saying, ‘What can you gain by torturing these poor people? Please calm down and save their lives.’ I went on remonstrating and appealing to them for half an hour, after which they refrained from their activities. The troubled sea became calm. I then went back to my body and came out of the cabin. When I went on deck I found all the people gathered there happily engaged in jovial talk.”

The well-known Tibetologist, Madame Alexandra David Neel was a member of the study group started by the Mother in Paris. She describes her impressions of the Mother:

“We spent marvellous evenings together with friends, believing in a great future.... 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."

After her return from Algeria, Mirra had started another study group called ‘Cosmique’ having significantly twelve members. She gave a talk to this group on ‘What is the aim to be achieved, the work to be done, and the means of achievement.’ She spoke here of the New Consciousness which has to be brought down and of founding collectively an ideal society in a place suited to the flowering of the new race, that of the ‘Sons of God’. Mirra was only thirty-four. It would be another two years before she would meet Sri Aurobindo and another fourteen years before the Ashram would come into being. But already she had chalked out clearly her future programme of collaboration with Sri Aurobindo.