February 21 this year is the 141st birth anniversary of an extraordinary woman, a mystic and spiritual guru who created a whole new township based on a self-actualized model of humankind, and who perhaps had a hand in the creation of a whole new country as well. Born Blanche Rachel Mirra Alfassa in 1878 in Paris, France, she was 95 when she died in Pondicherry, India. By then, she was known simply as The Mother, but few know about her role in the birth of Bangladesh.
Mirra led an eventful life in France, having strange occult experiences even as a child. Born to Jewish parents (her Turkish father and Egyptian mother had migrated to France a year before her birth), she had all the weight of a bourgeois immigrant family on her shoulders. But she defied expectations by refusing to read until she was seven, and then suddenly learning to read within a week. She went on to excel at a number of skills — from tennis, fencing and shooting to art, singing and music — without ever specializing in any one, a sore point with her mother who aspired to raise a champion.
“Whatever I wanted to do, I could do, but after a time, I had experienced the thing and it didn’t seem to me important enough to devote a whole life to it,” she explained. Later, when Mirra met Sri Aurobindo in Pondicherry, she asked him why she was so ‘mediocre’ in her life, why had she been able to do so many things but never in a ‘superior way’?
“That’s because it gives great suppleness — a great suppleness and a vast scope,” the spiritual reformer replied to her. His response made her realise that her ‘jack-of-all-trades’ quality was useful for someone on a path like hers: “The most important thing is not to have any fixity; nothing should be set, definitive — that means a dead stop in the march forward. The ideal is to have this suppleness and receptivity and surrender that is so total an acceptance of the Influence that whatever comes, naturally, spontaneously and effortlessly, the instrument adapts itself instantly to express it,” she told a disciple in 1967.
As a young woman, Mirra rebelled against traditional religion and even declared herself an atheist. “I obey no master, no ruler, no law, no social convention, but the Divine,” she announced later. She went on to meditate deeply, see visions, give talks on spirituality, marry, have a son, get divorced, marry again and travel to Pondicherry with her politician husband who aspired to win an election from the French territory in India. She got divorced again, gave up material pursuits, and finally joined Sri Aurobindo’s ashram in the early 1920s.
The Mother and Sri Aurobindo
Despite complaints from other disciples about her ‘unsuitability’, Sri Aurobindo named her his spiritual successor, and gave her greater and greater control at his ashram. Though he was six years older than her, he began calling her ‘The Mother’ before he retired from public life and took to meditation and yoga. “She is the consciousness and force of the Divine — or, it may be said, she is the Divine in its consciousness-force,” he told his disciples.
The Mother was instrumental in founding Auroville 50 years ago, a community based on Sri Aurobindo’s ‘integral yoga’, or yoga in all aspects of life — spiritual and material. The Aurobindo ashram is now an entrenched part of Pondicherry, with centres and schools across India.
Convinced that India would show the world the way towards the ‘Supreme Truth’, the Mother also had another role to play in her lifetime: as another powerful woman’s spiritual guide.
Indira Gandhi (centre) visits the Mother (left) in Aurobindo Ashram in 1955 (photo credit: overmanfoundation.org)
Indira Gandhi first met the Mother in 1955 along with her father, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, then prime minister of India. She visited a second time in 1969 while undergoing a crisis point in the Congress (she was expelled later that year), and then in February 1971 before the general elections. Some say the Mother’s blessings helped Indira win a landslide victory.
Almost immediately after Indira was sworn in as Prime Minister of India in March 1971, East Pakistan erupted in a crisis. Mother reportedly sent a message to Indira, which she received on 4th April: “The urgent recognition of Bangladesh is imperative.”
Indira convinced her cabinet and then Chief of Army Staff Sam Manekshaw that “instead of taking in millions of refugees into West Bengal, it was economical to go to war against Pakistan”. But the Indian Army was hesitant to be termed an ‘aggressor’ in the international community, and it would take many more months, and further provocation from Pakistan, for India to declare war. India’s victory was concluded in just 13 days.
Immediately, Mother sent a letter to Indira: “Again, it won’t be for this time. It won’t be done that way. I’ve seen how. It won’t be done through battle: the different parts of Pakistan will demand separation. There are five of them. And by separating, they will join India—to form a sort of confederation. That’s how it will be done.”
Indira (left) with the Mother in 1969 (photo credit: overmanfoundation.org)
Indira wrote back: “Through these critical months I have thought constantly of you. I can find no words with which to express my gratitude for your support. Your blessings are a great source of strength. Our difficulties are not over. The American administration is most upset that its calculations were so completely wrong, and they will use their power to try to humble us and specially to create division between Bangladesh and ourselves. I think our nation has taken a step towards maturity. Yet there are many who look only to today. If India is to be great we must improve the quality of the minds of our people. I know that this is your desire. In my humble way, I am trying to do what I can.”
The Mother at Auroville
When the Mother died in November 1973, Indira said of her: “She was young in spirit, modern in mind but most expressive was her abiding faith in the spiritual greatness of India and the role which India could play in giving new light to mankind.”
Of course, instead of actualizing the Mother’s vision, Indira plunged India into darkness, announcing Emergency two years after the Mother’s death.
And of course, the confederation of India-Pakistan-Bangladesh was not destined to be in either woman’s lifetime, and looks just as improbable in today’s tempestuous times as well.
But one can never say what the future holds.
First published in eShe magazine