The Mother Mirra Alfassa as a Guru

The Mother Mirra Alfassa was a much misunderstood Guru outside the  confines of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram.  Some  derided her as authoritarian presumably because she supervised parades in the Ashram(these were intended to instill the discipline required for yogic transformation).  Others, after reading of her intimate involvement in the day-to-day decisions of the disciples, concluded that she had turned the Ashram into a cult.  Men especially had difficulty accepting an European (not to mention French) woman as a Guru.   Many hasty, as well as nasty, misconceptions arise because we superficially evaluate her external behaviour based on our own preconceptions and prejudices.  A proper appraisal of her functioning as a Guru requires some patience along with a nascent psychic sensitivity to perceive the luminous consciousness behind her frontal personality.

In this post, we cover a few selections from Mrityunjoy’s candid and insightful memoir of Ashram life entitled “A Look behind” which illustrates the myriad ways in which the Mother apprehended the decadent subconscious formations in the disciples and gently cleared away these obstacles to their spiritual growth.  Such interactions can serve as guideposts in mending our errant ways !

Before discussing the anecdotes, it is pertinent to mention that during initiation (Diksha), the Guru places a seed of their illumined consciousness into the disciple’s heart, installing a palpably warm flame which burns silently until  the disciple reaches self-realization.   This seed ties the disciple to the Guru’s consciousness and serves as a channel for inner communication between them.  This is how the Mother used to ascertain the state of the disciples’ consciousness and influence them  silently.  See How does a Guru act? for more on the general Guru-disciple aspects.

Socializing and being friendly with all

(One of the common misconceptions people in the spiritual path entertain is that one must always smile, be friendly with all, and share details of our life with everyone.  Au contraire, Sri Aurobindo and the Mother insisted that the human relations must be recast in the spiritual light.)

Mrityunjoy: Another point about which the Mother was particular in my case was unnecessary contact with women. It was some­thing the Mother would never tolerate. In fact there was not to be any contact with men either, which was not precisely in connection with some work for the Mother. And it was one of my diseases to be friendly with all, inwardly justifying myself that it was the sign of purity and strength. There were innumerable cases when the Mother was severe with me. At times I asked her whether she believed I would enter into some immoral contact. Her reply was revealing, though I was too arrogant in the beginning to be convinced. The gist of what she told me on a number of occasions was like this: “Your idea of morality and immorality is ridiculous. You are here for yoga, to be in union, with the Divine, to be all the time above all human so-called natural contacts, how­ever high and refined you may imagine them to be. Any con­tact with women in your case, will bring you down to subtle vital exchanges to which you are always open. Your con­sciousness will begin to get dulled, forces of the vital world will take advantage, and quite unawares you will be carried far into wrong tracks, even when you are quite sure of your morality remaining sound!” At times she told me, “Don’t be boastful of your strength. None has been able to keep his promise to me as yet!”.

Idle talk dissipates the ethereal light

(Contact with the Guru infuses dazzling light into one’s dull and murky consciousness, but this light has to be nourished carefully by renouncing retrograde movements of consciousness, otherwise one experiences a setback.   Read how Mrityunjoy experienced this problem.)

Mrityunjoy: … Nolinida called me and told it to me again adding that the Mother had said I should be careful. “Careful about what?” I asked him. He said the Mother had meant that I should be careful in my daily movements, so as not to disturb something that was growing in me.

During those days, generally in the afternoons, I would go for a long walk with some of my elderly friends, whom I had known before and who were now for me very respectable and advanced yogis, specially since I was a novice newly arrived. However, their conduct fully justified the caustic remarks made by my friend on my first day in the Ashram. The whole walking hour was devoted to gossip about every­thing under the sun, and in the most ordinary way. New lamb that I was, I swallowed everything with relish and argued with myself when the conscience pricked, saying that it was the spiritually enlightened way of seeing things. Within a week’s time I began to feel dull when I approached the Mother at Pranam time or at Soup (distribution). I felt quite empty. I then realised the meaning of the Mother’s message to me, ‘to be careful’!

The Guru helps you ONLY if you surrender

Mrityunjoy: I used to meet some reputed Sadhaks on the sly and indulge in taking tea with them, joining in their gossips which in­cluded reading fresh letters from Sri Aurobindo and finding faults with other sadhaks. I did not inform the Mother about it, as I knew She would not approve. However, the mental justification to stop the prick of conscience was never lack­ing: “After all, what’s wrong in it? Where else would I have the opportunity to read such wonderful letters of Sri Aurobindo?” Gradually I sensed a certain reserve in the Mother’s dealing with me. Unable to bear the tension, I asked Her a few days after, what was wrong expressing my sorrow for displeasing Her and bringing about Her indiffe­rence to me. Very kindly but jokingly the Mother asked me why I hid things from Her. Thus things got settled down in a way, but for a short time only. The vital attraction to gos­sip was too strong to be thrown off at once. I had no diffi­culty in walking away from my family to enter the Ashram, but these apparently innocent movements would not leave me. I continued my old ways but justified them with similar arguments: “Now that the Mother knows about it, there is  nothing so very serious in it, and didn’t She tell me, “‘Do whatever you like, but do not hide it from me? Moreover, when I told Her that I would never go anywhere again. She told me it would be good if I could do so, but She did not think I could. Didn’t it mean that She did not believe me?” After full three years of struggle, the topic came up again in one of my interviews with the Mother. She said, “You are playing about in this matter (visiting people at tea parties, etc.). But if you do not throw it away completely now that it has taken a more complex turn, this greed in what appears to you a very minor form will later be a major obstacle in your sadhana.” I asked Her quite impertinently why She did not remove this desire from me, if it was something so serious. The Mother replied with all her tenderness, “But you are not allowing me to do it. You are not opening this part at all to my influence. Each time that I put a strong pressure on you to help you out of this disease, you very cleverly avoid it. If you had very simply come to me and frankly told me about your difficulty, your desire for this or that thing, I would have seen what really was needed, and how much to allow and for how long. By now you would have been completely out of it and gone a step further. But instead of that you go on hiding it from me, and satisfy your greed by frequenting other people’s places. Naturally you miss the direct help.”

It was the first time in my life that I had heard such a thing, and that from the Mother! Is it believable that such silly bits could be put before Her, asking for their satisfaction? All I had learned from childhood had taught me the contrary, not to ask anything from the Divine. Sri Ramakrishna had sent Vivekananda to Mother Kali to ask her redress of his family difficulties so that he could devote himself entirely to his guru; but Vivekananda tried three times and yet could not ask. Instead, he prayed for desirelessness and renunciation. In one of Rabindranath Tagore’s lines we read, “He who could give you a crown for the head, you just ask for a shoe­lace from him!”

It took me years to recognise my false logic in it. If not to bother the Mother for insignificant things of human desire is to be my abiding virtue, I must be capable of removing de­sires completely from myself. But with many like me, this is not easy. It is only the highly developed souls that can do it all at one stroke. Sri Aurobindo did it; from the moment he decided not to allow the mind to think but to remain vacant and act according to the inner voice, from then on his whole life was guided by that principle. But for a common man who has taken up the line of spiritual development the guidance of the guru is necessary. Opening oneself to the Mother, not only for things higher and nobler, but for things small and ordinary, and to wait for Her decision and guidance — this not only helps one to progress without stumbling, but is es­sential for the development of the inner consciousness which eventually leads to the discovery of the Mother inside who guides unmistakably. I wish I had understood this before; then I would not have wasted so much of the Mother’s outer grace and compassion. I should have understood that even when the Mother made some concessions for my desire to have its own way, it was just to help cure it and not go on exploit­ing it. When She did not sanction, in certain cases, strict discipline should have been maintained at any cost, and as I had experienced in some cases where I succeeded, the feeling of the Grace helping to cure the malady was physically pal­pable, and the difficulty was over earlier than imagined. But the question was of holding on.

Trivial pursuits – collecting autographs

Mrityunjoy: An incident comes to mind that happened during my first days of stay in the Ashram. Dara in those days became inte­rested in taking photographs of many of the Ashram inmates. I took a fancy to collect some of them and seek autographs of the sadhaks on the pictures, just for my own collection. It certainly was a newcomer’s enthusiasm to come in contact with some of the veteran sadhaks. Some readily agreed and autographed also. I approached Nolinida, but he declined. To him it appeared a wrong movement, because in the Ashram only Sri Aurobindo and the Mother gave autographs. This naturally hurt me but did not fail to make an impression on me. Then, after some others with whom I had succeeded, I approached Pavitra, about whom I had heard very inte­resting stories even before I came to the Ashram, and who since then has been to me a true child of the Mother. So as soon as I came here I took the earliest opportunity to meet him, even though people told me that he was one of the three persons in those days, with whom nobody was to talk with­out the Mother’s permission. He kept the photo with him and told me to see him the next day. What a shock and sur­prise was in store for me, when he told me the day after that he had asked the Mother about it and that She had not approved. Embarrassed and sorry, I asked him whether the Mother was displeased. He assured me very sweetly that She was not displeased. What She meant was that to give autographs was to communicate some power and She did not see any necessity for that in this case. After Nolinida, this was again a lesson to me; more so, because the attitude of Pavitra to refer everything to the Mother, even things which appeared small to the common point of view, was an unforgettable pointer to me, even though I often forgot it.

Only those who are capable of transmitting, along with a written word, the Divine force and consciousness, ought to give their autograph.

-Mother, CWMCE vol. 15.

Dismantling the caste-conscious Indian society

(The Mother, while running the Ashram and assigning work to people, was also instilling egalitarian ways into Indian minds long infected by caste consciousness.)

Mrityunjoy: A year later circumstances led me to volunteer work in another department with the Mother’s approval. There was a paid workman also to help along with a small boy. The man was a technician, but an indifferent fellow, and I a novice just learning the work. Once it happened that the small boy, who carried the ladder from place to place, did not turn up for several days and the paid man would not touch the ladder. He was too proud of his dignity for such a petty job! So I prayed to the Mother to appoint another boy to carry the ladder. The Mother exclaimed with surprise, “What! two people cannot carry a ladder? I do not understand!” I felt shocked at first that She wanted me to do a coolie(manual laborer)’s job for this paid man who refused to touch the ladder! But I realised that in any case I had to obey Her and pass through the ordeal. First my own superiority complex had to be thrown aside if I wanted to work for the Divine. So I did the job the next day. Seeing me lifting the ladder the workman grumbled and after a while very unwillingly lent his hand. Later the Mother obliged me to do all such work myself, and pointed out to me that it was the only way to be a successful leader of co-workers, otherwise they would have no true feeling and respect for me and would find every op­portunity to cheat me and sink into a demoralised condition.

How to be a good manager

(Karma Yoga, if done properly, can be a means of elevating consciousness.)

Mrityunjoy: Another small incident gave me an unforgettable lesson from the Mother. One day I reported to Her about a work­man, a very good and honest mechanic, who was always concentrated in his work, but on that day somehow he did not follow my words and got irritated. I tried several times to explain to him but he would not listen and became inso­lent in front of a dozen workmen. So I shouted at him, with the result that he at once wanted to leave the job and go away. The Mother was quite distressed with my behaviour. In part what She told me was: “What are you here for? You are for Yoga, aren’t you? And what is that man here for, to earn his livelihood, isn’t he,? You say the man is honest and an expert mechanic and very gentle by nature, and that it was the first time he behaved with you like that. So if you had used a little ordinary common sense, I don’t speak of the yogic sense here, you would have understood that something un­usually upsetting must have happened to him either in his family or out somewhere, which made him lose his balance of mind. Thus he did not understand you properly.

“Now, you who are doing yoga should not have gone down in consciousness, and at last you even went below the person with whom you lost your temper. It will help in no way to argue and explain and counter-argue, always posing yourself to be right and the other wrong, and moreover you said that the man speaks very little English, and the most deplorable of all things was that your vanity of being the superior boss took the lead.”

When I told Her that I had not actually lost myself in anger, but the man’s insolent behaviour in front of so many workmen had set a bad example and so…, She stopped me in the middle of my sentence and said “All that justification belongs to a lower level of consciousness; so long as you remain there, there is no hope. If you want to serve the Divine you must always be at the top of your consciousness.”

“What should I have done in that embarrassing situation?” I asked. The Mother said, “Instead of making the drama of a superior person dealing with a paid workman, you should have behaved like a loving friend and comrade, you should have done this” — here the Mother patted my shoulder — and laughed and told him with a kind and affectionate ges­ture, ‘What has happened to you today? You must not be well; go and take some rest. Surely you are very tired today.’ You would have seen that it would have eased the situation and brought back harmony. Whatever be the situation and whosoever the person, lack of harmony means lack of con­sciousness, and the one who is stronger yields. I do not mean stronger physically, but stronger in consciousness. And by one’s affection and love, not by the dictionary meaning of the word, one yields to get back peace and harmony. Instead of that, you went down below the person and rubbed the animal in him in the wrong way. You are ‘doing yoga, so this much he can expect from you?”           •

“Now, what shall I do, shall I go back and do as you said?” I asked. The Mother laughed and said, “No, it is too late now, it would be a rehearsed artificial drama and won’t serve the purpose. It must be spontaneous, and that means from a different consciousness. Now the only thing that you can do is to concentrate on the best part of the man and pray for him, that he may get peace and balance, and when you meet him tomorrow behave as if nothing had happened. Be as natural and affectionate as can be expected of a really strong man.”

I did not have to wait for the next morning. Towards the  end of the day he came himself to me, and with eyes full of tears asked pardon of me. I was struck dumb. I felt that I had lost the game and he had won it. The same night when I told this to the Mother, she said in a tone of good humour, “So you see, he is more receptive than you. Remember and offer”.

The pride in being a scholar

(This incident reveals the folly of mixing the Guru’s guidance with the advice from supposedly well-meaning people.)

Mrityunjoy: I had been in the Ashram about two years when an elderly friend of mine came for a visit. I was indebted to him very much because in my earlier days he had helped make it pos­sible for me to come here. So naturally it was a great plea­sure for me to meet him again. But during the two months he remained here, I could not visit him as often as both of us would have liked, because by then I was fully engrossed in quite a number of different works; and the greatest attrac­tion of it was that I had more opportunities than many others to see the Mother and talk to Her and get Her instructions.

One day he remarked, “Why do you busy yourself all the time with so much work? Did the Mother give you so many jobs or do you do them of your own accord?” I explained to him, “The Mother does not impose work on anybody; I feel pleasure in working so I ask Her and She approves of my doing all these jobs.” He said, “You had literary talent in you and there is a good library here, why not take advantage  of that and try to be a literary man, doing a half day’s work and a half day’s study ?” His advice appealed to me, it sound­ed reasonable; yet I was not quite convinced inwardly. So I talked about it to Pavitra. The next day he surprised me by saying that he had spoken to the Mother about my con­versation with my friend, and very spontaneously She had said, “Yes, yes, otherwise how to become useless?” The next day, on our first meeting, the Mother said jokingly, “So, you are going to be a literary genius'”? I felt very much ashamed and said, “No, Mother.” It was indeed funny that I should have forgotten the warning given to me on my first day by my friend!

What the Mother said does not mean that She discourages literary activity. Here was a purely individual case in a cer­tain set of circumstances where the spiritual development depended on following a certain line of discipline.

Cleansing the Karma of past misconduct

Mrityunjoy: One of my stumbling-blocks was that I reacted violently when people blamed me without proper grounds.  At times I would even ask the Mother why she paid heed to such and such false rumours, why I should be the victim of such charges, even though I had done nothing of the kind! Her answer to me was that it did not matter whether I did or did not do some such things in that particular instance; what mattered was that previously I had proved myself capable of them, and there were reports about that. My past conduct and the present complaints were enough to show that I was still living in the same old consciousness of reactions and repeated lower movements. It was not enough to have stopped indulging in some of the movements. So long as I had not raised myself to a higher level of consciousness, and lived there constantly, such occasions would continue to be there. Only by a complete change of consciousness, and thus living above ordinary human reactions, could the atmosphere around me vibrate differently, and people would then be convinced and not try to find fault with me. And that is a task of long long years of arduous tapasya(austerity). Until then people would be justified to complain and my business was not to react but to be indifferent outwardly, while trying to find inwardly how certain apparently refined movements in me were really out of tune with my changed consciousness. And thus people’s complaints would be more a help than a hindrance.

Mrityunjoy’s conclusion

Throughout my life in the Ashram it has been a constant experience that the Mother always gives the chance to ap­proach Her and receive from Her things divine in so many forms, but after some time we turn it into something mecha­nical, valuable only in the earthly way: to have the right, the privilege to approach Her and receive things that others cannot have. Then it stops after some time. She does not stop the movement by giving a notice or explanation. She has infinite patience; She allows it to continue for quite a long time, giving the utmost chance to ignorant people to be con­scious and take the right attitude and receive things in the true spiritual way for the transformation of their being.

You can read the full memoir at the ashram website: Mrityunjoy – A Look behind

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20 thoughts on “The Mother Mirra Alfassa as a Guru

  1. Shilpa

    Thank you Sandeep. When I logged into my inbox today, there was a question on my mind, which had been making me feel anxious for months. And here was a mail which said..”One of my stumbling-blocks was that I reacted violently when people blamed..” .This was exactly what was going on in my thoughts and how thankful I am that La Mere chose to answer me through Mrityunjoy Sir.
    I wish I was more honest in my desire to take my consciousness to a higher level; I have heard some people say..”when you take a step towards God, God takes 10 towards you.” So true.
    Love and light.

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  3. Sandeep Post author

    Apropos the first paragraph of this article, here is a case of a man who found it difficult to accept the Mother. The person’s name was Garde and he visited the Ashram in Nov 1928. The story also illustrates the ability of both Sri Aurobindo and the Mother to read a person’s thoughts and peer deep into his or her soul.

    I reached Pondicherry on the morning of November 23 and was taken to an Ashram house. In the afternoon, a sadhak(seeker) came to me and said, “Come for the Mother’s Darshan.” The man further informed me, “We make Pranam (obesiance) at the feet of the Mother,and she blesses us by putting her hand, on our heads.” I was from an orthodox Brahmin family. Also, I hardly knew anything about the Mother. I thought, “I have come here for Sri Aurobindo’s Darshan. It would be better if the Mother didn’t bless me.” Thinking thus I reached the Ashram. In
    those days the Mother used to see people in the Library Room. When I bowed to her she didn’t bless me and when I looked at her she said, “Sri Aurobindo will give Darshan tomorrow.” I wondered, “Why did the Mother say this?” She must have known what in my mind and heart because she didn’t bless me, and also understood that I had come only for Sri Aurobindo’s Darshan.

    In those days every person had a fixed time for Darshan. While somebody went in for Darshan and Pranam, the next person awaited him on the stairs. No one was supposed to see another person doing Pranam. On the next morning while I was awaiting my turn, out of curiosity, I peeped from behind the door and my gaze settled on Sri Aurobindo. At the same moment Sri Aurobindo looked at me. Suddenly I saw a serious and frightening form of Sri Aurobindo
    – the Upanishadic words bheeshanam bheeshanam (i.e.fiery fiery) flashed into my inner being.
    Frightened I drew back and thought, “I did something forbidden and so it had to bring this retribution.” Meanwhile my turn for Darshan came. After Pranam when I looked into the eyes of Sri Aurobindo I felt as if Sri Aurobindo’s eyes were telling me, “If you want to know me you can know me through the Mother.” And with this message some Power turned my neck towards the Mother. My eyes fell on the Mother who was looking at me with eyes full of infinite compassion. I did Pranam to the Mother and came out.

    (From the “Mother India” magazine, Jan 2009, p 57)

    1. Sandeep Post author

      Nagin Doshi : Why do some people here consider you as greater than the Mother? Are not both of you from the same plane? Is it not a veil over the human vision that makes such a distinction?

      Sri Aurobindo: It is the minds that see surface things only and cannot see what is behind them.

      (Nagin Doshi, Guidance from Sri Aurobindo, vol. 2, p 213)

    2. Sandeep Post author

      Another critic of the Mother was Michael Murphy, co-founder of Esalen, who spent more than a year in the Ashram around 1956. A New Yorker profile of Michael Murphy published on Jan 5, 1976 states:

      In spite of his experience on the roof, Murphy never did become one of the ashram’s true believers. Aurobindo’s teachings had acquired since his death a rigidity that they did not have when he was alive, and the Mother tended, according to Murphy, to make dogmatic pronouncements. Murphy disliked the cult atmosphere, but he liked most of the other aspects of life at the ashram very much.

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  5. mike

    As l was reading this l heard these words from the TV.
    “I am looking at it in the Light of God’s Eternal Truth”
    And it’s a western lol
    Looks like the TV has some value after all.

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