About midway down the Coromandel coast of southeastern India stands the quaint little port-town of Pondicherry, which was a French colony from 1673 to 1954. It was here on a nondescript afternoon in March, 1914 that the spiritual collaboration between Sri Aurobindo and the Mother Mirra Alfassa began. This is an account of that memorable meeting along with some related anecdotes.
It was in the year 1910 that Mirra Alfassa (then Mirra Richard) first heard of Sri Aurobindo. Her husband Paul had just returned from a trip to Pondicherry, which was one of the slivers of territory controlled by the French in what was then largely British-occupied India. He informed her that he had met a Yogi in Pondicherry named Aurobindo Ghose and had been captivated by his profound philosophy. The photograph of this Yogi that he had brought back was of poor quality and didn’t seem to indicate anything extraordinary to her. Later, she heard another positive account of this Indian mystic from her friend, the Buddhist explorer and writer, Alexandra David-Neel, who had met him in November, 1911 and come away impressed by the striking lustre in his eyes and the remarkable clarity of his thought. Mirra Alfassa herself was no stranger to the spiritual path. She had had spontaneous experiences since early childhood, and had studied under a Jewish occultist named Max Theon and his wife Alma. She was also well-versed in the Indian spiritual tradition, having read the Bhagavad Gita, the Dhammapada as well as Swami Vivekananda’s books on Raja Yoga .
Paul had told Sri Aurobindo that he would return with his wife who was “spiritually more advanced” than him . It was in early 1914, four years after Paul’s first trip, that their plans to visit India finally materialized. To raise money for the trip, one-fourth of Mirra’s small fortune had to be sold. They hoped this money would be sufficient to sustain their stay in India for upto two years . The Richards boarded the Japanese steamer Kaga Maru at Marseilles on the 8th March, 1914. After disembarking on the 27th March at Colombo in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), they crossed the Palk strait, reaching Dhanushkodi in India where they boarded the Boat Mail train, as it was called then, to reach their intended destination, Pondicherry, on the 29th of March. Paul went to apprise Sri Aurobindo of their arrival earlier in the day. Mirra wanted to meet Sri Aurobindo alone and arranged an afternoon appointment for herself. Their arrival was not unexpected. According to Amrita, who would later become their disciple, the associates who had gathered around Sri Aurobindo had been informed of the impending arrival of “two Europeans from the highest circles of France” who were coming expressly to practice Yoga .
It was about 3:30 pm in the afternoon of the 29th that Mirra Richard made her way to Sri Aurobindo’s residence at 37, Rue Francois Martin. As she began climbing the staircase, he emerged from the room and quietly stood at the top of the stairs. “It’s the vision dress!”, she froze and silently exclaimed. Her mind flew back to the visions she had had several years ago of a dark Asiatic figure whom she called Krishna, who used to be clad in what she thought was a “vision dress” (which, in reality, turned out to be the Indian garment named dhoti that Sri Aurobindo used to wear). Those visions had convinced her that she would one day meet this individual named Krishna. And now, he stood before her – dressed in the same way, in the same position in profile, his head held high. The inner vision abruptly merged with the outer experience and there was a fusion – a decisive shock, as she would recall many years later.
The meeting had a profound effect on her. The next day, she wrote in her diary: “It matters little that there are thousands of beings plunged in the densest ignorance, He whom we saw yesterday is on earth; his presence is enough to prove that a day will come when darkness shall be transformed into light, and Thy reign shall be indeed established upon earth.” Sri Aurobindo also used to keep a diary now published as the The Record of Yoga. About seven weeks after their meeting, on May 23rd, 1914, he made a cryptic note in that diary: “Soul-kinship (reference to the Rs [Richards]).” It is difficult to state with certitude but this may be the earliest written record of his premonition that she was his Shakti and twin soul. In a letter to an associate, Motilal Roy, he wrote, “He(Paul) and Madame Richard are rare examples of European Yogins who have not been led away by Theosophical and other aberrations. I have been in material and spiritual correspondence with them for the last four years. .
Paul and Mirra Richard taken a house in Rue Dupleix not far from where Sri Aurobindo lived. They began having regular meetings to discuss spiritual and occult topics. Mirra began learning Sanskrit and Bengali under the guidance of Sri Aurobindo. It was decided to start a monthly philosophical review, the Arya, under the joint editorship of Sri Aurobindo, and Mirra and Paul Richard. The first issue of Arya was published in August 1914 .
One day, Paul and Sri Aurobindo were sitting at a table having a long discussion on yoga, the war and the world at large, while Mirra was sitting passively near them on the floor. Suddenly, she felt a massive Force – a vast silence – descending into her and saturating the three centers in the forehead, between the eyebrows and the throat. By the time they had finished talking, she realized that her mind had fallen completely blank. She had received a gift of mental stillness from Sri Aurobindo, which would remain with her for the rest of her life .
At another time, while Sri Aurobindo was discussing his childhood and his formation, she asked him why, despite innumerable experiences and realizations, she remained so mediocre. Everything she did seemed mediocre to her. Her painting wasn’t bad, but many others could do as well. Her music wasn’t bad either, but she wasn’t a musical genius. Her philosophical capacity excelled those of her friends, but she seemed to have no special gift for it. Sri Aurobindo’s answer was that people who are perfected in one field tend to be more concentrated and specialized in consciousness, whereas in her case, not being exceptional in any particular field allowed her to have greater suppleness and vaster scope. While hearing the answer, she thought that he was being sympathetic to her but later discovered there was a deep truth behind those words. As she was to remark later, this incapacity had indeed endowed her with a suppleness and breadth to open herself up to newer fields of human endeavour.
Another question she asked him at some point was regarding the state of absorptive trance (samadhi) that she had read about in the ancient Yogic texts. She asked him, “What do you think of samadhi, that state of trance one does not remember? One enters into a condition which seems blissful, but when one comes out of it, one does not know at all what has happened.” Then he looked at her, saw what she meant and told her, “It is unconsciousness.” She asked him for an explanation. He replied, “You enter into what is called samadhi when you go out of your conscious being and enter a part of your being which is completely unconscious, or rather a domain where you have no corresponding consciousness… a region where you are no longer conscious … that is why, naturally, you remember nothing …. ” So this reassured her and she said, “Well, this has never happened to me.” He replied, “Nor to me” .
She also inquired about the “rising of the Kundalini” that she had experienced earlier in Paris. Her experience did not match the description she had read in Swami Vivekananda’s books, because in her case, the Force(Kundalini-Shakti) had risen above the head and settled there about eight inches above the head. She asked Sri Aurobindo to explain the anomaly. He replied that the same thing had occurred to him, and according to ancient texts, you cannot live when that takes place. He reassured her, “Here are two people who haven’t died!”.
On 28th July, 1914, the First World War had broken out across Europe between the Allies and the Central Powers. A few months later, it would bring an abrupt end to Paul and Mirra’s stay in Pondicherry. Before coming to Pondicherry, Sri Aurobindo had been a pre-eminent political leader fighting against the British occupation of India, but his spiritual realizations had forced him to set aside the political work. Guided by his spiritual visions, he had come to French-controlled Pondicherry seeking a retreat where he could practice Yoga. The British, however, continued to view him as a dangerous extremist who could cause further trouble if left unmonitored. His house was therefore kept under constant surveillance by British spies and details of all visitors were regularly reported back to the British government. Since Paul and Mirra had become intimate with Sri Aurobindo and the other anti-British extremists, they inevitably became targets of British action. The colonial French government asked Paul to return to France to serve as a reservist in the army, and accordingly, in February 1915, the Richards left Pondicherry for France after an eleven-month stay. During the Richards’ stopover in Colombo, the British confiscated the Sanskrit grammar that had been prepared for Mirra by Sri Aurobindo. They probably assumed it was anti-British extremist literature.
The Mother Mirra Alfassa’s vision of Krishna actually consisted of two parts. The first part in which she saw Krishna in a “vision dress” came true when she saw Sri Aurobindo in 1914. In the second part of her vision, she had seen herself standing next to Krishna gazing out of a window. It took six more years for the second part to be fulfilled. In between, she had to return to France and travel to Japan before coming back to Pondicherry.
In hindsight, it must be noted that the visions in which the Mother had seen Sri Aurobindo had occurred between the ages of eleven and thirteen, even before Sri Aurobindo began practicing Yoga. So it seems that the fact that Sri Aurobindo would turn to Yoga and attain Enlightenment was pre-destined.
The Rameshwaram Express, which travels from Rameshwaram to Chennai Egmore, is the modern-day equivalent of the Boat Mail train, which the Mother Mirra Alfassa took in March, 1914 from Dhanushkodi to Villipuram. This is a video of the train as it starts at the tip of the Indian ocean.
- Mother’s Agenda, 20 Dec 1961 and 5th Nov, 1961
- Sri Aurobindo Archives and Research, April 1987, p 114
- Srinivasa Iyengar. On Sri Aurobindo, pp 396-398; Srinivasa Iyengar. On the Mother, pp 78-100.
- Life In Pondicherry 1910 And After. Documents in the life of Sri Aurobindo, no. 26
- Sri Aurobindo. Letter to Motilal Roy dated 5 May 1914, Autobiographical Notes, CWSA vol 36, p 204.
- Amrita. Old Long Since, p 27.
- The Mother. Prayers and Meditations. Collected Works, vol. 1, p 113.
- Sri Aurobindo. The Record of Yoga, p 478.
- Sri Aurobindo. Autobiographical Notes, CWSA vol 36, p 195.
- Mother’s Agenda, 25th July, 1962.
- Mother’s Agenda, 5th Sept, 1962 and 18th Feb, 1967.
- The Mother. Collected Works of the Mother, vol. 8, p 276.
- Mother’s Agenda, 11th July, 1970.
- The Political Situation In Pondicherry 1910-1915. Documents in the life of Sri Aurobindo, no. 25
- Nirodbaran, Talks with Sri Aurobindo, vol. 1, p 229.
- Sri Aurobindo, The Mother And Paul Richard 1911-1915. Documents in the life of Sri Aurobindo, no. 29
- Srinivasa Iyengar. On the Mother, p 852.
- Mother’s Agenda, 5th Nov, 1961
- The Mother. Collected Works of the Mother, vol. 13, p 38.
- Twin souls
- The foundation of spiritual relationships
- The Mother Mirra Alfassa as a Guru
- Some disciples of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother
- How to choose the right life partner
- Sri Aurobindo’s interaction with an American soldier during World War II
- Sri Aurobindo’s 1947 meeting with two French visitors
- Silviu Craciunas has a dream of Sri Aurobindo
- Early mystic experiences of Sri Aurobindo
- Sri Ramakrishna’s occult contact with Sri Aurobindo
- Ramana Maharshi on World War II