by Georges Van Vrekhem
The following is an excerpt from chapter 6 of Georges' forthcoming book, The Mother: The Story of Her Life.
"When I came to Pondicherry a programme was dictated to me from within for my Sadhana. I followed it and progressed for myself but could not do much by way of helping others. Then came the Mother and with her help I found the necessary method." -- Sri Aurobindo, Glimpses of the Mother's Life, p. 132
hen Mirra met A.G., as Aurobindo Ghose was known and had signed his letters since his arrival in Pondicherry, she had her questions ready. These questions were the natural result of her effort of inner development, and some of them we know because she has mentioned them.
One question was about the state of samadhi or trance. As the Mother later narrated to her audience in the Ashram Playground, "In all kinds of so-called spiritual literature I had always read wonderful things about this state of trance or samadhi, but I had never experienced it. So I did not know whether this was perhaps a sign of inferiority. And when I came here, one of my first questions to Sri Aurobindo was: 'What do you think of samadhi, of that state of trance one does not remember? One enters into a condition which seems to be blissful, but when one comes out of it, one has no idea of what has happened.'
"He looked at me, saw what I meant and told me, 'It is unconsciousness ... You enter into what is called samadhi when you go out of your conscious being and enter into a part of your being which is completely unconscious, or rather into a domain where you have no corresponding consciousness: you go beyond the field of your consciousness and enter a region where you are no longer conscious. You are in the impersonal state, that is to say, a state in which you are unconscious, and that is the reason why, naturally, you remember nothing, because you were not conscious of anything.' So this reassured me and I said, 'Well, this has never happened to me.' He replied, 'Nor to me.'"1
Another of Mirra's questions was why, in spite of her many talents, she had always been so "mediocre" in everything she did: painting, writing, music ... Aurobindo's answer was simply that this was indispensable for her development. We may infer that people who are extraordinarily gifted in a certain field have to dedicate their life exclusively to the realization of that one talent, while Mirra had to sample an experience as varied as possible and engage beyond all that in a totally new and synthetic enterprise.
third question -- in reality perhaps the first one -- would prove to be of immense importance for things to come. "It was the very first question which came up when I met Sri Aurobindo," the Mother said later:
"Should you do your yoga, attain the goal, and then afterwards take up the work with others, or should you immediately let all those who have the same aspiration gather around you and go forward all together towards the goal? Because of my earlier work and all that I had tried out, I came to Sri Aurobindo with this question very precisely formulated. Because the two possibilities were there: either to practice an intensive individual sadhana by withdrawing from the world, that is, by no longer having any contact with others, or to let the group be formed naturally and spontaneously, not preventing it from being formed, allowing it to form by itself, and starting all together on the path. "Well, the decision was not at all a mental choice, it came spontaneously. The circumstances were such that no choice was required. I mean, quite naturally, spontaneously, the group was formed in such a way that it became an imperious necessity. And so, once you have started like that, it is settled, you have to go on like that to the end."2
The day after her arrival and her first meeting with Aurobindo, Mirra had an overwhelming experience. We know that she had already realized the Godhead in the heart and the full awakening of the kundalini. Now, with her openness, sensitivity, and trained capacity of entering into others, she received from Aurobindo something she never expected.
"I was seated close to him [Aurobindo], simply, like that, on the floor. He was sitting on a chair with a table in front of him, and on the other side of the table was Richard, and they were talking. Myself, I didn't listen. I sat there just like that. I don't know how long they went on talking, but suddenly I felt within me as it were a great Force -- Peace! Silence! massive. It came, did like this (a gesture of sweeping at the level of the forehead), descended like that, and stopped here (the chest). And when they finished talking, I stood up and left. And then I noticed that I didn't have a thought in my mind -- that I knew nothing any more, understood nothing any more, that I was absolutely in a complete blank. Then I gave thanks to the Lord, and thanked Sri Aurobindo in my heart."3
Aurobindo had imparted to her his mental, "nirvanic" silence, his first great realization obtained when sitting with V.B. Lele in Baroda and which never left him afterwards. Just before sitting down on the floor, Mirra had confided to him that, try as she may to keep that silence in the mind, she was unable to do it. Aurobindo had given it to her without even intending to, just by occult communication and because of her total openness, which in their yoga would be called "surrender." Asked years later by Barin what had struck him the most when first meeting Mirra, Aurobindo would indeed say her self-surrender "so absolute and unreserved."
This means that from that moment onwards neither Aurobindo nor Mirra "thought" any more like ordinary humans do. In their absolute surrender to the Divine their "thoughts" came to them, were given to them how and when necessary, or when invited. A thought, as Mirra had learned from Théon and taught to her audiences in Paris, may be invisible to us because it belongs to a subtle, mental world, but it is all the same a concrete entity. Every human being lives within an occult edifice that consists of constructions of thoughts. In people who are incapable of clear thinking, such an edifice is shabbily put together; in people who live mainly in their head or in an unassailable conviction, such an edifice can be as impenetrable as a fortress and as enclosing as a prison. In the course of her occult and spiritual explorations, Mirra had carefully built up "a magnificent construction" that Aurobindo, just by irradiating his way of being, now had destroyed in an instant -- and she was immensely grateful for it. She took great care not to spoil the new poise, which never left her again.
As always happens at the time of a decisive new spiritual experience, Mirra felt as if all her efforts that had preceded it meant nothing. "It seems to me that I am being born to a new life," she wrote in her diary, "and that all the methods, all the habits of the past can no longer be of any use. It seems to me that what I thought were results is nothing more than a preparation. I feel as if I have done nothing yet, as though I have not lived the spiritual life, only entered the path that leads to it. It seems to me that I know nothing, that I am incapable of formulating anything, that all experience is yet to begin. It is as if I were stripped of my entire past, of its errors as well as its conquests, as though all that has vanished and made room for a new-born child whose whole existence is yet to be lived ... It seems to me that I have at last reached the threshold I sought for so much."4
hen a phenomenon followed that is a regular feature in all true spiritual progress: the repercussion, the downward movement after a great experience or spiritual realization -- according to Sri Aurobindo the Black Dragon lashing out with its tail in an effort to swipe away the spiritual gain.
"My physical organism suffered a defeat such as it had not known for several years, and during a few days all the forces of my body failed me ... Something in this aggregate [her body] which constitutes the instrument I can put at Thy service is still obscure and obtuse; something does not respond as it should to Thy forces, deforms and darkens their manifestation."5
The problem at the end was already there at the beginning.
The launching of the Arya
In Mirra's diary entries of these weeks, we find time and time again allusions to the continuous and absorbing practical occupations in which she had to engage and which often prevented her from calmly writing down the inner experiences of the day. Ever attentive, she soon understood that this harassing, aggressive outer world was the true terrain of the new yoga, not the undisturbed, holy heights of meditation and withdrawal as recommended in all the traditional spiritual paths.
The amount of activity performed in the first months of the stay at the Richards in Pondicherry is astonishing. They had arrived on 29 March and the elections were to be held on 26 April, less than a month later. Trying to make an impact and to have a chance of being elected, Paul Richard must have had a hectic schedule of speeches and travelling, for voting was to take place not only in Pondicherry, but also in Karikal (where the Richards went to canvass) and in the other French comptoirs, Chandernagore included (A.G. writing to ask Motilal Roy to try to gather votes for Richard). One of Mirra's diary notes is dated "Karikal, 13 April 1914," and there is no doubt that Mirra stood by the side of her husband throughout the campaign.
As soon as he had some time to spare, Richard went to see Aurobindo and discussed with him all possible topics on earth and in the heavens. Although Richard was not susceptible to Aurobindo's spiritual realizations, he had an enormous respect for his intellectual powers. Which one was the first to moot the publication of a review that would expound Aurobindo's views? In a letter to a disciple, Sri Aurobindo wrote that it was Paul Richard. "Richard proposed to me to co-operate in a philosophical review -- and as my theory was that a Yogi ought to be able to turn his hand at anything, I could not very well refuse."6
At the time, Aurobindo spoke rather highly of Richard. In a letter written in April to Motilal Roy, he says, "[Richard is not only] a personal friend of mine and a brother in the Yoga, but he wishes like myself, and in his own way works for a general renovation of the world by which the present European civilization shall be replaced by a spiritual civilization ... He 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."7 (This correspondence seems to be lost.) In the same letter he characterizes Richard as a European "who is practically an Indian in belief, in personal culture, in sympathies and aspirations, one of the Nivedita type."
id Aurobindo know who Richard essentially was, namely an incarnation of the Asura of Falsehood? Given his advanced yogic capabilities there can be no doubt that he knew; also, the relationship between Mirra and Richard must soon have become clear, if not disclosed confidentially by Mirra herself. If this is correct, then we can understand Aurobindo's statement in a letter of 5 May that Richard "is to know nothing about Tantricism."8 One may suppose that Aurobindo as a matter of course wanted to assist Mirra in her effort to convert Richard. For this kind of attempt, they had to take the whole being of the person to be converted into themselves and do his yoga of conversion for him, helping him to the threshold where the ultimate step then would have to be taken by the person himself. And so it came about that on the front page of the Arya, the journal heralding the New Age, there are three names printed side by side: Sri Aurobindo Ghose and Paul and Mirra Richard.9
Of the four candidates for the one seat in the Chamber of Deputies in Paris, Paul Richard came a poor fourth with a ridiculously small number of votes to his name -- in every polling station less than ten -- while the winner, Paul Bluysen, got between 1,000 and 4,000. (It was this Bluysen whom Richard had come to support four years earlier.) "As for M. Richard's votes," wrote Sri Aurobindo to Motilal Roy, "they got rid of them in Pondicherry and Karikal by the simple process of reading Paul Bluysen wherever Paul Richard was printed. Even where he brought his voters in Karikal to the poll himself, the results were published 'Richard -- 0 [zero].'"10
The disappointing results of the election notwithstanding, Richard intended "to stay in India for two years and work for the people," according to the same letter. "He has sold one fourth of his wife's fortune (a very small one) in order to be able to come and work for India, and the money he has can only carry him through the two years he thinks of staying here." And this is when the three of them decided, on 1 June, to take up the considerable effort of publishing a review in English and French, the English edition of 1,000 copies to be called Arya, the French edition of 600 copies Revue de la grande Synthèse.
At first, however, the review was intended to be called The New Idea/L'Idée nouvelle. This title, doubtlessly proposed by Mirra, brings to mind the name of a Parisian group she had been leading quite recently. Idea in this case should be understood in its full Platonic sense as a supernatural reality with diverse effects in the material world. The proposed title shows us two things: first, that Mirra saw in Sri Aurobindo's vision and realization a continuation and accomplishment of everything she herself had learned and realized before meeting him; second, that her knowledge contributed to his vision and his formulation of that vision. Many key terms in his phiosophy -- such as psychic, mental, and vital, all to be found in Words of Long Ago -- came to him from or via Mirra; and so did for instance his designation of the supermind as the "Real-Idea," a term used in The Life Divine though rarely in later writings.
n the programme Mirra had made up, and which is published in Words of Long Ago, the third point reads, "To speak again to the world the eternal word under a new form adapted to its present mentality. It will be the synthesis of all human knowledge." This is equivalent to what Sri Aurobindo too considered an essential part of his mission, "the intellectual side of my work for the world." As he had said in his speech at Uttarpara, "He [God] has given me a word to speak and a work to do."11 "The eternal word," the sanatana dharma he and Mirra had discovered in the respective traditions assimilated by them; "the new form" would be their new formulation of the eternal word, adapted and applicable to the present, pivotal stage of the universal evolution.
The date for the appearance of the first issue of the Arya was set for 15 August, Sri Aurobindo's forty-second birthday. On 1 June 1914 Sri Aurobindo had nothing ready for the press. By the middle of the month, when the prospectus of the proposed journal was issued, he had worked up some of his Vedic material into the first of his "Selected Hymns." Before 15 August, when Arya's first issue was published, he had written one or more installments of four different books: The Secret of the Veda, The Life Divine, The Isha Upanishad, and The Synthesis of Yoga.
Two of these works, The Life Divine and The Synthesis of Yoga, are among the most important books of the twentieth century, an evaluation not lessened by the fact that still so few people know about them. "During the same two months that Sri Aurobindo performed this astounding intellectual labor, he also saw to all the details of the production and distribution of the new review. The Mother meanwhile trans-lated Sri Aurobindo's articles for the French edition."12 She was also the chief executive in sole charge.13 Her experience of publishing Théon's Revue cosmique stood her in good stead. Richard contributed The Wherefore of the Worlds and The Eternal Wisdom, serials that Sri Aurobindo, in addition to the burden of his other work, had to translate from the French.
Sri Aurobindo was amply proving his theory that a yogi has to be able to turn his hand to anything. Still, he asserted that he was no philosopher.
"Let me tell you in confidence that I never, never, never was a philosopher," he wrote to a disciple, " -- although I have written philosophy, which is another story altogether. I knew precious little about philosophy before I did the Yoga and came to Pondicherry -- I was a poet and a politician, not a philosopher. I had only to write down in the terms of the intellect all that I had observed and come to know in practicing Yoga daily and the philosophy was there automatically."14
After the accident to his leg, many years later, he said to some disciples in his room, "If you mean thinking, I never do that. Thinking ceased a long time ago -- it has stopped ever since that experience of mine with Lele, the Silence and Nirvana at Baroda. Thoughts, as I said, come to me from all sides and from above and the transmitting mind remains quiet or it enlarges to receive them. True thoughts always come in this way. You can't think out such thoughts. If you try to do so, you only make what the Mother calls mental constructions."
A disciple asked, "Was the Arya with its thousands of pages written in this way?" Sri Aurobindo answered, "No, it was transmitted directly to the pen. It is a great relief to get out of the responsibility ... I don't mean responsibility in general, but of thinking about everything. Some thoughts are given, some are reflected from above. It is not that I don't look for knowledge. When I want knowledge, I call for it. The higher faculty sees thoughts as if they were written on a wall."15
About the meaning of the name Arya, printed like a hieroglyph in Devanagari script on the front page of the review, Sri Aurobindo wrote the following in one of the first issues:
"All the highest aspirations of the early human race, its noblest religious temper, its most idealistic velleities of thought are summed up in this single vocable ... In later times, the word Arya expressed a particular ethical and social ideal, and ideal of well-governed life, candor, courtesy, nobility, straight dealing, courage, gentleness, purity, humanity, compassion, protection of the weak, liberality, observance of social duty, eagerness for knowledge, respect for the wise and learned, the social accomplishments. It was the combined ideal of the Brahmana [the learned priest] and the Kshatriya [the knight]. Everything that departed from this ideal, everything that tended towards the ignoble, mean, obscure, rude, cruel or false, was termed un-Aryan. There is no Word in human speech that has a nobler history."16
And so it made itself heard, that mighty voice at the beginning of the century:
"The earliest preoccupation of man in his awakened thoughts and, as it seems, his inevitable and ultimate preoccupation -- for it survives the longest periods of skepticism and returns after every banishment, -- is also the highest which his thought can envisage. It manifests itself in the divination of the Godhead, the impulse towards perfection, the search after pure Truth and unmixed Bliss, the sense of a secret immortality. The ancient dawns of human knowledge have left us their witness to this constant aspiration; today we see a humanity satiated but not satisfied by victorious analysis of the externalities of Nature preparing to return to its primeval longings. The earliest formula of Wisdom promises to be its last, -- God, Light, Freedom, Immortality."
This is the first paragraph on the first page in the first issue of the Arya. It is now still as much vibrant with life as it was at the time of writing, almost a century ago.
In the meantime the First World War had erupted.
arallel to the activities around the founding of the Arya, Mirra started a new society called The New Idea/L'Idée nouvelle. This again makes it clear that she began working out her programme, of which the fourth point was, "Collectively, to establish an ideal society in a propitious spot for the flowering of the new race, the race of the Sons of God." Although the lifetime of the new society would be short, something Mirra did not know when she started it, it was significant as a trial run of what later would become the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and Auroville. The reader will recall Mirra's questions to Sri Aurobindo when she met him for the first time, especially the question about going the way at first alone or immediately taking others with them. The Mother would later say that making a choice had not been necessary, that the problem had been solved all by itself: some individuals had gathered around them, guided by their psychic instinct.
The first of these individuals were of course Sri Aurobindo's companions, of whom the closest were Nolini Kanta Gupta, Bijoy Nag, Saurin Bose and Suresh Chakravarti, the first two still living under their aliases "Roy" and "Basak." They had been joined by a young Tamil Brahmin from Pondicherry, K. Amrita. "With those who accompanied me or joined me in Pondicherry," wrote Sri Aurobindo, "I had at first the relation of friends and companions rather than of a Guru and disciples; it was on the ground of politics that I had come to know them and not on the spiritual ground."17 They usually had but little money to spend and led their "bohemian life" in such an improvised way that Motilal Roy, on one of his visits from Chandernagore, was scandalized by the carelessness with which they looked after Sri Aurobindo.
Yet they played excellent football -- football at the time and still in the present day being the favorite sport of the Calcuttans. In this way they befriended some of the youngsters from town. As Nolini writes in his Reminiscences, "Among our first acquaintances in Pondicherry were some of the young men here ... Sada, Benjamin, Jules Rassendren, David ... Gradually they formed a group of Sri Aurobindo's devotees. The strange thing about it was that they were all Christians. We did not have much of a response from the local Hindus, perhaps they were far too orthodox and old-fashioned. The Cercle Sportif was our rendezvous. There we had games, we arranged picnics, we staged plays, and also held study circles ... Afterwards, when the Mother came in 1914, it was with a few men chosen from this group that she laid the first foundation of the work here: they formed the Society called 'L'Idée nouvelle.'"18
The aim of the society was stated in the first issue of the Arya. "Its object is to group in a common intellectual life and fraternity of sentiment those who accept the spiritual tendency and idea it represents and who aspire to realize it in their own individual and social action The Society has already made a beginning by grouping together young men of different castes and religions in a common ideal. All sectarian and political questions are necessarily foreign to its idea and activities. It is on a higher plane of thought superior to external differences of race, caste, creed and opinion and in the solidarity of the spirit that unity can be realized ... The Society has its headquarters at Pondicherry with a reading-room and a library. A section has been founded at Karikal and others are likely to be opened at Yanam and Mahé [French territories dependent of the Pondicherry administration]."19
To bring in some money Mirra also set up a shop, called Aryan Stores and to be run by Saurin -- who unluckily was not very business-minded. "A humble beginning for sure, but one that demanded a huge amount of energy from Mirra.
At first, the young men around Sri Aurobindo seem to have been rather distrustful towards that European lady, Madame Richard. "When it first came to be bruited that a Great Lady like this was to come and live close to us," writes Nolini, "we were faced with a problem: how should we behave? Should there be a change in our manners? For we had been accustomed to a bohemian sort of life, we dressed and talked, slept and ate and moved about in a free unfettered style, in a manner that would not quite pass in civilized society. Nevertheless, it was finally agreed that we should stick as far as possible to our old ways even under the new circumstances, for why should we permit our freedom and ease to be compromised or lost?"20
As Amrita recalls of those days when he sought instruction from Madame Richard, "Had someone seen the Mother and myself seated on chairs, facing each other, almost as equals, with the book of Yogic Sadhan in hand, he would have been in a fix to know who was teaching whom."21
Amrita was still a student belonging to the high and orthodox Vaishnava Brahmin caste. Since Sri Aurobindo's arrival in Pondicherry, he had felt strongly attracted to him for reasons he could not even rationalize. This caused a severe clash with his Brahmin father and relatives, for caste dress and customs were evidently foreign to everything Sri Aurobindo stood for. One night, during Amrita's sleep, Nolini (on Sri Aurobindo's instructions) cut off his shikha, the small tuft of hair on the shaven head of a Brahmin. "I got struck with fear. How should I dare look straight in the faces of my parents and relatives? A Brahmin youth without a shikha was no better than a pariah!" But he withstood the storm, became a member of the circle of intimates around Sri Aurobindo, who had helped him make the decisive step by cutting the symbolic tie with his past, and later a close collaborator of the Mother as one of the Ashram secretaries.
Because of Mirra's deference to Sri Aurobindo, his young companions little by little realized who he actually was and how they should behave towards him. "The Mother came and installed Sri Aurobindo on his high pedestal of Master and Lord of Yoga," writes Nolini.
"We had hitherto known him as a dear friend and close companion, and although in our mind and heart he had the position of a Guru, in our outward relations we seemed to behave as if he were just like one of ourselves. He too had been averse to the use of the words 'Guru' and 'Ashram' in relation to himself, for there was hardly a place in his work of new creation for the old traditional associations these words conveyed. Nevertheless, the Mother taught by her manner and speech, and showed us in actual practice, what was the meaning of disciple and master; she always practiced what she preached. She showed us, by not taking her seat in front of or on the same level as Sri Aurobindo, but by sitting on the ground, what it meant to be respectful to one's Master, what was real courtesy."22
It is remarkable how this period of frantic activity was at the same time for Sri Aurobindo as well as for Mirra a period of the most intensive spiritual practice. The Record of Yoga and the Prayers and Meditations both bear witness to this. There is no entry in Mirra's diary dated 15 August 1914, Sri Aurobindo's birthday and the day the first issue of the Arya appeared. There is however an entry on the very next day, showing that the problems had not abated one bit, but that they, and the inner struggle accompanying them, remained as acute as ever, if not more.
"When Thy force descends towards the earth in order to manifest [as it must have done on 15 August], each one of the great Asuric beings who have resolved to be Thy servitors but preserved their nature's characteristic of domination and self-will, wants to pull it down for itself alone and distribute it to others afterwards; it always thinks it should be the sole or at least the supreme intermediary, and that the contact of all others with Thy Power cannot and should not be made except through its mediation. This unfortunate meanness is more or less conscious, but it is always there, delaying things indefinitely. If even for the greatest it is impossible in the integral manifestation to escape these lamentable limitations, why, O Lord, impose upon me the Calvary of this constraint? ... If Thou willest that it be thus, Thou shouldst rend the last veil and Thy splendor come in all its purity and transfigure the world! Accomplish this miracle or else let me withdraw into Thee."23
For the reader it is impossible even to guess what may have caused this poignant outcry of the sou1 -- as it was impossible in that Pondicherrian summer for their friends and acquaintances to guess the true relationship of Monsieur and Madame Richard.
1. The Mother, Questions and Answers 1956, Collected Works of the Mother (CWM), vol. 8 (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust), p. 276.
2. Questions and Answers 1955, vol. 7, p. 414.
3. The Mother, Sri Aurobindo Archives and Research (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust), April 1989, p. 116.
4. The Mother, Prayers and Meditations, p. 127.
5. Ibid., p. 127.
6. Sri Aurobindo, On Himself, Sri Aurobindo Birth Centenary Library (SABCL), vol. 26 (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust), p. 374.
7. Archives and Research, April 1989, p. 117.
8. Ibid., p. 100.
9. This was the first time Aurobindo Akroyd Ghose took on the name "Sri Aurobindo," though still accompanied by "Ghose."
10. Ibid., p. 99.
11. Sri Aurobindo, Karmayogin, SABCL, vol. 2, p. 2.
12. Archives and Research, April 1989, p. 119.
13. Glimpses of the Mother's Life I, p. 144.
14. On Himself, p. 374.
15. Nirodbaran, Talks with Sri Aurobindo III (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust), p. 119.
16. Arya (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust), no. 2, 15 December 1914, p. 62.
17. Ibid., p. 68.
18. Nolini Kanta Gupta, Reminiscences (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust), p. 72.
19. Arya, no. 1, 15 August 1914, p. 58.
20. Nolini Kanta Gupta, Reminiscences, p. 40.
21. K. Amrita, in Reminiscences, p. 180.
22. Nolini Kanta Gupta, Reminiscences, pp. 63-64.
23. Prayers and Meditations, CWM, vol. 1, p. 220.
Georges Van Vrekhem is an author, translator, and Aurovilian who lived for eight years in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry. He is the author of the recent book, Beyond the Human Species. Georges will be visiting the United States in summer 2000 and attending the All USA Meeting. He can be reached at email@example.com.