In the West, at the turn of the twentieth century, the issue of women's rights was on the ascendent, with the Women’s Movement in Europe rigorously campaigning for control of personal property, equality of opportunity in education and employment, women’s suffrage and sexual freedom.
In Britain, the feminist Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) had founded the Women’s Social and Political Union and was one of the first women to be instrumental in pushing through political reform and women’s right to vote. Similarly, in France, the existential writer Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986), companion and lover of Jean-Paul Sartre, was outlining her feminist theories in her classic text, The Second Sex. Speaking about the feminine sensibility, she makes an examination of the female mystic:
'Love has been assigned to woman as her supreme vocation, and when she directs it towards a man, she is seeking God in him: but if human love is denied her by circumstances, if she is disappointed or over-particular, she may choose to adore divinity in the person of God Himself. To be sure, there have been men who burned with that flame, but they are rare, and their fervour is of a highly refined intellectual cast; whereas the women who abandon themselves to the joys of the heavenly nuptials are legion, and their experience is of a peculiarly emotional nature' [The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir, p679].
Interestingly, for Simone the absoluteness of female love is akin to her most natural state:
'There is no other way out for her than to lose herself, body and soul, in him who is represented to her as the absolute, as the essential' [Ibid, p653].
Indeed, rather than find fault with men, as was the custom with many feminists of her day, she speaks of the woman’s dependency on him for her spiritual salvation.
Another powerful French woman who would establish her own esoteric organization in the pursuit of universal truth was the charismatic Mira Alfassa. Always associated with her life companion, the Indian sage and political activist, Aurobindo Ghose, they were together responsible for one of the most important metaphysical renaissances the modern world has ever known, attracting a significant following of disciples from around the globe.
Born in Paris in 1878 of an Egyptian mother and Turkish father, even at a very young age, Mirra was already aware of her life’s mission. Through her teens, she continued to indulge herself in profound mystical phenomena:
'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 robe, much longer than myself; 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 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' [The Mother: A Short Biography, Wilfred, pp5-6].
Growing up with the avant-garde in Paris during the great Impressionistic Age, Mirra studied painting at the École des Beaux Arts and was even exhibited at the Parisian salons. Indeed, a black and white photographic portrait of her shows a woman with smiling kohl eyes wearing an elaborate brocaded head scarf – the quintessential embodiment of Parisian chic. At nineteen, she married Henri Morisset, a student of the painter, Gustave Moreau, and together they had a son, André.
Around this time, Mirra read Vivekananda’s Raja Yoga as well as a French translation of the Bhagavad Gita, in which she realized that not only was Krishna the immanent Godhead but he was also the Divine within each and every one of us. Equipped with this understanding, she claimed, ‘In one month, the whole work was done.’
She then took a new husband, Paul Richard, a man deeply interested in philosophy and Vedantic yoga. She started a study group called ‘Cosmique’, in which she taught the perennial wisdom of the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras. Paul also had political aspirations and, in connection with an election campaign, journeyed to Pondicherry in order to further his ambitions. Whilst staying there, he determined to seek the advice of a holy man, and in 1910, he had his first encounter with Ghose Aurobindo.
For Aurobindo, enlightenment came about through realizing the Supermind, the Truth-Consciousness of the Divine within oneself, which ultimately lead to man’s transfiguration into the ‘Superman’. Through a series of three distinct steps, the somewhat complex sadhana of Integral Yoga proceeds through psychic, spiritual and supramental transformation, leading to identification with the Absolute. Moreover, this process is helped by universal Shakti, the Divine Mother, who acts as an intermediary between mankind and the Supermind:
'The supramental change is a thing decreed and inevitable in the evolution of the earth-consciousness, for its upward ascent is not ended and mind is not its last summit. But that the change may arise, take form, and endure, there is needed the call from below with a will to recognize and not deny the light when it comes. There is needed the sanction of the Supreme from above. The power that mediates between the sanction and the call is the presence and power of the Divine Mother' [The Mother, Aurobindo, quoted in The Return of the Mother, Andrew Harvey, p127].
So impressed by his presence, Paul could not wait to tell Mirra about Aurobindo upon his return to Paris. Inspired by all she heard, Mirra immediately started a correspondence with him. Four years later, both Paul and Mirra set sail in 1914 for India to meet Aurobindo together in person.
The very next day after their arrival in Pondicherry, Mirra Alfassa met Aurobindo, subsequently believing that her whole life had merely been a preparation for this moment: ‘I seem to have at last arrived at the threshold which I have long sought.’ The Richards subsequently spent each afternoon conversing with Aurobindo and during the length of their year stay, helped collaborate on the journal, Arya, contributing philosophical pieces and poems. The Richards then returned to Paris, in the midst of a world war, and Mirra and Aurobindo resumed their correspondence. In 1917, the Richards set sail again, this time for Japan, where they would remain until 1920. However, the yearning to be with Aurobindo was so intense that Mirra decided to return to Pondicherry to be by his side forever – her marriage to Paul was now at an end.
Mirra’s legacy is of equal merit and profundity to Aurobindo’s. But unlike her spiritual companion’s zest for writing philosophical poems and prose, Mirra’s work comprises in the main transcripts of her speeches, given in French and English, which were recorded on tape. Her only written work is Prayers and Meditations, which were selected from her diary notes.
Like Aurobindo, she was very thorough in her exposition of Integral Yoga and her understanding of the teaching. And yet her words are suffused with an elegance and sophistication, a joie de vivre, uniquely her own. Speaking on the nature of love, she says:
'Love is a supreme force which the Eternal Consciousness sent down from itself into an obscure and darkened world that it might bring back that world and its beings to the Divine. The material world in its darkness and ignorance had forgotten the Divine. Love came into the darkness; it awakened all that lay there asleep; it whispered, opening the ears that were sealed, ‘There is something that is worth waking to, worth living for, and it is love!’ And with the awakening to love there entered into the world the possibility of coming back to the Divine' [The Mother’s Vision, pp188-9].
After Aurobindo's death in 1950, Mirra lived out her remaining life under strict self discipline, following the same regime everyday – rising early at four in the morning, giving darshan on the balcony of the ashram at around six, meditation, interviews with sadhaks, and supervision of the distribution of food; then sports and children’s games in the afternoon, followed by evening meditation and more darshan.
Mirra’s own bodily health was fading and on 17th November 1973, she passed away at the age of ninety-five. For the next three days, her body was laid in state in the mediation room of the ashram, whereupon thousands of devotees paid their respects.
[Adapted from Women of Wisdom: The Journey of the Sacred Feminine through the Ages]