Title: The Mother: The Birth and Growth of a Flame. Author: Anurag Banerjee. Publisher: Overman Foundation, Kolkata. Number of pages: 362. Price: Rs. 475.
The briefest and the most comprehensive biography of the Mother is undoubtedly the sixth chapter of Sri Aurobindo’s small booklet, The Mother. He reveals:
‘The One whom we adore as the Mother is the divine Conscious Force that dominates all existence, one and yet so many-sided that to follow her movement is impossible even for the quickest mind and for freest and most vast intelligence. The Mother is the consciousness and force of the Supreme and far above all she creates…
There are three ways of being of the Mother of which you can become aware when you enter into touch of oneness with Conscious Force that upholds us and the universe. Transcendent, the original supreme Shakti, she stands above worlds and links the creation to the ever unmanifest mystery of the Supreme. Universal, the cosmic Mahashakti, she creates all these beings and contains and enters, supports and conducts all these million processes and forces. Individual, she embodies the power of these two vaster ways of her existence, makes them living and near to us and mediates between the human personality and the divine Nature…
All the scenes of the earthplay have been like a drama arranged and planned and staged by her with the cosmic Gods for her assistants and herself as a veiled actor.
The Mother not only governs all from above but she descends into this lesser triple universe. Impersonally, all things here, even the movements of the Ignorance, are herself in veiled power and her creations in diminished substance, her Nature-body and Nature-force, and they exist because, moved by the mysterious fiat of the Supreme to work out something that was there in the possibilities of the Infinite, she has consented to the great sacrifice and has put on like a mask the soul and forms of the Ignorance. But personally too she has stooped to descend here into the Darkness that she may lead it to the Light, into the Falsehood and Error that she may convert it to the Truth, into this Death that she may turn it to godlike Life, into this world-pain and its obstinate sorrow and suffering that she may end it in the transforming ecstasy of her sublime Ananda. In her deep and great love for her children she has consented to put onherself the cloak of this obscurity, condescended to bear the attacks and torturing influences of the powers of the Darkness and the Falsehood, borne to pass through the portals of the birth that is a death, taken upon herself the pangs and sorrows and sufferings of the creation, since it seemed that thus alone could it be lifted to the Light and Joy and Truth and eternal Life. This is the great sacrifice called sometimes the sacrifice of the Purusha, but much more deeply the holocaust of Prakriti, the sacrifice of the Divine Mother.’
In other words, for any biography of the Mother to even remotely come close to even a semblance of truth must contain the following:
1. There should be some touch of oneness between the biographer and his Divine subject. Mere respect, admiration or a human appreciation is not enough.
2. Her movements and actions cannot be fathomed by the analytical mind and even the swiftest of intelligence since it has neither the inner data nor is aware of the inmost springs of action that move the heart and mind of the Avatara. Even when something is revealed in their own words still the mind not in resonance with the truth behind the words cannot really grasp it.
3. It should touch upon not only the scenes of her individual and personal life (if there is any such thing in isolation) but see them in the light of the two vaster ways of existence, — her universal and transcendent Self. It is nearly impossible to connect these three unless one is blessed oneself with the seer-vision of a Vyasa or a Valmiki.
4. It should take into full account the challenges, difficulties, resistances and possibilities of the cosmic play that the Avatara comes to deal with.
That it is impossible to fulfil all these conditions is only a truism and hence the general advice about the futility of such an endeavour.
And yet it cannot be denied that a well-written biography of even a Vibhuti or a great man, let alone an Avatara, has a great inspirational value for generations to come. The actions of an Avatara leave upon Earth the touch of Heavens, sets into motions new forces and new yardsticks of conduct, releases forces and energies into the flux and flow of Time for generations to follow. Herein lies perhaps the justification of such an effort.
But how to bridge the vast gap between the human ignorance the Divine Gnosis, between the animal man aspiring towards divinity and the Divine becoming human to lift us up and out of our animality? The answer lies in faith and devotion, in aspiration, prayer and surrender that can open the doors of our soul and for a moment we are able to glimpse a little bit of the Marvel and the Mystery whom we know and adore as the Mother.
It is here that we must give full credit to a biographer like Anurag Banerjee. His sharp intellect is made subservient to the intuitions of his heart; his scholarly mind is made into a living and surrendered tool in the hands of the Master; his writing and his work turns into a prayer and an obeisance. It is not just a book but homage by a scholar-devotee or a historian-disciple.
This is not to say that the book has been written only from a devotee’s point of view. On the contrary, it is a very well-researched work. If anyone has any doubt that a devotee cannot write a good biography without subordinating his devotional element then here is the proof to the contrary. In fact after reading this book written in a scholarly way one can only affirm that it is only a devotee who can write a truly well-researched book. The reason is very simple and obvious. Firstly, being in love with his subject, the author spares no effort to dig out the smallest details that would add to the glory of his Master. There is plenty of new information for those who have not had the fortune to dwell much on the unique life of the embodied Divine and His Shakti. For example he reveals the significance of the name Sri Aurobindo which is albeit not known to many even in the circle of devotees and admirers. Thus, for instance, he writes:
‘Regarding the significance of the word ‘Sri’ in the name of Sri Aurobindo Ghose, Nolini Kanta Gupta wrote in a letter dated 30 November 1961:
Soeurette, [Little Sister]
Mother has shown me the letter you wrote to her about the problem of “Sri” that is troubling you. She wishes me to communicate to you my view of the matter. Well, I shall be frank and forthright. It is an error to think that Sri is only an honorific prefix to Aurobindo which is the real name. It is not so. Sri does not mean Mr. Or Monsieur or Sir, etc. It is part of the name. Sri Aurobindo forms one indivisible word. This is the final form Sri Aurobindo himself gave to his name. And I may tell you that the mantric effect resides in that form.
Sri is no more difficult to pronounce than many other Indian or Euro-American syllables. And I think it is not always healthy either to come down to the level of the average European or American under the plea that that is the best way to approach and convert the many. I am afraid it is a vain illusion; better rather to oblige the average to make an effort to rise up and grapple with the truth as it is.
Mother has seen this admonition of mine to you and fully approves of it.
Begging to be excused for perhaps a highbrow tone in my letter, I remain
Your very sincere and affectionate grand frére, [big brother]
Nolini Kanta Gupta
He further goes on to tell us also how and when perhaps Mira Alfassa became the Mother:
‘Nolini Kanta Gupta recalls in his reminiscences: ‘In the beginning, Sri Aurobindo would refer to the Mother quite distinctly as Mira. For some time afterwards (this may have extended over a period of years) we could notice that he stopped at the sound M and uttered the full name Mira as if after a slight hesitation. To us it looked rather queer at the time, but later we came to know the reason. Sri Aurobindo’s lips were on the verge of saying “Mother”; but we had yet to get ready, so he ended with Mira instead of saying Mother. No one knows for certain on which particular date at what auspicious moment, the word “Mother” was uttered by the lips of Sri Aurobindo.’1 We shall henceforth address Mira Devi as the Mother.
But it was not Sri Aurobindo who had addressed Mira Devi as the Mother for the first time. It was Madame Marie Potel (1874-1962) who had met her in 1911 and 1912 and became the first person to address her as ‘Mother’ for she considered her to be the spiritual guide of her life. She paid a visit to Pondicherry in March 1926 and spent two years in the company of the Mother. Apart from receiving the new name of ‘Ila’ from Sri Aurobindo before her departure in March 1928, she also had the good fortune (because in those days he hardly encouraged correspondence) of receiving three letters from Sri Aurobindo one of which formed the idea of the sixth chapter of the booklet, The Mother. Though Sri Aurobindo had begun to address Mira Devi as the Mother, the followers would begin to do so only towards the end of 1926. We shall discuss it in detail in the following chapter.
A question might arise: when Sri Aurobindo had declared that he and the Mother were the same Power in two forms, what was the cause of addressing Mira Devi as the Mother? In India, one’s parents and guru occupy the most respectful positions in one’s life. By addressing Mira Devi as the Mother, Sri Aurobindo not only gave her the highest position in the household but also tried to inform the inmates about her true self. It would only be in 1928 that Sri Aurobindo would pen his booklet The Mother in which he openly described the features and powers of the Mother.
The Mother, on her part too, changed the outlook and attitude of the inmates towards Sri Aurobindo. His young companions looked upon him, not as a spiritual guide, but as a close friend and an elder brother for whom they had left behind everything only to be with him. They freely drank wine and smoked in Sri Aurobindo’s presence. Nolini Kanta writes that though Sri Aurobindo occupied the position of a Guru in the minds and hearts of the inmates but outwardly the behaviour was such that it seemed as if he were just like one of them. Moreover, Sri Aurobindo himself was also reluctant to be addressed as a Guru. Therefore the Mother, through her manners and speech, showed the inmates what the true relationship of a Guru and his disciple was and should be. ‘She showed us,’ Nolini Kanta reminisces, ‘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.’ At the same time, he adds what Sri Aurobindo had once told them ‘perhaps with a tinge of regret’: “I have tried to stoop as low as I can, and yet you do not reach me.”
Secondly, when presenting outer facts that may not be well understood he takes the pains to provide the missing links to the readers to enrich their understanding. Thus, for example when he talks about the attacks of illnesses that the Mother had to bear, he goes on to explain beautifully taking help of his understanding of Yoga as to the real reasons of her illness. Thirdly, he allows Sri Aurobindo and the Mother to speak for themselves most of the time. This gives a unique flavour to the book making it appear as if the story was being largely narrated in first person by the subject of the biography and the role of the author is largely that of a sutradhara who connects the narrative. Fourthly, given the wealth of information that has gone about Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, he displays a rare sensitivity to shift it in a way that the central narrative and goal is not lost from sight. And what is that goal, if one may hazard a reasonable guess after going through the book in entirety? It is to bring us closer to the Mother and Sri Aurobindo through a subtle process of awakening and inspiring us to the Greatness and Glory that the Mother and Sri Aurobindo represented in a human persona.
How does he do so? As we have said, because the author is in love with his subject. Therefore he has access to a kind of understanding that comes as an act of Grace. It is the understanding that his soul brings into the narrative as a subtle fragrance that makes nourishes not just the intellectual parts in us but also fulfils and satisfies the heart. Besides as mentioned above there is plenty of useful and extensive information here that one does not find in other biographies.
Normally biographies are best written by those who have lived and moved closely with a person and have been in some kind of sympathy with the subject. Mr Anurag Banerjee who probably belongs to the third generation of historians as far as the Mother and Sri Aurobindo are concerned compensates for this inevitable limitation by looking at Them with the mystic light of his soul and is thereby able to bridge the gap in time and space. The Mother once asked Rishabchandji to write a biography of Sri Aurobindo up to His coming to Pondicherry, stating further that none can write anything about Him after that period. Our present biographer seems to have taken note of this since his biography stops with the Mother assuming the charge of the Ashram in 1926. What happened after that period is something that no human mind can ever know and no human tongue can ever describe. The period covered by the biographer is precisely that which marks the progressive manifestation of the Divinity of Mirra and its full blossoming into the Divine Mother through an inner identification with That who She really always was and is. And it is done with such finesse that it becomes a richly rewarding experience to the initiate and the seeker alike.
About the Reviewer: A practising psychiatrist in Sri Aurobindo Ashram Dispensary and an inmate of Sri Aurobindo Ashram (Pondicherry), Dr. Alok Pandey, M.B.B.S., M.D. in Psychiatry from AFMC, Pune, is a former Associate Professor in Psychiatry at the Institute of Space and Aviation Medicine, Bangalore. He is the author of the famous book Death, Dying and Beyond and is also a member of Sri Aurobindo International Institute for Integral Health and Research and an Editor of the journal, NAMAH.