For illumination of the origins of The Church of Light, the most intriguing scholarly biography of the past decade is The Lives of Sri Aurobindo by Peter Heehs (Columbia University Press 2008). The collision of Eastern and Western spiritualities in the 19th and 20th centuries is nowhere more vividly illustrated than in the life of Mirra Alfassa. Heehs places her in context of the life of Aurobindo Ghosh, the Bengali philosopher and yogi in whose ashram she spent the last half of a long life. Mirra is important to the Church of Light for an association that preceded her travels to India; she is by far the most celebrated disciple of Max Theon, spiritual guide of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor.
Peter Heehs has devoted almost four decades to preservation and study of the legacy of Sri Aurobindo, having resided in India since 1971. His website links to several reviews of the biography, and I can add nothing except to concur with those who find his research exemplary, his writing clear and engaging, and his conclusions reasonable. Disgraceful attacks based on false accusations have been made by some disciples, and an attempt is underway to have him expelled from India as a result of the biography. As an author I encountered some personality-cult behavior from Theosophists and Cayce disciples, and observed similar reactions within other spiritual movements toward those who write about their founders in less than hagiographic adoration. But nothing like the torrent of abuse that has been directed at Peter Heehs! The Church of Light is noteworthy for its freedom from worshipful attitudes towards its human founders, or combativeness toward their critics. We have been very fortunate in having independent scholars produce the HBofL compilation; no “message control” issues interfered with the production or reception of that invaluable work. The CofL does not worship Burgoyne, Davidson, Theon, Zain, or any person. But if adoration or worship of Mirra Alfassa are not part of our attitude, respect and honor are definitely merited by her remarkable life.
Blanche Rachel Mirra Alfassa was born in Paris in 1878 to Sephardic Jewish parents. Her father was originally from Turkey and married her Egyptian mother in Alexandria. In 1897 she married painter Henri Morriset, and became a painter herself in the early years of the 20th century. She was drawn into the Theons’ mouvement cosmique by her brother Matteo, and became one of its most active exponents from about 1903 through 1907. The peak of her experience with the Theons was a three month visit to Algeria in 1906. The pages directly addressing Mirra’s connection with Theon and his wife Alma include this passage:
During their three month stay, Mirra underwent a profound inner development, but this was due more to Theon’s wife that to Theon himself. Madame Theon was `a marvellous woman from the point of view of experience,’ although her intellect was rather ordinary. Theon, on the other hand, had comparatively little experience, but an encyclopedic knowledge of things occult. A few lines from him was enough to inspire his wife to write pages and pages of what today might be called channeled writings. But these revelations, according to one French critic, were `written in such a bizarre manner that even the most cultivated men (unless they were themselves `Cosmic’) quickly abandoned the attempt to read them.’ Mirra was aware of the deficiencies of Madame Theon’s writing, but felt that this extraordinary woman was in contact with genuine sources of knowledge.”(253)
Aurobindo is remembered now as a yogi and philosopher of spiritual evolution, but it is only in the latter half of his long life that he reached that phase of his existence, after several years as a prominent Freedom Movement leader. Heehs follows his career from an Indian childhood, through an education in England, to his involvement in political activism in Bengal. But his 1910 retirement from politics and settling in Pondicherry was the emergence of the Aurobindo known today, as his writings focused more and more on bringing the Supramental into human experience. The result would not be a “universal religion a system, a thing of creed and intellectual belief and outward rite”; rather, it would be based on “the growing realization that there is a secret Spirit, a divine Reality, in which we are all one, that humanity is its highest present vehicle on earth, that the human race and the human being are the means by which it will progressively reveal itself here. It implies a growing attempt to live out this knowledge and bring about a kingdom of this divine Spirit upon earth.”(Heehs p. 290, citing The Ideal of Human Unity.) In The Human Cycle, Aurobindo predicted a future age in which humans “will develop progressively a greater spiritual, supra-intellectual and intuitive, perhaps in the end a more than intuitive, Gnostic consciousness.”(292) The extent to which Aurobindo’s spiritual mission was influenced by Mirra’s former association with Theon is not readily discernable from the Heehs biography, but until Theon’s teachings are better understood no historian will be able to appraise their impact.
In 1990 when my historical quest for the Theosophical Masters took me to India, Pondicherry was the last place I visited and the Aurobindo Ashram left a stronger impression of holiness than any other place I saw in six weeks in the country. And yet there was also something stale and cloying in the atmosphere, a feeling that the sacred had come and gone and people were worshipping only memories. The atmosphere of the ashram very definitely equates the Mother in status with Aurobindo in reverence. The religious intensity of the devotion made me uncomfortable, but I had a far more favorable impression of Auroville, where the dreams of all the internationalist occultists I had been following around the world found concrete expression in a late twentieth century community. If one wishes to capture the remarkable spirit of Mirra Alfassa, the best place to do so is Auroville, “a universal city in the making.” The future, not the past, is the focus of reverence in that Utopian experiment.