Mar 4, 2001 - The Mother and the biographer's dilemma
Biographers tend to idolise their subjects or portray them as all too human. Georges Van Vrekhem's biography of Mirra Alfassa, the Mother of Auroville, manages an ideal balance, says PETER HEEHS.
HOW should a writer recount the life of an extraordinary person? By concentrating on what makes that person different? The result is likely to strain our credibility. Of course, this is what most readers want. For them, the more incredible the events in remarkable people's lives, the greater their appeal. But some readers will be put off by this approach. For them, what is interesting about extraordinary people is the qualities they share with the rest of us. If they achieved great things, it was by making great efforts, often by overcoming great obstacles. But writers who stress the "humanity" of their subjects, often end up debunking them. How to avoid these two extremes is the biographer's dilemma: too much stress on what makes the subject extraordinary, and the work becomes hagiography; too much stress on what makes the subject human, and it moves towards iconoclasm. The problem is to find the right balance, and this is not an easy task. When the subject is a yogi or a saint, it is all but impossible.
Mirra Alfassa, the Mother of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, was, by any measure, an extraordinary woman. An intelligent student, gifted painter and musician, remarkable writer and speaker, she was at home in the highest cultural circles of Paris when Paris was the cultural capital of the world. At the same time, she had a vibrant inner life which led her first to Algeria, where she studied with a Kabbalistic master, and then to India, where she met Sri Aurobindo. Eventually settling in Pondicherry, she was acknowledged by him as his spiritual equal and collaborator.
When he retired from public view, she became the active head of his ashram, showing a remarkable genius for organisation and administration. If the ashram, and Auroville, have become respected centres of spiritual and practical experimentation, it is due to the Mother's fostering touch.
There are many different narratives hidden in the Mother's life, but the one that stands out is the transformation of a girl from a non-religious family in France into a woman worshipped by thousands in India as an incarnation of the Divine Shakti. The little girl seemed ordinary enough but, when she sat in her room, she had visions of a more perfect world. The young artist painted well enough but was developing her psychic abilities along with her drawing and brushwork. A few years later, when she went to meet the formidable occultist Max Theon, and he told her: "You are now at my mercy. Aren't you afraid?", she shot back: "I am never afraid: I have the Divine here, in my heart."
Back in Paris, she got to know Abdul Baha, Inayat Khan and other spiritual teachers, yet remained dissatisfied; but the moment she met Sri Aurobindo she knew that this was the one she had been seeking. He too seemed to have been waiting for someone. He said later that she was one of only two people who had been able to give him spiritual help. When the ashram was formed, he handed its spiritual as well as its material direction over to her.
The life of such a person is likely to defeat the best efforts of the biographer. Several attempts have been made to tell the Mother's life-story, but they give either too much or too little. Some writers tried to pack every available fact between two, or ten, bulging covers. Readers willing to plough through these tomes will find many things of interest but no coherent picture - or if they do find one, it is more a reflection of the author's bias than a reliable portrait. A second group of writers reduced the material to a bare minimum, leaving only an assemblage of familiar anecdotes and events. The need for a full but not fulsome biography remained. This need has been met by Georges Van Vrekhem's The Mother: The Story of Her Life.
A poet and playwright in his native Belgium before coming to India in 1970, Van Vrekhem joined the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, and eight years later migrated to Auroville. He has translated several books on Indian spirituality into Dutch, and is the author of a well-received biography of Sri Aurobindo: Beyond Man. In writing about the life of Sri Aurobindo's collaborator, he enjoyed a number of advantages: an exhaustive knowledge of the Mother's works in French and English, an acquaintance with everything written about her in those and other European languages, and, above all, the privilege of having met her. He has made good use of his printed sources, doing an especially fine job of situating the Mother in the world of fin-de-siecle France, and, at the other end of her life, plumbing the mysteries of her attempt to divinise the body. No academic historian, he sometimes accepts sources that would better be ignored, and fails to cross-question others that are generally reliable but incomplete. As a result, he sometimes commits minor errors of fact. But his intention was not to write a critic-proof monograph but rather an evocative narrative. In this he has succeeded admirably. If he lacks the academic's precision, he has the dramatist's flair for framing a scene, using his own wide knowledge, and a variety of historical works, to place the Mother on an authentically fashioned stage. And the drama he has her play in is the noblest one imaginable: the struggle of the divine in humanity to evolve its highest possibilities.
But how does Van Vrekhem deal with the biographer's dilemma? The Mother he gives us is human but not bound by her humanity, extraordinary without being a caricature of sainthood. Some may feel that he takes too much for granted, does not inquire into matters like "avatarhood" or "divine force" in a way that would satisfy the unconverted. But his book is both more complete and more balanced than any previous biography, a rich and readable introduction to the life of one of the most remarkable women of the 20th Century.
The Mother: The Story of Her Life, Georges Van Vrekhem, HarperCollins, p.545, Rs. 495.
2008. Getting beyond the Conventions of Biography — and Hagiography Too. Columbia University Press Blog. August 4. Peter Heehs, author of The Lives of Sri Aurobindo
How do you write about a man who is known to some as a politician, to others as a poet and critic, to still others as a philosopher, and to a not inconsiderable number as an incarnation of God? This is one of the problems a biographer of Sri Aurobindo (Aurobindo Ghose, 1872-1950) has to face. Known in the West mostly to specialized audiences (people interested in South Asian history, literature, philosophy, and spirituality), Aurobindo is renowned in his native India as one of the most outstanding, and most many-sided men of the twentieth century. This has not prevented his legacy from being bitterly disputed... I tried to do justice to all sides of this versatile man, but to do so I had to be unconventional in more ways than one. Posted by Columbia University Press