Auroville: the People and the Plan
Auroville is a large intentional community, near Pondicherry in Southern India. It was founded in 1968 by Mirra Alfasa, popularly known in the community as simply “the Mother.” A devotee of Sri Aurobindo and a spiritual visionary in her own right, the Mother established Auroville as a community in which the ideals of human unity could be realised. It was to be a community based on harmonious living in which individuals could rise above the divisions of nationality, culture, religion and creed: a community that would belong to no single nation but to humanity as a whole. Distinctly opposed to any particular religious doctrine, the Mother hoped that Auroville could be a space in which ‘universal spiritual values,’ which she felt underlay all religions, could be put into practice. Although she did not live to see Auroville’s full development (she died in 1973), successive generations of Aurovillians have worked to realise her Master Plan for the community.
I was interested to visit Auroville both as a holiday and spiritual retreat, but also out of genuine curiosity for what remains one of the longest enduring experiments in conscious community and alternative living.
I stayed only a week in Auroville, and in such a short time could only gain a small glimpse of the life there. Auroville is spread over a vast area. One spends the first few days trying to soak it in, walking or cycling around its long red-dirt roads. It seems at first diffuse and disconnected, with so much forest separating its different communities. Yet, one soon realises that these communities are interconnected in complex ways. Auroville features an intense density of social and ecological experiments, all existing simultaneously, each of which proceeds in accordance with its own logic but cross-pollinating with the others. Given this great complexity and expansiveness, my account of my experiences at Auroville is necessarily partial.
God in a Tree
People are attracted to Auroville for a variety of reasons. There are a diverse range of experiments in alternative living in Auroville’s various communities. Some are focused more on issues of sustainability, some on harmonious, communal living, some on simplicity, creativity, musical and artistic production… Yet, despite these diverse interests, I think it is fair to say that spirituality and meditation are the common threads that run throughout.
At the centre of the village is a temple known as the Matrimandir. From the outside, it is a huge sphere plated in gold disks, suspended above the red petals of a giant lotus flower. On the inside, it appears as a 1970s vision of the future – the elegant white interior of a space ship, bathed in a gentle terracotta glow, with water running in channels down the wall. Its upper chamber, a still, silent dome, contains a pure glass orb, onto which a ray of golden sunlight is channelled. It serves as a point of focus and meditation for Aurovillians.
As much as I was impressed by the Matrimandir and the serenity of its upper chamber, for me the real centre of spirituality of Auroville was right next to it – the giant banyan tree. Banyan trees are unique in the capacity to send down ‘aerial roots’ from their branches, which ultimately reach the ground and grow as extra trunks. A single banyan tree can send off hundreds of such “trunks” and cover acres land, making them amongst the largest organisms on the planet.
The banyan tree at Auroville’s centre is one of the largest I have seen personally, with a large central trunk and twenty four minor trunks. Gazing at the banyan tree I would fall into an instant state of stillness. The convergence of twenty five individual trunks into a single canopy so immediately and powerfully suggested the idea of the collective mind that to call it a ‘symbol’ of unity would not be appropriate. There was no mediation, no process of ‘signification’ involved. The tree was the collective mind. It was God. Beyond that, I’ve no words.
On New Year’s eve, several hundred Aurovillians and visitors gathered at the banyan tree for silent meditation. Its trunks were surrounded with marigolds. Round, golden pools had been placed at its feet were adorned with rose petals. Children were lighting tiny candles and floating them on the water’s surface. Devotees wandered about in slow spontaneity, touching the tree with affection. I could not imagine a purer vision of Heaven.
Despite the outward displays of oneness and universal spiritual values, in private, the Aurovillians would frequently lament ‘Oh, but we have such divisions in Auroville!’ These divisions would usually be attributed to human egos (presumably, the egos of their own opponents) and then, as if only an afterthought, noted that divisions had also been prophesized by the mother and that they may serve some higher purpose. But clearly, it was an issue that was vexing for many. Indeed, the question, ‘why such divisions?’ appeared to be Auroville’s most profound ontological question. It festered at the level of theory, but also as an individual tension in the heart of the Aurovillian, crying out for resolution: how could a community based on the idea of human unity be internally divided?
As a sociologist, the existence of conflict did not seem in the slightest bit unexpected or even problematic. What was surprising was the metaphysical significance that the issue of conflict appeared to have for many of the Aurovillians, as well as for Auroville’s long-term and recurring visitors.
One night over dinner in the communal dining hall, a young German man gave us his perspective on Auroville’s divisions. He spoke like a sage, narrating the epic of the town – a clash of forces, present from the start, between the Mother’s Master Plan and the real, living people who inhabited the place. It was a contradiction between the living spirit of experimentation and the fairy tale of a supra-human consciousness-to-come. The fairy tale is told to every new Aurovillian and to all the tourists who come to visit and take a guided tour – a “brainwashing,” as he described it.
He said it made him want to cry – because the Plan, noble as it may have been, was now Auroville’s key marketing platform. The Plan was what drew the tourists in; the reality was not. Visitors were shown models of Auroville based purely on the Mother’s vision of the place it was hoped to be – a giant cell-shaped township, with functionally differentiated districts that worked together as an integrated whole. This ‘Master Plan’ in no way corresponded to the actual layout of the town. Indeed, I was told that there people in the upper echelons of Auroville who would like to see the existing layout dug up, so it would better correspond with the Mother’s elegant map.
The Plan, essentially, has become the commercial interest that eliminates all who stand in its way. It is Capital, subsuming the people to its interests, yet, at the same frustrated by their incessant activity (the very creative force upon which it also lives). It seemed appropriate that I’d just been reading Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: the Plan was the mysterious ‘body-without-organs.’
The young German had been raised at Auroville. His mother bought a capsule in the 1990s for just Rs. 7500 (Today, around $160). It was completely self-contained with a balcony on the roof. These days, only the wealthy could afford such things at Auroville. Alas, the spirit of community was giving way to the spirit of commerce: And the Plan that had initiated the community in the first place had become the major force corrupting its lofty ideals.
Inside and Outside
When one enters Auroville after spending a little time in Chennai or Pondicherry, it does feel as though one has stepped into a different world. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that Auroville was a ‘bubble’ or an ‘enclave,’ physically gated away from the rest of India: rather, it appears to float above the world. Its atmosphere and pace of daily life is so fundamentally different, it creates the perception of having stepped into a different dimension.
And yet, Auroville is connected with the nearby villages and towns. If one continues to walk along its arc-shaped roads, they will reach them eventually. The impression is that suddenly the apparition that was Auroville has ended – one has now left this floating world which ‘belongs to humanity as a whole’ and re-entered the world of private property. One feels out-of-place: suddenly they are amongst people’s homes. Back in the ‘real India,’ where people are just trying to get on with their business: what do you want here, hippy?
Though the contrast in their lifeworlds is striking, Auroville does have extensive interactions with these people – though not in the same way as it interacts with its international guests. With the international guests, it attempts to transform consciousness and foster a completely different vision of society. For the surrounding villages, the relations with Auroville are more traditional economic relations. The impacts of these relations are quite profound, yet they also appear discordant when one compares them to Auroville’s Master Plan.
The most obvious impact of Auroville on the surrounding villages is the creation of jobs and the development of human capital – particularly skills in the English language. Many of Auroville’s guesthouses are staffed entirely by ‘workers’ from the nearby villages. In some cases, they occupy managerial positions. Despite playing a prominent role in Auroville’s daily functionings, one does get the impression that they are not full participants in the ethos of the place. They lack the dreamy, half-smiling expression of the Aurovillians.
On my last day at Auroville, I did venture to ask one of the workers at my guesthouse whether Auroville has had a big impact on his village of Kottakarai. ‘Sure!’ he replied. ‘Everything has changed! And the changes are probably sixty per cent positive.’ It was a fascinating response, because I assume that the figure he gave was a polite one. More likely, he sees the balance as being fifty-fifty, positive to negative.
So Auroville’s positive impacts on the surrounding villages are mostly job creation and skills development, what are the negative impacts? I can only make some vague guesses in this regard, as to really comment would require spending some time in the villages themselves. Some causes for resentment are fairly obvious. I heard one story of a worker, who after earning his wage at an Auroville guesthouse tried to buy a cup of tea at a café inside. He was told that they could not accept his money – that he could only make purchases using an Aurocard – the basis for Auroville’s unique currency. Not having an Aurocard, he could only perceive this as a form of segregation.
I heard other stories. I heard of land disputes between Auroville and Kottakarai, which stands on Auroville’s fringe. I heard Aurovillians speaking, condescendingly, of the ‘selfishness’ of the villages, who wanted to clear some forested land for a cricket pitch on a piece of disputed territory. Apparently this had been a source of substantial conflict.
In some ways, Auroville’s tensions between inside and outside seem built into the logic of the Plan. The principle that Auroville “belongs to no nation” sits at odds with the fact that it is physically located within India and must adhere to its rules and regulations. It is subject to the laws and institutions of India. The Matrimandir is lit up by the Indian electricity grid (coal powered, no less). And although Auroville gives the impression of floating above the world, it still must partake in the life of the local people… The cosmopolitanism and transnationalism built into the Plan may lead to a desire to exclude and erase the Indianness of the local setting, but that Indianness and localism constantly reasserts itself. There is no escaping the fact that Auroville has a geography and cannot hermetically seal itself away from the big bad (Indian) world that surrounds it.
Utopia and its Discontents
People take such pleasure in dissing Utopias. I won’t abide it. My experience of Auroville was that it was a beautiful place, full of idealism, peace, love and generosity. Yet it has some tensions, for sure.
The funny thing is that although many Aurovillians fret the internal divisions of the place and many of the visitors point to the inside-outside tension as a possible contradiction undermining its transformative ideas, I myself was not so alarmed. I found these tensions, contradictions and conflicts as signs of a living community, capable of engaging with a broad spectrum of people. If there were no fractures, then Auroville would be reduced to a cultish fringe group, of interest to some, but incapable of really engaging all of the diversity that makes up the human race. Further, the issues that seem to “plague” Auroville can be found in almost any society and, from that angle, are not all that surprising. It is a great thing that Aurovillians are sufficiently conscious of these issues as to find them troubling and to make efforts to resolve them. I don’t think it’s right to hastily dismiss the place, simply because it is founded on ideals that it is incapable of living up to: for that is surely the truth of every society, every group and, indeed, every individual person.
Thanks to Kathy, Brian and Anu from the High Output Writing Group at the University of Wollongong for comments on a previous draft.