Born in the late 1960’s, Auroville lies at a crossroad. It can fade away, its candle slowly extinguished. Or it can have a brilliant resurgence, take on a fantastic opportunity to achieve its glorious vision. This essay aspires to clarify this choice — it is hard to see because of blinders put on by myths, old and new: adjusting to reality is hard when the mind has accepted a course of action. Achieving the vision is also going to be hard, but Aurovilians have proved in the past that, with clarity, they can do the impossible: they can decide their fate.
Similarly, India lies at a crossroad too. The choices are even harder to see, and people are not even looking for them as it seems impossible to steer a country of this size, though the efforts of the advertising industry have proven it is entirely possible. The future of a billion people is going to be determined by whether a gentle option can raise its head in the noisy, loud, non-stop action, multi-screen world. If Auroville redefines its path and succeeds, it can help India do the same.
How can a small, hidden community provide guidance to an entire subcontinent? Auroville was founded on degraded farmland as a realization of a dream of a French woman, Mirra Alfassa, known by followers as The Mother. She laid down three intentions:
1. Auroville needs to be a place where people of all nationalities and faiths can gather in peace to strive towards human unity.
2. Auroville needs to be a place where any body can come to serve, to raise their consciousness thru work.
3. Auroville needs to serve the world, become a model the world needs.
Let us see what has been achieved in Auroville in those three areas in the past 50 years:
1. An Oasis for Humanity
A banyan tree was chosen to be the centre of Auroville. It has spread out gloriously and created a beautiful space underneath for contemplation, grounding, and offering. It is seen and experienced as a marvel of Nature. Next to it, a large golden dome was erected enclosing a meditation chamber. This is seen annually by over a hundred thousand visitors as a marvel of humankind. These two marvels visually define Auroville.
In the ’80s, the Government of India was called in because of a conflict of ownership and direction. Because India saw hope in Auroville and some potential future for humanity, in a 1988 resolution Auroville was given a special status — a first in the modern world. People could come from any part of the world and live in Auroville with a special visa provided by the Indian government.
This makes Auroville truly unique, a real oasis for humanity. Thousands of people have used this opportunity to help grow Auroville, and grow themselves in the process.
Auroville was created as a place to experiment, to innovate towards human unity. The government gave Auroville a special status, not requiring the traditional, hierarchical non-profit governance structure: Auroville was free to experiment in self-governance, to create a future without centralized power and bureaucracy. The early experiments worked, despite some friction, as people sweated thru hardships, hunger, and heat: creating some wonder in their corner — a farm, an orchard, a laboratory, a playground, or a forest. Once the land was healed, and waters channelled, a new governance model was needed for the next stage of Auroville, and another experiment was tried. However, it failed, and instead of reorganizing and starting another experiment, the experimental governance model solidified. It has stifled the people for over two decades. The hollow structure created a vacuum of power, and that has invited external powers in.
2. Work and Serve and Grow
A few thousand people have travelled from all over the world to help realize Auroville’s dream. Thru their dedication and amazing efforts by local labour, the Matrimandir was built. The banyan tree has also grown and from these two marvels have spiralled out millions of trees and many buildings.
Many experiments in architecture and eco-building have led to visually striking residential and office blocks where over 3000 live, 3000 volunteer, and 5000 come in to work. 59 countries are represented, as are most states in India (which are more populous and diverse than European countries). In this amazing diversity, what is the work, the service being done?
Over the last five decades many have experimented in reforestation, water, farming, architecture, art, sound, recycling, ownership, governance, economics, healing, and consciousness.
The results are spectacular, but one needs time and a microscope to see them. The Auroville grocery store has cut down plastic use by over 80%. Auroville boasts the best waste segregation system in India. It has the highest density of sewage treatment plants. It has to be admitted that many experiments have failed, and even some of the successes still have ways to go.
We can argue whether Aurovilians have gained any higher consciousness. One thing is clearly visible: the number of septuagenarians and octogenarians who exhibit vitality and high energy to contribute every day is very high. It is very inspirational, even sometimes intimidating.
Higher consciousness, relative to the rest of India, certainly is exhibited in Auroville. Here people have not descended into materialism and glamour. There is very little pretentiousness here. Makeup is rare. Nobody cares what clothes are worn. Even for a presidential visit, people will show up in shorts. People respect the weather and dress appropriately. Though air-conditioners have come in, most manage without them. TVs are absent in its restaurants. Very few own cars, and nobody cares what vehicle you arrive in. People do seek out the humanity in the other.
This may be the only place in India without billboards and advertising. It does mean the residents do not earn ‘free’ money; it does mean that they think more independently and keep their needs and wants more clearly separated.
However, some problems have surfaced. Auroville cannot find enough workers for farming, for waste processing, for construction, … for labour. New arrivals prefer white-collar jobs. The old Auroville was made by participation which led to a sense of belonging. The process was therefore most important. All the new construction is thru contractors, and the process is a subsidiary of the outcome.
The important takeaway is that people come to Auroville not to become rich or famous or powerful, they come to find some meaning in their lives, meaning in their work. It offers a journey, a journey towards divinity, towards the sacred.
3. Serve the World — Be a Model
Rejecting an offer from the state to acquire land, Aurovilians started buying land with the support of individuals. Despite some speculation and corruption, Auroville has managed to acquire 87% of the land in its core circle and 35% of the surrounding ‘green’ belt.
To be a model for the world, it was decided that Auroville be a city, sustainable and visually striking. But the designed city did not materialize, a visible shortcoming.
What did manifest was a higher water table, healthy soil, millions of trees, and clean, cool air.
Many other things manifested, though mostly invisible, even to some residents.
One example: with over 25km of bicycle paths, Auroville offers people and children pollution-free, noise-free, safe and energizing ways of transport, with bare feet being accepted footwear.
Another example: an unusually high concentration of art studios, art installations, even a movement to upscale garbage into art.
Auroville provides space for energetic people to experiment, and in addition, provides spaces to wander in, to contemplate, to commune, to connect.
There has been much ideating, experimenting in Auroville — to see what from its living laboratory can be used as a model, one needs to see clearly the state of the rest of the country.
The Situation of the State and Country
Auroville sits in the state of Tamil Nadu, the oldest culture living in India. Its history has troves of achievements, both spectacular and practical. But market forces have wreaked havoc on a land of gentle people, of cleansing waters.
Greed and corruption are rife, the last few decades of development has shown material gains for a few, with the destruction of a peaceful life directed towards the sacred for all. The beautiful ritual of the evening kolam ritual is almost dead, that of the morning kolam is fading. The beautiful land is marred by a growing, ugly shroud of plastic. Tamil Nadu remains one of the safest places in India, but crime is on the rise as people lust for material possessions. Discontent is simmering, especially among the youth, as the descent into glamour and wealth gains momentum. The land of one of the greatest works ever written on ethics and morality, a universal trove of wisdom — the Tirukkural — has abandoned its sages.
The rest India has descended too, even more deeply.
Consumerism and market forces have unseated traditional mythology’s place in the hearts of the people. The push towards individual success has made a few extremely wealthy, but at the cost of commons; collectively the society has spiralled down into a vast sewage pit. Conspicuous consumption — without any concern, not even for the growing piles of garbage outside the front door — by a huge population has been the engine of growth. A cancerous growth that avoids production, discipline, skills, precision, infrastructure, and good behaviour.
Indians are extracting more groundwater than Americans and Chinese combined, emptying their millennia-old pure water inheritance. Toxic waste poured into the soil and water bodies has poisoned the waters uncleanably. Eager to profit at any cost, business leaders and the government have lost the concept of sacred: they act without common courtesy, without any consideration of the welfare of the poor and voiceless, the environment, not even for their own legacy.
The price is being paid by the populace as India boasts the worst health indicators in the world, the worst air quality in the world, the largest number of polluted cities and rivers, more sewage exposure than the rest of the world combined. In addition, terrible social issues of caste, child exploitation, and a massive disparity between rich and poor, exacerbate access to basic resources. A land of sacred cleansing fountains has become a toxic cesspool, physically and mentally. The compliant media help hide this mess, distracting people from what is visible and palatable in front of them. The success of distracting, seductive entertainment is unbelievable — it has made people eager to live in this futureless squalor.
A land, where contemplation was ingrained, where the pace of life never was rushed, has been shaken to its roots and a frenetic pace introduced that stuns the senses and prevents deep thought. Under the onslaught of the world’s largest advertising campaign, Indians now see their bodies as ugly, and their land fit for a garbage dump, instead of both as divine abodes. The rich find profit in concretizing the last natural places. The rest find pleasure in consuming visual treats on the screen. India is being kept alive thru jugaad — cheap, slipshod hacking — without pride, and without the traditional regard for beauty.
What India Needs To Do
The country is facing several crises, that it so far has managed to push into the shadows, distracting people with bright screens. Water scarcity, water quality, air pollution, climate change, sewage, garbage, plastic waste, are just some of the visible physical problems. Breaking of community, isolation with screens as company, weakening of family bonds, and addictions are some of the social problems prevalent. With disenchanted youth exhibiting less and less interest in the divinity of the human, and many turning towards fundamentalism and intolerance, spiritual problems have also been manifesting in the subcontinent.
India has to abandon the rat race. The race for power and material progress leads in the opposite direction of the sacred. India cannot continue on the path of jobless growth, environmental destruction, and pushing people into addictions: alcohol, tobacco, junk food, sugar, and screens. It cannot continue to grow by making people unhealthy, passive consumers.
As sages across time have advised, India can create a ‘race’ towards the sacred, where people are uplifted, people have meaning in their lives, and people work to serve each other and the divine.
This is a fearsome request of a civilization with seemingly unstoppable momentum, whose leaders wield enormous power ruthlessly, and have millions of guards helping execute their agenda. But while there is some old cultural DNA alive in corners, the ability to light the lamp of the heart still exists. Can we light the shuttered hearts of a billion gentle people? Can dim light overpower searchlights and bright vivid screens? Can a soft hymn subdue loud cacophony?
How Auroville Can Help
In 1970, India’s population was about 550 million with less than 20% urban. In 2022 the population of 1.4 billion is, unofficially, more than 40% urban with most rural dependent on urbanites for income. The cities have exploded without infrastructure — without water, sewage, electricity, roads, and garbage — and they are in crises. Air pollution, water quantity and quality, sewage buildup, garbage build-up, traffic, noise, … no city offers a better quality of life tomorrow than today. The seductive screen keeps people indoors and passive, tolerating a worsening world, with the hope that future technology will save them.
There is no urban model that can be followed, it is impossible to layer any new infrastructure on these dense, ad hoc grown cities. There is no way to redesign the existing; there is no budget and will to design properly any new growth. The rich know this and are buying out the countryside for building luxurious retreats (also without good infrastructure), or moving abroad, or sending their children abroad.
In this era, Auroville can be a model. A model of rural development. Where the poor and the rich can live together with beautiful common amenities, outlets for arts and craft, and close to their food and water. If villages provide amenities, share resources, and are clean and beautiful, the poor will not feel a need to migrate to cities. Living gently and simply, people can connect with each other and Nature, walk together on the path to higher consciousness, to their rightful destiny.
The trend in Indian urbanization is luxury for those who can buy it, while the common areas get aggressively sacrificed with the poor having no place to go but to their mobile screen. The model that Auroville provides is the opposite: people live simply while nurturing glorious commons available to all. Visitors appreciate this, thousands daily take the 1+km walk thru a wooded trail to the Matrimandir viewpoint to see a glorious and rare sight in India: a clean, green space. This is the model of success that India needs, one that reduces disparity and eliminates obscene status symbols that tug people away from their community and nature. This is the way to stop migration of the poor into the cities and a way to control the acquisition of natural resources by the rich.
A trend in the West is de-urbanization. Cities are being made bike-friendly, waterways are being restored and massive greening efforts are being made across the world. It is not just for health, not just to fight climate change. Urbanization has been found to cause deep disconnection and people need ‘forest bathing’ for their sanity, to open their hearts, and to reconnect with their true nature. All sages meditated in or near forests, not in air-conditioned chambers, or marble temples.
This is what Auroville excels at. It has created a space with the best of urban amenities in a climate-cooling forest. This is exactly the model that has to be shared, adapted, and enhanced across India. For a harmonious, peaceful future.
What Auroville Needs To Do
Auroville has to overcome internal and external hurdles.
Auroville has to see its accomplishments as just what is needed in the world today. Can it give up its cemented desire of being a city? Can it see itself as a conscious manifestation of the divine will today? A divine will that allows its followers to interpret and adapt its intent to reality. Can the ‘ville’ in Auroville stand for village, an experimental village?
Internally, Auroville has to destroy the skeleton of a failed governance experiment, and embark on a new set of experiments in self-governance. Its recent tryst has shaken people out of complacency but also has split the community.
Auroville has to regain its flair for innovation, to continue the many experiments that it has embarked on, most of which have slowed down. It has to re-energize itself and launch initiatives in all areas (e.g. in transportation, experiment with bullock carts and mini trains). Supportive forces await it, if it is bold enough.
Externally, it is fighting authoritarianism that came in to fill up the vacuum. A recent court victory provides respite for now, but Auroville needs to build bridges and mend relationships. It needs to work with the state and national governments and also the foreign governments represented, ensuring its special privileges are not abused, but enhanced.
Auroville has to resist the forces of destruction, the very same forces that have destroyed every Indian city. They promise progress, but it is a very seductive call into a false progress. It is progress only for a one-dimensional selfish creature; progress based on the worst of human tendencies: greed, ego, and the rest of the seven deadly sins. Auroville has to stay firmly on the path of true progress for humans with a spark of divinity inside each one: a path that uplifts the soul, that achieves human unity, that uplifts all life, and also helps resurrect a damaged planet.
Then Auroville can save itself, help save India (if India wants to be saved), and create the chance to discover a new destiny for humanity, to share with India and the world.