On November 23-24, the Capital experienced a unique exposition to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Auroville. I was part of a multinational panel of eminent speakers chaired by Karan Singh. Each of us had our own distinctive experience of the meaning of the Auroville experiment. The discussion began with Frederick, one of the senior-most Auroville residents, narrating his own journey, which began nearly 60 years ago.
Frederick, a German who had studied at Berkeley, first came to Pondicherry in the late 1950s. He was restless and searching for the purpose of life. Sri Aurobindo had left his body in 1950, but Frederick was fortunate to meet the Mother, Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual partner and successor: “She changed my life by shifting my consciousness.” In a sense, Frederick had found not only his home but also soul. He no longer felt lost: he had discovered the true meaning of not only his own life, but also the evolutionary possibilities of humankind itself. No wonder, when Auroville was founded in February 1968, he became one of its first inhabitants.
It was a time of protests the world over. In May 1968, the workers and students revolted in Paris, bringing France to a standstill, nearly unseating the Charles de Gaulle government. In the United States there were anti-Vietnam protests on campus and the start of the hippie counterculture movement. There were protests in Mexico, Brazil, Poland, Germany and Scandinavia. In India too, we had our own peasant insurrection in Naxalbari a year previously, in 1967. But in this atmosphere of global ferment and agitation, something totally new and unlike anything else took birth just outside Pondicherry.
As the Mother put it, Sri Aurobindo, the deceased master, gave her a vision: “India has become the symbolic representation of all the difficulties of modern mankind India will be the land of its resurrection — the resurrection to a higher mind and truer life.” The future of humankind, in other words, would be shaped in India, in a global city where human consciousness could have a new flowering, irrespective of nationality, religion, culture, race, language, caste or region. “That is why I was made to start Auroville,” the Mother said.
Auroville faced not only teething troubles. There was a bitter, even violent, initial conflict with its “parent” organisation, the Sri Aurobindo Society. As Frederick recalled, “Many of us were beaten up, arrested, driven out.” But the pioneers persisted. The Government of India had to step in to end the conflict and ensure Auroville. An even greater miracle followed: The Auroville Foundation Act of 1988 was moved by none other than Mamata Banerjee, then a Congress MP, and passed in Parliament, to make Auroville a legal entity and safeguard its autonomy. Since then, regardless of which government is in power, Auroville has survived, even flourished.
A proof of that is the marvellous embodiment of the spirit of Auroville that thousands come to witness — the magnificent Matri Mandir. This is a golf ball-like structure which, because of its unique reflecting panels, looks golden in the day and silver at night. Inside is a huge and utterly silent meditation chamber with a single crystal in the middle that catches the beam of light that comes from the roof. There are ramps on all sides leading to this chamber. Inside, one actually understands what the Mother meant when she declared, “Auroville is the place where this new way of life is being worked out; it is the centre of accelerated evolution where Man has to start changing his world by the inner spirit.”
Auroville is the home of many futuristic experiments — in energy, ecology, economics or education. Today it is home to over 2,000 people from over 40 countries, not to mention all parts of India. It is both a city and a forest, trying to reconcile the challenges of a new urbanism in face not just of the climate crisis, but of large-scale deforestation and despoliation of our environment. In it reside writers, artists, painters, engineers, designers, thinkers, and world-class chefs. There is ceaseless experimentation in technology, engineering, and alternative commerce, including an amazing store, Pour Tous, where one does pay in cash but exchanges what one has with what one needs.
What is even more remarkable is that Auroville is a place of collective yoga, where like-minded people strive together for the unity and progress of humankind not through conflict, but harmony. But how is this harmony possible? According to Anu Majumdar, the author of Auroville: A City for the Future (HarperCollins 2017), it is a city without an ego. It is the ego, whether individual or collective, that is the greatest obstacle to our progress. Giving it up or setting it aside does not, however, signify abolishment of individuality. On the contrary, we flower as individuals, each in his or her uniqueness, only when our lives cease to be ego-centric.
A quiet peace descends on me as I exit the Matri Mandir on an enchanted November evening. It seems as if the Matri Mandir is a giant spaceship waiting to take off into an exciting but unknown future. The people who enter and exit it are all bathed in a glow; they do not seem like ordinary human beings one meets in the world outside. They greet each other with such familiarity and fondness, but without the sense of judgmental attachment or identification that one usually encounters.
All I want to say is “Happy Golden Jubilee Auroville — may you grow, glow and gather the wisdom needed to accomplish the great task that Sri Aurobindo and the Mother set before you.”