Sunday, December 02, 2007

Auroville's Aura

I am very often captivated by certain types of autonomous communities that attempt to create a way of life that is separated in some significant fashion from mainstream Western society. Whether avant-garde/progressive or reactionary/neo-traditional in nature, groups who establish sovereignty over their own cultural space and economic livelihoods in some separate locale are scintillating. Prior to spending two days at Auroville, the most major of such communities that I explored was Christiania, in the middle of Copenhagen, DK. I've also had the luck of happening upon several other counter-cultural hamlets that attempt in one form or another to foster a mode of communal or collectivist action. These communities include squatter camps in Berlin and Berkeley (Albany landfill - extinct community), various Israeli kibbutzim, and Amish townships in Pennsylvania.

While perhaps it is a stretch to group these disparate types of communities together, there is some similarly accentuated type of community bond that unifies these micro-societies, whether involving futuristic aesthetics, Luddite ideology, or pragmatic small-scale socialism.

There is some basic recuperation of the village motif in all of these communities, which involve the re-creation and reclamation of village moeurs for a group of folks who have intentionally either always remained out ovside of or have fled from chaotic, anonymous urbanized civilization. The return to nature in the context of small-town living is a romanticized ideal for many ideologues, nature-lovers, and closet city-haters. I myself have somewhat given up on my desire to reside at least temporarily in some form of rural settlement, although previously I harbored various wishes to submerge myself in such a community at some point in my life. I once believed that I should devote myself to the crunchy/earthen/earthbound life on a kibbutz in the Galilee, Midwestern hippie commune, or South American organic farm. However, this desire has now somewhat subsided, and perhaps I have substituted merely an interest in documenting such hamlets of alternative savoir-vivre and idealistic serenity. Perhaps I decided not to pursue this type of experience, if even for several months, because citylife courses through my veins. Perhaps I realized that these places are fantasy realms, devoid of honest assessments of how the real world works.

Or perhaps I have merely postponed my urge to live in such a counter-cultural place until I am ready for more permanent connection with nature, more visceral laboring, and more intimate community relations. It is definitely possible that I am in city mode at this ripe age and will eventually tire of the constant gridlock of the urban grind. It is also possible that I will remain most interested in permanent city settlement along with relatively frequent escapes to other locales where quotidian life takes on a more communal, natural, and rural flavor.

That being said, I learned a rather substantial amount during just over 48 hours in Auroville (located 8 kilometers north of Pondicherry in Tamil Nadu state, India). On numerous fronts, I found that the lifestyle in Auroville challenged my usual assumptions about community and livelihood. It is comforting to avail oneself of the luxuries of communal living, the joys of true sharing, and the dedication to political/spiritual/humanitarian oneness. Yet, it is impossible to ignore certain highly critical gut reactions that I entertained upon visiting this bastion of Western counter-culture in a backwards, backwoods region of Tamil Nadu (which, although one of India's most industrialized states, has backward areas that remain supremely medieval).

I will summarize my experiences in Auroville by elaborating on two positive aspects of the community with which I appreciated a unique alter-mondialist community. In so many ways, it is incredible how Auroville really exists as a cosmopolitan society composed of people from many different countries. The community seems to have transcended so many traditional divisions between human beings. Yet, I shall also cite two reasons why I am not so sure all you see is all you get with Auroville.

Firstly, the conscientious environmental policies and inclinations, combined with a set of economic relations defined primarily by interdependence, ensure that Aurovillians can continue living off of the land with a sense of purity and sincerity that scarcely exists elsewhere in 1st World locales. I observed countless examples of highly progressive practices in this area. There were water systems that recycle monsoon water to the extent that some buildings are almost self-sufficient in this regard. The Solar Kitchen community enjoys the world's largest solar cooker, many other camps are powered by the sun, and energy use is monitored in a very responsible way. Furthermore, the generally high level of respect for natural and human resources leads me to believe that Auroville is on the right track.

Second, the Aurovillian pathways to spirituality are manifold and reflect the most humanistic, universalistic, and pacifistic strains of religion in existence, to the extent that Aurovillian faith is explicitly beyond sectarian loyalties and inter-faith strife. By following a unique creed that is perhaps some sort of fusion of Bahai, Buddhist, and Unitarian philosophies, Aurovillian spirituality takes the Mother and Sri Aurobindo into an ethereal state of meditative calm.

On the other hand, my criticisms are essentially the flip side of my two main sources of praise. This community of approximately 1,800 Westerners lives amongst 40,000 Tamil villagers, of whom approximately 5,000 work for Aurovillian businesses. This rather successful coexistence thus far is nonetheless a double-edged sword. As Auroville has attempted to consolidate its territory and create a contiguous township, it has been careful not to overtake the Tamil villages in its midst. While it does not want to exercise undue sovereignty over its neighbors. It also would not wish to confront the demographic demon (i.e. the constant struggle to maintain sufficient and consistent population figures). Therefore, absorbing large quantities Tamil villagers is out of the question. However, economic growth continues for Auroville, and its infrastructure continues to improve. From media and medicine, to technology and the Tamil language, community-wide initiatives appear to be making considerable progress.

Even so, here are the most glaring negatives. First, the true tone of interaction between local Tamil villagers and Aurovillians, while complex, rings true on a rather superficial level. At best, the relations are pleasant yet stale. At worst, Auroville is comprised of a colonialist core with settlement outposts and an extraordinary supply of subdued colonial peasant subjects to employ. Although Auroville has helped out the surrounding Indian citizens in many different contexts (farming, tsunami aide, English lessons), it appeared that relations were frequently strained. I should hope that relations ultimately are marked by well-intentioned outreach and genuinely caring folks on both sides of the civilizational divide. One should not harbor illusions about the irreconcilable gulf that divides hyper-modern Auroville with backwards surrounding towns such as Kottakarai, Kuilapalayam, and Alankuppam. Yet, I reserve a hearty and hopeful belief that such cynical perspectives on the nature of post-colonial interaction do not interfere with the lofty goals of the Aurovillian program. Zindabaad Aurorashtra!

Lastly, as for the tendencies of the Aurovillian non-religion, exclusive membership policies, combined with rather aloof spiritual access guidelines make for a somewhat tough sell. One must be rather educated, Westernized, and conversant in the proper discourses to qualify. While Bohemian-inspired meditation with an authentic Brahminical streak make for a well-endowed spiritual dimension, there is an undeniably inane and idolatrous deification of the Mother and of Sri Aurobindo himself. The naivete that feeds Aurovillian spiritual practice is perhaps refreshing precisely because it seeks to deny both the deleterious and typical barriers that divide mind from matter. However, the unremitting process of spiritual cultivation that defines the Aurovillian aura risks losing itself in a haze of chants emanating from the Matrimandir and slokas carelessly slingshotted forth from the hybrid Hindu-Western foundation of the community's religious practice. Nevertheless, I recommend experiencing Auroville firsthand and learning more about this alternative community's approach to contemporary knowledge, lifestyle, and production. Om Auro ka Shanti aur Auro Om!

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