A Perspective of Utopia

Auroville: 4 – 9 June 2019

There’s this expectation for Auroville to be a utopia. Maybe it’s self-imposed – Google “Auroville”, and the first sentence you see in the list of results is this:  “Auroville is a universal city in the making in South India, dedicated to the ideal of human unity based on the vision of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother.”

Indeed, one of the main pages on Auroville’s website describes a dream, the envisioning of an ideal society (see https://www.auroville.org/contents/197). In 1968, when Auroville was founded, 5000 people from various countries and backgrounds gathered, left behind their old lives, assets and possessions, to pursue this Dream. Back then, Auroville was nothing but a name and a group of people who had similar hopes for a different way to live. The glistening, architectural symbol of Auroville, the Matrimandir, had yet to be built. It was just barren land.

When I think about how this township, just 51 years ago was a desolate landscape without any life, I think they must have got something right. Every tree we passed by and every red dirt road we cycled through was planted and carved out by Auroville’s pioneers. Every sustainable building we visited, every rustic handwritten signpost we looked out for exists because of the collective efforts of people who believed in an idea of a city they could not yet see.

Still, there are aspects of Auroville I can’t comprehend and am, if I’m being honest, quite skeptical of. I admire the seemingly carefree nature of most everyone I met there, and how peaceful everything is. Especially coming from Chennai, the contrast of the quality of life in these two places just a 3-hour car ride apart impressed upon me (actually, just cycling outside the immediate, invisible boundaries of Auroville and into a local village nearby had that same effect).

Despite all its ‘utopian’ aspects, the abstract, spiritual concepts that drive much of the Aurovillian vision lie beyond the periphery of my perception, and its incomprehensible bits tint my overall view of the township. The bookstore at the Visitors’ Centre there display volumes upon volumes of the works of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother that address topics from education to economy. The shelves also feature many thin, A5-sized books that, quite frankly, resemble cult manifestos. Integral Yoga, a yoga developed by Sri Aurobindo, is literally integral in every Aurovillian’s life – it is what education as envisioned by the Mother is centred on. There’s one thing all of these written works point to: the importance of attaining Divine Consciousness. As open-minded as I try to be, the more I tried to understand what the Divine Consciousness is, the more I came across materials that only heightened my skepticism for it.

This is one of the passages I came across:

“Both Sri Aurobindo and The Mother worked all their lives for the manifestation of a mode of consciousness beyond mind, which Sri Aurobindo named “Supermind” or “The Supramental”. The full expression of this consciousness on earth would result not only in a new species, as far beyond the human, as human race is beyond the animals, but also in a modification of the whole terrestrial creation, even more complete than the change brought about by the entrance on the world scene of the human race.” (https://www.auroville.org/contents/533)

The hard-to-grasp spirituality of Auroville aside though, it is a community that’s united despite the fact that its citizens come from 49 different nations across all social classes. It is a place that feels free, peaceful, and is where I really did feel like money isn’t the “supreme lord”. When we interviewed Raja, an Aurovillian who worked at our guesthouse, I had hoped he would shed some light on how maybe Divine Consciousness was what made Auroville succeed in its attempt at creating this new way of life.

Raja’s story is incredible. He wasn’t born Aurovillian, but went to school there. He grew up in the local village near Auroville, and told us he never even knew about birth certificates until he had gotten a scholarship at a dance school in Mumbai – he doesn’t really know how old he is, or when his birthday is either. He told us his story in an animated voice, and weaved it with jokes like a natural comedian. Many of the things he experienced – being homeless and sleeping at a bus stop in Mumbai for example – I imagine were the opposite of pleasant or easy, but he had a sense of humour and recalled those memories with much laughter. He repeated several times, “We’re so lucky to have a place like Auroville.”

Auroville sponsored his education, and welcomed him into the community. After his own home by the ocean was destroyed by a tsunami, Auroville had a home for him. It was a simple hut, and nothing much, but Raja thought it was perfect. I clench up when he said he would find snakes, large ants and other pests inside his house, but he preferred a structure like this. “The house can breathe, no?” he would say. In comparison to the concrete apartment with air-conditioning his classmates in Mumbai rented for him, he, unlike most of us, found more joy living in a ‘breathable house’ that went along with nature. (He still lives in that house!)

He never directly talked about Divine Consciousness, but there was inherent in him a unique spirituality – he is a Healer. He never went to medical school because it was too expensive, but being a doctor was an ambition of his. Somewhere along the way, he discovered he could tell exactly which parts of the body were in ail, and with yoga and a healing massage he could heal people. At this point I become skeptical again, but I think of all he has said, and the incredible optimism he has for life.

I ask myself, maybe utopia is just all about perspective? Auroville certainly seems like Raja’s utopia, and even if I can’t see it being mine, it doesn’t change that it is his.

Maybe utopia isn’t something you can see, but exists in an idea you just have to believe in.

-Chelsea

Being Hours Away

It’s a strange feeling to now be hours away from the flight that would take us to places I’ve only read about over the past few months.

What I see when I think of Auroville is the official .org website that contains information on virtually everything, from its history to how visitors will need Aurocards and can only get one if they stay in an Aurovillian guesthouse. Then my mind shifts to the Matrimandir in all its grandeur, the centre of Auroville and its spiritual temple, reflecting the sunlight in its golden facade. From pictures, the rest of the township looks like a myriad of red mud roads, Glenn Murcutt-esque “touch the earth lightly” eco-structures and dense greenery. These spread out in a circle around the Matrimandir.

Contrastingly, Chandigarh exists in my mind as a series of near perfect rectangles, all so regularly and thoughtfully laid out, filled with austere concrete buildings permeated by bursts of bright paint or brick. Google satellite images of the City Beautiful are very satisfying to look at – it almost looks like the structural column grids I used to draw in architecture school.

Then, I think of the possibly overwhelming atmosphere of roads bustling with traffic (and street food), full of colour, when I think of New Delhi.

At this moment, I feel like I know these places, and yet I don’t.

Today I’ve been advised on the many things I should be aware of in India. My aunt, someone who has lived there for over a decade, told me about how you can’t enter airports without printed flight itineraries, and how the white chalk marks that may appear on your luggage indicate that security might want to open your bags. Someone also said to wear sunglasses and that I must try the samosas. Another two of my aunts met me to give me chrysanthemum flowers hand-packed into teabags for me and also spontaneously bought me a mini-fan.

All their kind concern filled me with some dread, but also questions about what being in the cities we’re headed to will truly be like. Will Auroville feel like a small town where everyone knows everyone? Would the heat really be that unbearable, and would Chandigarh actually be a lively, welcoming place because of her people, despite her brutalist architecture?

Right now it’s much like I’m only seeing buildings from a distance – I see the form and can generally identify its materiality. I can guess at its interior layout, but not really. I can see the grey, unfinished concrete walls, but I’m not yet close enough to see the blemishes and darker streaks of water stains that show age.

I’m not going to pretend I’m not the least bit filled with trepidation (yes, Delhi belly is a thing to worry about, among other things), but I’m also excited about getting close – walking on streets, meeting people and being immersed in soundscapes. And that’s what I think this travel fellowship is to me, experiencing the diverse atmospheres we’ll encounter: the phenomenology of a place.

A few more hours to go.

-Chelsea