The Indestructible Beat of Tamil Nadu

The Tamil Nadu region, and more broadly India as a whole, is riddled with deeply rooted, systemic problems.  These include mass suicide among farmers who have lost hope under crushing debt, a seemingly inescapable caste system designed to keep certain portions of the population segregated and out of sight, and much of the female population subjugated as second class citizens in the workplace and the home.

Most ordinary places in the world would take the burden of these and wear the gloom they cause on their sleeve.  However, India is not a normal place.  Everywhere we’ve been, we’ve heard stories of horribly depressing situations, yet equally consistent has been encountering irrepressible joy and humility.

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The women of W.E.L.L. Paper (Women’s Empowerment through Local Livelihood) craft beautiful products like baskets and jewelry using upcycled waste materials, including newspapers, magazines, and styrofoam packaging. The women come from the surrounding villages, some from troubled situations.  The result of their work is gorgeous, but their uplifting spirit is the real souvenir one takes away.

The trash problem in Tamil Nadu is all-consuming and ever-growing.  The source of the issue is nuanced and complicated, but the result is very clear.  You can walk with it in the streets and swim with it on the beach.  For some, though this is a financial opportunity.  A number of off-the-books recycling operations have sprung up.  The one we visited was a plastic dealer who buys bottles mostly, sorts them, and cuts them down into smalls chips for resale to plastic factories.  The people that work there are literally dealing with garbage all day, but somehow they were all beaming.  They laughed, joked, and asked for photos with us.

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By far the most surprising example of the resilience of this region, though, was when we visited the Samugam Foundation.  The foundation operates as an orphanage and education center.  The children there are gypsies, growing up in the most destitute areas of Pondicherry, mostly amongst the rag-pickers near (and in) the landfill.  However, once the door opened and we stepped inside, you  could never have guessed that any child there had ever had a bad day in their life.  They immediately grabbed us to dance and sing and eat with them, continuously wearing ear-to-ear smiles and bright eyes.

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As a group of mostly Western, privileged people, confronting stories like these day after day can cause some serious soul-searching and self-analysis.  Particularly at this time of the year, it has been an important reminder that materiality and happiness are not necessarily components in the same equation.

Merry Christmas!

-Sam Baird

Introduction to Auroville as a critical space for seekers and self-evolution 

“She will arrive precisely at four o’clock”, said our Professor. His respect for the woman who was going to hold a lecture about Auroville for us was vibrant and obvious. Who is this authentic woman, was the question we all asked ourselves. The woman that entered the room had an aura beyond description. Her being filled the room to its fullest and her voice mesmerised us all. Not once, did she use a filling word like “Uhm” or “Eh”. She spoke with absolute authenticity and clarity.

The session opened with questions from the floor. “What is the most incredible thing Auroville has achieved?” Deepti responded: “Auroville’s most incredible achievement is that people from all over the world keep coming here. People that sought for and want change. Auroville is the foundation for freedom and personal discovery.” 

The idea of humanity was put into practise and realisation by the creation of Auroville. It is a much needed critical space, a space for seekers of alternative ways of living. People that oppose Margaret Thatcher’s “There Is No Alternative” (TINA) statement with respect to Democratic capitalism – people that wish to explore the options. There have been precious attempts to create this critical space of freedom and complete absence of hierarchy. The United Nations is such an attempt, but has in that sense failed, as it consists of varying levels of hierarchies and powers for example the VETO power that is only granted to five major Western powers. Thus Deepti concludes that there have been aspirants but in practise none have achieved this goal.

On the 28th of February, Auroville was officially opened by the participation of 120 countries that all brought a portion of soil from their land to India. This soil is collected at the city centre of Auroville to represent collective unity. The Mantra is the driving force of Auroville i.e. there is no single chief. Rather “things will be organised as the underlying truth is revealed.”, says Deepti. A Charter from UNESCO was also created, which contains the four basic principles. The first one says: Auroville doesn’t belong to anybody in particular. This suggests that the sense of ownership is seen as a problem among the Aurovillians as they recognise that Auroville belongs to humanity as a whole. To live here, one must be a willing servant of the divine consciousness that is within you – in your heart. “The best way of living life is to live in consciousness of that. That is who you are and the purpose of life is to discover that. Yoga is the prominent method used to discover that. Deepti defines Yoga as the process of self-evolution. It encourages you to step out of yourself, look at that and make changes. This results in the totality of realisation i.e. self-conscious awareness. Our lecturer explains that this practise has been the truth in Indian culture for thousands of years. In India you don’t believe in rebirth. Birth is simply the growth of your own consciousness. Once you master this total realisation and revelation from darkness you become a Guru. The lotus flower is the symbol of the divine consciousness.

The second point states that Auroville will be a place of education, constant learning and a youth that never ages. In practise this is shown through the non-existence of retirement. The idea is that as long as you learn you will not grow old. “Work is a journey and purpose  – it serves a meaning. And you should work as long as your body can do it.”

The third point says “Auroville will be a bridge between the past and the future. One needs to be dedicated for the future by taking advantage of all possibilities and learn from past experiences. This is practised through various solutions to sustainability, which is seen everywhere. For example, Mitra guest house where we stay, has its own sewage system, which can be observed in front of the building. Professor explained that every complex in Auroville has their own sewage systems for maximum sustainability – each building should be sustainable on its own. Another example are the bricks used when building some of the houses. They are made of the red dirt that one finds locally, which then is compressed into blocks without the use of heating machines or long transportation of material. A third example is linked to sustainability of lifestyle with respect to finances. Each Aurovillian is given a card, to which money is being deposited each month regardless of your occupation. The purpose is that you should not have to work for survival but rather for fulfilment, meaning and the inner drive to contribute to the community. Is the Western materialistic and over-working lifestyle really sustainable? Would one be able to work 12 hours/day for the rest of their lives? Perhaps it is due to our hectic lifestyles that we have to have the system of retirement – because our lifestyle cannot be sustained throughout life.

Lastly, the fourth point expresses that Auroville will be a seat of material and spiritual research and embodiment of a mindful life. This refers to the Power of the mind. Deepti explained that there is a historical paradox between human thought and action. Thus Auroville is, as mentioned in the introduction, a critical site for the explorers and seekers of ways to act according to your thoughts. With a mindful life, you are self-aware of your actions and how they contribute to society. This self-evolution results in a sustainable life.

I believe that I speak for the group when I say that we couldn’t have received a better introduction to our stay here in Auroville. Deepti is a true Aurovillian after having spent 40 years of her life here. After her talk I would like to say that she is an embodiment and extension of the Auroville Charter. During informal conversations with some of the other students, I got the feeling that this was a collective perception, as we all seemed struck by her presence. I will keep this talk with me in the back of my mind during the rest of the month and try to explore the divine consciousness and my self-evolution!

Elin Pettersson