Auroville as a Religion

By: Vanessa Charlot 

So I will admit that I came to Auroville having done no research on this utopian township that I didn’t even know existed. Needless to say, it is quite a mind-blowing experience coming to Auroville for the first time with no prior knowledge. Throughout my childhood, my parents used to tease me about how I didn’t like to leave my “happy place.” Happy place can be defined (by me) as a hypothetical space where you and all the people around you are always happy. Who would want to leave? But reminiscing on the ease in which a child can put all the negative factors of life aside and find the beauty, joy, and tranquility in the moment; I found this same notion to be my immediate impression of Auroville. Could Auroville be the world’s happy place?

Auroville for Dummies:

  • Experimental township in southern India
  • Founded by Mirra Alfas aka “Mother” in 1968
  • Intended to be a universal town for men and women from all countries to live in progressive harmony  
  • Purpose is to realize the power of human unity
  • Four point-Charter/vision for Auroville
    • Auroville belongs to nobody in particular. Auroville belongs to humanity as a whole. But to live in Auroville, one must be the willing servitor of the Divine Consciousness.
    • Auroville will be the place of an unending education, of constant progress, and a youth that never ages.
    • Auroville wants to be the bridge between the past and the future. Taking advantage of all discoveries from without and from within, Auroville will boldly spring towards future realisations.
    • Auroville will be a site of material and spiritual researches for a living embodiment of an actual Human Unity
  • Matrimandir, a very large golden metallic sphere, is at the center of Auroville and serves as “a symbol of the Divine’s answer to man’s aspiration for perfection.
  • Aurovilians must let go of all pre-existing beliefs and surrender to divine consciousness

matrimandir

The points listed above are some of my key take-aways regarding Auroville in my first few days of being here. And much to my surprise all of the Aurovilians I’ve met embody the Charter as well as this zen, self-conscious, “happy place” vibe. But as I spend more time in Auroville, being open to everything this township has to offer, I find myself drawing very clear parallels between the culture of this idealist community and religion.

Exhibit A – They call her the Mother.

Americans don’t call George Washington the Father, but Christians call their God the Father. Not only do they call her Mother but I have frequently heard “the divine Mother.” Definition of divine? Of or like God.

blog 2 2.jpg

Exhibit B – Mother’s photo is in roughly 99.99% of the establishments I have been in.

Grocery stores, restaurants, bookstores – everywhere! In many Christian countries, homes, and establishments, it is common to see a cross or image of Jesus Christ on the wall, the same way Mother is mounted on the walls of Auroville.

Exhibit C – Aurovilians worship Mother

The way I have heard Aurovilians talk about Mother suggest that she is more than just the founder of this township. For example when we listened to a presentation from one of the founders of the Probiotics House, she referenced Mother as some sort of higher power on multiple occasions. She even mentioned how Mother spoke to her in a dream once. Divine intervention?

Even at the guest house where we are staying, there’s a new Mother quote on the chalkboard in the common area everyday.

IMG_4079.jpg

It’s quite ironic that a community that is seemingly anti-religion can be interpreted as a sort of informal religion. But contrary to popular opinion that one should not practice any sort of religion in Auroville, I was informed of a conversation someone had with Mother regarding the matter. Early in our trip I spoke with an Aurovilian man and told him about my anti-religion impression of the community. He told me about someone he met in Auroville shortly after he arrived about 30 years ago. She was a practicing Muslim but wasn’t sure if she could practice in Auroville, so she went to talk to Mother directly. Apparently Mother told her “why not?” and continued to say that if it helps you and your inner consciousness then it’s fine, but don’t let it limit you.

Is her intended message about religion getting lost in translation?

“But to live in Auroville, one must be the willing servitor of the Divine Consciousness”

– The Mother

Alien in the Crowd

        It was evening time at the Mitra youth hostel. Many gathered downstairs at the common kitchen area, holding their empty metal plates patiently waiting for dinner to be announced. During the wait, some indulged in casual conversations about their day, and about possible evening plans. I remember chatting with a friend when my work colleague approached us about a play happening in one of the villages surrounding Auroville, and asked if we’d be interested in joining him and a couple of other locals. We were both very curious and eager to see this foreign piece of theater, and since neither one of us has seen a play in Tamil before, we had no expectations.

          The play had already started when we arrived. The setting was very basic. A large wooden platform was placed on top of the soil, with a couple of big bricks in every corner to lift it up from the ground. A handful of colorful pieces of cloth were hung at the far back and acted as a separation between the stage and whatever was behind it, creating a very small and easily visible backstage area, where the actors waited for their turns, freshened-up, and hydrated themselves. There were no seats. The audience, a group of about forty people, either stood up or sat on a thin carpet on the ground.IMG-20170104-WA0000.jpg

        The characters were painted and dressed as Hindu deities, as one my local acquaintances pointed out. They alternated between conversing, singing, and even dancing. The play involved three central characters; Ram, his brother Lakshman, and another figure embodying the monkey/human deity by the name of Hanuma. The latter was the most energetic of the trio, exploiting all the stage area to express himself, running, jumping, and even using his long monkey tail to harass the other characters. At one point, he hastily climbed up a nearby tree. At another, he hopped off the stage and snappishly grabbed one of the spectator’s backpack (mine), in an effort to induce a comedic effect. In the background, live traditional music played. A band of five men sat at the rear back. Some played instruments while others sang. As I understood, the band wasn’t quite part of the play, but more of an accessory, for they did not engage with the characters in any dialogue. They merely provided the cheery tunes for the dancing deity figures.

img_20161228_201339_01

        My reactions throughout the show were a mixture of astonishment, admiration, and utter confusion. Due to my inexistent Tamil language proficiency, I was not able to grasp even the general idea of the show. Simply, I was overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the loud singing voices coming from here and there, the equally loud laughter, clapping noises, and chatter of the amused audience, and most conspicuously, the idea of being the muddled stranger.

        Tonight, I claimed the opportunity to perceive and evaluate things from an exterior position. I walked into an entirely foreign situation stripped almost completely of expectations and bias, sat tranquilly on the ground, and assumed the role of the observer, not solely of the show, but of the surrounding environment. I observed attentively as the great energy produced by the dynamic characters on stage rapidly transferred to the engaged audience members. Whereas I sat calmly and silently with a stupefied look occupying my visage, my local friends were laughing hysterically at the numerous punch lines, pointing at Hanuma whenever he says or does something comical, lightly nudging and elbowing each other while bursting out in laughter. I was not envious of their ability to properly engage with the art, nor was I disappointed for going through a different, possibly less amusing experience than theirs. After an entire day of being active and performing vigorous tasks for my NGO, it was both refreshing and relaxing sitting and watching actions unfold before me.  Attending this play was an excellent reminder to self that some things needn’t be deeply understood to be enjoyed and appreciated.

By Dhouha Djerbi.

Seeds of Suicide in India

“Producing more, conserving more, improving farmers life” Behind this phrase from Monsanto Corporation, there is a cotton seed monopoly in India that used this phrase as a merely marketing strategy, and their operations induced a series of farmer suicides in India.

How this happened?  Before Monsanto’s settlement in India, local farmers used to produce their cotton in small scale and in traditional ways. However, globalization allowed the introduction of Monsanto Corporation into the Indian market. Monsanto introduced a Genetic Modified Organism (GMO) seed that contained a toxic gene (Bt toxin). Farmers got trapped and started to get in debt because they continuously needed more and more fertilizers and pesticides to keep their GMO’s crops alive. This created a vicious circle in which farmers would buy a cheaper seed but at a long term the outcome wouldn’t ensure any profit because they needed to buy more pesticides, at the end they were only in debt and generating no profits. This situation lead to an alarming chain of farmer suicides.

“Control over seed is the first link in the food chain because seed is the source of life. When a corporation controls seed, it controls the life of farmers.”

Monsanto overpassed the Indian rules regarding GMO’s and managed to control 97 percent of India’s cotton seeds. The Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology sued Monsanto but it was too late because they had changed the agricultural practices in India.

For some profit businesses like UPASANA (an Indian fashion company), this situation was alarming and they felt that something had to be done. Umah Haimavati Prajapati created a project name Paruthi, which is a sustainable business and its main objective is to promote and protect the cotton communities in the region of Tamil Nadu. The brand was unwilling to let their farming society fall apart; therefore, they leveraged partnerships with local organization with the purpose of using only organic crops that require all-natural fertilizers and to develop a business strategy that empowers and improves livelihoods of farmers and weavers. Today, Paruthi is a socially and environmentally sustainable project using only the most ethical practices and the cotton communities of rural India. In words of Umah “ I am interested in creating a world that is better and fair”.

Marcos Lopez Manrique

images.png

The Heavenly Scene Inside the Matrimandir

matrimandir-viewing-point-auroville-org

Matrimandir – Viewing point (Auroville.org)

At the very centre of Auroville, you can find the “soul of the city”, the Matrimandir. It is situated in a large open area called “Peace”, from where the future township will radiate outwards. The atmosphere is quiet and charged, and the area is beautiful, even though the work continues in the Gardens.

The Matrimandir will be the soul of Auroville.
The sooner the soul is there, the better it will be
for everybody and especially for the Aurovilians.

– The Mother

The Matrimandir can be viewed as a large golden sphere, which seems to be emerging out of the earth, symbolizing the birth of a new consciousness.

Entering the Matrimandir:

In order to obtain your free tickets or passes, you should sign up a day or 2 in advance. You can get them any day, besides Tuesday, from the first floor of the Auroville Visitors Centre. There is a strict rule of collecting passes in person and a prohibition on transferring or passing on passes to friends.

On the scheduled day, we assembled again at the Visitors centre at the scheduled time, which is usually 8.45am. At 9 am, we were shown half hour video clip on the history behind Matrimandir, its construction and the plans for its future.

We went in a bus from the visitor’s center to the Matrimandir, where we have deposit all our belongings and got a 20-minute explanation about the significance of the place.

The building was impressive, grand, unwittingly towering and invoking discipline. We all stood in a line as we removed our footwear and cautiously entered the Dome.

the-inner-chamber-auroville-org

The inner chamber (Auroville.org)

You will have to wear white socks provided by the staff before you can go inside Matrimandir. An elliptical curve leads you to the “Inner-Chamber”. The spacious Inner Chamber in the upper hemisphere of the Matrimandir is completely white, with white marble walls and white carpeting. There is a radiant crystal placed right in the middle of the hall. You will have to occupy on the seats out there, and stay calm. Silence is the key; this is a place for real meditation.

It echoes a lot inside Matrimandir, hence if you feel like coughing or sneezing, you should go out and come back again (yes, there’s actually a note that tells you to go outside to complete your coughing and sneezing business).

I saw a lot of energy and golden radiations when my eyes were shut, it was a surreal and a humbling experience. When the light turns off and turn on twice, it means it’s time to leave.

The energy that you derive from Matrimandir meditation will linger in your mind and body for a few days. The heavenly scene you saw there will never fade from your memory.

Source: http://www.auroville.org/contents/678

– Julien El-Hajj

IndiArt

By: Hibaq Dougsiyeh

Upon my arrival to India, one aspect that I immediately noticed was the appreciation for all forms of art. Art seems to come very natural to the people of India and a design as complicated as a kolam, for example, is simple and easy to the majority of them. A kolam is a geometrical design that is drawn on in front of homes and are thought to bring in prosperity. One morning, at the entrance of the guesthouse where we are staying, I observed one of the women who work there designing an intricate kolam freely, with no traces to assist, while laughing and talking with her co-workers. After seeing the finished result, the first thing I thought of was how amazing this design would be as a tattoo! I know plenty of tattoo artists who make similar designs, but not free-handedly or as fast as the women in India. Not to mention how this beautiful design is created using chalk dust. Not chalk, as I imagined it was when I first saw one, but the dust. What they do is they take a pinch of dust and create dots to help with the alignment of the design, and as they release the dust on the ground, they make the kolams. After taking brief lessons at the NGO Mohanam and witnessing how difficult it actually is to make a kolam, it made me appreciate it so much more.

dsc_0860

 

Another simple yet beautiful artistic gesture I’ve come across many times are the flowers on floating water. The first time I saw this was, again, at the entrance of the guesthouse we resided in. The colorful flowers were laid out on a bed of water in a circular pattern and are changed every so often to different patterns based on what flowers are available that day. In other locations, you can see the bowl of flowers placed near statues of Ganesh, the God of Beginnings and Remover of Obstacles, as well as some lighted incense. Again, something to creative, artistic and a norm in this culture and you can’t help but appreciate its beauty and the vision behind the artist.

flower2flower1flower

There is an abundance of plays, films, dance performances, and art exhibitions around Tamil Nadu and what’s great about them, besides the obvious creative and beautiful pieces, are the fact that the viewings are mostly free. Tamil Nadu’s appreciation for the arts is so full that it is shared with the public at no cost. You can’t help but see that the people of India are so rich in their creative talents. I was lucky enough to attend a dance performance at Sri Aurobindo Auditorium of a traditional Indian dance performed by a group of very talented girls. This free performance was absolutely breathtaking, with each precise dance move resembling a pose from a sculpture and every movement imitating the sound of an instrument. The performers were each wearing solid colored saris with jewelry from head to toe that made beautiful ringing sounds with every step. They each had henna designs on their hands and feet that were visible to the audience thanks to the precise dance moves that accompanied the dance called Odissi. Odissi is the classical dance style from the city  of Odisha in Eastern India that was ritually performed from 10th century through the 16th. After India gained its independence in 1947, the dance decreased in performance because of its dislike from powerful Hindi rulers; however, in the late 50s, it was picked back up thanks to the locals of Odisha.

india

(photo credit: http://allindiaroundup.com) 
It’s very admirable to see something traditional being practiced by the youth. It shows how the conservation for culture continues to be implemented in communities across India and although this developing country utilizes modernization as a template for development, they maintain traditional values to not lose their identity which I find to be very important.

The Forgotten Community

img_6222

We got out of the car after a 15-minute car ride down a winding dirt road. One way in, one way out, this narrow road is unpaved and lined with tall grass and no street lamps. Nothing could have possibly prepared me for the education I was about to receive. Mr. Bruno, Founder and Director of Samugam Foundation gave Julien and I a brief overview of what we were about to encounter. “(Waving to the right and left) This is the tuk tuk that Samugam Foundation has donated to the village for any medical emergencies, and this little shop we provide and stock for them to have necessities. Before this was here, they would have to walk down this dirt road to get anywhere, which is very treacherous if you are ill. 130 families live here in 75 houses. Also, 3 people have died in the last year of snakebites walking along this road in the dark. Okay, lets go.” (Casual.)

_mg_6221

As soon as we walked up to the village, we were met with many smiling children that were curious to know what we were doing there. Bruno was a celebrity and everyone met him with hugs. To my right, I noticed a tiny woman emerge from her modest shack with a few week-old baby attached to her. She was very excited to see Mr. Bruno and greeted us all with such a beautiful big smile one can only find on a proud new mother. Mr. Bruno took the baby from her arms with ease and explained that the child was born with a stomach problem, most likely due to malnutrition of the mother, and Samugam helped pay for the procedures needed. Behind the woman was a young girl, whom Bruno explained was visiting home for holiday from Samugam Foundation where she lives. She is 13 years old. Her mother died of health complications, and her 60-some year old father, had re-married the young 22 year-old woman with the few-week-old baby we just met.

img_6353-1

Continuing through the village, lined with chickens roaming around, trash scattered about, and pigs off in the field, many young dirty children sat on the road eating modest portions of rice with their hands.
img_6951
Two young boys washing at the water bucket lingered, and a young man smiled at us while washing clothes from another bucket. You could tell that water was hard to come by in this village.
img_4384
An old woman waved Mr. Bruno over to talk to him. She had recently been ill and needed help from him to explain how to use the medicine she received. As literacy is not common in the village, she could not read the instructions on her own.
img_6960-1
A little further down, a family was preparing dinner. This community lives well below the poverty line and eat whatever they can find. I am not sure if I will ever be able to get the image of a grown man gutting a rat he pulled out of a carton of trash out of my head.
img_6963
This community was so kind and welcoming, despite having nothing. A group of women smiled at me, and one woman waved me over. We do not share a common language, but I squatted down next to her and returned her smile to see what she was doing. She reached into a bag next to her, pulled out a beautifully carved stamp, dipped it into a can of paint, and pointed to my hand and smiled. I gave her my palm, and she started stamping my hand, producing a beautiful design. These stamps are made by the women in the community out of the rubber of shoes they found in trash dumps and sold on the streets to make some cash.
img_6304
A young boy curiously played with me, checking out how our hands differed.
img_6973

Most empowering of all was this beautiful 16-year-old girl. She studies at Samugam and was practicing her English with me.
img_6393
“In two years, I will be finished with my education from Samugam. After this, I hope to continue to study and become a teacher. I want to help all the children become educated, like Samugam has helped me. Right now I am on leave, so I am staying back in my village. I wake up early and go for a run and do yoga with the smaller children. I then help them all clean themselves, as they are often very dirty. I come back to help with the children on every holiday.”

I was not prepared for everything I witnessed during my short visit to this village. As much as you imagine what extreme poverty is like, it is a very different experience seeing it for yourself and meeting the wonderful humans whom are victim to it. I have always been aware how fortunate I have been in my life, but this experience forced me to FEEL it to my core. I will never forget this community and know in my heart that I will spend the rest of my life trying to help them and many others in the world like them, break the harsh barriers of poverty.

Website: http://samugam.org/#about
Social Media : @Samugam_Foundation
Donate: https://www.generosity.com/fundraisers/1996914/csfb?ref=gogo__fblk__15810376

By: Morgan Speece

Getting OUT of your OWN WAY!!!!!

 By: Faith Toran

One week into working with the organization New Colors and I was both excited and frustrated at the same time. Was it possible to be navigating in the wrong direction? If one was headed in such a direction, where was the point of return? I became frustrated in my working relationship with my colleague and that created tension that seemed to escalate. It was not so much about the tension we were both experiencing but I had to realize where the fault in behavior or perspective was. I wrecked my brain to try and finally understand and there it was, my cultural baggage staring at me. How could one work from a participatory framework with the organization, when there was the lack of dialogue with my colleague.


I tend to be aware of this baggage in my daily morning meditation and try to recycle it in a way that is conducive to cultural exchange. So, when one becomes aware of this baggage, one goes directly to successful tools that have been used in similar situations. I was listening but was I understanding?


My colleague and I arrived at New Colors for the Christmas and New Year’s celebration and were greeted with lots of smiles and joy. This environment of honesty, curiosity, freedom and innocence was contagious. I realized that there was something beyond self-reflection. 

 dsc00100

 What might have worked before, may not be useless, but in need of expansion. So, I added a very important tool to my development field work toolbox. I added a simple yet profound tool, one  Dr. Tanya Elder said to me “you must do more than just reflect you must learn”.

So, I decided to reflect and learn!

I realized that acknowledging your wrongs is one thing but it is equally important to learn your rights.