How the Entrepreneurial 21st Century is DAWNING all around a sleepy UNESCO-supported utopian social experiment, ‘Auroville’, in India, and other ‘Aurovilian-isms’ as well:
A1. A serendipitous discovery during a recent period of research around the phenomenal business and enterprise revolution sweeping India, as reflected in the sphere of booming private education, drew my attention away briefly from the 24/7 efforts of the legions of new entrepreneurs and Modi government to bring about national destiny-altering free enterprise economic transformation. Abstruse ‘educational’ missions have always enthralled me, so allow me to tell you about one of the rarest. I need to add, though, that although education in the everyday sense of the concept takes place in this spiritualist ‘safe space’, its overall educational mission has always been much loftier: It wants to educate all of us as to how to live in the future.
A2. Be honest. Do you or anyone else you may know remember the so-called 'Auroville experiment', a pet UNESCO project exhibiting a plethora of the characteristics of the alternative, elitist, globalist thinking of many late 20th century intellectuals? Most people, I’m sure, would either be completely unaware (i.e. probably younger generations) or be somewhat remiss (older generations) in recalling what this was all about originally.
A3. In fact, you need to cast your memory all the way back to the late 60s for specifics on the genesis of this alternative lifestyle community with its mission to educate all of humanity in the right ways of the future. This spiritually-inspired experiment in enlightened future living, thus very much following the utopian vogue of the decade, was founded in 1968 by Mirra Alfassa, a figure better known by initiates as ‘The Mother’.
A4. Statements made at the time by this mysterious yogi-like figure revealed the admirable goal (or is it theory, rather?), superficially seen, of human unity. Auroville, although not entirely unique at the time (the ashram movement comes to mind), was recognised almost from the outset by UNESCO, the UN agency for culture, science & education, as an example of the kind of modus vivendi that that organisation has ostensibly espoused all along, and in all likelihood predestines for all of humanity.
A5. It is worth pausing at the UN/UNESCO connection for a moment, just in order to realise how this largely forgotten (and dated?) social experiment is deserving of attention, every bit as much as the UN and its other –fascinating(?) - agencies. In 1966 already (and repeated in 1968, 1970 & 1983), a unanimous resolution was passed by UNESCO in support. It’s worth quoting that it was done because it found it appropriate making commendation, because, the “project [is] of importance to the future of humanity, thereby giving their full encouragement” (‘Auroville’, off-grid.net)(Most pronouncements made by the UN, in favour and in support, can be found, on proud display, when browsing the official Auroville website: www.auroville.org).
A6. We have to return, however, to my 'serendipitous discovery' that served as a stimulating distraction from researching India’s nascent capitalist revolution which may, by the way, eventually, make it the source of much of the world’s economic activity this century. ‘Auroville: The Indian Paradise of Human Unity’ is a dexterously edited and unassumingly revealing documentary film released by Journeyman Pictures in 2010.
A7. Against the backdrop of a train journey leaving behind the urban glory - and squalor - that is today’s India, symbolising it seems the journeying and arrival at the UNESCO-endorsed alternative living community, several inhabitants are quizzed about how they were motivated to leave everything behind, and relocate to what had originally been a wasteland somewhere along the coast of Tamil Nadu in the South of the subcontinent.
A8. Quite noticeable is the influence of France and the French language, as well as a certain quixotic tradition of French ideas, not only evident in the names and accents of the contributors to the film, for the very name ‘Auroville’ quite obviously denotes the dawn, i.e. ‘aurore’ in French. Therefore this experimental settlement, or ‘city of the dawn’, is really meant to represent an auspicious beginning to something completely new, a world where there are no borders, no nations, no religion, on politics - no, there would only be a new faith of super-consciousness and a complementary modus vivendi resulting in universal peace. (I don’t think it’s necessary for me to belabour the obvious cultural codes invoked here, e.g. for the sake of comparison, John Lennon’s famous hit, “Imagine”, equally utopian, and dating roughly from the same founding period as Auroville).
A9. The important thing to point out is that those who share their reasons for preferring Auroville, especially to life in the West, is a vaguely expressed boredom or discontent with ‘consumerism’, ‘power’, ‘money’ and ‘capitalism’. It’s also necessary to point out that although these words are used in the context of people’s motivations for opting for life in the township, these arguments are disappointingly nebulous and unconvincing.
A10. Money doesn’t exist in the township. Once you’re accepted into the community, you receive ‘maintenance’, effectively only a few Euros. Yet, theoretically, enough to survive on in a dispensation for which ‘communism’ is offered as the relevant term, although qualified as being something they don’t really want, but a necessity so as to provide for the needs of everyone. That's it. No debate. There doesn't seem to be too many alternatives uppermost in the minds of the movers and shakers at Auroville.
A11. Although inhabitants do not all aim to be religious or spiritual, the centerpiece of the beautifully landscaped estate does make it clear that all activities are intended (so The Mother said!) to be centred on finding a new consciousness together. In Auroville, all roads lead to the Matrimandir, a spherical golden dome where people gather, for instance mostly during the evening, in order to take stock of their lives, and to search for the elusive new consciousness. It’s in this way that things start to come together – or rather, as I will point out, how the existential presuppositions of this experiment in alternative living seem to point to failure.
B. ‘Auroville: The Indian Paradise of Human Unity’ (2010): Documentary as guide to discussion of the social-experimental township:
B1. As one views ‘Auroville: The Indian Paradise of Human Unity’ (2010), the most sobering impression is provided by the stark contrast between three identifiable perspectives that compete with one another for primacy in terms of arriving at a balanced evaluation of this idealistic project. The first perspective is that of the vision that informs the project, consisting of, for instance, the founders’ hybrid Hinduist-Theosophical philosophy. This perspective needs to be pieced together by carefully considering what’s known about the views of the founder and her circle, statements released through publicity, as well as long-term inhabitants with guiding roles (e.g. farm managers), and the ‘interpretation’ of the township’s role, especially by intellectuals like Jean-Yves, the economics teacher. Importantly, what he articulates may be termed an economic psychology entirely consistent with communist sentiments, undeniably: economic relationships are determined by abandoning the idea of possessing; people need to give up on the notion of ownership; and inhabitants should seek to give of themselves.
B2. Then there’s the second perspective of the ordinary, mostly European/Western inhabitants, people who consciously removed themselves from elsewhere in order to settle in Auroville, and in some way or another decided to accommodate themselves with the vision as expressed in the first perspective. Yet, more importantly, there’s a third perspective that actually gains on both the aforementioned ones: The third one, that of the locals, the Indians that may have joined Auroville in some way or another from the surrounding towns and villages, mostly as labourers. It is this perspective that’s clearly consonant, most of all, with the dawning of entrepreneurial contemporary India - taking off everywhere, that I allude to in the title.
B3. By moving more or less chronologically through the film, however selectively (and with regular digressions to alternative sources for necessary elucidation, on second viewing), it may be clearly seen how outdated the thinking has become that originally underpinned Auroville. By that score, it would also have to extend to the thought or ideological derivatives that best represent it in our present age. Some of these perspectives can actually be nominated here: the theories and ideologies of the contemporary (so-called) social ‘sciences’, but also in many other areas of academia; socialist paradigms informing Left-wing political parties and organisations; and activist organisations, supra-national bodies and NGOs, including agencies of the UN (like UNESCO).
B4. I can’t imagine that motivations mooted (at the outset of the documentary, especially) such as ‘The West isn’t exciting anymore’ and ‘there isn’t anything new to it’ could serve as valid reasons for abandoning your profession and country. One thing that does become clear, is that those who prefer living à la Auroville, are prepared to put up with uncertainty, confusion, weak leadership/management, and a lack of direction, more than most other people would. This is a refrain throughout the short documentary.
B5. Disappointingly, some kind of unfulfilled agrarian, utopian vision seems to have informed what “The Mother” (imagine the child-like naiveté!) had planned for the township. Predictably, the pioneers of the settlement wanted to achieve a “radically alternative way of life”, at first by means of a reforestation programme. (At least that creates a bit of atmosphere!)
B6. More to the point, though, any undertaking like this needs to be able to support itself. And it’s in this area, i.e. the issue as to the ability, or its expressly opposite negative, that we approach any insights that are worth taking with us … before we return to the energy and vibrancy of Modi-inspired capitalist India (Modi, by the way, has paid homage to Sri Aurobindo [spiritual co-founder] as a spiritual visionary, but as far as economic savvy is concerned, the two men couldn’t be farther removed from each other).
B7. Alarmingly, we’re told that when the settlement was founded, there was general scarcity and a need to produce food, as quickly as this could be arranged. Yet, in spite of a long history of generous donations and subsidies from the Indian government (particularly the socially-minded Gandhis), not to mention ‘moral support’ by UNESCO, the pedantically and organically correct farming pursued at Auroville had never really been a success.
B8. In fact, what we learn later is that only in more recent years with the advent of commercial farming, supplying produce to the outside world, had agricultural food production become something of a success. One of the great ironies of the township is that fifty years after its founding, it’s still not in any way self-sufficient. Not only economically, but in terms of daily necessities. Case in point, perturbingly, is that the communal cafeteria on which 50% (of the regular inhabitants) depend for daily victuals, has to in turn rely on the commercial ‘biochemical’ Indian agriculture sector, ‘out there’, somewhere in the real world of contemporary India with 1.2 billion + hungry mouths to feed … and it seems those in Hippie elitist Auroville as well.
B9. There is a point in the documentary, reached when the ‘romanticism’ of working on the land is discussed, and strenuous physical labour acknowledged to be too hard for newcomers, when a strong counter-narrative starts to kick in, and eventually gets the overhand, in support of the third perspective consisting mostly of those everyday Indian voices, I believe, conveying the ultimate challenge to the unreality of Auroville:
B10. Beyond the neglected, underfunded and unpopular majority farming lands in the community, are the ‘invisible borders’ between doe-eyed Auroville, and the farms and villages of the local Tamil population.
B11. Now, not only striking contrastive impressions, but facts start to pile up, in support of reaching certain very unflattering conclusions: 4000 (other sources, 5000+) locals migrate daily into Auroville to sell their sweat and labour there. We are also told that the alternative township thereby benefits from a willing supply of 'cheap labour'. A few more revelations like this takes us deeper into the actual economic dynamics of the UNESCO-supported social venture.
B12. The reason why it has been able to overcome a very real history of underdevelopment and failure, particularly in the late 1970s, is that like the rest Asia, Auroville is benefiting from the free enterprise revolution. Tourism, as in many other places, is becoming ‘big business’ in the region, and the New Age settlement attracts a lot of this to itself, clearly because it is so strange. As a local Tamil lady explains, because of the tourism, her business “is doing better and better”, and she doesn’t complain, whatever Auroville’s inhabitants may think of this brazen devotion to commercialism.
B13. Yet, the availability of plentiful cheap local labour and strong demand for it, doesn’t mean peaceful coexistence at all. Inhabitants of Auroville admit that relations are not always “perfect”. That almost appears like a deliberate understatement. For a fuller impression of these strained relations, one really needs to spend some time watching a few of the other videos that are available on platforms like Youtube. (Apart, that is, from reading the many interesting and revealing snippets of reportage produced over the years for an array of local and international newspapers and magazines).
B14. Even local Indian Aurovillians, i.e. those with their roots in the immediate surrounding community, overwhelmingly distance themselves from the high-minded idealism at the core of the township’s philosophy, expressing more interest in satisfying immediate existential needs like reliable employment and business opportunities that can contribute to growth. Who can blame them?
B15. Nobody can deny that the philosophy at the heart of Auroville is a really outré one. With a strong interest in linguistics, I’ve already naturally said something briefly about the etymology of the name, above. It should not be forgotten, though, that the name of the township also recalls that of spiritual co-founder Sri Aurobindo, sometime companion of ‘The Mother’. (Although not necessarily a criticism of Mirra Alfassa per se, as social researcher I have a duty to remind you here that many radical or extreme organisations, like cults, exploit familiar family structures and terms for more effective control over their devotees/adherents).
B16. I know this presupposes quite a lot of background about cultural philosophy and the modern history of religions, but to encapsulate, ‘Aurobindoist’ thought is partly a scion of Theosophy, the late 19th century spiritualist vogue created by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, and later melded together with the Indian nationalist/independence movement represented by Annie Besant. It’s not too much to say that this (specifically the Blavatskyan spiritualism – think William Butler Yeats and automatic writing, etc.) aspect of the project is potentially its most controversial, and can’t be expected to invite much understanding in the searing bright light of our rationalist contemporary civilisation.
B17. With one of its earliest objectives being small daily experiments in alternative ways of living, Auroville’s CSR (Centre for Scientific Research) is presumably where something worthwhile may appear, hurtling us toward a feasible future utopia. It has to be said, then, that to hear that these experiments encompass alternative energies, is hardly encouraging. It happens everywhere nowadays, for the simple reason that even people like myself who prefer fossil to green energy, know that fossil resources won’t last forever. Using battery-stored cycle energy to power a fridge is hardly a novel concept, it’s the kind of science project most high schools today would adjudge grade nine-ish.
B18. However romantic, it is consequently a major let down to also hear about the water (bio-)dynamisation effort. Some of this makes sense. Water when in a natural environment, does indeed flow through spirals, waterfalls and vortexes as part of a purification process. However, playing Beethoven to water as part of the process as it meanders through artificial plastic substitute-vortexes in a semi-outdoor lab, is hardly going to rewrite how we see the future of humanity. Invariably, you can’t help thinking how that outré spiritualism in the background has played a role in this. (It must be added, though, that the composer of the Ode to Joy would probably be impressed that the dynamised water is shipped to Tibetan refugees per donation).
C1. Interestingly, the voice-over (provided by Charlie Onions) in ‘Auroville: The Indian Paradise of Human Unity’ isn’t by any means neutral. Something of an opinion about Auroville’s story, as related, is expressed near the end, when the voice-over bemoans the contemporary ‘imperceptibility’ of the objective of human unity that informed the township from the outset. It seems to be ‘buried in the jungle’. In one sense, this may refer to the almost complete absence of perceptible spirituality in the community, but more likely, on the other, to the fact that there isn’t actually one, unifying level of perception, or shared perspective, that can unite the many real-life participants in Auroville’s daily existence, thereby giving it a chance to succeed on its own terms. The three perspectives of what Auroville constitutes, as identified and explained above, don’t seem to converge at all.
C2. I think the fact that Tamil villagers come close to expressing something like a feeling of being exploited in their role as labourers, unfortunately but unavoidbly, underscores the fact that like so many other forms of utopian spiritual Marxism, the way in which economic reality works makes it impossible to function without the familiar set of factors that the rest of us inescapably work with: property or material that are not free; capital or substitutes for this; organisation of work; other resources, like time; the unfolding of history (decidedly not like Marx imagined it); dynamic environmental factors, etc.
C3. It may help to recall at this point what I stated above, namely that there is a momentum contrary to the expectations we may normally have when we watch an experimental community documentary genre like this. There is something like an irresistible critique of the community and how it functions, and this gains traction. The critique needn’t be constituted explicitly, because the facts speak for themselves. ‘The Mother’s’ (that naivite again!) vision of a society free from political, social, religious and hierarchical barriers, mentioned in the introduction, invites to be tested. What emerges is of course anything but manifestations of the aforegoing ideals. Those who really run Auroville are invisible, hiding behind a phenomenal bureaucracy, extending al the way to an International Advisory Council. It’s society, like any other, is very stratified, locked into a three-tier governing system that virtually predicates a form of ‘existential stasis’ to the role of ordinary inhabitants. There is a cumbersome and protracted joining period for those who are selected from among the trickle of applicants. Auroville's organisation is tied down by the multi-tiered organogram created after the Indian government intervened in the period after Mirra Alfassa’s death to save the experiment from destroying itself, etc. (See the Organization and Governance pages of the official website for more details on these aspects, but remember to take you research beyond this for the full story, and background to it: http://www.auroville.org/categories/13?).
C4. The omission of basic democratic principles and procedures exacerbates the difficulty of the making of, and arriving at, decisions. Consensus - a concept promoted by many of the most vociferous self-appointed experts in areas of alternative wisdom, in Western democratic societies, many of whom are critical of so-called (‘Neo’-) liberal democracy - doesn’t seem to work, in spite of decades to prove its vaunted value. In the case of social experiments, that’s exactly what they’re supposed to do, i.e. test procedures like different forms of consensus-building. The voice-over reveals that there is something (the imagery of which is ‘vegetative’, applicably enough) unconvincing in this area especially at Auroville. Because there is a consensus principle at work, there has been directionless ‘organic growth’ rather than continuous progress. Something that we take for granted in democratic societies, i.e. the right to have your say, becomes impractical when everyone must have their say all their time. (Our practical democratic arrangement of choosing well-informed spokesmen representing different points of view, allowed to compete for finality, may provide a solution). We are told in no uncertain terms (once again the voice-over) that consensus doesn’t work at assemblies, and is echoed and elaborated on by other members of the community during the documentary. Simply put, the essence of Auroville is its lack of democracy, the underlying cause of many of its problems. As pointed out elsewhere, it turns out to be far more hierarchical and bureaucratic than its founder could have foreseen, inspired by a nebulous maternal vision as she was, undermining it efforts at development over many decades.
C5. The Serpent in the Garden:
Although I have consciously eschewed referring to sensationalist reportage thus far in this at best introductory evaluation of Auroville (as the original abstract ideal and theory), the community (as it is, the ‘ding-an-sich’, 2010-), and Auroville-ism (representative of a range of socio-political theories and ideologies in our time), as well as the mentality or ideology associated with undertakings like it, it is unavoidable to mention other ways in which the proposed ‘paradise on earth’ of the experiment has been challenged over the years. Auroville, and other undertakings like it, can’t escape the problems that occur in everyday life or social interactions. In 1978, as mentioned in the documentary, the community reached an economic nadir in its existence. Yet, intervention by the Indian government, which effectively took over through the Auroville Emergency Provision Act in 1980, was necessitated after there was a breakdown in relations between the society and ordinary residents on the scene. Mirra Alfassa passed away in 1973, and for almost two decades, there was an existential emergency until the establishment of the Auroville Foundation in the late 80s. These multi-layered, bureaucratic and hierarchical layers are what informs, till the present, Auroville’s stasis, contributing to its lack of direction, and day-to-day ineffective governance. Furthermore, if you have taken time to browse the pages of e.g. the Auroville Radio website online, you may have encountered some reference to ‘Child Protection Services’. These have been instituted following allegations made in reporting by the BBC that pedophilia is ‘tolerated’ in the community, specifically regarding a school established for local village children. In all fairness, Auroville has a right to explain itself, thus it should be mentioned that publication of allegations by the BBC resulted in a vigorous dispute between it and the community. The British public broadcaster maintained its position throughout proceedings, and the original report and related video report can still be found online (See the Reference section). As remarked already, the perennial problems besetting human relations also impinge from without, for example when Tamil villagers enter the spiritualist safe space. A few years ago, two of these from the surrounding villages have been cast as perpetrator and victim in at least one incident (reported in The Hindu) of alleged sexual assault.
Indeed, Auroville isn’t paradise by any means, nor can it insulate itself from the problems of the world without. Clearly, something else has happened in the decades since the inception of this unique socio-economic experiment in the late 60s, regardless of what you may think of the original intentions:
Instead of Auroville establishing and positioning itself as a model of a future to come, proffering a cornucopia of solutions that we can pick from, the future has caught up with it. History is unfolding as an irresistible march towards global nationalist entrepreneurialism, not globalist socialism or internationalism, and its inescapable force has absorped utopia, as manifested so very imperfectly in the case of Auroville, turned it on its head, and transformed it internally, as well as externally:
Ironically, Capitalist India, personified in the person of its own very idiosyncratic identity by Narendra Modi, is now pragmatically, spiritually and ideologically 'The Father' to Auroville. Unlike Mr. Modi’s gracious voluntary homage to the spiritual idealism of Sri Aurobindo, Auroville (and Auroville-isms elsewhere) must involuntarily make large concessions to Mr. Modi’s worldview if it hopes to survive.
About the Author:
Carl J. Kieck is an Independent Social and Educational Researcher, primarily, and is currently involved in several long-term research projects. He is originally from South Africa, yet because he finds it stimulating to develop new insights, undertakes work internationally in primary, secondary and tertiary education as a part-time teacher and lecturer. He can be contacted in the following ways: Professional research & consultancy website: www.carlkieck.com ; Informally, for social media commentary and social networking: Gab.ai: @CarlKieck ; Professionally, and for professional networking purposes, via LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/carl-kieck-research-services-a544b4139/
(Only selected, direct & immediate…) References (& Sources):
Anon. (2016) ‘12-year-old-girl Sexually abused at Auroville’, The Hindu [online]
Anon. (2008) ‘Local concerns over Indian Utopia’ [online]
Available at: http://www.aurovilleradio.org/
Auroville: The City of Dawn
Available at: http://www.auroville.org/
Auroville: The Indian Paradise of Human Unity. 2010. Video. USA: Journeyman Pictures/Dancing Dog Productions. [online]
Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sbQkXASZIug
Mendez, Chelsea. Auroville: The Utopia Next Door Chelsea Mendez [online]
Available at: http://www.off-grid.net/auroville-utopia-next-door/