Roger Toll left Auroville in 1979 after eight years of living both at the Matrimandir Workers Camp and at Certitude. Today he is a journalist and writer living in the United States. He visited Auroville in late December-early January. Auroville Today asked him for his impressions
You may physically leave Auroville, but it stays in your soul as indelibly as the red earth that colors the feet of Aurovilians. I return from time to time, every five years or so, and take mental snapshots of the town, like time-lapse photographs. While Auroville seems the same at a soul level, in terms of its development it seems very different each time I visit, like seeing a person only periodically through his life. Perhaps it's easier to notice Auroville's changes and growth when you only visit occasionally and distance offers a different perspective.
For example, I find Auroville remarkably changed from five years ago, as though something has opened up to allow energy to flow into previously closed corners of its body. I have the impression, perhaps for the first time, that love is now an active, rather than sub-surface, force. I'm not talking about that divine love at the heart of Auroville, put there by the Mother herself. That was always there. No, this feels new, as if Aurovilians have finally left their contentious past behind and accepted to love, really love, their brothers and sisters. People no longer seem enclosed in their own little boxes, with their high walls and a label pasted on the side.
Five years ago, Auroville was burdened by serious challenges, angry tensions and bottled-up energies. There was encroachment on Auroville lands by outside interests, criminal activity imported from the outside etc. Internally, the community was being ripped apart by tensions in and around the Matrimandir and elsewhere. Five years later, it is hard to find any deep, serious tension. There is more humour, more smiling, a tolerant awareness that the daily resolution of issues is merely part of the process of growing. It all feels more mature, more realizable.
Perhaps it was the change of administration at the Matrimandir, the soul of Auroville, that freed the energies of Auroville and made room for more joy, openness and tolerance. Maybe, too, it is the mellowing of Auroville's pioneering 60s-generation that, disgusted with a world gone very wrong in that tumultuous decade, brought its grievances, radicalism and passions and planted them, along with the trees, in Auroville's soil. It is a generation that struggled to dismantle the ideological walls that suffocated it, but in the process brought in a certain closed-mindedness that may have been, in retrospect, equally confining. I sense this time that these ideologies, this fervid clinging to positions, may be drifting away, like detritus after a storm.
I had a powerful revelation this visit. Auroville is the sum total of ALL of its components, they are ALL necessary, and they are all part of that difficult grinding, grating and wearing down that is the necessary process for Auroville to become the site of a real human unity, the town's most immediate goal. So it's not a matter of good or bad Aurovilians. Auroville is not an ashram of would-be saints, but a laboratory full of specimens of the whole world. Recent arrivals are as important as the old-timers, complainers as much as those who quietly get on with their work, architects of the baroque as much as architects of zen-like simplicity, highly educated Indians steeped in millennia-old teachings as much as raw, rugged Westerners. As Auroville grows, it becomes more complex, but there is a growing tolerance that allows for this complexity and diversity to be integrated.
In the end, Auroville's success will not be measured by how many “pukka” buildings are erected or how many residents there are. The more urgent measure of success is the accumulation of the slow, certain changes that happen in each individual, and thereby in the collective. What a long process it is! Never before has a large, rag-tag assortment of beings, a sampling from the world's nations and cultures, been thrown together and offered a mission of such vast, transformational proportions. What delighted me during this visit is that Auroville seems to have a new thrust of growth and a hope of prosperity precisely because its people are growing.
I know that some old Aurovilians say how much better it was when Mother was alive, how ordinary it seems today, more like the world outside. When Mother was alive, I awoke daily asking whether her body had been transformed during the night. It was that close, that possible. When it didn't happen, I fell back on Sri Aurobindo's comment that the transformation might well take a thousand years, but it WOULD happen. It changed my perspective from the moment to the millennial, from this life to the cycle of lives. That's how I feel about Auroville. It's a laboratory of evolution, but evolution is slow, even with the Supramental manifested. People change slowly, even when sincerely doing the yoga. Auroville is changing about as fast as its constituent parts – the Aurovilians themselves – are changing. At the same time, Aurovilians have changed and grown enormously in 30 years, far faster I suspect than would have been possible outside Auroville. And these changes seem to be deep and permanent. That sounds like real evolution.
The world has changed from what it was 30 years ago. It is very small now, so it is hard to be an island, and there are interesting developments that Auroville needs to be a part of. I think Auroville can benefit from breathing in and breathing out. It can learn from new people who come, who have experience as practitioners or builders or thinkers, unlike we early arrivals who were young, starry-eyed amateurs. While Auroville learns from the world, it can also teach the world and serve as an example of how to live better, more consciously, more communally, more self-sustainably.
Still, there are plenty of challenges, which is natural in such an ambitious undertaking. The difficulties are what force us to go beyond ourselves; they are the engine of our change. Among the more serious problems, it seems to me, are issues of internal governance, which today is too weak and unstructured; inequality of financial resources among Aurovilians; cultural tensions between South Indian, North Indian and Westerner; the integration of Tamil villagers as Aurovilians; and the precarious position of foreigners in the face of visa renewals. Obviously, the economy is not in line with Auroville's ideals. Are people sufficiently aware of Sri Aurobindo's and Mother's teachings? And the restrictions on freedom of expression and a tendency to self-censorship are a serious, seditious threat to the health of the community.
But these can be worked out over time, through maturity, goodwill and tolerance. The important change that I have seen this time is that Auroville now is able to move forward dynamically since there seems to be a richer unity than ever, a unity based on love and common purpose, beyond labels, divisions and walls.