Seven Aurovilians explore the effects of cultural conditioning to see if there are new ways of experiencing our diversity.
Shankar is the headmaster of New Creation School . Suryagandhi is an executive of the Auroville Dental Service. Both were born locally. Priya, who works for Auroville Today, was born in Pondicherry but studied and worked for 10 years in the U.S. , while Thulasi who works at Matrimandir is a Tamil from Sri Lanka . Bhavana, who originally came from the U.S. and Aurelio, who is Austrian, have worked closely with the villagers on various projects for many years. Alan, who also works for Auroville Today, comes from England .
Everybody is culturally-conditioned, says Doudou Diène. Does this include Aurovilians? And do Aurovilians from different cultures see things in different ways? “Definitely”, says Shankar. “In fact, the first big cultural shock I got was on the first day I went to teach in Last School and these young Western kids called me by my name. I was deeply shocked. In my culture, I was taught you never call anybody older by their name, and teachers were always ‘Sir'. Although the students were doing nothing wrong, I was ready to leave the job because they were showing no respect.”
“Another big shock came when I was late for an appointment with a Western Aurovilian . He shouted at me, ‘Shankar, you're stupid, you told me you would come at 9 and you came at 10'. I didn't understand, I was only one hour late, why was he so upset? And the way he spoke to me – a Tamil would never speak like that; it would be much more indirect. I felt this man had become my enemy, but the next week he talked to me as if nothing had happened. So I learned that his anger was just to do with that incident, it wasn't personal. But it takes time to understand this. When somebody on the Entry Group says to a Tamil Newcomer ‘I don't think you've understood Sri Aurobindo and Mother,' I'm sure they think, ‘This person doesn't like me.'”
But this is not just the reaction of locally-born people. Priya had a similar experience with the Entry Group. “They asked me, ‘Why are you here?'. It felt like a very brutal kind of question, as if they were saying ‘Why are you Indians coming here?' I immediately wanted to respond, ‘I'm educated, you can't ask me this'.”
Shankar points out that he is often misunderstood by Westerners. “They don't understand all the nuances of intonation or what we mean when we shake the head or say ‘seri'. ‘Seri' can mean many different things, like ‘maybe' and ‘I want to think about it', but Westerners usually interpret it as ‘yes'. In Tamil there is more space for ambiguity.”
The family and relationships
Are there other differences in perception between Westerners and Tamils? What, for example, about attitudes to the family? Most Westerners do not have their parents living with them. How is this perceived by the Tamil community? “For us,” says Suryagandhi, “the family is like a banyan tree held up by the new roots and there is an expectation that children will look after their parents when they grow older.” Thulasi recalls being asked by a village woman why she was staying in Auroville when her parents were living in Sri Lanka . “‘You have to look after them', she told me. It almost made me feel guilty, as if I should go back.” Priya notes, however, that some Indians consider that the Westerners must really love India if they give up even their families to come and live here.
Priya herself admits to being “very confused” concerning where she fits in. “I was brought up in Tamil Nadu but spent ten years in America . I'm neither Indian nor Western, I'm somewhere halfway, struggling with both roles. So when my mother decided to come and live in Auroville, there was this expectation that she would eat with me and everything. But this hasn't happened much because I want to retain my independence. So even if I fall sick I won't tell her, although if she is unwell I will definitely go and look after her.”
Then there is the issue of family loyalties and hierarchies. Shankar and Thulasi point out that they cannot call even elder members of their family by their names as that would be considered disrespectful. And while Suryagandhi asserts she has no problem in publicly disagreeing with her brothers-in-law if the occasion demands it, she seems to be an exception. Priya remembers from her days of living in Aspiration how the eldest Tamil brother is always deferred to by other members of his family.
Thulasi recalls that from childhood she rebelled – against her culture, her nationality, her religion, against marriage. “It was only when I came to Auroville that I found it easy to follow my own process and that was because of the distance between me and my family. So I wonder how easy it is for locally-born Aurovilians to really express themselves, to live out their full life here, when they know their family is looking on from the village next door.”
And relationships? In a recent workshop on cultural differences, an educated Indian said that he'd been brought up to believe that Western women are ‘free', available. No doubt this is reinforced by what is seen on Western television, but is there anything within Auroville culture which might support such a perception? Thulasi recalls an incident. Recently her partner, Wim, passed away. “When I told a Tamil lady who knew Wim what had happened she said, very gently, ‘Don't have a friendship with another man.' She seemed to think that the trend in Auroville was for people to move on, to always find someone else, and she didn't want me to be disloyal.”
Suryagandhi confirms that there's a perception in the village that Western Aurovilians change partners frequently. “This gives Auroville a bad reputation, certainly not a spiritual one. Then there's the situation at the beach. People come from all over at weekends to look at the Western women lying on the Auroville beach. The village elders ask, ‘Why do they do this? Why can't they cover themselves up a little?'”
“When I hear this I get so angry with Tamil culture,” says Priya, “because Tamil men have no problem in going to see movies which are very suggestive and where the woman is dancing semi-naked. There's a double-standard here, and it's not fair to put the blame on Westerners.”
Bhavana remembers that one of the biggest differences between Westerners and local people in the early days concerned their different ambitions and values. “A lot of the Westerners who came here were glutted with the superficiality and materialism of the West, they wanted to go back to the land and voluntary simplicity, whereas the villagers were aspiring to get out of poverty and to experience a more materialistic lifestyle. To a certain extent, we were going in opposite directions and this caused numerous misunderstandings.”
Disrespect for Tamil culture?
But is there a tendency in Auroville for Tamil culture to be seen not only as different but also as inferior? Priya believes there is. “What I find unacceptable is that in the schools Tamil is only the third or fourth language. It feels so insulting; it gives it almost the status of an outcaste culture.” She also notes how Western Aurovilians can be inadvertently culturally-insensitive. “A dear friend of mine once frankly expressed to me how I remind her of an ‘amma' whenever she sees me wearing a sari! And this is someone who has lived here for a long time.” “And how is it that after so many years most Westerners and north Indians cannot speak Tamil?” adds Suryagandhi.
Do the Tamils, then, feel discriminated against? On the whole, Suryagandhi feels not. But she remembers one incident. Her newcomer probation period was fixed as two years rather than the customary one year at that time because the Entry Group members believed that, as an unmarried Tamil woman, she might get married and be taken away by her husband to live somewhere else. “This wanting to watch me for two years made me mad. I'm an independent person, I make my own decisions and I was coming for Auroville, but they weren't looking at me as an individual. They definitely wouldn't have treated a Western woman in the same way.”
“One thing I've noticed, and it horrifies me,” says Bhavana, “is that responses to outer physical characteristics seem to go very deep. If brown-skinned people from the village have not done their work properly or stolen, I begin to have a prejudice, to see everybody who looks like them in the same way.” “But it's exactly the same for me,” says Priya. “If a Tamil comes to my house who I don't know I am immediately on my guard.”
Aurelio admits to having been in love with Tamil culture for many years, “but now I am going through a sobering phase. I've been in some very difficult situations with villagers in the past year and now I realize that as a reaction I have some prejudices. It's interesting because I always thought of myself as one of those Aurovilians who have deep understanding and solidarity with the local people, but now visiting Western students are reminding me that many of the problems I see are not to do with Tamils and their culture but are problems which can occur in any cross-cultural context in the world.
“So we shouldn't oversimplify. We have all these different layers of conditioning, of which culture is only one. I think we need to remember that our relationship to the local culture is often one of employer, and the problems associated with the employer/employee dynamic – which is the same everywhere – are definitely as strong as the cultural differences. Then again, I come from a working-class background with a strong socialistic influence, and I had a lot of problems when I first came to Auroville with what I perceived as the middle-class behaviour of some Western Aurovilians . So for me the class thing can be as strong as cultural differences. In fact, I first connected with the local Tamils very much on the level of class solidarity.”
Another way of seeing it
Bhavana is disturbed by simplistic explanations which reduce everything to dualities, to Western versus Tamil culture. “When Shankar was shocked by the plain-speaking, I've had exactly the same experience with French people in Auroville! So there are real differences within and between Western cultures too. And even in the villages there are all these different groupings all of which have different points of view. So I think that rather than focussing on differences between cultures, it makes more sense to look at the different levels of consciousness that exist within all cultures.”
Sri Aurobindo, she explains, said the Vedic seers identified four different layers or levels of consciousness which determine how one relates to one's society. The first layer is where your consciousness is limited to yourself and mere survival. In this layer you will do what you are told, you will need incentives not to go to sleep, and your values will be obedience, loyalty and hard work. The next layer is where the consciousness has widened a little so that communication is valued and there is awareness that if certain things are put together it will increase their value and the product can be traded. Here the ‘we' widens to include the whole clan, but the motivation is still quite selfish. The next, very thin layer comprehends the whole culture and tries to work out systems and laws so that the poor are protected and the strongest do not always have their way. Finally there's the thinnest, top layer which includes the teachers, priests, intellectuals and truth-seekers, whose role is to advise, guide and inspire.
“I find this is analysis very helpful because when I understand which layer an individual comes from it makes it much easier for me to understand what motivates them and, in my capacity as a social worker, to help them achieve the goals that are important for them. It's also important to realize that there's a lot of good about the level of social consciousness where there are clear laws laid down by the elders or by religion: for people who need security, laws bring great peace. Yet we also know that these laws can be stifling for those who aspire for something else. So we need to develop the subtlety of mind which sees this, which has compassion for those who need security as well as for the rebels who are going to break the conventions in order to find out who they really are.”
“If Auroville was a community, like one big family,” says Suryagandhi, “we could talk everything through and begin to understand our differences. But we're not yet there.” “I think dialogue is very important to increase awareness,” adds Aurelio, “because only through dialogue can there be a higher synthesis. At the same time, many Aurovilians seem to feel that they do not need to be concerned with issues like basic human rights and fairness because Auroville has gone beyond this, but they are wrong: we are merely suppressing issues. We need to be careful now because in the villages a situation is building up. The young people have changed, their values are derived from television now rather than the Mahabharata, they are more aggressive, and if we don't work with them on understanding our differences we will have to face cross-cultural situations similar to other places in the world.”
“I think what Sri Aurobindo and Mother are calling for," concludes Bhavana, "are people who understand and have compassion for the values of all the different levels in society while having an ongoing sense of evolution. That is the new consciousness that will make us into a true community.”