Nineteen years ago, Auroville Today brought together some long-term Aurovilians to recall the past and to share their thoughts about Auroville's future. At the beginning of Auroville's fortieth year we once again invited Aurovilians who met Mother and who have lived for many years in the community to look back, look forward.
A view of the neighbourhood from inside an Aspiration hut.
The early years
Auroville Today: What was it like in the early years of Auroville when Mother was still in her body?
Francis: We knew at that moment we were having a fantastic, phenomenal experience. There was this great energy everybody was living off and you just wanted to give, to create this something that was much larger than you as an individual.
That energy came through your contact with the Mother? Or was it something in the air?
Francis: For me personally it came through my contact with Mother, but collectively it was just in the air. Everybody was drinking up the nectar and everybody was doing what they could do to enrich Auroville. It was an extremely beautiful experience.
I remember one time climbing down from the Matrimandir to speak to a reporter from the Washington Post. ‘Why are you here?' he asked. I said, ‘Because it's the most exciting place on the planet'. He looked around, and there was absolutely nothing. Then he looked at me as if, well…!
Rathinam: That magic was definitely present. Just the physical Auroville, going on horseback to Matrimandir through the fields, eating at Center Kitchen, it was something wonderful. We kids felt so safe, we never wondered for a moment where we were going to have our next meal or where we were going to sleep that night.
How easy was it to contact Mother?
Frederick : In those days there were many lines of communication to Mother. There was Roger, Maggi, Shyamsunder. While we weren't always aware of her presence on a deeper level, all of our actions were referred to her. She told us it's good that you sit down and try to find out what my will is, but before you implement something better check up with me that you got it correct!
Gerard: When I met Mother it was the first time I met someone real. She was so present, she had so much strength. It was a different sense of reality, another ‘geography'. Meeting her was a beautiful shock. Everything seemed possible when she was there.
Those possibilities included the transformation of the body?
Francis: Yes. We just dedicated ourselves to doing the work and she was doing our yoga. I had absolutely no doubt that both the building of Auroville and the transformation of the body was going to happen in 20 years.
So what did it mean when Mother passed away?
Francis: Shock. It was hard to catch up to the reality of the situation. I couldn't believe she would do that to me(laughing)! After all, I was being trained for transformation, I was already thinking about how I could profit from the transformation!
You never had any doubt that Mother would transform her body?
Francis: Her secretaries told us she was in the process of transforming the cells. I just automatically accepted it. So in the spring of 1973, when her health started to deteriorate, I didn't want to hear about it.
Gerard: Her passing was a big shock, we never understood.
Frederick : We never entertained the thought that she would die. You have to realize that I first met her in 1960 when she was so much more accessible, and subsequently I saw her often. She was more than just a physical Mother, I was in love with that person. I remember seeing her on the morning she passed away, laid out in the meditation room, and a big vacuum opened up in me. What Satprem experienced on that same day, the pulsations of love, the feeling that nothing could stop her work – I never had that. And the statements from the Ashram glossing over what happened, I could never quite believe in them.
I felt she had left. And I haven't yet accepted it on a very emotional, physical level. But I'm very reluctant to call this all back because a few years ago I felt I had to drop this whole memory as it was just dragging me down.
So what did you all think when Mother passed away? That it's all over, that Auroville is finished?
Gerard: No. At this time we were so much involved in the Matrimandir and it felt like we were going somewhere, it wasn't fixed in one place. We felt we were on a huge ship and we were going somewhere.
Francis: Just after she left her body, I went to the Matrimandir and I felt the energy there. I was so happy that I had found it. Matrimandir was something I could grasp and proceed with after Mother's passing. We were putting in eight or ten hour days, six or seven days a week, joyously, we had a fantastic time.
Frederick : I agree that originally there seemed to be a different time-scheme scheme for Auroville. Everything was going be completed in 15-20 years. But somehow we took a longer route. I think Mother herself didn't know when this adventure began how long it would take, or whether she would remain in her body.
When she left, Auroville took a different road. The fighting started with the Sri Aurobindo Society, and that whole thing took so much time.
Dance class in progress at Last School.
Looking back, was it a kind of ultimate struggle for Auroville's continued existence, or were the motivations more personalised?
Gerard: With Mother there were no rules but with the Society the rules started. They wanted to throw people out, control our visas, they were crushing something. We felt they wanted to destroy the dream, the experiment, to cover it over. It was unreal and Mother was so real. We wanted that something else. That's what we were fighting for.
Frederick : I don't think one should overglorify the struggle. If we could have had a larger vision and stepped over our sense of what was right and wrong… For me, it started when Amrit was asked to submit to the dictates of the Society and we started a signature campaign against this. And I recall my feeling that, ‘I will get you Nava for that, [Navajata was the Chairman of the Sri Aurobindo Society] I'll fight this one through.' It was very personal, there was a lot of ego involved.
Francis: There was lots of stupidity. Just as we were totally enriched by Mother's Force, I feel that at that time another Force got its head in the door – a Force of greed, of doubt, of fear, whatever – and we were just banged along. I also was Joan of Arc running down the street waving a flag, I also was one of Mother's warriors. I loved it! But today I see that all of us were just being swept along, reacting to whatever was in the air at the time. And I don't think there was anyone conscious enough to put the brakes on. So it just ran on.
How was it for the kids to be in Auroville at that time?
Rathinam: Really confusing. We didn't know what to do except follow the crowd. Always there was something happening, we went to all the meetings, we were there in the midst but nobody really explained it all to us. One thing was sure, though, we looked on the Society as our enemies.
Definitely, we were affected by the tension. Our parents were very worried about us and wanted us to come back to the village. But most of the time we stayed in Auroville. You see, there was also some kind of joy to be in that movement and we wanted to be part of that.
Gerard: It was very intense. Aurovilians were being put in jail, they were being beaten up at their workplace. So when somebody was in danger you didn't think about it: you just went there and did what had to be done.
The Government comes in
In 1980 the Government passed an Act which put Auroville into government administration for five years. This seemed to usher in a more settled period.
Frederick : Our first administrator, Mr Nigam, had a calming and healing effect, particularly with the Indians because the conflict with the Society was a very Western European thing. There was a period of growth, of development, of lots of new things.
But the struggle continued between the Aurovilians themselves.
Frederick: In the conflict there were three groups basically – the ‘Satpremians' or whatever you wanted to call us, the ‘neutrals' who were Aurovilians who disagreed with our stand, and the Society. I think it's true to say that a certain momentum was created when we won the court case. The winning group bullied the others. It wasn't a very glorious time.
Gerard: But some Aurovilians were saying Auroville is a religion. We had to fight this.
Frederick : You have to remember that the Society problem was not solved until 1988. In the meantime, some Aurovilians sympathetic to them were going to Delhi and were quoted as saying that we were just a few dissidents and that we were anti-Indian. Then these Aurovilians would come back and we would meet them on the road. You met your opponents on the road, so of course you asked them, ‘How can you say that?'
No dialogue was possible?
Frederick : There were some attempts; later there was some integration. But I think even now some of that group are carrying ill-feelings. We had a meeting in Verite a few years ago where it came out very strongly. It's not been settled.
Ananda Reddy declaring time-out from a game of basketball. Aspiration school behind.
Auroville becomes a Foundation
In 1988 the Foundation Act was passed. I remember Alain, Frederick and Krishna coming back from Delhi and saying that they'd had an extraordinarily high experience. But soon the doubts began to be voiced.
Frederick : The underlying accusation was that we had called in the government rather than keeping it in the family, and that would mean the end of Mother's Dream. Actually, at the time we felt that the Foundation Act was a temporary measure. Also, I don't think I was ever given the full implication of the Act. I was told we were creating an autonomous organization; I understood the actual decision-making would remain with the Aurovilians. Maybe that was so at the time, but over the last 20 years we have seen a growing encroachment of the Foundation authorities into our activities. When I look at the Foundation now and how the Act is being practised, I don't recognise what we created then.
Francis: I was always amazed that the Foundation didn't interfere for so long. It's only been in the past five years that the Foundation interference has been very strong. Before that we had lots of opportunities to do something and we failed miserably. We quibbled, we bickered among ourselves, and we continue to do so. There is nobody to blame but ourselves for today's situation.
Frederick : True, when it was convenient to call in the Foundation authorities – when we wanted to change the management at Matrimandir, for example – we did so. For short-term convenience we may have opened the door to much greater Foundation involvement.
Francis: That was definitely the turning-point.
Rathinam: But even before that, when our first Secretary brought in an Order giving him the power to remove unit executives, we had the possibility to resist and we didn't. We've had our chances – our next secretary, Mr. Bala Baskar, was open to anything, Kireet was supportive, even the present chairman says Auroville is not a government institution.
The same consequences
Abha: But that is not always how the Secretary acts, and he's the one who's sitting here. We are facing the same consequences now as when we were fighting the Society. Maybe those Society people were impossible people, but still they were Mother's disciples. Now we are facing a machinery which will squash us if it continues in the way it is going. Is that original separation between Auroville and the Society at the root of everything?
Gerard: I read that passage recently where Mother says the realisation of Auroville does not depend on human beings. She said nothing, nothing, depends on human beings, that Auroville will be built by forces we cannot see. I feel the only way today is not to look back to the past or to worry about the Foundation – I'm not afraid of the Foundation or the government because Auroville is Her's.
I think each one of us has to find a way through to something else. We have to give up all our ideas about how we should organize Auroville. We have to surrender completely, to become nothing, and then, as Satprem describes it in On the Way to Supermanhood, we go through, we enter this other space where each person discovers his or her own place and work. When we are there, the true way of being together will manifest.
This is why some long-term Aurovilians have stepped back from the collective life. They are trying to learn how to do this. It is not easy, it takes great courage, but it is the only solution. Auroville is not a failure. It's just we are at a point where we are being asked to give up more and more.
Abha: But we are talking two different levels now. You are talking about the inner level, and there I agree with you, but there is also the external level. At that level, things are getting more and more entrenched, the stone is beginning to run downhill.
Frederick : Unless we make a concerted effort to foster those things which bring us together and not dwell too long on those which divide us, it will be very grave. That's why I think many people want to put their energies into things which bring us together.
But when it comes to doing things collectively, we often fall apart. Why?
Francis: Individually we can all tap into a higher nature or our creative nature, but it seems when we have to work together the negative aspect of our beings comes to the forefront.
Take me. In 2000 I dropped out of everything and for five years did my own thing, and I actually believed that I had made a step. But the only way to test this was to go back into the arena. So I went back and volunteered to join the land group. Wow, did I fail miserably! I didn't see any step at all!
Rathinam: We need to get the next generation to come into the centre, to take up work for the community.
Francis: But where is this next generation? This is where they were born, where they grew up, where they have families now. We're getting old and tired, we don't have the stamina to go on any more. So where is the next generation when they're so badly needed?
Abha: It's to do with how we educate our kids. We are training them to study for exams and qualifications and to go out, so that's where they are going.
Francis: But some do come back. And then they try to find a quiet little niche where they're not disturbed.
But there's another element now. The Tamil Aurovilians want an even playing field. According to them Auroville is not an even playing field now, particularly in material terms, and their dissatisfaction is causing a lot of disruption. Until they proceed to the next level of growth or satisfaction, I don't see a possibility of us coming together as a larger collective.
Gerard: Everywhere you look in Auroville today, it's crazy. But if I look too much at the surface of things, I may lose my way: the only thing I can do is to offer it to Her. That allows me to stay, to continue to do what I have to do.
The fire has to return
Abha: Two years ago when Claude [her husband] had his heart attack it was very moving because suddenly everyone was there. But it takes an extreme situation of almost losing someone before people wake up and say, ‘You're important for us'. We don't take the time to be with each other, to appreciate each other.
When we came to Auroville in 1978 we were taken around, we met all the old Aurovilians and we heard their experiences of what happened with Mother. This inspired us. If only newcomers today could be touched in that fashion. The fire has to come back to our everyday lives….
Frederick : I think Auroville Today could play a much more important role here. It's the only published voice of Auroville but it's not doing its job at all. It is descriptive, entertaining, flat. If it were really the voice of a community on fire it would show much more courage and guts and daring. It could actually be a fiery voice calling for something which could take us into the future.
Francis: Recently someone told me, ‘Faith begins where trust ends'. Well, right now I am having difficulty maintaining the faith. Individually I will always be thankful for being allowed to stay here and have my experiences and my friends, but collectively I no longer see it. I don't see the next generation coming through, I see the government walking in, and meanwhile we're all becoming middle-class and mediocre.
Look at The Theosophical Society in Chennai. That was a vibrant, happening place at the turn of the 20th century. Now it's dead. That's my fear for Auroville – that we become institutionalised, that we die off, and the next generation walks in and decides it's just a nice place to live. And the whole concept is lost.
As Abha said, it's going to take a heart attack to bring us together, or a tsunami directly on our heads. Otherwise we are going to slumber away for eternity. Or until the monster machine comes through the door and takes over completely.
A way forward?
Frederick : Let's look at arresting this sliding stone. I believe we can work on a vision where we don't ask the government to get lost, that would not be the way. But I think if we were to approach the right people in the right way the government could agree to step back. If a receptacle is created which is accountable, transparent and which, perhaps, could comprise all those who have been excluded over the years, including the Society and the Ashram, as well as well-known people in public life, I think the government could be made to see it is in their own interests to hand it over. This is something that India could do in its grace for the world.
Over the years Auroville has had a number of charismatic authority figures. Yet all of them, to a greater or lesser extent, have polarised the community. Have we reached the point where we should stop looking for an external saviour of Auroville, whether it be an individual or the government?
Frederick : I am by nature a follower, a disciple-type. I gravitate towards people like Kireet, Tata, Satprem and Roger but I know it is something which retards me.
If I generalise from my personal experience, I feel Auroville is moving towards finding its own identity and not outsourcing it to x, y or z. Perhaps we are shifting from a person to another point of cohesion, the Matrimandir. I think the presence of the Matrimandir is becoming more and more powerfully felt and it may be crucial in helping us find our collective identity.
Francis: All I want to do is be on the Matrimandir when it takes off!
Frederick : But it's not going to take off, it's just made a secret touchdown!
All photos Dominique Darr - Circa Early 70s