This paper was presented at the
National Seminar on
Indian Psychology: Theories and Models
December 26 - 28, 2007
Auroville: towards a spiritualized society based on Integral Yoga
Bindu Mohanty — California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco, USA
The paper seeks to present preliminary findings from a qualitative research project –an interpretive inquiry--that explores how spiritual ideals held by individuals inform the social psychology of Auroville. Based on the spiritual vision of the sage-philosopher, Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950), Auroville, located in Tamil Nadu, is a growing international town of 1,800 people from over forty countries. Founded in 1968 by Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual collaborator, the Mother (1878-1973), Auroville seeks to aid the spiritual evolution of the earth by manifesting a spiritualized society. Described both as a place for Karma yoga and Integral yoga of Sri Aurobindo, Auroville stands as a remarkable urban experiment that aims to bring about human unity. Its relevance accrues from the fact that Auroville offers a new definition of self, society and spirituality in a globalized, market-driven world that increasingly faces religious turmoil and alienation of the individual self from the society.
This work is a pioneering research project because, as of yet, there is scant qualitative research into the social psychology of spiritual communities. The paper also examines the inadequacy of Western paradigms of social psychology in understanding Auroville. Data collection comprised participant observation of the daily life of the community especially focusing on community meetings, informal conversations, formal recorded interviews, a community survey, and the collection and analysis of written documents such as the community journals. Data analysis was carried out through an open-coding process with the help of the software program, Hyperresarch 2. 8. The study examines: the dialectic between the individual and society, particularly in the context of self-identity and social solidarity; lists the inspirations and challenges that individuals face; and points at prevalent shadow issues. The findings from the study are placed in the context of Sri Aurobindo’s vision of a gnostic or spiritualized society and his and the Mother’s description of the collective dimension of Integral Yoga. Integral Yoga, synthesizing modern evolutionary perspectives with the ancient wisdom of Indian psychology and philosophy, delineates the farther reaches of human nature and society. Auroville is viewed as a practical application and experiment of Sri Aurobindo’s and the Mother’s vision.
Western social scientists are beginning to discern the emergence of a spiritual society as a result of an ongoing social evolutionary process (e. g., see Griffin, 1998; King, 2004; Wuthnow, 1992; Wilber, 1995; Wexler, 2000;). This emerging new society, beyond the postmodern society with its preoccupations of culture, language and identity, is characterized by a spiritual resurgence rooted in the lived experience of the individual (Forman, 2004). As Ferrer and Sherman (in press) remark, there seems to be a genuine need for “deeply lived religion rather than a simply confessed or routinely performed religiosity” (p. 16). Social evolutionary theorists concur that evolution proceeds from presecular to secular and further onto postsecular societies (King 2004).
These evolutionary theories however are mainly formulated by Euro-American writers on the basis of their study of the development of the Western civilization, and are strongly based on the assumption that economic motives are the cause of social development. The validity of these theories needs to be verified by conducting empirical studies of other societies and cultures, for even a cursory study of history reveals that the inter-relationship of society and religion in the West differs from that of India. Briefly speaking, while Western societies are largely homogenous and were organized first under an authoritative religious institution and then around techno-economic means of production, Indian society is far more heterogeneous, complex and religiously diverse. Socio-cultural or psycho-spiritual worldviews in India do not show that neat progression from pre-modern to modern and post-modern development. Nor has the development of rationality and critical thinking in India resulted in a complete social erosion of religious faith as it has in the West. The Indian mind seems to easily embrace the seemingly opposing tendencies of faith and reason. Rationality and faith are seen as qualities that are arise from different parts of one being and one or the other can be fruitfully applied to different situations in life as deemed fit.
Sri Aurobindo’s vision of society
Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual vision presents a unique evolutionary view of society that is radically different from Western theorists. Sri Aurobindo (1972b) holds that that evolution of nature, the human species and society is pre-ordained and aided by a Divine force called the Supramental Force. (1) Rather than analyzing economic factors, Sri Aurobindo (1972a) describes evolution of society in psycho-spiritual terms, and his framework is more in keeping with the general development of the Indian civilization than the Western paradigm mentioned earlier. Sri Aurobindo sees society as proceeding through symbolic, typal, conventional, individualist and subjective stage.
Sri Aurobindo chiefly differs from other evolutionary thinkers on the issue that the earliest forms of society were necessarily primitive and archaic in their religious formulation. In sharp contrast, Sri Aurobindo points out that the first stage of Indian civilization, the ancient Vedic society, was largely symbolic where life was symbolically organized in accordance with the highest spiritual truths. (2) In the symbolic age of society, life is predominantly religious or spiritual and all the facets of life--the psychological, economic, ethical, and physical--are regarded as being sacrosanct.
In the second typal stage, one sees the spiritual impulse being dominated by the psychological type, as for instance in the psychological characterization of the Indian caste system. The third conventional stage comes about when the outer expression of the ideal is formalized and becomes more important than the ideal itself. In the conventional stage of the Indian society, the caste system came to be formulated as a rigid, social order rather than a psychological characterization of the individual’s abilities. The increasing intolerance of conventionalism is eventually overthrown by an individualistic stage where rationality predominates. Noting the difference between India and Europe at this stage, Sri Aurobindo (1972a) points out that the former society merely produced religious reformers and new spiritual impulses with appropriate cultural and social practices, while the European society was marked by the rise of atheism and secularism. In the evolution from an individualistic age to a subjective age, Sri Aurobindo speculates on how India and Europe can influence each other: While upholding the democratic rights and the freedom of the individual secured by the West as a necessary condition for social evolution, Sri Aurobindo hopes that India, which has never divorced spirituality from its social and cultural practices, will influence the West in discovering practical and subjective spiritual ideals.
Of the futuristic, subjective age, Sri Aurobindo (1972a) says that ideally it would be a stage where the individual is governed by the deepest law of his/her own being—that of the soul. Further, Sri Aurobindo points out that the subjective stage of the social cycle can culminate in a spiritualized society only by the radical change of human consciousness into a divine or supramental consciousness. Thus, for Sri Aurobindo, a spiritual society is based not on a theoretical or mental understanding but on the actual spiritual realization of each individual of the oneness of the whole universe. According to Sri Aurobindo, two conditions need to be met to effect a spiritual change in society: Firstly there must be a group of individuals who can “recreate themselves in the image of the spirit and communicate both their idea and its power to the mass,” and secondly, there must be a group or society “which is capable of receiving and effectively assimilating the power” (p. 232). Sri Aurobindo points out that in the past these two conditions have never been fully met in the past, which has resulted in the observable phenomenon that while individuals have attained enlightenment or high spiritual heights, society itself has never been truly spiritualized. But he believes that, even though the process may take hundreds of years, the spiritualization of society is the unavoidable goal towards which humanity is moving.
While Sri Aurobindo’s, (1972b) evolutionary vision gives primacy to the Divine evolutionary force, his path of Integral Yoga presupposes the possibility of conscious participation in evolution. In Sri Aurobindo’s vision, the individual, being capable of conscious participation, has the potential to help in the collective evolutionary journey. Perceiving all life as yoga Sri Aurobindo (1972c), instructs that every aspect of life should be taken up in Integral Yoga to realize its goal of a spiritual evolution and world-transformation.
Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual collaborator, the Mother (born Mirra Alfassa) took upon herself the work of manifesting on earth his vision of “a new world, a new humanity, a new society” (1978a, p. 210). And to that end, she founded first the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and then, in 1968, the universal township of Auroville, “based on the teaching of Sri Aurobindo, where men [sic] of all countries would be at home”. Supported since its inception by UNESCO and the Government of India, Auroville, located in rursl Tamil Nadu at present comprises 1,500 people from India and thirty-four other countries (Census, 2006).
A remarkable urban experiment in human unity, Auroville’s relevance accrues from the fact that it offers a new definition of self, society and spirituality in a globalized, market-driven world that increasingly faces religious turmoil and alienation of the individual self from the society. On the basis of qualitative, interpretive research, this paper examines Auroville as a spiritualized society based on the ideals of Integral Yoga.
It is important to note at the outset, the societies that Sri Aurobindo and the Mother set up, namely the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and Auroville are different from monastic groups and Buddhist sanghas, which are based around collective intentions and practices. While such communities undoubtedly benefit the people who comprise them, Sri Aurobindo felt that though such spiritual communities reached out to the masses, they tended merely towards, ‘the creation of the religious temperament, the most outward form of spirituality’ (cited in Heehs, 2000, p. 217) and were thus incapable of effecting the spiritual and supramental change in humanity that was the goal of his yoga. In the context of Auroville, the Mother, repeatedly clarified that both the process and the goal of a collective ideal had to be worked out by each individual in her own way. And, she was reluctant to frame rules and laws for Auroville, believing that “things will get formulated as the underlying truth of the township emerges and takes shape progressively” (1981b, p. 450).
Sri Aurobindo (1972b) also sees the necessity of including people from all walks of life and at all stages of development in Integral Yoga in order to effect a collective spiritual transformation through the action of the divine force. States the Mother, “by the very nature of things, it [the supramental transformation] is a collective ideal that calls for a collective effort so that it may be realized in the terms of an integral human perfection” (1978a, p. 210). In other words, the supramental transformation cannot be brought about by a single individual, for he/she represents only one particular type of personality. In order to achieve a complete transformation of human nature, all personality-types need to be represented in this collective yoga for humanity. Consequently Auroville’s population of 1500 (Census, 2006) is extremely diverse encompassing people with varying literacy levels and belonging to different cultures and economic classes.
While Martinez, a commentator on Auroville’s social processes, seeks to theoretically describe the growth of Auroville’s society through Sri Aurobindo’s (1972a) perspective of the human cycle, I personally find Auroville, being less than 40 years old, less than the life-span of a human-being, is too young a society to be subject to such an analysis. While there are definitely parallels between the Mother’s intentional act of creating Auroville and a symbolic society based on spiritual values, such comparisons could be too facile or the categories arbitrarily imposed without being supported by qualitative data. From my study, I would rather draw the tentative inference that different sections of the Auroville society exhibit the different characteristics of typal, conventional, individualistic, and subjective (false and true) societies described by Sri Aurobindo.
The particular qualitative methodology selected for this study is basic interpretive qualitative research, which is defined by Merriam as a form of qualitative research that interprets “a phenomenon, a process, the perspectives and worldviews of the people involved or a combination of these” (2002, p. 6). In other words, this methodology allows for a generalized interpretation of the lived experience that is being researched in all its totality rather than being limited, as in most other qualitative methods, to studying a single situation or an isolated phenomenon.
The researcher as the primary instrument of research
At the outset, and at the considerable risk of being outcast by the upholders of objectivity in academic research, I need to confess that I myself am an Aurovilian since 1995. As a researcher, I seek to combine as Ferrer and Sherman (in press) advocate, an attitude of critical detachment with participatory engagement. In addition to the growing number of feminist, transpersonal and postmodern scholars who question the epistemic authority of critical rationality (e. g. , see Braud and Anderson, 1998; Flood, 1999; Jaggar, 1990), I hold that such an attitude of both participating in life and relationships as well as critically observing them is intrinsic to the multidimensional reality of human consciousness.
The research process
The research was carried out during my stay at Auroville from December 15, 2006 to October15, 2007. It comprised participant observation of the daily life of the community especially focusing on community meetings, informal conversations, formal recorded interviews, a community survey, and the collection and analysis of written documents such as the community journals, News and Notes and Auroville Today and postings on the electronic forum, Auroville Net.
A significant amount of data was collected through a community-wide survey that sought to identify the joys and challenges of living in Auroville. 131 Aurovilians, over10% of the actual population contacted, responded to the survey, which by marketing-survey standards is an acceptable response rate. To secure individual points of view, 11 semi-structured, open-ended interviews were conducted in two separate phases, a pilot study before the administration and analysis of the community survey, and a main study after the survey was over.
Analysis of data
The social science research technique of content analysis was used to analyze the data. This technique focuses on systematically identifying and interpreting key elements in the content of a communication rather than analyzing or deconstructing the structure of the narrative (Berg, 2003, p. 224).
Analysis of the survey
The two main categories of joys and challenges indicated in the survey form were further classified under three headings of a) situational factors b) personal factors and c) interpersonal factors. In a further analytical step, under the category of joys, repeated key words such as freedom, growth, work, adventure, experiment, Mother’s force were noted, and further sub-divisions were introduced under the headings of personal and interpersonal factors.
Analysis of interviews
The digitally-recorded interviews were manually transcribed and a software program called Hyperresearch 2. 8 was used to help with the organization, coding, and analysis of data. Using the constant comparative analysis method of grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss, 1967), codes or categories for organizing the data were inductively derived from the data itself.
Inferences drawn from the study
My research findings indicate that while Auroville is far from being the spiritual or supramental society described by Sri Aurobindo, it exhibits certain characteristics, such as embodiment, engagement in social and environmental issues, a re-definition of one’s personal sense of identity, and a different attitude to work and to interpersonal relationships, that have been identified as the characteristics of an emerging mystical society (Wexler, 2000) or a constructive postmodern spirituality (Griffin, 1998). These characteristics, as well as characteristics that are unique to the spiritual discipline of Integral Yoga, are detailed below:
Economics in a spiritual society:
It is perhaps erroneous to assume, as Wilber (1995, 2000) does, that the economics of constant production could possibly form the basis of a spiritual society. Sri Aurobindo (1972a), foreseeing the end of both capitalism and socialism, views economics in terms of spiritual values rather than of material necessities:
The aim of its [that of a spiritual society] economics would be not to create a huge engine of production, whether of the competitive or the co-operative kind, but to give to men – not only to some but to all men each in his highest possible measure – the joy of work according to their own nature, and free leisure to grow inwardly, as well as a simple, rich and beautiful life for all. (p. 257)
Griffin (1998) similarly points out that both socialism and capitalism are products of a modern worldview and calls for constructive postmodern alternatives to the current economic paradigms. While in terms of its ideals, Auroville envisions an idealistic stage where one works for the joy of expressing oneself or serving and not to earn a living, in practice, Aurovilians have not yet found a suitable economic structure that would embody or help foster the ideals. Auroville currently exhibits a mix of capitalistic (even sometimes monopolistic) and socialist systems. Many Aurovilians, in accordance with Sri Aurobindo’s vision deliberately adopt a lifestyle of “voluntary simplicity” as was mentioned to me by Andy(3)an interviewee.
Aurovilians’ attitudes towards work:
Ideally, according to the Mother (1978b), work “would not be a way to earn one’s living but a way to express oneself and to develop one’s capacities and possibilities while being of service to the community as a whole, which, for its own part, would provide for each individual’s subsistence and sphere of action” (p. 94). This ideal practically manifests itself in the fact that Aurovilians give themselves the freedom to change their place and type of work regardless of whether they have the necessary qualifications or experience for a particular job. On the issue of work, responses such as these were common:
- The freedom to work in areas I'm interested but not educated in,
- The freedom to find one’s deeper self and one’s own work.
- The inner experience, possibilities to take up different works regardless of ‘official’ qualifications.
The ideal of voluntary service
The Mother (1978c) also specified that Auroville is a place for “Karma Yoga” (p. 227)— that is, a place for realizing the Divine by offering one’s work as service to the Divine. Four people, in their community survey, even though they were not specifically asked to comment on their attitude to work, said that what they liked about Auroville was Karma Yoga, which one defined as “all work is for the Divine, not for a paycheck”. (4) One described her work as “the most wonderful and powerful experience” as she did not have to work for herself anymore. An interviewee, Cathy, who resonates with the ideal of work as service says that she was happy to take up whatever work was offered to her or needed to be done at any given time,” and “often taught herself the skills that were needed for a particular job. ” Bharati, a young Tamil man who came to Auroville from a local village as an adolescent, advocates community service and insists that making money has never been primary motive for working. Says he, “You do a good service, money will automatically come,” adding that he often voluntarily did jobs that needed to be done, or even collectively organized voluntary community services such as “Auroville Night Guards” and summer camps for children.
There is no strict quid pro quo between the work one does and the pay one receives. In general, commercial or profit-oriented business pay better wages while service-oriented businesses and administrative working groups pay lower wages or none at all. For service-oriented businesses, the ideal of work as a community service runs strong. Donald, a manager of the community store, Pour Tous, draws a minimal salary of Rs. 4,000, considerably less than other Auroville workers at the same stall, while working 9-10 hours a day including Sundays because of his overwhelming work load. One would be hard pressed to foster such a dedicated attitude through enforced structures.
At a casual conversation over tea one day, Raja, a sculptor friend and a fellow Aurovilian, who does routine administrative work at the Solar Kitchen booking and organizing meals, described how when he first started his work, he inwardly revolted at the routine nature of his work for he had to come to terms with his own self-image of himself as a creative artist. “And now,” he said, with his characteristic, enigmatic smile, “I am the Solar Kitchen. ” Upon further questioning, it turned out that Raja had not taken up the job because he needed to earn money for a living, but because he deliberately wanted to challenge himself to take up a job that part of his being considered boring or demeaning. He also clarified that his cryptic statement that he was the Solar Kitchen did not imply a narcissistic, self-importance on his part, but that he did not make the subjective/objective distinctions between him and his work. “I am there [at the Solar Kitchen], when I am needed. Even on Sundays. I don’t count the hours that I put in, even though I know other Aurovilians do, ” says he (personal communication, July 12, 2007).
When work is voluntarily undertaken for the sake of a greater collective good and not for economic incentive or even for personal job satisfaction, one has a completely different attitude towards work, an attitude, I daresay, that can be identified as Buber’s (1970) dialogical notion of an I-Thou relation where both I and Thou are co-created through a mutual encounter. This seemed to be implied in Raja’s description about his work at the Solar Kitchen and was made explicit by an Aurovilian forester who said, in the context of managing Auroville’s forests, “I walk through the forests and the land ‘speaks’ to me, and I know what is to be done. I don’t mean that the land actually talks to me in a new-agey sense. I just intuitively know what to plant where” (personal communication, May 23, 2007).
Consciousness, experimentation and collaboration in work:
Other attitudes towards work that similarly suggest a holy I-thou relationship are prevalent in Auroville. Such attitudes contrast sharply with the I-It relationship towards work that one normally finds in work places driven by economic forces. To begin with, part of the spiritual discipline of Integral Yoga is to work consciously for as the Mother (1978a) says, it is only through work that one can consciously develop matter and help to transform it. To be conscious about one’s work could mean maintaining a certain awareness while working or simply thinking about it deeply before acting. As Bharati says about his work at the Auroville Bakery: “I always know what I am doing. Because sometimes I think after what I do. But many times I know what I am doing. I think three, four times before I [do something]. ”
For Andy, an architect, one of the biggest inspirations about being in Auroville is the freedom to be able to work in a more holistic way—not to be driven by the goal but to have the possibility to experiment with the processes itself:
What I liked about Auroville was the possibility of working as an architect in a more profound way . . . Outside . . . it’s such a straitjacket. You are strapped by monetary considerations all around--insurance policies and the like. But here one can decide on the process of how one goes about to create a building. It’s much more than just designing. . . I can't just sit and make sketches of buildings without a deeper understanding of what is seeking to be manifested in the whole bigger picture.
Speaking about a particular building that he helped construct, Andy says, it was, right from the outset, an experimental group process, where for four months, Andy and his co-architect presented sets of drawings to their client, the community of Verite, till all were satisfied with the vision of the building. Andy described that moment of acceptance as being epiphanic. And while Andy admits that this experimental process, where the design kept evolving even at the stage of construction, had significant cost-overruns, for him it validated his belief that a conscious, collaborative process results in a superior product. Work, in this context, is not just about putting individual consciousness into matter, but making the more difficult effort to foster a group consciousness by completely surrendering one’s own egoistic preferences in order to co-create something together.
Last but not least, for many Aurovilians, there is a transpersonal element to one’s work—the belief in Mother’s force guiding them in their work. Bharati, with explaining how he tackles problems in his work insists, “To me definitely some force [of the Mother] will be with everyone. How they use it, how they take, how they receive it, how they ask for it, that’s what matters. How they utilize it you know. ” Many Aurovilians, particularly Andy and Bharati amongst my interviewees, state that given the challenging socio-environmental conditions and the circumstances, it would never have been possible for Auroville to develop as much as it has without being aided by a divine force.
Distinctions between manual labor and management
Another way in which Aurovilians subvert class distinctions prevalent in the normal economic arena is by blurring the distinction between managerial work and manual labor. Bharati talks about how he resisted being chosen as an executive of the Auroville Bakery for he did not like the distinctions made between managers and laborers. He told the person who nominated him that no matter what his position, he would continue to work the way he is used to: “I will do the same thing. It’s not that if I am Executive I will wear pant, suit and tie . . . you can still come and see in the Bakery I will be working with the people—with shorts, sweating… kneading the dough. ” The only difference is he says that now, presumably because of his greater responsibility, “I have been working more than my hours. ” And this is in keeping with the ideal of Auroville that “in the general organization intellectual, moral and spiritual superiority will find expression not in the enhancement of the pleasures and the powers of life but in the increase of duties and responsibilities” (The Mother, 1978c, p. 94).
Spirituality as part of everyday life
Spirituality in Auroville is individually practiced in diverse forms and yet somehow contained within the broad context of Integral Yoga and its evolutionary character. Most Aurovilians actually do not seem to follow any formal spiritual practices. And there seems to be an unvoiced but commonly accepted view, and as was hinted by two interviewees, that just through their work and by choosing to live in Auroville, Aurovilians participate it in the spiritual evolution of humankind. People imbue their daily life in with symbolic, spiritual values that at once includes and transcends physical reality:
- I like everything that I do and the kind of life that I have here. It is difficult for me to stress some aspects more than others, but if I try to underline some I would like to mention: the possibility to align my inner aspirations with the totality of my life and my work here. I have a sense of living in a permanent adventure in my work, my studies, in all my daily activities.
- My everyday life is part of my spiritual path, as well as being part of building the city “the earth needs”.
Though other commentators on postsecular spirituality do not emphasize on this issue, I believe that having a spiritual orientation to all of one’s life is a crucial indicator of a turn towards a spiritualized life and society. It heals the deep schism between objectivity and subjectivity that was brought about by modernity and allows for a holistic lifestyle that does not differentiate between the sacred and the secular. By doing so, I believe, we naturally move towards the aperspectival vision-logic of a higher consciousness that is advocated by Wilber (1995). A holistic outlook recasts the customary dualistic perspective on life into an integral perspective as is evident from the following responses by Aurovilians:
- AV [Auroville] is a community: where I live, eat, work and play is integrated/one. This is critical for my quality of life
- I live in Auroville. Full point. I would sincerely not be able to answer this question as I have stopped thinking in terms of likes and dislikes ever since I started living in Auroville in September’94.
Freedom on the path
Contemporary democratic societies have liberated individuals from the tyrannical hold of institutionalized religions. This freedom allows individuals to choose a religious or spiritual practice that they resonate with. In Integral Yoga such freedom stems from the belief that each individual has a unique relationship to the Divine and therefore a unique path to the Divine. Because of this belief, Aurovilians are largely free to define their lifestyles and standard of living in ways they choose. The freedom that Auroville accords to individuals is actually greater than that of capitalistic, mainstream societies as Aurovilians are not restricted by social roles and distinctions. This sense of freedom to explore a different identity extends to the transpersonal realm as was evident from the following answers in response to the question about “what do you like about living in Auroville”:
- The freedom in the choice of ways to rise in consciousness
- The relative freedom to live a life that is more directed by inner forces than outer
- Freedom and the ambition to choose our way to a higher consciousness
- The freedom to find one’s deeper self
- Living with so much open-ended possibility to explore, create and manifest what one is guided to do
There is always the danger that freedom, especially freedom without the discipline of a regular practice, can, and probably in a number of cases does, lead to unrestricted hedonism of the egoistic self. In a mature personality however, the sense of freedom is seen as being crucial for growth. For example, one survey respondent wrote, “the freedom in AV [Auroville] taught me the best discipline to be myself.”
I would further like to conjecture that freedom perhaps plays a crucial role in this yoga of transformation. What I have observed in Auroville, in myself and in others, is that, perhaps because life is not bounded by social rules, roles, distinctions and categories, sometimes one’s worst traits of personality are exhibited in interpersonal interactions. But it could well be that precisely because such deformations of one’s character are given expression rather than being suppressed, there is the possibility for their transformation by the light and action of the divine Force, not only at an individual level but also at planetary level because of the inherent oneness of the universe. As Sri Aurobindo explains, “If only sattwic [virtuous] and cultured men [sic] come from yoga, men without very much of the vital difficulty in them, then, because the difficulty of the vital element in terrestrial nature has not been faced and overcome, it might well be that the endeavor would fail” (1972d, p. 828).
While a few survey respondents spoke of their spiritual path in Auroville in general terms, the vast majority of the survey respondents specifically mentioned aspects of Integral Yoga in the delineation of their path. As these were responses were made to the general question of “what do you like about Auroville,” it again points to the fact that spirituality is the overriding factor in many people’s lives in Auroville. While some Aurovilians spoke of Auroville’s ideals in general terms, such as “this is a good place for integral yoga,” “leading a spiritual life according to Sri Aurobindo and The Mother,” fulfilling “Mother’s dream, ” and “building the city the earth needs,” others mentioned specific aspects of integral yoga. For example, two respondents viewed their life in terms of Integral Yoga’s co-creative evolutionary goal citing “participation to the discovery of a new human being, centered on its Divine reality” and “sharing the conscious co-creation for our evolution. ”
An immanent notion of the Divine
Constructive postmodernism spirituality, eschewing supernaturalism and atheism, “affirms a vision . . . according to which the world is present in deity and deity is present in the world” (Griffin, 1998, p. 17). Such a concept of immanent divinity is at the core of Sri Aurobindo’s teaching and was echoed by a survey respondent who stated that he/she lived in Auroville “to see the one in all existence, to see all existence in the one” and “to have forever the experience of satyam ritam brihat ananda [a Vedic formulation of the nature of the immanent Divine used by Sri Aurobindo] (1972b). Practitioners of Integral Yoga, actually take this concept of the immanent Divine, a step further in that they see each person as being a unique embodiment of the Divine working out a unique relationship with the transcendent and immanent Divine. This realization fosters tolerance and acceptance. Oliver hinted as such when he mentioned that one of the most challenging aspects of his life in Auroville was to live in community with people that he at first, felt did not subscribe to Auroville’s ideals. Accepting the fact that these people were also an integral part of the spiritual experiment of Auroville consequently led to Oliver’s own growth.
Interconnection with nature
The Divine’s presence in the world is not restricted to anthropic ideas about seeing the Divine’s immanence only in human beings and the human world. Griffin (1998) and Spretnak (1998) espouse that postsecular spirituality is marked by a deeper connection to the natural world, where individuals do not feel alienated from nature but are at home with it. Auroville’s commendable work in greening the earth has resulted in fostering a relationship between the residents and the natural world. Over half-a-dozen survey respondents mentioned their appreciation for the natural environment, and a couple of people reflected their connection to nature in terms of their own spiritual growth:
- The natural environment provides a balance in my life never before experienced.
- A stimulating environment that encourages a close contact with Nature and one Self.
A different notion of self
A connection to nature indicates that the personal self is “open and debounded, rather than separate and defended” (Wexler, 2000, p. 135-36). The modern alienated self, says Wexler, divorced from spirituality feels the need to defend itself from hostile others. In contrast, in Integral Yoga, one aspires for a self that is open at all levels to the influx of the Divine force. A Tamil woman coming from an urban milieu reflecting on her self-identity in Auroville indicates such a growth towards a transpersonal notion of self, when she writes: “AV [Auroville] made me my own self. Just 10 kms down in Puducherry [a nearby town], I might be living nearby as a daughter, wife, lawyer etc. but not myself . . . And this self, I want to happily offer for ‘divine consciousness. ’”
Specifically, my research indicates that Auroville allows its residents the freedom to explore their personal identity to a greater depth than would have been possible in the societies and cultures that they originally came from. Twelve Tamil Aurovilian women that I talked to mentioned that Auroville gave them a greater degree of freedom and independence than would have been in the rural culture that they came from: “We can express ourselves more freely here--wear whatever clothes we please, talk openly with others including men, and speak out our minds. ” As indicated in the text, “To be a true Aurovilian,” a couple of participants specifically mentioned finding a new self-identity by breaking free from their original social and cultural conditioning. And this inevitably results in happiness as notably expressed by one person who wrote: “I am deeply happy here, in spite of occasional difficulties, inner or outward. I have never felt so free in my life. It took several years for my self-image, collected during a rather long life from conditioning, professional expectations and appreciation, and society in general to scrape off and shed all that crust. ”
As opposed to the narcissistic individualism of modernism and the nihilistic relativism of deconstructive postmodernism, a constructive postmodern or postsecular spirituality accords a high value to intersubjective relationships between individuals (Cobb, 1998; Griffin, 1998; Keller, 1998). Griffin explains that in such a society individuals do not see themselves as self-contained entities but rather accept that “the relations one has with one’s body, one’s larger natural environment, one’s family and culture are indeed constitutive [emphasis in original] of one’s very identity” (p. 14). Integral Yoga differs philosophically from this stance in that it and views the individual, in its aspect of its soul as being a unique and autonomous entity (Sri Aurobindo, 1972b). Similarly in a text titled, “To be a true Aurovilian,” the Mother (1978a) writes: “The first necessity is the inner discovery by which one learns who one really is behind the social, moral, cultural, racial and hereditary appearances. At our inmost centre there is a free being, wide and knowing, who awaits our discovery and who ought to become the acting centre of our being and our life in Auroville” (p. 213).
Rather than emphasizing an individual’s relationship with others, Integral Yoga, as evidenced in the first line of the Auroville charter, sees the individual’s relationship with the divine consciousness as the essential base for all of life’s activities. In their lived experience, Aurovilians, as was evident from the survey responses, are often saddened and frustrated by the lack of community in Auroville. And yet, what inspires many people to continue to live here is a felt sense of the divine consciousness. Oliver recollects how in the early years, he would feel a tangible vibration, “as though the air had changed” when he, after having been out, was re-entering the Auroville area. “For a long time now,” he continues, “I had stopped feeling it, and just the other day, when I was just out cycling, I felt it again. It was there!”
This does not necessarily mean that Aurovilians are not affected by their interpersonal relationships with each other. There are quite a few who left Auroville precisely because of their frustration at the lack of community in Auroville. More tellingly, an Aurovilian who has lived here for about 25 years but now feels ambivalent about the experiment expressed to me that he feels that the larger community of Auroville “rather than encouraging people to do their yoga somehow brings out the worst in people” (personal communication, Oct 22, 2007).
But then again, for other Aurovilians, “the experience of being in the social world increasingly resembles core elements of mystical experience rather than mechanical interchanges” (Wexler, 2000, p. 4). One of my survey respondents wrote that in Auroville she/her felt “a spontaneous, inner connection with individuals, sometimes even if I don’t know them well. (I experienced this before I came to AV, but never so often or with such a diversity of individuals). ”
Ideally, Integral Yoga envisions that social relationships with others would always be informed by the individual’s primal relationship with the Divine. And this, to a certain extent, seems to be embodied in the lives and work of some Aurovilians. Andy, an architect describes how the group called Dreamcatchers seek to bring about innovative solutions to town planning through a collective, participatory process that honors both the transcendental ideal of Auroville and the immanent, ongoing relationship with others. Say he:
This is what appeals to me about the Dreamcatchers. The idea that we, as Aurovilians, can dream this city into existence. Not just that this is the city is there and we have to call it down, but that each of us has the possibility to see some of what the vision of the city is and help call it down. When I talk about dreams, I don't talk about mini dreams, personal dreams, but Mother's dream. It's Her dream that we are trying to catch and this takes us out of our egoic, small selves. That's the aim. Trying to find methods, which mean we can create more holistically together.
Whether Aurovilians view their interpersonal relationships with others in positive or negative terms, where Auroville differs significantly from mainstream, capitalistic societies is in the fact, that given the small size of the community and the proximity of its members, intersubjective communication is not just an interchange of signified texts “but of multiple substances of vitality, bodily breath and fluid” . . . these interchanges are not exchanges but transformations” (Wexler, 2003, p. 137). As in other intentional communities where people construct their lives together around a shared ideal, social interaction in Auroville is embodied in ways that would just not be possible in mainstream societies where individuals largely lead alienated lives. There is a visceral quality to interactions amongst Aurovilians, which is absent in modern and radically postmodern societies.
Wexler (2000) suggests that “against the disorientation, decathexis, and desensitization that characterize modernity and postmodernity, the emerging form of life in a mystical society is characterized by unification rather than dispersion”(p. 3). My analysis of Auroville reveals that while, because of the immense freedom granted to individuals, there is a certain element of differentiation and dispersion in Auroville, common belief in certain transpersonal ideals acts as a unifying factor. In my interviews, both Swaminathan, an Aurovilian from the local village, and Oliver, an Austrian Aurovilian, mentioned how their brothers just could not comprehend why they work at menial jobs in Auroville instead of building a successful, financial career. And as opposed to this, Oliver continued, “when I meet an Aurovilian abroad, outside of Auroville, I feel immediately that this person is family even though I may not know him very well, or on some occasion or the other may have quarrelled with him/her. ” There is a bonding that is born out of a shared, common passion for certain transpersonal ideals and the commitment that one shows in working to manifest these ideals into reality.
Being a willing servitor of the Divine consciousness
As seen earlier, a central tenet of Integral Yoga is the belief in a transcendental and immanent Divine working in oneself and in the world, to bring about a spiritual evolution both in the individual and in society. It could be noted here that both in its practice and philosophy, Integral Yoga does away with narcissistic experientialism that has, as Ferrer (2002) points out, vexed the movement of transpersonal psychology. Apart from Franz describing his first meeting with the Mother, none of my informants detailed transpersonal experiences even when directly asked what spirituality meant to them. To be a willing servitor of the Divine essentially means to forgo one’s own ambitions and desire for transpersonal experiences or personal growth and merely play the part that one feels individually called by the Divine to play.
This aspect of surrendering or sacrificing one’s own interests to the Divine is an important practice in the yoga so much so that one person, abdicating her own free will in joining Auroville, writes: “I feel I didn’t really choose to live here – rather I have to live here and I surrender. ” For another Aurovilan, psychologically, being a willing servitor of the Divine, is not so much of surrendering to the Divine will as aspiring to understand and fulfill it. He writes: “It [Auroville] fulfills a dream, a desire to rise to the Divine’s imagination of how our lives should be in Auroville. ” Still another Aurovilian speaks of the joy that one gets in playing such a servile role and at the same time seems to admit that one may not always fully understand the Divine will. She/he writes: “It is wonderful to feel oneself as an instrument on the hands of the Divine. It is humiliating to be a puppet by Grace. ”
There is also a widely prevalent belief in Auroville that, when one does not voluntarily surrender to the Divine’s will, one gets knocks and blows in one’s life that teaches one to go within, identify and detach from one’s egoistic motives. This principle was best explained to me by Jean who said that he left his comfortable life in France because he was “not experiencing anything directly, cocooned in a sheltered, virtual life,” where he was living life vicariously through the emotions of characters in films or novels. “Here, I am constantly interact with others in our common effort to build the city, and these interactions are often challenging. But I learn and grow through these challenges. The stone that hurts me as I walk on my path is also my teacher,” he concludes (personal communication October 31, 2007).
Action of the Divine force
Many Aurovilians mentioned their belief or their experience of the Mother’s force, which can be equated with the Supramental Force as the Mother is regarded as a personal embodiment of the Divine. While attitudes towards the Mother greatly vary even amongst those Aurovilians who specifically believe her to be a divine being, what is common is that each, in their own individual way, seeks a relationship with her or her disembodied presence. In Franz’s life, that first meeting with the Mother was unique in its transformational power, and while he seeks to recreate the depth and peace of that powerful moment on his own through meditations, or in his interactions with others, nothing so far is comparable to that singular event. Franz consequently doubts others when they claim about having a personal connection to the Mother without ever having met her. Bharati seeks to maintain his relationship to her by laboriously copying her or Sri Aurobindo’s words in calligraphy. Yet another informant, Jean, who had met the Mother, shared that what keeps him in Auroville, despite current challenges, “is the Mother. ” From Jean, as I gathered from further questioning, the Mother symbolizes the evolutionary drive within him that seeks personal growth often through challenging interactions and to work for a better world. This transmutation of the Mother as a human figure to an impersonal force is evident from an anecdote that Jean relates:
On the morning of November 18, 1973, I got the news that the Mother had passed away the previous evening. The news was shocking. None of us had ever expected it. Aurovilians were flocking to the Ashram that morning for a last “darshan” of the Mother. For a moment, I was shaken and undecided, and then I clearly felt that Mother wanted me to do her work and not to worship her. And so I continued as usual with my planned work for the day—concreting the floor of my workshop (personal communication October 31, 2007).
For practitioners of Integral Yoga, the most expeditious way to develop or evolve oneself is to simply remain open to this evolutionary Force of the Mother and to have faith that it would work things out in the proper manner and in the proper time. Integral Yoga views the individual’s relationship to the Divine in co-creative and participatory ways, but the Divine being omnipotent is seen as being vastly more powerful than the human persona. In short, the fastest and safest path to spiritual growth in Integral Yoga is to remain open to the working of the Divine force from above (Sri Aurobindo, 1972d). In my study, the Mother’s force was mentioned both as a spiritual belief and as a transpersonal experience as indicated by the following response:
- I am grateful that Mother and Sri Aurobindo have created AV and continue to support and guide it and that I am given the possibility to live and work here.
- I feel very grateful . . . to have met the Mother. I . . . thank Mother for having led me here.
- I am happy and content. I always feel the presence of The Mother.
- Auroville is the physical manifestation of the Mother’s Dream and I feel favoured to be in AV.
- It is grace even just to live in AV. Feeling that this is the Mother’s project.
- I was "touched" by the Mother in 1972. The yoga of Sri Aurobindo keeps inspiring me.
- I like to live in the Presence. The presence of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo, the presence of the AV spirit; no place elsewhere can give we that kind of nourishment and safety on a subtle level.
Also as evident from the above responses, this force or presence of the Mother not only greatly adds to people’s sense of psychological well-being in terms of feeling grateful, happy, content and inspired, but is also seen as being necessary for spiritual progress. A few Aurovilians mention the force in impersonal, general terms rather than explicitly identifying it as the Mother’s Force:
- To live in AV is to be an instrument in the hands of Spirit of Auroville, which is dynamically active behind all that happens in AV.
- It is indeed a place where one can feel that there is something beyond human organizational power.
- I feel “something” in the land of AV [Auroville]. I feel that “something” more at Matrimandir, Savitri Bhavan and in the forest area of AV.
- The inevitable feeling that the Divine is close though at lives very heavily masked.
- The power radiating all over Auroville
- This place is being guided by a conscious force.
As explicitly stated by her, the Mother is believed to have placed her force in Auroville that acts as a protective force-field for the experiment. Beliefs such as these are quite common: “The high power put by ‘Mother’ . . . it gives support and evolution [sic]. As stated by Sri Aurobindo (1972b), not all are seen as being capable of withstanding and assimilating the power of this force as evidenced from comments such as this: “the guidance of the Mother is very strong here, and it’s quite something to get used to. ”
At the very centre of the city is Matrimandir, a sacred edifice, which is considered the “soul of Auroville” (The Mother, 1981a, p. 229). One cannot emphasize enough the importance of Matrimandir in the collective life of Auroville. Aurovilians believe that the Matrimandir is “a kind of dynamo for channelling and directing the Force of the Great Mother to support the development of Auroville and the transformation of the world” (Van Vrekhem, 2000, p. 524).
In the early, pioneering years, the Matrimandir literally helped in building solidarity among the Aurovilians for most of them physically and collaboratively worked at the construction site of the Matrimandir. And the repetitive, manual work of construction often took on a numinous quality: The late Ruud Lohman, an ex-Franciscan priest and an Aurovilian who was known for his dedication to constructing the Matrimandir, describes the digging of the immense crater for its foundation thus: “We dug on and on, for nobody digs to dig a hole, but just to dig in one’s subconscious—to carry things up, to bring them into clear daylight, to organize them” (Lohman, 1978, as cited in Sullivan, 1994, p. 114). To give a sense of the charged quality that physical work had for these Aurovlians, I quote at length, from an article by another Aurovilian Tim Wrey who describes a particular’s day work at the Matrimandir. The sudden insight that gains has the force of a spiritual revelation:
When I arrived I found an atmosphere of quietly dedicated activity in all directions. Men and women of all nationalities and ages were involved in the shoveling stones, emptying cement sacks, manning the concrete mixer, pushing trolleys of concrete mix and attaching them to hoists.
They communicated in a variety of languages, or in silence, their smiles and integrated action being all that was required to carry the work forward stage by stage. Everywhere there was a radiance and sense of common purpose. . . .
The truth burst upon me with all its beauty and simplicity, as I realized that there could be no such thing as a “significant contribution” except in the context of my own ego. . . .
Only by everyone working together and each contributing his humble part to the whole, and doing it to the highest standards, could the Matrimandir be built. It progressed through unity, and to work on it was to learn the lesson of unity. (Wrey, 1976, as cited in Sullivan, 1994, p. 122-23).
The number of Aurovilians currently engaged with the building of the Matrimandir has dramatically decreased, but as Doris (2007) relates, the old-timers (people who have lived in Auroville for a long time) who worked at the Matrimandir fondly remember those times as being truly special.
Over the years, from 1965-1973, the Mother spoke at length about Matrimandir and its spiritual significance, indicating that it is a place meant for concentration . . . with a view to try to finding one’s consciousness” (Gilles, 2004, p. 25). Many Aurovilians attest that meditating in the inner chamber of Matrimandir is a unique experience. For example, one survey respondent wrote: “my attachment is to the “Matrimandir Chamber”. I realize the high presence in the chamber; every sitting is a new experience to me. This is amazing, which keeps me in AV [Auroville]. ” Another Aurovilian, decrying religious attitudes towards Matrimandir as a holy place, cryptically said it was a place for individual initiation.
Perhaps given the Mother’s comment (1978a) that the Matrimandir is a shrine to the principle of the divine, creative energy, some Aurovilians do not distinguish between Matrimandir as a physical building and the presence of the Mother, as when a survey respondent equates the two in a single paragraph: The Matrimandir as the soul of AV [Auroville] is my “home”. I simply would not wish to be anywhere else on earth but here; near Her. ” For others, the place offers a spiritual refuge as when, Gayatri told me that whenever she is disappointed and frustrated with her problems, she goes and sits in the inner chamber. For others still, the Matrimandir stands as a reminder that one is in Auroville for a spiritual purpose. Some Aurovilians mentioned that what they liked about Auroville was:
- Time and space and Matrimandir which is given to contemplate the Divine play.
- That the Divine is at the Centre, the Matrimandir
- All…. (almost!) Matrimandir, the spirit of AV, the growing “sangha-Deva”
And finally, a few deeply believe in the Mother’s words (1978a) that upon its completion, the Matrimandir would somehow help Aurovilians. Jonas, who has been here 22 years, mentioned to me that he felt there was a subtle and growing sense of a spiritual collective in Auroville, which he was sure would reveal itself to the fore once the Matrimandir was finished (personal communication, September 24, 2007).
Philosophy of material transformation
Sri Aurobindo and the Mother had a radical view that, in the course of evolution, physical matter itself would undergo a supramental change and exhibit new properties. To help bring about this transformation, the Mother enjoined on the Aurovilians to consciously engage with matter and not to treat matter as being dead or inert, but to recognize it as incarnate spirit. An Aurovilian, a self-taught designer, architect, and constructor, told me that what he sought was “the impossible, for what is possible is already done. And nothing is impossible in matter” (personal communication, October 31, 2007).
Given this world-affirming philosophy that seeks material transformation as opposed to liberation, Aurovilians are actively engaged in improving the degraded physical environment and impoverished social environment of their bioregion. Auroville has won acclaim for its efforts in reclaiming over 2,500 acres of wasteland, planting over two million trees, restoring the indigenous forest type, promoting organic agriculture, renewable energy systems and appropriate building technologies. The passion for environmental sustainability in Auroville is matched by an equal concern at the lack of basic facilities, such as drinking water, health care, education, and income-generation opportunities in the villages that surround Auroville. And to that end, over a dozen rural outreach units in Auroville have worked to make primary health care, water and sanitation facilities available in 17 villages, provided educational facilities and women empowerment programs in 40 villages (The city the earth needs, 1999). Many Aurovilians have also actively participated in other similar efforts in India. At a general collective level, such socially engaged efforts in creating a better world can be seen, as Ferrer (2002) suggests, as being eminently spiritual. But at a personal and individual level, a more detailed, phenomenological study would needed to be conducted to ensure that the social and environmental practices of Aurovilians do not lead to subtle forms of egoism. As Sri Aurobindo (1972b) cites, there are innumerable ways in the spiritual path, for the aggrandizement of the ego. While this issue has not been the focus of my study, one of my informants, Swaminathan, not only elaborated on his understanding of spirituality as helping the immediate local, village community and through it the world, but he did in ways, which attested to his own passion in being an instrument in that collective process rather than an egoistic being who took pride in his role of uplifting the masses.
The true individual
In consonance with Sri Aurobindo’s writings about the psychic being—our true and unique individual self, is the belief that each one of us has a unique gift to offer to the world. This belief is voiced in Swaminathan’s assertion, “my thing is teaching, I don't want to do anything else. ” Finding this gift and offering it for the service of the Divine and the community is regarded as part of the yoga. Jean explains to me how each architect in Auroville is uniquely talented in one particular area—one in design and layout, one in appropriate building technologies, one in the details of finishing and so on, but each one egoistically thinks that they are equipped to take up a whole architectural project. “If they could all come together,” he says, “to design and build the city, that would be the mark of true collectivity.” “We are here to be servitors of the Divine and not of our egos. It is only when we offer our gifts to the Divine’s work, we transform our egos and access our true psychic nature,” he concludes (personal communication, October 31, 2007).
Such a conscious, collective effort would perhaps be the decisive first step towards the spiritualized society based on the realization of the oneness of all that Sri Aurobindo and the Mother envisioned. For while there are a significant number of individuals in Auroville, who instead of having a materialistic outlook on life are governed by spiritual motives, they are, as of yet, too individualistic in their practices to embody the ideal of fraternity that Sri Aurobindo (1972a) speaks of—the third great ideal of the French revolution that would vouchsafe the other two ideals of liberty and equality.
Nevertheless, as has been demonstrated, the attitudes that Aurovilians exhibit already mark them to be among the forerunners of the emergent postsecular spiritual society described by Griffin (1998) and Wexler (2000). It is also evident that Aurovilians consciously practise Integral Yoga, but it is not easy to conclusively determine the fruits of this yoga, given its far-reaching evolutionary goal. As a pioneering research project into a spiritual society, this study was limited by its methodology in that it could not fully plummet into the depths of the Spirit and its action as experienced by individuals. There is a need to come up with innovative, transpersonal and phenomenological methodology not only to determine but also perhaps to qualitatively gauge psycho-spiritual traits in spiritual communities and societies.
Finally, I would like to mention that the Mother (1981d) once spoke of India as being “the representation of all human difficulties on earth, and it is in India that there will be the. . . cure” (p. 41-42). She goes on to mention in the same passage that it is precisely to help in this process of world transformation that she created Auroville in India. In this context given the tremendous changes in contemporary Indian urban society brought about by its participation in a global economy, I see the urgent need for research into current psycho-spiritual traits in the Indian society in the context of Sri Aurobindo’s writings on the evolution of society and the Mother’s hopes for Auroville, India and the world.
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Bindu Mohanty is a doctoral student in East-West psychology at California Institute of Integral Studies, USA. She has been affiliated with Auroville since 1994. This paper is part of her doctoral research work.
(1) Sri Aurobindo’s view of a conscious Divine force as the basic motor of the evolutionary drive seems to be borne out by scientific evidence, which reveals that very often the evolution of the universe proceeded on a knife’s edge called the “Goldilocks zone” where conditions were just right to allow for the emergence of intelligence life. Changing these conditions by the tiniest fraction would have resulted in an inert and dead universe (Kaku, 2005).
(2) Such a symbolic stage of life can also be glimpsed in ancient Greek, Egyptian and Celtic societies that were steeped in occult mysteries and led by a priestly class.
(3) Names of all my informants have been changed in order to maintain confidentiality.
(4) Raw data in terms of audio recordings, interview transcripts and survey responses are available with me, the researcher. To distinguish intentionally collected data from data collected during informal conversations, I have listed only the latter as “personal communication. ”