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Auroville: paradise lost? Or am I lost in paradise?

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Pondicherry is a beautiful old French colonial coastal town, with cute bakeries serving croissants and baguettes. Right next to it sits ‘Auroville’, an utopian city build on the ideas of both Sri Aurobindo and ‘The Mother’. Before you think I’ve completely lost it and my next stop will be a scientology ‘church’: Pondicherry and Auroville are on my way towards Chennai from where I’ll fly to Cambodia on the 30th. So, I’ll definitely keep my both feet on the ground.

Auroville (www.auroville.org) was founded in 1968 and its charter states the following:
1. Auroville belongs to nobody in particular
2. Auroville will be the place of unending education, of constant progress and a youth that never ages
3. Auroville wants to be the bridge between the past and the future. Taking advantage of all discoveries from without and from within, Auroville will boldly spring towards future realizations.
4. Auroville will be a site of material and spiritual researches for a living embodiment of an actual Human Unity.

Most if it sounds reasonable (and a bit vague) to me. The big question is of course: how far are they from realizing their objectives. Initial impression is: not so far.

It’s easy to criticize Auroville and its inhabitants: Auroville was conceived for 50.000 inhabitants, but only 2.000 actually live there 40 years later. At the same time thousands of persons are on a waiting list and there’s sufficient space for construction. Most of the people who come to Auroville aren’t Aurovillians. They are tourists who come to see the Matrimander, the soul of Auroville, a stunning golden dome. However, day visitors are not allowed inside the dome. Despite that all visitors have to see a compulsory video, very few actually get Auroville’s message, a massive missed opportunity for spreading the word.

Becoming an Aurovillian is a lengthy and costly process, which basically requires that you intend to spend the rest of your life there. Moreover, anything you buy or build in Auroville belongs to the community, so you can’t sell it. Several unanimous UN resolutions have been passed supporting Auroville, as well as the regular inflow of financial contributions from several countries and donors. It was therefore a big surprise to me that all Aurovillians seem to be complaining about money (cost of housing, not enough funds to do X, Y or Z). Moreover, the fact that Auroville needs external funds means their solution (if any) can’t be scaled to include a large number of people.

Is it then all bad? No. I managed to get access to the inside of the dome and meditation rooms on my second visit, and it was an amazing experience. All Aurovillians I’ve spoke with are genuinely nice and willing to help out. For example: I didn’t want to have lunch with the tourists and both days somebody helped me through the maze of their cashless system. However, getting to know the right people and understanding them takes time, much more than the 2 day trips that I consecrated to the place.

My fundamental problem with Auroville is of a different nature. Auroville was started as a way for achieving Unity without religion, but in practice it almost has become a religion by their devotion of Sri Aurobindo and ‘The Mother’. It seems that most people are relaxed about their new ‘religion’, but in my humble opinion, these religions/personality cults are likely to draw enemies and deviate the whole from its end goals. I had a long discussion about a previous incarnation of this post with several ‘long stayers’. I decided to talk with them as I want to do Auroville justice. They explained me that the barriers to entry (houses, finding your way etc.) are high on purpose, as one isn’t just visiting a city like London or Paris, but a community of people that are working hard toward a higher aim. Tourists coming to look at a pretty building are not considered worth the effort of spending time with, as the tourists are not willing to make the effort of truly getting to know Auroville. Moreover, running an utopian city is hard work; this is illustrated perfectly by the 2 million (!) trees that were planted on a previously completely eroded terrain. I guess the long stayers were trying to tell me that paradise doesn’t come easy. For the time being Auroville seems to do just fine. People from many nations peacefully coexist in an eco-friendly way, whilst creating interesting and beautiful art. Which is a result one can be proud of. Whether Auroville will fulfill its promise of creating Human Unity remains to be seen. I fear either commercialization or irrelevance for an idea that should have lead to paradise.

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