In Jan '06, I visited Auroville for the second time (first in '96), but my interest was still purely anthropological. Yet again, Auroville—a township in Tamil Nadu founded in 1968 by the Mother (Mirra Alfassa), a French collaborator of Sri Aurobindo Ghose and a great believer in his teachings—struck me as an immensely audacious and, in many ways, a naively idealistic experiment.
The Mother had dreamed of a place where "all the fighting instincts of man would be used exclusively to conquer the causes of his sufferings and miseries, to surmount his weaknesses and ignorance, to triumph over his limitations and incapacities ... where the needs of the spirit and the concern for progress would take precedence over the satisfaction of desires and passions." Auroville aspires to be such a place, "a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and harmony, above all creeds, all politics, and nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realize human unity." Today it is home to 1800 people (700 Indians) from 35 countries in over 100 settlements.
At the city's heart is a place for silent meditation, the Matrimandir ("Temple of the Mother"), which the Mother deemed the "soul" of Auroville. The plan calls for setting up four zones—Cultural, International, Industrial, Residential—radiating out from the Matrimandir, with a wide "Green Belt" around the city. For various reasons (including shortage of funds to acquire the requisite land, despite help from private donors, NGOs, and GOs), the realization of these goals has been slower than expected.
For members, Auroville is not a retreat but their primary home, where they and their families live, work, and play. Visitors are restricted to the visitor center and a walkway to the Matrimandir. Prospective members can stay for a week and sample the life of the community. Membership is by invitation from the Auroville Entry Group. New regulation requires that members pay for themselves for the first two years, effectively shutting out those with limited means (the Indian membership has reportedly stagnated since this regulation).
The task of running Auroville is overseen by various working groups. Major community decisions are taken collectively by the Residents Assembly, rarely without animated debate. Authority and bureaucracy are hated words. Assets are held by The Auroville Foundation—no one owns real-estate or earns an income; food, education, healthcare, entertainment, sports, etc. are free. A long-term goal (bucking a salient historical trend many associate with human progress) is to completely eliminate the use of money within its borders.
Many ideals at Auroville derive from Sri Aurobindo's vision, whose ashram (religious retreat) at Pondicherry is now an international study centre. The purpose of man, he claimed, is to transcend his lowly form of consciousness. Yoga is a technique not for personal liberation but for cooperating with the cosmic evolutionary urge destined to take mankind ahead to a higher, supramental stage of consciousness. Though generally progressive, his vision also betrays a muddled view of natural evolution. He brandishes the word "divine" all too often. Even the Auroville charter requires members to be "willing servitors of the divine consciousness." Too bad if you not only fail to see a "divine consciousness" around you, but see no need for it to live a moral life. Despite its many dubious foundational ideals, however, only the most cynical would dismiss the age-old quest for self-knowledge, meaning, and growth that must inspire many individuals who join Auroville.
Aurovillians research and practice environmental regeneration, organic farming, renewable energy, building technology, handicrafts, and various small scale industries (offset printing, graphic design, food processing, electronics, garment manufacture, etc.), all with an overarching desire to live lightly on earth. Though their research is rarely at the cutting edge in any given field, Auroville is perhaps unique in running so many projects in parallel and exploring their synergies. Strong emphasis is placed on artistic pursuits. Aurovillians also assist neighboring Tamil villages with infrastructure development, healthcare, and education; their emergency relief work after the Dec 2004 tsunami was exemplary. To an outsider, the idea of Auroville may evoke the Jewish Kibbutz, the American Peace Corps, and an Indian ashram, all rolled into one.