Is Auroville international?
Ask Aurovilians what
they understand by the term 'international community' and (as
always!) you are likely to receive different responses. Answers include
a place inhabited by many different nations, a place of international
culture, and a place which is doing work for the whole world. Each of
these responses can be challenged. New York and London are far more
international than Auroville in terms of the different cultures
represented there; Auroville is often described as having a
predominantly Westernized rather than an international culture; and it's
not clear that much of what has been achieved so far in Auroville can be
easily transferred to other parts of the world.
A universal town
So are we using the wrong
terminology? Interestingly, Mother rarely used the term 'international'
in describing Auroville. She preferred the term 'universal',
clarifying the distinction like this:
Auroville wants to be a
universal town. A universal town-not international: universal, where
men and women of all countries will be able to live in peace and
progressive unity above all creeds, all politics and nationalities,
straining to realize human unity. (7.9.64)
It's a point she makes
again and again-that Auroville is a place for those who want to move
beyond the particularities of nationality, caste and religion ("the
first necessity is the inner discovery in order to know what one truly
is behind social, moral, cultural, racial and hereditary appearances").
The term 'international' ('between nations'), on the other hand,
still implies national structures of thought and being.
Yet Mother specified an
International Zone for Auroville. Why? Mother's plan that the Zone
should house pavilions of different culture and nations is based upon an
earlier idea she had wished to institute at the Sri Aurobindo
International Centre of Education as a concrete step towards Sri
Aurobindo's concept of world union. "The most important idea," she
explained, "is that the unity of the human race can be achieved
neither by uniformity nor by domination and subjection. Only a synthetic
organization of all nations, each one occupying its true place according
to its genius and the part it has to play in the whole, can bring about
a comprehensive and progressive unification." She proposed,
therefore, to create "a kind of permanent world-exhibition.in which
all countries will be presented in a concrete and living way.to help
individuals to become aware of the fundamental genius of the nation to
which they belong and at the same time to bring them into contact with
the ways of life of other nations, so that they learn to know and
respect equally the true spirit of all the countries of the world."
Here Mother implies a vital
distinction between the 'genius' of a nation, which relates to the
unique role it has to play in the world concert, and the superficial
aspects of nationality which often feed divisive chauvinism. In an
increasingly globalised culture it is difficult to know if the genius of
a nation may be modified over time as waves of immigration and
emigration change its constituent population. However, what is clear is
that in the "straining to realize human unity" it is the
chauvinistic aspect which has to be transcended. On the individual
level, contacting the genius or essence of one's own culture is an
important step in self-knowledge. And while it is not the ultimate step-Mother
emphasized that the 'true Aurovilian' goes beyond nationality,
religion and caste to discover their true being and a more universal
consciousness-national character, purified of all its accidental
aspects, may be a powerful vehicle for the action of this consciousness.
It is in this context that the International Zone with its cultural
pavilions has an essential role to play in Mother's 'universal'
Mother also explained what
she meant by the term 'international' when she used it in reference
to the Sri Aurobindo International University (as it was first called).
This didn't imply, she said, that the university would comprise
students from all nations of the world; rather 'international' meant
a place where "the cultures of the various parts of the world will be
represented here so as to be accessible to all." (August, 1952)
Similarly, it could be concluded that Auroville's task is not to
attract peoples from all nations to one township in Tamil Nadu, but
rather to provide a place where all cultures can be understood, a place
where, as Mother beautifully put it, people from all nations who want to
realize human unity based on the teaching of Sri Aurobindo "would be
Auroville and international politics
Having said all this, Mother
stressed that Auroville had an important role to play on the
international scene. One of her earliest statements referred to her wish
that the U.S.S.R.and the U.S. "which are on a collision course come
here (Auroville), and that both of them have a pavilion of their culture
and their ideal, and that they are here, face to face, and shake hands."
(23.4.66) And one of her first explanations of Auroville's raison d'etre
was that Auroville had the capacity to prevent a Third World War if the
" seed of truth" which it embodied was allowed to flower. In the
same conversation she explained how the decision of nations to
participate in building Auroville would mean that idealism had triumphed
over their pervasive fear of catastrophe: "if the nations collaborate,
even to a very small extent in the work of Auroville, it will do them a
lot of good-it can do them a lot of good, a good which may be quite
out of proportion to the apparent action."
It must be said that while
Mother was optimistic about being able to work through individuals like
Kennedy and Kruschev, she could be scathing about international
institutions. "Those people are so old-fashioned.still at the stage
of the 'materialist anti-religious movement'", she remarked of the
United Nations in 1966, and on another occasion she described UNESCO as
being "two hundred years behind the earth's progress, consequently
there isn't much hope that they will understand". "Understand"
in this context meant understand what Auroville stood for. Yet Mother
was later to support contacts being made with UNESCO, contacts which
resulted in UNESCO passing several resolutions of support for Auroville
as well as the visit, in 1970, of an important UNESCO representative to
There were a number of
reasons for this. According to her son, Andre, Mother was concerned that
Auroville be "visible", well-known to everybody by the time of Sri
Aurobindo's birth centenary year (1972), and UNESCO's support and
international network were seen as a powerful means of achieving this.
There was also the question of Auroville's status. Mother made it
clear, in response to a question about whether Auroville could be part
of a UNESCO project, that "to hand over the management of Auroville to
any country or any group however big it may be is an ABSOLUTE
IMPOSSIBILITY(sic)." This seems to be the import of her description of
Auroville as "the free international city", of her statement
(reported by Roger Anger) that "it is only the internationalization of
Auroville that will give it its true image and dimension", and of her
wish that the children born in Auroville's maternity unit should be
recognized as "world citizens". But Mother was also pragmatic. She
recognized that while India is the only country in the world with the
wisdom and wideness to welcome a project like Auroville, it was not yet
ready to accord the project a fully independent status. This was why she
emphasized that Aurovilians must strictly observe the laws of the land.
And the Auroville of today?
In what sense, if any, can it be termed 'international' or 'universal'?
After all, hardly any pavilions have been built in the International
Zone, we have yet to evolve any kind of 'world culture', and
Auroville's impact upon world affairs-as far as one can judge-seems
to have been negligible. But perhaps this is looking in the wrong
direction. For what is a daily fact of life here is the constant contact
and interaction between people from very different backgrounds and
cultures in a 'zone' or field which transcends nationality. We did
not come here to create an international city. We were drawn by
something else, an ideal which specifically requires us to go beyond
division, and it is through this rather than through nationality that we
relate to each other.
This is already a huge
achievement. And if the adults are not yet fully there-for many of us
still retain national and cultural characteristics, the national 'filters'
which delimit our vision and responses-it's safe to say that the
Auroville children, in their mixing of languages and disregard of
nationality, are well on the way to living that 'something else'.