three and a half day workshop was offered recently in Auroville
targeting a unique audience of 25 development workers from the
Auroville Village Action Group (AVAG), an organization that runs
social development programmes in over 30 villages in the bioregion,
and 10 teachers from from Isaiambalam, an Auroville outreach school.
Ambitious in its scope, it was titled 'The Mother's Auroville
Dream and its Relevance to the Individual and Social Development
of People in the Auroville Area'. Subash, an Aurovilian who manages
Isaiambalam and who offered the workshop, explains that this is
the first time that he has introduced the ideals of Auroville
and the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother to a group of
adults unfamiliar with them, solely in Tamil. When asked why and
how such a topic was picked, Subash answers, "The scope of
AVAG's work has
started increasing both quantitatively and qualitatively. Its
Women's Clubs are gradually achieving women's empowerment through
both economic and educational activities. The field staff is in
need of taking initiatives to involve the entire village community
in the development work. If they can view people with understanding
and empathy it will enable them to work effectively with them.
I felt that their awareness of the broader Auroville context can
produce this understanding." The collaboration between AVAG
and Isai Ambalam came about from a desire expressed by Greta Jenssen,
the coordinator of projects funded by the European Community,
'to see more interaction between Auroville and its neighbours'.
The workshop model
The workshop was based on the concept of the evolutionary growth
of the individual and society with its four stages of development,
physical, vital, mental and spiritual, as put forth by Sri Aurobindo
and The Mother. Aware that Sri Aurobindo's philosophy is not easy
to comprehend, Subash prepared relatively simple concepts utilizing
a self-analysis format. This was built around four questions 'Shall
we dream?', 'Shall we know how we grow?', 'Shall we draw a plan
for self-development?', and 'Is it possible to accelerate one's
self-development?' Each idea was explored through worksheets,
questionnaires, and the sharing of personal life experiences.
At the end of the workshop, the participants were invited to set
a personal goal for self-improvement and design a plan to achieve
it within the next 30 days applying the tools provided in the
workshop. Sixteen development workers accepted the invitation
The overall response to the workshop was on the whole positive.Subash
notes that the self-analysis exercises were much appreciated.
Ayyappan, a development worker, shares how this workshop has affected
his life. "My work is intense and I work a lot in the open
- under the hot sun, exposed to people and their raw emotions.
This workshop helped me see that I have control over my state
of response and this gave me a sense of empowerment over my personal
atmosphere." After a moment's hesitation, he adds, "I
realized that I love myself. Many times I was angry at myself
for being a certain way, and it was a burden." Parimala concurs
that she too feels more compassionate towards herself now. "There
is a greater harmony inside me than before. It seems as if people
are cooperating more with me, and I have no logical explanation
Lakshmi, another participant, says, "Now, after the workshop,
when anything negative happens to me, I have started asking the
question 'Why?' What is it in me that has led to this disharmony?
Before I never worked for myself, on myself. Now I hear a little
voice in me that insists that I do something for me. It takes
an effort, but life seems strangely smoother." There appears
to be a similarity in the experiences among many participants,
and they all express incredulousness about the changes they have
observed in themselves. They also reveal that following the workshop,
their curiosity about Sri Aurobindo, The Mother, and Auroville
has increased. They have many questions which they seek answers
to: Why are there so few Muslims in Auroville? Why are Sri Aurobindo's
teachings inaccessible to the illiterate? Does this mean that
Sri Aurobindo's philosophy targets the upper caste and the educated
who are in larger numbers at the Ashram? Why did not more people
cooperate or follow Sri Aurobindo?
Spirituality versus religion
However, a few of them have also been raising concerns. Some have
perceived the workshop to be slightly religious in nature due
to the frequent allusions to Hindu mythology, and have been debating
the issue since. "This approach was very novel for them,"
says Anbu who manages AVAG. "Our regular workshops are secular
no references to spirituality or religion. Though most of our
workers come from Hindu backgrounds, almost all of are sensitized
to caste issues and its consequence, the class system. In this
workshop, for example, the stages of development as described
by Sri Aurobindo were illustrated using the analogy of the ten
Avatars. A few of the staff could not accept that, and actually
dissociated themselves from the workshop."
Subash acknowledges that he was aware of this potential problem. "At the very outset, we requested everyone to 'unhinge' their
minds and set them aside. Of course it was easier said than done."
Gopi, a participant from AVAG shares his views candidly. "Even
though I tried to detach my mind, the examples used made my mind
switch on again! For example, when a video of Sri Aurobindo's
life story was presented, the final scene ended with a shot of
an eagle circling the sky. To me, it automatically signified Garuda,
Lord Vishnu's vehicle. But this did not bother me as I approached
the workshop pragmatically, staying focussed on the tools I could
use in my daily life."
Others like Valli from AVAG observed that the AVAG staff seemed
somehow different from the teachers of Isaiambalam. She found
it interesting that most of the teachers seemed to project a feeling
of bhakti (devotion) to the Mother, which she and her colleagues
did not share. "But we seemed to share something else: a
certain search for Truth," she adds.
The gender debate
Rajendran and Dhananchezhiyan, who belong to the few that refused
to participate in the 30-day goal setting exercise, were troubled
by the absence of any female references in the lectures. "All
the examples were using male figures," complains Dhananchezhiyan.
"Every time the word 'Man' was used, I cringed. I wanted
to hear 'woman' instead." Anbu attributes this to their sensitivity
to social injustices which particularly affect women. "There
is much gender and class awareness amongst them. This is also
what makes them effective in the field, to be able to motivate
the women they interact with, counsel those in the throes of crisis,
and facilitate initiatives which empower them." On asked
about this, Subash says, "It is difficult to include both
the genders while writing and speaking in Tamil without considerably
affecting the flow of reading or understanding. In fact, such
a feeling in some of them did not at all hinder the participants'
thinking and understanding about the process and ideas of self-development
nor their sharing."
The workshop certainly raised unexpected questions and Subash
takes this in his stride. He feels that this is a healthy sign
and a first step to breaking down barriers. He says that he has
learnt a lot from the responses of this audience. "The next
workshop will incorporate many changes based on this feedback.
I have already started to refine and develop it." He plans
to offer the subsequent Tamil workshop to the teachers of other
outreach schools in Auroville and to the Tamil Aurovilians who
have completed at least high school education. "This time
the focus will be on the educational philosophy of Sri Aurobindo
and The Mother, and its relevance to the Auroville context. We
hope that in the process they will get a deeper and intimate contact
with Auroville," he says optimistically.