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November 2005

 

“There is no fundamental difference”

- Alan

An introduction to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram - Auroville relationship

 

As Mother made clear, the Ashram and Auroville issued from the same high source of inspiration. However, she was often asked to clarify the relationship between the two. As early as her first detailed conversation about Auroville, in June 1965, she stated that neither she nor the Ashram would actually move to Auroville (although she might visit). Auroville, she explained, is “the contact with the outside world”. A few months after the inauguration of Auroville she further clarified, “The Ashram will keep its true role of pioneer, inspirer and guide. Auroville is the attempt towards collective realization.” Thus Mother stressed from the very beginning two of the characteristics which distinguish Auroville from the Ashram – the fact that it is more ‘outward', more involved with the texture and challenges of the ‘real' world, and the emphasis upon collective action as opposed to the more individualistic yoga of the Ashram.

Relaxing after the bonfire on August 15th, Sri Aurobindo’s birthday
The first settlers in Auroville were predominantly Western, and many were strongly influenced by the anti-authoritarian attitudes of the 1960s. In appearance, attitude and behaviour they represented a totally different world from that of the highly-regulated, overwhelmingly Indian-populated Ashram in Pondicherry . Some Ashramites must have wondered who these strange people were, and why Mother was welcoming them without imposing on them the same admission conditions and discipline as prevailed in the Ashram. Was there, perhaps, a fundamental difference between the ideal of the Ashram and Auroville? Mother replied, “There is no fundamental difference in the attitude towards the future and towards the service of the Divine. But the people of the Ashram are considered to have consecrated their lives to yoga (except, of course, the students...). Whereas in Auroville, the simple goodwill to make a collective experiment for the progress of humanity is sufficient to gain admittance.”

In 1969, she wrote her fullest explication of the Ashram-Auroville relationship for a UNESCO committee.

“The task of giving a concrete form to Sri Aurobindo's vision was entrusted to The Mother. The creation of a new world, a new humanity, a new society expressing and embodying the new consciousness is the work she has undertaken. By the very nature of things, it is a collective ideal that calls for a collective effort so that it may be realized in terms of an integral human perfection.

The Samadhi in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram
The Ashram founded and built by The Mother was the first step towards the accomplishment of this goal. The project of Auroville is the next step, more exterior, which seeks to widen the base of this attempt to establish harmony between soul and body, spirit and nature, heaven and earth, in the collective life of mankind.”

And the next year she added, “The Ashram is the central consciousness, Auroville is one of the outward expressions. In both places equally the work is done for the Divine.”

The latter sentence seemed particularly aimed at those who felt that the early Aurovilians were not at all the right material for hastening the advent of a new world. And this was not just the perception of certain Indian Ashramites. In a famous conversation of 10th January, 1970 , Satprem reports an Italian disciple suggesting that the Ashramites should join Aurovilians in building the Matrimandir, “because without the inner force of the people of the Ashram mingling with the Aurovilians, the people from Auroville will remain what they are.” The Aurovilians, he explained, are not “receptive enough to do the work”, they are “full of arrogance, of incomprehension, they only see the outside of things”. He concluded that the “breach” between Auroville and the Ashram could only be healed if the Ashramites and Aurovilians worked together. However, to Satprem's obvious astonishment, Mother replies, “As for myself, I don't find it (the breach) wide enough...It isn't at all the same plane.” And she goes on to explain that she didn't want Ashramites to be infected by the bad habits of some Aurovilians. As if to reinforce this concern, her next message regarding the Ashram-Auroville relationship was precipitated by an Aurovilian misbehaving in the Ashram playground, resulting in a call to ban entry to all Aurovilians.
The Unity Pond with behind it the Banyan tree in Auroville

“Being an Aurovilian is not at all the same thing as being a member of the Ashram and living the Ashram life,” she wrote, and went on to say that only those Aurovilians who had been in the Ashram before the birth of Auroville had the right to attend playground activities.

There followed what seemed to be a blizzard of messages from Mother to the Aurovilians on topics like the need to tell the truth, to avoid violence and to go beyond egotistical limitations. When, in March 1972, a fire completely destroyed the Toujours Mieux workshop in Aspirations, Satprem asked her if this was due to “a wrong attitude over there?” “Yes. Oh, they're all quarrelling among themselves! And some even disobey deliberately, they refuse to recognize any authority.”
Aurovilians too await their turns for visiting Sri Aurobindo’s and The Mother’s rooms on darshans

Interestingly, however, Mother stated that “I do not want to make rules for Auroville as I did for the Ashram.” And even if she was forced to make one exception (regarding drugs), she continued to be, from the point of view of some Ashramites, extremely lenient in her attitude to some Aurovilians, allowing some of them chance after chance to reform their behaviour. She wanted, it seems, the Aurovilians to progress not through obedience to imposed rules, as in the Ashram, but through the practical discovery that the old habits, “like smoking, drinking and, of course, drugs...all that, it is as if you were cutting pieces off your being.” In any case, she said, there would be a natural weeding-out. “The power of the realization – of the sincerity of the realization – is such that it's unbearable to those who are insincere.”

In spite of Mother's strictures and the increasing scepticism of a few Ashramites concerning the viability of the Auroville experiment, throughout these years many Ashramites and students from the Ashram School continued to come to Auroville. Some worked on the Matrimandir, others taught in Aspiration School or helped with physical education.
The covered staircase to The Mother’s room on her birthday February 21st, a darshan day
After Mother's passing, however, there was a progressive worsening of the relationship with the main office-holders of the Sri Aurobindo Society (SAS) whom, it was felt, wanted to run Auroville as their personal project. The situation deteriorated to such an extent that, in 1980, the Government of India passed the Auroville (Emergency Provisions) Act, temporarily taking the management of the project out of the hands of the SAS.

The conflict was clearly with the SAS rather than with the Ashram, and throughout this difficult period many Aurovilians and Ashramites continued to visit each other just as before and maintained deep friendships. However, there were incidents which, for some individuals, weakened their links with the other community. For example, the Ashram teachers working at Aspiration School were very distressed when, in the mid 1970s, they were put before an ultimatum which required them to either join Auroville or stop teaching there. Even though the reason had more to do with radical educational theories than opposition to Ashramites, the decision of the Ashram teachers to stop coming reflected their feeling that they were no longer welcome. On the other hand, when the Ashram trustees refused to support the Aurovilians, choosing to remain aloof from the conflict, some Aurovilians felt betrayed. Similarly, those Aurovilians close to Satprem were dismayed by the way they believed the Ashram authorities had mistreated him in pursuit of the Agenda tapes. The publication of Mother's Agenda, which contained strong comments on certain Ashramites and certain aspects of the Ashram, coupled with Satprem's pronouncement that the Ashram was dead, further reinforced a feeling in some Aurovilians that Auroville need have nothing to do with that institution.

In recent years, however, there has been much more interchange between the two communities. This is due to a number of factors. The passing of the Auroville Foundation Act in 1988, which finally took away the right of the SAS to manage Auroville and gave Auroville its own legal status, gave Aurovilians a renewed confidence in their independence and allowed many of the psychological battlements to be dismantled. Then the opening of the Chamber in August, 1991, resulted in a significant increase in the number of Ashramites visiting Matrimandir. A few years later, another bridge was put in place when Savitri Bhavan began inviting Ashramites to give talks to Aurovilians on different aspects of the yoga: these have proved very popular. Alongside this there has been an increasing cultural interchange, of which the recent joint art exhibition is only the latest manifestation.
And, of course, new people have joined Auroville who have little knowledge of or interest in the old stories, while former antagonists have gained greater understanding of each other's perspectives over the years.
Members of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram on their Sunday shift at the Matrimandir granite workshop
Obviously, Mother created a very different ethos, or ‘work environment', for the Ashram and Auroville, and sometimes the differences have been misunderstood or over-amplified. Ashramites, for example, have been stereotyped as over-devotional, hidebound by tradition and unwilling to experiment, while Aurovilians have been seen as ‘vital', undisciplined and more interested in outer manifestation than inner development. Partly, this reflects different cultural centres of gravity in the two communities, as well as the failure to offload ‘baggage' some of us have been carrying for many years, if not many lives. It's worth remembering, however, that when Mother talked of the need to be receptive to the new consciousness and to prepare the world for a new creation, she made absolutely no distinction between Auroville and the Ashram. For her, they are clearly one.


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