Outer Space or Inner? – De Ville with an Aura
By Praghosa Dasa
Having spent 32 days in Mayapur from the 1st of February and the last 4 days in Pondicherry (Puducherry) and Auroville. I am now returning to Mayapur for approximately a month, leaving in the second week of April.
There was little to deny the ecstasy that most (all?) devotees felt when they arrived at Mayapur this year for the Gaura Purnima festival and saw that construction on the Temple of the Vedic Planetarium had actually begun. It has been over 40 years in the making, so to see the large fenced off area (yes a building site – but who cares), which I have to say is one of the neatest construction sites I have ever seen was a joy to behold. As I mentioned to some devotees, being resident in the Chakra building only metres from the building site, meant that I felt every pound (thud, thud, thud), of every pile that was being driven deep into the soil. Indeed one evening I swear I took rest in room 225 and woke up in room 335! Still it was simply ecstatic.
Among ISKCON achievements over the last 40 years or so this new temple must be right up there with the millions of books distributed, the hundreds of thousands of hearts transformed and the austerities performed by devotees in the former USSR and Kazakhstan etc.
During those decades there have been attempts in Mayapur and elsewhere at developing viable and dynamic communities both in terms of infrastructure (master plan, that dreaded word), as well social and economic structures. In Mayapur at least, aside from the services industry, guesthouses and restaurants and the somewhat below par gift shops, that development has been less than complete.
As the new temple becomes a reality the pressure increasingly rises for improving both the infrastructure and the social and economic base at Mayapur.
Given that previous attempts have been less than perfect, it was felt that we should seek inspiration and examples from other sources. To some degree historically this has been a little frowned upon but using the principles of yukta vairagya and taking jewels from a dirty place etc., half of the newly constituted Mayapur Master Plan team set off on a four day visit to Auroville, just outside the town of Pondicherry.
I personally knew very little about Auroville so I tried to go there with an open mind, accepting things on face value and trying to leave my naturally cynical nature to one side – I think I was reasonably successful in that effort. Firstly I would like to outline where I think we can significantly learn from the Auroville experiment. Actually that phrase experiment is one that is often used by ‘Aurovillians’ and for those readers who have no knowledge of this experiment, it began to physically manifest in 1968. The original inspiration for this experiment came from the politician/poet and spiritual leader Sri Aurobindo. Aurobindo was a Bengali who at least initially was influenced by vaisnavism. Things seemed to change when he became closely acquainted with a French lady who became known as mother. The physical manifestation of the Auroville project began after the physical departure of Sri Aurobindo so the main energy for this project came from ‘mother’. Interestingly mother began the project in 1968 and passed away in 1973. So her physical influence on the project was quite limited. Even her ideological writings are relatively small in volume when you compare them to the vast writings of Srila Prabhupada and of course the philosophical and ideological depth of her writings, even from an independently objective viewpoint, really don’t bear comparison to Srila Prabhupada’s profound message that descends through the gaudiya vaisnava parampara.
However that is not the complete story and my next observation left for me at least some further questions.
Here are some of the key sutras given by mother (and as previously mentioned there is not too much more than these sutras):
“All assets, all properties belong to Auroville and Auroville belongs to humanity as a whole”
“Auroville is the ideal place for those who want to know the joy and liberation of losing the sense of personal possession”
“There should be somewhere on earth, a place which no nation could claim as its own, where all human beings of good will who have a sincere aspiration, could live freely as citizens of the world and obey one single authority, that of the supreme truth; a place of peace, concord and harmony” “An Aurovilian should lose the sense of personal possession. For our passage in the material world, what is indispensable to our life and to our action is put at our disposal according to the place we must occupy. The more we are consciously in contact with our inner being, the more are the exact means given to us”
The above sutras are attributed solely to the mother and she neither directly nor indirectly indicates any connection or reference to sastra, hence we are led to conclude they are wholly and solely her own creations. That said you could be forgiven for thinking she might have had a glimpse at the isavasyam idam sarvam verse from Sri Isopanisad or maybe the mayi sarvani karmani verse from Bhagavad gita [3.30]
As we know the subject matter of detachment and freedom from possessiveness is one of the key themes of the Bhagavad gita with many verses dealing with that issue. Of course the principle of yukta vairagya encourages devotees to use everything in Krishna’s service so detachment and freedom from possessions is not a poverty culture and as long as the internal realisation and siddhanta is correct then any externals are of course subservient to them. Still adhering to both of those principles does not require personal ownership and in most cases personal ownership is likely to inhibit the development of pure bhakti.
Taking all that into account, what is interesting to observe at Auroville, notwithstanding their relative paucity of rich and authentic philosophical grounding, is their absolute commitment and conviction for all members to be free of significant personal ownership. In the case of Auroville this particularly relates to land and property. Given that their founder acarya passed away in 1973 they have admirably held firm to this principle. However when you speak to members of the Auroville community you do not get a sense that they are needing to hold firm, rather you get the sense that this is a principle that they dearly cherish and in essence is one of the main reasons they became Aurovillians in the first place. In all honesty it was a little embarrassing when I asked different members what would the community do if some one either bought or tried to buy land or property in their personal name. The response was almost identical every time and it began with “we don’t have a policy in place to deal with that because it has never happened and we are absolutely confident it never will” There was really no ambiguity from any of the members that we asked this question of, it was clear that it was a fundamental principle that has never been in danger and from their perspective is never likely to be. They are really living and enjoying living up to;
“Auroville is the ideal place for those who want to know the joy and liberation of losing the sense of personal possession”
Now while journeying back to Mayapur and reflecting on what we can learn and then hopefully apply from our Auroville experience, for me the key one is for us as a collective group (at least in a place like Mayapur where we are trying to establish what Prabhupada often referred to as the example of an ideal community), to rediscover our sense of adventure and plunge fearlessly forward, without keeping one foot in the camp of; ‘let me keep some private ownership of land or property just in case’
Sastra continually reminds us that this Krsna conscious experiment will provide us with the highest and inexplicable rewards – Krishna prema – reaching such lofty realms though does require a lifting of that foot.
Yes so that was undoubtedly the most significant lesson learned but I shouldn’t finish without mentioning things like their quite advanced waste management system (no mixing of organic and non organic waste and no hoards of roaming dogs in Auroville), as well as their impressive use of alternative energy both wind, biogas and solar. Everyday they cook in their ‘solar kitchen’ a meal for over a 1000 people that is exclusively the result of solar power. Then they have their extensive production of bricks and ferro cement that are used for the vast majority of their construction projects. Little or no use of re-enforced concrete that is both more expensive, less environmentally friendly and has a significantly shorter life span. Other admirable efforts in place are such things as food production, subsidised schooling, external health cover as well as internal health facilities, 1,250 acres dedicated to afforestation with over 1.5 million trees planted and adequate monthly stipends for all those who choose to give 36 hours a week to the Auroville experiment. An interesting point about the stipend arrangement was that you got a sense that no matter how many were availing of it, that they wanted more to do so. Not that they had a limited budget whereby they were discouraging people from coming forward. They also have elaborate arrangements for shopping and eating in cafes where no cash is exchanged rather there is an Auroville bank where your individual account is debited accordingly. And best of all is that if you go overdrawn – no worries, you will only be informed about that if it is a chronic and persistent pattern. What often happens is that for all those who are overdrawn there are usually just as many, if not more members, who are in credit, therefore as long as the overall balance of the community is in the black no one gets too stressed about it.
Actually it is this sense of security that the members feel, with regards to so many of their personal needs, that seems to allow them to have no trepidation as far as not personally owning their own property.
You might be thinking as a result of all this positive comment on the Auroville project our delegation might have been thinking of jumping the good ship ISKCON and becoming Aurovillians? Well the answer is no : We might have been tempted but only up to the point of our visit to the centre of the project – the ‘MatriMandir’. In essence this would be the equivalent of their temple but that is where any comparisons ended. Unlike the liberal, tolerant and consensus-based mood of everything else at Auroville, the visit to the MatriMandir was very different. It began with quite a long wait with a group of 50 or so all being informed of the rules – rules that are no negotiable. Rules such as complete silence, the wearing of Auroville issued socks, 12 minutes of silent mediation, if any more than a brief clearing of the throat is required you would be immediately escorted from the mandir and unless a chair was previously requested you must sit cross legged on a cushion for the duration of your stay. During the induction and as I gazed across at the Mandir some 300 metres away, which looked more like a giant golden golf ball than a mandir (more like a shrine to a once deified Tiger – not of the Bengal variety – than anything to do with the Divine), I couldn’t help myself from asking a few pointed questions.
Those questions focused on the inspiration for the mandir – was there any basis in sastra for it (although I didn’t use that word), or was it exclusively based on the ‘dream’ of the mother? In a nutshell the answer was it was all the result of the ‘divine dream’ of the mother and while I could have probed more I sensed our guide was already feeling some pressure from my line of questioning so I desisted. Then the turn of our group came and we all filed in single line the 300 metres to the entrance of the mandir. It was a long 300 metres as our guide was walking at a ridiculously slow pace, at least for me, and the intensity of the late morning sun was oppressive. As we got closer to the mandir it increasingly became more surreal. The golf ball design grew ever more imposing and somehow I was feeling like an extra in some extravagant sci-fi movie. That feeling only hardened as we entered the mandir from one of the four open tunnel-like entrances at the base of the sphere. One thing that was very striking on entry was the finishing material used inside the mandir. Materials such as marble, gold, glass, PVC and high quality deep pile white pure wool carpet. The overall effect and impression was one of quality and style. Still, if anything, that only added to the eerie weirdness of it all. After we had all put on our white cotton socks we proceeded to walk anti-clockwise upwards on a step less walkway to the top of the mandir. As we walked there was little to observe aside from space, the uniformed and somewhat moronic movement of our group as well as right at the bottom there was a gap to the outside where beneath was what looked like a lotus shaped pond. As we reached the top of the mandir we entered the closed meditation room, which again was impressive from a design and creative point of view but just added to the overall cultish nature of the experience. For those of my generation from the UK please consider the cult TV series ‘the Prisoner’ and the star of the show ‘number 6’. For others perhaps you can consider the Syd Barrett era of Pink Floyd and songs such as ‘set the controls for the heart of the sun’. It really was that kind of experience. After twelve minutes lights from above flashed twice to indicate that we were either taking off or that or meditation session was over, fortunately it was the latter and we again were silently led away.
The really paradoxical aspect to the whole thing was that notwithstanding the mandir experience and how it contrasted to the rest of the community dynamics, we later asked some Aurovillians how often they visited the mandir and some told us they haven’t been there in years, one mentioned eight years but that had no bearing on their standing or influence in the community.
Still whatever the requirements or social pressures to visit the mandir, the fact remains that as a spiritual experience it simply didn’t register and from a vaisnava siddhanta perspective the whole operation was little other than inflicting violence on all those who are unfortunate enough to be taken in by it.
So in closing, our glorious ISKCON society continues to excel and in many cases leads the world in such endeavours as opening temples, Deity worship, distribution of literature and prasadam etc. Yet there is little doubt that we have a long way to go in developing stable, sustainable and workable communities but we can learn much from the likes of the Auroville experiment that is now well into its 4th decade and seemingly going from strength to strength with its core principles and values as strong as ever. No doubt there are other examples we can learn from to.
Many years ago in an attempt to address the decline of our rural communities in ISKCON the GBC allowed grhasta’s to purchase freehold ISKCON land. This was responding to the appeal that such freehold ownership would give the security grhastas required to settle and commit long term to those rural communities. However nearly two decades later this policy has had little or no positive effect and most of our rural communities continue to decline. It would seem clear that the success of our rural communities depend on a collective agreement with the core values given to us by Srila Prabhupada and underpinned by varnasrama dharma, freehold ownership not being one of them. Additionally we need to provide leadership that applies the principle of descending authority lovingly and flexibly so that such leadership will evoke and maintain the trust of its members. Other helpful measures in place at Auroville to assist with that effort is their weekly thirty page newsletter which includes all discussions, progress, issues and proposals that are happening in the community. If that doesn’t satisfy the appetite of all members then they can either tune into the internet or the local radio station to follow all meetings and discussions live.
As we entered once again through the gates of Sri Dham Mayapur I reflected on some of the immediate issues facing this community such as; spiralling electricity bills, poor waste management, lack of organic food production, delicate community cohesion etc., but perhaps the most notable issue facing us is not just the increasing number of devotees who are desiring to privately own their own land and property but also the rising tide of devotees who see little complication with undertaking commercial property developments in the holy dhama, thus making considerable profit as a result.
Without apportioning blame perhaps we can collectively take responsibility for somehow allowing ourselves to take our collective eye off the bigger picture and greater goal and now as a result of that, other needs have taken prominence.
When you consider how the Auroville experiment has been able to ever secure their principle of a ‘freehold less’ society with moderate inspiration and direction, what to speak of tradition, other than that coming from the French born Mirra Alfassa (mother), we can surely be confident in achieving a far more cohesive and united community under the banner of Gaudiya vaisnava vision. Specifically as far as a freehold less society is concerned and particularly one in the hold dhama we have to look no further than the following to ensure that we stop talking and start walking:
A new devotee who had just taken up the dress of babaji would often come and talk with Srila Gaurakisora. Finally he decided to live in the holy dhama, and so he approached a landowner queen to purchase three-quarters of an acre of land. After hearing this, Srila Gaurakisora said,”The supreme abode of the Lord is transcendental. How is it possible that this queen has become the owner of the holy dhama? How is it that she is entitled to sell that new babaji a portion of land in the holy dhama? All the jewels within the universe are not valuable enough to purchase even one speck of dust from the holy dhama”