Thursday, April 17, 2008

The social psychology of Auroville

Current issue Archive copies Auroville Experience February 2008
Auroville: an emerging spiritual township - Carel

Spirituality, according to Sri Aurobindo, is not a high intellectuality, idealism, an ethical turn of the mind, moral purity, religiosity or exalted emotional fervour. ‘Spirituality,' he writes in The Life Divine, ‘is in its essence an awakening to the inner reality of our being, to a spirit, self, soul which is other than our mind, life and body, an inner aspiration to know, to feel, to be that, to enter into contact with the greater Reality pervading the universe which inhabits also our own being, to be in communion with It and union with It, and a turning, a conversion, a transformation of our whole being as a result of the aspiration, the contact, the union, a growth or waking into a new becoming or new being, a new self, a new nature.'
The Mother, in describing the nature of a true Aurovilian, said the first step is ‘the inner discovery by which one learns who one really is behind the social, moral, cultural, racial and hereditary appearances” and finding that “at the centre there is a being, free, wide and knowing, who awaits our discovery and who ought to become the acting centre of our being and our life in Auroville.' For to live in Auroville, ‘one must be the willing servitor of the Divine Consciousness.'
Is this awakening to the inner reality happening in Aurovilians? Are Aurovilians inwardly aspiring to contact a greater Reality beyond? Can Auroville be described as an emerging spiritual township?
To find an answer to these difficult questions – for those who have a contact with their inner or higher reality don't usually shout it from the rooftops – Auroville Today spoke to Bindu Mohanty, who is doing a Ph.D. at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, U.S.A on the topic of the social psychology of Auroville. Part of her thesis deals with nascent spirituality in Auroville. Based on the responses of 130 Aurovilians to her research survey, she explains why she considers Auroville to be an emerging spiritual society.

Gauging spirituality
“Spirituality is a very difficult thing to gauge, especially in terms of the Integral Yoga,” says Bindu. “We are not talking about achieving siddhis, we are not talking about showing spiritual powers, but we are talking here about being ‘willing servitors of the divine consciousness'and letting things work out in their own way. That is a very individualistic process which makes it very difficult to speak about how spiritually-engaged people are in Auroville.”
The yardstick Bindu used to gauge the presence of a spiritual society is whether there is a spiritual orientation to the society and its members. This appears to be overwhelmingly present in Auroville. “The vast majority of my respondents mentioned the importance of integral yoga while delineating their path. Asked ‘What do you like about Auroville?', spirituality was the overriding factor in most people's lives and many expressed their belief in the work of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother,” says Bindu. Though most Aurovilians do not seem to follow any regular spiritual practices, there is a commonly-accepted view that through their work and by choosing to live in Auroville, Aurovilians participate in the spiritual evolution of humankind.
Faith that through The Mother's Force things will work out in the proper manner and time is widely prevalent. About 50% of the respondents talked about spirituality in a language that indicated that the spiritual was personally experienced. Writes Bindu, “While attitudes towards the Mother vary greatly even amongst those Aurovilians who specifically believe her to be a Divine being, what is common is that individuals, in their own personal ways, seek a relationship with her presence.”
Bindu warned about the shadow side of ‘professed' spirituality, which she terms ‘spiritual bypassing': “When people blindly trust the words of a spiritual leader without it being backed up by direct experience or by an insight arrived at through deep introspection, there is always a danger that people regress into religiosity… Also, by shifting the responsibility for a spiritualised future to a posited divine force, people limit their own ability to participate in the work of the divine reality.” She notes this becomes particularly evident whenever Aurovilians engage in attempts to reorganise the economy or the organisation or the town planning. “The ability to have rational debates on the interpretation of ‘sacred texts' or even on intuited norms of a divine reality is a salient characteristic of constructive modern spirituality. It should be a hallmark of Auroville.”

Spirituality as part of everyday life
Bindu found that spirituality is individually interpreted by Aurovilians, yet with a common nominator: there is an insistence on engagement with daily life – in other words, Aurovilians are mainly involved in karma yoga.
Spiritual search is also directly responsible for the fact that Aurovilians have consciously chosen a lifestyle in Auroville which is considered ‘abnormal' elsewhere – particularly in Western countries. “There is an amazing work-ethos in Auroville which does not depend on earning an income,” says Bindu. “Most people have just enough to get by, but they often work harder than in the West. Respondents among other things, mentioned that all work is for the divine, not for a pay-cheque, and that they are happy to take up whatever work is offered and needs to be done.
Bindu sees this attitude as a sincere attempt to live by Auroville's Charter. “This aspect of attempting to understand the Divine's will and surrendering one's interest to the Divine was surprisingly often mentioned by the respondents,” says Bindu. “They also mentioned the work of the Divine Force in Auroville which puts you in challenging situations and forces you to grow. There is a widely prevalent belief that, when one does not voluntarily surrender to the Divine's will, one gets knocks and blows that teach one to go within and to detach oneself from egotistic motives.”

Auroville's path of spirituality is marked by the freedom of individuals to realize their being in whatever forms are most suitable to them.
Bindu mentions that such freedom, without the discipline of an ordained practice, can lead to unrestricted hedonism of the egoistic self and may even lead to the surfacing of the worst traits of someone's personality. She argues that in this yoga, which aims at integral transformation of the personality, such surfacing of character deformations is necessary so that they can be worked upon rather than suppressed. However, not all Aurovilians underwrite this idea. Bindu quotes one Auroville psychologist who says, “Aurovilians can delude themselves into thinking that they are participating in a collective yoga of transformation when, in reality, they are embedded in psychological pathologies.”

The Matrimandir
“One cannot emphasize enough the importance of the Matrimandir in the collective life of Auroville,” writes Bindu. The Mother described the Matrimandir as ‘the central cohesive force of Auroville' and this is experienced as such by many Aurovilians. “It is not unusual that in the early phases of a community's development, the construction of a building should take on such a symbolic significance,” says Bindu, pointing out that throughout history many religious groups have promoted material symbols, such as specific buildings, to foster commitments and allegiance amongst their members. But the spiritual significance of the Matrimandir was indicated by The Mother herself. Many respondents talked about ‘the experience of concentrating in the Chamber', or described it as ‘a place for individual initiation' or ‘the Matrimandir, being the soul of Auroville, is my home'. Yet, Bindu found that not all Aurovilians regularly concentrate in the Chamber – “a couple of Aurovilians mentioned that they find the atmosphere too sterile and artificial” – which, she says, is no indication that they are not engaged in a spiritual search.

One hallmark of a spiritual society is the way it provides an integral education for children, allowing them to develop and honour all the different dimensions of their being. “Auroville's attempts to provide such an education are common knowledge, even though here Auroville is in a transitional stage,” says Bindu. One of her respondents was born and brought up in Auroville and then went out to Europe for further studies. “She said that because of her upbringing she was a happy person with a positive outlook on life, while many people in Europe she met seemed content to just live, work and go for holidays without ever questioning what life was all about or taking a deeper look into themselves.”
Though Aurovilians haven't yet found an economic structure in accordance with the ideals, which is that one works for the joy of expressing oneself or serving the community and not to earn a living, economic experiments to realize the ideals have been going on for the last decades and show no sign of abating.
“The present capitalistic phase in Auroville,” writes Bindu, “could well be a transitory stage in the evolution of both the human being and society.” Here she refers to Sri Aurobindo who spoke of how capitalism institutionalised the French revolutionary goal of liberty, while communism institutionalised the second goal of equality. But neither of these ideals can be perfectly achieved till the human consciousness truly embodies the third revolutionary aim of fraternity which, wrote Sri Aurobindo, can only ‘exist in the soul and by the soul; it can exist by nothing else.'
To establish such a fraternity is one of the ideals of Auroville. Auroville's social structure, then, is constantly being experimented upon to allow for the embodiment of these ideals where one sees each person as a unique embodiment of the Divine – a realisation that fosters tolerance and acceptance of all people, irrespective of race, nationality or cultural differences.

Aurovilians seek to do away with the need for rigid, organisational structures, believing that the organisational structure of Auroville should be determined by something higher. This is in accordance with the ideal expressed by The Mother where ‘organisation is the expression of a higher consciousness working for the manifestation of the truth of the future' and ‘individuals should unite with the divine consciousness to organise themselves spontaneously without rules.' Bindu, however observes that in direct contradiction to these ideals, Auroville has moved to a more structured society in consequence of the Auroville Foundation Act. “Auroville has developed structures that govern all aspects of collective life such as housing, town planning, economy and entry. Over the years, these structures and governing bodies have become increasingly complex, clumsy and bureaucratic – the shadow of the flexible organisation foreseen by The Mother,” she writes. This, she believes, is a direct outcome of the collective level of consciousness of the Aurovilians.
Sense of community
While quite a few Aurovilians express a spontaneous, inner connection with other individuals, even with those they do not know well, others lament the lack of communal life. It is too early to speak about doing a collective yoga. “If by collective yoga, we understand, as Mother explained, that there is a spiritual experience of the oneness of all, then clearly Auroville is not at this level. As an Aurovilian woman said: if there is at all a collective yoga going on in Auroville it is largely unconscious.” Bindu explains how, for many years, the focus has been on the development of the physical base, taking care of and revitalizing the lands; then came some ‘vital' developments, which started culturally; for the last six to eight years there has been a gradual switch to the mental level, with study programmes becoming widely available. “Some Aurovilians believe that with the completion of the Matrimandir, Auroville will take a giant leap towards expressing a collective spirituality. From my research, I can definitively conclude that Auroville is an emerging spiritual society.”
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