In our issue on "Global Climate Change," we interviewed Alan Lithman (Savitra) about Auroville’s environmental restoration work, which has included planting over 2 million trees on what was previously barren land ["Living Restoration," IC #22]. In that interview he studiously avoided muddying the waters with questions about the spiritual component of Auroville’s community life. So for this issue, we invited him to write about precisely that topic.
Savitra is a 20-year resident of Auroville, and the author of Auroville: A Trust for the Earth. Auroville is an experimental global community located in southern India. It belongs (according to its Charter) to "humanity as a whole." For more information contact Auroville Int’l USA, Box 162489, Sacramento, CA 95816; or Auroville Secretariat, Bharat Nivas, Tamil Nadu, India 605101.
I left San Francisco as the sixties closed irrevocably behind me. Boarding the charter flight for London, bound for India and Auroville, I sensed, as I strained to look out the tiny cabin window of the cramped DC-8, that I would never see this world again through the same eyes. I never did.
I spent the next five weeks hitchhiking overland, wading back through the current of Civilization and a spectrum of planetary culture that gradually receded in its material aggression and dynamism, withdrawing from its American excesses, tempering as it slipped through Europe across the Bosphorus where it began to wither in Asian lands where scales reversed, where men and animals carried the burden of machines. In these lands space grew more austere, and time moved slower and slower until it seemed hardly to move at all.
On the thirty-sixth day of the voyage, my momentum carried me over a last border of hills and into the plains of India, Bharat Mata.
Exhausted, I spent two days in Delhi before the final passage south to Pondicherry and Auroville. My entry coincided with the ten-day festival of Durga Puja and the streets were jammed with people. The contrast of cultures stunned my senses. Poverty pervaded the explosion of sounds and colors and smells. Turmeric and sandal and jasmine mingled with the stench of urine and decay.
Twenty years later, I still see this striking split-image of our twin Poverties, one the exaggerated inversion of the other: One is a civilized and bloated emptiness, the mechanical sterilities of Los Angeles and New York; the other pierces me with the stare of an emaciated street-beggar in Madras. The Poverty of Spirit and the Poverty of Matter. The Poverty of West and East, First World and Third. Are they not inextricably bound together?
The present state of the earth simply no longer fits possessively into halves – my/your, his/her, spiritual/material – because it is urgently, desperately pressing for the whole. Despite the ego and arrogance of our species, with its rush of conflicting personal and national claims, all of our halves are have-nots.
India is not a place that lends itself to casual scrutiny. Her Vedic origins, according to Sri Aurobindo in his Secret of the Vedas, have been poorly translated, and, for the most part, miserably misinterpreted by Western scholars. For the rishis (seers) of that era, Matter was the form and body of God, earth was the field of a Divine manifestation, and Power was implicit in Wisdom.
But in time, this integral experience dissipated. The Spiritual was gradually severed from the Material. And since that primal division, India has lived for thousands of years under the shadow of the sannyasin – the ascetic who, in his quest for realization, has taken the vow to reject life and the world as a necessary precondition to discover the Truth. Life and Matter are excluded from the participation in that Truth. This persistent dogma trickled down for centuries through the body of Indian culture, sapping it of its vitality and negating its will to progress.
Spirituality became equated with a contemplative poise aloof from Life. Realization was described negatively as moksha, liberation. Fulfillment lay elsewhere, within or beyond. The Earth was reduced to an obstacle – an ordeal that one had patiently to endure. In this scenario, death became the deliverer, even the hero.
An endless stream of ochre-clad monks steadily imprinted this habit of retreat deeper into the psyche of the culture, inexorably turning the eyes and energies of the nation away from life, convincing it of the illusion, maya, of material existence. A powerful Truth that sought the heights above all else gradually deformed into an attitude, a habit, an impotence that abandoned Matter and left her at the mercy of Force divorced from Wisdom, void of Love.
Inevitably, this subtle disconnection from the material plane of life left India vulnerable to the successive invasions of the Huns, the Moghuls, the Greeks, the Persians, the Mongols, the Afghans, the Portuguese, the French and the British – the vanquishing of a culture whose profound spirituality nevertheless excluded the outer from the inner. This is the Poverty of Spirit.
Today, freed from foreign domination, India still bears the consequences of this deep contradiction that we all inherit in one form or the other, and that we all must resolve. Her resources have been severely depleted, her forests and wildlife are decimated. And it is this same impotence and ignorance that leaves our entire planet vulnerable to the greed of a ruthless Materialism, an orthodoxy of blind commercialism and militarism, that excludes the inner from the outer – the Poverty of Matter.
AN EARTHLY SYNTHESIS
When I came to Auroville twenty years ago, it was largely a wasteland. A plateau once covered with lush jungle and old-growth forests now lay bare to a merciless sun and the plundering monsoon rains that swept the remaining topsoil to the sea. We were some thirty Aurovillians then as the 1970s began. We would grow over the years to our present 700 from more than 25 nations.
Surveying the wounded earth at that time, one could not simply attribute the devastation to the forces of blind exploitation without acknowledging an accomplice: a corresponding erosion from a spirituality that could not stand its ground. Auroville, if it was to sustain itself as more than a mere utopian concept, would have to acknowledge Matter – bring the heights down to the earth.
Auroville was founded in February of 1968. Under Indira Gandhi, the Government of India welcomed this experiment in international community on its soil. Within months of its inception, Mirra Alfassa, who conceived of Auroville and brought forth its possibility for the earth, was asked: "To what extent does the building of Auroville depend on man’s acceptance of spirituality?" She answered: "The opposition between spirituality and material life, the division between the two, has no meaning for me … it is in and by physical work that the highest must manifest."
That same month, she commented: "What has ruined India is this idea that the highest consciousness deals with higher things and that lower things do not interest it at all, and that it understands nothing about them! … Well, this error must be completely eradicated. It is the highest consciousness which sees most clearly – most clearly and most truly – what the needs of the most material things must be."
Over the years, visitors have passed through Auroville and tried to fathom its functioning, the invisible coherence that binds together such a vast diversity of activities, cultures and constructions. It is not uncommon to hear from visitors some variation of the question: "What are your spiritual practices?" "Life," one is tempted to answer. We know, of course, that we are being asked about what techniques and formulas we use, what forms of meditation, hatha yoga, breathing exercises, mantras, individual and collective rituals we employ.
But though the question itself is quite natural in seeking to comprehend the sense of Auroville, it implies the very duality we seek to heal and dispel. For it places on one side the spiritual practices, while relegating the rest to the material. Is it what we do, or the consciousness in which we do it, that gives spiritual quality to an action? Auroville’s planting of two million trees: Is it a spiritual or material practice? By this light, nothing is sacrosanct; or rather, everything is.
In Auroville the masks are being cast aside, or torn from us by circumstances – the spiritual masks as well as the material ones – despite the human resistances that we all still carry and the tremendous challenge of harmonizing our accelerating diversity. Everything must be taken up in the same intense quest for Truth. Whether it be the education of our children and ourselves, or the attention to our planetary environment, our energy sources, our economics and collective organization, our architecture, our cultural expression, a windmill, a computer, a basketball game, or the cultivation of an orchid – all are part of a vast field of a research that grows more and more and inclusive, trying to bring the highest consciousness into each atom of action, even our bodies.
But because we are human, a species in transition, our greatest field of research is ourselves: facing and transforming our own ignorance, our own resistances, the deep duality that lies within each one of us and pits us one against another until we resolve it in ourselves.
Even in our Auroville meetings and decision-making processes (as I am sure is reflected in all of the movements for change taking place on this planet), we confront these two tendencies, archetypes, which when left as halves remain twin poverties: the strong-willed action-oriented type, interested primarily in outer result and prepared to bully and bulldoze if necessary to get it; and the communications-oriented type, concerned more with inner issues of process and a shared sense of vision and responsibility, even to the point of bogging down in abstraction and procedures that lead nowhere.
The difference in Auroville is that when we reach impasses in the clash of these tendencies, we don’t throw in the towel and go home in disgust. We can’t. We are home. Auroville is not simply a project or passing interest for us. It is a life we share together, an evolutionary cross-roads. And there is no escape but to go through to the end. For as long as it takes.
A TRANSITIONAL SPECIES
There is no short-cut to life and the transformation of human nature. And the changes we face, whether in the clashes in our meetings or between our worlds – First and Third, East and West, his and hers – are nothing less than the confronting now of our evolutionary selves. They are the rounding off of our corners as we move toward a next stage of humanity, a humanity that must go through all the details of its shadow as it gropes toward a truly new and unprecedented consciousness that is one – not one merely in New Age prophecies and panaceas, but one in the very action and substance of life.
It is no wonder that we face such resistances, even among ourselves, even within movements consciously seeking change. Because in seeking the Truth in action, it is inevitable that we call forth in us and around us all that resists. In Auroville, we understand this, and despite our impatience and frustration, we are learning to be patient without lapsing into inaction. Things are, despite appearances, moving as quickly as they can, as quickly as we and this planet can bear. So in Auroville, we are learning the great lesson of perseverance. Of holding on.
And we know we can’t turn back for the answer. It is neither in history nor in the spiritualities of the past. We are learning what it means to be a transitional species, what the first sea creatures endured as they found themselves thrust upon land, forced to learn a new way of breathing.
We must give ourselves and our planet time to make the transition, a transition forcing us to become one, to breathe as one. A transition for which there exist no textbooks, no formulas. A transition that brings long-sundered opposites, at long last, together.
Here in Auroville, we continue to plant our trees, design our windmills, program our computers, and watch our children ride their ponies across a once-barren plateau now filled with birdsong and flecked with flowers, as we struggle – within ourselves and without – to become whole.
by James Bertolino
Somewhere the proposition that heals
with a caress of eagle feather,
that pulls a mountain range
through the wing-bone of a wren
to let it blossom.
Look for the endless forms of the one thing, sunflower
as cougar’s eye, glacier, underwater spider
with its bubble of air, slow river of snail, spiral
nebula-the way everything moistens
with love, hastens with fire.
Everywhere mouths are opening and closing,
gills turning ocean to lace, baleen
counting the smallest lives. It’s time for
computers to swoon
to the symphonic order of termite
cathedrals: bravo, bravo!
Dance of the gift of living crystal. The virtuous
ballet of erectile tissue, a sweetness
in the hydraulic whistling
of the black widow’s musculature: such intelligence.
Listen to the shrill piping of silica
inside the high Douglas fir.
Hear everywhere the electron’s bright chirp
and the deep hum of the Earth