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March 14, 2006

Auroville: "The City the Earth Needs"

Living Room Dialogue with Zeno Levy and Brendan Kiernan

What would it be like to live in a place where people were devoted to ideals of human unity and harmony with the planet? Told that Auroville, an experimental township in Tamil Nadu, India, was such a place, Zeno Levy and Brendan Kiernan went there during their fall semester to find out. They reported on their experience March 14 in a Living Room Dialogue that is part of a dialogue series that poses the question, "Does warfare bring us security? If not, what will?"

What Zeno and Brendan (students at The New School and American University respectively) found was a combination of lofty goals and everyday contradictions. Although initially disappointed, in the end both said they had been changed by the experience, and Zeno concluded that altering consciousness is the key to humanity's survival. This meant to him changing such things as the way we deal with money and race relations, creating a new template for the way we look at the world, and learning how we can be ourselves and yet live with others in a globalized world.

Auroville is theoretically based on the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and his consort The Mother and was founded in the early years of the 20 th century as an ashram. In his presentation, Zeno did not attempt to go into the teachings of Sri Aurobindo beyond the call for human unity and the evolution, or "involution," of human consciousness. For further information he referred us to some of the teacher's essential writings, such as The Life Divine, Synthesis of Yoga, Secret of the Veda, or the epic poem Savitri, which some consider his masterwork.

As time went on, The Mother became especially concerned that Auroville develop in ecologically and economically sustainable ways, that is that it would be able to provide the means of life for its people now and into the future. The first project begun there, and the one for which it is best known, was the massive reforestation of the area, which had become a desert after generations of unsustainable farming practices. This has been so successful that forms of life thought to have died out there have returned. (If you want to go to India, get used to insects, Zeno and Brendan warned. The place is literally crawling with them. They were particularly impressed with red caterpillars and velvet bugs which emerge en masse after a rain.)

Auroville receives official support and some oversight from the Indian government. However, it is mainly organized through a process of what Aurovillians term "divine anarchy" into a series of distinct but related communities. Some of these have a scholarly or spiritual focus. Some have more mundane concerns, such as developing solar and wind energy, alternative agriculture, and creating a living water system that purifies human waste biologically with plants and other organisms. There is no organized system of local governance.

These communities have been built over or are threaded among traditional Tamil villages. Around 2,000 people live there now. The goal is eventually to create a self-sustaining urban environment for 50,000 people.

Most Aurovillians are well-to-do internationals who have come to participate in the development of a new way of life or even just to find a cheap place to live in India. Here was the spot the unpleasant contradictions for Zeno and Brendan began, for the contrast between the "new age" ideals and lifestyle of Aurovillians contrasted painfully with the poverty of the traditional Tamil villagers who lived beside them and were employed by them. Gross inequality exists alongside people professing a doctrine of human unity. Moreover, the Tamil language is so difficult, with 252 letters in its alphabet, some Aurovillians don't even attempt to learn it.

Brendan said he was somewhat appeased when one Aurovillian who employed a Tamil laundress explained that she thought it better to provide an income to a Tamil family than to buy a washing machine. His attitude toward Auroville was completely altered, though, by his experience working in a kindergarten. He was amazed by the depth and consistency of the love adults showed to the children, who were never scolded and given much space to be themselves. The individuality of each child was cherished.

A feature that impressed some participants in the dialogue was that no money is exchanged in Auroville. People pay a monthly fee or provide some service, are supplied with "maintenance," and this amount is the same for everyone. We did not have time to go into the details of how this works in practice.

Despite the contradictions, Zeno and Brendan agreed that the very existence of Auroville is a miracle. In the closing circle, a number of participants in the dialogue said learning about it opened up hopeful possibilities for them.

Zeno and Brendan's visit to Auroville was sponsored by Living Routes, a program accredited by the University of Massachusetts. Living Routes facilitates exposures to eco-villages around the world, Auroville being only one. Learning about sustainable living practices, group dynamics and consensus decision-making were central to the design of the program.

You can learn more about Living Routes at www.livingroutes.org and more about Auroville at www.auroville.org.

This Living Room Dialogue was most generously hosted in their home by Leslyn and Don Rigoni. Deepest thanks to them.


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