IN THE BEGINNING there was nothing but barren land. The introduction to Akash Kapur’s recently published anthology, Auroville: Dream and Reality, describes the early dreamers who came looking for a new world and instead found ‘a parched denuded plateau, Auroville’s moonscape like a mockery of their expectations of a grand city’. The book talks of an American couple, Robert and Deborah Lawlor, as the first to settle the land, building a little hut at the edge of a canyon: ‘They had no electricity, no road, no water—not even a handpump. Robert’s letters, vivid with privation, of near-mythic struggle against the elements, convey the back-breaking work that must go into building any new reality. ‘Those who would come to Auroville must understand that it is not a sanctuary but a battlefield,’ Robert writes to a friend in June 1968, four months after Auroville’s founding. ‘They must come ready to don the armour of the knight and be capable of giving up the concepts of time and self in the fury of the clash.’ The dream is but a skeleton; it is human labour, often mundane toil, that, brick by brick, irrigation trench by trench, adds flesh to bone.’
On February 28th, as Auroville marks 50 years of its existence as a unique spiritual way of living, some things have changed. It is no longer a desert but a thriving small town with lush green cover. A magnificent silent temple with a golden sphere resides at its heart from which radiates the residential, commercial and cultural limbs of the community. There are organic farms, health centres, markets and more. No one owns anything. Everyone owns everything. Residents get together in assemblies to make important decisions. It strives to be a cashless society. Their website says, ‘The deal Auroville offers: if you work for the community at least five hours a day—it provides you with a maintenance; not a salary, but a mix of services, cash and rights. Very basic, just enough to make ends meet.’
But Auroville remains far from a finished project. News and Notes is a weekly bulletin for its inhabitants. The latest one has an appeal for donations bolstered by a quote from Sri Aurobindo, the freedom fighter who renounced politics for spirituality, starting a movement which led to Auroville’s formation long after his death: ‘You will say it is a mere candle that is lit—nothing at all? But in these matters, when the darkness of human mind and life and body has to be dissipated, a candle is always a beginning—a lamp can follow and afterwards a sun—but the beginning must be allowed to have a sequel…’ For the candle to become a sun, it has to spiral out like a galaxy and be a beacon.
It was Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual partner, Mirra Alfassa, known as Mother, who envisioned Auroville. It came into being when she was 90, but as an idea, it had been with her a long time. In 1954, in a note called A Dream, she wrote on it: ‘There should be somewhere on earth a place which no nation could claim as its own, where all human beings of goodwill 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 where all the fighting instincts of man would be used exclusively to conquer the causes of his sufferings and miseries, to surmount his weaknesses and ignorance, to triumph over his limitations and incapacities; a place where the needs of the spirit and the concern for progress would take precedence over the satisfaction of desires and passions, the search for pleasure and material enjoyment.’ Auroville’s journey, in that sense, has only just begun.