Ecopoetics of « Concrete Human Unity* » – Essay on the Aesthetics of the Auroville Community

*Charter of Auroville


« Auroville is a community dedicated to working on process in an attempt to develop living forms, both external architectural and environmental forms, and internal styles of human relations, which will transcend our present level of community living (…) »

Margareth Mead (anthropologist), 10/30/1973 letter

Ecopoetics, a still emerging and therefore poorly known domain of research, can be defined in a very general way as the attention brought to the environment in aesthetic productions. These productions can be of artistic nature (like novels, poetry, theater, performance, cinema, music, song, dance, etc.) or simply be associated with the general activities of men building their world (urban achievements, social constructions, political inventions, economic structures, spiritual elaborations, etc.). Ecopoetics can then include, as we will understand it here, the study of the aesthetic part of these global achievements. It reflects on the place, role, means and implementation of a sensitive attention in a project of human development, i.e. in the ecosystem that is set up: for example, in the construction of a city, or in the creation of a community. 

Auroville is precisely a project of community that is at the same time spiritual, technological, urbanistic and aesthetic. It has reached some very tangible achievements (material and immaterial) and bears visible or still invisible traces of ongoing development. Hence the richness and the complexity of it for the observer. Like the actual city itself, the project is not fixed in time or space but is still in the process of being realized. It slowly matures while undergoing constant negotiations and adaptations, for Auroville (AV) is above all a project of continuous experimentation, innovation and transformation, which makes it at a the same time a very real city and a life-size laboratory. For some people, this is what makes it a « smart » city, resilient and innovative, especially from a technological and ecological point of view. In the words of the initiator Mirra Alfassa, known as « the Mother », it is first of all « a great human adventure », based on permanent education, experimental research and spiritual development, whose ultimate goal is the concrete unity of men. When the city was inaugurated in 1968, this positivist faith in experimentation was in fact aimed at addressing an urgent and very serious problem -as it is still today-: the general lack of human unity and its dire consequence: the risk of war.

The necessity in this context of building Auroville, although implemented only after his death, is in line with the evolutionary thought of the Indian spiritualist philosopher Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950), who theorized a general effort of life towards the next step of evolution, supposedly superior and better, which requires the participation of a « new man ». This cosmic vision finds itself directly expressed in AV through the futuristic forms of urban development and architecture as well as the general eschatological sensibility of the city, which is entirely oriented towards the longed-for transformation. According to Sri Aurobindo, the accession to the higher cosmological state and the fulfillment of the « divine » plan of life will only be possible if men unite to work together through an effort that is both internal and external, individual and collective, which he calls « integral yoga » or « yoga of works ». In this sense, the community of AV has no other purpose nor « raison d’être » than to manifest the better future that is to come. In the words of the rishi (sage): to hasten « the descent of the supramental onto Earth ».

For « the Mother » who, on these principles, formulated the project of such a community and implemented it in 1968, every person in AV, whatever his or her activity (manual, intellectual or spiritual work) or apparent « inactivity » may be, must participate and add his or her stone to the common edifice. Unity is thus seen as the necessary transcendence of the complementary differences between individuals from all countries in the aim of collective elevation, like a tower of Babel but « upside down », where the reunion through work of singularities (notably linguistic and national) will allow the construction of the most complete and harmonious common world possible. A world whose concrete existence will necessarily be aesthetic because: « in the material world, the divine manifests itself as beauty », says the Mother.

We will see how the city of AV implanted on a plateau ecologically devastated a few kilometers North of Pondicherry is a truly ecopoetic project, aiming at the regeneration of a vast ecosystem to welcome and nourish the new Man. For the environmental restoration is consubstantial to the effective advent of this new humanity. The city and its forest constitute a complex ecosystem (mineral-vegetal-animal and spiritual) conducive to co-development (human, non-human and supra-human). The deployment of the AV community will thus totally merge with the transformation of its environment -as we will show in of our first part-, as conversely the regenerated environment will produce and model in return the community, in a process of co-production whose aesthetic character will have to reflect the general harmony, as we will see in our second part. 

Finally, as the anthropologist Margareth Mead pointed out in a letter to the city in 1973 (cited in the epigraph of this text), Aurovillians endorse the difficult mission of producing both the concrete and the spiritual forms of human unity. They are therefore looking for the forms by which community can produce and manifest unity. In the last part, we will see how this search, which is even more challenging today, must more than ever be carried out at the intersection of the sensible and the supra-sensible, the concrete and the spiritual, and that the city has now to choose between strategies of « incarnation » or « realization » as ways of being most faithful to its « divine » mission.

PLAN I Setting the scene, making people and their environment grow

II Signifying the development of the community: dynamics of harmony

III Manifesting the « Presence »: aesthetics of fidelity

I- Setting the scene, growing the community

Unlike Sri Aurobindo’s ashram in Pondicherry, which is a place dedicated mostly to the « inner » work necessary to the transition towards the new state of consciousness, Auroville is the part of this same work directed towards the outside, that is towards the world. This implies visible achievements, the creation of the community of Aurovillians being one of them and so to speak the main one. The « concrete human unity » that inspire the Auroville project must by definition be materialized, embodied in perceptible forms, even if some of them are not immediately visible. The development of the community has, however, taken an absolutely brilliant and manifest form from the outset, that of a massive reforestation, and thus of a general « greening » of the plateau. 

a) First form: the forest

Built on a supposedly virgin, quasi-desert land and a very damaged and unproductive environment that from the very first days it has been a matter of regenerating, AV is about reconstituting a harmony by bringing life back to a devastated Nature (in particular the TDEF, tropical dry evergreen forest which had almost disappeared during the previous centuries by the combined action of climate and men – rain gully, deforestation, etc.). For the AV pioneers, it was therefore literally necessary to « plant the scene » in order to make the community « grow » and allow it to flourish. The vegetal backdrop is thus much more than a mere ornament; it has become the mark of the community itself. Community indeed immediately and « naturally » took the form of this rejuvenation of the land, which was the condition for its survival. The first concrete incarnation of Auroville, the sensitive trace of the project of renewal of the human race that it bears, was thus – and still is to a large extent today – its wooded « Nature », fruit of an immense collective effort. 

Even before the construction of roads, houses and collective buildings, the form of this new city was therefore that of a plantation. It was necessary to plant to bring back life to the damaged soil of the plateau, to trap the water that was carrying it away to the sea and to fight against the drought through irrigation. Growing trees allowed to tie up the humus to the ground and to avoid the gullying of the monsoon rains. Leaves and other debris nourished the soil and the living beings it contained, and their foliage sheltered other plants that were able to thrive in turn, allowing a diverse fauna to make its return to the plateau. By the shade and the coolness they provide, trees also help to lower the temperature and to make the life bearable for individuals overwhelmed by the heat of the tropical summer. It is said that 4 million trees were planted by the pioneers during the first decades, reconstituting after a while forests and woods which today cover a major part of the city’s surface, apart from fields and buildings. This is how Auroville clearly stands out from the surrounding urban areas: it has grown extremely green, like a real harbor of freshness, an oasis of nature, in stark contrast with the noisy, overpopulated and polluted cities of Tamil Nadu (Bengalore, Chennai or Pondicherry) and even with the closest Tamil villages. 

b) Second form: the garden city

The « miracle » of AV lies first of all in the transformation of an uninhabitable desert into an oasis where many living creatures can flourish. But this regenerated « forest » is indeed completely artificial: it is in fact much more a luxuriant garden that the Aurovillians have planted and patiently grown. This garden is meant to be a pleasant setting for a human population of several thousand residents and to host the usual urban activity and its administrative, commercial, and cultural buildings. By an interesting inversion, the city’s proper « garden » (the Matrimandir gardens, a vast esplanade which houses the « temple » of the city) is however placed right at the center of the city. The buildings and human dwellings are arranged around this center, in wooded spaces that spread to the green belt, beyond which are located most of the cultivated lands (fields and orchards) and some productive activities.

Seeing the Aurovillians strolling through the Matrimandir gardens or walking through the jungle surrounding it, the image that immediately comes to mind for the Western visitor is that of another garden: that of the Bible. By its strikingly green outlooks, Auroville brings back the image of the « Garden of Eden », which is the first image of a garden, a divine one. A look at this magnificent central space, extremely well decorated and taken care of, and at the dense vegetation, fresh and welcoming, which shelters the rest of the city will most probably evoke to many visitors some kind of paradise. And this is most certainly the very impression that the architects of Auroville wished to give to the visitor of their « city of Dawn ». Well before being an urban realization, Auroville can then be perceived as a garden, with a landscaped layout. The community is thus nestled in the Edenic form of the garden. But it is a garden that is the result of the work and efforts of men and not a « gift from God » as in the biblical paradise. Unlike the latter, the garden of Auroville has a civilizational origin, and also a civilizational vocation: it is conceived as the green cradle for the blossoming of a new humanity. 

c) Third form: the flower of civilization

The metaphorical form of Auroville’s blossom is indeed that of a flower. But a flower of civilization, that promises to bloom from a renewed soil and humanity. Incidentally, flowers in general are very important in AV, till today. First of all, because of the pronounced taste that the Mother had for them, for their forms, their beauty, their meaning. She directly associated them with the spiritual enterprise of AV, giving them suggestive names, for example: « Charm of Auroville », « Power of the divine », « Supramental influence », etc. Secondly, because flowers now grow everywhere in the city, in the parts left « wild » (the hibiscus hedges, for instance.) as well as in the private gardens or in the collective spaces.

The Matrimandir gardens, at the center of the city, have become a horticultural laboratory and a showcase for the city and its landscaping know-how. According to the founder’s wishes, these gardens are designed as an impressive Japanese-style garden, in order to materialize the city’s spiritual quest and, through their design, to call for introspection. Everything there encourages you to meditate (quiet spaces, curved paths to slowly wander, several benches to sit and beautiful viewpoints to enjoy the view and contemplate the temple). The gardens are indeed the formulation in the sensible realm of the « supramentalized » collective. Associated with the hibiscus flower which has become its emblem, AV is thus also presented as a flower that manifests the lushness of the world to come in contrast with the surrounding aridity and the former degraded landscape. In this respect, it is in blunt contrast with other cities in India.

Simply put, far from what one might think today, AV is not a naturally preserved ecosystem but a completely artificial creation, the result of human labor and will. It is a forest meticulously landscaped to serve the « divine » plan imagined by the founders. But by « setting the scene », the pioneers planted at the same time the new civilization destined to flourish there. The green setting is therefore not a simple background to the urban project, but the very heart of the process of transforming life on earth and the manifestation of this global transformation. For this to happen, the flower-city has to be particularly beautiful and inspiring, that is to say, it must manifest everywhere – as we will now see -, for everyone and at every moment, the AV project, its values and achievements.

II – Designing community: dynamics of Harmony

Everything in Auroville must indeed manifest Aurobindo’s project of reaching a higher stage of evolution. To prevent AV becoming a city like any other, which means « without a soul », without any specific goal except to manage, as everywhere else, the coexistence of human populations and a few other living beings, the very lines, colors, sounds, and movements of the city must be meaningful. AV’s ambition is to be a coherent universe of meaningful forms. Urban planning and architecture are then key elements to inscribe in the visible, but also in the subconscious of the population, the special character of the city, its « raison d’être ». This is also what makes the residents feel that they are not only « elected » but also actors in this great cosmic plan, to which they must actively collaborate.

The organization of life in Auroville thus integrates in its minutest aspects this bio-political goal of generating a population dedicated to its spiritual mission. It does so, one might say, through dynamics of progress that subtly drive the inhabitants and put them in motion, in the visible or in the invisible. Literally and figuratively, they are what « animates » them. Indeed, the shape of the city, of its center and its periphery, its division into zones, the modes of circulation, the buildings, all tell the spiritual ambition of the city: the production of a new humanity. 

More globally, it is the harmony of its overall design as well as its details – that is to say, a whole infrastructure of sensibility- that strives to represent everywhere the unity promised to the 60 or so different nationalities registered in the AV population’s statistics. A whole dynamics of composition (of lines, plants, rocks, colors, sounds, monuments, buildings, populations of diverse origins…) is therefore to manifest this unity beyond diversity, the complementarity of differences. The city, rich of this internal diversity, has to grow in the same way as one « composes » a bouquet of flowers, a musical score, a painting, a garden, a mandala or a kolam, looking for the greatest harmony and beauty to express union in diversity. 

Among the primary forms of unity, three main dynamics give their rhythm to the city: 

a) Dynamics of circularity: sphericity and rotundity

The plan of the city, as conceived by the Mother and her architects, first and foremost Roger Anger, is built on the model of a « galaxy » which has the particularity (among the cities erected in the 20th century at least) of developing in curves and roundness instead of the usual rectilinear arteries and right angles constitutive of many modern grid cities. Circularity is thus the main movement that builds the city. In fact, everything is to be spherical or circular: circular the green dome of the gigantic banyan tree that is the actual center of the city, round the Matrimandir that stands next to it, round the gardens that surround it (petals), circular the crown road that separates the center from the periphery, circular again the line that determines the green belt that sets the official limits of the city from the villages and the surrounding fields. In fact, most of the buildings (collective or individual houses, national pavilions, guesthouses) incorporate to a greater or lesser extent these rounded forms that unite all the Aurovilian creations in a common aesthetic that shall express generosity and kindness (as opposed to the straight line).

The city is thus built on a set of circles and circularities which diffract its spiritual center by several successive radiations. This circularity engraves the radiating power of its center in the sensible.  For the main rotundity is that of the Matrimandir, a communal meditation chamber, which is a spherical rather than rectangular templum: a perfect ball that seems to emerge from a ground that bends itself to let it rise up. The egg is in fact the symbolic figure associated with this rotundity, a form which expresses both the perfect concentration on oneself, the uterine calm, and the dynamics of hatching and expansion outside, that is to say, an internal and external, positive fertility. It conveys in a non-contradictory mode the inner withdrawal and the outer trajectory towards the world. Moreover, by its base which penetrates under the surface of the ground and the elevated ramps which lead to it, the Matrimandir imitates the blossoming of the lotus flower, a symbol dear to Sri Aurobindo, which embodies a natural dynamics of inner power deployment, of beauty blossoming towards the world.

This master form (which is also a « mother form ») is replicated also on different scales thanks to the Auroville Mandala, which can be seen everywhere around the city. Drawn on doors, worn as a jewel around the neck of the inhabitants, or appearing as a signature on official documents, it reproduces in a schematic but also emblematic form the general plan of the city, and thus its ambitions to structure the physical as well as the mental universe of the Aurovillans. Since their everyday path crosses many times a day these symbols, they contribute to the aesthetic unity as well as the spiritual unity of the city.

b)  Centrifugal dynamics: a spiral

But the strongest take of Auroville’s design is that it suggests a powerful dynamic of urban spreading that charges the city with an enormous mass of symbolic energy. Roger Anger rotated his first, much more classical and static city plan by a few degrees, so that it gave rise to a Big Bang-like dynamic opposite to the stability and heaviness of the urban ensemble. Looking then like a nebula in gestation, the « galaxy » is indeed an extremely suggestive model, which recounts the birth in a central explosion of a strongly concentrated energy, and then its diffraction by reverberation all around it. The city thus mimics the movement of the universe itself, simulating its expansion, while suggesting its cosmic destiny. 

According to this plan, the Matrimandir becomes the primordial origin, the center from which everything proceeds. It is thus the starting point and the spatio-temporal origin of a wave that expands and spreads in the centrifugal movement of a spiral. « Sri Aurobindo » was the name of the central cosmic event, which reconfigured itself in replicas that were successively « the Mother » and finally, in 1968, « Auroville ». The city’s plan is then an architectural translation of a thinking that defines the meaning of the universe and the meaning of man’s destiny in this universe.

As such, this dynamic movement discourages the idea of the city as a mere settlement; it abolishes the temptation of stagnation and even prevents it from becoming a refuge city. On the contrary, it inscribes in its very forms the conquering and optimistic character AV should manifest. By this dynamic design, the city cannot be static: urban development and spiritual progress are one and the same. The centrifugal movement extends the limits of the city towards new places and new inhabitants (towards a 50,000 announced residents). Like circles on the surface of the water after a central splash, the city radiates out in concentric circles and expands towards the world. These dynamic forms are thus those of a promise: promise of development, promise of diffusion of the power concentrated in its birthpoint that spreads in successive waves over the surrounding world in order to transform it. The objectives and destiny of the city are therefore contained in germ in this very design. 

Following Anger’s plan, the « lines of force » are twelve radials which originate at the Matrimandir, and then spread the city along axes of urban concentration. By their very name as well as their form, they convey the idea of a radiation and dissemination of a disclosed energy. They also suggest that they unfold within a field of force and respond to a magnetic power (therefore invisible but effective) that twists the straight lines into curbs. The circularity and the curvatures are thus much more dynamic than the circle or the egg, which are closed on themselves. They are instead forms in movement, motifs in expansion, which open in a movement of vortex. 

This overall configuration inscribes very materially in the landscape the blossoming of the new spiritual consciousness and its diffusion by reverberation on the rest of the world. Moreover, the centrifugal dynamic also unfolds metaphorically in time and therefore points directly to the future, that of the realization of human Unity. The extension of the circles thus also mimics the development of the city in time, and the extension of its example, from the pioneer « laboratory » that is Auroville. This futuristic dimension is concretely displayed in the audacious shapes of many of the city’s buildings, writing in space the eschatological process that prefigures the world to come: the spiral, in this respect, is prophetic by nature.

One understands therefore why AV cannot be experienced in the same way as other cities of the world with more classical forms (circle or grid) which are definitely more static. A different conception of the common can then emerge: where classical architectures tend to interpret community as shelter, protection (roof), house or temple and imply a fixed form and the enclosure of the city, conversely, all shapes in Auroville are metaphors and symbols of explosion, birth and development, that is to say of the vital dynamism of the Aurobindian utopia. The urban landscape thus shows a community in the process of unfolding, both materially and spiritually, concretely as well as in an abstract way.

c) Dynamics of weaving diversity 

Complementing the first two, the third dynamic is the one that weaves these forms into realizations of harmony in diversity, striving to create unity from initial differences, in the same way as as the multiple colors on the Mother’s mandala form the petals of a single flower. The circular and centrifugal movements would only be dispersion and entropy if dynamics of unity that preserve the energy of the group were not put in place. These dynamics are therefore those of « weaving », building a solid whole from the disparate elements that make up the city. 

This weaving comes from the movement of « concrete life » in the city itself, from meetings and actions that « make community », tightening the group on itself by reinforcing in each one the feeling of his identity along with the sentiment of the common belonging. To this end, a myriad of activities unite Aurovillans, giving birth to a rich spiritual, cultural and community life very likely to bring together the greatest number.

Some of these activities are completely secular, such as the meals taken daily together at noon at the « Solar kitchen », a true nexus of community life where several thousand lunches are shared each day. It also includes productive activities (in farms, factories and stores), or sports and cultural activities that allow many inhabitants to meet at the end of each working day, in Certitude or Dehashakti (sports centers), or by attending the programs of the national pavilions, schools, libraries, art centers (Kalabhumi, Cripa, etc.) or even two evenings a week at the Youth Center for « pizza nights ». 

Other activities are civic and citizen-oriented. They bring residents together in the city’s governing institutions or in the numerous working groups in charge of the city’s development:  forests and green spaces WG, outreach WG (implementing actions towards the surrounding villages and the outside world), etc. Theoretically, the whole community is also invited to meet regularly in general assemblies (Residents Assemblies) to decide together on the management and future of the city. The « Unity Pavilion » is, as its name indicates, a place dedicated more specifically to building this unity. It is an emblematic place where most of the community’s « civic » meetings are held. 

The amphitheater in the Matrimandir gardens can be seen in a sense as its spiritual counterpart, where gatherings for major commemorations also happen. Many spiritual activities recall the main aspiration of the city and maintain a link with the figure and the work of the founders. The Savitri Bhavan, for example, is a building entirely dedicated to the life and works of Sri Aurobindo: « it is a center dedicated to promoting Human Unity through spiritual education based on the vision and teachings of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother ».

Gatherings of the community happen on the occasion of « official » city holidays and celebrations (Sri Aurobindo’s birthday, Mother’s birthday, birthday of the founding of AV) or on the occasion of local or national Indian holidays (Pongal, Diwali, etc.), or once a month for the full moons. Practices such as « soundbaths », « ôm choirs », and « remote silent meditations » are offered to Aurovilians as well as visitors, and help create a common ground among residents, in silence or music, in the presence of the other or remotely.

In addition, various practices of physical and spiritual development (yoga, massages, martial arts, workshops, courses, seminars, conferences, etc.), sharing of research and knowledge (agronomic practices, ecology, languages, etc.) intermingle the inhabitants beyond their differences, languages and origins, and contribute to the unity of the community. A particularly rich cultural program helps to create links between them. Far from the communitarian tendencies of multicultural societies, integration and assimilation operate in compliance with the original wish of the founders in a process of « great synthesis », dear to Sri Aurobindo who laid the philosophical foundations of it in his works. 

Beyond a shared explicit faith in the ideals of the city, AV truly tries to bring together men and women through their cultural differences, as shows the « international zone » where different national pavilions are located (Indian, French, African, Tibetan, etc.) and whose purpose is to share the contributions of each country or culture with the rest of the community. As far as language is concerned, and even if English prevails as the main means of communication between Aurovillians, polylingualism stays a strong aspiration at the heart of the unity project, notably through the emphasis put on the learning and practice of Tamil (the local Indian language), included in most official communications, often along with French (the language of the Mother).

A strong accent on togetherness complements indeed the dynamics of expansion and spiritual development of the city. The synthesis of these dynamics constitutes ultimately the much celebrated « Spirit of Auroville », a mysterious force that makes this community unique. However, most of the forms that manifest this spirit go largely unnoticed to the hurried tourist who crosses the city in just a few days or even a few hours and finds his way only to the Visitor’s Center and the Matrimandir. Just as these signs also disappear from the consciousness of most Aurovillians because they are used to this environment and forget the character of soft pressure that this permanent suggestion generates. But they do strike the conscience of the curious stranger who pays close attention to the city. Auroville and its environment indeed appear to him saturated with relentless reminders that serve as injunctions to progress in the desired common direction. All in all, because Auroville is – as we have seen – entirely artificial, it is made as much of real trees as of a forest of symbols meant to preserve the initial vibration, as impulsed by the founders.

III Aesthetics of faithfulness: incarnation or realization?

« A spiritual symbol is only a meaningless ticket, unless the thing symbolized is realized in the spirit… A spiritual idea is a power, but only when it is both inwardly and outwardly creative. » Sri Aurobindo

The manifestation of the great idea that gave birth to Auroville and that Auroville promotes in return requires to pursue the realization of the city, that is to say, to inscribe it ever more clearly in the real. But in the face of contemporary challenges, how is one to proceed in order to be as faithful as possible to this idea? And what kind of real is most adequate? For all logics of sensitive deployment are not equivalent in their consequences… 

1) New challenges and strategic responses

As time goes by, the city is inevitably confronted with new and increasingly stronger pressures from its environment, to which it must respond through its very development. But by doing so, AV must also address growing internal tensions about theses choices of development. The actual situation of the city, with only 3000 residents but almost 60 nationalities represented, with striking successes but delays that are difficult to justify, is brought into question today. 

The pressure of the environment is complex, but not new, since from the very beginning, as we have seen, the problem has always been to develop the environment so that it could in turn shape the city. Today, the tensions with the Indian government, accused of controlling the Auroville Foundation (the main governing body) and therefore the development process, remind us of the conflict with the Pondicherry ashram in the 1980s. 

This time, however, an unprecedented external pressure is exerted by the rise of mass tourism, induced in particular by the rapid increase of income of the Indian middle class. Nowadays, this middle class travels extensively from all the major cities of the country and brings a massive influx of « tourists », sometimes with little regard for Auroville’s ideals. Nonetheless, they have to be welcomed, guided, accommodated, fed and entertained, and this requires to think again the road infrastructures, security, the accommodation facilities, especially seasonal (hotels and guesthouses), access to the Matrimandir, and more or less all the missions of the Visitor’s Center. Along with these flows of visitors, the city must face increasing capitalism and consumerism while one of the city’s major goals was precisely to ban any circulation of money. This money of course fuels Auroville’s businesses (boutiques, restaurants, hotels, etc.) and it is an important source of income for the city, but it also affects the surrounding villages where multiple tourist infrastructures have recently been constructed, sometimes in stark contrast with the mission and values of AV.

The city is also facing a deep housing crisis that makes it difficult to welcome and integrate new Aurovillians. The need to respond urgently to these development problems threatens the coherence of the overall plan. Necessary constructions are thus confronted with the fact that they must fit in the existing park and follow its aesthetics. More numerous, simpler, less expensive constructions threaten to undermine the architectural cohesion of the whole by leading to minimize, for example, the part of rotundity (always expensive) and to prefer sharp angles and straight lines, thus « rectifying » the destiny of the city that these forms transmitted, let alone impairing the effort of ecologically responsible and sustainable buildings.

Moreover, the ever-increasing ecological constraints in the region, underlined by climate change (stronger monsoons, salt water penetration into the aquifers, rising temperatures, invasion of non-native species, etc.), make the decision-making processes more complex and therefore longer: this is the case in particular for the construction of the Crown road, which draws major problems at different levels. So much so that it is the entire development model of the city itself that is now in question. How best could the promise of unity be fulfilled under these new conditions? It seems that there is no simple answer to this question. Yet the community must quickly find within itself the resources to address these issues.

On a more general level, as time passes, the city has to face a growing problem of memory and ultimately of identity. What was at the core of the Auroville project at the time of its foundation? and what is it now? A systematic effort of information and transmission has become more necessary than ever. A constant and renewed effort of education is needed especially among the newcomers and the new generations. For today, the greatest challenge of the township is to infuse the « spirit » of AV both internally and externally: that is to ensure the pursuit of « Mother’s dream » against the risk of stagnation, oblivion or deviation from the founding values of the community.

Two competing strategies

With this risk of dilution of the initial energy, different strategic responses aim to reinforce the city’s achievements and to extend or intensify its outreach efforts. These responses focus on two levels, which are in part contradictory. On the material plan, the aim is to carry on the concrete development of the city by implementing the major urban development projects in order to be able to accommodate more inhabitants, which means increasing the supply of housings. In short, it is a matter of making the city grow quantitatively. On the spiritual plan, it is a question of deepening the coherence of what already exists. The aim is to expand not the city itself but what it stands for, i. e. its efforts towards human unity and harmony beyond differences.

It is easy to understand how these two lines of development, even if they are faithful in their own way to the AV project, do not share the same strategic vision, nor, above all, the same temporalities. Misunderstandings and conflicts therefore cannot help but arise. The material vision is pragmatic, and relies on the « in act » dimension of the prophecy of human unity (the city, once achieved, will produce unity); the spiritual vision is more idealistic and insists on the qualitative dimension of the progress that must be made (unity, once achieved, will produce the city). The « constructivists » therefore believe that the spiritual vision will naturally emerge from the reality and concreteness of the correctly designed city, while the « spiritualists » believe that the unison of consciousness must be the primary driving force leading to the harmonious development of the city, which will inevitably follow. 

However, beyond these different paths stands the same belief in the « energy » of Auroville that will build the town anyway. There is therefore no simplistic opposition between « materialists » on one side and « spiritualists » on the other: both believe that this « energy » will always be at work to develop the city. Only, in one case, it is the concrete that is seen as the main modality of it, in the other case it is the spirit. These different ways of achieving human unity are therefore at the heart of the development issues that the city faces today.

2) Embodiment as « Presence »?

It seems that there are indeed several possible visions of faithfulness to the « divine » mission of the city, several ways to make the dream of human unity more real or better realized. One of them is to materialize the city’s ideals more and more. Hence a threefold temptation to « incarnate » them, in time, in space, and in the daily lives of the inhabitants.

a) Embodiment in time: the myth

Since Auroville is an extremely audacious promise, but very young in the history of the world it seeks to change, the stake is to inscribe the « Auroville event » more deeply in time, or even outside of time, in order to dehistoricize its mission and help forget the fairly recent creation of the town. In doing so, it is also a matter of making people accept the quite incongruous presence of Auroville in the middle of Tamil Nadu and its thousand-year-old culture. 

A local legend, that of the sage of Irumbai, a nearby village, has therefore been revived in recent years, for it legitimizes the Auroville adventure among the Tamil population. According to this legend dating back to the 7th century, a serious drought ravaged once the country after the curse of god Shiva, who punished the local inhabitants who had mocked a holy man because he had touched the foot of a young dancer. The story goes that, following this curse, nature would only be able to blossom again when foreigners from very far away would settle in the country. This legend seems thus to announce the return to life of the environment that actually accompanied the creation of Auroville, making the Aurovillians look like saviors. Such a story naturally tends to make the peasants of the surrounding villages accept the presence of these foreigners and especially the massive purchase of their lands to build the town. But it also reinforces the marvelous and « divine » character of AV by anchoring it in local mythology and Hindu beliefs. The adventure of AV is thus inscribed in a much larger and sacred timeframe (that of Hinduism) and seems then to derive from a kind of divine necessity, or rather, from a millenarian expectation of redemption, which is not very far from the actual mission of the city.

b) Saturating the space

In addition to this inscription in the « mental ecosystem » of the local inhabitants, the AV vision is also incarnated in space by numerous materializations of the image of the founders. Indeed, reverence is paid to them so regularly that it is possible to speak of an actual cult of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. Public space, as well as private space, is saturated by pious images of the Mother and of the philosopher (large portraits, often side by side), or by their symbols. For example, exhibitions are regularly dedicated to the founders, evoking their lives and teachings; theatrical performances inspired by their works also recall these figures and make their presence artistically tangible; public readings also give voice to their words and recordings of the Mother are regularly broadcast, especially at the Matrimandir and during various ceremonies. Finally, innumerable publications, by the founders themselves or their disciples, keep the trace of their teachings. To which one should add multiple reproductions of the Auroville Charter and of the « Dream », which are exhibited in strategic places in town (for instance, at the Visitor’s Center) recalling the spiritual origins of the city as well as its ambitions.

c) Infusing daily life and language

Through these constant reminders, daily life in Auroville is entirely shaped by the ambition of its founders. Everything points at the « cosmological » mission of the town. The language of the inhabitants itself has been deeply colonized by quotations from the Mother and Aurobindo. Thus, official speeches almost always begin by recalling their teachings and words. But informal conversations and private discussions are also often punctuated by reminders of the sayings of one or the other, even in contexts or circumstances that might seem rather remote. The proximity to these tutelary figures is therefore made clearly tangible, and this ensures that Aurovillians do not lose sight at any moment of the city’s goals and the part they are themselves supposed to play in it.

From this point of view, AV’s toponymy tells a lot. The names of the localities, which are also those of the communities that have settled there, sound like destinies, for example « Aspiration », « Courage », « Joy », « Forecomers », etc. Sometimes they were given directly by the Mother or were suggested by her. Most of the time they refer to qualities expected from Aurovillians. On the map of the region, most places names have the mission to generate what they designate, or at least to inspire their inhabitants. This reveals a belief in the power of words to signify what they name and to shape the future accordingly. Toponyms tie the project of building a new humanity to the people who live there, to the point that the latter are often identified now only by their first name and the name of their community of residence (no last name). Based on this intentionality of sound forms and on the belief in the power of words to make things happen, some Aurovillans’ first names were even given in direct relation to the city’s adventure. This was already the case for some Aurobindo disciples (renamed by the Mother, like Satprem), and it has later often been true for children born in Auroville, who were baptized with names recalling the town and its history: i.e. Auroson, Auromirra, Mirrabelle, Dawn, etc. The personal destiny of these children of Auroville is thus directly linked to that of the utopia.

And of course this logic of incarnation goes even further: it seems that it reaches its peak in what can be seen as the somewhat fantasized « reincarnation » of the founders. Although no one – as far as we know, but this is actually quite surprising – seems to openly claim direct spiritual contact or communication with the Mother or with Sri Aurobindo, there are nevertheless Aurovillans who keep their word and their presence « alive » for the group. The line then between a pedagogue who transmits the richness of the teachings and a devotee who gives the illusion of the actual presence of the founders by impersonating them is fragile. While some strive to truly transmit the philosophy of the founders as well as the aspirations that originally built the city, others identify themselves with the founders to the point of cultivating a sometimes almost physical resemblance with them, attracting to themselves the devotion of disciples. Taking advantage for instance of their past proximity with the Mother, they act as gurus and even give the darshan (blessing of the direct presence of the master). By doing so, they enact the role of intercessors with the tutelary figures of the city for some Aurovillians who seek to maintain close contact with them.

These « reincarnations » (clearly a very small minority) underline a very understandable need to seek the support and blessing of the founders today for the community. However, this strange outcome of the logic of incarnation reveals at this point its ambiguous nature. It brings one to question the efficiency and the legitimacy of this logic as a whole. What is the true form of the divine « Presence » in AV today and what are the means to help manifest it ? striving to « realize » it rather than to incarnate it could then appear as another possible way of being truly faithful to the original ideals.

Conclusion: Achieving Unity?

More than 50 years after its official foundation, Auroville is experiencing a real crisis of growth and confidence. Torn between the boldness of its initial vision and the need to adapt to the present, it seems to have reached a crossroads in its development. Numerous tensions about the continuation of the project and its forms require a difficult arbitrage between rigidity and flexibility. The question that arises today is ultimately that of the forms of loyalty to the city’s project and to its founders. While some consider that it must be implemented exactly how it was conceived, others think that faithfulness is rather due to the spirit of the project and that all adaptations are therefore justified and even necessary. They plead for a contemporary reinterpretation of the development plan in order to be even more faithful to it.

The logic of incarnation intended to preserve an exceptional event -the initial idea of AV- which inevitably fades away in the past and potentially also in the conscience of the new inhabitants. It therefore tackles the need to bring back to the front the founders’ will and render it more concrete. But this logic also endangers the city’s message and mission by transforming them into a cult of the founders. Incarnation preserves them but reduces them at the same time to forms and dynamics without content, far away from the city’s true aspirations. As with any cult, this path leads to the sacralization of those who have been, by their own account, only « means » and guides for a broader transformation of the world. By seeking to make it tangible rather than to implement it, this logic might prove unfaithful to the initial idea.

To phrase it differently, the incredible ambition of the Aurovillian project was to establish the development of the city at the exact point where the forms of the common (unity of men, cooperation of differences, integration of the environment, collective deployment) meet the forms of the spiritual (elevation of consciousness, positive circulation of Energy, realization of « Presence ») and the forms of the beautiful (harmony, organic movement, vital growth, complementary diversity). It is at this very point that a logic of « realization » differs from a logic of incarnation. Aurovillians can indeed put their energy into embodying the common project in concrete and visible « productions », but this exposes them to a return of division, as we can see today. Conversely, this energy can be put instead into « realizing » the project, which means by manifesting it on process, as wrote Margaret Mead: that is to say, by « doing », rather than by « making believe » through incarnation. 

The way to do so consists in manifesting a real unity of action able to collectively produce the forms of a higher common. Higher because it is then able to express the power of the city itself to implement processes of unity and not only incarnations of unity. This is what seems to be happening today through the citizen’s takeover of development choices via the Citizens Assemblies or Dreamweaving process. Indeed, in the wake of problems of governance and paralysis of decision-making mechanisms, and also of the serious crisis that opened up in December 2022 over the continuation of the Crown Road -a crisis that introduced a great deal of resentment and division within the community-, the Dreamweaving project appears to be a particularly inventive form of collective resilience. Opposing the division of the community, these are processes of deeper union, actually weaving people together rather than just formally, building unity rather than just seeking to express it in a form. As a collaborative brainstorming process, it seeks to involve all components of the community to define the best possible project for the city. Contrary to delegation and representation as tools of governance, it manifests a radical democratic practice that calls upon all components of the city (experts, non-experts, adults, children, artists, etc.) to weave together the future design of the city. As the anthropologist Tim Ingold said, the specificity of weaving is indeed to be the very process of « making » and not merely one of the methods of making among many others. It builds on the faculty of creativity that Sri Aurobindo points out to be absolutely necessary to turn the symbols and ideas which, otherwise, would remain inoperative, into meaningful and effective forms and not mere hollow forms.

Weaving the dream produces another sort of « real », different from the real of incarnation, less tangible, less perceived by the senses, but truly « lived » and linked to a widened perception. It gives form to an actual « Presence » in the city (presence of the founders, of the « divine » or of the « supramental ») which partake to the realization of the announced transformation, and to the progression of the individual and collective consciousness towards a superior level of evolution. The origin and power of this other reality is thus truly creativity, invention. For to prevent the return of division, the processes of unity must clearly be reinvented. Ultimately, it is this creative energy, derived from the powerful collective desire to « realize Mother’s Dream », that generates the « spirit of Auroville ». It is as if the response to the danger of explosion (division, war) was another explosion, the explosion of unity, counter to withdrawal or refuge. This is what Auroville has always been able to do during the multiple crises that the city has had to go through. It has always been able to come back to what makes the unity of Aurovillians, to the creativity of the « spirit of AV », which is the sensitive expression of the awareness and joy of participating in an extraordinary human adventure. Thanks to it, the group of men and women gathered on this small portion of Indian territory radiates a form of goodwill and desire to be together that becomes palpable. And everything is then possible…

Rémi Astruc

CNRS/ Thalim/Héritages