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Is Auroville international?

by Alan

Ask Aurovilians what they understand by the term 'international community' and (as always!) you are likely to receive different responses. Answers include a place inhabited by many different nations, a place of international culture, and a place which is doing work for the whole world. Each of these responses can be challenged. New York and London are far more international than Auroville in terms of the different cultures represented there; Auroville is often described as having a predominantly Westernized rather than an international culture; and it's not clear that much of what has been achieved so far in Auroville can be easily transferred to other parts of the world.

A universal town

So are we using the wrong terminology? Interestingly, Mother rarely used the term 'international' in describing Auroville. She preferred the term 'universal', clarifying the distinction like this:

Auroville wants to be a universal town. A universal town-not international: universal, where men and women of all countries will be able to live in peace and progressive unity above all creeds, all politics and nationalities, straining to realize human unity. (7.9.64)

It's a point she makes again and again-that Auroville is a place for those who want to move beyond the particularities of nationality, caste and religion ("the first necessity is the inner discovery in order to know what one truly is behind social, moral, cultural, racial and hereditary appearances"). The term 'international' ('between nations'), on the other hand, still implies national structures of thought and being.

Yet Mother specified an International Zone for Auroville. Why? Mother's plan that the Zone should house pavilions of different culture and nations is based upon an earlier idea she had wished to institute at the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education as a concrete step towards Sri Aurobindo's concept of world union. "The most important idea," she explained, "is that the unity of the human race can be achieved neither by uniformity nor by domination and subjection. Only a synthetic organization of all nations, each one occupying its true place according to its genius and the part it has to play in the whole, can bring about a comprehensive and progressive unification." She proposed, therefore, to create "a kind of permanent world-exhibition.in which all countries will be presented in a concrete and living way.to help individuals to become aware of the fundamental genius of the nation to which they belong and at the same time to bring them into contact with the ways of life of other nations, so that they learn to know and respect equally the true spirit of all the countries of the world."

Here Mother implies a vital distinction between the 'genius' of a nation, which relates to the unique role it has to play in the world concert, and the superficial aspects of nationality which often feed divisive chauvinism. In an increasingly globalised culture it is difficult to know if the genius of a nation may be modified over time as waves of immigration and emigration change its constituent population. However, what is clear is that in the "straining to realize human unity" it is the chauvinistic aspect which has to be transcended. On the individual level, contacting the genius or essence of one's own culture is an important step in self-knowledge. And while it is not the ultimate step-Mother emphasized that the 'true Aurovilian' goes beyond nationality, religion and caste to discover their true being and a more universal consciousness-national character, purified of all its accidental aspects, may be a powerful vehicle for the action of this consciousness. It is in this context that the International Zone with its cultural pavilions has an essential role to play in Mother's 'universal' city.

Mother also explained what she meant by the term 'international' when she used it in reference to the Sri Aurobindo International University (as it was first called). This didn't imply, she said, that the university would comprise students from all nations of the world; rather 'international' meant a place where "the cultures of the various parts of the world will be represented here so as to be accessible to all." (August, 1952) Similarly, it could be concluded that Auroville's task is not to attract peoples from all nations to one township in Tamil Nadu, but rather to provide a place where all cultures can be understood, a place where, as Mother beautifully put it, people from all nations who want to realize human unity based on the teaching of Sri Aurobindo "would be at home".

Auroville and international politics

Having said all this, Mother stressed that Auroville had an important role to play on the international scene. One of her earliest statements referred to her wish that the U.S.S.R.and the U.S. "which are on a collision course come here (Auroville), and that both of them have a pavilion of their culture and their ideal, and that they are here, face to face, and shake hands." (23.4.66) And one of her first explanations of Auroville's raison d'etre was that Auroville had the capacity to prevent a Third World War if the " seed of truth" which it embodied was allowed to flower. In the same conversation she explained how the decision of nations to participate in building Auroville would mean that idealism had triumphed over their pervasive fear of catastrophe: "if the nations collaborate, even to a very small extent in the work of Auroville, it will do them a lot of good-it can do them a lot of good, a good which may be quite out of proportion to the apparent action."

It must be said that while Mother was optimistic about being able to work through individuals like Kennedy and Kruschev, she could be scathing about international institutions. "Those people are so old-fashioned.still at the stage of the 'materialist anti-religious movement'", she remarked of the United Nations in 1966, and on another occasion she described UNESCO as being "two hundred years behind the earth's progress, consequently there isn't much hope that they will understand". "Understand" in this context meant understand what Auroville stood for. Yet Mother was later to support contacts being made with UNESCO, contacts which resulted in UNESCO passing several resolutions of support for Auroville as well as the visit, in 1970, of an important UNESCO representative to the community.

There were a number of reasons for this. According to her son, Andre, Mother was concerned that Auroville be "visible", well-known to everybody by the time of Sri Aurobindo's birth centenary year (1972), and UNESCO's support and international network were seen as a powerful means of achieving this. There was also the question of Auroville's status. Mother made it clear, in response to a question about whether Auroville could be part of a UNESCO project, that "to hand over the management of Auroville to any country or any group however big it may be is an ABSOLUTE IMPOSSIBILITY(sic)." This seems to be the import of her description of Auroville as "the free international city", of her statement (reported by Roger Anger) that "it is only the internationalization of Auroville that will give it its true image and dimension", and of her wish that the children born in Auroville's maternity unit should be recognized as "world citizens". But Mother was also pragmatic. She recognized that while India is the only country in the world with the wisdom and wideness to welcome a project like Auroville, it was not yet ready to accord the project a fully independent status. This was why she emphasized that Aurovilians must strictly observe the laws of the land.


And the Auroville of today? In what sense, if any, can it be termed 'international' or 'universal'? After all, hardly any pavilions have been built in the International Zone, we have yet to evolve any kind of 'world culture', and Auroville's impact upon world affairs-as far as one can judge-seems to have been negligible. But perhaps this is looking in the wrong direction. For what is a daily fact of life here is the constant contact and interaction between people from very different backgrounds and cultures in a 'zone' or field which transcends nationality. We did not come here to create an international city. We were drawn by something else, an ideal which specifically requires us to go beyond division, and it is through this rather than through nationality that we relate to each other.

This is already a huge achievement. And if the adults are not yet fully there-for many of us still retain national and cultural characteristics, the national 'filters' which delimit our vision and responses-it's safe to say that the Auroville children, in their mixing of languages and disregard of nationality, are well on the way to living that 'something else'.

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