Two articles recently appeared, one in Deccan Chronicle by M.R. Venkatesh, the other on IndiaFacts by Raman Reddy, reviewing a recently published book, Auroville: A Dream Hijacked, by Nirmalya Mukherjee. These three write-ups have a common message: in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Auroville’s foreign residents, variously called “hooligans” and “rebels”, in collusion with a few powerful political allies, plotted to “hijack” the dream project of Auroville by snatching it away from the Sri Aurobindo Society (SAS), whose benevolent management was unjustly interrupted by the Indian Government’s takeover of Auroville lands; it is now time, the subtext continues, to correct this injustice and bring Auroville back under the SAS so it may benefit from the latter’s spiritual roots the better to achieve its objectives. Indeed, this shamelessly distorted narrative is but a distant echo of the propaganda the erstwhile SAS used to indulge in during the conflict between it and many of Auroville’s residents.
At the outset, a disclaimer: what follows is not a point-by-point rejoinder of those write-ups, which would be a tedious and thankless task; it is merely a comment and testimony based on my personal experience. I do not and cannot speak on behalf of Auroville and write purely on my own initiative. What follows also does not claim to be a detailed historical narrative of the conflict between Auroville and the SAS; I hope someone will write it someday. I lived in Auroville from 1977 to 1982, at the height of that conflict, was among the “rebels” and “hooligans” reviled by the three write-ups, and played a minuscule role in early attempts to submit to the Government possible formulations to resolve the conflict. I have maintained my interest in Auroville as an experiment of great value, an aspiring laboratory for Sri Aurobindo’s vision of a humanity endeavouring to rise above the ego and its endless greeds, many of which the SAS exemplified. I have visited Auroville fairly regularly in recent years and seen something of its achievements as well as the challenges it has had and will have to face.
Navajata and the Sri Aurobindo Society
To begin with, what was this Sri Aurobindo Society, and why was there a conflict at all? The SAS was a society registered in 1960 in Calcutta for the purpose of raising funds initially for the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, later extending to the project of Auroville, and using those funds to acquire lands or create infrastructure for Auroville. Although the Mother, Sri Aurobindo’s companion and the initiator of Auroville, was the SAS’s president, and although the SAS was largely run from Pondicherry, it was legally independent from the Sri Aurobindo Ashram (which is run by a trust). This takes us to the most perverse distortion in the three write-ups: the role of the SAS was strictly limited to the above — fund raising and acquisition of lands; it was never to manage Auroville or run this experiment. That was left to Mother herself, as her innumerable messages, instructions, letters to and discussions with Aurovilians, demonstrate. There is not a single line by her entrusting Auroville’s affairs to the SAS, much less to Navajata, who at the time ran this Society on Mother’s behalf and is now sought to be depicted as a victim of evil foreigners (“mostly French”). Had there been such a line, Navajata would have brandished it later in the courts. But let me not anticipate.
Who was Navajata? Keshav Dev Poddar was a Bombay businessman who joined the Ashram sometime in the 1950s. Mother, seeing some potential in him, renamed him “Navajata”, an invitation to work towards a new birth. Instead of confining himself to the tasks Mother had given him, he began putting on the garb of a spiritual figure. As early as in March-April 1961 — seven years before Auroville’s inauguration — Mother clarified: “The Sri Aurobindo Society is a strictly external thing, organized by businessmen to bring in money — EXCLUSIVELY. That is, they want to put people in a position where they feel obliged to give (so far they have succeeded and I believe they will succeed). But this has nothing to do with working for an ideal, it is COMPLETELY practical. … It has nothing to do with yoga or spiritual progress or anything of the kind. … My name, the fact that I am president [of the SAS], is simply to give my guarantee that the money won’t go into the pockets of those who collect it but will be used for the Ashram, the running of the Ashram, and that’s all. And on this basis alone I give my guarantee.” (In a talk to her French confidant, Satprem; Mother’s Agenda, Vol. 2.)
From 1966 onward, with UNESCO expressing its support of the project through several resolutions, Navajata’s ambitions grew boundless; he excelled at public relations and now reached out internationally. At some point in 1970, he attempted to turn Auroville into some sort of a UNESCO project, as “a huge sum of money is expected to flow from it.” A concerned disciple reported this to Mother, who gave the following answer in her own hand: “I do not know who told you that but there is a misunderstanding somewhere because to hand over the management of Auroville to any country or any group however big it may be is an absolute impossibility. If it [such a step] has been at all taken, it is without my knowledge — because I say to it an emphatic NO” (Auroville in Mother’s Words, Vol. 2, p. 66). The last “NO” was underlined three times. “Any group”, of course, included the SAS itself, to which, it bears repeating, Mother never once gave the charge of running Auroville.
Indeed, Mother was throughout deeply distrustful of Navajata’s ambitious designs. Two more statements of hers, of 1972, will suffice here. In March, she confided to Satprem, “… It’s not that money is lacking, it’s just being wasted, scattered. You see, Navajata keeps wanting to expand and expand the Sri Aurobindo Society, he buys plots of land worth lakhs of rupees, and instead of the money being used for the general work, it is frittered away. I told him, but he didn’t understand.” (Mother’s Agenda, Vol. 13) To “expand and expand the SAS” meant, in effect, to expand Navajata’s personal empire and “his” SAS, which went on opening numerous branches in India and abroad.
In December, in a discussion with one of Auroville’s architects, Roger Anger, and a few more people, there was a general complaint about the lack of coordination at Auroville; someone suggested that Navajata could perhaps be entrusted with the general coordination of various organizations working in and around Auroville. Roger Anger noted in his diary Mother’s answer: “It is impossible. It is impossible. It is impossible. A third person is required whom I can trust. … You see, Nava[jata] came this morning, he did not tell me anything. He couldn’t; one cannot lie to me, you understand.” (Auroville in Mother’s Words, Vol. 2, p. 441 ff)
Possibly the briefest and most accurate characterization of the SAS was reportedly made by Indira Gandhi to a group of Aurovilians that met her in 1980, soon after she had returned to power, to ask for her intervention (see further below). She told them, “You have no idea what you are up against; it (the SAS) is an octopus” (as communicated to me soon after the meeting by one of those in the group).
Who Were the Hooligans?
Immediately after Mother left her body in 1973, Navajata appointed himself chairman of the SAS, and soon began asserting his control over Auroville. Most of the residents were then from Europe and the USA, people of diverse origins and aspirations generally driven by a deep dissatisfaction with Western ways of life. Once it became clear that Navajata was projecting himself as the head of Auroville, a few Aurovilians began protesting: if “Auroville belongs to nobody in particular; Auroville belongs to humanity as a whole,” as its Charter (composed by Mother) proclaims, how could anyone claim absolute control over it?
Navajata was confident he could stifle those early protests through a multi-pronged strategy: on the one hand he got pliant journalists to conduct in the Indian press a smear campaign against the “foreigners”; they were portrayed as hippies, drug addicts, debauchees, anti-Indian, and so on. On the other hand, he started holding back funds raised in the name of Auroville by “his” SAS, exerting a not-so-subtle financial blackmail. Besides, the SAS being the official guarantor for foreign Aurovilians vis-à-vis the Indian government as far as their visas were concerned, this provided another most effective avenue for arm-twisting. Indeed, from 1975 onward and at regular intervals, Navajata got the visas of a few “ringleaders” cancelled and quit notices issued; a few were deported. It took the personal intervention of friends of Auroville such as Sir C.P.N. Singh and J.R.D. Tata to get such measures annulled. This naturally led many more Aurovilians to rebel against such browbeating and work towards Auroville’s liberation from the SAS’s clutches. In 1976, a few of them took over a small house which Navajata pretended to keep in Auroville but hardly ever used (it was more like a “hut”, as we called those small thatched-roof units with only low walls). Navajata reacted fiercely, bribing the local police (and later, the courts) to arrest a group of Aurovilians (over forty of them at some point), and cancelling more visas. He also got a few local goondas hired to assault Aurovilians, several of whom were hospitalized as a result.
All these facts were faithfully recorded and documented, with detailed reports sent to the Government at regular intervals; briefs, fact sheets and press releases were also issued, although the press rarely took any notice of them. Instead, the media campaign demonizing the “foreigners” went on in full swing in dailies and magazines. Were they “hooligans”? Some did have rather rough or loose characters; a few lacked honesty or transparency in their dealings with the rest of the community — altogether, nothing very unusual for a sampling of humanity. But nearly all worked hard on Auroville’s harsh landscape of endless expanses of red laterite, planting trees, digging ponds, controlling the erosion to prevent top soil from melting away into the ravines, producing millets, vegetables and fruits to feed a community starved of funds, and sometimes starved of food, hammering at iron bars in workshops, experimenting with windmills (among the very first to do so in India), organic farming or eco-friendly constructions, running cottage industries that were slowly but surely bringing some prosperity to nearby villages, or quietly doing onerous community service day after day. As one of the “hooligans,” I found many of them to be fine human specimens with a sincere aspiration for change; if genuineness were to be used as a criterion, they and their would-be master stood nearly at opposite ends of the scale.
A decade earlier, right at the beginning of Auroville, Mother was already hearing mostly negative reports on the Aurovilians. But when a member of the Ashram visited Auroville in 1970, he sent her this brief report: “Mother, I was taken to Auroville a few weeks back. I was very happy to see the people working there. Here were the people against whom we hear all sorts of bad reports. They were busy with hard labour. Not many of us can do so much. You know that it is not easy to satisfy me with work, but I was truly happy.” Mother answered: “I am very happy with what you write and fully agree. So all is well.” (Mother on Auroville, Vol. 2, p. 148)
“Not many of us can do so much” was an honest estimate of most of the inmates of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry. An objective reader of the thirteen volumes of Mother’s Agenda will be surprised to note time and again the low opinion Mother had of her “disciples”, including Navajata. Just one sample, from 1961: “The other day, I told Navajata (and I told him loud enough for everyone to hear): ‘We can dispense with a good half of the ashramites straightaway and not lose a single sadhak.’ … People imagine that by the simple fact of being here they become disciples and apprentice yogis!” (Mother’s Agenda, Vol. 2) Where were the spiritual accomplishments that we are now told the SAS embodied?
I must correct an impression the above might give that all Aurovilians were foreigners at the height of the conflict; it was not so: Auroville already counted Indians from various parts of the country among its residents. I remember how delegations of penniless Aurovilians had often to travel to Delhi and camp there to meet ministers and top bureaucrats of the Central Government and give them a factual picture of what was going on; in such groups (I was part of a few), the presence of Indian Aurovilians, some of them highly respected (such as the late Prem Malik) was proof, at least, that the SAS’s propaganda was little more than slander. In the 1980s and ’90s, with the absorption of many Tamil villagers into Auroville, the dominant nationality gradually became Indian, quite simply.
To turn the Auroville story into a “foreigners vs. Indians” narrative is an old canard of the SAS which the three write-ups faithfully repeat, along with the old lie that Aurovilians wanted to create a separate, Vatican-like, enclave in India. Had they wanted to do so, would they have repeatedly called for the Indian Government’s intervention and welcomed its takeover of Auroville lands? Would they have fought the SAS in the Supreme Court to defend this takeover?
The Government Takeover
The three write-ups I refer to complain that the 1977 Kulkarni Committee report of investigations into the SAS affairs, which the Government of India cited as one of the justifications for its takeover of Auroville in 1981, was a set-up and was eventually annulled by a local court. But it was public knowledge at the time that (1) those courts were easily and frequently influenced by Navajata’s money power (the hundreds of false cases he got filed in those same courts against Aurovilians simply to harass them were all later annulled by higher courts); (2) the said report barely touched the tip of Navajata’s financial misdeeds, which Mother was already aware of, as we saw above; (3) the takeover was justified not by this report but by Navajata’s unbridled ambitions to turn Auroville into his personal fiefdom, in violation of Mother’s express intentions.
The story of the Government takeover and the SAS’s challenges in court is a complicated one, which to my knowledge has not yet been fully written. If we needed a single confirmation of the SAS’s dishonesty and unsuitability for managing Auroville, I would quote its false statements in the Calcutta High Court and later in the Supreme Court, where it challenged in 1980 a first ordinance issued by the Government to take over Auroville’s lands from it. Among them, its claim that Sri Aurobindo’s teaching constitutes a “new religion” was particularly despicable. The intention was transparent: if the SAS represented a “religious denomination”, it could claim protection from governmental interference under various articles of the Constitution of India that accord special rights to minority denominations. Several of us supplied the Supreme Court with long extracts from Sri Aurobindo and Mother to show the deep dishonesty of the claim, since both had been emphatic that their intention was not to found a new religion but to work for a complete and radical change in human nature. The SAS’s plea was nothing but a betrayal of what Sri Aurobindo and Mother stood for. On 8 November 1982, four judges out of five on the bench agreed with our argument and threw out the SAS’s bluff. It was the end of the road for Navajata, whose dreams now lay in the dust; he died shortly afterwards.
(An aside: it was instructive to observe the position of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust through this conflict; although officially not involved in it, it was supportive of the SAS’s attempt to grab Auroville, never protesting Navajata’s public postures and manoeuvres; many of Navajata’s acolytes were ashramites. However, when he filed his claim that “Aurobindonism” was a new religion, the Ashram Trust got the jitters, as it had been receiving educational and other grants from the Government of India for its research on yoga and spirituality; had Navajata’s argument been accepted, such grants, which cannot be issued to “religious” denominations, would have been called into question.)
Leave Auroville Alone
After the Government passed the Auroville Foundation Act in 1988, completing its takeover of Auroville, well-meaning people on both sides suggested that it was time to heal the wounds. While it was nobody’s case that a continued hostility between Auroville and the Sri Aurobindo Ashram was desirable, those good intentions neglected two crucial points.
The first is that Mother wanted a clear and sharp distinction between Auroville and the Ashram to be maintained. In 1970, a disciple told Mother of his desire that ashramites should regularly go and work in Auroville; otherwise, he argued, “if there isn’t the inner force of the Ashram people mingling with the Aurovilians, the Aurovilians will remain what they are.” He was anguished to note “a break between Auroville and the Ashram”. Mother’s answer was revealing: “As for me, I don’t find it [the break] sufficient. … I don’t find it sufficient. It’s not at all on the same level [Auroville and the Ashram]. The people here [the Ashramites] … You just have to imagine I were gone. … Just imagine that and you’ll see, you’ll soon see what will happen.” (Mother’s Agenda, Vol. 11) Indeed, we soon saw.
The second is that for any genuine, lasting reconciliation to take place, the offender must first acknowledge its past misdeeds and express genuine remorse. Not once did the post-Navajata SAS give the slightest hint that it was prepared to do so. The current attempt to pass it off as a victim is surreal, although a classic stratagem. The Aurovilians had every right to rebel against the SAS’s nightmarish stranglehold, which would have turned Auroville into an international “spiritual” circus, a glittering shell void of substance and meaning.
In the end, for Auroville to be fulfilled, it needs no power-hungry schemers, fraudsters and calumniators, no self-appointed spiritual teachers, but the simple spark and aspiration for change that Mother was looking for in every one of her would-be followers.
Featured Image: Auroville
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Michel Danino is a French-born Indian scholar of ancient Indian civilization, history and culture. He authored The Lost River: On the Trail of the Sarasvati (Penguin Books, 2010) and Indian Culture and India’s Future (DK Printworld, 2011). He recently edited Sri Aurobindo and India’s Rebirth (Rupa, 2018). He has taught aspects of Indian civilization in several educational institutions; his lecture series at IIT Kanpur recorded over 200,000 views. Since 2011 he has been associated with IIT Gandhinagar, where he is visiting professor and coordinates the Archaeological Sciences Centre.