Thursday, September 11, 2008

Dancing With Shiva, Part 11

Her name was Mirra Alfassa, who was born in France in 1878 and came to Pondicherry in 1914 as a disciple of Sri Aurobindo. She became his closest associate, collaborating with him in his writings and taking over administration of the ashram from him in 1926.
Aurobindo died in 1950, but the ashram continued to thrive and grow under the leadership of The Mother, which she began to be called.
Alfassa died in 1973, setting off a long power struggle among her followers that became ugly and violent. But the ashram continues to be a dominating presence in the former French enclave.

When I visited in 1995, the ashram owned about 400 buildings in Pondicherry and was the area's major employer, operating its own farms, construction companies, oil and floor mills, a foundry, sheet-metal works, laundries, schools, hospitals, printers, paper-makers, and a whole range of arts and handicrafts manufacturing. All this economic activity makes the ashram a powerful force in the community, dictating pretty much how things will run, and not everyone in Pondicherry is happy about that.

As big as the operation is in the city, there's also a rural extension called Auroville. It was The Mother's dream that Auroville would become a community of 50,000 people from all over the world who would live and work in peace and harmony.
Auroville opened to grand ceremony in 1968, with representatives of 121 nations each depositing a sample of their earth in an urn that forms the centerpiece of the Matri Mandar monument (in photo above, shown during a long pause in its construction).
Melissa Shales wrote in the "Footloose Guide to Southern India":
"Money and volunteers poured in and construction began in earnest, but it all came to a grinding halt when The Mother died only five years later. Immediately, a power struggle blew up between the Sri Aurobindo Society (who run the ashram) and the community at Auroville, who wished to run their own affairs. Over the next 15 years, it literally became a battleground, the violence becoming so bad that police had to be called twice. Everyone lobbied furiously, claims of corruption, free sex and drug taking were bandied back and forth and local and national governments became involved. When in 1976, the Society tried to starve out the Aurovillians by withholding funds, France, Germany and the United States were drawn into the dispute, providing food parcels to stop their citizens from starving. In 1980, central government took charge and even nationalized the project… Things have now calmed down, and construction has begun again, but no one has yet managed to reach a settlement and it is all a far cry from The Mother's original concept."

When we visited Auroville in 1995, about 750 people lived there, most working on research projects for health, education and agriculture. Farming supplied the community with most of its food, and scattered through and around Auroville were Tamil villages hosting cottage industries and craftsmen.
Now, there are about 1,700 residents of Auroville, and the giant sphere is complete and a gleaming gold, but a deep division remains between the followers of the ashram and the Aurovillians, evidenced by recent charges and an investigation of child sexual abuse at the experimental community.

Peace and harmony are indeed elusive.

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