what Auroville taught me about Utopia (pt I)

what Auroville taught me about Utopia (pt I)

posted in: asia, india, reflections, south asia, travel | 0

I spent a few days at Auroville, a universally renown community among dreamers as “the commune that worked”, in other words, some sort of “utopia”.

Definition: A commune is an intentional community of people living together, sharing common interests, often having common values and beliefs, as well as shared property, possessions, resources, and, in some communes, work, income or assets (Wikipedia)

I’ve been growing my interest in “communes” – the concept of mutual support and co-existence / co-growth of a group of individuals who are different “in practice” (i.e. profession, interests) yet similar “in ideals” (i.e. values, ethics) really appeals to me. Maybe it’s because I’ve been on the road for 6 months, or maybe I believe in the promised benefits of growing together with a group that possess the same passion for the same higher orders to build something greater, together.

First impressions

Auroville is north of the beautiful little Pondicherry, a previously French colony on the eastern shore of India. Auroville means “the city of dawn”. It is an experimental community built to further the unity of mankind. The founders, Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, had a vision to build a safe space for anyone from any country, nationality and background to come to and live in peace and harmony.

I entered Auroville feeling cautious. I arrived with a strange mixture of excitement and doubt – I was eager to learn more but I was also skeptical of the rules and perceived cultiness.

I left Auroville with similar feelings but for very different reasons. I was optimistic regarding the community and ‘culture’ that was established – the Aurovillians I met were so warm, kind and loving. However, I was skeptical of how the city’s growing. It felt like through the decades of development, Auroville’s mission became increasingly less pronounced. It seems like Auroville is slowly transforming into another hippietown-of-yesteryear.


Over the weekend, I attended a local film festival and befriend a local Aurovillian, Tom*. Tom was born in Auroville and has lived there for all his life. We chatted about film noir, we chatted about world politics. We chatted about love and liberation. I couldn’t help being (ignorantly) surprised that Tom, someone who grew up in this small city with it’s limited cosmopolitanism, came off a lot more worldly and educated than many of my fellow acquaintances. I felt a silly and embarrassed after realizing my unconscious bias.

After some warm ginger tea, we started chatting about Auroville. Tom’s opinion of the city echos my own. He said that as a boy, the city was filled with liberating vivacity – they were building a future – the right future – a future that pushes the boundaries of mankind in a non-material level. It would be a city of communalism, mutual support and strong bonds. It would be a city of technology, dreams and passion. There will be no wars, no fights, no this versus that.

It would be the type of city that everyone else will adopt.

Every brick Tom moved, ever plant Tom planned, was believed to be one step towards the growth in awareness and spirituality of mankind.

“But you get older and you see things” Tom continued in a matter-of-fact tone, “we were once the ‘wild west’, it was a place of boundless experimentation, we were encouraged to explore our minds, to run free. The world was within my reach – I experimented with sounds, with sculptures; with colours, with the elements. I built the galaxy out of wind chimes and happiness out of the wind. But with growth, rules are put into place. Children argue, so we built schools. People fight, so we created precepts. Groups disagree, so we hired a government”

We ended our conversation. Tom has decided it’s time for him to move on.

* name has been changed for privacy reasons.

So what works?

My conversation with Tom left me restlessly thoughtful. As I continued my travels through India, Thailand and Myanmar, I can’t help but obsess over this idea of a “utopia”. Can we truly build man’s happiest place on earth?

Initial thoughts / insights / observations:

  1. Communes or somewhat-exclusive living/lifestyle communities need a common goal/objective to exist. They need a specific and strong foundation that participants can feel attached and devoted towards. This has historically been a ‘spiritual’ element, but we should not rule out secular concepts or ideas that either i) focus on furthering something that is beyond the current reach of mankind, or ii) exist as something believed to be true, but just has not been fully proven true yet
  2. The promise of an idea is enough to sustain the immediate community, the ‘First People’ who built the community. It is, however, the future (second+) generations who will grow tired as this ‘ideal’ community it is not one they have built and manifested themselves, nor is it one they subscribe to holistically. Where there is no history, there is no commitment, for the new generation’s understanding of the community is shallow – ideals are taught verbally versus through an existing passion of the heart, beliefs are paraphrased versus innate. Future generations will look for more, and/or look for ‘what else’. If their journey for the Different is not successful, or they feel they are not given the sufficient/true freedom for their exploration, we will be left with deep-rooted resentment that will distant existing bonds and relationships
    1. Existing communes focus on ‘bringing up the next generation’ to exist. Perhaps we should think about the continuity of the commune less about lineage (inward), but more about the acceptance of others (outward). In other words, birth versus conversion
  3. Unless the goal is to exist severed from current society (i.e. complete detachment of the outside world), it is essential to scrutinize existing social norms and only subscribe to ones that are compulsory. It is also essential to build regulations and precepts proactively versus reactively. Human nature encourages disputes and complacency. It is essential to set up a society with the right institutions to keep us inspired, effective and innovative.
    1. Communes that ‘work better’ tend to adopt existing societal norms, but ‘improve’ on others. Perhaps this is moot point to discuss further – which existing societal conditions are A) ‘Right’ (keep), B) which ones ‘make sense but are not executed well in society’ (change) and C) which ones are ‘Wrong’ (abandon). And, if we adopt a series of AB prudently, can we fully eliminate C?
    2. Basic needs must be met for people to do what they love / are best at. Though some can be met through the sharing of resources (i.e. food / gardening), certain ‘work’ may need to be outsourced to third parties (outside of the commune) to maintain objectiveness, efficiency and enable commune members to focus on activities that require their unique skills
    3. Consider our traditional definition of a ‘democracy’. Perhaps a constant and thorough democracy is not the right model to run this commune as 1 vote pp on each matter (despite an individual’s [lack of] familiarity on a particular subject is not effective and the ‘fairest’ — this concern (of overfocusing on ‘micro problems’ by the ‘wrong’ group) is triggered by a story told me to about an Italian commune that spent hours of their “town hall meetings” arguing about dog poop
  4. There must be a thorough and well-perused selection criteria for accepting new members into the commune. Race, religion, culture, sexuality, identity (etc) are NOT relevant factors, but, an individuals’ thesis on the universal truths of life and happiness must align with the core of the commune. The individual’s view of the future, and more importantly, how they see themselves fit into the metaphysical picture, must mirror that of the commune
  5. Unfortunately for mankind, it is impossible to live happily without soughting after acceptance from your loved ones. Because we all strive to be content, it is important that the outsider world is curious about the commune (through either intellectual or physical ‘visits’)
    1. Most communes look for perfect in happiness. This is inachieveable. Consider other objectives like city planning / efficiency, the allowance of an individual to express themselves, the ability of an individual to learn and explore newness, the percentage of current situations (as a whole) that are planned and executed accordingly (etc) as better metrics

Utopia – redefined

The word “utopia” is wrong.

Self-identified “utopias”, based on the historical definition of the word, aren’t utopias because they’re trying to subscribe to an idea that’s impractical, and by that virtue, makes it no longer ‘perfect’. Our current understanding of ‘utopia’ is a predefined image fed to us as ‘perfect’ when it merely is an image constructed out of lies and a lack of thought.

“Utopia”, as we are taught to understand it, is built upon escapism – for this world is so terrible that there must be another place, somewhere else, sometime else, where everything works and everyone is happy. This place will be filled with trees with rosy red apples, there will be rainbow fish dancing along the stream, the sky is blue, the temperature is warm, and no one cares about things as trivial as clothes. (Ironically), kind of like that biblical painting of Adam and Eve, which, will never work out in practice.

We need to redefine the term so we can build something that’s actually worthwhile.


(Sent from Auroville, India)