Sanatana Dharma and Auroville

Feb 16, 2023 | Aims & ideals, International Advisory Council

A letter from Rod Hemsell following the meeting of the IAC and the community


The community meeting of Aurovilians with the International Advisory Council (IAC) on Feb. 16, 2023, was a wonderfully revealing and inspiring event for me: everything was beautifully and sincerely expressed. The sincerity and solidarity that was evident has been the one consistently rewarding aspect of the whole catastrophic series of events of the past year in Auroville. The exchanges during the meeting also made it clear that efforts to bridge the division between the Residents’ Assembly (RA) and Governing Board (GB)  through rational dialogue are virtually a hopeless enterprise, as could also be understood by reading the various court filings by the Auroville Foundation during the past year. Along this line of hopeless enterprise and vain endeavor, however, I would nevertheless like to attempt a clarification.


It was reported that the Chairman of the GB had asked whether Aurovilians were willing to “take the Sanatana Dharma to the next level” – a very intriguing idea to say the least. It begs the question, What would that next level be? Sri Aurobindo explained the meaning of Sanatana Dharma as “All is Brahman” or So’ham, the eternal truth of the One Divine as expressed primarily by the Vedas and Upanishads. But he especially pointed out in his commentaries on the Upanishads  that while this is a fundamental belief of Hinduism, it also implies that there are a thousand paths to its realization, and all religions have been forms of its expression. In his commentaries he stressed the fundamental belief  that such truth has been perennially expressed by the Sruti – a certain power of inspired speech. Sri Aurobindo’s writings, or Shastra, are themselves generally considered to be such an expression, in a form that is particularly relevant to this period of time in the life of humanity. Auroville is in fact based on his elaboration of the Sanatana Dharma for this new age, in such works as The Ideal of Human Unity and The Life Divine. It would appear then, that as Aurovilians, or people living in Auroville and committed to its development, we are in fact situated to do, perhaps, exactly what the Chairman has asked!


Now what does that mean, on a practical level? In the first place, according to Sri Aurobindo, it means to surrender to the Divine Mother, or to the creative force of the Brahman, as symbolized by the Matri Mandir at the center of Auroville. The Mother herself, who was the founder of Auroville, was in fact considered by Sri Aurobindo to be an embodiment and channel of that creative force itself. The guidelines that she formulated for the development of Auroville would therefore seem to be the best indicators, along with the writings of Sri Aurobindo, of what might be envisaged as the “next level of the Sanatana Dharma”. In addition to this potential of her guidelines, we might also consider them to be indications of what the Chairman referred to as a “Code of Conduct” which he felt to be lacking; he expressed in his message to the community his desire to have such a code formulated for Auroville.


The Mother, in her various statements about Auroville’s purpose and process of development, envisioned the obsolescence of certain conventional institutions, which it might be difficult for the Chairman of the current GB to actually conceive or approve of. She said, for example: No religions! No marriage! No exchange of money! No proprietary ownership! And, as for rules and governance, she said: “No rules or laws are being framed. Things will get formulated as the underlying truth of the township emerges and takes shape progressively. …That is the great error of governments: they make a framework and say “There you are, we have set this up and now we must live under it.” And so of course they crush the life in it and stop it from progressing. It must be Life itself developing more and more in a progression towards the Light, the Knowledge, the Power that should, little by little, establish rules, as general as possible so that they are extremely flexible and amenable to change, to change with the need  as quickly as needs and habits change” (The Mother’s Agenda, Dec. 30, 1967).


After more than 50 years of development, it must be said that there are still vestiges of those obsolete institutions which have been established for thousands of years. And yet, we find a financial system that has virtually eliminated the exchange of money among residents, a system of housing allocation, wealth sharing, monetary and in-kind disbursements, and welfare services that provide reasonably well for the needs of all; we find a society relatively free from the stigmas of marriage and divorce, from crime, from racial discrimination, even though short-comings in these areas may still persist; we find a system of management and governance based on policies, and a democratic system for the approval of policies, that has provided order and stability in the community for several decades; and we find a physical and cultural environment  characterized by creativity and beauty. One cannot say, therefore, that a code of conduct is lacking in Auroville, even though it may not be apparent to someone with a biased, patriarchal perspective. The strongly biased traditional culture with its patriarchal codes of conduct, is something from which the residents of Auroville were grateful to be relatively free.


And this freedom is fundamental to that “higher level of the Sanatana Dharma” which the spirituality of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother has made possible in Auroville. It is based on a certain psychology of human consciousness, which recognizes that there is an inner being, a Soul, which is capable of connecting with a higher Self, enabling individuals to act freely from within, in harmony with others, with the society as a whole, and with the higher Consciousness. That is the significance of the idea of the Divine Force, symbolized by the Matri Mandir. The purpose of Auroville, as its residents realize, and the reason for their commitment to this way of life, is to create a laboratory of evolution precisely to allow this inner and higher consciousness to emerge. This is the meaning of Sri Aurobindo’s interpretation of the philosophy of Brahman, and the Mother’s creation of Auroville, both of which envision a humanity that will evolve new structures of society that embody a higher Dharma (Law of Being). But it must be free to emerge from within.


The problems which were clearly articulated by many voices at this meeting between members of the RA and the IAC of Auroville, are the result of the imposition of an authoritarian form of governance that in fact stifles the freedom that is necessary for this growth from within to be realized. What the Chairman of the Auroville Foundation considers to be a higher level of the Sanatana Dharma and an appropriate Code of Conduct for Auroville seems likely to be conditioned entirely by traditional forms of society and belief that are contrary to what has been received from Sri Aurobindo and the Mother in relation to the actual intended purpose of Auroville. And the consequence of that disparity in understanding has been a year-long destruction of both social structures and the physical environment. The anguish caused by this experience was audible in the expressions of many members of the community, as well as members of the IAC. Both have met with continuous rejection of their concerns and their entreaties by members of the Governing Board.


In the immediate social and environmental context of this meeting, a “Leave-India Notice” was received by one member of the community, for no apparent reason, although he is a prominent representative of the RA; 320 trees of a small forested area along a proposed transportation corridor were in imminent danger of being destroyed, although alternative plans to conserve the forest had been submitted by community designers; and several people received notices that they must leave their homes which would soon be leveled for future “construction” projects. The fact that such decisions are being taken without consulting the RA, as required by law, is perhaps of minor importance in relation to the anguish and destruction that they cause. They violate more than the law, and more than human feelings and integrity however; they violate the principles of Auroville.  The ideals of human unity which are the cornerstones of Auroville are being dismantled by order of government representatives and agents who were ostensibly appointed to protect these same ideals. This public meeting has served to illuminate both the violation and the resilience of the Auroville community.