How I ended up doing a PhD on Auroville

I was born and raised in Auroville, an experimental township founded in 1968 with the intention of developing a ‘spiritualised society’. I was among the first students to graduate from one of the community’s grassroots high schools with the internationally recognised qualifications that would allow me to attend university anywhere in the world. The first time I did, though, I felt ambivalent about it. I went out of an internalized ‘should’, not an internal ‘yes’. And it didn’t work out. Despite showing much academic promise, I dropped out after a year. Like many Auroville kids, I was inherently anti-institution. I didn’t see the point in being walled in to learn, disconnected from the world we were supposedly studying. I missed the rich, deep, intergenerational social fabric I had experienced in Auroville. Space for spiritual development and connection were inexistent. It simply wasn’t meaningful enough. Actually, it felt downright detrimental to my overall well-being.

5 years later, I was in the Bay Area and decided to visit UC Berkeley. Despite being sorely dissatisfied with my first academic experience, and living a beautiful life in which my well-being was peaking, the question of whether or not to go back and get a degree kept tormenting me. I figured if it kept coming up, there was something there that was unresolved. I told myself that I couldn’t afford to ask myself the question anymore. I had to do it. If it wasn’t right for me, well, at least I would never ask myself the question again in my entire life. All that energy wasted in doubt would be freed.

I really wasn’t prepared for what I would experience that day. It was a casual visit. But it turned out to be one of those moments in life, where all of a sudden, you feel like you’ve entered another dimension. I felt the atmosphere change from the moment I set foot on the campus, in between two immense oak trees surrounded by ginormous squirrels. Even the fact that the squirrels were gigantic was somehow imbued with some kind of incomprehensible magnitude of meaning. The first thing I remember is that I felt like I was home. As I kept walking in, I started to connect to a matrix of great minds, their activity vibrationally palpable to me. I realized that I owed it to myself to pursue a university education –­– and I was convinced it was meant to be at Berkeley. Berkeley is notoriously difficult to get into, but I never dwelled on that. It was either meant to be, or it wasn’t. I actually felt like it was already done, energetically, and over the next year like I was just going to do the making-it-happen legwork in the present dimension. Have you ever felt that way?

Don’t get me wrong, it was hard work, and there were some pretty disheartening red-tape roadblocks along the way. But I didn’t give up, and I did get in, with a full scholarship. Everything was beginning to flow. “You don’t fit into any box,” my advisor said, “and that’s why you’re perfect for Berkeley.” Finally. He encouraged me to major in Interdisciplinary Studies, which would allow me to design my own degree, and culminate in a research thesis of my choosing.

In our first meeting, my thesis supervisor broke the ice by asking me a seemingly innocent question: “So, where are you from?” I responded tentatively, with a one-liner about being brought up in Auroville. Bob was fascinated. He kept asking questions, from personal ones like “How did your parents meet?” to general ones like “What form of governance do you practice?” After about 40 minutes of this I started glancing apologetically through the doorway to the other students who were waiting.  “Well,” he concluded, “This is what you will write your thesis on.” I was flabbergasted. I could do academic research on Auroville? On my own home? “Is that a legitimate thesis topic?” I asked. “Of course!” he said, “It’s a PhD!” I was a little overwhelmed. I didn’t quite take him seriously. Plus, I had only just coaxed myself into finishing my undergrad after being anti-university for years. But when the reviews came in for my paper[1] – for which I was awarded highest honours – several professors pulled me aside, and told me to take this work to PhD. I was even shortlisted for graduating valedictorian.

My first priority was returning to Auroville. I was tired of being away. I needed to reconnect, and then feel into whether the PhD was what I felt called to do. As part of that I worked on a couple of research projects, one on PTDC[2], Auroville’s communal cooperative, and one on education in Auroville[3]. I found these projects incredibly enriching, as they involved deep conversations with fellow Aurovilians in which I asked questions I wouldn’t have occasion to otherwise, leading to insight into my peers’ innermost aspirations and experience. I cried, often (and I rarely cry), because it put me in contact with a whole new dimension of what Auroville was about. I felt, more than once, a profound sense of connection with the Mother, Auroville’s founder, when I sat down to my desk to write up my research, a feeling that she was guiding me to do this work – something I had never experienced before.

I resented at some level that the obvious next step was to do a PhD on Auroville. I didn’t want to leave my friends, partner, family, forest walks, community living, spiritual home again. I had just gotten back! It felt unfair. But there was an undeniable feeling that I was being called to. There’s this concept in yogic philosophy of ‘svadharma,’ which translates as one’s duty in life. One carries it out as an act of service. Offers it, irrespective of the result. Does this thing that we are meant to do, even if there’s something else we could do better, or feel better about. It’s hard for the results-driven Western disposition to comprehend this as a driving force in one’s life choices. So when people ask me why I’m doing this PhD, and I tell them it’s because I feel I am meant to, it leaves most perplexed. Some try to reframe the question: “It’s so much work, what are you hoping to get out of it? Become a professor…?” I smile, knowing it’s hard to really explain to someone who has no reference points for it. But I try again, reframing the answer: “I’m not doing it for what comes after. I might do something completely different, after. I’m doing it now because I feel it’s what I’m meant to do”.

 

[1] “Auroville: A Practical Experiment in Utopian Society,” available on Academia.edu and at research.auroville.org

[2] “PTDC: Auroville’s communal cooperative as participatory platform of conscious citizenship,” available at research.auroville.org

[3] “Auroville Education Survey: 1968 – 2013,” available online at research.auroville.org

6 Comments

  1. Please keep us updated on your work! As an AV “kid” from the generation before you (I’m the same age as Auroville) I can’t wait to read your discoveries and analysis. Also, as a person who works with AVI USA I think your work could help us to share Auroville with others.

    Please don’t hesitate to contact me (in Colorado nowadays) if I can help.

    Like

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