One of the things Pondyâ€™s well-known for is its place as the home of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram.(If youâ€™re interested: http://www.sriaurobindoashram.org.)Itâ€™s not the kind of ashram where you can go for courses and yoga; itâ€™s a self-contained (1,500-person) spiritual community.The ashram has its own school, printing press, perfumery, weaving facility, farm, etc.My colleague Sabitaâ€™s sister Jyotsna moved to Pondy from Bhubaneswar in her early teens, and went to school at the ashram.Iâ€™m not clear on why she went there and Sabita didnâ€™t, but it has definitely resulted in their having very different lives.More on that later.
Jyotsna is a full-time ashramite, which means she works there and abides by its rules and principles.
One of the Auroville communities
One of the core values is physical education and fitness.The goal isnâ€™t to win competitions, but rather to perfect the body so itâ€™s an instrument capable of going beyond the physical to the spiritual.So, being part of the ashram means regular physical activity.If youâ€™re in school, youâ€™re required to do two hours of sports every day.(See how well that would fly in America.Not.)If youâ€™re not in school, you can choose how to participate -- by playing sports, coaching, etc.Jyotsna, whoâ€™s in her mid-40s, played sports until last year when she hurt her knee.This year sheâ€™s coaching several sports, and she invited me to go the sports ground with her on two afternoons.The first afternoon I watched girlsâ€™ volleyball and basketball.The second day I watched the boysâ€™ decathlon competition.Wow.
Each community has its own architecture
They were so athletic and so focused.As a disclaimer let me say that my experience in India is limited to just a few months and mostly to one city, but from what Iâ€™ve seen thereâ€™s little emphasis on being physically fit -- so this was an exceptional sight.
That night there was a special ceremony at the ashramâ€™s school playground.Itâ€™s enclosed by four walls, but with an open roof.My guest house ID card gave me privileges to attend this event.Despite the open roof, it was soooo hot.I got there at about .It started at (and actually started on time); by I was so overheated I just couldnâ€™t take it anymore.
The matri mandir (meditation hall) in Auroville
I was sweating profusely, and wiping my face and neck with a handkerchief wasnâ€™t helping at all.I got up to leave, but at the door a man stopped me and said he wouldnâ€™t let me out until a break in the ceremony.I told him how uncomfortable I was, but he just wouldnâ€™t budge.I sat down on the ground, right at his feet, waiting until he gave in.He bent down and whispered, â€śYou need to learn some discipline.â€ťRight.What I really need to learn is how to mentally control my body temperature.I wasnâ€™t happy with him, but I realized I was coming across as a petulant, impatient foreigner.I told him I didnâ€™t mean to be disrespectful of the ceremony and the ashram, itâ€™s just that Iâ€™m not accustomed to this heat.My apology didnâ€™t seem to make much of an impression.About five minutes later he opened the door for all the people who arrived late for the ceremony (hey buddy, at least I was on time!), so I was finally able to leave.
On my tour with Abhijit
Many of the sights I saw were in some way connected with the ashram.Highlights included: A half-day tour of Auroville(a town just outside Pondy, started by one of the ashram's founders, with about 40 separate progressive communities) and a beach; evening meditation at the ashram -- sitting in silence with about 200 people for 20 minutes; and a â€śtourâ€ť of the ashram, which consisted of being bused to buildings housing various â€śdepartments,â€ť mostly to see their gift shops.I also saw the Puducherry (Pondyâ€™s official, non-British name, though no one calls it that) Museum and did some shopping.
Check out the peacock!
When Sabita suggested I visit Pondy, she picked this particular week for me because a â€śdarshanâ€ť day fell during it.â€śDarshanâ€ť means â€śseeingâ€ť in Sanskrit, and at the ashram it refers to four days a year when devotees could look up and see the founders of the ashram (Sri Aurobindo and the Mother) waving to the crowd from a balcony.Since the founders have both been dead for many years, today on darshan days devotees can walk through the Motherâ€™s living quarters.I know very little about either of the founders, but I figured Iâ€™m here, what the heck.So I got on the long line and waited my turn to walk upstairs into the Motherâ€™s rooms.To be honest I know very little about the founders and their philosophies; it seems like they espoused positive, healthy, and spiritual living.
I have no objection to that.The part that was strange for me was seeing the depth of devotion some people have, manifested in praying every time they saw the Motherâ€™s image (which was many times) while walking through her living quarters.Of course there are people in the US who are equally dedicated to their spiritual leaders, but I donâ€™t think itâ€™s as common as it is in India, at least not among my social circle and my part of the country (the northeast).Maybe if the Motherâ€™s teachings changed my life Iâ€™d go into a reverie at seeing her hairbrushâ€¦ but thatâ€™s just not me.There are a handful of individuals who have had a profound influence on me; Viktor Frankl, Joshua Rosenthal (the founder of Integrative Nutrition), and my trauma counselor spring to mind.I respect them deeply, but I attach less importance to the person and more to what he or she has to offer.
Back to the week in Pondy.
One of my favorite outings was spending a morning with Abhijit, Sabitaâ€™s nephew.He graduated from high school at the ashram a year ago, and is now deciding what he wants to do next.He can stay at the ashram if he wants to, working and living there.Or he can go, to use his word, â€śoutside.â€ťItâ€™s totally his choice.To an outsider I could see how the ashram sounds cult-ish, but itâ€™s definitely not.Thereâ€™s nothing holding anyone there forcibly.They do believe and kids are taught from day one that their way of life is best, but theyâ€™re not trying to convert or recruit anyone.The kids seem remarkably well-adjusted.One problem (from my perspective itâ€™s a problem) is that Abhijit never had tests or got grades during his entire schooling.Now he wants to go to university; how will he prepare for the intense entrance exams?And how will he fare during school?I donâ€™t know if entry into university is based solely on test scores.
If itâ€™s not, and some committee looks at his education, what will they think of the ashram and its approach?
Anyway, back to the morning with Abhijit.He took me outside Pondy to see a huge area of land owned by the ashram.It has a farm, dairy, science research center, greenhouse, and more.We saw male peacocks, and exotic trees including mango, coconut, and acacia (which smelled amazing).He took me back to Auroville, since my first visit there didnâ€™t include seeing any of its communities. (Another link, if you're interested: www.auroville.org.) I can't remember the names of the ones I saw, but how cool would it be to say, "I live in Grace" or "I live in Acceptance"?
Yet a little more on Pondy coming soonâ€¦
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