By Punya Srivastava
Even as the world slowly and painfully turns on its axis towards a new way of life, dozens of intentional communities show the way to tomorrow’s world, says Punya Srivastava
Let every man gather from five to ten thousand dollars, and, in groups of 30, let them build selfsustaining, self-governing colonies, starting with California. Do not spend the principal of the money, except what is necessary to buy land and to start the colony. Put the money in a trust fund. Pay taxes with the interest. If taxes were abolished, people could live by exchange... Time should not be wasted in producing luxuries. Start now building colonies, and stop industrially selfish society from gambling with your destiny. Get away from the perpetual slavery of holding jobs to the last day of your life. Buy farms and settle down with harmonious friends. Work three hours a day and live in the luxury of literary wealth, and have time to constructively exchange Divine experiences and meditate."
These are the words of the renowned spiritual master, Paramahansa Yogananda, published in the erstwhile East-West magazine decades ago. In these few lines, estimated to be written in circa 1930, Yogananda succinctly points out the best way of inhabiting this earthly plane. Though his idea might appear far-fetched and Utopian, it is indeed becoming the need of the hour going by the conflictridden lives most of us live.
Each day is a struggle to live harmoniously in our bodies, within families, and in society. Peace of mind is conspicuous by its absence. We are living a life of disconnect – with our surroundings, with our soil, with our community, with ourselves. We lead isolated lives in small cubicles and jazzy flats. We move about in various bubbles, depending upon our socio-economic status. “One of the fundamental needs of our age is for putting down roots again. We have extended ourselves too far outward from the Self within, and from the natural rhythms of the planet on which we live. Even in our outward, human associations we have lost touch with reality,” said Swami Kriyananda, a direct disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda and Founder of Ananda Sangha – a global spiritual community based on Paramahansa Yogananda’s philosophy.
Participating in a tree-planting drive or volunteering for a cause or joining a spiritual satsang may provide us with a few moments or few days of happiness but for a sustained immersion in joy, we have to contemplate upon our life’s purpose and then align our thoughts and actions with it. When our life is not hampered by various distractions, we have a clearer view of what really matters. And to reach it, we desperately need a conducive environment that supports our growth towards our highest selves.
According to Swami Kriyananda, spiritual communities offer a viable antidote to the de-personalising influences of our times. People living and working together, sharing the many levels of their lives – suffering, growing, learning, rejoicing, winning victories together – develop a depth in their outward relationships as well that helps them, inwardly, to acquire spiritual insight. Indeed, any intentional community (it may or may not call itself a spiritual community) has the power to offer the individual much-needed space to uninhibitedly explore their interactions with the outer and inner world.
Space for evolution
Community members preparing for Auroville's anniversary celebrations (Photo Credit: Georgio)
Intentional communities are a small world in their own, weaving together their members with the silken threads of a common philosophy or ideology. A community ensures that the day-to-day activities of its members reflect its ideology. The best part about community living is that one is a member of larger group collectively walking on the same path. When, as it usually is, the community has adopted an ideology in variance with conventional society, this support system is hugely important in safeguarding individual idealism and giving each member the strength to prevail against the pressure to conform.
Nayaswami Jaya Helin, a direct disciple of Swami Kriyananda and one of the initial builders of the first Ananda Sangha cooperative community in California, states that an intentional community is a spiritual tool for the creation of satsanga – a group of truth seekers. It is a space where members find resonance of thought and freedom to practice self-exploration. “Intentional communities are the optimum way of putting ideals in practice as they are wonderful laboratories to test spiritual/ holistic principles,” he says.
Chitra Babu, a resident of Auroville since 2008, shares how she found her life’s purpose of being in service to others after becoming a part of one of the longestsustaining global communities in the world. Chitra’s father-in-law was part of the founding team of Auroville and her husband had spent his childhood there. Once he left the Defence Services, he decided to relocate his whole family to Auroville. Here, after an initial period of reluctance and adjustments, Chitra started exploring her interests. In 2016, she started a project, ‘Tamil for Everyone’, as part of her endeavour to bring the community closer by way of communication.
Mother of two adolescent boys, she found her calling in offering her services first to Matrimandir, followed by volunteering at the Entry Service to interview and guide all those who apply for Auroville citizenship, and then later as an English to Tamil translator for the community magazine, Auroville News and Notes. She sums up her experience of being a part of an intentional community in a self-penned Tamil poem, whose essence can be summed up in these lines: The branch would have dried and become dead if it had fallen down somewhere else; but it fell in a spiritual, divine place, so it started to grow. The purpose of my birth and my being is defined and supported by Auroville. Auroville, as many of us might know, is an international-universal town devoted to an experiment in human unity based on the spiritual writings of Sri Aurobindo and founded by his French collaborator and co-worker Mirra Alfassa lovingly addressed as The Mother. Today, around 2,700 inhabitants from over 50 countries, including India, call Auroville home; living in some 120 settlements of varying size and character spread over a total area of 20 square kilometers. In their day-to-day life, the inhabitants are engaged in the fields of agriculture and green work, renewable energy, education, health care, village outreach, construction, electronics, commerce, the arts and administration.
While Auroville is a one-of-its-kind, gigantic underexperiment mission, similar intentional communities, though much smaller in scale, have also been finding their feet in the country since last few years. Govardhan Eco Village (GEV) is one such initiative. An offshoot of the global ISKCON community, GEV is a sustainable farming community located in the Palghar district, 108 kms north of Mumbai. The only philosophy followed in GEV is: Simple living, high thinking. What started off as a retreat centre for the monks, later expanded into an open-to-all space for people committed to a Vedic lifestyle. “We follow the Vedic adoption of varnashrama (a system of classification according to the vocational skills of the people, which got hugely misinterpreted and misunderstood in the last two centuries in India) and in our community, each person serves according to his or her skills and talents,” says Nimai Lila Das, Chief Sustainability Officer, GEV.
This dynamic community, with its various outreach initiatives for its neighbouring rural landscape, is home to around 80 monks, 45-odd families, and almost 60 volunteers. An integrated spiritual hierarchy guides the community, a functional management team plans and executes, while practising devotees carry out the day-to-day operations. “The one common thread that binds people in GEV is an intention to lead a holistic life dedicated to service,” says Das.
Energy of collaboration
Intentional communities sustain on the power of collaboration, giving power to Karl Marx’s quote, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Each member contributes according to his or her capability and partakes of the available resources only to fulfil legitimate needs. Shreekumar’s Sangatya Commune is a fine example of such a community. A chemical engineer turned organic farmer and activist, Shreekumar says, “Our common purpose is to lead a life of sustainability and equitably share both work and common natural resources. In principle, we wish to live without using more than our share of the world's common resources. However, since we cannot determine what our share is, our practical goal is to satisfy the needs of as many people as possible with the resources at our disposal.”
Sangatya – meaning comradeship in Kannada –came into existence in October 2007 when Shreekumar bought a 6.6 acre land using contributions from seven friends, most of whom have been involved in environmental and peace activism. Located in Nakre village of south Karnataka, Sangatya is often visited by environment enthusiasts and his former students (he used to teach at the National Institute of Technology Karnataka) who stay for weeks to volunteer in the community. He states, “Ours is, in principle, a non-hierarchical community. All of us share the work of cooking, housekeeping, and farming. Farm work usually takes between four to six hours a day, sometimes the entire day. Division of labour is not based on privileges. Work that doesn't require any special skills is shared by all – with due regard to age and physical ability. Decisions are taken by consensus.”
Shreekumar adds, “As activists, our opposition to specific instances of injustice becomes justifiable only when we also invest our energies in building a fair society. Such energies can be effectively channelised only when a sufficiently large number of people with shared concerns and values co-operate in the effort. We would like this commune to be a microcosm of the society of our dreams, and a working model to demonstrate that it is possible to live well without having much. It should also be a place where people can come to learn and experience any of our experiments, including seeing ourselves as part of a larger community with shared responsibilities of nurturing commons.” Van Vadi is another intentional community in which members collaborated to heal the soil and give back to nature. Bharat Mansata, a Kolkata based environmental author-editor-activist and one of the founders of this forest-farm settlement, had stated in an interview, “The broad agreed aim was to live close to the land in an ethical and sustainable manner – to benefit ourselves, the land, and perhaps the local people as well. Progressive self-reliance in basics, like food, was an important, explicit goal. The guiding principle of our common ‘charter’ was earth-care, fair dealings with people and respect for local culture, quality of life, and prioritising local self-reliance over considerations of monetary profit.”
Nayaswami Jaya Helin: Intentional communities are the best ways to put ideals into practice
One of Van Vadi’s sizeable achievements was its successful collaboration with the adivasis who introduced the community members to local millet farming of nachni (ragi), varie, kangu. This enthusiastic community of soil lovers joined hands with a marginalised section of society, illustrating the mutual enrichment that occurs when communities come together. “We were initially looking to buy about 10-15 acres for organic farming, mainly of fruit and vegetables. This was to be divided among three-four of us (friends). But with more ‘like-minded’ people joining, I began dreaming of a gradually evolving ‘alternative community’ of sorts – a community that aspired to meet its varied needs in harmony with nature and fellow humans,” said Mansata. This philosophy also formed the foundation of Navadarshanam. A group of urban professionals left city life and moved to 110 acres of land near Thally Reserve Forest in the Krishnagiri district of Tamil Nadu to form the Navadarshanam Trust in 1990. One of the aims of this group of concerned citizens was to “explore and adopt holistic and natural ways of fulfilling our outer and inner needs, and to give up the path of development which fans consumerism, profiteering and growth measured purely in material terms.” With deep faith in the Gandhian belief of ‘love is the fundamental law from which all other laws are derived’, the team of T S Ananthu and wife (late) Jyoti Ananthu, Rama Pai, Dr Partap Aggarwal and wife Sudesh Aggarwal started the initiative on 35 acres of land. Rama Pai is a botanist turned farmer who gave up chemical farming after coming across Fukuoka’s famous book, One-Straw Revolution. Dr Partap Agarwal, who taught anthropology in Colgate University, America, came back to India and joined Friends Rural Center at Rasulia in Madhya Pradesh to work on Natural Farming.
Over the last 26 years, Navadarshanam has worked on various initiatives in the field of organic and natural farming, food and health, eco-restoration, and alternative technologies in the areas of housing, energy and cooking fuels. Today, it sells around 40 health foods, under the aegis of Navadarshanam Trust Self-Help Group, which mostly constitute their organic produce.
Life in a community
Participating in community events and volunteering services periodically is remarkably different from physically living in a community space. Much like a big joint family, the community space is inhabited by all kinds of characters. However, unlike a joint family, the decision-making power does not rest with the family head but with all the members of the community. This is one of the greatest challenges faced in any intentional community space. “Collaborations are challenging,” says Shammi Nanda, founder of the Jaipur-based AhimsaGram, adding, “Clarity of roles and functions are much needed.” AhimsaGram lives the values of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and Sociocracy, all the while experimenting, teaching and delving deeper into these concepts.
Shammi started AhimsaGram in 2016 in order to practice Sociocracy - a system of governance based on consent-decision making that runs on feedback mechanisms. “I had been travelling around for the last 12 years, picking up skills around sustainable living and community action for social change. More and more people wanted me to be present in different places to offer trainings, do mediations and support them in consent-based organising. Since I could not be in all the places, I decided to be in one place, and invited other like-minded people to form a community where we could live, learn and share NVC, consent-based organisation process, and conflict-transformation system.”
Talking about the decision-making process in AhimsaGram, Shammi says, “Since it’s a place to live Sociocracy, it is organised sociocratically. This means we have collective ownership of decisionmaking. From the daily menu to financial remuneration, it’s all done by consent in our respective groups or circles, and within that process each member of the circle has the time to speak, listen, contribute, object, modify the proposal and consent.”
Chali Grinnell, co-founder of Future School in Auroville, shares her experience of being an Aurovillian for a major chunk of her life. She spent a part of her childhood in this Utopia after which her parents took her back to America. She completed her education in the USA and bagged a job in a hospital research lab before returning to Auroville in 1994. “I had spent such a happy childhood in Auroville that those 11 years stayed with me, even while I was in the US. I had everything going for me there and yet something was amiss. I came back to Auroville and realised that this was the change in life that I sought,” she says.
Talking about life in an intentional community, Chali says, “Auroville is not just an intentional community. For me, it is the essence around which my day-to-day life revolves. Spirituality has seeped deeply into the depths of my being and I have integrated it into my way of living. Also, for me, the most important and unique aspect of Auroville is that it is vibrant and challenging – both at the same time.” The biggest challenge, as per Chali, is the diverse nationality that mingles daily in small, closed spaces, giving rise to linguistic challenges too. “But that pushes all of us to be more open to others and their perspectives,” she says, adding, “Once a friend remarked to me that we all (in Auroville) are like siblings who fight the hardest because we know that we can; and yet are always there for each other.” Chali also throws light on the problemsolving process of a community like Auroville. “We have various working groups which are responsible for community functioning. The aim of these groups is to find consensus in decisionmaking regarding any practical problem. If the consensus is not possible, then the groups try to obtain at least consent on a particular decision.”
“At Sangatya, we try to make everyone feel that this place belongs to all of us. We meet every night before retiring to review the day's work, to plan the next day's work as well as to discuss anything that matters to the whole community. Even philosophical matters are discussed in these meetings. Decisions are taken by consensus. However, those who have a long-term stake in the commune naturally have a greater say since they will have to live with the consequences which follow from the decisions. Work is shared in a fair manner but through persuasion rather than through force,” shares Shreekumar.
Within three months of its formation, around 11 people, including a family with a child of nine, became part of AhimsaGram. Since then, people have been coming and leaving according to their needs and experiences. Counting Shammi, there are currently four permanent members in AhimsaGram who take care of the daily operations of the community and strategise plans to keep it afloat. “We have started selling our organic peanut butter to generate funds as we believe in ‘business with care’. Moreover, in order to generate funds, I am planning to hold various workshops in collaboration with others,” supplies Shammi.
Maintaining an inflow of funds is a challenging task in most of such communes, for they are usually closed and selfsustaining entities, mostly reliant on holistic and eco-friendly avenues for revenue generation. Shreekumar, for instance, tries to keep his commune’s expenses low and is mostly dependent on the generosity of his like-minded friends to keep the commune afloat. However, since they keep the expenses low, they do not need large contributions. Aviram, one part of the duo responsible for the maintenance and sustenance of Sadhana Forest in Auroville, shares how the concept of gift economy sustains their initiative. Sadhana Forest is an ecocommune that works for reforestation, water conservation and land restoration. “Our courses and eco-tours are offered free of cost. We depend on the kindness of the people,” he says. This works well for them as they are totally off the electricity grid as 100 per cent of their energy consumption is taken care by solar energy.
Another factor that impacts the smooth running of a community is its practical approach towards its vision and mission. According to Shammi, when one creates a community, one can hold the vision sacred, but allow the form to emerge. Nayaswami Jaya reminisces that as a young adult of 22 at the forefront of the formation of the first Ananda Sangha, he observed Swami Kriyananda’s democratic style of translating Yogananda’s spiritual philosophies into practical and implementable ideas from close quarters. “Swamiji would say: ‘Be practical in your idealism; remember what works’. That’s why he sent most of us – the disciplevolunteers – back to the city for a month or two to get jobs and earn money.” He adds how this decision shocked him initially, for it was akin to sending him back to the din of a chaotic life. “And yet, I hold that experience extremely close to my heart, for I learnt the art of balancing my spiritual idealism with practical backing,” he adds. Ideals unless practically implemented are not of much use to the followers. Vision alone cannot take any initiative forward. It takes a pragmatic approach to sustain a holistic endeavour. “Each day we are modifying what we are doing and what we want to do, and creating a new community. We began with NVC and Sociocracy, while now wellness is also coming on top of our list,” says Shammi, referring to the vegan food sessions he holds in AhimsaGram.
A life lived in alignment with a higher purpose is a blessing in itself. When it is shared with likeminded people who are on a similar path, it becomes a celebration. All the discomforts, then, melt away in the face of soul-satisfying experiences.
Shammi concurs, “I could see the spirit of leadership growing in the members. I would say we are a leadership institute in disguise. There were people who didn’t earlier speak, but later were willing to say ‘no’, and that too with care. We have leadership in Sociocracy, but it works in the framework decided by the group with each person’s consent. The group not just votes, but participates in policy making which the leader can execute with the support of the team. This structure allows the members to exercise leadership and their creativity flows in designing the policy along with the team and executing it.”
Nayaswami Jaya also attributes the experience of community living as a genuine factor behind greater awareness within each member of the community. “Consciousness expands as and when the heart space expands. Both are correlated. Living in a community opens your heart for your fellow mates and infuses in you a sense of harmony,” he says.
“At the moment we are only two people at Sangatya. While we explain to anyone who wishes to join us about the values based on which we are trying to build our commune, we accept them unconditionally hoping that they will internalise these values when they live with us. Sangatya offers its members an opportunity to live a life of freedom,” says Shreekumar.
For Chali, the biggest takeaway of being in Auroville has been the feeling that ‘life is meaningful’, thanks to the work opportunity she got in the community. “It feels wonderful to know that what I do is not only helping me but also helping the community to develop, explore, experiment, and find different ways of doing things,” she says.
When a community, like any of the above, is able to sustain itself and acquires longevity, all of mankind prospers. That is because the commune vibrates on a level higher than that of conventional society. The individuals and families within that commune have greater clarity and perspective on life and its meaning, the importance of self-exploration, and most significantly, the need of similar such initiatives all across the world. Moreover, in successfully living out holistic ideas, they encourage its spread in larger societies. As Shreekumar puts forth, “We hope things will change for the better, but until then we must persist, engage with the society around us and try to bring more people into this way of life. That is what we are trying.” Amen to that!
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