Freedom is a given in Auroville, but one of the misinterpretations of freedom in Auroville is that it means that you are allowed to do anything you like. Absolutely not. You must choose to be the best you can possibly be.
Deepti has been in Auroville since the ‘70s and is well-known in the community as one of the core teachers at Last School. She shares with us her story and deep understanding of education in the unique context of Auroville.
Deepti’s connection to Sri Aurobindo was established when she was very young. “I had just finished my schooling in a boarding school in North India, and the 1971 war, which gave birth to Bangladesh, was in full swing when I arrived home. My parents were both in the Armed Forces in Calcutta and terribly busy with the military operations. On a table in the house I happened to land across a text by Sri Aurobindo that spoke of Bangladesh (which hadn’t yet come to birth). It was a little booklet published by the Ashram in June 1971. And it was here, for the first time, that I came across a text that spoke to me, that talked about India and Her future in a manner that resonated with me.” The whole family became more and more interested in Sri Aurobindo after their first visit in February 1972.
The strong pull towards Sri Aurobindo’s worldview caused her to visit Pondicherry more than once. “On my third visit I suddenly asked myself: ‘Why am I going back home?’ and I ended up staying. It was almost like an inevitability. I had no plans. I just knew that this is where I want to be – everything else just sort of arranged itself around me. Now I am endlessly grateful that I found that meaning and purpose in my life when I was young enough to dedicate my whole life to it. There is no comparable experiment that even begins to measure up to all the conditions that Auroville provides. In Auroville there is to be no exclusivity – every possible thing can find its home here. It can be argued, on one level, that this is an impossible experiment. We have insuperable difficulties to solve –but it is therefore that it’s real. And it’s fun – it’s a challenge.”
She began her work in Auroville in various roles, but all the while she was deeply connected with the needs of the children. In the mid-80’s the teenaged youth of Auroville demanded that a school be arranged for them, and it was at this time that she started to teach. “At the time, Auroville was in need of teachers, because the teenagers had said ‘enough is enough, stop experimenting with us…we need a school!’ Last School had just reopened and it needed an English teacher, so I decided to fill in that slot, just by chance, not by intention. And that’s how I started teaching, and I’ve been teaching since 1985.”
Providing a Frame for Progress
Deepti has developed a very deep understanding of what the word ‘education’ can mean in the context of Auroville, and works everyday to provide the framework for young people to develop in. The keyword for the experiment of Auroville is freedom, but perhaps not in the way that we normally understand the word. “The core truth of Auroville, which we should cherish, sustain and organise, is freedom. When The Mother started Auroville, one of the things she kept insisting on is freedom to choose. That means even to make mistakes. The pressure of the higher Consciousness is there and if you allow it to act upon you, it may influence the orientation of what you choose. So freedom is a given in Auroville, but one of the misinterpretations of freedom in Auroville is that it means that you are allowed to do anything you like. Absolutely not. You must choose to be the best you can possibly be. So freedom in Auroville means the freedom to arrive at your highest way of being, and this one may touch at any moment, each one in one’s own way. There is no standard way for everybody. And that’s the gift that Auroville gives and that is what Auroville education should provide—rigour in freedom.”
Of course, arriving at such a new way of sensing and thinking has had its ups and downs in the community. “Now initially a lot of Aurovilians interpreted this as, ‘We don’t want to do the old thing,’ so for a while Auroville didn’t have schools because they looked too traditional, and were shut down.” Yet the demand from the youngsters was there – it was they themselves who felt called to have a place for education. “Last School needed structure and order, so we began to bring that in. There was debate, because people felt that structure was anti-freedom, but this is a confusion of thought, it has nothing to do with the truth of living. To live a physical life you need order and structure. The material world is built upon organised processes, structures and laws – just as our bodily processes are. So the physical and to some extent the life energies need structure and order. The mind, however, must be left free, you don’t organise the minds of the youth, you merely suggest. The mind needs to discover how to organise itself. When it knows that it needs to learn, it can learn and learn to organise.”
It is a balancing act between providing a holistic education and nurturing the individual flame of each student. “When you look at exam systems around the world, they are all conventions in the way that they are all aimed at creating the ‘perfect’ citizen for their respective countries. That doesn’t work for the kind of Universal mindset and way of being that we are trying to give birth to in Auroville. We have to work on how to do this for each individual student without prescribing things, but instead creating conditions through which they can learn themselves. The kids choose to be with you because of what you offer them, they should not be forced. But once they have chosen, there is a frame to follow and that frame has to be rigorously applied by the person who chooses.”
The First Learner in the Classroom
After so many years of teaching, Deepti is still inspired to go to work every day, working with the youth of Auroville. “I would say that young people keep you alert and honest because they keep you grounded. You have to start afresh with every new group – just because you were successful with the previous group doesn’t mean you will be again. I’ve been working with teenagers mostly and it’s where you really meet the raw human condition. The kids are testing their boundaries. So you have to reinvent yourself all the time, but that’s interesting and challenging. Whenever people ask me if I’m a teacher, I say ‘No, I happen to teach.’ It’s just something I do. I still feel as though I’m the first learner in the classroom.”
Education, then, is Deepti’s work on the outside as well as the inside, a contribution to the community that also allows her to dive deeper into herself. It is this balance between the individual and collective work that she also strives to teach to her students. “As I said, people have this misconception that you come to Auroville for freedom, but no, you come to Auroville to progress, and you are free to progress in your own way. Not to mention that there is a collective to think about, you are not progressing just for yourself – you are also part of a collective. That is something that needs to be emphasized in the education system in Auroville.”
All pictures rights reserved. Photographer: Ashwin Ezhumalai