Two days ago we visited a famous "intentional community" that was created in the late 1960s on the outskirts of Pondicherry. As I looked through the itinerary of our trip, I have to admit that I wasn't captivated by the prospect of a visit to Auroville; I waited with much greater anticipation for the visits to the various Hindu temples. Within a few moments of our tour, however, I was thoroughly intrigued. The idea of an intentional community -- a community, as the name implies, that sets itself to the task of carefully thinking through the logic of its self-creation and self-maintenance -- is actually a fascinating idea. It is fascinating not only in its own right, but in the way it forces us to think about the chaotic, ad hoc, unjust, and bloody societies -- our societies! -- against which such a community defines itself.
Here, though, is what I consider the most fascinating thing of all: Aroville's charter is emphatically anti-religious. In the midst of an area steeped in one of the most all-embracing and syncretic religions in the world, Auroville asserts that, "[w]hile Auroville respects religions and has nothing against their practice, they divide the people of the world."
As a scholar of religion, I have heard more versions than I can count of the "religion is responsible for the wars and violence in the world" argument. I simultaneously agree and disagree with this argument. What strikes me about Auroville, however, is the question of what the vast numbers of Hindus in the area must make of its claim that religions divide the people of the world. What must they make of the specific prohibition, laid out in an introductory video in the Aroville visitors' center, against devotional practices such as the offering of food and the burning of incense -- practices central to the religious lives of so many Hindus?
Another thing that strikes me: the Auroville community has been drawn to India as a place offering a promise of freedom from religion. This simply amazes me, given the astounding ubiquity of religion in this country -- religion that juts up from the skyline of every single town we pass through, and that seems to lurk within every shady grove throughout the countryside.