Losing my religion
I’ve seen the future and it’s a golf ball.
“Imagine there’s no countries/ It isn’t hard to do/ Nothing to kill or die for/ And no religion too/ Imagine all the people/ Living life in peace.”
I’ve always been mildly irritated by John Lennon’s tiresome, idealistic nonsense but about ten kilometres north of Pondicherry in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu is to be found a curious and rather disturbing manifestation of the chanteur’s vision. Auroville, the city of the dawn, actually predates the song by some three years, and was founded on 28th February 1968 when a crowd of 5,000 including representatives of 124 countries bearing gifts of soil assembled around a banyan tree.
During the inauguration ceremony, the soil was tipped into a lotus-shaped white marble urn, which sits in the centre of the golf ball aka the Matrimandir. The aim of the community is to be a universal town where people from all countries live in peace and harmony, rising above all creeds, politics and nationalities. Its purpose is to realise human unity.
It has been going for 50 years and has had oodles of money pumped into by the Indian government and various United Nations’ funds. The tenets by which the adherents abide, currently around 2,500 representing 49 countries, were established by the Mother.
It was impressive in an oddly cultish, 1960s sci-fi movie sort of way but it seemed to me that all they had done was swap established religions for a bizarre set of tenets. Disturbingly, there seemed little way out of the community for any children born there. Child abuse of the worst sort.
The Mother was a French woman, Mirra Alfassa, who became interested in spiritual development. When she visited Pondicherry in 1914 she met up with Sri Aurobindo who, whilst banged up the Brits for agitating on behalf of Indian independence, saw the light and devoted the rest of his life to yoga and inner meditation. A PhD thesis can be written on which was the worst outcome.
Anyway, these two set up an ashram in Pondicherry – we visited it, as you do – and the very profound sense of calm there was only disturbed by the ring of the cash register and the swipe of the credit card machine.
The Mother was a prolific writer and her books, a mix of the bleedin’ obvious and the bonkers, seem to sell like hot chapatis and fuel this very obvious money-making machine. But, fair play to them, they saw a gap in the market and went for it.
If I felt the need to buy a golden ticket to ensure my admission through the pearly gates, I’m not sure I would have thrown my rupees at the grotto which graces the rear of the grounds of the peaceful church that is St Mary’s on the banks of the backwater at Champakulam in Kerala, standing on the site of one of the seven churches that St Thomas is reputed to have founded in 427 CE.
It is hard to describe how truly grotesque it is with its blue boulders that look as though they have been made out of fibre glass. It is modelled on the grotto at Lourdes, I’m told. The religious icons housed in it draw quite a crowd of devotees each day.
If I was St Peter, I would have a list of the subscribers to the grotto at the ready and if any of them had the audacity to show their face, I would direct them downstairs.
There is only so much one can take, after all.