This is the first in a two-part series about utopian societies exploring the benefits of community cooperation and its dark sides — how the rejection of the status quo can morph into extremism and fanaticism.
Utopian societies are not a modern invention. The word ‘utopia’ was first coined in 1517 by Sir Thomas Moore. Though his vision for the perfect society was more puritanical than the free love hippie communes of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the ideal is the same — a rejection of the tyrannies of the established state and an embrace of a more egalitarian form of society.
History is rife with examples of these communities, and, for better or worse, utopian systems continue to exist — communes, monasteries, ashrams, and intentional communities all embrace communality, simplicity, and egalitarian values. But what happens when the noble intentions of the collective collide with the complexities and differences of human nature?
Akash Kapur is author of “Better To Have Gone: Love, Death And The Quest For Utopia In Auroville.” Kapur was raised in an intentional community in India, then moved to the U.S. at age 16, where he attended a prestigious East Coast boarding school and later attended Harvard University. He joins KCRW host Jonathan Bastian to talk about the realities of life in utopian communities and his experiences in Auroville, where he and his wife Auralice Graft grew up.
His book traces the history of Auroville in southern India, inspired by the philosophy and yoga of a sage named Sri Aurobindo and founded by Mirra Alfassa, an elderly French woman known to everyone there as the Mother. Kapur talks about his own parents and why they moved there, and shares some of the mysterious history of his wife’s mother and stepfather and their untimely death. His perspective is unique and clear-eyed, both about the freedoms and ideals of Auroville, but also about the many darker realities of the place he continues to call his home.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
KCRW: You’ve said, “Big themes of history and the impulses of humankind often play out in small communities.” Why does that capture the essence of some of these places?
Akash Kapur: “I came across this quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, where he describes … a 19th century intentional community in Massachusetts. He described it as, ‘a French revolution in small, an Age of Reason in a patty-pan.’ And it struck me that yes, in these communities, you have there condensations of humanity, and you have all these idealistic impulses, and all these urges to create a better world for better and for worse, the noble and the dark side of that impulse playing out. And in some ways, it's even more intense, because the places are so small and condensed.”
You’ve brought Communist countries or communities into your work. Do you see any unifying principles or underlying philosophies of different intentional communities or different kinds of experimental governmental systems?
“They all begin with rejection. That's the easy part. We reject the world as it is. Then you’ve got to figure out what you're going to build and what you're going to make. ... I think they're culturally determined, and very much determined by the age in which they appear, too. Some people have written that utopia works best as a critique of the current system. And so then, by its nature, it reflects what's going on in the world at the time.
I would say if we were to look for broad principles, you see things like egalitarianism, especially material egalitarianism, economic egalitarianism. They often do have a spiritual or religious component to them. I think that's partly in reaction to the materialism of the world. The other domain I see that cuts across a lot of these things is the family, or sex, or intersexual relations, because there's often an attempt to recreate the family unit and rethink traditional families and sexual relations.”
What was life intended to look like at Auroville, where you grew up?
“One of the reasons it has survived is that Mirra Alfassa, who later became known as The Mother and who was the founder and the leader of Auroville, was quite loose in her guidelines. And so there weren't really specific rituals or specific things that one was supposed to do. And I think that over time, that looseness and lack of specificity is one of the reasons that communities survived. because it wasn't actually overly ritualized, or overly dogmatic.
Broadly, life in Auroville was people who were coming there to be practicing some version of the integral yoga, and it was sort of left up to individuals to decide what that meant. There was an emphasis on communal living, which means shared ownership of property. There was no, and there remains no, private real estate ownership within the confines of the community. Egalitarianism, the spiritual aspect of the community, was manifested in several ways. One of the most important ways is that there was going to be — and it was eventually built — this big secular meditation space built at the heart of Auroville, which became known as the Matrimandir. And so a lot of early life in Auroville actually revolves around building this building. And that, in some ways, is the most physical manifestation of [founder] Sri Aurobindo and The Mother’s ideals.”
Was there any sense of order, leadership, or hierarchy?
“Early on, The Mother was the leader. One of the interesting things is that the mother is always situated in Pondicherry, and she never actually sets foot in Auroville, partly because her health is frail. But she is the leader. It's fascinating when you go through the archives, every decision, no matter how big or how small, [was hers]. Down to selecting the location of a borewell or naming a child goes to her. But The Mother passes away pretty early, in November of 1973, which is five and a half years or so after Auroville is formed. So pretty early in the community's history, it's left without a leader. And at that point, there's jockeying for authority and power, which ends up being quite harmful to the community in its early history.”
Throughout the years, you mentioned there were periods of more extreme thought. What would you say it was becoming over the years?
“It's gone through a few different phases. After The Mother passes away, there is sort of a vacuum in the community. And as often happens in these moments of vacuum, extremism steps into it. You see this throughout history, and in religions, too. And so there was this kind of extremist movement in the community. That was pretty unfortunate. Many communities actually collapse after the passing away of their founder because of this vacuum. I do feel that Oroville maybe stepped to the edge of the precipice, but managed to pull back. And then sometime around the mid ‘80s, they started emerging from it into a more subtle, less intense, and, in a way, less idealistic world. So some people bemoan the loss of that idealistic fire, which had its positive sides, but also had very negative sides.
Over time ... communities are like humans. They have life cycles, and I suppose those idealistic years were Auroville’s teenage years, when you know everything, and you know right from wrong. And over time, it grows a little older, a little wiser. Now it's 53, 54 years old, so it's a little bit more middle-aged, which means some people bemoan the loss of idealism. But I think, in balance, I'm happier to have idealism that's a little tempered by reality, and it's a little more tolerant than the sort of raging idealism that the community had in the ‘70s and ‘80s.”
Can you give an example at Auroville where you felt that things had gone too far?
“The fact that the schools were shut down in the mid to late ‘70s is a very good example of idealism being taken too far. Because the idea was, ‘Look, we're here in Auroville to create a new world, we're not here to just do it the way that we've done it elsewhere. And education is a sort of purveyor of existing status, and it helps regenerate existing hierarchies and old forms of knowledge. And so we're just going to do away with traditional education.’
Now, I can understand that impulse. I share the impulse to create a better system of education and to create a better world. But the fact that that led to the schools being shut down, and to a generation of kids being denied a formal education at formative years, was terrible. And many of the people who went through that are still bearing the scars of those years.”
Does the idea of a utopian community in which you give everything to it, this notion of utter selflessness, run counter to true human nature?
“I agree with the premise of your question, that it's very, very difficult. Human beings, I believe, are inherently selfish. Gene propagating, profit seeking, that is human nature. That doesn't mean that we have to tap into the absolute extremes of that. And those can be tempered. And certainly some of us are more idealistic than others. But any system that tries to eliminate that and overlook that is running up against human nature.
A man once told me something in Auroville when I was a kid. ... He said, ‘Auroville worked just fine until people started having families and kids, because people were willing to give up things for themselves for the community. But when they start having families and kids, then they start looking after their families, and they start putting their kids or their genes above the community.’ And while I sort of disagree with the premise of the man's statement, because I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing, I think he's probably right, that that aspect of human nature is sort of contra to the utopian impulse.”