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An interview with organizer Rudolf Schmitz-Perrin regarding International Congress 2009 Auroville

Author: Rudy

Last Updated: March 31, 2010

From January 5th to 8th, an international congress took place at SAWCHU on the theme of “Spirituality beyond Religions”, a four days programme with about 30 speakers. Here is an interview with organizer Rudolf Schmitz-Perrin. 

Question : How did you have the idea of organiizing this international congress  ? 

Rudy: The topic came to my mind already in 2006. My story is that I first came to Auroville somehow by chance, as a visitor, in January 2006, making a one day’s tour from Pondichery that I wanted to discover as the former French colony, being a French citizen. Arriving in Auroville I attended a conference organized by Aster Patel on “All Life is Yoga”, and as I was listening to the talks, sitting in this wonderful SAWCHU building, it dawned upon me, as an evidence, that Auroville is a unique place for a free, independent and alternative university. This was more an intuition than a thought. I then was told that it didn’t yet exist, but that it was very much in the air. I later learned that on February 1, 1969, The Mother had asked Roger Anger to go to the UNESCO and plead for the creation of a “University of Human Unity” in Auroville. She linked the existence of this university with the raison d’être of Auroville. (« L’université de l’unité humaine sera la clé de la raison d’être d’Auroville »). On November 25th, 2006 a group of interested people met together at the Unity Pavilion and there was an incredible unanimity to start this project.  

I’ve since wondered how the university could take shape. It was obvious that it is not meant to compete with Harvard or Stanford university, nor copy any existing institution of the old world, so to speak. When I talked to Roger about it, he said that The Mother had the idea to create a place where scholars from all over the world would come together to brainstorm in a free setting and then share their knowledge. I was fascinated by the vision that he evoked before my eyes, drawing a sketch of the four levels, physical, vital, mental and spiritual on a paper to support his memories. Roger showed me the site in the galaxy and the exact plans for the building in accordance with the Mother’s instructions. As for setting up the structure of the university I felt that while discussing with Vladimir and Rod whom I met right at the beginning of my stay in Auroville, some teachings in specific fields of study (physical, vital, mental, spiirtual) could be gradually developed, and that every two years or so an event should be organized which would manifest in its own way the energy of the university. 

Then the theme of ‘spirituality beyond religions’ came to my mind. The Mother had said that in Auroville all religions would be studied, but that there would be no religion in Auroville. She had said, ‘A life divine but no religion’, emphasizing the spiritual teaching : "Spiritual teaching is the teaching of the future - it illumines the consciousness and prepares it for the future realization. Spiritual teaching is above religions and strives towards global Truth. It teaches to enter into direct relations with the Divine." (On Education, CWM, 12:319).

Nowadays there is a growing consciousness, particularly in the West, to go beyond organized religions. There is now a world-wide movement to go to the spiritual roots of any religion. As a result of a sort of “spiritual bankruptcy” in the West (as Woody Allan says in one of his films in his funny but crudely realistic way) people are eager to rediscover the spiritual elements, let go of the rest and go beyond. During the congress an Italian scholar referred to the Dalai Lama who said that spirituality was first and religions came later as means to structure a society. The truth is that Auroville already realises the vision of a community that is entirely based on a spiritual awareness of the collective. I felt that the theme of the congress is in line with the vision of Auroville and also manifests a contribution of Auroville’s mission for the outside world. It was very clear to see during the many discussions at the congress how far Auroville is actually ahead of the evolution of consciousness in the larger world.

Let me add in this context my feeling that as pervasive criticisms are the daily bread of living in Auroville, I also feel how many reasons Aurovilians have to counterbalance by rejoicing in what is just there, already, and somehow perfect, and they can be proud of living in a space that is unique on this planet because it already managed to realise one of the Mother’s luminous intentions. In this sense, the congress was highlighting the Light that is shining from Auroville onto the world. 

One day I was driving in France with a very good friend of mine, Thibaud Roy, who knew about my plans to work on this theme. It was on the way from Nîmes to Arles, when he spontaneously offered a sum of money to realize this project. This was a first time experience in my life ! Thibaud had never been to Auroville, didn’t know the work of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, but there was his intution of something going “beyond” the known. I received this free offer as an unexpected blessing and an encouragement. And so I started preparing the event. 

Do you think that the congress met all your expecttions? 

For me personally this was a very positive experience.There was a wonderful harmony among the speakers. The speakers were inspiring, their lectures were diverse, open to other opinions and the level of discussion and interaction with the audience was high-energy, with enlightening sparks here and there. Besides their own talks, Marc Luyckx Ghisi and Doudou Diène took also a very active part in some of the discussions. The speakers from Auroville, Bindu, Georges, Rod, Sergei and Vladimir made great and uplifting contributions, Georges opening and closing the round of talks in his masterful way, Gangalakshmi and Martin delivering a meditative reading of short texts from The Mother on spirituality and religion, gleaned from the Agenda, in French and in English, that were literally in-spiring the Mother’s Spirit more specifically into the atmosphere of the congress. Many of the speakers from outside said that this congress was a wonderful (first) experience of Auroville and that they would love to come back here in the future. So at these levels the event went well - as an effort to contribute to the great “adventure calling for consciousness and joy” (Savitri). As for myself, I experienced a deep joy from the beginning to the end. 

How was your experience with organizing such an event ? 

Organizing such an event is a challenge as many unforseen elements have to be taken into account ; I had to implement last-minute changes of the programme schedule due to the demands of the speakers. Then there was some minimal protocol to be respected, as Dr.Karan Singh had only little time between two meetings, at the Ashram and then as Chairman of the Auroville Foundation. But this little time was so precious, his address to us “friends”, as he said, was brilliant and warm.

The organisation of such an event actually involves so many aspects and details, from inviting and catching up with speakers to securing their accommodation, meals, transport, being present for whatever emerges…, last-minute challenges of getting a “UPS” backup for electricity to the SAWCHU building, a podium for the speakers, flowers and vases to put them in and table water plus cups and what more… 

Some people criticized that I invited so many external speakers. I all know them personally. I tried to involve as many Aurovilians as possible, I have to say that not all of them responded to my invitation. It was my heart’s concern to organise this event of the nascent University of Human Unity in a common aspiration with CIRHU and the Laboratory of Evolution and I am very happy to say that I experienced that we actually do all work together as a research community in Auroville, as unity in diversity and diversity in unity. I encountered so much goodwill and smooth collaboration with the Auroville Radio who did a heroic job, putting up with a one day’s power cut, always maintaing the positive energy, the Auroville Translations, Claude Jouen, with translators who volunteered spontaneously, Sophie, Caroline, Namah and Fabrice, the contacts with Bharat Nivas, Vérité, Indus Valley, the Visitor’s Centre, the guesthouses...  As for the artistic program, the Auroville Performing Arts team did a great job organising the the beautiful evening events, dance, film and music and the technical support needed, and Caroline giving her chanting meditations, highly uplifting. 

It is true though that as I could not complete my newcomer process for family reasons, I am still considered by some as an ‘outsider’. This question of legal identity sounds strange to me in these matters (should not the real work being done be the priority?) and is not always easy to deal with, above all in official contexts. I had to meet with the Working Committee to explain how Dr.Karan Singh happened to know about the conference from a mutual friend, Joseph Prabhu, from Los Angeles State University and that he himself wanted to learn more about it, especially as the dates coincided with his Governing Board meeting. Since he was personally interested in the topic, I sent him an invitation. I hadn’t realised at that stage that this issue was so sensitive for the Working Committee as this invitation then involved the Governing Board and the International Advisory Council of Auroville... I was not conscious of the complexity of the matter - I now know how to proceed in the future. I had also been e-mailing for a while with the International Advisory Board members Dodou Diène and Marc Luyckx Ghisi who responded affirmatively to my request, saying that they would also be in Auroville at that time. It just happened to be happy coincidence in timing. 

You invited many speakers, too many? and the congress was during the week, but many Aurovilans are bound by their work. 

I agree that the programme was very full and that to listen to seven speakers for four days in a row and take in and process what they say is demanding a lot. I do also agree that it would have been better to organise a conference during a weekend, when Aurovilians are more available, although a lot of Aurovilians managed to come to attend lectures of their choice. For a next time this consideration will be more clearly in my mind, I sincerely apologise for that, but I had also to think of the timing for the speakers coming from Europe and the US, for them to be able to live the New Year’s Eve at home, then travel the weekend, have a day to arrive and deal with the jet lag, the congress starting on Tuesday, and then be possibly back at their working place on the Monday thereafter.The last-minute changes were unfortunate but occur in any conference, as for instance a speaker sends a text message saying she or he has to delay the arrival for whatever reason and then the schedules have to be reset. 

What do you think about the modality of this kind of congress - is it the really the best way to approach this specific kind of subject ? 

Perhaps a round table discussion setting might be more suitable, where the speakers interact on a given theme, with the audience participating more actively in the discussion, or by doing more participatory work in smaller groups, giving much more space for the experiential process. This is more difficult to organize in a limited amount of time, but it might have been more satisfactory for Aurovilian participants. The workshops were meant to open that space, but it was insufficient. A next time a stronger emphasis has to be put on the experiential work. Although this is a very delicate matter and can not really be “organized”. Sri Aurobindo writes (as quoted by Kailash in her important text on ‘Auroville and Education’ approved by The Mother) :  Spirituality respects the freedom of the human soul, because it is itself fulfilled by freedom; and the deepest meaning of freedom is the power to expand and grow towards perfection by the law of one's nature.” 

Can you comment a little bit on the choice of your speakers, as two of them have taken a very explicit stance in the debate around Peter Heeh’s controversial book: ‘The Lives of Sri Aurobindo’ ?  And why was Peter Heehs not among the speakers ?

I got some emails objecting to me inviting Sri Aurobindo scholars who have been involved in the controversy, namely Ananda and Sraddhalu. As I had not taken a stand in this conflict, I thought that the conference might be an opportunity to initiate an open  dialogue, to keep talking, yes, since the situation seems totally stuck. As a moderator I was happy about the open and decent discussions that came up as a consequence of their presence. I didn’t invite the author of the book (with whom I had a fair and friendly talk afterwards) as I did not want the four days conference, that had been planned since 2006, to be polarised or monopolised by this issue. This was my personal option which is of course debatable. During the conference I said that I would be willing to organise a panel on the book itself, where people who have read it (who are few) could discuss each issue raised in the book. It was my intuition that the congress might contribute to defreeze the situation so that eventually also the legal actions taken against Peter Heehs will be dismissed, hopefully, as they affect not only the destiny of a controversial  book but his life here in India (visa).

As we were closing the conference, I said that the University of Human Unity is a space for learning and for healing and invited the audience to send their unconditional love in a bouquet of roses that were placed beneath the pictures of Si Aurobindo and The Mother, unreligiously but devotionally, in an aspiration to heal the wound that affects the Sri Aurobindo community worldwide.

How do you see the future of such congresses, are you planning a next one  ?

As of today I am not sure I will be able to organise another conference. This time I was lucky to be offered some money. I would like to do it again in the future, that is certain, but it will very much depend on the funding and the free conditions of it. The day the congress started I got an email with the best wishes for the New Year 2010, with a quote from the Mother : “To live in Auroville is to do the impossible”.  My experience since 2006 is that here in Auroville, the impossible happens, yes, just happens.

The lectures delivered at the Spirituality beyond Religions congress can be downloaded at Spirituality beyond Religions link