Teachers: Shraddhavan

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Memories of Aspiration School

By Shraddhavan

The Mother accepted me for Auroville on November 19, 1970; I was asked to work in Aspiration School, which was opened soon afterwards by her son, Monsieur André Morisset. I worked in the School until it dissolved in the winter of 1976 – just six years later. After that I continued to work with Auroville children, first in the children’s community of Ami, where a group of ex-students of Aspiration school gathered under the guidance of Janna, Frederick’s sister; and later at Certitude where Renate, who had been a teacher in Aspiration School, was working with several young children living nearby. When she returned to Germany, I did my best to replace her. Gradually we were joined by other Auroville children, and later by a group of older Tamil ex-students of Aspiration School who had found their own teacher to take care of them. Some time later, we were all invited to join the Kindergarten which had been created in Centre Field by Diane Hassinger, mother of two Auroville-born children. I think that at the time we moved there, Mauna was the main organiser. My time there did not last long – I must have left in 1979 or ‘80. Later, in the mid-1980s, I was invited to assist Helga, who was looking after a group in the newly established Transition School, but I stayed there only a couple of months. This is to say that my experience in Auroville schools did not last very long, and lies far back in the past, when conditions were so different that it will be difficult for those working in Auroville and Outreach schools today to imagine what it was like back then.[1] So can I share anything that might be interesting, inspiring or helpful to young teachers in the Auroville of today or tomorrow?

The Mother’s guidelines about education in general and for schools in Auroville especially must remain relevant and inspiring. Her writings on education are collected in volume 12 of her collected works, which I hope that every Auroville educator is already deeply familiar with. Here I can try to share some things related to Aspiration School which may not be widely known.

  1. The Mother’s message about the languages to be studied in Auroville schools was given for the opening of Aspiration School on December 16 1970, and was read out by Monsieur André Morisset, the Mother’s son, when he declared the school open. The languages she named were English, as the international language; Tamil, as the local language; French and Sanskrit. She did not explain in her message why French would be important, but her remarks on this can be found in vol. 12. We can recall that it was the Mother’s mother tongue, in which she gave many talks, which were recorded and have been transcribed and published, so it will be valuable for future Aurovilians to be able to read or listen to the Mother’s words in their original language. French is also esteemed as a very precise and accurate language, and is the medium used in the Ashram School, especially for teaching mathematics and the sciences. Sanskrit is so venerated in India that all Indian languages contain traces of it. The Mother stressed the importance of a simplified form of Sanskrit which could be understandable or easily learned by native speakers of all the Indian languages, and could thus become a uniting ‘lingua franca’ which people from all over the country could use to communicate with each other. Along with all the others joining the school, I had my first Sanskrit lesson on the morning that the school opened and was deeply moved by the sounds of this ancient and sacred language. I dream of the day when all students of Auroville schools will be familiar with Sanskrit and its treasures.
  2. A little later on, probably in 1971, the Mother had occasion to send a message to us that ‘Someone must be with the children at all times – not to curb their sense of adventure, but to ensure their safety.’ This was because our first students were wandering freely all around the Auromodele area and getting into all sorts of mischief, and a dangerous situation arose that was reported to her by indignant parents.
  3. Nevertheless, perhaps in the following year, when we informed her that some parents were very critical about the quality of education their children were receiving in the school, she wrote to us: ‘If the parents are not satisfied with the education being provided at the school, they are free to take their children elsewhere.’ No parents did at that time, so far as I remember.
  4. The Mother took an active interest in developments at the school, and encouraged us in many ways. I remember that at one time we were trying to understand the inner meaning of the names which she had given to the school buildings planned for Auromodele: “Last School; After Schools nos. 1, 2 and 3; Super School; and No School.” We thought that the three ‘After Schools’ might be focal resource centres where students and educators from all over the city could find the materials and activities which would help them – perhaps one for languages, one for the arts and another sciences. ‘Super School’ might be a place for higher learning and perhaps instruction in and practice of inner development, beyond the perspectives of knowledge that we can envisage at present. Especially we felt that perhaps ‘No School’ might mean that the whole city of Auroville would become an educational environment where adults and children could mingle freely and learn from each other all the time.
         As a step in that direction some of us started looking for work-places in the community willing to accept a one or two older children to work and learn with them a few days each week. There was a good response in the community, and the children started going here and there. But some people objected to a few of the locations to which they were invited, perhaps fearing bad influences from those unpredictable Aurovilians. When Shyam Sundar – who in those days was the ‘Postman’ between Auroville and the Mother – referred these doubts to her, she responded “If Shanti thinks that it is all right, the children can go there”. In these and many other ways she encouraged our attempts to develop new approaches to learning and growing. We found that this particular experiment worked best when there was at least one person in the workplace who was ready to be attentive to the students while they were there, and at least one teacher from the school who was ready to accompany them to sort out any difficulties with the people running the workplace. When these elements were not available, things did not work so well, but when they were, we and the children had some wonderful experiences moving around in the community – in those days usually on foot, through a much more scattered environment than we have today.
  5. Since I have mentioned the name of Shanti, I should explain that Shanti Shah joined Aspiration School in April 1971 and immediately took on a leading role, partly because she was an inspired educator, as well as a widely experienced one, and much loved by all the children; partly because she was great organiser, in a very Indian way which I admired immensely, and which won her the respect of all of us who were working with the children. She is perhaps the person from whom I have learned most in my life, and I think of her almost every day as I try to carry out my present responsibilities at Savitri Bhavan. In 1972 the Mother gave her approval for me to work with Shanti for administration of the school. Later the administration was gradually taken up by a group of 6 or 7 of us taking decisions together.
  6. Another question which was referred to the Mother concerned 12 young Tibetans who had been selected by the Dalai Lama’s sister, then his education minister, to be educated in Auroville. The idea was that they should grow up as Aurovilians and eventually establish the Tibetan Pavilion in the International Zone. When they joined Aspiration School in December 1971 they were staying in a small Tibetan colony in Pondicherry, where they were looked after by two Lamas who accompanied them to school. Along with other children who had been accepted for Auroville but were staying in Pondi because of lack of accommodation in Auroville itself, the young Tibetans and their Lamas used to take breakfast in the Auroville Kitchen, and then be carried out to school in Aspiration on the school bus. Two of these children were little girls, the sisters Tashi and Kelsang. All the rest were lively and mischievous boys, from ‘little Lobsang’ aged 5 to ‘big Lobsang’ aged 12. They were far too lively for their Lama guardians to handle, and there were many complaints about their behaviour in the bus and the kitchen. We were very concerned about them, and about the environment in which these young children were living in Pondi. We conceived the idea of asking Aurovilian families to ‘adopt’ one or two of them, to give them more personal care, and perhaps provide a more ‘Aurovilian’ upbringing. This proposal was presented to the Mother by Monsieur André. We were surprised to learn from him that she had categorically refused it. She explained that these children had been sent to Auroville to represent Tibetan culture, and that they must all continue to stay together, in Pondi if necessary, until suitable accommodation could be provided for them in Auroville. She added ‘We want unity - not uniformity, but the divine unity that embraces all differences and diversity.’ I have never forgotten the wonderful insight that she gave with these few words. In June 1973 we were able to open the Tibetan Home in a large keet building which stood where the settlement of Protection is now. This Tibetan Home was soon emulated by the Tamil Illam, created by Jeanne and Gordon Korstange to house students from the nearby village of Kuilapalayam. 8 boys and 4 girls lived there with a local teenage mentor. It was striking to see the differences in behaviour between the militant young Tibetans, and the young Tamilians who spontaneously formed a responsible and caring family, in which the older ones looked after the young ones and the younger ones looked up to and respected the bigger ones – an interesting illustration of what the Mother had said.
  7. One of the people working with us was Ananda Reddy, who had grown up in the Ashram and only recently graduated from the Ashram School. When he went to meet the Mother on his birthday he asked her, “What kind of education would you like to see in Auroville?” She replied “A kind of modern gurukul”. For some of us it needed to be explained that the ‘gurukul’ system was traditional in ancient India: young students would leave their families to join the household of a respected teacher and grow up under his influence until they reached maturity. They would live as members of his family, sharing in the household tasks, as well as receiving the benefit of his teachings and guidance. This was a very inspiring idea for me, and along with some of the other teachers in our school I dreamed of establishing an educational community in Auroville where adults and children would live together as a family, learning and growing together. We felt that the guiding principle of such a community should be the insight shared by Sri Aurobindo:
Each human being is a self-developing soul and … the business of both parent and teacher is to enable and to help the child to educate himself, to develop his own intellectual, moral, aesthetic and practical capacities and to grow freely as an organic being, not to be kneaded and pressured into form like an inert plastic material. It is not yet realised what this soul is or that the true secret, whether with child or man, is to help him to find his deeper self, the real psychic entity within. That, if we ever give it a chance to come forward, and still more if we call it into the foreground as “the leader of the march set in our front”, will itself take up most of the business of education out of our hands and develop the capacity of the psychological being towards a realisation of its potentialities of which our present mechanical view of life and man and external routine methods of dealing with them prevent us from having any experience or forming any conception. … The closer touch attempted with the psychical entity behind the vital and physical mentality and an increasing reliance on its possibilities must lead to the ultimate discovery that man is inwardly a soul and a conscious power of the Divine and that the evocation of this real man within is the right object of education and indeed of all human life if it would find and live according to the hidden Truth and deepest law of its own being.[2]

Above all, I feel that the Mother wants us to be ready to experiment and try out different approaches, aiming for a new kind of education that would lead to an integral development of each individual’s full capacities, so that by the time the psychic being would reveal itself, the outer being would be developed enough to offer it all the possibilities it would require for its full self-expression: a wide supple mind, capable of concentration, of silent receptivity, discrimination, ready to receive intuitions and revelations from the higher mind levels; a strong will, ready to courageously carry out everything needed for its work; a richly complex and well-organised vital being, calm and strong and loving; and a well-developed body, strong and supple and harmonious, fit to serve the inner being and open to higher forces and impulsions. The Mother said that the way of making the consciousness of human unity spread in humanity would be an education which gives more importance to the growth of the spirit than to any religious or moral teaching or to the material so-called knowledge.[3] I hope that the schools of Auroville will be aiming in this direction, rather than trying to imitate what is being done in schools elsewhere. As the Mother has said,

“We are not here to do (only a little better) what the others do. We are here to do what the others cannot do because they do not have the idea that it can be done. We are here to open the way of the Future to children who belong to the Future. Anything else is not worth the trouble and not worthy of Sri Aurobindo’s help.”[4]

This is the aspiration we should be carrying within ourselves and trying to communicate to young Aurovilians, inspiring them with Sri Aurobindo’s vision of the glorious evolutionary future for the whole earth which he and the Mother dedicated all their efforts to bringing closer to realisation. In writing this account, it has seemed unavoidable to use the terms ‘students’ and ‘teachers’; but in Aspiration School we did not use these words. We were all learners together, growing up together in the Mother’s Light. I think that those studying in Auroville and Outreach schools today must be much better grounded in many kinds of knowledge that are nowadays considered essential for a person to become a useful member of society; but it also seems to me that many who were part of Aspiration School still look back on those faraway days as amongst the most rewarding of their lives. For me that is certainly true.

January 2016

Shraddhavan photo 250.jpg

When Shraddhavan was accepted for Auroville in 1970 she was asked to work in Aspiration School, which opened on December 15 of that year. This became the focus of her life for the next six years. As part of her activities there, she organised the first Auroville Library and looked after a boarding for 12 Tibetan children.

Since August 1999 she has been the Project Coordinator of Savitri Bhavan. Apart from administrative duties she leads courses, edits the Bhavan’s twice-yearly journal Invocation, and pursues research into the writings of Sri Aurobindo, especially Savitri, responding to queries from students and researchers in India and around the world.

Shraddhavan can be contacted at shraddhavan (at) auroville.org.in.

  1. As an annexe to this article, I am adding one published in 1973, which can perhaps convey a glimpse of Aspiration School around that time: "Aspiration School, Auroville – A Glimpse"
  2. The Human Cycle — The Ideal of Human Unity — War and Self-Determination, pp.32-33
  3. Words of the Mother - III, p.61
  4. On Education, p.113