The Next Big Leap for Auroville - interview with Frederick (Radio program)
Ira: Hi everybody, I'm Ira, a student from Symbiosis, Pune. I'm here in Auroville Radio and I'm interviewing Frederick; he's one of the pioneers of Auroville as we know it today. Hi Frederick, good morning!
Frederick: Good morning.
“And then my Indian adventure started.”
- So can you please tell us what made you come to Auroville in the first place?
You know, I'm quite old; I was young when the war in Germany finished. And I actually had a relatively ok time in Germany – it was an adventurous time. But I was never really at home in Germany. I always felt very uncomfortable, particularly as we as young kids would often be sent to the concentration camps to see what has been done by ‘us terrible Germans’ to the Jews, and so on. And I never could understand what happened to a civilized country like Germany. So I... went into a lot of stupid things; I was a student, I had money (my family comes from a quite rich background). But I really felt always like a foreigner in Germany. And when I had finished my A-level (‘___’ we call it – matriculation), I did not want to study. My family thought I would go into business, or I would go into the academic world and I said “no”. And I did what they now call a gap year.
And I wanted to go to America, because America is ‘the promised land’ (!), the liberator, they've got everything... the New World. But I had been to East Berlin, and my passport showed that I had been in a Communist state. So they would not allow me into America. So I said, “ok, then off I go, the other side”. And I took a boat, in 1959, from Italy (Genoa), and I traveled for two weeks as the only passenger to Bombay. It was an Indian cargo boat – an Indian steamship company. And I reached Bombay in December, 1959. I was just 20 years old. And then my Indian adventure started.
For us in Germany, India for us was always very strong – from the classic time in Germany, we always looked at India. A lot of things were translated into German from the Vedas and Upanishads – Max Müller and so on. And we also felt – after the war, for us young people – there were four figures, four personalities which really spelled a new alternative. It was Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo.
So I came actually to Bombay and I took a train to Calcutta, and I went to Santiniketan to spend some time in Tagore's garden university. Then I traveled, and in 1960 I traveled down, saw many places – Bhubaneswar, Konark – came to Madras, came to Pondicherry; and arrived in Pondicherry I think in June, 1961. I had just turned 21, in Rishikesh – the Shivananda Ashram was my birthday.
At that time the Mother was very available; I could see her every morning. She gave darshan (balcony darshan). And I started working in the Ashram; I saw the Mother quite often. At that time it was not difficult, I had not really asked... it is not quite, “I saw her quite often” – in effect, I was not so interested. But when, before I left, I felt I should see her and say thank you, because she was the head of the Ashram and had looked after me. And then I asked for a darshan, which she gave me. And then I then saw her – and it sort of changed my life. And I knew that I belonged to her, and I wanted to dedicate my life to her.
So I came to India in 1959, saw the Mother in 1960; left again for a trip to Japan; went back through the Ashram in '61; went to study in Germany; and returned to India for good in 1966.
- Could I please know why the experience with the Mother was life-changing, as you called it?
Well, it's a very personal experience, and it's difficult to bring back that moment. I came with some hesitation; I was very attracted to the philosophy and the vision of Sri Aurobindo. I was not so attracted to the Mother – I thought “well, this French lady, I'm not so sure about...”. But when I finally got permission to see her, I had to walk up the steps, and got into the first floor, into that room – it was a darshan room, and she had her chair behind the door, and I saw her there, bent forward. I remember thinking, “oh, quite old”. But then when she looked at me, and... I don't know what happened, I [had] wanted to talk with her about problems – intellectual problems – but I couldn't speak, and I was on my knees. And then she gave me an experience in which I could sort of... with her eyes, or through her eyes, she led me inside myself. And I looked at myself, and I saw myself as like a lit-up landscape. So all my anxieties, and fears, and wishes, and desires, and shames – I saw it all; and she didn't necessarily ‘approve of’ them, but she looked at it. And it was such a wonderful experience to be totally known by somebody. And there's nothing hidden.
And then she also showed me the possibility – I was a young boy – “if you fulfill your role in your life, why you came on this earth,” (she didn't say all that, but that was the message I could experience) – and she gave me sort of a picture of a glass tube which had a little bit of liquid on the bottom (the rounded bottom). And then lit up, empty glass tube – “this is what you can become” (whoosh), filling up this glass tube. “This is your role; but you have to fulfill your role in life.” And it was quite clear that my role was to serve her.
But you know – even though you know what your role is, your vital... you're a young boy, have a lot of money, want to experience the world. And she encouraged it: “yes, you want to travel on – where do you want to go?” And I said, “well, maybe I thought I would go to Japan”. She said, “yes! Yes, you should go see my friend, Mrs. Kobayashi” (who had just been there). So I felt I was sent by her. She was my mother; it was not just the Divine Mother: I had a very strong feeling of having a mother.
- That's really lovely to hear! So was that when you decided you were going to spend your time in Auroville?
Yeah. Obviously it didn't work out this way – but you might say, when something inside you suddenly sees a deeper conviction. And can see. You have been looked at, but you also look. And you can see, “yes, that's what I'm meant to do in my life”.
And in the same way, when I came back from Japan, it was a very powerful experience – I did Zen mediation, I was very strong in (very martial) very strict Vipassana. But when I saw her again, again everything melted. And then I went back to Germany; I wanted to learn a skill as a gift for her. Because I was teaching in the school, I was working in the library already – I wanted to be skilled, to bring her a skill which I can offer her. So I started studying for six years.
It was a terrible time!
Germany was terrible for me. It was like as if my soul had stayed here, and my body had gone very far. I was 25 years old – very difficult. I was becoming very ‘radicalized’. It was before all the young people on the road, before the drugs, before Berkeley, and Rome, and Berlin – and Paris, I mean. But there was this restlessness, this rebellion against the existing. And I became very violent in many ways. And finally in 1966 I knew that I would come back. So I came back to the Ashram and surrendered to her.
I remember having the sensation that whatever I am, whatever I do, and whatever I have, belongs to her. It's difficult to transmit that to somebody...
But if you meet in the true inner sense – the guru – that's the experience you have. You get emptied; there's nothing left of you.
Maybe the time of the personal guru is over. It may not be necessary anymore. Evolution goes on, and maybe now Auroville becomes a guru (whatever, I don't know). But for me at that time, it was like a liberation from a very difficult beginning, and a liberation into her arms.
Auroville and its role
- So there are a lot of people who are really intrigued by the idea of Auroville. What do you think... like for you, it was your meeting with the Mother, that helped you surrender to her and come to Auroville. What do you think motivates everybody else? To do the same thing?
What did you say?
- What do you think motivates everybody else to do the same – people who haven't met the Mother?
You know, I have children – I have five children, I have multiple grandchildren also. I wonder about that also. I don't know. But I can sense, I can feel, there's a great commitment. They are very loyal to Auroville, especially when they go out. I mean, four of my grandchildren – five of my grandchildren – are studying outside, in America, in Holland. But for them, Auroville is really their home. And I wonder what motivates them, not having met... but as I say, maybe the experience of a personal guru is not indispensable. It may be helpful. But maybe Matrimandir, or Auroville, or the sense of the community of Auroville, is like a commitment to them.
I know my eldest son, Hero, has met the Mother when he was a small kid. He went through a very, very troubled time when he was an adolescent (like all of my children – most of my children went through a bit of trouble). And when they go out, and they come back and talk about Auroville they say, “in Auroville, there is something in the soil which is nowhere else in the world”. There is some... you know, each one has his own connection. I mean if you are interested in Auroville, you could also ask yourself: “what is it, I have not met, I have seen pictures of this old lady; I have seen pictures of that old man, Sri Aurobindo. Then what?”
But it will come to you. Not necessarily in the form of those pictures. It may come in other ways.
I can't say that – it was such a subjective experience, that I can't speculate on what brings people here. But I can sense a great commitment and loyalty to Auroville. Not in the way I expected: older people like in my age, there would be bitching: “oh, this is not the Auroville we wanted. This is not why we came here; this is not what the Mother wanted.” I truly can't judge like this – I don't know. Maybe it's lucky that what we thought at that time should happen did not happen; maybe it would have been a limited and historical statement. And now that [there is] a new life – maybe that is even more adequate for the present situation in the world.
- Could you elaborate on that part? I didn't quite understand.
You see, the world is changing a lot. I mean at that time, when the Mother spoke about Auroville, there was a sense that the world is ready for Auroville – she speaks about Russia; she speaks about America (in the Agenda), she speaks about the Ford Foundation. I feel that she had an idea: we would all stay away from Auroville [and] Auroville would be built by contractor. There were even ideas like she did with Bharat Nivas – ___ would build Auroville, for example, make it key-ready, we would cut the ribbon, and we all move into Auroville, and we are happy (!). That was a plan. Fifteen years.
It obviously didn't work that way. There are some statements by her regarding Auroville which refer to this scheme – but then obviously the scheme changed. There was a different scheme. The world had changed. And I think the relevance of Auroville now, for where the young people get involved – I just came back from Delhi where we have an exhibition on Auroville, for UNESCO. The relevance of Auroville for India, and for the world, is different now. Now we are like a laboratory where we can experiment certain things. How do a young girl like Ira and an old man like Frederick – how can they work together and bring something together which is not in competition, which is not a conflict, which is not polemic, but is more complementary to each other? Where we are brothers and sisters on the same side? I'm not standing on the other side and tell you what to do. We are both exploring the adventure of Auroville, no?
So it is changing while the world is changing.
- So, I've been here for like two weeks now, and I've heard a lot of – you know, how some people think it's deviating from the Mother's vision, and some are unhappy with where it's going. So I'm just trying to understand: do you think that where Auroville is right now is at a good place? Like it's going in a great direction?
You know, we are so full of judgments and labels – I think we should get away from it. If it feeds you; if it makes you happy; if it nourishes you; if you walk after a rain through Auroville and look at it and say, “it's beautiful,” look in the night and see Matrimandir – then who is to say whether it is... what does ‘deviating’ mean? It means there is a way – a right via, a right way – and you are losing the way. Who can judge that? I don't feel that.
I mean there are certain things which shouldn't happen. This is clear. I feel for example that certain things where it becomes too individualized; we're becoming too commercialized. Money has just become a big factor in our community life. We should be aware of it – we can't help it, but we can reduce it in some form. That we try to... I think there is not an ‘either/or’. We can give a shift, a small little shift towards one side. Less individual enterprises, less isolation. More chances for collective meeting. More cultural expression. Beauty has become very important in my life now; it is like something which old people suddenly discover. I never had time to look. Now I have more time, and I can see how important beauty is.
- Yeah. So I'm really curious to know: Auroville back then must have been really, really different from Auroville now. What change is most obvious to you – the one that you notice the most?
Well you know, it's like we always look for ‘pioneering’, or beginning when there is nothing – as a barren land, windswept, no trees, no water, rough – you go out, this is pioneering. It's a much easier pioneering than now. Now we are established; you can ride down; you have a Financial Service; you have a Housing Service; you have a Radio... to find the adventure and the pioneering and the new beginning in our setup is much more difficult. But it's continuously happening. It's continuously happening.
So don't get stuck to the externalities of it. And I think that's why the Mother wants a Matrimandir, and I think the most important thing which came into existence is the structure of the Matrimandir – it's ready. And she said to the chief architect: “you give me the Matrimandir, the soul, and it will build its body”. So it's now radiating in a true, beautiful, harmonious body – it means it is in accord. In balance, in harmony with the psychic being. That makes beauty, no? That makes also physical beauty.
So I think Auroville has now built the place for the soul. And whether you go there or not it doesn't matter. But it's now penetrating the material realization of Auroville. And I feel very good about it.
That was not there. At that time, the beginning, there was the Mother there, whom we would refer to. Then came a long time of battle and fight, where basically the comradeship between us became very strong. We had to join arms and hold on – it's like being in a storm. That's over. Now we've become an institution; that is... good, it is stabilizing, but it is also a trap. We should not settle down and say, “ok, now it's fine. Now I'm comfortable; now I can do my little garden and I have my little fence.” That is a trap, that is a danger.
- So you should constantly keep...
We have to be on the way, no? I just felt that we have to live like an arrow, not like a square. You have to be moving onwards. That's what actually Sri Aurobindo calls the ‘Aryan’. The Aryan is not an ethnic denomination – Aryan means the one who moves upwards and forward.
Projects in Auroville and beyond
- On that note, I've heard that you've been responsible for a lot of projects, in and around Auroville. So are you trying to express something in particular through your participation in all these projects?
You know... they make a joke and say, “you're doing a Frederick”. That means you start something, and then you run away. But... (laughter)... which is very bad! It's not what I'm doing. But it's true – I love to start things. The first thing that I did actually when I came here, was to start a free midday meal. Because there were workers, and it was very, very poor here – there was nothing. I said, “we cannot work with people who have not eaten.” So we started one. I've started a lot of things in this way. Sports... I always was hungry, after the war, I always felt between 1:00 (lunch) and dinner at 7:00, at 4:00 I have a deep hole in my stomach.
- Yeah, the gap is still there! I feel the same way! (laughter)
So I felt, you cannot expect kids to run and jump when they're hungry (!). So I started a free Kids' Café. (Unfortunately right now it's not functioning, because it was raining, but I think it's important.) I mean in the school sports – Dehashakti and NESS and Ilaignarkal and so on – they do get a snack. But nevertheless.
And my present project is very much connected with the celebration of the 50th. And out of that comes a lot of things. I think there are two things I feel very interested in: one is for Auroville and our surrounding to become more interconnected. To become... I mean there's a grace that Mother allows this to happen in India, allows it to happen in Tamil Nadu, allows it to happen in Vanur taluk. This is ‘our soil’. There are a lot of stories about that. But interconnectedness, of Auroville, here, has to not only be acknowledged – it has to be sponsored, and helped, and made fertile. We can learn a lot from... many of us come from the West, and are busy turning this piece of India into a Western enclave. We don't want a Western enclave. We have run away from that.
So my feeling has always been connectedness, to communication. I'm not a Tamil; I don't look a Tamil. And I don't want to be ‘pretending’ that I act like a villager – I'm not. But I think there can be a comradeship, there can be a friendship, there can be a... the differences should be celebrated. Instead of suffered. And that's something I bring into the 50th, a little bit.
And the other thing is, I feel 50 years Auroville is a turning point. It's like in a human life, at a certain thing you finish one phase, and you enter a next phase. And I think the next phase is really that Auroville has built a bridge head now. We are here. We can't be pushed back – like they say, “you can't push the toothpaste back into the tube”. We are out; we are there; we are on the map.
But we have not really active partnership. And I think it's happening on many projects: CSR, and our radio with the music, and alternative energy – we do a lot. But Auroville becoming a partner to other institutions within India (and abroad: we have Auroville International) – but make it an active field of collaboration. I think that's very important.
And what I always felt when I went to Delhi and spoke to people in the government – why is the government supporting Auroville? Because the government has stood behind Auroville; just now they have passed another UNESCO resolution. Because it recognizes somewhere that Auroville is a beautiful manifestation of the message of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, to the world. And I think we have grown out of that (you might say) ‘third chapter’ of Auroville, into that chapter of adulthood where we can look, and become partners, and relate with; we can learn, and bring in people to help us in our growth; and we can make the benefits of our experiments and their results available to the outside world.
- So now the next step for Auroville is collaboration.
- So, you visited the 50th anniversary celebrations in Delhi, right? Tell us a little about what events took place; how was it for you.
Well, it was a little bit of an uphill struggle here. It was not immediately supported. We had to do a lot of convincing here, that this is something we want to do. Because these can be looked at – and it's still there – “oh, you're advertising Auroville, why are you making propaganda for Auroville”, etc. We are not. We are not trying to convert, or... We are making Auroville more transparent, and making information which Auroville genuinely has, available to people who genuinely ask. And I think it's our dharma, we have to fulfill our role – that's what Auroville was made for. If it was just to be a little island of heavy people, why should the government give us so many facilities, you know – exemption from Land Ceiling Act, tax exemption – why? Unless we fulfill what Auroville is stating in its objectives, that this is something where Auroville becomes relevant to India and the world.
So I think that we have to make that available; and we have to learn. So after it became also accepted by the major groups (whether it's the Working Committee, or whether it's the Outreach group, or whether...), it became – we made a special group, a 50th group. And it's a good team. And we got also support from the Auroville Foundation; I went twice before to Delhi, we booked a plane, we have a Delhi core team, we have support there. And then twenty of us went to Delhi (or more than twenty: 22 or 23). Representing Auroville – many aspects. Not Auroville as a ‘religious body’ – we do refer to Mother and Sri Aurobindo. They are the basis; they are the source of our inspiration. But we are not a religious body. We are not a sect. We have specific interest areas, themes, which we make available, which we show. Whether it's education, whether it is alternative energy, whether it's arts and crafts, whether it's city-building, whether it is agriculture. There are things which are of importance. We show our products; we show our publications; we show our artwork. We could have had also something from Auroville Radio on our loop – some interviews.
So, the venue was good: one was Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, which is a large, center part of Delhi. And the other one was a newly-built UNESCO building. Both venues are very good. I do not think there was such a big crowd. Big and small, it doesn't really matter, in a sense. What was important was that the media was there; it was given some few coverage in the media. And it's the beginning of a process. So the next phase will be next year: I'd like to take, to organize, a mobile exhibition through six capitals of India. Maybe Bangalaore – Chennai, Bangalore, Bombay, Ahmedabad, Delhi, Varanasi, Calcutta, Hyderabad.
- A mobile exhibition?
A mobile exhibition having again both visuals – both in print and also in video – on Auroville, different themes. Having films on Auroville which were made, having products, having people. And I would like it to be an experience for the young people of Auroville to see something of India. Many people don't know much about India. So we take three shifts or four shifts of young people – let's say we take a van and travel around. So first shift, let's say four youngsters who are the stars. They will be trained in school to man this exhibition. They go from Pondicherry, Chennai, Bangalore, Bombay. And then they're shipped back by second-class sleeper. And the next shift comes, say from Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Delhi. And then the third shift goes from Delhi, Benares – I think they should experience Benares, Shiva's eternal city. Calcutta: Sri Aurobindo's birthplace. And the last shift will be Calcutta, maybe Orissa, maybe Konark, maybe Hyderabad, and then back to Chennai.
And I had done this forty years ago; and I had realized that the benefit would not actually have been so much for India as such – but the benefit was for the youngsters who traveled along. They learned something. And they realized: there is a large country. And they don't know much about it.
- It would be a really beautiful experience for them to be on board with this exhibition.
Right. And they have to take it as part of their on-hand learning experience. They have to prepare themselves. So say they're taking the shift from Bombay, Ahmedabad, Delhi. So they have to – maybe they can make a little visit into Rajasthan from Ahmedabad. Or Baroda, where Sri Aurobindo had his large experience of the Brahma consciousness. Or we go to Delhi, where there's – what is it, Hasna... the ancient city, in the Mahabarata?
- Hastinapur. That is Delhi.
- So they would get to know more about the cities, as well.
They would get to know.
- Yeah, that's a really nice idea.
And cover it, bring it back. You know, they're all equipped now, with their cellphone coverage – make a montage, report on it. So at the beginning, you prepare yourself; you actually go through the experience; and then you report about it. It's a good experience.
- It would be actually – I would love to do it!
Book yourself for it. You do the radio coverage of it.
- Yeah, I would love to... So, you're constantly thinking of like new changes to be made, whatever needs to be done.
- No, that's amazing! I'm really curious to know what continuously fuels you. Like how do you have continuously that motivation to want to make that change.
You know, people say: “Fred, stop it now! Look at your passport – relax!” I say I'm not going to relax – why should I relax. I hope I am not overpowering... you know, I have a strong vital, and I feel... once you are recruited – I feel like a soldier. I've been recruited by the Mother. And so I like to serve her.
I mean, once she told me – in the beginning, there was nothing in Auroville. “You build a house. You build a house of brick and concrete, to show to the world that we are here for good.” Because everything was temporary. And that was like a marching order. The building itelf was about 3-4 years; but then the continuity – that house became ’Auroson's Home’. And that need for a continuity and stability was at least necessary for fifteen years. It was like a command from headquarters (!). It wasn't something that I choose – I am not somebody who is good in continuity. I am very bad in it, actually.
I felt that I could step back now, but I do feel as if this communication of Auroville with its surroundings and its relevance – I mean every time I open the computer, or whatever, and I see what's happening, I feel motivated: there is something Auroville can give. And we have to be available. We don't go around shouting and converting – but the information has to be there.
And it's pressing. It's more and more urgent. We don't have the luxury to say, “ok, let's give it a bit of time. Let's wait another 10 years, until we are ready...”, and so on. I – maybe because I am 78, I don't have the luxury. Ok, that's maybe my personal thing. But I think also, Auroville has to be alert. It has to be ready.
- So, for you, to be a ‘true Aurovilian’, does it mean to continuously be working towards the good for Auroville?
You know, first of all, I don't like – and I would like to see some change – I don't like to be ‘an Aurovilian’, you are ‘not an Aurovilian’. I don't believe in that division. What is that? What is that supposed... when we started, till maybe the Foundation set in, there was no such a label, ‘Aurovilian’, ‘non-Aurovilian’. Now it becomes a whole process, and a whole thing, and you get benefits which you don't get if you're not... Ok, ok. I will not bitch about the present situation; maybe it's necessary. But then there's welcoming. That's my first comment on ‘Aurovilian’. Maybe I should become a ‘Friend of Auroville’, or I should become a ‘Newcomer’ to Auroville, and get this whole other vibration – I'm aspiring for the city. So I'm still feeling that this is something very important.
Unless something else than just having a good time, or just doing a little apprenticeship on Auroville – unless something catches you and says, “no, I really want to change. I want to change in myself; I want to change in the world. I want to not live this normal, domestic life: your parents are now looking for a husband for you, and they're settling you now, and in five years you're going to be a mama, and then you have a little place in Pune, and that's going to be your life. And if there is a deep outcry from within, from your soul, saying, “that is not my dharma”. (I'm not telling you this – maybe that is your dharma!)
- It's not, for sure! (laughter)
Who knows! Who knows. I'm not going to pry. But for some people, that's not their role. Full stop. And there, Auroville becomes meaningful. She says, “only for those for whom the world, as it is now, becomes – ” (I don't know the word: ‘impossible’, or ‘unlivable’) “...Auroville has a meaning.” And it's true.
If you compare Auroville to a human being, every time we enter a new phase – we don't grow gradually. We grow in quantum leaps. And you might suddenly in your own life, having been a little child, and suddenly you wake up in the morning – and you feel you now are an adolescent. Or you are now an adult. It doesn't go slowly. Auroville has been slowly, slowly, slow... but I think not much. I sense we are ready for a quantum leap. For something which just suddenly propels us onto the next step.
In Sri Aurobindo's vision, there is a kind of accelerated movement (at a certain stage), and once the moment has come – the acceleration has come to a breaking point – then the whole thing jumps to the next level. And I think Auroville is ready for that.
- Thank you so much. That was really lovely.
Thank you, that was nice.
- Thank you!