India – A Land of Contrasts

India – A Land of Contrasts,
Sanitation and Spirituality
by M. Lal Goel, PhD,
University of West Florida

(Derived from a Speech delivered at Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Pensacola August 29, 1999)

Ladies and gentlemen,

I spent a semester earlier this year in India as a Fulbright Scholar. The Fulbright
Program is the flagship international exchange program of the U.S. Government. Its goal
is to increase “mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the
people of other countries.” Since its inception in 1946, 82,000 American scholars
have traveled overseas to lecture, to advise, to study or to conduct research. The program
is named after the late Arkansas Senator J. William Fulbright.

Because India is a free and democratic country and because English is the language of
higher learning in India, the awards to India are highly competitive. I do not know how I
succeeded in getting the Award. My colleague Dr. Jack Salmon (in the audience) provided me with a recommendation for my application. It must be Dr. Salmon’s recommendation, not my own qualifications, that I believe won me the Fulbright Award.

I taught at Pondicherry University (January-May, 1999). Pondicherry is located in Southern part of India on the Bay of Bengal. Before the independence of India in 1947, Pondicherry was governed by the French, unlike the rest of India which was governed by the British. Remnants of French influence are still evident in Pondicherry after 50 years of independence. This can be seen in the use of French language and in the use of French-style police uniforms.

Pensacola and Pondicherry have certain similarities. Both are sea-front communities. Both are home to university level educational institutions. Pensacola is called the City of Five Flags–the Spanish, the French, the English, the Confederate, and the American flags have flown over Pensacola. Pondicherry may also be called the City of Five Flags–Hindu, Muslim, English, French and Indian Republic flags have flown over Pondicherry.

Pondicherry is best known for being home to Sri Aurobindo Ashram. The term Ashram in Sanskrit means a spiritual center or a community. Some 10 miles from the Ashram is an international township called Auroville, the City of Dawn. Both the Ashram and Auroville draw inspiration from the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. I will have more to say
on them later in my speech. People of many nations have settled in the Ashram and Auroville. Some 48 languages are spoken in and around Pondicherry.


India is a land of huge contrasts. It contains the best and the worst. India is materially poor but spiritually rich. Human degradation may be witnessed at an unprecedented scale in India, for example, children pressed into low paying jobs. One may also witness heights of moral ascendancy: parents who endlessly sacrifice for their children; friends who are loyal; strangers who are kind; and roadside vendors with dignity. India boasts the second largest pool of engineers and scientists in the world. Its 50% illiteracy rate is among the highest in the world. The list of contrasting vignettes can be expanded.

The Downside

The lack of sanitation is a major feature of urban life in India. Garbage is only partially removed from the streets. The rest rots along sidewalks, road shoulders or in what is left of public parks. The municipal services cannot keep up with the burgeoning urban population and the consequent increase in the volume of trash. It may be mentioned that sanitation workers are unionized and cannot be easily disciplined even for failure to perform at their duties.

I read in a New Delhi newspaper that 90 tons of garbage remains unpicked every week on the street of the Capital. The newspaper conjectured that New Delhi would be buried under a layer of garbage in the first quarter of the next century, if remedial steps were not taken.

There is another problem of recent vintage: much of present day garbage consists of plastic bags, Styrofoam cups, broken glass, and aluminum. These items are not biodegradable. It was not like this fifty years ago when I grew up in a North Indian village. Garbage those days consisted of ashes from the family hearth, leftover animal feed and cow dung (please note that families those days kept a cow or two for milk). Used paper, glass bottles and broken pans and pots were sold to be recycled. Plastics and aluminum had not invaded the kitchen yet.

The audience will perhaps be interested in a bit of a comparison between life in an Indian village fifty years ago and life in the United States today, as it pertains to trash. The Punjabi village that I grew up in had 300 families. Please note that population was counted by the number of families and not by the number of individuals in the village. The 300 families in the village produced less garbage then than do mere three families in America today. You can estimate the wealth of a nation by the volume of garbage it produces. America is rich and it produces lots of garbage. By the yardstick of the amount of garbage being produced in India, it surely is making progress.

Air and Noise Pollution
Air and noise pollution are now a serious problem of urban India, especially the metropolitan cities of Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. Steel mills, automobile factories, chemical industries, textile plants and manufacturing units of every kind now dot the skyline. New Delhi once boasted tree-lined broad avenues. Cannought Place was a posh shopping center in the middle of the metropolis. The number of buses, trucks, automobiles and three-wheeler rickshaws has multiplied by a factor of 1,000. One literally chokes for breath in the streets of New Delhi on account of the very heavy smog. Exhaust emission standards either do not exist or are not enforced.

The number of cars multiplies each year by a large percentage. An example from my own extended family in India should suffice to make the point. When I visited India in 1988, only one member of my extended family owned an automobile. During my 1999 visit I found that almost all my adult nephews and nieces had acquired automobiles.

Noise pollution is a cousin of air pollution. The automobile contributes handsomely to both. Indian drivers honk continuously to assert road superiority, frighten pedestrians or simply for the perverse joy of blowing the horn.

A mistaken notion of religious zeal increases noise pollution. Mosques call the public to prayer on street-mounted loudspeakers. Sikh temples in the Punjab put their entire two hour morning service on loudspeakers facing the street. Hindu congregational singing groups parade through the streets.

Population Growth
People are crowded everywhere in India; the country gives the impression of teeming masses. When India became independent in 1947, the population numbered 350 million. Today it reaches 1 billion, nearly three times of what it was 53 years ago. This burgeoning population strains every resource, reduces every gain, and negates every progress. Very little attention is being paid to tackle this potentially disastrous national problem. No government is strong enough to develop a meaningful policy of population control. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s adopted a strong policy including forced sterilizations to check population growth. These measure backfired. Indira Gandhi’s Congress party lost the next round of elections in 1977. Since then, no government has dared a bold population control policy.

Institutional Breakdown
With few exceptions, political institutions have decayed in India over the past half century. The weakening of the Indian party system constitutes the most serious institutional breakdown. Once ruled by the strong and disciplined Congress party. India today is ruled by a shifting array of coalition governments. For instance, the present government of Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee is a coalition government among one dozen quarrelsome partners.

Political parties increasingly garner votes not on the basis of policy or ideology but by exploiting the caste, religious and language loyalties of the people. The Indian electorate consists of a number of voting blocks: the Muslim vote, the Sikh vote, the Tamil vote, the Dalit (depressed classes) vote, and so on. Political leaders are like horse-traders. They sell their influence to the highest bidder. Money and violence have come to play an important role in winning elections.

Every group now has a veto over decision making. Tough decisions cannot be made for fear of alienating various minority groups. The majority interest is unorganized. Its is sacrificed at the altar of narrow group interests.

Additional problems crying out for reform include: rampant child labor, the infamous dowry system, the role that big money plays in civic life, religious and caste violence, bribery and corruption. Time does not permit me to treat these problems.

The Upside

India continues to be popular with foreign visitors, especially those from the West. This is in spite of the many problems that beset life in India. Several factors explain the popularity of India with foreign visitors.

India is a free country. A foreign visitor faces very few, if any, restrictions on where he can live or who he can associate with. Contrast the freedom of movement and association in India with that in communist and dictatorial regimes.

India is relatively a safe country. I met a 49-year old American woman riding a bicycle on a dusty Indian road in the 100 degree temperature. She told me that she had never before left the United States to travel anywhere. I marveled at her tenacity and resourcefulness. She appeared to be at ease with herself and with the host culture.

Indians generally are a hospitable people. The foreign visitor is likely to be treated well. There is no anti-American feeling at the person-to-person level in India.

Another attractive feature is that the Indian bazaars are teeming with consumer goods of every kind: electronics, computers, washing machines, cameras, not to talk of fresh fruit and vegetables.

India is a bargain when it comes to shopping. Cottons, silks, brass and leather works are inexpensive. Food is also inexpensive by Western pricing standards. A meal in a good restaurant in Pondicherry costs only $4 to $5. I miss the large variety of Pondicherry restaurants, specializing in French, Continental, Chinese, North and South Indian dishes.

Spiritual Heritage of India

India is a destination for those seeking spiritual growth. Throughout the ages India
has produced spiritual masters of gigantic stature. The list is a long one: Buddha,
Sankara, Madhava, Ramanuja, Nanak, Kabir, Mirabai, Surdas, and Tulsidas. Those born within the last 100 years include: Sri Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Ramana Maharishi, Muktananda, Parmahansa Yogananda, Sivananda and Sri Aurobindo. The list of names is a partial one.

A number of the spiritual centers that are popular with Western seekers include the following:

  • Siddha Yoga Ashram in Ganeshpuri
  • Sai Baba Group in Karnataka
  • Ramana Maharishi Ashram near Madras
  • SRF Center of Parmahansa Yogananda in Bihar
  • Sivananda Ashram in Rishi Kesh and Trivandrum in South India
  • Hare Krishna temples in numerous cities
  • Arsha Vidya Gurukula in Rishi Kesh and Coimbatore
  • Swami Rama Centers
  • Rajneesh Centers
  • Radha Swami Ashram in Beas, Punjab
  • Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry
  • Auroville near Pondicherry

Obviously, this is a partial listing based on my personal knowledge. Dozens of additional centers and retreats may be added to the list.


As I spent some time in Auroville, I will describe its features.

Auroville draws its inspiration from the vision and work of the great Indian seer and mystic, Sri Aurobindo. It was founded in 1968 by The Mother, Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual collaborator (see sketches below). According to the evolutionary philosophy of Sri Aurobindo, Man is a transitional being. Evolution is not finished; reason is not the last word nor the reasoning animal the supreme figure of Nature. As man emerged out of the animal, so out of man the superman emerges.

Auroville’s 2000 residents are drawn from over 30 nations. Aurovillians, as the residents are called, are pioneers in every sense of the word. Through sheer muscle and brawn, they have transformed a semi arid, barren, treeless, denuded tract of land into an oasis of greenery. Over one million trees have been planted, making the area green. Rainfall has returned to the area. Birds and bees are also now plentiful. Residents lead a rugged life amidst a harsh environment: temperatures of 100 degrees or higher, mosquitos, vermin, and snakes. The spirit of adventure evident in Auroville reminded me of the early pioneers who settled America.

The international community of Auroville is based on the following spiritual principles. Its Charter states:

  1. Auroville belongs to nobody in particular. Auroville belongs to humanity as a whole. But to live in Auroville, one must be the willing servitor of the Divine.
  2. Auroville will be the place of an unending education, of constant progress, and youth that never ages.
  3. Auroville wants to be the bridge between the past and the future. Taking advantage of all discoveries from without and from within, Auroville will boldly spring towards future realizations.
  4. Auroville will be a site of material and spiritual researches for a living embodiment of an actual Human Unity.

Since the founding of the community in 1968, Aurovillians have accomplished a great deal.

  1. Schools for Auroville children and children from the surrounding Tamil villages use teaching methods that de-emphasize examinations, grades and degrees. Emphasis is given to the unfolding of the student’s unique individual potential.
  2. A number of small scale industries and farms have been established, making the community nearly self-sufficient in terms of its economic needs.
  3. Alternative energy production is a major feature of Auroville. Solar electric pumps, solar water heaters, solar cooking, biogas ovens, and wind power machines dot the landscape. Compressed earth blocks for constructing houses using local materials have been developed. The cost of construction has come down.
  4. Aurovillians have constructed a number of small and large housing complexes called communities, ranging in size from a few persons to over 100. Some communities have large suburban type homes, others are only tree houses and space capsules.
  5. There is much emphasis on cultural activities including art, music, dancing, and poetry. Focus is on living a spiritually charged, service oriented, devotional communal life.

Auroville is not a monastery. People do not fast, shave their heads or lead celibate lives. Personal life is not regimented by rigid rules of the community. Personal freedom is the hallmark of living in Auroville.

The Matrimandir is both the physical and spiritual center of Auroville. Matrimandir in Sanskrit means Temple of the Divine Mother. It is a 100 foot high imposing elliptical sphere. Inside the upper portion of the huge structure is the meditation chamber, a 12-sided room whose walls are lined with white Italian marble. At the center of the chamber is a sphere of pure crystal, illuminated by sun light channeled from an opening at the top of the chamber.

Auroville is a self-conscious experiment in Human Unity, based on the Unity of Spirit.

Sri Aurobindo

Sri Aurobindo was born on 15 August 1872 in Calcutta.

In 1879, at the tender age of seven, he was taken to England for education. His father’s
instructions were that he was to be raised as a proper English child.

Sri Aurobindo was brought up by an English family in Manchester. Later he studied at St. Paul’s School in London, and at King’s College, Cambridge.

He was a brilliant student of the classics. He won all the prizes in Latin and Greek. Sri Aurobindo also learned French, Italian and German to read Rousseau, Dante and Goethe in the original. As a young student, he wrote poetry.

After a stay of 14 years in England, Sri Aurobindo returned to India in 1893, and took up a teaching position at Baroda College. He taught French and English literature and rose to the rank of vice-Principal of the College. He served there for 13 years. He taught himself Sanskrit and Indian languages during this period.

He left his lucrative position with the College and joined anti-British political activity. He
was a radical, whereas leaders like Gandhi and Nehru were moderates. Sri Aurobindo
was thrice accused of treason by the British Administration but was acquitted each time
for lack of evidence. He served jail for a year as an under trial prisoner in 1908-09.

In the Alipur jail, he studied Hindu scriptures Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads. He engaged himself in intensive spiritual work. The Divine blessed him with a vision of the Supreme Reality. He saw God’s presence all around him. He was a transformed man. Upon release from jail, he gave up all political activity and devoted time to spiritual work.

He went to Pondicherry in 1910. He chose Pondicherry on account of a Divine Command, and also because Pondicherry was French and thus beyond the reach of the British police.

Sri Aurobindo wrote many works including: The Life Divine, Synthesis of Yoga, Essays
on the Gita, Foundations of Indian Culture, The Human Cycle and The Ideal of Human
Unity. He also wrote Savitry, an epic poem of 23,837 lines of blank verse, which is among the
longest poems in the English language. These works embodied much of the inner knowledge that had come to him in the practice of his Yoga.

Sri Aurobindo left his body in 1950 at the age of 78.

The Mother

The Mother was a spiritual coworker of Sri Aurobindo.

The Mother was born in Paris on 21 February 1878 as Mirra Alfassa. Her early education was imparted at home. Later she attended an art school (Academie Julian) in Paris. She became an accomplished painter. She was also a talented pianist.

In her twenties, the Mother traveled to Algeria and studied occultism for a year under a Polish adept, Max Theon. She had powerful spiritual realization at an young age.

In 1914, the Mother sailed to Pondicherry to meet Sri Aurobindo. She stayed in India for nearly a year. She then went to Japan for a period of nearly four years. She returned permanently to Pondicherry in 1920 and became Sri Aurobindo?s collaborator in spiritual work. The number of seekers around Sri Aurobindo and the Mother grew and an Ashram. was founded in 1926. The Mother was in charge of organizing and running the Ashram.

The Mother founded the Sri Aurobindo International Center for Education in 1952, and Auroville, the City of Dawn, in 1968. A number of spiritual centers have sprung up all over the world inspired by the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. In 1973 at the age of 95, the Mother left her body.

Teachings of Sri Aurobindo

Sri Aurobindo teaches that existence is not a fluke. It is not a fortuitous accident. It is not a blind machine that somehow got started without purpose, meaning or goal. It is not an illusion or ‘Maya.’ It is not a dream with no substance or reality. Existence is the work of a Mighty Hand. It carries in itself the Word of God. Sri Aurobindo writes in Savitry,

This world was not built with random bricks of chance
A blind god is not destiny’s architect;
A conscious power has drawn the plan of life,
There is a meaning in each curve and line.

In the Life Divine, he writes,

The world is a movement of God in His own being. . .The world is His play
with His own self-conscious delight. . . We are His playmates. The
world is a formula, a rhythm, a symbol-system expressing God to Himself in
His own consciousness. . . Let us lead forward God’s movement, play out
His play, work out His formula, execute His harmony, express Him through
ourselves in His system. This is our joy and our self-fulfillment.

Existence is not a finished product. God did not create the world in six days and rested on the seventh. ‘Existence is a Truth of things unfolding by a gradual process of evolution. The Truth of Existence is its Becoming.’

In Sri Aurobindo’s thought, evolution is not the evolution of matter but evolution of consciousness. Evolution is not the development of a more and more organized, efficient system of material life, but evolution of a higher mind. The development of a more organized, more efficient life is only a reflection of the development of the spirit within.

The Spirit exists prior to Matter. If you want to change material life, you have first to change your consciousness. This is in contrast to Karl Marx. Marx describes the relation between material conditions of life and their ideas by saying that “it is not the consciousness of men which determines their existence, but on the contrary, it is their social existence which determines their consciousness.” This Marxian theory is called the “material interpretation of history”. Even though Karl Marx is now discredited, his theories continue to be popular in materialistic cultures of today. Sri Aurobindo is not a materialist in the above sense. In his view, Matter springs forth from Spirit.

This erring race of human beings dreams always of perfecting their
environment by the machinery of government and society; but it is only
by the perfection of the soul within that the outer environment can be
perfected. What thou art within, that outside thee thou shalt enjoy; no
machinery can rescue thee from the law of thy being.

The conditions under which men live upon earth are the result of their state
of consciousness. To seek to change the conditions without changing the
consciousness is a vain chimera; for no human organization can change
radically unless human consciousness itself changes.

A perfected human world cannot be created by men or composed of men
who are themselves imperfect.

Sri Aurobindo’s conception of God is borrowed from the ancient Hindu scriptures. God is a single undivided Divine Power that permeates the universe (Tad Ekam). God is One but he expresses Himself multitudinously. The Divine Power assumes three poises: God transcendent (i.e. beyond), God in the cosmos, and God within.

God transcendent is called Brahaman.
God in the cosmos is called Ishvara.
God wihin is called Atman.

The ancient Rishis (seers) declared that one’s Inward Truth is the same as the Universal Truth: Tat Tvam Asi, Thou Art That. Atman is Brahaman.

Although Absolute God is unknowable, the best that can be said is that He is Sacchidananda: Absolute Truth, Absolute Consciousness, Absolute Bliss.

Sri Aurobindo once described God as:

“An eternal child playing an eternal game in an eternal garden.”

Compare this notion of God with the Judaic-Christian conception of a vindictive, jealous,
and wrathful God.

Man is a transitional being. He has a middle ranking: above the animals and below the gods. Man is a little lower than the angels. On earth, he represents the pinnacle of evolution, but he is not a finished product. He is destined to grow into a “Superman,” as the seed is destined to grow into a mighty tree. Man is not born in sin, but in ignorance. He is a spiritual being having a human experience.

The word “man” in the English language is related to “manual,” meaning his ability to work with hands and with tools. In Sanskrit language, the word used for man is “manush” which is related to “manas,” to think. Man is also called “Purusha”, a witness soul. These Sanskrit terms for Man depict man’s grandeur.

For what do we mean by Man? An uncreated and indestructible soul that has housed
itself in a mind and body.

The Goal of Life
The goal of life is not to escape from life into Nirvana–a void. Nor is it to seek a Heaven in afterlife. It is to fulfil life here on earth. Life will be fulfilled when we live in God, when man’s will is united with God’s will, and when we become instruments of God’s design and purpose. Such a life is Life Divine.

The lines from Savitri proclaim,

All is not finished in the unseen decree;
A Mind beyond our mind demands our ken,
A life of unimagined harmony
Awaits, concealed, the grasp of unborn men.

The crude beginnings of the lifeless earth,
The mindless stirrings of the plant and tree
Prepared our thought; thought for a godlike birth
Broadens the mould of our mortality.

A might no human will nor force can gain,
A knowledge seated in eternity,
A bliss beyond our struggle and our pain
Are the high pinnacles of our destiny.

O Thou who climbest to mind from the dull stone,
Face now the miracled summits still unwon.

Spirituality is not high intellectualism, nor idealism, nor an ethical turn of mind. It is not morality, or austerity or religiosity, nor exalted emotional fervor, nor a correct belief or faith. Nor is it regulation of life according to some ethical formula or religious code. These things are of value as preparatory movements.

Spirituality is in its essence an awakening to the inner reality of our being, to a
spirit, self, soul which is other than our mind, life and body, an inner aspiration to
know, to feel, to be that, to enter into contact with the greater Reality beyond and
pervading the universe which inhabits also our own being, to be in communion
with It and union with It, and a turning, a conversion, a transformation of our
whole being as a result of the aspiration, the contact, the union, a growth or waking
into a new becoming or new being, a new self, a new nature.

Sri Aurobindo is a Universal Man. He was born in India, educated in England and he perfected hisYoga in French Pondicherry. He was the finest product of the amalgamation of the East and the West. He may be called the Sage of the New Age. His fame is only beginning to spread.

It is interesting to note that he chose India for his field of action. The Mother once observed,

“All the terrestrial difficulties are concentrated in India. It will be in India that the solution will be found.”

I will conclude my remarks with a reading from Savitri, the chapter titled “The Secret Knowledge”:

The Absolute, the Perfect, the Alone
Has entered with his silence into space:
He has fashioned these countless persons of one self;
He has built a million figures of his power;
He lives in all, who lived in his Vast alone;
Space is himself and Time is only he.

The Absolute, the Perfect, the Immune,
One who is in us as our secret self,
Our mask of imperfection has assumed,
He has made this tenement of flesh his own,
His image in the human measure cast

That to his divine measure we might rise;
Then in a figure of divinity.

The maker shall recast us and impose
A plan of godhead on the mortal’s mould
Lifting our finite minds to his infinite,
Touching the moment with eternity.

This transfiguration is earth’s due to heaven:
A mutual debt binds man to the Supreme:
His nature we must put on as he put ours;
We are sons of God and must be even as he:
His human portion, we must grow divine.

Our life is a paradox with God for key.