Vipassana Path To Perennial Peace
Om Parkash Prabhu (28), a social worker who also runs a travel agency in Mumbai, was stuck up in a dark tunnel with no light in sight. His stress level had shot up enormously. He would often get headaches and chest pain and had not slept for several months. But tests in three reputed hospitals of Mumbai and Pune found nothing wrong in his system. Prabhu, the only son of an agrarian couple from Sindhudurg, felt he would die a slow death. It was then that a friend of his, Radheshyam, a documentary film maker, told him about Vipassana meditation. The latter had just returned from Leh after doing a ten-day Vipassana course. Prabhu hardly had an option. He had already tried the various streams of medicine and yoga. In November last year he attended a ten-day course Vipassana course in Mcleodganj. And the consequences are myriad and nothing but constructive.
“Finally I am enjoying sound sleep. Besides, I feel much more relaxed now,” he says, singing paeans for Vipassana. Prabhu is even learning through meditation to take small setbacks into his stride. “When I was in Mcleodganj, a friend won over a girl I was pursuing back home. But I have no regrets. Let him have the girl, I have Vipassana,” he says, sounding jubilant.
Prabhu is back in Mumbai and itching to recount his experience to all his friends in the megalopolis: “I’ll advise them to go for a course.” Prabhu was one of the 70 youths (total over 80 students) who sat in the course in Mcleodganj. Interestingly, even the dozen 50-plus people were pushed into the course by their young children, in-laws or younger siblings. For instance, Lata Jha, a Vastu specialist from Mumbai, attended the course with her daughter Dipti, an ad filmmaker. Similarly Balbir Parashar, a retired superintendent from Ludhiana Municipal Corporation, was pushed into the course by Vineet, his son-in-law, who has done number of courses and was doing free service during the course at Mcleodganj. Vineet recently returned to India from Afghanistan where he was employed in a private company. “Vineet pushed me into the course. Earlier he also introduced my son to Vipassana,” Parashar, a widower, who recently dislocated his hipbone, said while talking to the writer.
Dhananjay Chavan, secretary to Vipassana teacher SN Goenka, who is credited with reintroducing Vipassana in India, is certain that unlike other meditation techniques where old dominates the scene, Vipassana is the refuge of the young. “Youngsters bring their parents for Vipassana. A number of my friends have done this,” he asserts. Chavan, a qualified psychiatrist, did his first course in 1989 and has since become a full time volunteer.
The trend of young people doing Vipassana started four decades back when Goenka, heir of a business family in Myanmar (then Burma), came to Mumbai to teach meditation to his ailing mother. For seven years, he taught Vipassana to people in community centres or makeshift complexes. Then Vipassana centres started coming up. Today, according to Chavan, there are 150 centres (75 in India and 75 abroad), run by local trusts and at least half of the centres have come up in last seven years. Chavan says out of approximate one million people who have learnt Vipassana in last 33 years over 70 per cent were below 40 years. He counts Vipassana’s ‘non-sectarian’, ‘action-oriented’, ‘scientific’ nature among the factors which make it appealing to the youth. “A healthy person can apply better. Since it is a serious practice involving lot of effort, the young and healthy person is bound to get more out of it,” Chavan asserts.
Interestingly, Vipassana has drawn youth since Gautama, the Buddha, who rediscovered the meditation technique in 6th BC. A German historian HW Schumann says in his book ‘The Historical Buddha: The Times, Life & Teachings of the Founder of Buddhism’ that most of Buddha’s disciples were young. “It was not exactly forbidden but not considered desirable that an aged man should
join the Sangha (monastery),” Schumann claims, “Those who ordained in old age seldom has requisite qualities for a Bhikhu (monk).”
The phenomenon applies as much to Vipassana teachers. An overwhelming majority of the 1,200 Vipassana teachers who conducts courses in India and abroad joined the meditation technique at the age of 20. About one third of the teachers, claims Chavan, are medical doctors and engineers while 30 are psychologists and psychiatrists. PL Dhar, a senior Vipassana teacher and professor of IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) Delhi, credits the meditation technique’s popularity among youth and science community to its problem solving potential. “It is devoid of religiosity, rites and rituals. They (youth and rationalists) find it scientific. The spiritual discourses by gurus like Murari Bapu, on the other hand, have a strong element of religiosity and devotion,” Dhar contends. He started doing Vipassana in 1985 and since then conducted several courses in Tihar jail and other places.
The trend applies to foreigners as well. The Vipassana centre at Mcleodganj attracts a large number of youth from America, United Kingdom and other European countries. So does the centre at Igatpuri. The number has in fact increased in recent times as the west has been rocked by recession, shutdowns and depression. Austin (25-plus) from Boston, who attended the course with Prabhu, lost his job as a waiter before he decided to go for the course. Armando Uribe (25), an architecture student in Mexico, decided to explore spiritualism in India immediately after his final examination. “I did my first course in Mexico. It helps in a big way,” he mumbles, scratching his stubble.
Such is the dominance of youth in courses at Mcleodganj that Aseem Chawla (53), former head of a travel company, feels like a fish out of water there. “I was the oldest person there. Youth is the in thing in Vipassana,” Chawla, who lost his job after a stroke few years back and done two courses from Mcleodganj, chuckles. Chawla did his first course from Mcleodganj last year. And after the second course, this resident of Gurgaon feels he is ready to make a comeback in the travel arena: “I lost everything after the stroke. I did not even remember the foreign languages, I was fluent in. (In fact) Nobody looks at Vipassana till one has a problem.”
Besides the absence of religious dogmas and rituals what adds to Vipassana’s popularity among the youth is that it is taught free of cost. All the centres are run on the basis of voluntary donations paid by old students. At least this is what drew Joshua Montmeny, an American to Vipassana: “I was looking to do a meditation course from India. When I found on Google that Vipassana involves no charges, I instantly decided to go for it.”
Interestingly, the Vipassana centre at Igatpuri near Mumbai seems to have become an attraction for young Hindi film actors too who feel drained out at times. For instance Abhay Deol, the Deol-with-a-difference, rushed to detoxify his system immediately after wrapping up Dev D, Anurag Kashyap’s take on Devdas. Similarly Arbaaz Khan sat for a course around the same time when Mumbai faced an onslaught from terrorists last year. Priyanka Gandhi and former Union Minister of State for Railways Vallabhbhai Kathiria are notable among the politicians who have sat for multiple courses.
But all is not really hunky-dory with Vipassana. There is also a minority of youth – howsoever miniscule it may be which quit the meditation course midway complaining that it is very complicated. “I did not understand anything of the meditation. It all went over my head,” regrets Hitesh, a young manager with a private company on the outskirts of Delhi, who left a 10-day meditation course on day three. During his discourses, Vipassana teacher Goenka frequently cautions students against leaving the course on day three and day eight. There are few others who see promotion of rituals in Vipassana too. “They tell us to abide by a schedule and hold discourses every evening. Isn’t that a ritual?” Pawan Kumar Sharma, a mediator in Delhi, asks.
By Narendra Kaushik