The prison of Nirvana

Published: April 26, 2010 - 12:27 Updated: May 6, 2010 - 17:42

 Vipassana meditation camps in Tihar jail have tangibly transformed lives and minds: from anger to tolerance, violence to ahimsa, hatred to love. Hardnews interviewed five 'hardcore' accused in jail, who seem to have come a long way from condemnation to inner peace
Shaweta Anand 

In a heart-to-heart conversation with five prison inmates - two murder convicts, one rapist and two undertrails - in Tihar's Jail No. 4 in Delhi, what struck me most was that there was not one moment during our intense, three-hour session that I felt uncomfortable in their presence. Despite bearing the tag of 'hardcore criminals', they came across as ordinary, peace-loving people, almost fated by destiny as much as their own actions. What followed, as they shared bananas with this reporter, are intensely complex and tragic accounts of their private histories, their prison-life and their unexpected tryst with 'Vipassana'.

Sanjeev Kumar, 39, an MBA, was a well-to-do professional with a multinational company, before his wife committed suicide, leaving behind two infant children. "I was traumatised at the loss of my wife, losing custody of my children and my career, all in a single twist of fate. I was later charged with abetment to suicide," said Kumar, in fluent English, his eyes unable to hide the emotions within. "I had lost my mental equilibrium and that was the peak of negativity and trauma for me. "But after Buddha's method of Vipassana came into my life in Tihar, I realised that I'm on a path of healing and self-discovery, which has shown to me the highest feelings of positivity too. All this is not a sudden change but comes from a process that continues as we practice more." 

Kumar offers voluntary service at the 10-day Vipassana camps held twice every month within the jail premises at a special centre called Dhamma Tihar. Elaborating on the meaning of  Vipassana, he said, "It's a method of silent introspection within, after practicing which one doesn't need 'a second opinion' on the ups and downs in life from anyone else. One becomes truly self-sufficient. I haven't seen my children for two years but I'm able to deal with that peacefully and hold no grudges against my in-laws for putting me through all this. In fact, I am able to trust them with my own children. I could reach this level only after having gone through Vipassana and I feel lucky to have made it here."

Emphasising the need for such a healing facility inside the jail itself, assistant superintendent and Vipassana practitioner Rajinder Kumar said, "Prison environment has high levels of negativity - anxiety, misery, suffering - feelings surrounding the kind of people who live here for years. So inmates pass on this negativity to jail officials, who pass it back to them. It's a vicious circle of violence. Therefore, the need for Vipassana to arrest violence at the level of thoughts before it turns into action." Kumar suggested Vipassana to Kiran Bedi, former inspector general of prisons, in 1993, as part of prison reforms. Since then, it has become a regular feature. 

Thirty-year-old murder convict Brij Kishore was earlier on death penalty that later got reduced to life sentence. "Being a sadhak (Vipassana practitioner), my meditation practice was strong and regular by the time I got produced in court. So when the judge announced death penalty for me, instead of getting angry, I found myself watching my emotions in a detached way and ended up giving the judge mangal maitri (goodwill and compassion) since I knew Vipassana. Although once, my old thought pattern did strike back and I thought of killing the judge too, since I had already killed one person. But I was able to deal with those negative feelings right there and then," Kishore expressed himself in a candid confession.

"Whatever seed one sows today, the future will bear the same kind of fruits. So I believe that no judge has the power to decide what will happen to me in the future despite all his authority, only my own good and bad doings will." Kishore, though at the peak of his youth, spoke like a wise old man, always wearing a smile on his face. He also serves at Dhamma Tihar while going through life sentence patiently, with a sense of purpose. "I have been out on parole twice but it's such a miserable world out there that I yearn to come back to jail, as soon as possible," he said, cryptically.

"We want to provide a platform to all the prisoners so that they can change from inside. If they go out without getting reformed in the real sense, how will we ensure a reduction in crime rates?" said a senior officer in Jail No. 4. "With time," he said, "all the regular practitioners have shown a decrease in levels of aggression and revenge on the one hand and increase in positivity and sewa bhav (desire to serve) on the other." 

This observation has been seconded by a scientific study (1995) on psychological effects of Vipassana done by Dr Kishore Chandiramani, psychiatry teacher at AIIMS, SK Verma, clinical psychology teacher at the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research, (PGIMR), Chandigarh, and Prof PL Dhar, department of mechanical engineering, IIT, Delhi. The study found that Vipassana practitioners in Tihar showed "...significant improvement in functioning on most psychological parameters studied. There is a considerable reduction in feelings of hostility and helplessness while the sense of hope and well-being gets enhanced." 

Another study (2002) by Prof Amulya Khurana from the department of humanities and social sciences, IIT, and Dhar showed that practicing Vipassana reduced criminal propensity among Tihar inmates compared to those who are not practicing it.

A young lyricist and composer, Chiranjeevi Singh, is still under trial and is spending his days in jail for allegedly causing death of his wife and demanding dowry. "I belong to a very respectable family back home and all of us were wrongly dragged into this mess because my wife committed suicide. I loved her and there is no reason that I could have led her to kill herself. I used to pity myself, sob uncontrollably, skip meals and was generally depressed. I couldn't handle the fact that my parents and siblings, who used to live miles away from us, were also made a part of this misfortune."

When I did a course of Vipassana in the prison, I realised that that was the experience I was looking for all my life "in the outside world". "Meri janmon ki pyaas yahan aakar bujhi." (My thirst of many lifetimes got quenched here). In that sense, I feel lucky to have made it because, otherwise, I wouldn't have known this path at all. This is because earlier all spirituality seemed like a big fraud to me. I used to curse my fate earlier, but now I am healthy, happy and have even put on weight. I give lots of mangal maitri to my wife for leading me to this path, even though she is no more." 

"I owe it to her," he said softly, his voice choked.

 The next insightful encounter was with a 60-year-old journalist. Sumit Sen used to write for established Bengali publications like Ananda Mela, Desh, Suktara etc, before he was arrested. Besides being a prolific writer, Sen also had a side-business. According to him, a female client refused to pay his dues and got him imprisoned, and finally convicted, on charges of rape. "I was anguished at the way my life had shaped. But now, I am not sad because I discovered Vipassana here. I was carrying deep sorrows like the pain of the loss of my mother that I couldn't deal with even years after her death. But after coming to jail and participating in Vipassana, I got rid of that major depression, among other things. The moment I get out, which should be soon, I will make my little grandchildren do the 'Anapana' course," he said, smiling. (Anapana is the first step of Vipassana, which is given to children from 8-18 years in a 2-3 days format. The 10-day residential course is only for adults).

A study on reforming through silence in the context of in prisons by a team of scholars led by Dr Namita Ranganathan, department of education, Delhi University, concluded in 2007 that of all the benefits of Vipassana the inmates' experience, the major ones concern peace of mind, anger control, dealing with evil thoughts, stress and so on.  This especially collaborates with experiences of the last inmate who spoke to Hardnews.

Mahavir is a murder convict facing life penalty, who meditates regularly and volunteers cheerfully to serve at Dhamma Tihar. "I was a modest businessman but a feud ensued between some business parties that led to murder. Extreme anger has always been my problem. Even after conviction, I used to be sent to kasuri ward (sinner's ward) because I used to pick up fights with everyone, including with the jail administration. That ward is a small room in which troublesome inmates are kept locked for 23 hours and let out only for one hour as punishment. But after Vipassana camps, I hardly get angry; everyone can see the difference and they keep complimenting me." 

By some quirk of fate, those who were involved in the conflict with Mahavir, landed in jail too, for some other petty offence. "No matter how much they wanted to provoke me or pick up a fight, I kept giving them mangal maitri and slowly, we became friends," he said.
My final question to him was about God and this is, by far, the best answer I have ever heard: "God is anyone who is able to work on his mind (patterns) and improve it not only for his own good but also for that of the society." 
(Some names have been changed to protect identity.)

Vipassana meditation camps in Tihar jail have tangibly transformed lives and minds: from anger to tolerance, violence to ahimsa, hatred to love. Hardnews interviewed five ‘hardcore’ accused in jail, who seem to have come a long way from condemnation to inner peace
Shaweta Anand

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