Posted by: lrrp | September 17, 2000

Nirvana Behind Bars

Three years ago Bhupinder Singh, a burly 23-year-old man, was sent to Tihar Jail on the outskirts of New Delhi. He’d been charged with murder. When Singh arrived at Tihar, say prison officials, he was angry and violent. Then, in 1999, he joined a meditation program inside the prison. “Today you can’t recognize Bhupinder,” says Sunil Gupta, a jail superintendent. “He is not only gentle but helpful to others.”

With 11,000 inmates, Tihar is not only India’s largest jail, but also one of its most dangerous. The prison is home to hardened criminals who engage in drug peddling, sexual abuse and gang violence. But lately Tihar has undergone a startling transformation. Thanks to a spirited police officer named Kiran Bedi–who ran Tihar in the mid-1990s and introduced Vipassana meditation techniques to the prisoners–the place has mellowed out. Once dangerous convicts now preach peace, love and understanding. Hundreds of inmates meditate daily–and claim to be changed men. Their violent instincts have been supplanted by an almost spiritual serenity. Rather than fight, many prisoners grow flowers inside Tihar. “Meditation techniques help calm the agitated minds of prisoners,” says V. P. Garg, another Tihar official, “and change their way of looking at things.”

Praveen Chawla, a 28-year-old serving a life term for raping his former girlfriend, typifies Tihar’s new breed. He says he was disturbed when he was first tossed into the prison, feeling he was wrongly convicted. But he took a series of meditation courses, and now says: “I have no quarrels with myself or with anybody.” In fact, he’s become a meditation instructor. “I know you can find peace and a deeper sense of freedom within the confines of this jail. I’d never thought that meditation could be so liberating.”

Among the four different types of meditation offered by trained volunteers inside Tihar, Vipassana is the most demanding. Vipassana, which literally means to see things as they really are, is one of the most ancient Indian meditation techniques. The meditator is trained to observe the close interconnection between thoughts and bodily sensations. Tihar’s prisoners initially take 10-day courses, during which time they practice self-control by abstaining from speaking, sexual activity and intoxicants. They sit in a quiet room for prolonged periods each day, fixing their attention on their breathing. By the fourth day the participants learn not to react to their emotional or physical urges. Out of such discipline, say Vipassana exponents, comes equanimity.

The Indian government is impressed by the results at Tihar–and has asked all the prisons in the country to introduce meditation. Tihar officials admit that the idea doesn’t always work; some prisoners quickly drop out of the meditation courses, unable to withstand the rigors. But those who persist are thankful. “Now,” says Singh, “when I hear my bail application has again been postponed by the courts, I don’t get agitated.” In fact, he feels “fortunate” to spend more time in jail, where he can continue his journey of self-awareness.

(Newsweek Magazine)

Nirvana – behind bars

The International Newsweek magazine of September 18, 2000 carried the above captioned story authored by Sudip Mazumdar, in relation to a successful experimentation programme of meditation conducted at the Tihar Jail, a major prison house in India. According to Mazumdar some of the hardened convicts who participated in regular meditation exercises conducted by acknowledged meditation masters, had shown a marked improvement and reformed demeanour in their physical and mental behavioural patterns much to the appreciation of their officials.

In advanced countries, prisons are generally known as Penitentiaries where the prisoners are treated in such a manner as to turn them out to be tractable human beings. In contrast, the space scope and trained staff availability in our prisons leave much to be desired.

However, the innovative and much thought out meditation exercises introduced in the aforesaid Indian prisons house deserve approbation as exemplary reformative methods. Mazumdar has dealt with the steps taken to formulate a regular series of meditation commencing with its elementary stages to advanced Vipassana meditation forms. He has quoted examples of some of the criminally minded convicts who had by regular and committed meditation exercises, reformed themselves to be normal human beings sans violence and vindictiveness. Of course, those who had not wilfully cultivated the meditation practices could not achieve the desired result.

Our own prison welfare authorities too could emulate the good example set by the Indian authorities to conscientiously carry out such meditation programmes at least in the major prison house and hope for the best in their endeavours.

The term used to identify the Newsweek story as Nirvana is a misnomer. Regeneration of peaceful conduct behind bars or some such suitable epithet could have been used to name the story. By Nirvana, what scholars specify is a lofty state of total emancipation from all mental and physical defilements of the human entity where pristine purity of existence is envisaged or as some others believe, it could be a state of non existence of the generally known physical qualities.

Nirvana cannot be achieved behind bars in restricted cells without freedom for in-depth religious realization. What has been achieved in this context is the palpable softening of an earlier violent conduct and the regeneration of some of the prison inmates by means of limited meditation practices.

R.M.A.B. Dassanayake


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