first course of Vipassana conducted by Goenkaji in a prison was in I975 at the
Central Jail Rajasthan. When I was the Home Secretary of that state, I had myself
undertaken a Vipassana course, and experienced a profound change in myself. On the
fourth day of my course, I felt that Vipassana was a technique which could solve
not only individual problems but also problems of society, and could bring reform in
government as well. On the evening of the fourth day I met Goenkaji and shared my
reflections with him. I asked him whether this technique could be a tool to change the
system in government. He agreed, and I immediately asked whether we could arrange to hold
a course in a jail. He was very positive and told me he would come if I arranged it. This
was a big challenge!
I set about talking to the authorities
concerned-the Chief Minister, the Chief Secretary, the jail officials. Initially everybody
was very skeptical, but finally a decision was taken to make an experiment!
The real difficulty came when Goenkaji
arrived in Jaipur for the course. I had to tell him that it would not be possible for him
to stay in the jail; he was to stay in a beautiful bungalow outside the jail instead. He
said he had to stay inside the jail twenty-four hours a day, because Vipassana is a
deep operation, and he is like the surgeon. The difficulty was the jail manual. Only those
who had been sentenced to imprisonment or those under trial or members of the jail staff
could stay in the jail. I posed the problem to Goenkaji and he said, "Sentence
me!" I was aghast, shocked; how could my Teacher be sentenced to imprisonment? The
legal department was consulted and it seemed there was no solution. We issued
administrative instructions and resolved the problem.
Goenkaji was allowed to stay in the jail, in
a makeshift room in the jail dispensary. Another problem came when the course was just
about to start. At that time ankle locks and handcuffs were used for hardened criminals.
Four such prisoners were brought into the meditation hall bound in these iron handcuffs
and ankle locks. Goenkaji was walking nearby and when he saw this, he was amazed. He asked
me what was going on. I told him these were hardened criminals. He exclaimed, "How
can people in chains be put before me? This cannot happen. Remove the chains!"
But the Inspector General of Prisons (IG)
said that the security in the jail was his responsibility, and he could not remove the
ankle chains or the handcuffs. However, Goenkaji was firm. He said he could not give Dhamma
with people sitting before him in chains-he had come to remove the chains. The IG told him
he could remove the chains from within, but not the outside chains! Goenkaji insisted that
those who were meditating must not be in chains. This was a big dilemma, a big problem!
The IG was a very experienced officer. He
asked me not to force him to relax security requirements for those prisoners. He said any
one of them might try to be a hero, and strangle me or Goenkaji to death in a split
second. We discussed the problem and finally came to an agreement to remove the chains and
fetters. An armed guard would be kept ready at a strategic point to shoot the criminal if
he started to advance menacingly. I told the IG to ensure that any mishap or panic
shooting did not take place.
The chains and locks were removed. Goenkaji
was pleased. The course started. I sat close by. The IG stayed out of the hall but
remained very close. My eyes were fixed on the "Four", heart throbbing and deep
anxiety within! But every passing moment was a relief unbounded. As Goenkaji started
chanting, his loving kindness (mettaa) was flowing profusely. The red-hot eyes of
the criminals who were the cause of so much turmoil changed and their faces beamed; tears
streamed down their cheeks. Tears rolled down my face also; it was a rare moment filled
with joy after such high tension. The efficacy of Vipassana was established!
Goenkaji's narration of Angulimala's story flashed in my mind.
There was another event which was deeply
moving. There were two condemned prisoners awaiting execution of the death sentence. They
couldn't be accepted in the course. During his morning round, Goenkaji passed through
their cells and decided that they could be given Anapana and Vipassana in
the cells by loudspeaker from the hall and we agreed. They started meditation, made great
progress, and felt happy. They listened to the discourses in the cells, as did many
others. We had arranged the relay of the discourses throughout the entire jail campus.
After the course was over, one of the
condemned prisoners sent me a message that he had decided to withdraw his mercy petition
to the President of India. He was ready to die. He now had Dhamma and felt totally
fearless of his impending death! In the meantime his petition had been rejected, and the
day of execution by hanging had been fixed. I was invited to witness the sad event. The
prisoner came out of the cell smiling and in high spirits. He thanked the jail staff and
went to the gallows with a cheerfulness never witnessed before.
In 1976 a course was held in the Police
Academy at Jaipur for the police officials, where personnel right from the deputy IG to
the constables sat. We had a second course in the Jaipur Central Jail in 1977. These were
very successful courses. Then I was transferred to another post. My successor in the
office felt that meditation courses might dilute the deterrent impact of punishment, so
the programme did not continue. I had a great longing that Vipassana would come
there again. I asked Goenkaji about it, and he said that the seed of Vipassana had
been planted and it would sprout again some day. Every year I would go and talk to him,
expressing regret that this valuable experience was not being repeated. Goenkaji told me
not to worry, the time would come.
The time did come. The seed sprouted, and
sprouted so well. In 1990 another course was arranged in the Jaipur Central Jail. My
colleague Mr. Tandon conducted that course. It went very smoothly and a big transformation
took place. I was very happy. Then the Gujarat Government was approached, but they had a
lot of misgivings. I was told by the Home Department of Gujarat that if I conducted the
course they would not have any objection. I welcomed the offer. We had the first course in
a Gujarat jail in I99I, at the famous Sabarmati Jail, Ahmedabad. Then the courses started
in Central Jail, Baroda. Dr. B.G. SavIa led the first course. To date there have been five
courses. The Superintendent of Baroda Jail, Mr. R. Vora, has written a book in Gujarati
about these courses, entitled "Diwalon Mein Diwyat" (Divinity Within
Walls). It is an inspiring story. Baroda Jail is now a house of reforms.
Then came the courses at Tihar Jail, in the
capital city of India, New Delhi. With eight to nine thousand prisoners, Tihar is one of
the largest jails in the world and, until recently, one of the most infamous. Bringing Vipassana
to Tihar was also a difficult journey. I will begin with a brief mention about the first
course, which was held in late November 1993.
In July 1993 Mr. M.L. Melita, Additional
Secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, wrote to me asking if I
could organize a Vipassana course in the Central Jail, Tihar. He knew about the
benefits of the Rajasthan experiment in the central Jail, Jaipur. Soon an urgent telephone
message came from Ms. Kiran Bedi, Inspector General Prison, Tihar Jail, urging me to
arrange the course. It took some time to make preparations, such as training of jail
staff, selection of the Ward and course venue, precourse orientation etc., for which we
made a few visits to Tihar jail and met Ms. Bedi and her team of dedicated officers and
I was amazed at the enthusiasm and team work
at Tiliar under the dynamic leadership of Kiran Bedi. She accorded a high priority to
reform measures such as a sustained literacy drive, vocational training, a de-addiction
programme, yoga and all those steps that could lead to the alleviation of suffering. Later
when Goenkaji led a Vipassana course in Tihar in April, he publicly mentioned that he
would like to call her "Karuna" Bedi, for her deep compassion. Once I mentioned
that she has kindled the light "Kiran" in the darkness of jail. She blushed.
So the hour struck for the first Vipassana
course in Ward I0 of Jail 2. The ward housed convicts of serious crimes and a few high
security persons awaiting trials and court hearings. Ninety-six inmates were selected,
most of them convicts, and also twenty-three jail officials of different ranks.
When my two colleagues, Professor Dhar and
Mr. Chaddha, and I arrived for the course, we found that Kiran Bedi had given a directive
that we should have a good room and good food. But she also said that special food would
not be given to the course participants because there were about 9,000 prisoners in the
jail, and if she gave milk and fruit and such things to only some of them, there would be
a big revolt.
Now, what was the prison food? In the morning
there was a parotha or bread pakoda; for lunch, there was roti (flat
bread) and dal, or roti and subji (vegetables); in the evening there
was khichri (mixed rice/dal), a little milk, and sometimes kheer (rice
pudding). Evening khichri was a real treat, but the food was very tough-chillies, pakoras
and dark tea.
When I found that we were to live in a good
room and take good food while the prisoners were deprived of this, I felt that this could
not be. So we decided that we would live as the prisoners live. We would not stay in the
special room, and we would eat the same food as the prisoners.
The course started. The first night was a
very difficult night for me and for my colleagues. The cell in Tihar Jail is a unique
structure with two rooms. The first room, with an outside verandah, is open to the
sky, with bars across the top and high walls to prevent escape. The inside room has three
compartments: space for a bed-a raised platform of stone or concrete about 3 ft by 6 ft,
an open water pool for bathing and washing clothes, and a toilet, all close together. It
was winter, which in Northern India is very cold. For reasons of hygiene and health, I
advised my colleagues to stay in the outside room because the inner room was close to the
toilet, and there was a pool of water.
I discovered in the early morning that they
had gone to the inner room due to the severe cold. But I remained in the outer room which
was open to the sky. The ceiling bars had been covered with blankets, but around eleven
o'clock a shrill and icy wind swiftly blew the blankets away. I was shivering, badly
shivering, even though the jail authorities had provided sufficient new blankets an
I had my own blanket. It was a very difficult
night, and then in the morning came the jail breakfast! I have stomach problems and at my
home I am very fussy about food, having boiled vegetables and no chillies, etc. But those
ten days I took the prison food, and I can say that nothing happened-no constipation, no
burning in the stomach. As the days passed, each one of us felt that we had never eaten
such delicious food! In fact, when I returned to my home, I asked my wife to cook the dal
I ate in jail! The cook who prepared the food was a convicted prisoner but he was very
kind and compassionate. We all felt convinced that his good volition added to the taste.
The Jail "lunger" where food is
prepared is an institution in itself. It is very neat, clean, efficiently run and managed
by the convicts, an ideal community kitchen.
On the second day I discovered to my great
distress that out of one hundred and nineteen students, about thirty were smoking, and
many were talking. They broke the rules of silence and sila [precepts] with
impunity. I was alarmed, and called a meeting with them to ask why they were doing this.
They said I couldn't stop them from smoking. They also said they would talk, whether there
was a course or not.
My colleagues and I discussed what we should
do in these circumstances. We called another meeting with the inmates, who argued that
they had been told that smoking or talking was not permitted in the "shivir"
(which they interpreted as the Dhamma hall) and was therefore allowed in their
rooms, which they called "chakkies." [This term refers to the grinding
stone used for the arduous work of grinding corn, a reminder of enforced hard labour in
prisons.] We were very firm and said we would not compromise on this; if they did not
observe this sila, they would not be allowed to continue in the course.
As a result of this discussion some agreed to
abide by the rules, but still there were others who were very adamant. We decided to
separate those who were unwilling to follow the discipline. I told them they would be
segregated; they could attend the discourse, but not the rest of the course. The next
morning, some of them came and said that we had made them outcasts! They wanted to join
those who were meditating and I made them promise not to smoke or talk. I implored them
not to betray us. The course proceeded and they kept their promise. Many threw away their bidis
[cigarettes], and one person who had smack (heroin) also threw that away. Seeing all this
was a wonderful experience and made us very happy. Man could fall to any depth but he
could rise to any height also.
On the sixth day, another volcano erupted.
There was one hardened criminal on the course. Even the jail staff feared him. After the
evening discourse, he said to a jail official, "What kind of meditation is this?
Observe the breath, observe the breath. This is not meditation." He continued:
"In the discourses, the Teacher is critical of our beliefs and tradition. I'll break
this TV set, and teach a lesson to these teachers! They will run away from here!" The
jail official came running to me and said that the situation was very bad, and asked me
what to do. I became a little anxious, but I was confident. I said that nothing would
happen and he should not worry.
During the night, something else happened:
loud shouting started coming from the cells. Some prisoners were chanting: "Jay sia
Ram, Jay sia Ram, Jay sia Rarn." I called the ward-in-charge. He said this was an
alarm signal and anything might happen. He said our lives might be in danger, because
these fellows could do anything. He advised us to remain in our cells and offered to lock
them, then escort us to the Dhamma hall when necessary. I said that he should not worry
and that we would face the situation. I told him not to report this matter to the
Superintendent or the IG.
At about midnight, after much deliberation,
Professor Dhar and I decided that in the morning we would go together to meet the man who
was threatening us. But I thought, Professor Dhar is a young man with family
responsibilities, and I am an old man-so I should go first.
So while Professor Dhar was taking his bath,
I went to the cell of the hostile convict. He stared at me, and I looked at him. He looked
down; I also looked down. Again he stared at me, and I looked at him. Then he said,
"Why have you come? What do you want?" I said, "I have just come to see
you, to see how you live and what you do." Then he said, "Be free of care! I
will protect this jail and we will act according to your instructions. We will not smoke.
If anybody smokes, I will take care of him. So be assured, nothing will happen. And don't
depend on these jail officials. They will not protect you. We will protect you."
After hearing these words, I felt deeply
relieved. I made a round of the wards, then Professor Dhar came running! After assuring
him that everything was fine, we together made two more rounds and talked to the
prisoners. Most of them were calm-no anger, hatred or disappointment.
A big change came in the whole environment. I
and my two colleagues felt we were working with familiar people. They were good human
beings! They worked sincerely and worked hard. Many inmates were suffering acutely and
felt full of revenge. Some said they had previously decided to kill those people who were
responsible for sending them to jail. But when they finished the course, they said,
"Now we have no hatred against those who implicated us. We are so grateful to have
had this opportunity. If we had not come to jail, we never would have had this experience.
When we are released from this jail, we will be messengers of Vipassana." I
found that about twenty to twenty five of the inmates reached a very subtle stage of
meditation. We could discern a deep calm within them, glow and hope on their faces. Real
change took place.
On metta day [the tenth day when
silence is broken], arrangements were made for some press people and Doordarshan
[national TV] to come. The IG and some officers from the Home Ministry also came,
including Mr. Mehta. Students-both inmates and jail staff-shared their experiences. These
were very inspiring expressions from people who had undergone a deep transformation.
On the morning of the eleventh day, Kiran
Bedi asked the prisoners if they had any request. They asked her not to let us leave, as
they wanted more courses for their colleagues. Many said that they wanted to sit the next
course. The IG asked us for a response to their request. I said it was not possible as no
assistant teachers were available and so much planning is always needed. She insisted that
we give our assurance to the prisoners! So I told the prisoners that we would arrange more
courses. They said, "No, we will not let you go!" After much discussion I said
that very soon we would have four simultaneous courses. I was confident that Goenkaji
would agree and send experienced teachers there, which he did. Our departure from Jail No.
2 and it's grateful inmates was tearful and moving.
The next four courses were from January 1 to
12, 1994, held in Jails No.A, No. 3 and No 4, for a total of about three hundred students.
So, we fulfilled our promise to have more courses soon, and the courses went smoothly.
Separate arrangements were made for the assistant teachers' stay and the jail menu was
greatly improved for all.
However, Kiran Bedi would not rest; with
9,000 people in the jail, she said we had to proceed faster for change to come. She argued
that she might be sent to another post! She wanted all in Tihar to learn Vipassana. I said
politely that we could not go faster. She asked us to make it possible! She wanted a
course for at least 1,000 people. Then I recalled Sayagyi U Ba Khin's prediction that one
day Goenkaji would teach Dhamma to 1,000 people. I thought the time had come.
Goenkaji agreed. The historic course for
1,004 male prisoners was held at Tihar Jail No. 4 from April 4 to 15, 1994. Goenkaji and
Mataffi conducted the course, assisted by 15 male assistant teachers. Two female
assistants conducted a simultaneous separate course for forty-nine women in Jail No. I.
This may well have been the largest Vipassana
course ever held in the world. The congregation of over one thousand prisoners under a
shamiana [a large tent] was unique and implied serious security risks as well. The
participants came from all the four jails of the prison complex: under-trials and convicts
involved in major crimes including terrorist activities. They came from different
backgrounds and religious groups, and there were also some foreigners. No coercive vigil
was kept in or around the shamiana.
The course started smoothly and the group
responded well to the training given to the Master Teacher himself. They were, indeed, a
privileged group. As the training progressed, they felt deeply relaxed, their tension and
anguish greatly mitigated. On the metta day we witnessed an overwhelming expression
of joy and gratitude by the participants. Most of them felt assured that through the
practice of Vipassana, they could emerge from the life of crime and lead a happy
life. Some said that on release from jail they would dedicate their lives to the
propagation of Vipassana and the redemption of society from crime and terrorism.
On day eleven, a permanent Vipassana
centre was inaugurated in Jail No. 4 by Goenkaji, in the presence of the IG, jail
officials, the prisoners who took the course, and guests from the international press and
the governments of India, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Two courses will be held at the
new centre every month. A one-day course for old students will be held on the eleventh day
of each course. Goenkaji named the new centre "Dhamma Tihar." The historic
course was a profoundly rewarding experience.
There are now about thirty jail officials who
have learnt Vipassana. They will be a great source of support and assistance. Also, some
of the inmates who were students in the first course served as Dhamma workers in
the next courses. My colleagues' comments were that these prisoners were the best Dhamma
workers they had ever had. They had done only one course; moreover, they were persons
condemned by society who had committed murders and other serious crimes. Through Vipassana,
they had become gentle, calm, kind and compassionate. They served so well. It was a
pleasure to see them working so wholeheartedly and with so much devotion.
This is a brief historical review of how Vipassana
came to jails. I wish to make one more comment about prisons in the larger context. The
system of incarcerating people started in antiquity, long, long back-we can't say when
exactly. Very unfortunately, all societies, ancient and modem, have committed human
degradation in prisons.
Times are changing. There is a new trend in
India and many parts of the world, with the realization that the role of prisons is not to
inflict punishment but instead to confine the wrong-doer to prevent further mischief and
to reform him. More and more, prisons are being viewed as institutions of reform and
rehabilitation rather than places of humiliation and punishment.
Following the success of courses at Tihar in
January, the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, called a meeting of the
Inspectors General of Prisons from all over India, and a proposal was adopted to introduce
Vipassana as a reform measure in all the prisons in India.
This is a very significant development. The
initiative Mr. M.L. Mehta took in getting Vipassana to Tihar Jail and the success
of the experiment heralds a new era of reform and rehabilitation for those who fall to
crime. Vipassana provides an effective way to liberate them, not only from the life
of crime but also from all suffering and misery. I am confident that the inmates not only
of jails in India, but of all jails in the world, will get the benefit of Vipassana.
Special thanks to
Phramaha Witoon Thacha for retyping this article.