Principal Vipassana Teacher Sayagyi
U Goenka, on the first Vipassana course held within a prison:
In the early years after I came
from Burma to teach Vipassana in India, Mahatma Gandhi's daughter-in-law arranged a course at Sevagram Ashram (in Maharashtra state, western India). About 15 of Gandhiji's colleagues
participated. They were very pleased with the course. After it was over, they
took me to meet Vinobha Bhave, a saintly person of India, who lived nearby.
Vinobha Bhave was quite enthusiastic about
Vipassana and said that if it was beneficial and result-oriented, it must
spread in the country. But he added: "I won't accept this Vipassana unless
it gives good results to two segments of the society: hardened criminals and
school children." I replied: "I am certain it will be helpful. I am a
newcomer to the country; I have brought this valuable jewel of Vipassana from
outside. Now, let us make use of it for the country. Please make the
He arranged a course for teenagers.
As with the many course for children since then, it was sucessful and he was
very happy. Then he arranged for a course to be held in the Gaya Jail (in Bihar, eastern India). But the
day before the course started, the jail officials said that I would have to
stay outside the prison. I said: "This is not possible. Vipassana is a
deep operation of the mind, and I am like the surgeon. I must be there 24 hours a day. Something might happen, and I am responsible. I must stay
inside." They insisted: "According to the prison rules, you cannot
stay inside." I pleaded with them: "Then give me a prison sentence of
ten days!" But they wouldn't agree. Vinobha wanted to make some other
arrangements, but before he was able to do so, he passed away.
Fortunately, a few years later, the
Home Secretary of Rajasthan, Ram Singh, participated in a Vipassana course in Jaipur. Having benefited much , he was very
keen that the country also benefit. He said: "Vipassana must be tried with criminals." He also heard
about the wish of Vinobha Bhave. He organized the first courses in prisons, which were
held in the Jaipur Central Jail. The rules were amended to permit me to stay
inside the prison for the full ten days.
So this is how Vipassana entered the prison system, to benefit society in serving some of its most suffering sections of people.
The first course of Vipassana in an
Indian prison was at the Jaipur Central Jail in
October, 1975. Mr. Ram Singh, a Vipassana teacher, organized that course. He was then the Home
Secretary (a very senior administrative post) in the the government of Rajasthan (a state in northern India). Mr. Ram Singh on that first course in a prison, in Central Jail, Jaipur:
After the issue of the Vipassana teacher staying within the prison was resolved, another big problem came just before the
course was to start. At that time leg irons and handcuffs were used
for hardened criminals. Four such prisoners were brought shackled into the meditation
hall, locked in these fetters. Mr. Goenka was walking nearby and when he saw
this, he was amazed. He asked me what was going on. I told him that these
were very hardened criminals. He exclaimed: "How can people in chains be
put before me to meditate? This cannot happen. Remove the chains!"
But the Inspector General of
Prisons (IG) said that this could not be allowed; the security in the jail was
his responsibility; he could not remove the leg irons or the handcuffs.
However, Mr Goenka was firm. He said he could not teach Dhamma with people
sitting before him in chains. He was giving Dhamma; he had come to remove their chains. The IG told him he could remove the chains from within, but not the
outside chains! Mr. Goenka 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 (as some of them were already undergoing sentences for murder), and strangle Mr.
Goenka or me to death in the snap of a finger. We discussed the problem and
finally came to an agreement to remove the chains and fetters. An armed guard
would be posted at a strategic point to shoot any prisoner who started to
advance menacingly. I told the IG to ensure that no panic shooting took place.
The chains and locks were removed.
Mr. Goenka was pleased. The course started. I sat at the front. The IG stayed
out of the hall but remained close by. My eyes were fixed on that armed guard,
my heart throbbing and deep anxiety within! But with every passing moment came
more relief. As Mr. Goenka began the course, the loving-compassion of metta 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
also rolled down my face; it was a rare moment filled with joy after such high
Message from the Principal Teacher for students before start of their Vipassana course in Tihar Jail, January,
You have all assembled here to
liberate yourselves, free yourselves from all bondages, all miseries. To be
imprisoned in prison like this is a great agony. And to be liberated from
prison is very fortunate. But besides the confinement within these four walls,
there is a greater prison in which all of us suffer so much. This is the prison
of our own negativities, our own mental defilements, which keep overpowering
We have become the slaves of our
own anger, hatred, ill will, animosity; slaves of our defilements of craving,
clinging, greed, passion, attachment, ego. Any defilement that arises in our
minds overpowers us—makes us its prisoner so quickly! We start suffering
immediately. This suffering is not limited to the area inside these prison
walls. People inside this jail or outside this jail are all prisoners of their
own habit patterns. They keep generating one negativity or the other, and they
keep on suffering.
If we are relieved of these
negativities, we start enjoying the true happiness of liberation. We start
enjoying real peace, real harmony. When our minds are freed from impurities,
the entire habit pattern of our life changes. A pure mind is naturally full of
love and compassion, infinite love and compassion; full of joy, sympathetic
joy; and full of equanimity, perfect equilibrium of mind. This is real
happiness, real peace, real harmony.
The bondage of mental defilements
is a universal bondage. And the happiness of liberation from these negativities
is also universal. Whether one is a Hindu or Muslim, Jain or Buddhist,
Christian or Jew, Sikh or Parsi—it makes no difference. Anyone who is
imprisoned in the bondage of defilements is bound to suffer. And anyone who
comes out of this bondage starts to enjoy peace and harmony.
The first day of the new year has
brought you this wonderful Vipassana practice of ancient India, discovered
by the Enlightened Ones. Vipassana is so scientific, result-oriented, non-sectarian. It opens for you the door to liberation, to inner peace
May all of you who participate in
this camp work diligently, patiently and persistently, to come out of the prison of impurities in the mind, from all your miseries. May Vipassana bring you full liberation from suffering. May you enjoy real peace, real harmony. May a new era start in your life.