Search This Blog

27 February, 2013

From Despair to Hope: The Tihar Story

       Tihar Central Jail is the largest prison complex in Asia.  Earlier, it was considered one of the most notorious as well.  It was meant to house 2,500 inmates, but around 9,000 prisoners were incarcerated there -- and that included women and young children, some of whom had been born in prison and had never seen the outside world.  As for healthcare and education... well, they were non-existent.  One often heard monstrous tales of corruption and extortion both by guards and criminals inside the prison.  Besides, Tihar was filthy.  It was lawless, and violence was a way of life there -- the gang wars, the drugs, and the inhumane living conditions made Tihar a hell on earth.  A place where all hope was lost.

       On 1st May 1993, when I was appointed Inspector General of Prisons and assumed charge of Tihar, I was well aware that it was a 'punishment posting'.  That morning, I stepped out of the staff car and walked towards my new office at Tihar, with the strange feeling that I was walking on quicksand with a mountain on my back.  I was in charge of the place, but had no idea what lay in wait for me within those high walls topped by barbed wire.

       My office was claustrophobic, and the rats there apparently had the right of way.  And when I called my first staff meeting, I sensed that the staff were neither enthusiastic nor motivated -- merely curious to find out what my agenda was.  And whenever I asked a question they looked at one another through the corners of their eyes, and gave me guarded, non-committal answers.  One did not have to be psychic to realise that the task ahead would be an uphill one.

       My mother would always say, 'Do everything with passion and purpose, and help others.  That's the only way to live.'  It had become a way of life with me -- my mission, in fact -- and I was determined to do just that.  Ever since my early days as police officer, I had believed that the purpose of prison should not be to punish offenders but to rehabilitate and reform them.  I believe everyone (if given a chance), will try to change, and I wanted to give them that chance.  Now, it had become possible for me to translate that desire into action.  I was confident that we -- the prison staff, the prisoners and I -- would, in due course, find ways of working together as a team, for collective growth and reform.  The prison would somehow be transformed into a humane place where the convicts could pick-up the skills to live productive lives and stay away from crime, even after.

       I had joined the police force because of the power it gave me to change 'the system', and nudge things in the right direction.  But how did one do that in a place such as Tihar?  I was all too aware that I was venturing into the unknown... walking the razor's edge, as it were... and no, it would not be easy.  My spiritual beliefs, however, have always been an enormous source of strength and comfort to me.  So I decided to follow the call of my inner voice.  I wanted to do more.  I wanted to share more.  I wanted to create more.  I wanted to give more.  And transform Tihar -- which was now a training ground for more criminals -- into an ashram.

       The first time I set out on my rounds of the prison wards, I saw faces, and more faces with all sorts of expressions -- angry, anxious, bewildered, despairing, blank ...  They were in dire need of help, but first I had to find a way to reach out to them and earn their trust.  The question was: how?

       I paused, and suddenly, I felt I had the answer, 'Do you pray?'  I asked.  Payer is something that remains internally with me.  If things have been good for me, I thank the Almighty and my circumstances.  If I face a challenge and don't have the answer, I pray.  When I asked the prisoners whether they pray, I was basically asking them whether they were seeking help.

         No one answered.  The prisoners looked confused and turned to the warders who looked even more confused.  I repeated the question, and this time there were a few hesitant nods.  I knew instinctively that prayer would prove to be the big break through, but it would take a little time.  And I needed something right then that would help me connect.

       Did they know the popular song, Heh malik tere bande hum?  Yes, of course, they did!  I asked them to sing it with me, and at the end of the song, I felt as if they had begun to respond to me.  It was a small beginning, but an encouraging one.

       Quickly, I chalked out a simple routine -- every day, I went around the prison, chatted with the prisoners, listened to their problems, got their feedback, sang, joked and laughed with them.  And made sure that they got wholesome food as well, not the usual burnt chapatis and watery dhal.  For me, spirituality is clean thought, clean mind, clean action, and clean human being.  So, one step at a time, we climbed the mountain -- from the problem of drug addiction to healthcare to vocational education and sanitation, we tackled them all.  Nothing is impossible, no target unachievable; we just have to try harder and harder ... focus on the present and do our best.


       You can't  steal or kill someone without generating an incredible amount of anger and hatred.  So for any positive transformation a person must cultivate a moral mind first.  It was evident that the prisoners needed more holistic solutions.  The change had to come from within them, and touch them on a spiritual level as well.  I found the answer in vipassana meditation.  Why vipassana?  Well, like the Tihar Jail, my temple has all religions in it.  It is the power of spirituality that I worship, not the form.  and vipassana is not a religion, or a mantra.  It help us understand the true nature of reality and ourselves, by exploring the deepest levels of the mind.  And, most importantly, in a place like prison where there are people of all faiths who hold rigidly to their views, vipassana works well because we can enter the realm of the spiritual without praying to a specific deity.

       Tihar harboured hardcore criminals and was rife with feelings of the revenge, anger and hatred.  Yet, when vipassana meditation was first introduced, it proved to be a success and there was a distinct transformation in the men who attended the course.

       In April 1994, a more ambitious vipassana meditation programme was held in Tihar, this time for over 1000 prisoners (charged with crimes from drug dealing to robbery to murder and terrorism) and staff from various religious backgrounds.  With the productive and cooperative spirit now prevailing in the prison, the inmates drug drainage ditches, laid pipes, weeded and levelled a large area and helped erect a huge shamiana.  To put over one thousand prisoners together in a tent such as this was a high security risk.  Yet, as always, I felt that there was an invisible hand protecting me and I was grateful.  At times, when I could have been killed or hurt, something has always protected and stayed with me.  To me, it is a special spiritual grace.

       In the early hours of the day during one of the vipassana courses, a sudden storm struck, and the shamiana collapsed in the rain and wind.  Everything was soaked and the place was wrecked.

       After breakfast, the weather began to clear, and a large team of prisoners pitched in to put things in order.  They dried the cushions and carpets outside, redid the wiring and baled out the water.  It was a massive cooperative effort, and the tent was ready for the first discourse, on time!

       During the course, the men battled their personal demons.  On the closing day, many prisoners expressed their joy at their 'self-liberation'.  Also, the prisoners and the jail staff began to interact much more harmoniously.

       The meditation had such an effect on the prisoners that, later one convict actually went on the stand confessed to his crime!  Another accused of murder begged forgiveness from a victim's family.  And that year, two girls from the victim's family tied rakhis on his wrist.  'Today, I look after them as if they are my own family,' he says.  There were more tales to remorse and gratitude ... and redemption.  I could not think of a better way to return human beings to humanity!

       And my own journey...?  Vipasana helped me look at my work from a clearer perspective  taught me to police myself before policing others; seek forgiveness and forgive, thus making me more effective ... and leaving me with a lighter heart!

Source: Excerpts from the book on Chicken Soup for the Indian Spiritual Soul" article written by Kiran Bedi.

26 February, 2013

Why do we ring the bell in a temple?

In Indian Culture

Why do we ring the bell in a temple?

      It is believed that deities remain manifest in temples in which bells are rung. In most temples there are one or more bells hung from the top, near the entrance.  The devotee rings the bell as soon as he enters, thereafter proceeding for darshan of the Lord and prayers.  Children love jumping up or being carried high in order to reach the bell.

       The bell is rung prior to arti to inform devotees to rush for arti's darshan.  During arti the bell's auspicious sound wards off evil.  When rung with a tuned rhythm, the bell's sound has the power to focus the wandering and hyperactive mind on the deity and sentiments of the arti's lyrics.  During artis, the bell's sound has the effect of spiritually boosting a person in the morning and relieving the day's mayic stress in the evening.  

       In India, bells can be heard ringing in the morning and evening artis, in every city, town and village.  This collectively, spiritually energises the immediate vicinity of a shrine.  The ringing bell ineffably attracts people's attention.  If they happen to pass by a shine during arti, regardless of whether the deity is their Ishtadeva  (one's favourite God) or not, they devotionally offer slight bow or place their right hand on their chest or offer pranams.

       Such is the devotional reverence (bhavana), inherent in the hearts of Hindu.

Why do we ring the bell?

     Is it to wake up the Lord?  But the Lord never sleeps.  Is it let the Lord know we have come?  He does not need to be told, as He is all-knowing.  Is it a form of seeking permission to enter His precinct?  It is a homecoming and therefore entry needs no permission.  The Lord welcomes us all times.  Then why do we ring the bell?

       The ringing of the bell produces what is regarded as an auspicious sound.  It produces the sound Om, the universal name of the Lord.  There should be auspiciousness within and without, to gain the vision of the Lord who is all-auspiciousness. 

       Even while dong the ritualistic aarati, we ring the bell.  It is sometimes accompanied by the auspicious sounds of the conch and other musical instruments.  An added significance of ringing the bell, conch and other instruments is that they help drowned any inauspicious or irrelevant noises and comments that might disturb or distract the worshippers in their devotional ardour, concentration and inner peace.

       As we start daily ritualistic worship (pooja) we ring the bell, chanting the following mantra:

Aagamaarthamtu devaanaam
gamanaarthamtu rakshasaam
Kurve ghantaaravam tatra
devataahavahana lakshanam

I ring this bell indicating
the invocation of divinity,
so that virtuous and noble forces
enter (home and heart);
And the demonic and evil forces
From within and without, depart.

Source: 1. Excerpts from the Book on "In Indian Culture Why Do we..." by Swamini Vimalananda and Radhika Krishnakumar.

23 February, 2013

A Meaning of Life

       A young boy left home in search of the Truth.  He met many people and became richer in the awareness of his ignorance.  Since people went to the forests to meditate, he too went to a thick forest.  He did not know how to mediate.  For years, his only mantra was screaming at the forest to give him knowledge.  He believed that if you are committed, existence will help you.
       One day, a monk came to him.  He asked, 'What do you want, my son?'
       I want to know what the meaning of life is,' he replied.
       'Go to the town.  The first three persons that you meet will show you the meaning of life,' the monk replied.
       The boy went to the town.  The first man he met was engaged in carpentry.  The next man he met was engaged in sheet metal work.  The third man he met was making strings.  Disappointed, he sat on the bank of the river.  Suddenly, he heard the sweet strains of violin music.  Something mysterious touched him.  He had suddenly found the answer he was looking for and he started dancing.
       The carpenter was preparing the wood for the violin.  The sheet metal worker was preparing metal for the strings and the strings were meant for the violin.  Life has everything all you need is to be able to connect the dots.  You need to work out new combinations.  And for that you need creative perception.
       You have to change the notion that difficulty is pain ...  In sports, there is difficulty but there is also joy.  In your relationships, when there is difficulty, treat it as joy.  Just re-programme your mind.
       In prayer, you don't have to do anything; just be available to receive God's grace.  Prayer is deep readiness to receive God's flow.  It is passive alertness.  Go deep and you discover your original mind... it is deep passiveness.  A greed mind is richer than a Buddha, but rich with desires and greed; so a Buddha is 'poorer' than you are. 
          And as the Bible says 'Blessed are the poor for theirs is the Kingdom of God.'
When someone asked the Buddha what he attained through his enlightenment, he said, 'I did not gain but I lost.  I lost my ignorance, my dogmas, my likes and dislikes, my ambitions.'

       You can live in two ways - mechanical or meditative.  The meditative way involves your being more aware; that awareness is passive alertness.  When you are passively alert, you will realise that you are born free ... you have choices and that is your freedom.  When there is no freedom, there are no choices.  Be more meditative and you will make the right choices that will help you grow rather than feel trapped.
       If you choose wisely, you are in paradise.  When you eat, eat meditatively.  Totally be in your eating.  When you have a bath, be total in having your bath and a different paradise opens up.  Next, bring in love energy into whatever you do ... feel your inner being.
       With the energy of silence, be 'total' ... and you will be moving heaven.
Source: Excerpts from the book on "Chicken Soup for the Indian Spiritual Soul" an article written by Swamy Sukhbodhananda.

16 February, 2013

Why do we prostrate before parents and elders?


In Indian Culture

Why do we prostrate before parents and elders?

       Indians prostrate to their parents, elders, teachers and noble souls by touching their feet.  The elder in turn blesses us by placing his or her hand on or over our heads.  Prostration is done daily, when we meet elders and particularly on important occasions like the beginning of a new task, birthdays, festivals etc.  In certain traditional circles, prostration is accompanied by abhivaadana which serves to introduce oneself, announce one’s family and social stature.

Why do we offer prostrations?

       Man stands on his feet.  Touching the feet in prostration is a sign of respect for the age, maturity, nobility and divinity that our elders personify.  It symbolizes our recognition of their selfless love for us and the sacrifices that they have done for our welfare.  It is a way of humbly acknowledging the greatness of another.  This tradition reflects the strong family ties which has been one of India’s enduring strengths.

       The good wishes (sankalpa) and blessings (aashirvaada) of elders are highly valued in India.  We prostrate to seek them.  Good thoughts create positive vibrations.  Good wishes springing from a heart full of love, divinity and nobility have a tremendous strength.  When we prostrate with humility and respect, we invoke the good wishes and blessings of elders which flow in the form of positive energy to envelop us.  This is why the posture assured whether it is in the standing or prone position, enables the entire body to receive the energy thus received.

       The different forms of showing respect are:

* Pratutbana – raising to welcome a person.

* Namaskaraara – paying homage in the form of Namaste (Indians greet each other – two palms are placed together in front of the chest and the head bows while saying the word ‘namaste’).

* Upasangraban – touching the feet of elders or teachers.

* Shaashtaanga – prostrating fully with the feet, knees, stomach, forehead and arms touching the ground in front of the elders.

* Pratyabivaadana – returning a greeting.

       Rules are prescribed in our scriptures as to who should prostrate to whom.  Wealth, family, name, age, moral strength and spiritual knowledge in ascending order of importance qualified men to receive respect.  That is why a king though the ruler of the land, would prostrate before a spiritual master.  Epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata have many stories highlighting this aspect.

       This tradition thus creates an environment of mutual love and respect among people ensuring harmony in the family and society.
Source: Excerpts from the book on “In Indian Culture Why do we…”  by Swamini Vimalananda & Radhika Krishnakumar.