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Calming Sounds Of Silence

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What do President Pratibha Patil, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and Shabana Azmi have in common? They all practise Vipassana meditation, a technique that leads seekers towards tranquillity. (Incidentally, Vipassana meditation is also used for social rehabilitation of prisoners in Delhi's Tihar Jail.) The desire to break free from the shackles of life lead people to throng meditation centres. Many such centres operate like companies, with branches and ambitious annual targets. Spiritual gurus have created architecturally compelling meditation cocoons set in a green paradise. If the Santhigiri Ashram in Kerala beckons with its aesthetic Lotus hermitage, the Pyramid Valley in Bangalore is compelling with its monumental Pyramid meditation hall. The Vipassana Centre, perched atop a hillock in Nashik, is inviting with its leafy surroundings.

Pyramid Valley, Bangalore
Global spiritual masters will participate in the annual Buddha Purnima celebrations to be held from 15-17 May at the Pyramid Valley International. "The Maitreya Buddha Pyramid at the Pyramid Valley is the world's largest meditation pyramid with a base area of 160 ft by 160 ft, and is 102 ft tall," says P.S.R.K. Prasad, trustee and director of programmes at Pyramid Valley International.

Built in 2005,  it follows the principles of the Pyramids of Giza. It is oriented towards the North-South direction, at an angle of 51 degrees and 51 minutes. Though the Pyramids of Giza were conceptualised as the last resting place of Pharaohs, the Maitreya Buddha Pyramid is used to energise people — through meditation — as radiated cosmic energy blends with earth's gravitational force.

Set to mathematical precision, the nodal points contain 640 fist-sized crystals sourced from the Himalayas to activate energy levels. The Pyramid illustrates Lord Buddha's facets. "Buddha propagated Anapanasati meditation 2,500 years ago. Anapanasati in Pali means to be aware of breathing process. One feels the sensations caused by the movements of the breath in the body, and is practised to relax the mind," explains Prasad.

The crowd puller is the reclining Buddha, a cement wall mural with an antique bronze finish. The end of the mural showcases Buddha in meditation. Motifs of Ajanta cave paintings and the wheels of the Konark temple on the remaining walls complete the picture. The craftsmanship is different on each side — images represent air, water, fire and earth.

For many, spirituality is an old-age pursuit, but Prasad says otherwise: "Meditation is nothing but silencing the mind and should begin after the age of 6." Catch them young is the mantra, as the National Spiritual Youth Convention will be held on 13-14 May. The event brought 600 students to its threshold last year and hopes to attract 1,000 this time.

Pyra means fire or light in Latin and mid is centre core. Here it translates as energy in the centre, and is represented by creating a structure within the Pyramid, known as King's Chamber. It is one-third the height of the Pyramid and is accessible through a spiral stairway — most suitable for meditation.

Vipassana International Academy, Nashik
The soul-stirring silence highlights Vipassana meditation. "It means ‘to see things as they really are', and is a logical process of mental purification through self-observation. People observe silence — that is, silence of body, speech and mind," says Sudhir Pai of Vipassana International Academy.

Participants learn the technique through an intensive, residential 10-day meditation course. During the first three days, you concentrate on breathing. They focus on the natural and ever-changing flow of their own breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils. This increases concentration and turns the mind into a tool of self-analysis. On the fourth day, you learn the practice of Vipassana meditation. Here the attention systematically shifts from head to toe and vice-versa, observing whatever sensations occur in the body — heat, pressure, lightness, pain or even itching.

ETERNAL PEACE: The Santhigiri Ashram in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala (left); and the Vipassana International Academy in Igatpuri, Nashik

Repeated efforts bring forth deeply suppressed complexes, which cause agitation. Whether they manifest as emotions, memories or dreams, they are accompanied by physical sensations. Through trial and error, you observe unpleasant and agreeable experiences with equanimity. While doing so, agitation gives way to inner peace. By the 10th day, you resume your normal life.

Participants describe silence as a pleasant interlude. "There is no technique, at present, other than Vipassana to take one to the path of enlightenment," says Dr Ramesh S. Shah, a cardiologist from Ahmedabad. "Though I am a medical practitioner, Vipassana has helped me realise the truth pertaining to mind and matter."

Buddhism propagates two types of respiration meditation — Samatha (or Anapanasati) and Vipassana. Though Vipassana was eventually lost in India, it spread to Thailand, Sri Lanka and Myanmar where it was preserved. A former industrialist in Myanmar, Satya Narayan Goenka, took his first 10-day Vipassana course in 1956 under the guidance of Sayagyi U Ba Khin. He realised his spiritual calling, and came to India to spread the power of silence. Goenka established the Vipasana International Academy in 1976 at Dhamma Giri in Igatpuri at Nashik district of Maharashtra.

Vipassana meditation does not involve a ‘guru', only guides provide assistance. A Zen-like upliftment can be achieved if one refrains from other forms of prayer and counting beads. Conversations are discouraged, couples stay separate and communication, if necessary, is restricted to the guide.

Santhigiri Ashram, Thiruvananthapuram
Spirituality blooms at Santhigiri Ashram at Pothencode near Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala — almost literally, considering it houses a lotus-shaped Parnasala or hermitage. The hermitage is the memorial for Navajyothisree Karunakara Guru, the founder Acharya who made Pothencode his abode from 1968 following a divine revelation. It is considered the largest of its kind in the world. 

This 91-ft white makrana marble hermitage is designed with 21 petals, each 41 ft high. The 12 petals on the top represent 12 rasis (astrological signs) and the remaining ones towards the base symbolise nine grihams (planets that govern this universal body). The heart of the structure contains the Sarakoodam, a 27-ft teak wood lotus bud enclosure with a marble cask. This connects to a pedestal, on which a life-size golden sculpture of the founder is installed.

The Lotus Parnasala is the central structure of the spiritual zone. On the right is the Prayer Hall where devotees pray and observe silence in front of the Omkara image. Discourses are conducted at the Sahakarana Mandiram located on the left. The spiritual zone echoes with Akhanda Naamam or prayer chants, punctuated with the tolling bell during prayers.

It is not a meditation centre but a spiritual ‘parampara' (order) based on a guru-disciple relationship. "It promotes a holistic way of living under the guidance of the omniscient Guru, with prayers and righteous karma (action) to achieve the all-round evolution of an individual, family and the society," says Swami Gururethnam Jnana Thapaswi, organising secretary of Santhigiri Ashram.

Contemplative moments at the ashram are gently interrupted by the chirping of birds. "Dhyaanam (meditative silence) is observed while praying and the intent is not only to concentrate on the divine form of the guru, but also to communicate with the guru in a subtle manner through ‘sankalpam' or a meditative resolve," says Swami Thapaswi.

Today, schools of thought fall back on ancient principles to propagate silence as a soother. Each school provides a unique environment to experience nirvana.

The author is a freelance feature writer based out of Banglore

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 16-05-2011)