Kathmandu is becoming a world hub for meditation-a refuge for the burnt-out, stressed and troubled masses.
In the canopied silence of the Shivapuri forest's ashram for Vipassana meditation north of Kathmandu, 85 disciples sit cross-legged, eyes closed and minds shut off. It is a mixed group-men and women in nearly equal numbers, both Nepalis and Westerners from all walks of life. When they emerge from the 10-day retreat, many of them will have learnt about the art of living free from anger, greed, ignorance and negative thoughts. This is where your soul gets a spring cleaning, and the mind is renewed.
It used to be that young refugees fleeing the materialism and consumerism of the West flocked to Kathmandu for spiritual cleansing. But surprisingly, the ills of modern living and stressful lifestyles seems to be pushing an increasing number of Nepalis to meditation as well. "I have changed so much from the past. I have become calm, patient, and full of inner happiness," says Kishor Bhai Pradhan, a sadhak (disciple) of Vipassana meditation since 1989. "It's all about mental purification through total silence so you are free of fear, anger and jealousy. "
Amdo Lama of another meditation centre, the Seto Gompa in Kathmandu, has been teaching meditation and says it helps cut the flow of negative thoughts coming into the mind. "Evil and wisdom both reside in our minds. When thoughts are calmed down through meditation then we can feel a positive aura rising that will help spread love, peace and harmony," says the monk. However, the guru warns against taking shortcuts. Meditation is a life-long exercise it will not give immediate gratification. "Many want this blissful state fast, which is very wrong. Meditation has to be done every day, slowly but continuously," he adds. The idea is to integrate the body, speech and mind like the wheels of a well-oiled machine.
Swami Ananda Mastana is a guru of the Osho Rajneesh school of mediation. He also warns against shortcuts: "You have to make it a part of your life. It's not like aspirin that one takes to relieve pain in minutes. It's an effort from within yourself for which you might be rewarded with inner peace and compassion."
In the silent alleys north of Baudhanath stupa, French photographer Raphaele walks about with a beatific smile. She almost has a halo around her head, such is the immense positive drive she carries about. "We have to avoid being a slave to our thoughts. We have to find a way to liberate ourselves and meditation is the only way," she says with the conviction of a true convert.
It's not just Europeans and North Americans who are coming to Kathmandu to find peace. Vera Lucia is from Brazil, and she has been working in Kathmandu helping needy children. She calls herself a "holistic therapist and peace educator" and says meditation is just a fancy word which teaches you to be aware of living. "Meditation does not require much effort once you feel that you really want to do it," says Vera in that soothing, relaxed and almost hypnotic voice that is therapeutic just to listen to. "You can watch your mind while you cook, while you ride a tempo, while you walk and while you just sit back and listen to music." Vera uses a lot of meditation in her healing therapies, and says it is also good to calm the mind.
Nepalis are joining meditation centres in increasing numbers, rediscovering the calming techniques that our culture gave to the West and which have now come back a full circle. There are now meditation farms and spiritual rejuvenation centres popping up on the hills surrounding Kathmandu Valley, in Pokhara and even in Chitwan. But by far the most popular is the Nepal Vipassana Kendra started by industrialist Mani Harsha Jyoti in 1992 under the guidance of guru Satyanarayan Goenka, who now appears on the Indian Zee TV channel every Monday at 8:15. Mani Harsha's son, Roop Jyoti now oversees the centre and recalls how his father's death convinced him of the important benefits of meditation. "As human beings, we grow old, we fall ill, we die. That is certain. My father had lung cancer, and he faced death calmly, till the last moment of his life he was at peace with himself." Roop himself has taken the meditation course and now regularly practises dhyan. "This is the art of living, the art of dying, it teaches you that if you have negativity in you, you are bound to be miserable."
Although the practice of dhamma was initiatied by the Buddha, the Vippasana centre does not have traditional religious rituals. In fact, Catholic nuns, Muslims, Hindus, all come here for courses. A group of nuns from Patna who had just done a course said: "The meditation helped us become better Christians."
Meditation can also have medical benefits, since even modern medicine has now discovered the link between mind and body. But Roop warns against taking a meditation course with the expectation that a physical ailment will be cured. "Meditation strenghthens you spiritually, any medical benefit is a side-effect."
Most importantly, meditation helps people find a clear direction in life. You don't have to give up trying to get rich, or doing politics. "If you are making money, meditation just makes you ask yourself, what is it all for?"
The Vipassana Centre warns people not to try meditation by themselves. Says Roop: "It can be dangerous. Mediation is like a deep surgery of the mind to take the pus out. That is why you need a guide."
The enthusiasm among Nepalis can be gauged at the reservation desk in the basement of the Jyoti Bhawan at Kantipath where young and old, Nepalis and foreigners alike, queue up for their confirmation slips for the forthcoming ten-day Vipassana meditation retreat which is conducted twice a month. Neer Kumar Chettri sits behind the desk and cautions youngsters in their 20s as he writes out the slips: "If you think you cannot remain silent and follow the teachers for the next 10 days, you'd better pull out now." The Centre prefers middle-aged people since younger apprentices tend to take more handling.
The Centre is now also conducting meditation for inmates at the Nakkhu Jail, learning from the great success by the Magsaysay Award-winner Kiran Bedi at New Delhi's Tihar jail, where die-hard convicts, terrorists and murders went through Vipassana. The twice-monthly courses are now getting up to 60 foreigners and 200 Nepalis for the course at Shivapuri. Participants have to cut all ties to family, work and community.
They cannot take their mobiles, cannot receive phone calls, it is a process of diving off the deep end to discover your soul. People ask Roop: how can I find ten days to go and do nothing? What I tell them is: "If a doctor says you are sick and need to spend ten days in hospital, would you do it? It is the same thing. Here it is your mind that needs healing, and it could very well be the biggest change in your life."
The Vippasana Centre (phone: 223968) is all run by volunteers, and there is no fee. It runs on donations given by people who take the course. Some give Rs 100, others give Rs 10,000. "If they benefitted, they hope others will also benefit, and they donate money. So far, it has been enough to run it."
Many Nepali luminaries have taken the courses, including the Governor of Nepal Rastra Bank Dipendra Purush Dhakal, leftist leader Mohan Bikram Adhikari, senior army generals, politicians and civil servants. Some have even returned to conduct courses for the junior batches. Even King Birendra visited the Centre when Satyanarayan Goenka came to conduct courses last year.
Another well-known retreat is Osho Tapoban in the Nagarjun forest which holds regular meditation camps and other special courses that sometimes last for weeks. "Osho's meditation has been criticised for being vulgar by those who haven't understood it. In fact, it's as powerful as any other. It's enlivening, it uses a lot of music, chanting and encourages openness in the expression of thoughts and emotions. One might find techniques like the dynamic meditation quite absurd, but once you master it, the positive vibes start coming your way," says Swami Ananda.
There are a number of Buddhist meditation centres in town starting from the Himalayan Buddhist Meditation Centre where mandala teachings through meditation and audiovisual presentations are conducted regularly. The other popular spots are the Kopan Monastery, Pharping Monastery, the Red Shechen Gompa and the White Ka-ning Shedrup-ling Gompa in Baudha where the rimpoches themselves conduct classes.
Spiritualism is clearly back in a big way, and Kathmandu is becoming a sort of world hub for the disenchanted, burnt-out, stressed and troubled masses. An increasing number of people from North America, Europe, Australia and even Japan are coming to Nepal, specifically for meditation. It is just a bit ironic that Nepal's tourism industry is cashing in on the very activity which preaches that money isn't everything.
New age gurus
Eastern spirituality and mysticism is omnipresent and seriously chic in the West. But psychologists suggest seeing a shrink instead.
Anita Chaudhuri in London
Column inches devoted to Meg Ryan's split with husband Dennis Quaid often included the delicious detail that they had squabbled, in very spiritually suspect style, over which of them had rights to their guru. The lady in question, one Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, dispenses Siddha yoga from her ashram in upstate New York, and a bitter custody battle was only averted at the eleventh hour, when Ryan and Quaid decided to get back together. Other celebrity worshippers must have exhaled serenely; knowing that no further bad karma would surround their Chosen One.
The likes of Isabella Rossellini, Diana Ross, Lisa Kudrow and Lulu, (the British 1960s pop singer) all make regular pilgrimages to receive official blessings from the forty-something leader, a procedure which involves being tapped on the head with a wand of peacock feathers. It is rumoured that some of her servants hold her in such obeisance that they anoint themselves with her dirty bath water. It'll come as no surprise then to learn that although gurus traditionally frown upon worldly goods, Gurumayi's ashram is apparently worth a cool $21million.
The rise of the career guru really began in earnest back in 1967 when The Beatles pledged their faith in the Hindu swami, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the man who introduced Transcendental Meditation to the West. During that period, a rival guru also attracted famous disciples, a sacked Ivy League psychology professor named Richard Alpert, who went to India and returned as Ram Dass, servant of God.
These days, laying claim to a guru is an instant signifier of power, wealth and status. For some peculiar reason, entrusting a complete stranger with the wellbeing of one's mind, body and spirit is not only accepted as sensible behaviour, it is positively essential if you want to get ahead. In some cases, it's a guilt thing. Whereas once the goal was to be rich and successful, now it is only all right to brag about those achievements if we also appear to be spiritually evolved human beings as well.
Once a guru gets a celebrity endorsement, the rest of us are right behind buying the books or the beauty regime. Right now, spirituality is omnipresent and seriously chic. Donna Karan gave out Deepak Chopra cassettes instead of programmes at a catwalk show, while ex-supermodel Christy Turlington was so inspired by her yoga teacher that she has launched Sundari, a skincare range based on Eastern philosophy. And who can forget how, a few years ago, the Dalai Lama edited a special edition of that deeply spiritual journal, Paris Vogue?
So it is that the world suddenly seems to be swarming with deities to address every conceivable dilemma; from how do I wash my face (with your saliva, suggests Deepak Chopra, ayurvedic spiritual maestro and adviser to the likes of Demi Moore), to how do I survive mid-life pregnancy (ask Bharti Vyas, the spiritual beauty guru who helped prepare Cherie Blair for baby Leo)?
"Right now there is a tendency to turn to gurus because organised religion is increasingly not meeting people's needs," says the Rev Dr Geoff Scobie, who has researched the psychology of belief systems at Glasgow University, Scotland. "Maybe they feel that the level of commitment demanded by conventional religion is too high, yet they've got to do something to fill the spiritual void. This is where the guru comes in. You pay them, they tell you something deep and incomprehensible, and you feel you've had your money's worth. But while people may believe that this equals commitment, it doesn't. You can't buy spiritual development; money is no substitute for faith, time and love. It's a quick fix."
Psychologist Oliver James, author of Britain on the Couch, believes there are other reasons people are going to gurus. "Human beings have always put their faith in authority figures to help them work out what to do. Generally, we all want certainty. But in the past 50 years, we've moved from a collectivist society to an individualist society. Our identity is no longer determined on the basis of family position or social role."
"It's no longer so clear who the authority figures are, which is why we're seeking consolation in self-appointed gurus, be they involved in alternative medicine, herbalism, psychotherapy or religion," says James. He believes followers would be better off spending their money on therapy. "Shrinks are the opposite of gurus-they're going to be your disciple."
His scepticism seems well placed. A few years back, two of Gurumayi's most ardent followers gave their baby the middle name of Mayi to bestow spiritual wellbeing on their family. Alas, even the blessing of a top guru could not save Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson from getting divorced for the second time.