Kashish Gupta scored “good grades” in school and college, and yet he was always “the rebellious kid” with his “share of vices”. The rebellion, he says, stemmed from a feeling of a lack of attention. “Being hyperactive, I was a destructive kid, and when scolded, I did the opposite of what I was asked to do.”

When life after education began, he was unsure of what to do next. The 26-year-old ignored the job offers that came his way, “instead choosing to escape” to Auroville, a township in Puducherry populated by followers of Sri Aurobindo, in June 2016. Apart from spending time at the ashram, Gupta started teaching at a children’s school. Meeting visitors from around the world “who themselves were there on a journey of self-discovery somehow sowed the seeds of vipassana” in him.

In May 2017, Gupta attended his first 10-day vipassana camp in Palghar, near Mumbai. “The first three days were tough,” he said. He was required to meditate for 10 hours every day, ate just two daily meals, and went without speaking to anyone, not even with his roommate. “The experience was akin to being in a mother’s womb – I felt I was beginning life anew.”

Gupta, a teacher in Bengaluru, has completed 11 vipassana courses in the last 15 months and says he is no longer the “restless soul” he once was. Most modern lives, he says, are engulfed by a sense of ennui, which is why he – and young Indians like him – are seeking succor in vipassana. “Excessive exposure to technology, which is leaving kids more confused than focused, has become the bane of our lives. This has created a gap within families and the resultant lack of communication affects children right from their early years.”

Kashish Gupta.

Return to India

Vipassana’s roots lie in India. It is believed that the Buddha himself practiced it more than 2,500 years ago. Over time, as it spread to neighbouring countries such as Myanmar and Sri Lanka, the practice disappeared from India.

It was reintroduced in India in the 1960s-’70s by a Burma-born Indian industrialist, SN Goenka. In 1955, Goenka, who had been battling migraine attacks for more than two decades, turned to Sayagya U Ba Khin, a vipassana teacher, for relief. Close to 15 years later he arrived in India, a teacher himself, and started conducting sessions in dharamshalas, temples, mosques and churches. In 1976, he set up the Dhamma Giri Vipassana Centre in Igatpuri, in northwestern Maharashtra. This was the first vipassana teaching centre in the country.

Dilip Deshpande, a teacher at the Igatpuri academy, says the aim of vipassana is to “take all practitioners towards…happiness and mental peace”. It is “the answer for today’s restless younger generation,” he believes – “it helps them find answers to what they seek within themselves”. Each vipassana session at the centre has about 600 people and half of them are in their 20s and below, says Deshpande.

A survey by an insurance company found that stress levels in India are higher than in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, China, Brazil and Indonesia. About 89% of those interviewed in India said they were suffering from stress, compared to the global average of 86%. The reasons varied from work and financial problems to physical, social and family issues. Within this group, 95% millennials (aged from 18 to 34 years) reported feeling most stressed and least able to cope with it. Around 75% of the respondents said they weren’t comfortable seeking professional help to resolve their stress-related issues. The reason? High consultation fees.

The Dhamma Giri Vipassana Centre in Igatpuri. Photo credit: Piyushshelare/Wikimedia Commons [CC Attribution-SA 3.0 Unported Licence].

New world

At the Igatpuri academy – as at all their centres across the world – the vipassana course is a 10-day residential programme, during which practitioners meditate for more than 10 hours a day to understand the “deep interconnection between the mind and body”. There are several mandates. Practitioners must observe complete “noble silence” – which means “silence of body, speech and mind” – and avoid eye contact with fellow meditators. They must follow the path of truth, shunning sexual activity and substance abuse, and extend the right to life to all. Everyone is expected to walk with their eyes on the ground in order to avoid stepping on any living creature.

Despite this “fairly gruelling 10-day schedule”, the number of youngsters signing up for vipassana has been increasing.

Gaurav Budhiraja was 17 when he attended his first vipassana session. On a break from school, when he first read about the practice, he felt compelled to try it out. After assuring his parents that he would be “in a good place” but incommunicado for 10 days, Budhiraja went to Dhamma Sota in Sohna, Haryana, for his first vipassana course. “I walked home a changed man,” said Budhiraja, “and the positive changes that the meditation brought about in me inspired not just my parents and siblings but later, my wife to attend the courses.” A decade on, Budhiraja is a regular practitioner and a volunteer at the Dhamma Hitkari Vipassana centre in Rohtak, Haryana.

Poonam Mechu, a 22-year-old student in Rohtak, was inspired to try vipassana after being part of a meditation workshop in college. “People of my age group are so confused about what to do in life,” she said. “They start feeling mentally exhausted fulfilling their parents’ expectations.” This exhaustion, studies say, is also the result of multi-tasking, keeping longer work hours, having irregular sleep schedules and over-dependence on technology. It is little wonder then that studies have declared millennials the most anxious generation in history.

Highly competitive workplaces, with their erratic timings, are leading to early burnout among millennials, says Dr Jalpa Bhuta, a consultant psychiatrist at Global Hospital in Mumbai. Another reason is the expectations they have of themselves. Millennials are exposed online to “what is perceived as a happier lifestyle” and they start aspiring for it. “Adding to the blues are the social networking sites that make their friends’ lives appear more colourful than their own,” said Bhuta.

Seeking solutions

So what makes vipassana so attractive to youngsters? Gupta says it helps them channel their thoughts and feelings. “Many are unable to communicate and discuss emotions that start plaguing their minds right from their teenage years. They start feeling stifled and desperately start looking for someone or something to give them answers. And vipassana, I know from experience, does.”

Chirag Sheth (right) with a friend at the Dhamma Sindhu Vipassana Meditation Centre.

This is the “been-there, done-that generation”, says clinical psychiatrist Dr Avdesh Sharma, who has been working extensively with young adults in age group of 18 to 30 years. “Despite many getting the good things in life on a platter, they find themselves floundering, not just in terms of relationships with their families and friends but also with their own selves,” said Sharma. “And that’s when they look for a way that will make them feel centred, something that will make them come in contact with their inner self.” Techniques like vipassana, Sharma feels, help the younger generation make a statement – “that I take myself seriously”.

Chirag Sheth, 23, who works with a cab company in Ahmedabad, says that most people don’t expect the younger generation to take something like meditation seriously. “Even my parents wondered whether I was seeking it out because of some mental trauma or heartbreak,” he said. It was neither, he clarifies – “just a need to delve into my deeper self”.