Cultural Sensitivities and Awareness

By | 4/27/2024

In March 1974, about the same time that the first foreign meditators came to live at the new Vipassana centre in Igatpuri, Chandra Mohan Jain, calling himself Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, relocated from Mumbai to establish an ashram in Pune. He had already developed a reputation as a controversial guru by rejecting traditional religious and ascetic practices and expressing opinions on moral values that were opposed by most ordinary Indians. His young Western devotees, in their maroon or ochre robes, soon became a common sight in the city. Rumours circulated,  and began to appear in newspapers, containing allegations of drug use and sexual improprieties that tarnished his ashram's image.

Goenkaji was well aware of this situation and concerned that as Western Vipassana meditators began to appear in Igatpuri the town's residents would assume that they were connected to the nearby Rajneesh organization. To forestall such a misconception, Guruji announced that initially, only men could stay overnight at Dhamma Giri. They were to have short hair, be clean-shaven, and dress in a culturally appropriate manner—that is, in kurtas, pyjamas and lungis. And he knew that it would not be acceptable to the local people for single men and women to reside there at the same time. Therefore, foreign women who came to visit had to stay in a hotel in town. They usually wore a salwar, kameez and dupatta, or ankle-length skirts and long-sleeved blouses. At Dhamma Giri, there was to be no physical contact between individuals, and no use of tobacco.

In 1975 Guruji also spoke directly to the local citizens at a public talk in Igatpuri and reassured them that nothing inappropriate or discreditable would occur in their town on account of the new meditation centre. On the contrary, newcomers, whether foreign or Indian, would integrate harmoniously into their community and bring significant economic opportunities.

Almost all of the early foreign residents at Dhamma Giri had already been in India for several years and were familiar with the importance of one's personal appearance and demeanor, and of polite and respectful interactions with the local people. By the time the centre opened in October 1976, Guruji's protocols were well known to his old students. Among the influx of foreign new students, however, some needed guidance, especially concerning their apparel. Within a few years, Guruji's various ad hoc rules had coalesced into two manuals that became freely available: a Code of Discipline for students and, later, a Code of Conduct for servers.

Foreign students who stayed at Dhamma Giri to assist with courses had to familiarize themselves with additional subtleties of Indian etiquette and culture. Men and women were not to enter each other's quarters. Giving directions or instructions to Indian students was most politely done with folded hands. Those helping in the dining hall had to wear clothing that was neat and clean. When serving food, care had to be taken that the serving spoon didn't touch the student's tray or anything on it. While eating, because the right hand is used to handle the food, it should never be used to touch anything else, especially the serving utensils. Spoons and cups are never shared. Uneaten food on a tray is treated as waste. 

By 1981, internal problems at Rajneesh's Pune ashram, widespread criticism of its activities, and the government's cancellation of its tax-exempt status became an incentive for the ashram to relocate to the United States. At Dhamma Giri, it hardly mattered. By then, both Indian and foreign meditators had largely won the respect of the local people.

dhamma giri 1976
1976, fall. Dhamma Giri

Editor’s Note: This post is the second in an ongoing series, A Dhamma Giri Diary, comprised of remembrances that together offer a first-hand account of the initial few years that followed the 1974 purchase of the barren hilltop that became the first Indian Vipassana center, Dhamma Giri, in Igatpuri, Maharashtra. Narayan Dasarwar, who was there from day one, reflects on his association with S.N. Goenka, the principal teacher, the development of the center, and some of the individuals who helped make it possible. The Pariyatti Journal is grateful to Narayan for sharing his personal account of life at Dhamma Giri.


Date: 4/29/2024

Thank you Narayan for providing the context for all the rules and guidelines that may seem arbitrary to newcomers :-)

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