Rarely do individuals emerge in the tapestry of human history whose lives transcend the fabric of society, leaving behind an extraordinary legacy that resonates across time and space. Satyanarayan Goenka, lovingly known as Goenkaji, was undoubtedly one of these luminaries, whose journey of self-discovery and compassionate service will continue to inspire and transform people's lives.
He devoted his life to teaching Vipassanā, one of India’s most ancient meditation techniques without expecting anything in return. Long lost to humanity it was rediscovered by Gotama the Buddha more than 2500 years ago. Vipassanā means seeing things as they really are. It is the process of self-purification by self-observation. The entire path (Dhamma or the law of nature) is a universal remedy for universal problems. His legacy lives on as a shining example of wisdom and compassion, inspiring all of us to awaken these in ourselves and sow the seeds of Dhamma in every corner of the world.
In Goenkaji's own words: "May all beings be happy, be peaceful, be liberated."
The paramount Vipassanā teacher of our era was born on January 30th, 1924, in Mandalay. On September 29th, 2013, he departed at the venerable age of 89, in Mumbai.
At the tender age of four he began his education in Churu, Rajasthan, and not long after, he moved to Myanmar, where he continued his education in Mandalay until the age of 10. From 1934 to 1940, he studied at the Khalsa Sikh school where he completed his high school education.
The British Governor of Myanmar recognized his brilliance in 1938 with a gold medal, following his first ranking among all students in a national examination. After a double promotion from the 7th to the 9th standard, Goenkaji once again topped the final high school examination in 1940, securing a government scholarship. Yet, familial obligations led him to forsake formal education for the family business in 1940.
Shortly after his marriage to Illachidevi in 1942, the tumultuous period of the Japanese invasion forced Goenkaji and his family to embark on a perilous exodus from Myanmar to India, a journey fraught with tribulation as they traversed dense forests and towering mountains.
Upon reaching Rajasthan, North India, he achieved proficiency in Hindi literature through the Hindi Vidyapeeth institution. Between 1944 and 1947, he founded numerous successful business ventures in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, in the southern part of India.
After the conclusion of the Second World War, Goenkaji returned to Yangon with his family and established various trading firms and industries. His business acumen led to his appointment as a member of the advisory committee to the Ministry of Trade and Industry upon Myanmar's independence in 1948. Embracing Myanmar citizenship, he played a pivotal role in the inception of the 'Rangoon Chamber of Commerce and Industries' and served as its President. He also reinvigorated the 'Burma Marwari Chamber of Commerce' through his presidency.
In the same year, he founded the 'All Burma Indian Congress' (not a political party) to support the impoverished Indian laborers and farmers in Myanmar, which soon branched out throughout the country.
Goenkajis engagement with literature, culture, and community service reflected in his contribution to the 'Ramkrishna Mission Society' and 'Ramkrishna Mission Sevashram’, where he offered his services to their hospital and cultural organizations.
The 'Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Trust', which he founded established the ‘Gandhi Bhavan’ in Yangon and orchestrated the translation of Gandhi`s works into the Myanmar language.
His poetic talent captured the hearts of many across Myanmar. Moreover, as the President of the 'All Myanmar Hindi Literary Society', he nurtured the literary arts for several years.
Goenkaji's leadership extended to the 'All Burma Hindu Central Board' which was established to support the Hindu community in Myanmar and the management of the 'Shri Satyanarayan trust’ in Yangon. He played a significant part in the 'Kalibadi’ and founded the 'Lathiya Ashram' orphanage, presiding over it with dedication.
In 1955, Goenkaji took his first life changing Vipassana course with Sayagyi U Ba Khin.
The nationalization of his industries in 1962 by Myanmar's military regime provided him with the opportunity to delve deeper into meditation and training, all while upholding his familial duties.
In June 1969, after he had meditated under the guidance of his teacher for 14 years, S. N. Goenka was appointed Vipassanā Teacher by Sayagyi U Ba Khin who then bestowed on him the responsibility of returning the invaluable gem of Vipassanā from Myanmar to the land of its origin in order to repay this ancient debt. He was sent to first re-establish Dhamma in India and spread it from there to the world.
Upon his arrival in India, within a mere ten days, he conducted his first Vipassanā course in Mumbai, which precipitated a burgeoning demand for Vipassanā across the country, transcending religious barriers and garnering widespread acceptance.
Sayagyi U Ba Khin`s vision first materialized in the form of the Vipassanā International Academy, 'Dhamma Giri', in Igatpuri, 1976. Following this, Vipassanā centres burgeoned globally. Goenkaji`s pioneering efforts also penetrated the Indian penal system, with courses being introduced in Jaipur's prison in 1974 and subsequently in Tihar Jail and other prisons. These initiatives paved the way for the worldwide establishment of Vipassanā courses and centres within jails.
Recognizing the transformative power of Vipassanā, the Police Academy in New Delhi in 1997, the state governments of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, and Goa, embraced the practice, offering their officials paid leave to attend courses.
His invitation to global forums and academic institutes further underscored the universal resonance of the Buddha's teachings. At the United Nations Millennium World Peace Summit in New York in August 2000, Goenkaji's message of tolerance amongst religions captivated a diverse assembly of religious and spiritual leaders. Following this, he was invited to lecture by institutes as diverse as the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and the Dharma Drum Mountain Monastery (of Ven. Sheng Yen) in Taiwan. In 2004 he was invited as a keynote speaker at the World Buddhist council in Yangon.
In 1986, the Vipassanā Research Institute (VRI) was established at Igatpuri adjoining Dhamma Giri to conduct research into Pariyatti (theory) and Paṭipatti (practice) of the Buddha’s teaching. He undertook the mammoth task of publishing the Pāḷi Tipiṭaka and its commentarial literature in 140 volumes in Devanagari, Burmese, and Roman scripts, and distributing these works free to scholars worldwide. This was complemented by the establishment of the Chaṭṭha Saṅghāyana Platform, a comprehensive digital resource of canonical Pāḷi texts and literature in various language scripts, serving as a main source for academic studies worldwide. https://tipitaka.org/
The construction of the Global Vipassanā Pagoda (GVP), a huge stone monument near Mumbai, as a symbol of gratitude to the Buddha and the chain of teachers in Myanmar who preserved Vipassanā was also undertaken. Relics of the Buddha have been securely enshrined in this Pagoda in line with the instructions of the Buddha. The GVP also encapsules VRI with its archives, a library, a painting gallery, and a museum. This 100-meter-high stone dome, modelled after the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, includes a meditation hall for more than 8000 people of all religions and nationalities.
S.N. Goenka has left an indelible mark with his vast literary contributions. He penned thousands of rhymed couplets, or 'dohas', in both Hindi and Rajasthani. Beyond poetry, Goenka authored hundreds of books and penned over 200 articles spanning languages like Hindi, English, Pāḷi, and Rajasthani. His writings have not only been extensively published in India but have also found audiences globally through translations in various languages.
S.N. Goenka has delivered countless Dhamma talks (about 8,000 hours of audio and video recordings) around the world.
Nonetheless, the core of his life's work was the practice and teaching of Vipassanā meditation, as only this can deliver actual life changing benefits. Since Vipassanā is a worldwide and non-sectarian practice, he taught it in temples, mosques, and churches alike. Vipassanā courses have been conducted in countries around the world including many Muslim and all Christian and Buddhist countries. Many of these countries now have numerous permanent Vipassanā centres.
From the Jain community Acharya Mahapragya of Terapanth, Acharya Shivmuni of Sthanakvasi Jain Shramansangh, Acharya Muni Bhuvanchand of Parsvgacch and Amarmuni, Vice President of Virayatan and thousands of Jain munis and sadhvis have benefitted from these courses.
Bhikkhu Nandishvarji, President of the Mahabodhi Society of India, and thousands of Buddhist Bhikkhus, Lamas and Bhikkhunis have participated and a huge number of Hindu sadhus and sadhvis have joined in Vipassanā courses.
Thousands of Christian priests have participated, and hundred thousands of followers of every religion have benefited from Vipassanā. Vipassanā is effectively breaking down the barriers between different religions, castes, nationalities, races and classes. Goenkaji's contribution to fostering interfaith harmony was monumental, prompting dialogues with Hindu religious leaders in India to promote understanding and unity between Hindus and Buddhists. He convinced these leaders that real harmony between the Hindu and Buddhist communities can only prevail if certain long held and widespread misconceptions about the Buddha and his teaching are corrected. A joint communiqué with the Shankaracharyas (Hindu Religious leaders) on November 12, 1999, marked the historic milestone in this endeavor.
The ancient technique of Vipassanā meditation was originally rediscovered by the recluse prince Siddhartha Gotama, who attained supreme enlightenment and became the Buddha. Goenkaji's dissemination of this liberating teaching is characterized by its empirical, scientific, non-sectarian and results-oriented essence.
To meet an ever-growing demand, Goenkaji began training assistant teachers in 1982, and appointed Assistant Teachers and Teachers, ensuring the continuity of the practice across the globe.
Vipassana Meditation is taught at ten-day residential courses during which participants learn the basics of the method, and practice sufficiently to experience its beneficial results. One of the unique characteristics is that there are no charges for the courses - not even to cover the cost of food and accommodation. All expenses are met by donations from people who, having completed a course and experienced the benefits of Vipassana, wish to give others the opportunity to also benefit. None of the teachers or assistants receive any financial gain from these courses.
Initially, one must attend a ten-day residential course to learn Vipassanā. After that, one may attend one-day and three-day Vipassanā courses. Longer courses of 20 days, 30 days, 45 days, and 60 days are also organized for serious and committed Vipassanā meditators. All these courses are now conducted through audio and video recordings of Goenkaji’s discourses and instructions, which have been translated into over 65 languages.
As we approach 2024, the centenary of S.N. Goenkaji's birth, Vipassanā courses are being held in 270 permanent centres, as well as over 140 non-centre residential sites in 110 countries worldwide by more than 2000 of his assistant teachers. In addition, 1400 children course teachers have been appointed to teach Anapana meditation to children.
Today, over 3,200 Vipassanā courses are held annually around the world with about 200,000 in attendance and an ever-growing demand.
Goenkaji`s enormous capacity for tireless Dhamma service continued till his final moments. After calling a worldwide meeting of his assistants in Dhamma Giri in Dec. 2012, he undertook a pilgrimage to Myanmar where he gave numerous talks to large audiences in the main conference hall of Yangon and met with leaders of the Sangha, heads of government and all segments of society. He met with delegations of meditators from different countries to give detailed advice on various subjects of Dhamma. The recordings of these meetings are a vast treasure of Dhamma.
After returning to Mumbai, he continued to give public talks at various locations, and he gave discourses in the Global Pagoda. Meditators from all countries visited him and sought his advice till the last days of his life.
Even in the last hours he was attending to Dhamma service. While continuing his work on a new edition of a publication of around 5000 Dohas, he also met with students who had completed a course in Dhamma Pattana and with relatives who had come to seek his advice.
"Baaki Saari Zindagi Dharam hetu lagajaya,
Antim Kshyan taka Dharam ki, seva hoti jaya”
In devotion to Dhamma may
The rest of my life be spent
May I continue serving Dhamma
Right till my last moment.
Goenkaji taught Dhamma with unshakable determination, compassion, and extraordinary brilliance that persisted until his last moments. With his passing on September 29th, 2013, he bequeathed to the world the priceless gift of Vipassanā, entrusting the responsibility on us to protect its purity for the benefit of all beings. He taught us to become truly self-dependent and now it is our privilege to preserve his enduring legacy. Vipassanā will remain a beacon of light, illuminating the way.
May all beings be happy!
May all beings be peaceful!
May all beings be liberated!
Following are the details of the honors bestowed on S. N. Goenka by Myanmar, India and other countries for his service to the community, particularly for the spread of Vipassanā.
- The former civilian Government of Myanmar awarded the Wunna Kyaw Htin (Vaṇṇa Kitti) for his exceptional social work.
- The All-India Bhikkhu Sangha awarded the Dhamma Mutti “One who releases Dhamma” after his return to India.
- The present Government of the Union of Myanmar invited him to Myanmar as a state guest and awarded him the honorary title Mahā Saddhamma JotikaDhaja. ”Great Banner (or Flag) of the Light of the True Dharma.”
- The famous ‘Pego Mahavihar’ of Myanmar awarded him the title of Mahā Upāsaka Vishva Vipaśyanācārya“Great Lay Follower and World Teacher of Vipassanā.“
- The Karen Pariyatti Monastery, Yangon honored him with the title Adhunika Siri Dhamma Aśoka. “Modern Day Dhamma Aśoka”
- On behalf of the Nava Nalanda Mahavihara Pāḷi Institute, the Governor of Bihar bestowed on him an honorary D. Litt. with the title of Vijjā Vāridhi.” Ocean of Knowledge”
- The Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, Sarnath bestowed on him an honorary D.Litt. with the title of Vijjā Vāgpati. "Master of Knowledge and Speech"
- The Mahabodhi Society of India awarded the title of Vipassanāgama Cakkavatti. “The Universal Ruler of the Vipassanā"
- The state governments of Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh invited him as state guest and honored him.
- As part of its celebration of the 2550th anniversary of Buddha Jayanti, the government of Sri Lanka invited S. N. Goenka as a state guest. Mr. Rajapaksa, the President on behalf of the Republic of Sri Lanka honored S. N. Goenka with the title ofJina Sāsana Sobhana Patipatti Dhaja("The Magnificent Flag Representing the Practice of the Buddhas Teachings."). S. N. Goenka was also felicitated by Mr. Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka.
- During his visit to Sri Lanka, the Supreme Council of Kotte Sri Kalyāni Sāmagridharma Mahā Sangha Sabhā, the highest congregation of Bhikkhus, awarded him the title ofPariyatti Visārada(Master of Doctrine) in deep appreciation of the immense and invaluable contribution made to disseminate the Dhamma through very lucid and clear exposition of the original teaching of the Buddha and to bring solace and peace to thousands through the practice of Vipassanā meditation.
- In 2012 the Government of India awarded him the civil honor “Padma Bhushan”
- "Padma Bhushan" is one of India's highest civilian honors, awarded by the President of India. Instituted in 1954, these awards are given every year on India's Republic Day (January 26th). The name "Padma Bhushan" translates as the "Lotus Ornament."
- The title of AggaMaha Dhamma Pacaraka"The Foremost Great Proclaimer of the Dhamma" has been conferred upon Goenkaji in Sri Lanka because he is the first lay teacher in modern times to spread Vipassanā throughout the world.