Adventures in a Life of Seva: An Interview with Diken Patel

By Fatema C

“Finding your own harmony is important. Once you find your own harmony, you won’t harm any.”

Diken Patel is the co-founder of Jail University and a volunteer at Gandhi ashram. He is currently following the path of love and exploring one’s true self in service of the Whole.

Diken, please recollect your journey for us, why did you walk out of a lucrative career for a life of seva?

I grew up in a slum where there was a struggle for basic necessities. We were 15 people living in the same room. In such conditions the only intention you carry for the future is to earn enough money. My father wanted me to start a business and my mother wanted me to be a government employee. However, I got interested in the stock market through a friend. It was a good career. I thought I could achieve everything I needed. But somehow when you are so busy earning and trying to fulfill your dreams, you cannot see the effects of what you are doing. At some point in time, I started questioning the financial system and the accumulation of wealth. As a child, I was told that we are poor because we are lazy and illiterate. Later, I realized that even after working hard, most people cannot earn more than a survival income. It’s the system which makes the poor poorer and the rich richer. It was not my fate. Rather, it is by design that I am being kept poor. This realization shattered my beliefs. So, I decided to take a break for 2 years.

What stimulated you to choose the path of love and self-exploration through the service of others?

I don’t consider myself doing any service for others. The challenges of the world are complex. So I decided to work upon myself. My first volunteering experience was accidental. I was visiting Seva Café in Ahmedabad which runs on gift culture. During lunch, a friend asked everybody, “Who is going to wash the dishes today?” Everyone refused. My friend turned to me and said, “Diken, you have no choice. You have to do this.” Being a successful broker in the stock market, my ego resisted washing dishes. So I refused. However, she posted on FB that I had washed dishes for so many people. People started appreciating me for the service that I hadn’t done. I felt guilty. So I decided to volunteer and ended up washing dishes for 60 people. That was the first shift in me. I didn’t feel like I am doing any special service activity. But, gradually, volunteering became a way of life and the opportunity to align with myself.

Then, through a friend, I ended up in the ecosystem of Gandhi and Vinoba Bhave’s ashram. There, I met dear brother Jayesh bhai. He is a great man. He focuses on spreading love and believes that everything else will follow.

At the ashram, they believe in taking everyone’s consent before making a decision. I wondered how is it possible to get mutual consent from so many people at once. I learnt that the real shift comes in the space of love. Decisions should be driven from the heart and the force of collectiveness. Sometimes just being present and listening deeply can be an act of service too.

Please share about inspiring projects of gift culture promoted by the Gandhi Ashram and Moved by Love (MBL)?

‘Moved By Love’ was inspired by Vinoba Bhave. He dealt with conflicts directly. Instead of being an activist or an intellectual, he simply chose to be a ‘heartivist’. He would approach communities with an open heart, without being driven by the result or outcome. So, any effort to connect one heart to another heart is ‘Moved by Love’. At MBL, we believe that everyone has some gift to share. When I was new here, I wondered what can I share? Thinking about this led me to clowning. I clowned for 7 years with kids struggling with cancer. My initiative was called Compassionate Clowning in Ahmedabad.

Being present for somebody comes naturally in Gandhi Ashram. Our retreats try to bring the head, heart, and hands in harmony by doing small things. This helps people to navigate themselves in the path of love. These small acts of kindness hold greater values. Retired IIM Professor Anil Gupta always used to say that in mobile technology more than 10,000 designs have been innovated. But an umbrella which is small and useful has the same design from the past 500 years. Finding your own harmony is important. Once you find your own harmony, you won’t harm-any.

Can you share more the magic of gift culture?

There are so many amazing stories. One was when I wanted to go Paro, Bhutan after the shodhyatra (with Professor Anil Gupta). It was difficult to enter Bhutan as a single traveller. But somehow I convinced the immigration officers and entered Bhutan from the Jalgaon border after 2 days. While waiting to catch the bus, I met two kids who were selling oranges. So instead of visiting Paro, I stayed back and started selling oranges with them. The joy I received at that time is really close to my heart.

I would also like to share my experience of trust and generosity in Spain. Once, I met a drug dealer who invited me for a crazy party. In that party, there was a ritual to let yourself free. So I burnt everything. Now I was without clothes, without money and in middle of night I was hungry. That drug dealer stopped his business immediately and came with me in search of food. It was late but one lady opened her place and served pasta to me. That was one of my most life changing experiences. I was not in my country, I was not with the so-called right person (according to the society), I didn’t have money and clothes, and yet I was still taken care by fellow human beings.

You have invested deeply in the Jail University. Can you share what is the idea behind the Swaraj Jail University?

The idea of the Jail University began with a friendship with Manish Jain. I told him about the experiences of sharing love in spaces like Moved by Love. To this Manish spontaneously said, “It’s so easy to share your love in ‘Moved by Love’ retreats. Share your love where it is difficult, how about the jail?”.

I was inspired by the idea and joined hands immediately. We did not have any intention of reforming or changing the system. It started with the only intention of being present for the inmates. To share compassion, kindness and appreciate people’s gifts. To re-ignite self-esteem, small joys and life passion in the face of the numerous challenges of incarcerated life.

My first day at Udaipur Jail was heart-breaking. The first inmate I came across approached me with anger and disappointment. He saw into my eyes furiously, and said, “Mai Yahan Se Bhi Mar Gaya Hun, Aur Waha Se Bhi Mar Gaya hu. Kahan Se Zinda Karega>” (I am dead from my brain and I am dead from my heart. How will you light the soul inside me?) He said, “Zindo ke Kabrastan me Tumhara Swagat hai” (You are welcome in the graveyard of alive people).

I was taken aback. Is jail only a physical structure or is it the prison of thoughts and barriers we have created around us? I questioned myself. I had a strong feeling that this is a good opportunity for me to break all the jails that I have created around and within me. The intention of incarceration should be to rehabilitate (in the spirit of Vipasssna), not to punish. Our idea is to re-establish the dignity and compassion of the inmates and help them return to society as positive leaders in their communities.

How does this spirit of abundance or trust show up when you engage with inmates in jail?

When you see it as a ‘project’, you are just trying to ‘help’ and ‘save’ them as victims. In some perverse way, you see yourself as superior. But when you merge as one, you are not separate anymore.

Initially, I used to get frustrated to accept someone who had sexually assaulted or killed somebody. Gradually, I accepted the fact that if he did something so ferocious his soul is already broken or dead. And how can we abandon the person who is already broken? How many times do we manipulate our relationships? How many times do we kill somebody with our intellect? The global finance system is killing thousands of people and nature. Still, somehow, people see it as progress and development. How many times do we use luxury goods at the cost of others?

My old friend Rumi said (laughs)

There is always a doorway to reach somebody’s heart. What is the purpose of the door if there is no wall? So break the walls. That’s how the jail gives me the courage to explore myself. Also, many people contribute to Jail University. It’s not only me and Manish. There are many invisible acts of deep service that make this happen.

Photography from the Jail University

Nature is abundant and so are we. Nature teaches us that there is another way of operating a system, one that is not based on scarcity but on abundance and generosity. When I engage with the inmates in Jail, the field of trust emerges from a cooperative relationship that creates the conditions for a system based on abundance.

Can you share some stories from The Jail University?

Jail is not just about the incarceration of ‘violent people’. They are generous and kind beings. They have invited me inside their cell, prepared a comfortable sitting area for me, offer tea and snacks. Like our villages, there is generosity and hospitality there.

Once we were planting some banana trees in the jail. The guard was surprised to see this. He said, “Why are you doing all this, these people are not going to change.” I told him, “If you change, they will also change.” The next day he came to help us in planting trees. Heera bhai, one of the inmates, took the lead and turned the area into a beautiful banana and papaya orchard. He even gifted some saplings to friends from outside the jail.

Music is a powerful way of healing and creating beauty. We helped the inmates to start a music academy and recording studio. We have musicians, singers, and song writers. They have formed their own band and have performed at the Udaipur World Music Festival in front of a thousand people.

Lala, one of the inmates, wanted to set up a salon. We provided him with some required professional equipment and he has gifted thousands of beautiful haircuts to other prisoners and guards in the jail.

We have an amazing team of farmers and painters amongst the inmates. They have transformed the energy of the entire jail with their organic farm and wall murals.

Many friends of the Swaraj University family have also visited the Jail University shared their gifts and nurtured this process.

The Jail University is based on Self-Designed Learning. In Sanskrit, there is no word for teaching, it’s only for learning. So when there is no giver and taker, then there is only oneness.

Of course, life in jail is not so enjoyable all the time. I have witnessed violence too. Although, for me, it’s a space of friends now. I don’t feel like I am going to jail. Rather, I feel like I am going to the café to hang out with my brothers.

How do you situate this movement of love with the huge problems facing the world?

The movement of love holds the possibility of transforming vulnerable and conflictual spaces into the space of love, learning, living, and co-creating. Spaces of remembering, regenerating, rejuvenating, and reimagining communities and friendships.

The complexities of the world are interconnected. We need to change on a consciousness level. The jail is symbolic of our actions. Because of someone extracting more than required, the other has to steal. If you understand that, then we can create possibilities for larger systems.

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