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The Long Arm of the Law

Sarva-drik dasa

Ever hear the phrase, “The long arm of the law”? Most of you probably have. But just in case you haven’t, this phrase refers to the tendency for legal authorities to always, “Get their man”. Well in my experience Lord Krishna’s “arm” is much longer than the law, and He has extended it through His beloved representative Srila Prabhupada, and Srila Prabhupada’s faithful servants, to reach out to devotees in every circumstance of life. And that includes those fortunate souls who practice Krishna Consciousness, yet somehow or other, find themselves incarcerated in one of the thousands of state and federal prisons that operate in the United States.

I remember the first time I entered a federal prison. It took some time since there is a lengthy background check process, but when the large, heavy steel door closed shut behind me during my first visit, I thought to myself, “I’m glad that I’m just visiting.” But there are hundreds of devotees of Lord Krishna whose visit to these correctional institutions is not so brief. They live there, and some of them will die there. In the meantime, while they spend time as inmates, many of them, by their good fortune, come in contact with devotional service through one of Srila Prabhupada’s wonderful books, through another incarcerated devotee, or by attending an in house devotional program. Prison is a microcosm of the outside world. And as there is a certain percentage of the outside population that are undiscovered devotees, so also in the prison environment there are devotees waiting to be discovered by the process of thoughtfully presenting Lord Krishna and our way of devotional life.

Preaching Krishna Consciousness in prison is really quite natural since there are so many parallels to life in Federal and State prisons and our own individual incarceration within the prison of our own mind and senses. Inmates live in the small prison inside the big prison and all of us live in the big prison of material life, Maya’s kingdom, and we all need to get out. How does that happen? How is it possible? Our ultimate release begins when we acknowledge our criminal behavior in relation to the Lord, rectify ourselves, behave ourselves and expect to be on “parole” for some time. Taking up devotional life is like being on parole. We have a relative degree of freedom which will mature to complete freedom in due course of time, but if we fall back down to non-devotional activity we are again sentenced to another term of birth and death in the Maya’s kingdom, the real “big house”.
For the last six months I have been traveling to the Petersburg Prison in Richmond, Virginia. After arriving, getting checked in and being escorted to the Chapel, I was surprised again to see the, “long arm” of Srila Prabhupada and Lord Krishna. The devotees there transform a vacant room into Vaikuntha twice weekly with their devotional attitude and all the paraphernalia you would expect to find in any Iskcon temple. They have two mridangas, several sets of kartals, most of Srila Prabhupada’s books, deities of Gaura-Nitai and Radha-Krishna, and about a dozen devotional photos are hung on the wall. Sweet incense perfumes the room and candles illuminate the whole scene. And the most amazing thing… they had never met a devotee face to face until I had come. Needless to say, I was quite amazed and very impressed with their devotional commitment.

When it was time for kirtan I requested Bhakta Richard Chase to lead, and was again very pleasantly surprised. Because they have never heard a regular temple style kirtan the melody and style was unique, but what enthusiasm! These devotees were diving deep into Hari Nam rasa in their own individual way. It made me realize that this is really what chanting is about, not just the particular rhythm, style and melody, but much more importantly, the substance, feeling and absorption in the process. In contrast it made me think of supermarket fruit that has beautiful color and form but when you taste it you might as well be eating cardboard. What matters in every aspect of life, and in devotional life in particular, is substance, how substantial the experience is, and not the external appearance or form. Ultimately it is this quality, the quality of Bhakti that attracts the merciful glance of the Lord. And it is His mercy alone which nourishes and maintains our spiritual life.
After a lively kirtan we had a stimulating discussion touching a variety of subjects from the practical aspects of devotional life like applying tilak, dealing with other inmates, and learning to offer prasadam to more esoteric topics concerning our spiritual identity, karma and the nature of the spiritual world. Many of the bhaktas are not very experienced in devotional life and are still exploring Srila Prabhupada’s books and the process of chanting japa on a regular basis. Still, as I left I felt so blessed that I was able to help encourage the devotees there, strengthen their faith and encourage their practice of Krishna Consciousness. By doing so I hope the “long arm” of the Lord will also pull me to His lotus feet where I may remain eternally serving Him and all His wonderful devotees.

There are literally thousands of correctional institutions in America alone. If you live near one, or even if you don’t,( I drive four hours one way to Petersburg), I strongly recommend making whatever arrangement you require to visit these institutions to extend a helping hand to the devotees that live there. By showing mercy to them in this way, we also become the object of the merciful glance of the Lord. Lord Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu stated emphatically that this chanting of Sri Harinam Sankirtan would spread to every town and village, which includes the prisons too! Hare Krishna.

Sarva-drik dasa lives in Prabhupada Village, NC, with his wife Sudevi Dasi and is engaged in many preaching programs in prisons as well as in other venues.

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ISKCON Prison Ministry
PO Box 2676
Alachua, FL 32616-2676