By Indradyumna Swami
The America that Sri Prahlada das and I flew into after our Australian tour was not the America I had visited a year earlier. The country was mired in recession, sinking into despair with financial problems. Unemployment had hit a twenty-five-year high, with 5.1 million people having lost their jobs since the beginning of 2008.
More than a million foreclosures had cast a shadow over the housing industry and sent a ripple of despair throughout the country. Particularly disturbing was a report that 1.5 million children would be homeless this year. Car sales had fallen by fifty percent, the U.S. Post Office was considering drop-ping one day a week from its delivery service, and tourism had dropped by twenty percent.
Everyone seemed to be affected. Many people I spoke to said they would need second jobs and were opting for shorter vacations and less-expensive homes. A storeowner told me that his sales of wedding gowns had decreased by thirty-three percent. “Brides are just being frugal,” he said. “They’re using their friends’ old wedding gowns.”
In California, a state senator went so far as to propose selling San Quentin, a 432-acre penitentiary with a breathtaking view of San Francisco Bay.
“Our inmates don’t need an ocean view,” he said. He estimated the property could realize $2 billion, even in a depressed market. It would boost the coffers of the world’s eighth largest, but slumping, economy.
Toward the end of our tour, while I was walking around the grounds of New Vrindavan in West Virginia, a devotee turned to me. “Maharaja,” he said, “has the recession affected your fundraising in the U.S.?”
“Of course it has,” I replied.
“Will you be able to do your festival tour in Poland this summer?” he asked.
“We’ll manage,” I said.
“Wow,” he said shaking his head, “these are really difficult times.”
“That’s not always negative,” I said. “Difficult times are the best for preaching Krsna consciousness. I was reading the other day that church attendance has risen by ten percent in many parishes in this country.”
“Really?” he said.
“In Bhagavad-gita,” I said, “Krsna lists distress as one of the four reasons people turn to Him.”
catur vidha bhajante mam
janah sukrtino ‘rjuna
arto jijnasur arthahi
jnani ca bharatarsabha
“O best among the Bharatas, four kinds of pious men begin to render devotional service to unto Me — the distressed, the desirer of wealth, the inquisitive, and he who is searching for knowledge.”
My godbrother Akhilananda das spoke up. “Yes,” he said. “I have plenty of experience about how difficulties push people to take up spiritual life. I work with ISKCON’s Prison Ministry, preaching in prisons throughout the state of Ohio. Many prisoners are receptive to our teachings.”
“A prison ministry would be an unusual service,” I said. “Srila Prabhupada began prison preaching at Tihar Prison in Delhi in 1962, before he came to America,” Akhilananda said. “Similar attempts were made by ISKCON devotees here in the U.S. during the early ‘70s, but it was the late ‘80s before a devotee named Chandrasekara das actually developed the ministry.
“He was staying in the New Orleans temple and noticed that many of Srila Prabhupada’s books were lying around unused. He sent some of the books to the state-prison libraries in Louisiana. Inmates began writing to him, and eventually he started visiting them. Now he writes more than fifteen hundred letters a year to U.S. prison inmates and has a team of devotees who help him all over the country.”
“How did you get involved?” I asked.
“I heard about the program a few years ago,” said Akhilananda, “and I wrote to Chandrasekara asking if I could help. Afterwards I contacted a prison in Youngstown, Ohio, near where I live. I told the prison authorities I was a priest and would like to minister to the inmates. They enrolled me in a course that taught me about the prison system. It included dealing with prison riots, what to do if taken hostage, how to use mace-all that kind of stuff.”
“That’s interesting,” I said.
“Then I started a weekly evening program at the prison,” he continued. “The day before I began, the main chaplain told me, ‘This will be the best experience of your life.’ And I did find it to be so. Some inmates take Krsna consciousness very seriously, possibly because of the constant reminder of the miseries of material life. A few of them make quick spiritual progress. One man I’m ministering to recently took initiation in prison.”
My eyebrows went up.
“That’s right,” Akhilananda said. “Aaron was a convicted murderer, Jamaican by birth. Several years ago three white supremists attacked him in a bar. They broke a bottle over his head and beat him. An hour later, in a fit of rage, he ran over them with his car and killed one of them. He was sentenced to fifteen years to life. He became remorseful and suffered in prison. By the time I met him he was searching for an alternative in spiritual life. He took to Krsna consciousness immediately.
“He had plenty of time to chant and read Srila Prabhupada’s books because they have no work for the two thousand prisoners in Youngstown. He told me if you don’t get into something positive like Krsna consciousness, you’ll get into gang activity, and there are plenty of gangs in the jail like M13 or the Aryans or the Black Brotherhood. Sometimes there’s violence between them. Some of them even continue their drug trade from within the prison.”
“How’s that possible?” I asked.
“Somehow they do it,” he replied. “They use codes in phone conversations or in talks with visitors. They get notes out through family members and sometimes even bribe guards to pass messages for them. It’s a whole other world in there.
“After his initial contact with us, Aaron began regularly practicing Krsna consciousness. After three years he asked me if I could put him in touch with a spiritual master in ISKCON. He began corresponding with Bhaktimarg Swami, and the next year we arranged for Maharaja to come to the jail and initiate him.
“It caused quite a stir in the prison. All the inmates were talking about a mystic event. Of course, we couldn’t have a fire yajna, but Maharaja gave a lecture, chanted on Aaron’s beads, and gave him the name Arjuna dasa.
“A few days later Arjuna had another prisoner tattoo the mahamantra on his back. Tattooing is strictly forbidden in prison, and if a prisoner is caught with a new tattoo, he’s immediately put into solitary confinement. But Arjuna took the chance. He said gang members are identified by their tattoos and he wanted to make it clear he was part of the Krsna group, even though he was the only initiated devotee in the prison.”
“How in the world did another prisoner give him a tattoo?” I asked.
“They use a small spinning motor that they take out of a tape recorder and a staple dipped in baby oil that’s become black by being burnt,” he replied. “It’s a crude method, but I’ve seen some pretty amazing tattoos on the prisoners.
“Arjuna’s an artistic person himself, and he’s now doing paintings for several devotees’ books. With good behavior he could be released in ten years. When he does get out he’d like to distribute Srila Prabhupada’s books because he’s seen how much they’ve helped him.”
“Have any prisoners become active in Krsna consciousness after they were released?” I asked.
“Many,” replied Akhilananda. “Ben Baker, a former member of the Aryan Brotherhood, did time and is now a dedicated preacher. He has a contract out on his life for renouncing the gang and taking to the non-violent path of Krsna consciousness.
“Another devotee who comes to mind is Sankirtan-yajna das, a disciple of Bhakti Tirtha Maharaja. In the early ‘70s, before he went to prison, he joined the movement and traveled for several years, distributing books with the Radha-Damodar traveling sankirtana party. Unfortunately, after some time he left the movement and got involved in dealing drugs. He was eventually caught and did a number of years in prison. After his release he’s again become very active in distributing books as well as helping with Food for Life in Washington, D.C.”
“Huh?” said a devotee. “Why was he put in prison for selling a few drugs?”
“Not a few drugs,” said Akhilananda. “He was known as Mr. Weed among the drug dealers of his time. Once he smuggled an entire shipload of marijuana into the country. He owned five homes, a Lear jet, a thirty-five-foot yacht and a Mercedes limousine. He had two hundred people working for him. He was big time.”
“Wow!” said the devotee.
“During his drug runs he would sometimes meet devotees selling books in the airports,” continued Akhilananda. “He’d always surprise them by giving a thousand-dollar donation for a book.
“At his trial he was convicted of bringing marijuana worth more than three hundred million dollars into the country. The judge threw the book at him and gave him ten years in federal prison. Faced with a decade in jail, he had a change of heart and decided to become a devotee again.
“When he arrived at the prison to begin his sentence, some of his associates, who had already been jailed, had arranged a special cell for him, complete with a television, and someone to do his laundry. It was big news around the jail: ‘The Weed is coming.’
“But when he arrived he surprised his former cronies. He wasn’t interested in the facilities they’d provided for him. Each day he would invite them to his cell to chant with him and have a Srimad-Bhagavatam class. He encouraged them to become vegetarian. He devised a program where he taught some illiter-ate prisoners to read, using the Bhagavad-gita. On special days he’d arrange programs in the chapel, where he would make Jagannatha deities out of bread and have arati and big kirtans.
“Like Arjuna das, he used his time wisely, and thinking of his future devotional service, got an associate degree from Ohio University and a degree in agriculture from Penn State.
“When he saw that the members of the Sikh religion were allowed to wear turbans in jail, he successfully campaigned for the right to wear neck beads and carry a bead bag at all times. He even got the prison system to pay for sannyasis to come to lecture. He had at least five to ten bhaktas practicing Krsna consciousness at any one time.
“He attracted the attention of the prison authorities by keeping the yard clean and using small rocks and cement scraps to make a garden, complete with a fountain. When it came time for his release the warden joked with him. ‘Maybe you could stay a little longer,’ he said.
“After his release he received initiation from Bhakti Tirtha Maharaja and immediately took up the services I mentioned in Washington.”
A devotee chuckled. “Seems like prison is a good place to get serious about Krsna consciousness,” he said.
“That’s true,” I said, “but we are already in a difficult place and don’t have to end up in prison to become serious about spiritual life. The world we live in is called Durga-dhama in Sanskrit, which means the prison of material existence. There are four high walls around this gigantic prison: birth, disease, old age, and death. When one realizes this, one become serious about devotional service and tries to go back home, back to Godhead, as quickly as possible.”
That evening I found a quotation from Srila Prabhupada:
Sometimes in New Delhi I was invited to give some good lessons to the prisoners. So I have seen so many prisoners. They were shackled with iron chains, iron chains. So we are also chained up here, and what is that chain? That is our sense enjoyment. Yes. We are chained in this material world by sense enjoyment. That’s all. So if we want to cut our prison life, then the first symptom will be to minimize this sense enjoyment or to regulate the sense enjoyment.
[ Lecture, Bhagavad-gita, New York April 27, 1966 ]