By Deena Bandhu dasa
Our Vrinda Kunda Prison Preaching expanded to Gwalior Central Jail on Saturday, 17th June. Jankinatha Das, a disciple of Gopal Krishna Maharaja, who runs this program, contacted one of our life members in Gwalior, Dr. Suneet Misra to arrange a program in the Gwalior Central Jail. His relative, Sri Suneet Sharma is the Deputy Jailor there and he was very enthusiastic to have us come.
He talked to Sri Raja Ram Dangi, Head Jailor, and he was also very anxious for us to do our program in their jail. Actually some other group who believes that Gayatri is the mantra for the age of Kali had already done some programs there and, seeing the result, they were happy to also have us come to enliven and enlighten the prisoners.
Even in temple and other religious gatherings I have seldom seen the type of welcome we received. Sri Dangi himself entered our names and particulars in the register, a formality that we always have to do before entering any jail. They have these huge wooden doors and inside is like a vestibule with offices on either side and then another set of huge wooden doors. They always lock the first set behind us before opening the second set. When the second set swung open, we were suprised to see a brass band in full uniform waiting to escort us.
The band broke into a famous Mira Bai song and we walked between neatly made white chalk lines on the path for about 100 meters. Then for the next 200 meters to the door of the grand courtyard there were about 100 prisoners in clean yellow uniforms with little yellow Nehru caps to match. They were raining flower petals on us and chanting Veda Stutis, om indra devatah, om surya devatah, om candrama devatah, om vayu devatah…
We were completely flabergasted. Sri Dangi, seeing my surprise, leaned over in my ear and said that the other group had made some of the prisoners into purohits. Then we entered the doors of the courtyard, where 3,000 prisoners were all sitting in the shade of the trees there. They all stood up and applauded as we entered. Then we were escorted on to a very large stage where they had already placed a picture of Radha Krishna on a makeshift altar with a large brass lamp next to Them. They even had a nice but simple Vyasasana set up with cushions all around it.
I then lit the five wicks on the lamp and we garlanded Radha Krishna, and the pictures of Radha Shyamsundar, Krishna Balaram, and Srila Prabhupad that we had brought with us. We sat down and then the prisoners themselves had a bhajan group with a very expert singer who played harmonium, while another prisoner played tabla and they did two popular Hindi Krishna Bhajans. One of them was all about Radha asking everyone if they have seen Shyam, that was pulling our heart strings.
Then we taught the prisoners the mahamantra which most of them already knew anyway and had kirtan with 3,000 prisoners enthusiastically responding. Braja Bhumi, Temple President of Jhansi who had come to join us in the program, then spoke explaining that not only the prisoners, but even the people outside were also prisoners. Citing many verses he explained that real reform can only come when we actually change our heart. The prisoners applauded many of his points.
Then before I spoke, I thanked the prison administration for organizing such are reception that we have never seen in any other Jail. Picking up the que from Braja Bhumi Prabhu, I began explaining how there was no difference between us and them. We are all prisoners in this material world and offenders. I have seen other groups come and talk down to them, like they are aparadhis and we are pure. They immediately warmed up by this point. When I mentioned our four regulative principles, to my surprise, they all applauded!
I finished with the dramatical rendition of Jagai and Madai showing how these two aparadhis became saints by the mercy of Chaitanya and Nityananda Prabhus simply by chanting the Holy Names. This emphasized the point that we are all offenders in Kali yuga. I told them I used to do all the same things as Jagai and Madai, but my spiritual Master His Divine Grace AC Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada had saved us all with the chanting of Hare Krishna. You too can make your lives successful the same way and they all applauded enthusiastically.
Then Braja Bhumi finished off with an ecstatic kirtan. We invited all the prisoners to stand up and dance. Soon 3,000 prisoners were dancing jumping up and down ecstatically. It was really a sight to see! We had brought prasadam for them, which is one of the benefits of our prison preaching in India, as most countries won’t allow you to bring prasad inside the jail. Sri Dangi thanked us all and explained that the boxes of prasad, would be brought to each barrack (the large number of prisoners would have made a difficult scene) and they all cheered. He also made us promise to return on July 1st.
We had set up a book stall and sold many books and distributed quite a few japa malas also. We give the malas free on the promise that they actually chant on them. We usually go through about a hundred malas a month if anyone wants to sponsor them.
Actually Jankinatha Prabhu in his regular circle of Agra, Mathura, and Bharatpur, has about a dozen prisoners who chant 64 rounds. There are dozens who are doing sixteen rounds and a hundred or so who chant less than sixteen. He has distributed many books and now the prisoners who are doing sixteen rounds are asking about initiation. Anyone interested?
Jankinatha Prabhu is practically carrying on this preaching single handedly. The Jailers are all very appreciative since they all say that since our programs started, they have less fights and difficulties than before. I have been subsidizing his program from our Vrinda Kunda project. We are managing on a budget of just over $100 month. This is a selfless service, as neither we’re going to get any daksina, nor we’re going to get nice prasad like when we do at house programs. Instead, we have to bring the prasad! Anyone desiring to help out can contact me.
The next day we went to Jhansi, the city where Srila Prabhupada made his first attempt with the League of Devotees. Just underneath the imposing Jhansi Fort, of Rani Laxmi Bai, the famous Queen of Jhansi, we have a very nice property. One Bengali gentleman, Sri Ram Mukharjee, father of the well-know Bollywood startlet Rani Mukharjee, donated his ancestral house to ISKCON to make a temple there. Under the able guidance of Braja Bhumi Prabhu, disciple of Lokanatha Swami, the preaching is expanding in the old preaching grounds of Srila Prabhupada.
Two Janmastami’s ago, I was there and over 20,000 people attended the function. Srila Prabhupad would be very pleased to see this. Then next day, I met Dr. Suresh Chand Shastri with whom Prabhupada used to stay on his visits to Jhansi. He’ll be 80 in August but is still going strong and can talk endlessly about his association with Srila Prabhupada.
Srila Prabhupada Ki Jaya!!!
In service of Srimati Vrinda Devi, Deena Bandhu dasa