Prison Preaching in Pula and Valtura, Croatia, October 2012
On October 10th,ISKCON had it's first program in Pula Prison. Eight devotees were present.HH Candramauli Swami gave the lecture. A very special person was also with us, Candra Prabhu from the U.S., who is employed in Oregon state jail as a counsellor, and also volunteers as a religious counselor. Mother Saci Mata did the translating, Divya Prabhanda Prabhu played harmonium and lead kirtan, Namacarya Prabhu played mridanga.Organizers of the program and also the karatal players were Nadia Nimai Prabhu and his wife Mother Malati Mala.And me, with the special task of writing a report on the event.
We arrived one hour early, the guards were a bit surprised, but they let us in after the normal rountine check. Inside we were led into a wide, long hall where the program was to be held. The old jail building dated back to the Austro-Hungarian Empire period.
A couple of the guards escorted us in along with two ladies who were prison workers monitoring rehabilitation and recovery programs. Everyone was friendly, and because we came early we had a lot of time to talk with them about the prison and the inmates. They told us that the jail houses both inmates who were given court sentences, and those who are awaiting trial. Many come back to prison as it has become their home. During the years they spent inside they become unable to live outside. The ladies said there were about 5,300 people in prisons in Croatia (out of the population of 4.5 million). Candra mentioned to them that in the U.S.A. there are 3 million persons in jail out of population of 300 million which is 1% of the entire population. The ladies were a bit shocked with such big numbers and said "well, 3 million inmates, that's almost the entire population of Croatia!"
After a while twelve inmates arrived carrying their own chairs and finding a place under the scrutiny of the guards. I thought they were not the types who you would expect to come. To me they all seemed uninterested, absorbed in their own problems. Why did these people choose to come I wondered? And why others didn't?
As they were arriving it was becoming apparent to them that we are very different. Saci Mata introduced us, saying we are followers of Srila Prabhupada's movement-ISKCON and famous all over the world as the Hare Krishna's. She then introduced Candramauli Swami as a spiritual leader coming all the way from America, and Candra as a prison counselor.
Candramauli Swami briefly explained about kirtan and then kirtan started. The cold un-welcoming prison hall was echoing the sound of the maha mantra, accompanied by the pleasant sound of mridanga, harmonium and karatals. I took a look at our hosts, and initially they appeared shocked by the kirtan. But the maha mantra was pervading everything, growing in size and becoming more and more prevailing. The mahamantra was engulfing everything, the walls, the bars, the whole material setting was joining in. The initial shock of the audience seemed to have changed into some sort of introspection, remembering, reminiscing.
After 15 minutes the bhajan ended and Candramauli Swami began the lecture. He explained that what we were doing is called kirtan which means celebrating God. The mantra we are singing has 32 syllables, and includes three names of God: Krishna, Rama and Hare. By chanting these names a person's mind is led into the transcendental world, a place we all want to go because as eternal souls we cannot find happiness in this material world of death. Maharaja explained very simple basic ideas about people trying to be happy in material world, about how everybody wants to be happy and we think we can be happy by acquiring things, but the statistics show that most suicides are committed by rich and material well-to-do people. Than he explained that there's a way to be eternally happy, but that is only possible in the spiritual world and not in this material conditioned life. Happiness lies not in what we have but in relations and God or Krsna is the fundamental principle of all relations.
The inmates were listening carefully and nodding in agreement. Maybe they were impressed with the fact that the lecturer was talking to them as persons, in a way they don't receive from their authorities.
Maharaja said that it's ironic to talk about freedom to inmates, but in reality we can all become free just by singing the maha mantra, as this material world is a prison for the soul because we are bound to die here, and nobody wants to die. He added that he didn't come here to talk about getting out of the prison, but will talk about (and then he emphasized this word with a pause) – identity. The inmates were kind of intrigued with this as they didn't expect to hear this.
Maharaja then began an experiment and asked the audience to point with their right hand to their left hand, to their legs, to their nose, to their head. Some of them (in a joking manner) participated in this experiment. Then he asked them to point to themselves. They were a bit confused, and were pointing their finger to various parts of the body again "this is me, this is me". But Maharaja told them: "No, you are pointing to your head, your chest, but that is not You, it is Your head, Your chest..." Still they were confused, and started to laugh. The atmosphere then became more relaxed.
Then one of them just started speaking and rambling on about himself and about his past. His rambling seemed to inspire a question. Maharaja asked Saci Mata to translate as he continued to ramble on. The situation became a bit awkward, and the brutal reality of our surrounding became apparent. We were all waiting for Maharaja's reaction.
Maharaja let him talk for a while, and then he engaged him into answering questions, which were related to the subject of who we actually are. The atmosphere then became lively, and then Maharaja suggested that maybe other inmates might have questions. People then started asking: about Maharaja's age, about how long he's been in a movement, about reincarnation.
On the question of reincarnation Maharaja answered very elaborately, explaining how every action has an equal and opposite reaction which makes us responsible for our own misfortune. He also explained how that is a reason why there seems to be injustice in this world where some people are rich, intelligent, good looking, while others are prone to illness and live in poverty. Maharaja said that God is just and favors no one, but the rules of karma are the same for everyone. Therefore, whatever we choose in life we get a reaction accordingly. That’s why it's important to chant the maha mantra as the sound of the God's names which gradually frees us from all karmic reactions and material entanglement.
Then one inmate asked "Well does that mean that when I go up there (presumably thinking of heaven) I will be in prison too?". Maharaja told him "No, of course not, there's no prison there. In spiritual world everyone is happy. “Then one of the guards jumped in and spoke to the inmate who asked this question "You see, only your material body is in the prison" with a tone of voice that suggested "You should listen more carefully."
The questions continued, about living in India, drugs and how they can help to understand Indian philosophy better. To the drug question Maharaja answered that there's no need for drugs as the maha mantra is the drug: by chanting Hare Krsna you get high and stay high forever, with no side effects and never come back down.
After the questions and answers we again sang bhajans. Before everyone departed we shook hands, and some of them asked for an address they can write to. Maharaja told them that he travels all around the world giving lectures in prisons, and he often writes letters to inmates who are interested in the process. When asked would they come again to such a program they said "Yes, it's good fun."
We felt that the program was a success. Maharaja told us a secret: Hope for the best and expect the worst. It was a really special experience to see Maharaja in the front line of preaching mission, displaying all the qualities of a good preacher: tolerance, compassion, wit and ability to always stay in charge of the situation. We were all impressed with how he handled the rambling person.
As we were going out, we asked the guard escorting us what did he think of the program. He said that it seemed to him that the inmates only came for the fun of it, not taking it seriously.
"Yes, Maharaja replied. "But some were serious."
The next day, October 11, we went to a prison in Valtura a town nearby Pula. This place was the open-type where mostly offenders with traffic accidents were held. There were no walls, guards or bars, just a few houses in a farm-like environment.
We were welcomed by one of the officials who arranged the event. He was very interested into India and was impressed with the fact that everyone in the group had visited India.
The program is completely voluntary and consequently not one inmate attended the program although a few did gaze in curiously as we were having Kirtan. Mostly they were outside, just chatting or in their rooms watching TV. Our host was apologizing saying he's also not surprised because they are always uninterested for anything that is happening there. He said: they say they have their own religion and don't need another one.
Maharaja still held the program and we sang bhajans and had a lecture for our small group. Maharaja then said "Since we are all prisoners of the material world, you can sit down in their places." The lecture was interesting, about the many planets in the material world and how they all get destroyed at the end of Lord Brahma's life. The material worlds take up only one quarter of the entire existence, where spiritual world takes three quarters. What binds us to the material world are our material desires, so we should give them up so that we can go back home to the spiritual world. Maharaja said only very few persons take interest in practicing some kind of spiritual life, and even those who do it is for some material benefits. It is very rare that a person really wants to give up all material desires and go home, back to Godhead. He also quoted Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati the spiritual master of Srila Prabhupada who said that "our business is to preach even if no one comes then preach to the four walls".
As we were leaving we passed by a group of inmates sitting in front of the entrance. They noticed us and some said "Hare Krsna".
With prison preaching you never know what to expect!
To read more articles about prison preaching, please visit our website: www.iskconprisonministry.org