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Transcendental Postman

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Author: 
Kirtan Rasa Dasa

A few months after I started working with ISKCON Prison Ministry, I received a letter from an inmate which helped drive home to me the nature of this service and just how important it is.
“I only know what I read in your letters and Prabhupada’s books,” was part of his response to me, regarding my reply to a question he had posed. His words brought me a sudden, clearer understanding and. I’ve often since reminded myself of them.

Although I had some idea of the nature of this service when I began, this particular letter made me acutely aware of how isolated and cutoff these men and women can be and how critical is our role as one of their few, if not only, avenues of inquiry and discourse.
As a devotee, I’ve naturally come to understand association as a fundamental element of the bhakti-yoga process. I also have practical, personal experience of what it can be like to lack this association.

I first became aware of Krishna consciousness by coming across Srila Prabhupada’s books in a used bookstore. For years I carried around some very vague notions of Krishna and Bhagavad-Gita and had decided to pursue some deeper understanding. I eagerly began studying, but much of what I was reading remained impenetrable, as it was so far beyond the scope of anything I’d ever encountered. It would be several more years before I met devotees and it was only then that I began to gain some real clarity through inquiry and the give and take of realizations. Although I now understand that I already had the association of a pure devotee through Srila Prabhupada’s books, I understand that it is also through the day to day, incidental direct association with other devotees that we gradually gain the qualification to receive what Krishna is sending us. So when I read the inmate’s words it struck me that for this man, at least for the time being, I was it. This impressed upon me both the importance of being there and of getting it right.

It was not too long before this that I had even first become aware of ISKCON Prison Ministry (IPM). While taking prasadam with a friend at the Dallas temple, our conversation had somehow turned to the troubled state of our correctional systems in the United States. This subject had always been of interest to me but had been weighing particularly heavily on my mind because of some news articles and books I had recently read. When my friend mentioned the ISKCON Prison Ministry it was the first I’d heard of it and it was as if a light and turned on in my mind and I knew immediately that I must try to be part of it. As far as I can remember I’ve had a fascination and empathy for the incarcerated. Anytime I passed a correctional facility I would find myself haunted by thoughts and questions about the souls inside- who they were, how they must feel, and how they came to be there. Now the thought of transcendental knowledge being made available to them seemed like one of the rightest things I’d ever heard.

However well-prepared I may have felt this life-long fascination and empathy had made me for this service, dealing with these issues in theory and in reality are two very different things and I was soon to encounter some surprises. Among them was the unexpected strong emotions I quickly found welling up in me as I began to get deeper into correspondence with certain of the inmates. For instance, I encountered an overwhelming sense of anger and revulsion when I began corresponding with an inmate who had committed a particularly heinous crime. The man had gotten my contact information through another inmate and had written me out of the blue. I did a quick web search in an attempt to get some sense of who I was working with and quickly came across information about his crime and subsequent trial. At one point I found my hands literally shaking as I labored to write him back. Some part of me felt compelled to write “monster!” on the page and have done with it, but I worked my way through it and soldiered on. As much as writing him bothered me, moreover it bothered me that it bothered me (who am I to say who is or isn’t qualified to receive mercy? How solid is my own grasp of this philosophy if I’m seeing this man as anything other than another conditioned soul?). In struggling to deal with this, I found myself recalling one of Prabhupada’s lectures in which he likened preaching Krishna consciousness to a postman delivering a money order. Srila Prabhupada made the point that it is not the postman’s money (he may be penniless) and it is not the postman’s place to judge the worthiness of the recipient. It is the postman’s duty to deliver the money to whom it has been addressed exactly as he has been entrusted to. I no longer encounter the strong emotions I did early on but whenever I do experience some trouble I remind myself that I am only a postman.
(As a side note, this “monster” to whom I had so much trouble writing, has since become very dear to me. I’ve come to know him as a very sincere, steady and sweet devotee and I’ve actually found myself worrying if I go some time without hearing from him.)

Ultimately though, as big a lesson as these sorts of things have been, the bigger growth opportunities this service has given me personally have come simply from having the opportunity to witness over and over again the profound effect that this transcendental knowledge and process have, even in the most brutal and harsh of environments. As devotees we naturally come to possess some awareness of the power of the Absolute Truth but there is a keen perspective that can be gained by seeing it cast in stark relief to such a dark backdrop. I’ve come to liken it to the difference between seeing the light of a candle in broad daylight or in a cave. Same light, vastly different perspective. And I would have to say that of all the surprises I’ve encountered in this service, perhaps most surprising has been how much I have personally learned and grown through working with these inmates as we both struggle to gain understanding. I had no idea how much they had to teach me.

Kirtan Rasa lives in Arlington, Texas. If you would like to be a transcendental pen pal for the inmates, please contact him at: kirtanras108@gmail.com

NOTE:
This article is just a small part of IPM NEWS, our bi-monthly electronic newsletter. To read whole issues, please go to: http://www.iskconprisonministry.org/

If you wish to receive it in your mailbox, simply email me at iskconprisonministry@gmail.com with "SUBSCRIBE" in the subject line.

More excerpts of inmate letters and also their artwork are available on our website at: www.iskconprisonministry.org

WANT TO HELP?

OUR PRESSING NEED OF THE MOMENT: we are looking for mini japa malas (Neem, with 27 beads) for those prisons who won’t accept our normal size japa malas.
If you can help, please contact Mukunda Dasa or Bhakti-lata Dasi at:

iskconprisonministry@gmail.com

ISKCON Prison Ministry
3759 McCreary's Ridge Road
NBU #46
Moundsville, WV 26041