Who would expect rose bushes, flower beds, gentle cats and domesticated pigeons in the prison, the biggest and one of the most revered in the country, built at the beginning of the last century as a fort aimed at keeping wrongdoers away from the rest of the society? However, that is exactly what we ran into during our first visit to Lepoglava, Croatia. And not only that. We met, very kind guards, and a strange notice on the toilet room (“It is forbidden to play music in the toilet“ ) and above all – a devotee! We also found out that the world of restrictions can be conducive for overcoming our own restrictions.
But, let’s start from the beginning.
After half an hour drive from Varaždin through beautiful spring fields and small hills in the North-West Croatia, we arrive at the entrance of something that looks almost like an old hotel. The permission to have a program in Lepoglava had finally arrived only today and that also only in oral form. At the reception, as has already become common practice, Mahasimha expertly persuades the guards that all of us are allowed to enter (they missed two names, listed on the second paper in the material that he sent, printing out only a part of the document). In the meantime, noticing that we have 10 books for the inmates, Candramauli Maharaja, always thinking big, reprimands us for the small number and Mahasimha promises to bring more the next time.
After an examination of the instruments and the books, and we are on our way to the inner circle, accompanied by a pleasant guard. We pass through several locked iron gates, walk by the somewhat neglected flower beds with withered tulips (the inmate who loved to take care of the flowers had recently died not passing the art to someone else) and, greeted by a calm light orange and white cat,we start climbing up. First stairs are piece of cake but next set will challenge our program manager since they are really steep, high, with no handrail and almost endless and he is walking on crutches! But unlike many other times before in similar situations but different environments, Mahasimha is not budging an inch. With great determination and effort he is coming up! Looks like we came to the world of restrictions to successfully overcome our own restrictionsJ
Entering into a big room with many windows, accompanied by three guards, we find there more than 25 inmates. Maharaja was right – not enough books and mantra cards! Inmates in blue uniforms curiously look at us. Many are middle aged or older and seem to be intelligent people, with a clear mind. After my introductory words, Dharma Vatsala sings and plays harmonium, Mahatma plays the drum and three of us follow. The atmosphere is quite friendly, two of them even sang with us. There is only a slight dose of suspicion on the part of some guards but during Maharaja’s lecture about karma and reincarnation everybody is very attentively listening and following the story. After the experiment „point to your leg, etc. and then: point to you“, an older man quickly answered the question who we are, explaining even the weight of the soul, according to modern science! Then they hear not only that devotional service can change their karma, and sometimes imprisonment term, but that one can be happy even in the prison. One of the inmates looks as he is really into it, not losing us from his sight even for a moment. From the beginning of quite a long question and answer session, he has his hand in the air but only near the end has a chance to tell us that he knows devotees! He used to visit the Pula temple long time ago and somehow became disappointed when a devotee he was closest to left for India. After that, everything went down. When he told us “I accepted Krishna as my God, and read all the books of Srila Prabhupada,“ I noticed he had Tulsi neck beads!
Intrigued by Maharaja’s lecture, inmates chanted with us quite vigorously and asked many questions. One of them wanted to know how effective will his prayer to God be when “his soul is mean“. While I pondered on the meaning of the question, Maharaja praised him for a nice inquiry and said that he has to really be sorry for what he did and not only ask to be freed from the consequences. One inmate whose son was studying in the USA was complaining about the extremely materialistic environment in that part of the world.Maharaja answered that one can be happy in any circumstance if he knows how to connect with God. Regarding different religions, Candramauli Maharaja gave them a really nice analogy, of a dog who recognizes his master in whatever way he appears – dressed in a suit, naked, bathing suit or whatever. They got lot of gems and seemed to be able to appreciate them. At the end someone asked how to satisfy the soul and after understanding that the process is as simple as chanting, joined in the bhajan with all heart and soul.
The guard reminded us of the time, and as we were getting ready to go, a cheerful inmate from my home town approached me and explained that he is leading a group of inmates in a kind of meditation , taught by the “Art of Living” group who had visited them previously. He said they are all very much interested in our philosophy and would like us to keep coming regulary, as often as possible. Meanwhile Mahasimha was handing out books, his contact address and list of the books already in the prison library. Our devotee inmate, Marko, approached Maharaja, paid his obeisances and got his blessings as well as warm encouragement by Mahatma. He definitely took advantage of that exchange since, as I ‘m writing this, Mahasimha is telling me that Marko’s letter has already arrived.
On our way out we were all in high spirits, enlivened by the response we got during the program. Guards were escorting us with friendly talk, Mahasimha allowed Mahatma to help him down the steep stairs, the cat bide us farewell and I forgot to find out from the residents the “esoteric“ meaning of the notice on the toilet room. Hopefully, I will get another chance soon.
Vinata DD (Island of Krk, Croatia)