Here at 3,600 feet. Deep within the mountains of West Virginia. Spring has come late this year. It’s where I have lived out the uncompromising reality of my life for the past nearly thirty years. Within a cell smaller even than the tiniest hotel room. With dull grey walls trimmed in white. Where each day I ask myself… What have I done with my life. This life. What will be the final tally of my deeds?
From the narrow horizontal window slit of my cell I glimpse clusters of evergreens and leafless hardwoods that shake and bend in the relentless 20 mph wind. Their wooden bodies starkly silhouetted against a cold, grey sky where they stand just beyond tall chain linked fences and multiple rows of intimidating razor wire. Further off distant hills and mountains spill away out into the horizon like waves of the ocean. Though a closer look reveals that this is far from an idyllic storybook forest picture of unbounded beauty. For we are in the heart of coal country. Where great swaths of mountain forests are routinely ripped out and entire mountain tops rudely removed by explosive blasts and enormous digging machines bigger even than a house. The once majestic mountain tops scraped bare and callously discarded into the valleys below. Mountain top removal. All done in the name of economic progress. The cruel act of rendering everything into a surreal moonscape denuded of all trees and other life. The awesome transformation from life into something less then dead.
Gaura-purnima is only three weeks away. I am painfully aware that I have so little to offer. Only my body, mind and words. My intelligence and energy. I’m thinking of how to prepare a nice feast for Lord Caitanya”s appearance Day. And not without some feeling of trepidation. Because if this year is anything like years past, it won’t be easy.
It is the policy of the Mount Olive prison that each recognized religious sect may have a modest, once yearly feast/festival to celebrate an important religious day. The Muslim have Ramadan. Native Americans their corn festival. The Odinists a day to commemorate the Norse gods. The Christians with Christmas and usually something more. But not so for the Hare Krsnas. Because there are always obstacles and stumbling blocks that threaten to thwart our festive occasion. At last year’s scheduled feast only about half of the ordered bhoga items were made available. When I complained a meeting was held to discuss what went wrong. No one wanted to take responsibility. There was no resolution. And that’s the way it’s been. Always a struggle. But we refuse to give up. Because Lord Caitanya’s mercy is worth fighting for.
As in years past I’ve have selected Gaura-purnima as our designated holy day. I do so even over Krsna Janmastami. Because it is only through Lord Caitanya’s mercy that we may approach Krsna’s personal pastimes. Therefore Gaura-purnima takes precedence.
Hare in the Bible belt the Hare Krsna religion is viewed as an aberration. Or at best as a fringe alternative religion. In truth, everything else is seen as an affront to the prevailing Christian religion. The locals seeming unable to get beyond the perceived strangeness of men with shaved heads and a God who is blue. Even while in a nearby church a sect of hillbilly Christians dance and play with venomous rattle snakes. The bizarre ritual of religious fervor considered to be a test of their sincerity of faith. A cult that West Virginia is uniquely noted for. And where not infrequently such tamah-guna worshipers are seriously bitten and sometimes die.
Years earlier while trying to explain something of Krsna consciousness to our then new warden I showed him a picture from Krsna Book. The picture of newborn baby Krsna being carried through the tempestuous storm by Nanda Maharaja. There, depicted just above the divine child’s head, Lord Ananta-sesa and His thousand hoods offered protection. Oddly, rather than focusing on the image of Krsna he instead took note of Ananta-Sesa and asked if we too, were snake handlers. Somewhat taken aback I stammered out…s-s-s snakes? No matter. Before I could continue the warden rolled up his sleeves to show me the marks he’d received after being bitten on previous occasions at his church. Then remarking that he wasn’t sure we’d be permitted to have our own snakes. I politely assured him that we’d manage without them.
On just such a grey day I meet with the prison chaplain this year to discuss the upcoming Gaura-purnima festival. I am given the impression that at best he tolerates me. After telling me on several occasions that he completely disagrees with everything I believe in. Even though I am certain he’s never opened or read one word from Bhagavad-gita. And brushing aside my assurances that we’re okay with Jesus. We appreciate him. It’s just that we choose to worship in a different way. No matter. I can’t make a dent in him. His mind is made up. He and others like him remaining convinced that we worship an array of multi-armed gods with elephant heads and bare breasts. The entire Hindu cosmology frightening to him. I explain that we are not Hindus. But that only makes things worse. Because he can’t separate us from the hodgepodge. In their minds it’s all bunched together. Besides, it says in the Bible that Jesus is the only way.
I know I’m completely at the mercy of the prison authorities. Whatever facility I am given will be at their pleasure. I make my presentation in a calm, measured way. Doing my best to convey a sense of the importance of Gaura-purnima in our religious practise. In the end I settle for telling him it’s like our Christmas. My remark only draws a quizzical look.
I decide it’s time for some bold action. Go out on a limb and risk everything. I suggest that this year we might utilize the prison’s Culinary arts program. It has a separate, complete kitchen with many new and as yet unused appliances. And usually with more than a dozen prisoner students available to assist in the preparations. It would be perfect for our needs. To my surprise the chaplain brightens a bit and seems to like my idea. Then and there he gives the Culinary Arts director a call. After a few beats a smile slowly comes over his face. She likes the idea, too. And just like that she happily places her entire kitchen and crew at our disposal. I am slightly mystified. Without any effort Krsna has arranged for everything. Perhaps a transformation is taking place.
In my modest cell I am blessed to have the daily darshan of Sri Sri Gaura-Nitai. Their magnificent Deity forms housed in a beautiful red mahogany cabinet. The cabinet wood years before salvaged from a much older cabinet. Every day that I look upon Their Lordships I am amazed at my good fortune. Blessings from Sri Guru and Krsna.
Once a week we hold our scheduled religious program. Beginning with a small kirtana followed by DVD movie of Srila Prabhupada and the devotees. Sometimes when guests attend we have a short introductory lesson from Bhagavad-gita. But most times I am alone. Playing mrdanga and chanting loudly, if only to the walls. At other times in the warmer months I open the back door of the prison chapel. It isn’t unusual for some birds to fly near and perch by the doorway. On several occasions last summer a pair of unabashed finches came just inside the chapel doorway. Seeming completely at ease and unafraid. As the kirtana proceeded they began moving, bobbing their tiny heads in cadence with the drumming beat. What kind of creatures were these? Appearing to be more fortunate than their human counterparts who consciously chose to be absent from the vibration of the holy name.
Only feet away the chaplain, his secretary and the assistant chaplain dutifully sit in their offices. As if on cue after about 5 minutes of kirtana they quietly shut their doors. I suspect to mute the strange chant that offends their conception of religious worship. It doesn’t appear to be anything like their Christian ritual worship. Still, I’m certain a portion of the holy name must seep in. Past the dense wooden doors and into the ear holes of they who have not yet realized the great fortune. The denseness of their covering not yet allowing them to appreciate the transcendental vibration.
It’s been going on like this for all these years. Yet over time a slow, barely discernible change has taken place that none of their number would dare admit to. A slow but certain slackening of the outward hostility that is their common trait. Disliking this strange religion that seemed wholly foreign and out of place in their world. But through it all the holy name somehow working its magic through thick layers of wood and even thicker layers of conditioning that have stood as immutable as a great mountain. Like the mountains in the far distance that yearn for the return of their once brilliant green of vibrant life.
The chaplain’s secretary suddenly wants to get involved. She asks me for a tentative feast menu and recipes to calculate the amounts of food that will have to be purchased. We sit in her office and begin to collaborate. Pizza sounds nice. Every one like pizza. Lasagna. I tell her about sweet rice. Curd. Subji and samosas. Her eyes begin to sparkle telling me that this stuff sounds really good. I offer her several internet addresses and she goes online. First going to Krishna.com and then finding recipes from Kumara’s cook book. She quickly finds simple, easy to follow directions for making ghee, lasagna, pizza, samosas, subji, fancy Basmati rice, nectar drink, fruit salad, saffron sweet rice and more. She prints out the recipes in color and I sense her growing excitement. We can do this…she says to no one in particular. Krsna is inspiring everyone. We are all being transformed.
Three days prior to the feast the chaplain’s secretary and the Culinary Arts director personally do the bhoga purchasing. They insist on buying only the finest quality ingredients. They obtain fine Basmati rice, saffron, sweet, unsalted butter, first class produce, spices and more. They are ready for action. To everyone’s surprise they are $50 under budget. They excitedly offer their services for the entire project.
Because it is going to be a truly great feast we must divide our tasks into different days. I explain that everything should be cooked in ghee. On day one we make the ghee using an entire 35 pound case of sweet, unsalted butter. As the ghee cooks down its aroma pervades the entire kitchen and migrates out into the hallway. Our clothing and everything else smells like ghee and Indian spice. People from nearby classes and prison shops look in with curiosity. Something really good is happening in there.
Simultaneously, other vegetables were washed and their initial preparation ensues. On day two curd is made from gallons of fresh, whole milk. Then saving the liquid whey for the base of the nectar drink. More milk is brought to a boil in great kettles as the sweet rice is prepared with Basmati rice, sugar, saffron, raisins and love.
On day three, Gaura-purnima day, the pace picks up. The curd is chopped and deep fried in ghee and added to the pizza, subji, Basmati rice and vegetable samosa filling. Other samosas are filled with two kinds of apples and golden raisins. Great trays of pizza and lasagna begin and lasagna begin baking. The kitchen hums like a precision made watch with everyone engrossed in their duties. Every task is carried out to perfection. The women helped roll samosa dough, stirred pots and kept everything moving smoothly. And I am not much more than an observer. Occasionally giving suggestions and encouragement gleaned from my own experiences of preparing for the Lord’s feast so many long years ago. I’m left to stir a pot here, offering a short cut to a task or explain to the prisoner cooks the meaning of Gaura-purnima.
At exactly 12 noon everything is completed. I’m handed a large decorative stainless steel tray and several stainless steel bowls and all the preparations are readied for our offering to the Lord. After setting up a small makeshift altar in one corner of the kitchen I humbly offer the foods to Guru and Krsna. Reaching inside for as much sincerity and feeling as I can muster.
Begging Guru and Krsna to please consider the effort and emotion of all present and to please accept our humble offering. As I prayed the men took notice and a reverential calm descended on the kitchen. I chant Gayatri and again ask that these souls be given a taste of Krsna’s mercy.
I know that I am not a great man. Merely aspiring to be the servant of the servants of Krsna. Servant of the servant ad infinitum. And here today, I am simply a convict. Still, I have been trained by the disciples of Srila Prabhupada. And as far as my realization goes, I know what is what.
After the offering I distribute the Maha-prasadam to the men present. One after the other they became excited to experience such exotic tastes they’d never before known. And like a clock that begins winding down, each man falls silent. Carefully eating whatever was given them. Not a man wasted a single crumb or morsel as they looked around to see if there might be more. Powerful Krsna prasadam. The transforming effect of the Gaura-purnima feast.
But these was more. A portion of the prasadam is served up in Styrofoam clamshells for some 25 men who are officially listed on the “Hare Krsna” diet. With each man receiving two clam shell containers plus cups of sweet rice and nectar drink. The Gaura-purnima feast the most sumptuous surprise of their lives.
And there was still more. Krsna secretly arranged for plenty of leftover prasadam. The chapel people took several clamshell containers with them, along with several gallons of nectar drunk. Other staff members drifted in and out of the area, attracted by the enticing transcendental aromas. More Styrofoam containers were filled. Word spread that there was unbelievable pizza and lasagna. And other stuff whose names they couldn’t pronounce. Lord Caitanya was calling them near.
Back at the chapel the wooden doors were wide open and laughter could be heard. The secretary seemed dazed after drinking too much sweet rice and nectar drink. The chaplain couldn’t stop eating and stole prasadam from the other Styrofoam containers of his associates.
And I watched all of this while leaning on my cane. Just an old man spending his last remaining days in prison. Watching the mystery of Krsna consciousness unfold and how others and myself are slowly being transformed by the mercy of Guru and Krsna. The holy name and prasadam. Exactly like Srila Prabhupada transformed us so many years ago.