Chris Matthews

Free For My Life’s Work

Even prison walls couldn’t keep out Lord Krishna’s mercy, delivered by His determined, compassionate servants.

I WAS FIRST INTRODUCED to Krishna in 1985, at age fifteen. I was fortunate to have the association of some very sincere disciples of Srila Prabhupada.

Chris MatthewsThey inspired in me a deep desire to practice Krishna consciousness. I wanted to run off and devote my life to Krishna, but other desires won out.

In 1986 I was introduced to morphine, which gradually dragged me to the darkest depths of addiction. In 1992 I started burglarizing drug stores to keep from the dreaded withdrawals that were a fact of everyday life. I once overdosed and “died” flatlined for ten minutes. I came to in intensive care, cursing the doctors who had saved my life. I didn’t want to go on in this living hell, and death seemed the only way out.

All my attempts at cleaning up ended in failure. In moments of clarity, I couldn’t believe I had fallen to such a low level. How had I forgotten that I am an eternal servant of Krishna? How had I sunk so deeply into illusion? My bodily identification had robbed me of my aspirations for a life devoted to Krishna.

I remember thinking these things in 1993 as I awaited sentencing for stealing from drug stores. Still heavily addicted, and now with a daughter on the way, I lamented that I couldn’t teach her about Krishna. How could I help my daughter while I was so far gone?

Conflicted, I resolved to never again plague my mind with thoughts of God; I would deny His existence. But it is never so easy. Krishna never leaves one who has had even a small desire for devotion. He sits patiently in the heart and waits.

In 1994 I was sentenced to eight years in the Tennessee state prison. I started my sentence with hopelessness and despair. My daughter was born ten days later. I was so despondent that I doubted I’d ever see the outside world again.

Quest For Freedom

Somehow, a short time into my term I decided I would break free not a physical escape but a spiritual one. I would try to live a spiritual life in prison. With meditation, I thought, I would retain some sanity. I read and studied everything I could. I practiced a handful of meditation and astral-projection techniques. I studied Islam, Buddhism, Susm, Cabala, Christianity, Advaita Vedanta anything available through various prison ministries.

The two years I spent in a solitary confinement unit were a great opportunity to turn my cell into an ashram. I spent countless hours meditating, but to no avail. I was trying to meditate on an impersonal concept of the Truth. But I quickly learned that trying to still the mind is, as Arjuna said, “impractical and unendurable . . ., for the mind is restless and unsteady.” After years of trying the techniques Krishna describes in Chapter 6 of the Bhagavad-gita, I threw up my hands. Despite all my studies and practice, I was still miserable; they amounted to nothing.

For the first time in years I said a simple prayer to Bhagavan Krishna: “Lord, I am lost. I remember You. Please help me.”

A few days later I was transferred and released into the general prison population. Somehow I came across the address for Candrasekhara Dasa of the ISKCON Prison Ministry. I wrote him, he replied, and about a month later I received Bhagavad-gita As It Is, Beyond Birth and Death, and The Science of Self-Realization. I devoured Sri Krishna’s words and Srila Prabhupada’s purports. They were new life. I already owned three editions of the Bhagavad-gita with commentaries by impersonalists, but receiving Prabhupada’s was like greeting an old friend. I understood it much better now with age than at fifteen. It was so liberating to find out again my relationship to Krishna as servant. How much nonsense it is to meditate on “I am Brahman” and to be told I am God, you are God, we are all God while I was incarcerated! How did God become incarcerated?

I started chanting and became a vegetarian, even though my only meal for those years was beans and macaroni and cheese. I made a set of japa-mala (chanting beads) out of a piece of cloth by tying 108 knots in it and tying the ends together. I set up an altar in my cell, using pictures from the books. I learned to offer my job assignments to Krishna, working in a spirit of detachment. Most inmates are bitter about having to work for the state. But when I was asked why it didn’t bother me, I was happy to tell them I was working for Krishna.

I felt more free inside the razor wire than I had ever felt outside. It was all Krishna’s mercy on a fallen devotee. The thought of Srila Prabhupada bringing Krishna consciousness to the West to help us regain our lost relationship with the Lord of creation, Sri Krishna, brought tears to my eyes while I chanted. I was registered with the state of Tennessee as a hardened career criminal. I had seen many acts of brutality in prison and not so much as blinked. But here I was, crying over the mercy and compassion shown to us through the gift of the maha-mantra, by which Krishna melts even the hardest heart and then comes in and steals it. When I was released in July 2000, I was a free man in more ways than one.

Finding My Service

Last year a friend and I went to the Atlanta temple for the Gaura Purnima festival. I hadn’t been inside a temple for seventeen years. What bliss it was to have the company of devotees and be in front of the deities, hearing the transcendental vibrations of the maha-mantra! This stimulus made me decide to do what my life is meant for: serve Krishna, although I didn’t know how.

After a few months, I figured it out. I decided to start a branch of the ISKCON Prison Ministry. I thought of how nice it would have been for me to have had the association of devotees while incarcerated. I wanted to give that opportunity to others. Devotees can go into the prisons, as other groups do, but they can hold kirtana and Gita class and distribute prasadam, as no one else can.

My heart felt great compassion for the souls who sat and walked where I once did. I thought of how in all the institutions I had been in, none of the libraries had any of Srila Prabhupada’s books. So I started buying all the Prabhupada books I could at used book stores and saving them to send to someone. I put advertisements on the Internet, and I got in touch with every state, asking permission to send books and correspondence classes to inmates, general libraries, and chaplains’ libraries. I didn’t have the books or the correspondence courses, but I had a strong conviction and faith that I was serving Krishna and they would come by His mercy.

In only four weeks I received permission from seventy-six prisons to send them books, beads, and correspondence classes, and I received all the books and class materials to do it. Now I pray that devotees will come forward to go into the prisons, following Srila Prabhupada’s example of compassion.

I’d like to thank Candrasekhara Dasa, who has struggled selflessly with the prison ministry for sixteen years distributing books, corresponding with tens of thousands of inmates, and being a bright light in carrying out Lord Caitanya’s edict that Krishna consciousness be spread everywhere. Candrasekhara Dasa’s compassion reached me and many others. But many need our help and absolutely must have the opportunity to change and to practice Krishna consciousness.

The greatest gift I have received through the ISKCON Prison Ministry is a second chance to raise my daughter, now seven, in Krishna consciousness. I can sit with her and my fiancee’s twins, also seven, and chant japa in front of our deities. We chant six rounds together. When I see the girls with their beads, my heart soars. Because of the ISKCON Prison Ministry, I realize now that I can teach my daughter about Krishna. That’s my perfection as a parent.

ISKCON Prison Ministry Profile

IN 1962, Srila Prabhupada wrote as one of the goals in the prospectus of his League of Devotees (the precursor to ISKCON): “To take charge of moral upliftment by spiritual process even for the criminals and prisoners of the state, and to accept all kinds of help and facilities from the police and government concerned.” Before he left for the West, Srila Prabhupada brought Krishna’s message to the Tihar prison in New Delhi in the 1960s.

In the early 1970s, Prabhupada’s disciple Visnujana Swami used to take his exuberant chanting and potent preaching to the Bexar County Jail near San Antonio, Texas. Later, there were pockets of prison preaching in Oklahoma, California, and other places.

In the 1980s, Dharma Dasa was corresponding with inmates when he became the temple president of ISKCON Miami, so he turned his prison work over to Candrasekhara Dasa, who was already sending packets of Prabhupada’s books to prison libraries in Louisiana and other spots in the southeastern United States. Since then, Candrasekhara has been the backbone of the ISKCON Prison Ministry (IPM).

The IPM grew as it received inmate inquiries forwarded from temples, as the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust passed on its list of inmates who had asked about Prabhupada’s books, and as prison advocacy groups agreed to run advertisements for free books on devotional yoga.

In the United States there are now more than two hundred inmates who have seriously taken up Krishna consciousness. Srila Prabhupada’s books are owing into prison cells and chapel libraries. The IPM also helps inmates light for their right to a vegetarian diet, and it provides japa (chanting) beads whenever possible.

In the US, the IPM has two distribution centers, in San Diego and Chicago, managed by Syamapriya Devi Dasi and Balarama Dasa. Devotees connected with IPM are also working with prisoners in the United Kingdom, India, and Slovenia.

Here are some of the others who contribute significantly to the work of the Ministry in the US:

• His Holiness Candramauli Swami is IPM’s spiritual leader

• Jagannivasa Dasa, in Cleveland, writes to inmates and writes articles for the IPM Freedom Newsletter.

• His Holiness Bhaktivallabha Puri Goswami and devotees in Scotland donate four hundred copies of each issue of BTG for distribution to prisoners in the USA.

• Amala-bhakta Dasa and Tamopaha Dasa contribute books regularly.

• Michael Singer and Radha of the Temple of the Universe in Alachua, Florida, have been giving regular financial contributions since the early 1990s.

• Kamlesh Patel is also a regular donor.

Many others support the work of the IPM various ways.

To contribute books or money for postage, write to Chandra Myers, 3543 Rushland Ave., Toledo, Ohio 43606.

Letters From Prison

Excerpts from the hundreds of inmate letters received by devotees at the ISKCON Prison Ministry over the years.

The Ministry has provided me with devotee correspondence and with books to read and study, thereby increasing my ability to grow closer to Krishna and break down the wall of loneliness that surround me. In fact, these walls tumble into nothingness more so with each letter, book, and prayer that I receive.

Rockville, Indiana

Krishna has been so generous to me. He sent Bhakta Chris to help me understand who I am and hear the lovely words of Krishna. I was such a foolish rascal. Not anymore. I see things so clearly now. It’s like a dream come true. I hope to stay on my path. I feel so much better. I no longer eat meat or drink coffee, but I do chant the maha-mantra.

San Diego, California

I received the package of books. I hardly know how to express my thanks. It was the first time I have ever received a package that was really in line with what I wanted. I have never received a gift that was more meaningful to me. You opened the door to my heart.

Jean, Nevada

I’m still doing my chanting six rounds a day and loving every minute of it. I’m going to be doing seven rounds a day pretty soon. I love to chant to my Lord Krishna. He is so very good to me. He gives me everything I need.

Corcoran, California

We are continuing our weekly two-hour sessions here. We have six regular guys attending, and a few more drop in now and then. We just finished reading Chapter 1, and interest is growing. We need ten Gitas sent to the chapel here for the guys to use. All in all, I am doing well and learning more each day, mostly about how silly my life has been. I long to lift the veil that separates me from Krishna.

Jean, Nevada

My progress is most astonishing. Some people close to me thought I was losing my marbles. I told them that I finally found them! I can’t believe that someone would call me crazy for loving God. I try to engage others in Krishna consciousness, but it is very difficult to do this when my knowledge is still so limited. I will continue to try. Every Monday, devotees come to the prison, and we have a big attendance.

Tucson, Arizona

I am a prisoner in solitary confinement at a New York State correctional facility. I happened to notice a gentleman a few cells away who was very kind and seemed to have a very serene disposition. I inquired as to the source of his very humble attitude and serene disposition when all around us mayhem was the usual attitude. Prisoners were usually arguing and disrespecting each other. He explained that he was seeing spiritual life and that material life was a disease. He then lent me a book by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, called The Science of Self-Realization. It was the most fascinating thing I’ve ever read, and I truly wish to follow your teachings. I want to be a Hare Krishna disciple. I truly want to leave this material life and return to Godhead.

Pine City, New York

The program here is going stronger than ever, and last week set a new attendance record twenty-four. Krishna’s mercy is everywhere, even here in Terminal Island prison. I’m down to the last Gita, and we’re running short of every other book. I do my best to make sure they only go to guys who are truly interested.

Terminal Island, California

About eight months ago I was at the library here, and I came across The Science of Self-Realization. That was a turning point in this life we live. I stopped eating meat and talking the way I used to. After reading that book, Krishna became part of my daily life. I’m chanting Hare Krishna with every day that comes to pass. My life is so enjoyable, much like it was when I was in my youthful body. The next book I read was Krishna Consciousness: The Topmost Yoga. That filled me with bliss, and I’ve become stronger in meditation. I feel that I now have what I need to grow.

Canon City, Colorado

I want to learn how I can use the gifts the Lord has given me to serve His will. I don’t want to be a slave to material things, and I truly want to live a spiritual life. Hopefully, I will be released from this physical bondage soon. However, I don’t want to slip back into material life. It would be wonderful if you could send me some books to help, and for which I would be grateful. When I wrote to ISKCON, I knew I was taking a step in the right direction.

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