Found in Sanga, Sanga 2008.

Bhakti Behind Bars

July 10th, 2008 | No Comments

Q. I am currently reading your book Bhagavad-gita: Its Feeling and Philosophy and am interested to know why you translated the Sanskrit word papam as sin. I understand that the word papam can also be translated as fault. For example, if a child disobeys his mother and throws soil from a potted plant on the floor, would the word sin be correct usage in this instance to explain the child’s behavior? The word sin has a harsh connotation in Western/Christian society, so I am wondering if its use in the Gita carries the same feeling?

A. The Sanskrit word papam denotes the opposite of punyam (piety). In the context of the Gita, these two refer respectively to not adhering to scriptural mandates (thus acting otherwise) and adherence to scriptural mandates. Rather than “sin,” the word papam could be rendered as impiety, but I believe that to translate papam as fault would not do justice to what is intended in the Gita.

No doubt we all have vices, and because these vices get in the way of our spiritual progress and generate negative reactions (bad karma), they are akin to the Christian notion of sin, save perhaps for the fact that such “karmic sins” never mandate eternal damnation as their reaction. However, if you feel more comfortable with the idea that certain acts not helpful to one’s spiritual progress constitute misbehavior and you would like to refer to such acts by the Sanskrit word papam, I do not think you can be faulted or that you will incur any sin by such usage. ☺

Q. As a devotee in prison I have a concern about diet. In here I cannot prepare and offer my food to the Deity of Krishna, and my understanding is that doing so is essential to my devotional life. It is also difficult for me to follow Ekadasi, which calls for fasting from grains and beans twice a month, an observance that Lord Caitanya asked all of his devotees to follow.

Presently, I offer the vegetarian fare that is available here to Krishna in my mind, but devotees have not cooked the food so this practice does not strictly conform to scriptural guidelines. The answer would be for me to be permitted to set up my own kitchen and cook for myself, but the authorities here said they could not allow this. They would, though, be willing to buy food for me that was cooked by devotees living outside the prison, a compromise that seems reasonable to me but did not satisfy all of the devotees who have been my advisors. Some of these devotees have been encouraging me to sue the prison administration because I am not permitted to practice my religion in regards to diet. However, I do not feel entirely comfortable with the idea of a lawsuit and all that it would entail, so I am writing to you because I have the highest regard for your advice. My question is should I take the prison system to court over this issue.

A. In my opinion, by offering to buy you meals cooked by devotees, the prison administration has made a reasonable compromise, one that would likely satisfy a judge as well as your religious concerns. Although finding an outside devotee to cook for you may be somewhat of a burden, the extent to which your proposal burdens the state is much greater. Thus there is good reason to believe that you would lose any proposed court case.

Furthermore, there are many instances in the history of Krishna-bhakti in which devotees have found themselves in less than ideal circumstances, circumstances that inhibit their ability to cook and offer food to the Deity. A simple and far from extreme example is that of preaching in India (of all places). When Srila Prabhupada’s disciples went to preach to Indian families in an effort to enlist “life members” for Iskcon, they had no facility to cook, much less offer what they might have cooked to the Deity. When this dilemma was presented to Srila Prabhupada, he told them simply to eat in vegetarian restaurants. In instances like this, one should eat and pray that the energy derived from eating will be spent only in Krishna-bhakti, thus assuring that one is not further implicated in material life in the course of maintaining one’s body.

Vasudeva and Devaki were imprisoned for years and their captor Kamsa did not give them facility to cook and offer their meals. Nonetheless, Krishna manifested in their hearts, and then appeared to them personally in prison. In other words, their devotional life was not hampered by their lack of facility. As for Ekadasi, ideally one should fast entirely from food and drink beginning the night before. If you cannot do this, then simply abstain from grains and drink only milk or fruit juice, which I understand is commonly available in prison. No one would forbid you from such a religious observance.

Sri Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita (9.26) that if anyone offers him with devotion and purity a leaf, a flower, a fruit, or water, he will accept that offering of devotion. Devotion is mentioned twice in this verse indicating that more than anything else it is the loving devotion involved in the offering that he accepts. The idea is that the more love involved in the offering, the more Krishna eats. Ideally the Deity will eat the entire offering and the devotee will be satisfied with fasting. Then if the Lord goes out of his way to see that such a devotee gets something to eat, going as far as to bring it to him personally, as he did in the case of Madhavendra Puri, such food is truly prasada—Krishna’s mercy.

Krishna says that he eats that which is offered and prepared with love. If, however, one cannot offer him such pure love, then Krishna says in the next verse (9.27) that one should offer him whatever one does, whatever one eats, whatever one gives away, or whatever austerities one may perform. However, in this verse Bhagavan does not say that he eats when we offer him whatever we eat, for food and love are not the same. Still, he encourages those less advanced to offer whatever they eat, and this act of offering is purifying.

In conclusion, it is not about eating. It is about offering. In your mind you can offer all kinds of palatable dishes to Bhagavan, and he will accept them. This practice is known as manasa seva, which is a perfectly authorized way to serve the Deity. Thus you can offer food for his satisfaction even in prison. As for your own consumption, in spite of the fact that you are incarcerated, some vegetarian food is regularly being brought to you by God’s arrangement. Show your gratitude and offer it back to him in your mind. Above all, remember that bhakti is more about sincerity than it is about strictly following regulations. Be sincere about doing as much as you can in terms of formal practices in consideration of the circumstances you are in. Understand the essence of the formalities and apply yourself to that. If you do so, you will make advancement wherever you are. This is my advice.

See also:
Krishna’s Diet is Bhakti

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