The Life of Swami Bhakti Gaurava Narasiṅgha Mahārāja
Chapter 4 – Go Directly to Jail!
Narasiṅgha Mahāraja found himself in a police station looking across a table at a court-appointed lawyer whom he remembers did not really give a damn about what happened to him. As far as Mahārāja knew, he had been arrested for draft evasion, but the lawyer had news for him.
“Yeah, draft evasion….and possession of narcotics with the intent to sell, illegal possession of firearms, not to mention the possibility of fines in excess of $250,000. Boy, you are in real trouble! You’re basically facing about 10 years or more hard time in a state penitentiary with no bail.”
Mahārāja’s eyes widened and his jaw dropped in shock.
When they had arrested him, the police had searched the entire apartment where they had discovered all sorts of illegal substances, a large wad of cash and a revolver – none of which belonged to Mahārāja. He told the lawyer that had only been there for a few days visiting his friends. He had no knowledge of any drugs and he definitely didn’t know anything about a gun! He just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The lawyer looked at him over his spectacles with a deadpan stare that betrayed either his disbelief or disinterest, “Tell it to the judge, kid!”
And that is exactly what he did. After a few days there was a hearing where Mahārāja pleaded his case and after various witnesses were questioned, the judge fully accepted that Mahārāja had no knowledge of the drugs nor the gun found on the premises. This news came as a huge relief to him – until the judge announced that despite being found not guilty of possession of narcotics and an illegal firearm, he was guilty of draft evasion and immediately sentenced him to five years in prison.
During the Vietnam War, approximately 570,000 young men had been classified as draft offenders, about 210,000 of whom were formally accused of draft violations. However, only 8,750 of them were ever convicted and amongst them, only 3,250 were jailed.
Unfortunately for Mahārāja, he was in the minority of the 3,250…
In mid 1968, Mahārāja was sent to a county prison in San Diego, but was told that he would be transferred to a city facility later on. During his incarceration, he didn’t meet many hippies. Most of the inmates were misdemeanour offenders, others were serious felons charged with narcotics, robbery, assault, murder and the like. The one thing that all of them had in common however was that none of them were vegetarians. Keeping a vegetarian diet during imprisonment was a challenge. Mahārāja would trade his sandwich meat for slices of cheese. Sometimes winning cigarettes at poker or chess enabled him to trade the cigarettes for chocolates or for bread and butter. Life behind bars was no picnic!
During his entire time in prison Narasiṅgha Mahārāja hardly saw the sky. He missed the redwoods of La Honda and the ocean in Florida that he so much loved. He spent many hours sitting on his bunk doing the āsanas that Kris had showed him in Mexico and trying to meditate – something that definitely helped him keep his sanity. It was while he was engaged in āsanas one day that he met an inmate who had extensive knowledge of haṭha-yoga. He was a skinny-framed man in his mid-fifties and had been in and out of prison since he was thirteen (mostly in). In his whole life he had only been out of prison for a fortnight and most of his crimes had been committed in jail. Mahārāja had frequently seen him arm-wrestling other inmates who were twice his size and were built like tanks, and each time he would defeat them with ease. He told Mahārāja that it was due to his practice of prāṇāyāma (yogic breathing exercises) that he had learned while he was incarcerated. Mahārāja asked him to teach him more āsanas and prāṇāyāma techniques. Since he was bored and had nothing better to do, he readily agreed. After a few months of prāṇāyāma, Mahārāja’s yoga-friend called him over to the game room.
Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: Every day the prisoners would take these big wash-buckets, fill them up with water, put them on the end of two brooms and they would lift them like dumbbells. Some of these guys were huge. The Afro-Americans had arms like legs! So my friend had made a bet with them that I could beat them all at arm-wrestling. Now I was a really skinny guy. He was pretty smart and somehow or other he had figured out a particular way of grabbing the other guy’s hand. This really gave me some leverage. So I came out of my cell into the game room and first up was this black guy. All morning I had been doing meditation and some simple prāṇāyāma – it was like something from a Rocky movie. On the table was a big pile of cigarette packets and a bigger pile of candy-bars. These were the bets against me. I got 10/1. In their mind there was no way that this skinny hippy was gonna whoop this big black guy. So we arm-wrestled and I beat him, and it almost caused a riot! The inmates thought it had been rigged. After an hour’s worth of hooting and shouting, I got myself a pile of candy bars and my friend got all the cigarettes.
Indeed, boredom in prison was a common curse amongst the prisoners, and to break the tedium they would do just about anything. Mahārāja was no exception.
Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: One night around 2am I staged a ‘suicide’ by hanging myself from the bars with a bed sheet. The sheet went under my arms, and I put my jacket on over it, so in the dark it looked like I was hanging by the neck. When the night-guard came by flashing his light into the cells, there I was – hanging with my back toward the guard. The guard panicked, started blowing his whistle, ran down the corridor and pushed the alarm. I jumped down, quickly got into my bunk and pretended to be asleep.
The next moment all the lights came on in all the cells and a small riot squad stormed in. “Where? Where?” shouted the senior duty officer. But there was no hanging body to be seen. The inmates, rudely awoken from their sleep, started shouting obscenities at the guards and the guards shouted back damning them all. After a few minutes the lights were off again and everyone went back to sleep. I thought the whole incident was hilarious. No harm intended, I was just bored to death!
The consequence of this escapade was far from hilarious however. The next morning, the governor announced that if the culprit didn’t step forward and own up, the entire prison would be deprived of cake on Sunday. Sunday cake was the one treat that all the prisoners looked forward to, so they were understandably furious – not only with the governor for exacting such a harsh punishment on them all, but especially with the guy who had made them all suffer for his stupid prank. The prisoners were fuming. Luckily, the guard on duty that night had no recollection of in which cell it happened. Mahārāja knew that if he confessed his crime, he was a dead man. He chose to remain silent, but did however make it up to some of his fellow inmates.
Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: During lunch that Sunday, the guards would pass trays of food to the inmates through a window in the kitchen. On the opposite side of the kitchen there was another hatch – I looked through and saw a cart sitting there full of cake. I guess the guards had plans to eat it all themselves because they weren’t distributing it to us. So I got a broom, stuck it through the hatch, and pulled the cart towards me and we started peeling the cakes off the cart – we had a chain going, passing them down the line. We stole about two or three pieces for everyone in our cell. We left all the guys at the far end of the prison with no cake! We could hear them yelling and banging the cups and plates because they had no cake. Meanwhile, the guys in our cell had cake hidden all around. Nobody could figure out who had stolen the cake.
A general rule of thumb in any prison if you want to stay alive or in one piece is that you keep your mouth shut. Snitching on an inmate is a sure ticket to the hospital, or worse, the morgue. Mahārāja saw one murder and two attempted murders take place during his confinement. Right in front of Mahārāja’s eyes, a prisoner was sliced across the face by a steel tray whose edge had been filed down to make it razor sharp. Another inmate had his jugular ripped out with a sharpened spoon, and another in the cell next to Mahārāja had his foot blown off one night by a homemade bomb made from cotton thread and gunpowder collected from match-heads.
Mahārāja would frequently correspond by letter with some of his friends from The Haight who sometimes visited on weekends to give him news of the happenings and whereabouts of people they all knew. They told him that a whole group of their friends had left California and had moved to a commune called the Banana Patch on Maui in the Hawaiian Islands.
By mid 1969, Narasiṅgha Mahārāja had served one year in prison, with another four remaining. Then one morning he was unexpectedly summoned to the courthouse opposite the prison. He had no idea what was happening, but there was a lot of hushed talk between the judge and his lawyer. After a few minutes, the judge wrote something down, looked at the guard, motioned towards the door, and Mahārāja was again taken back to his cell.
Twenty minutes later, a guard came carrying a yellow slip of paper calling out his name. A yellow slip meant that you are leaving the building. Mahārāja came out of his cell and the guard told him, “Roll up! You’re leaving!” He said his goodbyes to his yoga-friend, rolled up all his bedding and left it in the wash area. He knew that vacating his cell could only mean one of two things – and since there was no reason for him to be moved to another cell block, it could only mean that he was being transferred to a city prison to continue the remainder of his sentence. The guard handed him the yellow slip and escorted him down four flights of stairs to a guard in a caged room with hundreds of baskets containing every prisoner’s personal effects. Mahārāja handed him the slip, the guard hit a button and a door at the left automatically swung open. He walked inside and found himself in a cold cement room. A moment later the guard came in with a basket containing Mahārāja’s personal belongings, then handing him a clipboard he said, “Sign here!” Mahārāja signed.
“Change! Put your uniform in the basket!” He then changed from his grey prison attire into the t-shirt, jeans and sneakers that he had entered the prison in. The guard then hit a button and a large iron door at the end of the room slowly opened up.
“Go in there and sit down!”
He entered yet another room – a small chamber about a metre wide with a long bench that could sit about ten people. At the end of the room was another iron door. Mahārāja just sat there bewildered for a couple of minutes, wondering what was happening. In his mind’s eye, he expected the door would open revealing a paddy wagon. He would then be handcuffed and driven to his next place of incarceration. Suddenly the guard reappeared, hit another button on the wall and the thick iron door rattled into motion, slowly opening in increments.
Mahārāja stared – there was no paddy wagon, no handcuffs, no guards waiting to take him to another prison. There was just the street with people walking back and forth.
Behind him he heard the guard shouting through a PA system, “Get the hell outta here!” Mahārāja couldn’t believe it. He just sat on the bench gawking at the street, trying to comprehend what was happening. He heard the screech of the PA system again, “So? What are you waiting for, kid? Are you going or what?”
He slowly walked out with some suspicion towards the bright sunlight outside. Was it just a cruel joke? Were there guards outside waiting for him, who would then grab him and take him to another prison?
There was just the street, shops, cars, pedestrians, and a group of his friends who happened to be standing outside the courthouse. They were just as shocked as he was.
“What are you doing here?” they exclaimed.
“I don’t know!!!” he replied, and he ran from downtown San Diego all the way to Mission Beach (about 6 miles) as fast as he could. He thought it must have been a mistake – the judge clearly said that he had been sentenced for five years. How was it that he was now out? He kept running and running through back alleys, convinced that the authorities would suddenly realise their blunder and chase after him. After a few minutes he stopped and listened. There were no sirens behind him and the only sound of running feet belonged, not to a cadre of angry prison guards, but to his friends who finally caught up with him.
Years later, Mahārāja deduced that there may have been some bureaucratic oversight with his papers, and whoever was responsible covered their tracks by disposing of his record. Alternatively, the authorities may have eventually concluded that Mahārāja could not be charged with draft evasion for the simple reason that due to his constant relocating, he never actually received his induction papers! Regardless of the reason, from a higher perspective, Mahārāja was not simply meant to languish in prison for five years. A higher power was propelling him in a particular direction.
After Mahārāja’s release he travelled to Eureka, California to begin a new life and took a part-time job doing construction for a professor who was refurbishing his basement. The job paid cash. Mahārāja now had money in his pocket and time for himself and his yoga practice.
Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: At that time, something was pulling at my inner self. Who was I? Was I a surfer, a yogī, or what? One thing was missing for sure – the company of like-minded friends.
The youth of his era had initially championed peace, love and equality with a desire to change the world, but for the most part they were now totally lost and consumed by it. Their utopian ideals had been replaced by base desires for sex and drugs, which often devolved into violence. Mahārāja had become disillusioned with that movement as well as its so-called leaders.
Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: It was dispiriting to see. Many of the icons of that time like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix became dependent on drugs, only to die from their abuses a few years later. Others like Bob Dylan sold out and sang for money rather than for the ideals of freedom, justice and equality that launched their popularity in the first place. The youth in general became degraded and lost their vision of a beautiful future. Others just blended back into the fabric of American society, abandoning their dreams and became average middle-class citizens or just another Joe-Six Pack in the crowd. The whole thing ended up going to hell in a hand-basket! Though some of us may have miraculously walked away with something worthwhile, overall the counterculture movement was a failure. More than anything, I think it lacked enlightened leadership and self-determination.
Then one day Mahārāja decided to join the Kṛṣṇa temple he had once visited in San Francisco. His limited experience with the Hare Kṛṣṇas in The Haight had been positive and it lingered in his mind for a long time. He thought that the devotees might be able to offer what he now yearned for the most – enlightenment. It seemed to him to be a calling, and joining the Hare Kṛṣṇas might be a step in the right direction.
Arriving by bus in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve, Mahārāja made his way over to the temple on Fredrick Street, but it was closed. So he went to Golden Gate Park, crept under a bush and went to sleep, just as he had done the first time he came to The Haight years before. He had old friends in The Haight that he could have stayed with, but preferred to avoid that scene completely – after all, the last time he stayed with ‘friends’ there, he was almost convicted for crimes that he didn’t commit.
Early on Christmas morning, Mahārāja again went to the temple and arrived during a lecture which was given by Gaurahari Dāsa, the devotee in charge. Although Mahārāja couldn’t follow everything that was said, there was one section in the purport that stuck with him:
If a person, out of sentiment or for some other reason, takes to the shelter of the lotus feet of the Lord and in due course of time does not succeed in coming to the ultimate goal of life or falls down due to lack of experience, there is no loss. But for a person who does not take to devotional service yet executes his material duties very nicely, there is no gain. (Śrīmad Bhāgavatam 4.22.37 purport)
The class was followed by a breakfast of spiritual food, which was referred to by the devotees as ‘prasādam.’ This prasādam was different to the ‘simply-wonderfuls’ that he had first taken on Hippy Hill.
Narasiṅgha Mahārāja: It was just some oat-meal ‘something or other.’ They asked me to sit down with everyone else, then prasādam was served out – they gave one scoop on a piece of wax paper. It was December – it was cold outside and I had slept under a bush in the park all night, so I was really hungry. But when they came by with the second scoop, out of politeness I said, “No thank you.” Then they just packed up the pots and it was gone! I should have said ‘yes.’
After breakfast, as Mahārāja sat near a window trying to warm himself in the sunlight, a young saffron-clad brahmacārī wandered over to him and sighed.
“Man! I’m still hungry!” he said gloomily.
Mahārāja shrugged, “Yeah, I was kind of a little disappointed myself. I’m a little bit hungry too.” Then he suddenly remembered something and reached into his side-bag, “Hey, I got some bread-sticks. I can share some with you, brother!
The brahmacārī’s face lit up. “Awesome!
Mahāraja always travelled with home-made bread-sticks. He pulled out four deep-fried wholewheat bread-sticks from his bag and handed two to the devotee who gobbled them down voraciously. Much later when he looked back at this incident, Mahārāja figured that this boy was probably not such a fixed-up devotee…
As the devotee wiped his hands on his dhoti and walked away with a smile, the temple president, Gaurahari came over. During the course of their conversation, Mahārāja explained to him that he wanted to join the temple. Gaurahari immediately became elated until Mahārāja gave the stipulation, “…only if there is a place for me to practice haṭha-yoga for an hour a day.”
Gaurahari replied, “We don’t do that kind of yoga here.”
So it was back to the bus station and back to Eureka to work for another couple of weeks. From there, Mahārāja decided to join his friends at the Banana Patch in Maui, Hawaii.