Faith: Examining the wide variety of prisons

In the the perfection of yoga, AC Bhaktivednta Prabhupad compares this material world to a prison. We are bound to this world by our networks of desires. Whether those bounds are made of iron, silver or gold makes no difference. We are still bound.

A king, upon hearing of the sorry plight of his subjects in the state penitentiary, decided to personally remedy the situation. When he visited the prison, it was his birthday and he felt exceptionally charitable.

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To be equal, he told the prisoners that he would grant them each one request.

The first inmate who approached the kind said, “The food here is terrible. I would like to have my wife’s cooking.”

“Granted,” the king replied.

The next inmate approached and said, “There are too many rats here. I would like the rats exterminated.”

“Granted,” the king replied.

The next inmate asked for blankets to keep warm at night. Another inmate asked for better internet access.

One by one, the king granted all of the prisoners’ requests.

Finally, when the last prisoner came forward, he asked, “I would like to be set free.”

“Granted,” the king replied.

This material world is like a prison, with God as our king. We ask him for all kinds of benedictions to relieve our suffering, but don’t ask Him for deliverance from this world. For the family man: “I’m short of money. I would like a promotion at work.” For the student: “I need to get into grad school. I would like an A+.” For the patient: “I have cancer. I would like a complete recovery.”

It doesn’t matter whether we are a low-class prisoner bound with iron shackles, a middle-class prisoner bound with silver shackles or a high-class prisoner bound with gold shackles. As long as the bounds remain, we are prisoners. Out of his causeless mercy, God grants us our desires even though they may increase our suffering.

Upon getting his promotion, the family man finds he has to make business trips out of town and work longer hours. Thus he can afford the larger home, but he becomes further removed from his family. Because of his absorption in studies, the grad student suffers deterioration of health. The man who recovered from cancer no longer has his job or his wife.

Prayers directed at removing the discomforts of this world are just like the requests of the inmates at the aforementioned prison. We’re more concerned with improving our material-conditioned way of life than transcending it.

There are two ways to design a prison. The first is to make it so strong that no one can break out. The second is to make is so wonderful that no one wants to leave. In the Vedic cosmology, both heaven and hell are parts of this material world, with the earth in the middle. The heavenly destinations are first-class prisons and and the hellish destinations are last-class penitentiaries. Karma limits the time on both.

By the good deeds that follow from simple living and high thinking, as well as religious practices, one develops the necessary pious credits needed to ascend to heaven. The denizens of heaven remain bound there by the gratification of their desires. With golden shackles, the food is tastier, there is no sickness and no one grows old. Conversely, by the decadences of intoxication, illicit sex, insatiable greed and irreligiosity, one accumulates the sinful credits for the descent to hell.

Residents of hell are too pre-occupied with combating the miseries of hunger, thirst, heat and varieties of vermin to cast off their iron shackles. Whether in heaven or hell, once the credits are expired, the living entity returns back to this middle planet Earth.

Earth holds just the right balance between heaven and hell to motivate individuals to develop the consciousness needed to transcend the material world and return to the spiritual world. Neither the suffering nor the pleasures here are so great that we completely forget about God. The motivating factor that breaks the shackles binding us to material life is love of God. Free will is a necessary component of that love. By our own free will, we can choose to absorb ourselves in that love or absorb ourselves in material life and thereby remain bound to conditioned life.

By a choice of their own free will, everyone in the spiritual world is absorbed in love of God. If there were no choice, any devotional service rendered would be purely on a functional level. What we receive in return becomes the basis for the relationships.

To give us a choice and render meaning to our love, God created this material world in which we can love him to whatever extent and in whatever form we desire, even to the extent of total rejection. Having a prison house gives meaning to love in the spiritual world. It gives meaning to our freedom. Real freedom occurs once we develop a pure loving relationship with God. Our only desire should be to develop that love to the extent where we become eligible to leave this prison and return home to Godhead.

Harold Meier lived in Taiwan for more than 20 years, during which he studied Eastern religions, primarily Vedantism, and became an active member of the Hare Krishna community. He holds a master's degree in educational practices.
KTW welcomes submissions to its Faith page. Columns should be between 600 and 800 words in length and can be emailed to Please include a very short bio and a photo.

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