There are some people to whom the Government extends its hospitality dutifully. It takes pleasure in providing them food, clothing and accommodation, all for free. All that the Administration seeks from them in return is the pleasure of their company, 24 hours a day and 365 days a year. The Authorities love them so much that they are loath to let the special guests out of their sight, and keep a benevolent eye on them all the time, lest they change their mind and walk away unannounced from all the hospitality. Who are these visitors in whom the Government takes such keen interest?
The practice of incarcerating people for offences, ranging from petty theft to murder, is as old as the hills. No doubt, the majority of the prison mates are there because of proven infringements of the law. However, there have been some distinguished occupants of the gaol too, who were there as a part of the ever-playful Lord's leela.
Leading the gang of the gaoled is the Lord Himself. He has the dubious distinction of being the youngest jailbird, having been born in KamsA's prison, as the eighth child to Sri Devaki and Sri VasudEva, who were incarcerated by Kamsa, prompted by the prophecy that their eighth progeny would prove to be his nemesis. Despite the rather unusual surroundings, the Lord is as splendorous as ever at birth, and displays in full all His unmatched celestial beauty, with four arms, the discus and conch, and with beautiful lotus eyes ("tam adbhutam bAlakam ambujEkshaNam"). Everyone knows how the Lord escaped from the prison on that stormy night, with Sri Vasudeva carrying Him across the Yamuna to Nandagokulam, with Sri Adisesha providing a benign, protective canopy.
The Lord was however only taking a leaf out of Piratti's book. He felt intensely jealous of the renown that She had acquired in the Ramavatara, by being imprisoned by Ravana in the AshOka vanikA. Unmindful of Her own status as the Empress of everything, Piratti's act of suffering imprisonment (so that the whole world could escape the fetters that Ravana had imposed) highlights Her infinite mercy towards us. Had She so desired, she could have easily destroyed the asurA by merely willing it. Instead, she suffered willingly, waiting patiently for Sri Rama to rescue Her, displaying pAratantryam.
This act of sacrifice put Sri Janaki so high on the pedestal that Sri Ramayana came to be described as "SitAyA: charitam mahat" (the great story of Sita), rather than a chronicle of the life and doings of Sri Rama. Sri Nammazhwar marvels at Piratti's soulabhyam and maternal love for all beings, in willingly undertaking suffering, so that the world might rejoice-"tani chirayil viLapputra kiLi mozhiyAL". Sri Pillai LokAcharya too concurs that Sri Ramayana is verily an account of the greatness of Piratti, who suffered incarceration, so that the whole world could go free. ("itihAsa shrEshttamAna Sri RamayanatthAl chirai irundavaL Etram sollugiradu").
Thus while the Lord made a prison His janma bhoomi for saving the pious from the wicked Kamsa ("sAdhu sanattai naliyum Kanchanai sAdippadarku Adi am sOdi uruvai angu vaitthu ingu piranda vEda mudalvan"-Sri Nammazhwar), His Consort suffered as an inmate in Ravana's prison so that everybody could walk free.
The Lord's record as a jailbird doesn't end there. He invites trouble and punishment again due to His apparently unlimited appetite for dairy products. Enraged Yasodha, mortified by constant complaints from neighbours about young Krishna's misdemeanours, puts Him under house arrest. Dangerous inhabitants of the prison are put under fetters, even while being locked up in a cell, as a measure of additional security. Similarly, Sri Krishna too is tied up to a grindstone, lest He should escape somehow. The exploits of the endearing little butter thief and the extreme accessibility or soulabhyam of the omnipotent Parabhrahmam allowing itself to be tied up and fettered by a mere rope, have been the delight of poets the world over. Sri Nammazhwar too is captivated by Emperuman's eLimai-
"matthuru kadai veNNai kaLavinil uravidai AppuNdu
etthiram uralinOdu iNaindu irundu Engia eLivE".
Not content with being a jailbird Himself, the Lord arranges for some of His devotees too to have a taste of His Majesty's hospitality.
Sri Vipranarayana, engaged in growing scented flowers for garlanding the Lord of SriRangam, is seduced by DevadEvi, a danseuse. Once all his money is spent and he has nothing to offer her, the lady forbids the penniless Vipranarayana from seeing her anymore. The infatuated man haunts her doorstep in the hope of regaining lost favours.
In the meantime, Sri Ranganatha, in the guise of one of His archakAs, hands over a golden vessel to DEvadEvi, attributing the present to Vipranarayana. This enables the languishing Vipra to regain the affection of his beloved. The temple archakas, finding the golden vessel (used for the Lord's tiruvArAdhanam) missing, complain to the King about the theft. Investigations reveal the presence of the missing vessel in the dancer's household, and when it transpires that it is Vipranarayana who had been instrumental in the vessel reaching Devadevi, the King orders his imprisonment. The bewildered Brahmin cries out aloud to the Lord to save him from the predicament. The Lord, deciding that enough is enough, appears in the King's dream and confesses to having Himself handed over the vessel to the dancer, and orders the King to release the innocent Vipranarayana. The King acts with alacrity and begs Sri Tondaradippodi Azhwar to pardon him for the wrongful confinement. Marvelling at the Lord's leela, Azhwar realises that the entire drama had been enacted by Emperuman to cure him of the fascinations of the flesh and to instil in him an undying devotion for the Lord, and spends the rest of his life singing His praises in the form of TirumAlai and TiruppaLLiezhucchi.
One would think that the Lord would have been content with arranging for the imprisonment of one of His devotees. But no, He plays the game again, in the case of Sri Tirumangai Mannan.
Being the chieftain of AlinAdu, coming under the jurisdiction of the ChOzha Empire, Sri Tirumangai mannan is obliged to remit periodical tributes to the ChOzha King.
Having diverted all available resources to the feeding of the Lord's devotees (as a precondition for winning the hand of Sri Kumudavalli NacchiAr), Sri Kalian has little to offer the Emperor by way of tribute. Enraged by this failure to remit dues, the Emperor orders the imprisonment of Sri ParakAla. The Lord, deciding to highlight Sri Kalian's devotion and piety, appears in his dream and reveals the existence of a treasure. Sri kalian leads the King's men to the treasure and thus settles his dues. Subsequently, the Emperor too realises Sri Kalian's greatness, frees him from the prison and honours him appropriately.
Another of the Lord's devotees (whose story is too well known to bear recounting) to suffer incarceration is Sri BhadrAchala Ramadas, who too diverted Government funds for the construction of the Lord's temple.
There is however a vast multitude of humanity which has been imprisoned, but which doesn't realise its plight and imagines itself to be free. All of us consider ourselves free agents. In reality, we are prisoners of our past deeds, which act as powerful shackles and deny us the independance to attempt for liberation and eternal bliss. This physical body acts as a maximum-security penitentiary, the five faculties (pancha indriyAs) being the jailors. Our karma represents the unbreakable fetters, which bind us with this body and prevent the soul from attaining the unimaginable bliss to which all of us are entitled. Sri Nammazhwar puts it thus-
"KaNNapirAnai viNNOr karumANikkatthai amudai
naNNiyum naNNkillEn naduvE Or udambil ittu
tiNNam azhunda katti pala seivinai van kayitrAl
puNNai maraya varindu ennai pOra vaitthAi puramE"
And how do we escape this prison? The only way to cast off the shackles of karma is to surrender to the Lord, to perform Sharanagati at His lotus feet. This pleases Him so much that He rids us of the constricting bonds of karma and offers us eternal, immeasurable bliss in the exalted company of Himself and His devotees, in Sri Vaikuntam.
Thus the key to the prison gates is with ourselves-if we turn it the right way, we walk to Sharanagati, freedom and bliss. If we turn it the wrong way, it pushes us deeper into Samsara and perennial sorrow, and we keep hopping from one body to another eternally as dictated by our karma, without any hope of redemption.