Shyama Priya Dasi, the driving force behind ISKCON’s Prison Ministry, passed away on April 16, 2009 in Gainesville, Florida, after a year-long battle with pancreatic cancer. As her son, daughters, daughter-in-law, and many loving devotee friends sat close by her bed and chanted the names of God, they reflected on her exemplary life.
Originally from El Cajon, San Diego, Shyama Priya was searching for something that made more sense than her conventional life when she found a Back to Godhead magazine in her local Laundromat. She attended a Sunday Feast in 1974, took spiritual initiation from Srila Prabhupada, and never looked back.
A ‘real busy-bee’ according to her son Nimai, Shyama Priya ran a Samosa and Smoothie bar in Hermosa Beach, California in the 1970s, as well as a small preaching center. In the early 1980s, she managed a similar center in Tallahassee, FL, while in the later eighties she ran the Miami temple’s gift shop as well as a tape ministry for Hridayananda Dasa Goswami.
Shyama Priya also worked as a baker for the Miami Govinda’s restaurant, baking over fifty loaves of bread a day. Throughout all this time, she also doubled as a seamstress, sewing for deities all over the world.
It wasn’t until 1990 that Shyama Priya was introduced to ISKCON USA’s official Prison Ministry, established by Candrasekhara Dasa two years before. She was immediately gripped by the idea of such a personal service. “Chandrasekhara showed me a photo album of all the inmates he was writing to,” she told Friends of the BBT in April 2008. “It was like they were family.”
Although it was a family of outcasts—rejected by society and abandoned by their friends and relatives—Shyama Priya believed Krishna still cared for them; and so she did too.
The couple of letters she wrote at first grew to huge stacks, and she had to collect donations to be able to mail them out. By the early 2000s, she was trying to hand-write 200 prisoners a month. It was only when her son Nimai suggested she move to a computer and use the occasional form letter that she relented.
It was the same with Prabhupada’s books. Although ISKCON Prison Ministry initially sent only a handful to prisons, Shyama Priya began mailing out whole cases when she noticed how often inmates requested them. “Soon they were going so fast that the BBT would send cases of BTGs and whole palettes of books to our house,” Nimai says.
“I’d hear the San Diego temple book scores, and it used to crack me up because I was the only one who knew that my mother was beating the whole temple single-handedly—of course, she never bragged about it.”
In response to her obvious care for them, inmates affectionately called Shyama Priya “Mama Shyama” and treated her as such—she once received a card signed by 30 inmates from Oregon state prison, all wishing her a happy Mother’s Day.
“She really was their mom, their number one support,” Nimai says. “Even if they asked for things that would normally never be allowed in a prison, she would treat the request as if it had come from her own child and somehow find a way.
She got inmates japa beads and kartalas, and even managed to have brass Gaura Nitai deities installed in the chapel of one prison. She just wanted to give them everything they needed to escape from the real prison—this world.”
Shyama Priya carried out this service with steadfast determination for almost twenty years, not stopping even when she was homeless and living on a bus, or when as a single mother, she had to work full-time at a store to support herself and her daughter.
When she moved to Alachua, Florida in 2007, help came in the form of Bhakti-lata Dasi. Originally from Montreal, Canada, Bhakti-lata had written prisons from her home town for six years during the 1990s, and had begun again when inmates contacted her after reading her 2006 BTG article “How I Came to Krishna Consciousness.” Now she joined forces with Shyama Priya, and the two gradually began to bond over their shared love for their service.
Sadly, the partnership would be short-lived. In 2008, Shyama Priya was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, news which she accepted with the same calmness she exhibited in any difficult situation. “She hoped that she could outpace it a few more years to see my 14 year-old sister reach 18, but that was the only regret she showed,” says Nimai.
“And when I finally had to sit down with her and tell her what the doctors had told me—that she had only 3 weeks left to live—all she said was ‘Oh well.’ That’s how she was—surrendered to Krishna, and accepting of His plan.”
Shyama Priya continued to show incredible dedication to her service even at the very end of her life. Once, when Bhakti-lata went to her house to mail some letters for her, Shyama-Priya asked her to look for two books she had kept for an inmate.
When Bhakti-lata could not find one of them, Shyama Priya got up from her bed and began searching everywhere, ignoring Bhakti-lata’s pleas to go back to bed. Only when her physical strength gave way did she finally lie back down.
“I had no idea how sick she was at the time—but looking back, I now know it was only ten days before she passed away,” Bhakti-lata says. “I’ve also since learned that pancreatic cancer is one of the most painful and deadly there is. Shyama Priya was dying, and still she was looking all over her apartment for the Srimad-Bhagavatam because she wanted that inmate to have it. She kept saying, ‘They have to have the books, they have to have the books.’”
Despite the incredible pain, Shyama Priya never complained. She even refused morphine on the last day of her life because she didn’t want to take any intoxication, and chanted her rounds up until three days before she passed away.
“Once she was chanting on her beads and stopped after a short time because she no longer had the energy,” Bhakti-lata recalls. “But when I checked on her later, although her eyes were closed, her fingers were still moving as if she had beads in her hand. It was an image that struck me very powerfully and will stay with me for a long time.”
During her last days at the Haven Hospice in Gainesville, many devotees visited Shyama Priya to talk and chant, including old friends Yashoda and Kunti, IPM founder Chandrasekhara Dasa, and Hridayananda Dasa Goswami. Arriving in a happy mood, Hridayananda Maharaja told her,
“You lived your life and applied the process of Krishna consciousness perfectly, and this is the natural end of it. You’re going back to Krishna. You won, Shyama Priya.”