By Chaitanya Charana Dasa
When the Lord of the universe rides His chariot along city streets throughout the world, beneath the colorful spectacle lie profound devotional truths.
This year, some of us will see on a street in our city a grand procession known as the Jagannatha Rathayatra, the annual “chariot festival” of Lord Jagannatha (Krishna) that dates back centuries, even millennia. In its earlier days the Jagannatha Rathayatra, which originates in Jagannatha Puri, Odisha, was mostly for the residents of Odisha, Bengal, and some nearby states. But today it is much more – it’s a global cultural phenomenon celebrated in scores of countries and hundreds of cities, from Boston to Belfast to Brisbane, from Dublin to Dubai to Dnepropetrovsk. New York City has hosted an annual Rathayatra down Fifth Avenue since 1976. The first one was attended by His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, in a triumphant return to the city where he had incorporated his International Society for Krishna Consciousness ten years earlier.
Breaking across geographical and cultural boundaries, Lord Jagannatha’s Rathayatra demonstrates the universality of spiritual love. Let’s explore what this ancient festival offers modern people the world over seeking to evolve as better beings.
The Face of the Mystery of Indian Spirituality
The Rathayatra expands divine love in circles of increasing grace.
First, it expands divine grace from the sacred space of the temple to the rest of the city. The Lord riding atop the majestic chariot offers the blessing of His darshana (audience) to one and all – even those who do not come to the temple. The sway of the magnificent chariots, the embellishments with many meaningful motifs, the beauty of the three deities (Jagannatha with His brother Baladeva and sister Subhadra), the symphony of musical eulogies by skilled singers, and the worshipers’ heartfelt cries of “Jaya Jagannatha!” – all such potent devotional stimuli at the Rathayatra kindle life-transforming spiritual experiences.
Second, the globalization of Rathayatra expands the grace beyond Jagannatha Puri and even India. In 1967, Srila Prabhupada inspired the first Rathayatra outside India, in San Francisco, which also hosted Jagannatha’s first Western temple (New Jagannatha Puri). Since then, the festival has assumed international proportions. Indeed, Jagannatha has become a charming face of the beauty and mystery of Indian spirituality.
The Ecstatic Agony
Much of the mystery of Jagannatha centers on His face. He is Krishna, yet He doesn’t look like the familiar flute-playing cowherd boy. The difference in their appearances is testimony to the transformational power of love.
The tradition of bhakti, the science of devotion to the Lord, holds that emotions are eternal – and are gateways to the eternal. Approaching the Absolute Truth requires not the eradication of emotions, but their elevation. In fact, life’s crowning emotion, love, is at the heart of eternal life, where relationships between the Lord and the devotee prevail.
Jagannatha is Krishna enraptured by the spell of love – the love of His topmost devotees, the gopis of Vrindavan, who were afflicted with the ecstatic agony of separation from Him.
Ecstatic agony? The mystery deepens and sweetens.
Love is like a fire. If the fire is small, a gust of wind extinguishes it. But if the fire is large, the same wind expands it. Similarly, when devotion is tender, like a small fire, the wind of separation from the Lord extinguishes it. But if the flame of devotion is strong, the wind of separation intensifies it, evoking rapturous longing for the Lord with every heartbeat. Such was the ecstatic agony of the Vraja-gopis when Krishna departed from Vrindavan.
While in Dwarka, Krishna heard about their love-afflicted plight. In amazement, His mouth fell open, His eyes became large, and His limbs became motionless and withdrew into themselves just as His consciousness withdrew from everything else to focus on His devotees. And Krishna became Jagannatha.
The celestial sage Narada blissfully beheld this extraordinary form and begged the Lord to bless everyone with its divine darshana. His desire was fulfilled through a later king, named Indradyumna, whose haste-induced error turned out to be part of a divine plan, as narrated in the Skanda Purana and the Brahma Purana. The king had assigned the task of fashioning the deity of the Lord to an expert sculptor, who was actually the disguised Vishvakarma, architect of the demigods. The sculptor asked for total seclusion for twenty-one days as he went about the task, warning that if he were interrupted he would leave. The king kept his distance for fourteen days, being heartened by the sounds of the artisan at work. But when the sounds stopped with no sign of resuming, the anxious king burst into the workshop. True to his threat, the sculptor had departed, leaving the work half-done. The king was dismayed until he realized that the seemingly incomplete forms were devotionally complete – they perfectly revealed the Lord’s ecstatic feeling of incompleteness in separation from His devotees.
An Invitation Immortalized
Just as the form of Jagannatha has a special story behind it, so does His chariot festival. Many deities go out in processions to bestow grace on onlookers, but Jagannatha goes out on another special mission. After Krishna left Vrindavan, the Vraja-gopis met Him many decades later in Kurukshsetra, where the devout from far and wide had congregated to perform religious ceremonies during a solar eclipse. The gopis’ brief reunion with Krishna inflamed within them a fervent longing for lasting reunion in the pastoral paradise of Vrindavan – the original and inimitable setting for their pastimes with Krishna. They envisioned taking Krishna back to Vrindavan on a chariot – drawn not by horses, but by the love of their hearts and the labor of their hands. Their sacred longing is immortalized in the Rathayatra, wherein the starting point represents Kurukshetra and the ending point represents Vrindavan. When we pull the Lord’s chariot, we assist the gopis in their labor of love. By thus assisting those enriched with bhakti, we feel our own hearts become enriched with bhakti. By our loving pulls, we not only take Jagannatha back to Vrindavan, but also invite Him back into our heart.
The Rathayatra expands divine love from the temple to the rest of the city, and indeed the whole world. And it offers us a chance to elevate our devotional love from separation to union, from disconnection from the Lord to reconnection with Him.