June 22-29, 2006
By Indradyumna Swami
I took a five-week break in America and focused on my health. I exercised almost every day, rested, and honored healthful prasadam. I kept my correspondence to the minimum to avoid stress and used the extra time to study. By the fourth week I had completely recovered and was feeling better than I had in years. I was ready to return to Poland for our summer festival tour.
Then one morning I received a phone call from my Godbrother Radhanath Swami.
“I’d like invite you to join our yatra’s pilgrimage to Jagannath Puri in two weeks,” he said. “More than 3,000 of us will be going for the annual Ratha-yatra parade. I would appreciate it if you could come and lecture and do kirtans.”
My first thought was to say no. My heart and soul were already in Poland. But I paused for a moment and thought about the great spiritual benefit of going to Ratha-yatra in Puri in the association of Radhanath Swami and his disciples. Ever since I first heard my spiritual name, Indradyumna das, at my initiation ceremony 36 years ago, I have had a strong desire to attend the Ratha-yatra in Jagannath Puri.
Indradyumna Maharaja is the famous king who ordered the carving of the original Jagannath Deities and established Their worship in the temple in Puri thousands of years ago. The annual Ratha-yatra parade, in which the Deities of Jagannath, Subhadra, and Balarama are taken from the temple and pulled by devotees on three magnificent chariots, is renowned throughout the world.
As Radhanath Maharaja continued describing the plans for the pilgrimage, I glanced at my calendar and saw that the Ratha-yatra was only a few days before our festival tour in Poland would begin.
“It’s possible to go,” I thought, “but it means arriving back in Poland just before the first festival. Let me check with Jayatam das and Nandini dasi in Poland and see if they would agree that I arrive then.”
I called Jayatam and Nandini, and after some discussion we concluded that the tour devotees could prepare for the first festival without me. Nandini even suggested that Jayatam go with me.
“He can take photos,” she said, “and we can use them for a new exhibit.”
Two weeks later Jayatam and I arrived in Puri. Ratha-yatra would begin in two days, and the area was bustling with preparations. After five weeks of solitude in America, I suddenly found myself in the midst of thousands of pilgrims converging on Jagannath Puri.
I was surprised to find the three gigantic chariots already parked in front of the main temple. They were decorated with bright mirrors, white yak-tail whisks, pictures, brass bells, and silk cloth. Crowning the chariots were colorful canopies and beautiful flags.
As I inspected the chariots, a local brahmana told me it took 100 craftsmen an entire month to construct each one. I estimated that Lord Jagannath’s chariot alone was over 50 feet high and I counted 14 huge wooden wheels on it. I was even more surprised when the priest told me there was no steering wheel or brakes on the chariots.
“We put logs in front of the chariots to stop them,” he said with a smile, “but actually, it is the will of Lord Jagannath whether the chariot moves or stops.”
The following afternoon, we met Radhanath Swami and his disciples at Sweta Ganga, a small lake in a quiet corner of Puri. When we arrived, Maharaja was sitting under a huge banyan tree with 3,000 disciples around him. It was like a scene from antiquity: the guru and his disciples engaged in spiritual discussions in a holy place.
I quietly took my seat next to Maharaja and sat spellbound as he spoke about the glories of Jagannath Puri. Maharaja has an uncanny ability to relate in great detail long passages from scripture combined with colorful stories and anecdotes for many hours. As he spoke, I realized the way to enter into and perceive the holy dhama is through the descriptions and words of a sadhu.
Anticipating huge crowds at the parade, all of us gathered early the next morning in front of the Jagannath Temple. The area ahead of the chariots was cordoned by ropes, and hundreds of policemen and soldiers were busy with security arrangements. I saw army snipers taking their places on the rooftops. There had recently been bombings in Delhi and temples around the country, and I had read warnings in a local paper that morning of possible terrorist attacks during Ratha-yatra.
We started kirtan outside the cordoned area while masses of people began to arrive. Soon the broad, three-kilometer road was packed with pilgrims, and it became impossible to move. The temperature had already soared to 48 degrees, and with the high humidity, I was finding it difficult to breathe. I wondered how I could stay for hours in the middle of a crowd estimated at one million. Suddenly I saw Sriman Pandit dasa, an Indian devotee from England, waving to me from inside the cordons.
“Come quickly,” he yelled over the kirtan parties. “I have some VIP passes for this area.”
I grabbed Jayatam, and we pushed our way through the dense crowd into the VIP area. Other devotees followed us.
“I was given only five passes for our sannyasis,” Sriman Pandit said. “But
now there are more than twenty devotees here.”
I told Jayatam to separate from the group and start taking close-up shots of the chariots. I gave him my pass. “If we get thrown out,” I said, “at least you can get pictures for the devotees back in Poland.”
Sure enough, within minutes the police began rounding us up. “All of you, out!” shouted an especially bellicose officer.
“But we have passes,” said a devotee.
“It doesn’t matter!” screamed the officer. “Out!”
Sriman Pandit turned to me. “Many of the pandits [priests] in the temple don’t like ISKCON devotees,” he said, “and they have complained to the police commissioner that we have come to take over the parade, so we’ve been ordered to leave this area.”
The temple already has a strict policy against non-Hindus entering, and priests have been known to beat the unauthorized. Though such restrictions are not condoned by scripture, the biased policy was now being enforced outside the temple as well, on the street, where Lord Jagannath comes to give His merciful darsan to everyone.
Suddenly we were surrounded by security men and pushed toward the ropes. In the background I saw some of the temple priests laughing.
The devotees politely resisted, but the police became increasingly angry and began to shove us. When we reached the ropes some devotees dove over them or under them, but in the confusion I found myself pushed up against a rope unable to move. Just at that moment the policeman who had started rounding up the devotees arrived in front of me.
“Out!” he shouted. “You’re white! You’re not Hindu!”
When he raised his baton to strike me I put my arms up to protect myself. Suddenly he jumped forward and shoved me backwards, and I rebounded off the rope behind me and back on to him. He punched me hard in the nose, and I fell to the ground. I lay there, momentarily dazed.
I came to and scrambled to find my glasses on the ground. Then I rolled under the rope to the other side. Looking back I saw his angry face. I couldn’t hear what he was saying because of the noise of the crowd, but I could read his lips: “Not Hindu!”
I wasn’t about to let him spoil my pilgrimage to Puri. I felt thankful that my nose was not broken, and I shrugged the whole thing off and started walking back to the ISKCON chanting party in the midst of the crowd. Halfway there, I met Sriman Pandit again.
“Come with me,” he said. “I think I can get us back in the secured area.”
“I’m not so sure I’d like to go back in there,” I said.
He grabbed my arm and pulled me back under the ropes. From a distance I saw Jayatam happily taking photos of the chariots from all angles. Suddenly conch shells and trumpets heralded the arrival of Lord Balaram, the first Deity to be carried out of the temple. A huge roar arose from the crowd. Fifty or more priests started banging brass gongs.
Within moments Lord Balaram appeared, moved along by many men. It was an amazing sight. The men would put big cushions in front of the Deity and rock Him forwards, His huge headdress moving to and fro. It took a full hour to bring Him from the temple, up the ramp, and onto the chariot.
Next the priests came out of the temple carrying Lady Subhadra. “She’s a lady,” said Sriman Pandit, “so they carry Her lying down.”
Just as Subhadra was being carried up the ramp of Her chariot, the police officer who had punched me saw me again. He rushed forward, but just as he reached me, a temple priest appeared from nowhere and stepped between us.
“Leave him alone,” said the priest. “He’s a Vaisnava, a devotee of Lord Jagannath.”
“He’s white,” sneered the officer.
“That may be,” replied the priest, standing directly in front of me, “but he’s a Vaisnava nonetheless.”
Suddenly they switched to speaking the local dialect and the argument became heated. But in the end the priest prevailed, demonstrating the power the brahmanas still wield in Jagannath Puri.
“Stand over here with your friends,” he said to me. “I will protect you.”
I was grateful for his intervention and for the fact that I now had a wonderful vantage point to watch the initial proceedings of the Ratha-yatra. Looking back, I cringed seeing the massive crowd of a million people packed together, sweltering in the heat.
But they didn’t mind. They were all devotees of Lord Jagannath and had come to take part in His Ratha-yatra. They could easily put up with any inconvenience. As for me, I was thankful that Lord Jagannath had made other arrangements for some of us Western devotees not used to such austerities.
Finally Lord Jagannath was carried out of the temple and placed on His chariot with great pomp. It was like watching a scene from a thousand years ago, as the brahmanas, straining and sweating, rocked the Lord along the road up to His chariot, accompanied by many others blowing conch shells, chanting mantras, and waving yak-tail fans. The synchronized banging of 50 gongs was overwhelming.
Suddenly, Lord Balaram’s chariot started moving as hundreds of pilgrims pulled the long, thick ropes. The chariot moved quickly and seemed to float along a sea of people. Every once in a while the chariot would stop and the kirtan parties would roar with approval, while moving in to get a closer look at the Deity.
The people’s enthusiasm was based on the deeper, esoteric understanding of Ratha-yatra: that they were taking Krsna back to Vrindavan, His childhood home.
The scriptures tell how Krsna, on the plea of killing the demoniac King Kamsa, left His village of Vrindavan at a young age. Though He promised His devotees He would quickly return, He didn’t, and He eventually settled further south, in Dwarka, where He reigned as a king with 16,108 queens and palaces.
The deep separation felt by His devotees in Vrindavan is the subject of many devotional scriptures in India.
When Krsna finally met His Vrindavan devotees again, on the occasion of a lunar eclipse at Kuruksetra, they convinced Him to return to the pastoral setting of Vrindavan. Placing Him, Balaram, and Subhadra on chariots, they pulled the Lord back to Vrindavan and into their hearts. The festival of Ratha-yatra in Puri is a re-enactment of that loving pastime, giving great joy to devotees.
bahira haite kare ratha yatra chala
sundaracale yaya prabhu chadi nilacala
“Externally He gives the excuse that He wants to participate in the Ratha-yatra festival, but actually He wants to leave Jagannatha Puri to go to Sundaracala, the Gundica temple, a replica of Vrndavana.”
[Sri Caitanya-caritamrta, Madhya 14.120]
Eventually Subhadra’s chariot left, and half an hour later so did the massive chariot of Lord Jagannath. Radhanath Maharaja, Sacinandana Maharaja, and I soon caught up with the ISKCON kirtan in front of Jagannath’s chariot. I will never forget the five-hour kirtan we did along the crowded route on the way to Gundica Temple.
We were exhausted from the heat and humidity, but we were enlivened by the historic opportunity to chant and dance directly in front of Lord Jagannath’s chariot. I’ll never know whether any other kirtan groups wanted that choice spot, but they never had a chance. The sheer magnitude of 3,000 ISKCON devotees chanting enthusiastically guaranteed us the place.
And we took full advantage, as Radhanath Maharaja, Sacinandana Maharaja, Sri Prahlada, and I traded off leading the kirtan. We were sweating in the heat, and we drank water by the liter along the way. At one point, I felt I might not be able to continue. I had not eaten all day and I was tired and hungry. Suddenly, the temple priest who had protected me from the police officer appeared and gave me a small plate of maha-prasadam from Lord Jagannath. I honored it with gusto, and it gave me the strength to continue chanting and dancing.
When we finally arrived in front of Gundica Temple we were the only kirtan still going strong. By the Lord’s grace, I was leading, and I chanted loudly and from my heart as Jagannath’s chariot passed us and stopped in front of the temple. We kept the kirtan going for another hour and finally moved in front of the chariot, where we sat down in a group and continued with a soft bhajan.
The chariots remained where they had stopped. The next evening the Deities would be taken from the chariots and into Gundica Temple.
People began climbing up and swarming all over the chariots to take darshan of Lord Jagannath.
“Why not?” I thought, and I also jumped up and started making my way to the chariots.
Sri Prahlada caught hold of my arm and smiled. “Sorry,” he said. “Hindus only.”
I shook my head. “Lord Jagannath means the Lord of the universe,” I said, “but many of these priests think He is only the Lord of Puri. Everyone in the universe should have His darsan.”
I took a deep breath. “Somehow,” I said, “today or tomorrow, I’m going to get up on that chariot and take darsan of the Lord.”
Late that night we went back to our hotels, exhausted from the long parade, and we went to sleep.
The next day, at 7:00 AM, we went back to the chariots. There were hundreds of people fighting to climb up the chariots and get close to the Deities. The priests on the chariots were moving the people along quickly, sometimes abruptly.
“Now is my only chance,” I thought. “I’ve come all the way to Jagannath Puri at a time when the Lord comes out of His temple. At any other time of the year it would be impossible for a Westerner like me to have a close darsan of Him. ”
I mingled with the crowd of people climbing up Lord Balaram’s chariot, and I managed to pull myself up to the landing around the inner altar, where people were crowding to have His darsan. I quickly moved forward, but a priest noticed me, and he moved forward with a big stick raised to hit me.
“Only Hindus,” he screamed. I quickly turned around and scrambled down off the chariot. Looking back up, I saw him angrily waving the stick at me.
Next I tried Subhadra’s chariot. There were fewer people on it, so I managed to climb up more quickly. On the landing, I went straight for the inner altar. I managed to get within a few meters of Subhadra when I was again noticed by a stick-wielding priest. I ran and quickly climbed down the chariot.
I felt frustrated. “I’m not going to have darsan of Lord Jagannath,” I thought.
At that moment a priest appeared. “For 100 rupees I’ll take you up the chariot and directly in front of the Deity,” he said.
“Why not try?” I thought.
I gave him 100 rupees, and he led me to the back of Lord Jagannath’s chariot and helped lift me up to where I could get a footing. But as I raised myself further up, another priest with a menacing look suddenly appeared over the railing just above me, brandishing an even bigger stick than the previous priests.
I looked back down for the priest I had paid to help me, but of course he was gone.
At that point it was either accept defeat again, or face the stick. But after all I had gone through I wasn’t about to accept either. I yelled out “Jai Jagannath,” leaped over the railing, past the priest and into the crowd surging towards the Deity. I crawled on my hands and knees so as not to be noticed, and I was swept forward by the force of the crowd.
Bruised and scratched I finally stood up, and to my amazement found myself standing directly in front of Lord Jagannath. His massive unblinking eyes stared at me as I wondered what to do next. I didn’t have long to act, as the crowd of pilgrims behind me were pushing and shoving, jostling to get to the exact spot where I stood.
But I was taller than the Indian people swirling around me, and the four priests guarding the Deity suddenly noticed me. As they simultaneously raised their sticks to hit me, I realized that because of the crowd I couldn’t move to avoid their blows. I was standing only inches from Lord Jagannath, so I folded my palms and pleaded, “My Lord, please be merciful.”
From the corner of my eye I saw one of the priests appear to have a change of heart. Smiling slightly, he grabbed my sikha and thrust my head downwards to the feet of the Deity. Spontaneously, I reached out with my arms and embraced Lord Jagannath around His lower waist. My arms barely reached halfway around His transcendental form.
I was stunned by my unprecedented good fortune. Although the noise around me was tumultuous, it seemed for the moment that everything went quiet. “Here I am,” I thought, “embracing the Lord of the universe, whose audience in Puri any Westerner could only dream of.” With the priest pushing my head down even harder, I tightened my embrace of the Lord and prayed.
“My dear Lord,” I began, “it is the causeless mercy of my spiritual master that I have been given this rare opportunity to have Your darsan. Please purify my heart and awaken my pure devotion to You. At the end of my life be kind upon me by remembering whatever little service I have done for You, and take me home to Sri Vrindavan, Your transcendental abode in the spiritual sky.”
As I finished my prayer I felt the priest’s grip on my sikha loosen, a sure sign that my darsan of the Lord was finished. But as I raised my head, he once again caught hold of my sikha and pushed my head back down on the feet of the Deity.
“A chance for one more benediction,” I thought.
I tightened my hold on the Lord. “My dear Lord,” I prayed, “I also ask You for the privilege of always distributing Your mercy to those less fortunate than I. Be kind and look favorably on our efforts to preach Your glories through our festival program in Poland for many years to come.”
Suddenly the priest yanked my head up, and I again found myself standing before the angry brahmanas. I shook my head and freed myself from the grip of the priest. I fell to the ground and quickly moved out of the area on my hands and knees. As I approached the railing I saw yet another priest with a stick. “I won’t even mind if he hits me,” I said laughing. “I got so much mercy today.”
I avoided him and was soon scaling down the side of the Ratha-yatra chariot. When I reached the bottom, I turned and offered dandavats to Lord Jagannath on the ground.
The next day, as Jayatam and I took a taxi to Bhubaneswar for our flight back to Poland, I thought about on the unbelievable experience I’d had in witnessing the Ratha-yatra festival of Puri. But most of all, I wondered at the mercy I’d received from Lord Jagannath Himself. No doubt it was meant as an inspiration to increase my service to His lotus feet. And that service was clear: I was returning to Poland to share my good fortune with all those who would attend our summer festivals.
As we approached the city limits of Puri, I looked back and prayed that I would never forget Lord Jagannath’s special mercy upon me.
ratharudho gacchan pathi milita bhudeva patalaih
stuti pradurbhavam prati padam upakarnya sadayah
daya sindhur bandhuh sakala jagatam sindhu sutaya
jagannathah svami nayana patha gami bhavatu me
“When Lord Jagannath moves along the road on His Ratha-yatra car, at every step large assemblies of brahmanas loudly chant prayers and sing songs for His pleasure. Hearing their hymns, Lord Jagannath becomes very favorably disposed towards them. He is an ocean of mercy and the true friend of all the worlds. My desire is that Lord Jagannath Swami, along with His consort Laksmi, who was born from the ocean of nectar, be the object of my vision.”
[Sri Jagannathastaka, Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu]