Ratha-Yatra – When the Lord comes out, let’s invite him in
(An edited version of this article appeared in the Times of India’s Speaking Tree column with the title Yatra of love)
Today some of us will see on a street in our city a grand procession known as the Jagannatha Ratha Yatra, an annual “chariot festival” of Lord Jagannatha (Krishna) that dates back to centuries, even millennia. In its earlier days, the Jagannatha Ratha Yatra was mostly celebrated by 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; and from Dublin to Dubai to Dnepropetrovsk. New York city has hosted its own annual Ratha Yatra since 1976. Breaking across geographical and cultural boundaries, Lord Jagannatha’s Ratha Yatra 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 Ratha-Yatra expands divine love in circles of increasing grace.
Firstly, 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 darshan 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 Baladava and sister Subhadra); the symphony of musical eulogies by skilled singers; and the heartfelt cries of “Jaya Jagannatha” by thousands of assembled worshipers – all such potent devotional stimuli at the Ratha-Yatra kindle life-transforming spiritual experiences.
Secondly, the globalization of Ratha Yatra expands the grace beyond Jagannatha Puri and even India. In 1967, Srila Prabhupada, ISKCON’s founder, inspired the first Ratha Yatra 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 the heart of eternal life, where relationships between the Lord and the devotee prevail.
Jagannatha is Krishna enraptured by the spell of love – love of his topmost devotees, the gopis of Vrindavana, 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, akin to a small fire, separation from the Lord, being like the wind, extinguishes it. But if the flame of devotion is strong, the wind of separation intensifies it, evoking ecstatic longing for the Lord with every heartbeat. Such was the ecstatic agony of the Vraja-gopis when Krishna departed from Vrindavana.
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 that divine darshan. 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 artisan, who was actually the disguised Vishvakarma, architect of the gods. The artisan 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 artisan had departed, leaving the work half-done. The king was dismayed till he realized that the incomplete-looking forms were devotionally complete – they revealed perfectly 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. This brief re-union inflamed within the gopis a fervent longing for lasting re-union in the pastoral paradise of Vrindavana – the original and inimitable setting for their pastimes with Krishna. They envisioned taking Krishna back to Vrindavana 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 Ratha-Yatra, wherein the starting point represents Kurukshetra and the ending point represents Vrindavana. When we pull the Lord’s chariot, we assist the gopis in their labor of love. By thus assisting those enriched with bhakti, our own hearts become enriched with bhakti. By our loving pulls, we not only take Jagannatha back to Vrindavana, but also invite him back into our heart.
The Ratha Yatra expands divine love from the temple to the rest of the city, and indeed the whole world. And it offers us an opportunity to elevate our devotional love from separation to union, from disconnection from the Lord to re-connection with him.