Ratha Yatra is usually a summer staple for ISKCON devotees, a chance to pull Their Lordships Jagannatha, Baladeva and Subhadra on Their chariot through the streets, share Krishna consciousness, see old friends and connect. With the COVID-19 pandemic, of course, none of this is possible in person, and Ratha Yatras all over the world have been cancelled. But devotees are thinking creatively and coming up with virtual alternatives for the chariot festival.
From July 1st to 12th, ISKCON Toronto, Canada held a 12-day series of online events. More recently, on Saturday July 18th, ISKCON of Berlin, London, Radhadesh (Belgium) and Zurich jointly hosted a unique first-time European virtual collaboration festival, “Spirit of Ratha Yatra.”
“Our goal was to give our respective communities the chance to celebrate Ratha Yatra at least within their hearts, guided through katha and kirtan,” says Sadasiva Das, temple president of ISKCON Berlin, who came up with the idea. “We also wanted to showcase a new level of European collaboration by co-hosting this festival with the three other temples.”
The festival was inspired by Srila Prabhupada’s statement, recounted by Bhakti Charu Swami, that “our real love for him would be shown by how we cooperate with each other to continue his mission.”* It was also inspired by how Srila Prabhupada brought Vedic culture to the West and made it accessible to all – in part through Ratha Yatra, which takes the Lord on a procession outside of His temple and to the people.
Finally, according to Sadasiva Das, the festival was an opportunity to “share the vibrant history of the movement in Europe.”
The virtual festival, broadcast over the Jagannatha Tempel Berlin Facebook page from 11:00am – 5:00pm CEST / 10:00am – 4:00pm BST, received over 8,500 views.
ISKCON-London, Berlin, Radhadesh and Zurich each received a one-and-a-half-hour slot to present kirtan, deity darshan, guided meditation, and historical talks about the early days of their Ratha Yatra.
Darshan of Lord Jagannath, Baladeva, Subhadra and Sri Sri Radha-Londonisvara during the Spirit of Ratha Yatra festival in July 2020
ISKCON-London kicked it all off, starting the festivities with a talk by Ratha Yatra pioneer Shyamasundar Das about how Lord Jagannatha appeared in ISKCON in the early days. Speaking from his home, Shyamasundar described his experience of carving the first Jagannatha, Baladeva and Subhadra Deities for San Francisco in 1967 at Srila Prabhupada’s request, and for London in 1969. The latter are still worshipped at ISKCON-London today, and before the pandemic would come out of the temple once a year to ride in the Ratha Yatra parade through the city.
Shyamasundar also built the first chariot for Lord Jagannatha in London, and helped organize the first Ratha Yatra there in 1969 along with his fellow pioneers Malati, Gurudas, Yamuna, Mukunda, Janaki and the congregation. Srila Prabhupada instructed the devotees to “make the Deities so beautiful that everyone will be attracted to them,” and the ensuing headlines in national papers read “Krishna Chant Startles London.”
After Shyamasundar Das, Birmingham-born Mahavishnu Swami spoke about his experience as the main organizer for the fourth annual London Ratha Yatra in 1973, a particularly significant event because it was attended by Srila Prabhupada. Then a young man, Mahavishnu Swami donated £10,000 left to him in a will to make the festival extraordinary, complete with publicity on London’s iconic red double-decker buses and a feature film. Srila Prabhupada, although he was 74 years of age, chanted and danced throughout the entire procession, triumphantly looking out at the thousands of people calling out the Holy Name in Trafalgar Square.
The next day, front page headlines of the Guardian newspaper read “ISKCON Rathayatha is rival to Nelson’s column.” Srila Prabhupada even referred to the event in his purport to Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita Madhya-Lila 13.19, writing, “Just as the residents of Puri compared the Rathayatra cart to Mount Sumeru, the residents of London considered the cart rival to the Nelson Monument.”
Following Shyamasundar Das and Mahavishnu Swami’s talks, the London section of the Spirit of Ratha Yatra concluded with darshan of Sri Sri Radha Londonisvara, Jagannatha Baladeva Subhadra, Giri Govardhan, Gaura Nitai and Srila Prabhupada at the ISKCON-London Radha Krishna temple, along with kirtan by temple residents.
Sacinandana Swami with the King of Puri at Berlin Ratha Yatra in 1997
Next, ISKCON Berlin presented an interview by temple president Sadasiva Das with Sacinandana Swami on the exceptionally wonderful history of Lord Jagannatha in Berlin. Originally, the Berlin Jagannatha Deities had appeared in a smaller form. However in 1997 the King of Puri himself, Gajapati Maharaja Dibyasingha Dev, arranged for larger Jagannatha Deities to come all the way from Jagannatha Puri. The Deities were carved from wood leftover after the Nabakalebaram festival, in which new forms for Lord Jagannatha, Baladeva and Subhadra Devi at the Jagannatha Mandir in Puri are carved every twelve to nineteen years. The King of Puri also attended the 1997 Berlin Ratha Yatra, making the connection to Jagannatha Puri Dham complete.
Following his interview, Sacinandana Swami then led a guided meditation transporting viewers from their homes around the world to their favorite Ratha Yatra. Although everyone was missing the experience of an in-person Ratha Yatra, under his expert guidance they felt as if they really were pulling Lord Jagannatha’s cart, participating in ecstatic kirtans during the procession, seeing the Lord and associating with the devotees.
The ISKCON Berlin segment of the broadcast concluded with kirtan led by Maitreya Muni Das, and darshan of the Jagannatha Tempel’s gorgeous Jagannatha, Baladeva and Subhadra Deities.
Devotees carry a sign reading ‘Lord Jagannatha Greets the Free Berlin’ at the 1990 Berlin Ratha Yatra
The Spirit of Ratha Yatra festival then moved on to ISKCON Zurich, known as New Jagannatha Puri Dham. Madhavananda Das, who has run Gopal Jiu publications in the original Puri in Odisha for many years, spoke from his home there on the deeper meaning of Ratha Yatra. His talk was followed by bhajans, and then a presentation on the history of Lord Jagannatha in Zurich by ISKCON Zurich temple president Krishna Prema Rupa Das.
In the summer of 1971, he explained, ISKCON pioneers crossed the border from France and started to share Krishna consciousness in Switzerland for the first time. Three years later, Srila Prabhupada visited the newly established temple in Geneva and stayed there for ten days. Gaura Nitai were installed that same year, and Lord Jagannatha made His first appearance in Switzerland in 1979, coming from Germany in a smaller Deity form. That year also saw a major Ratha Yatra festival in Zurich.
Jayapataka Swami and Harikesa Das address the crowd at Zurich Ratha Yatra in 1979
After Zurich became the new home for the Hare Krishna Movement in Switzerland, Lord Jagannatha along with His brother and sister were installed there in 1984. Since then, ISKCON Zurich has been called New Jagannatha Puri Dham, and has become well known for its sweet Ratha Yatra festival held on the lakeside in Zurich, opulent Snana Yatra, creative outfits, beautiful altar decorations, and delicious maha prasad.
New Jagannatha Puri Dham Ratha Yatra, Zurich, in 1985
A broadcast from ISKCON Radhadesh, Belgium concluded the festival. Nikunjavasini Dasi, a Srila Prabhupada disciple who has served as head pujari in Amsterdam and main seamstress for the Deities in Radhadesh, recalled how she served Lord Jagannatha in Amsterdam where He was installed by Srila Prabhupada, and how she and her husband later followed the Lord to Radhadesh to serve Him. She also spoke about how Srila Prabhupada emphasized creating a proper environment for the Deities, and how he appreciated the efforts of the young devotees even though they made many mistakes.
The Spirit of Ratha Yatra festival then concluded with Jagannathastakam and a kirtan led by Caitanya Cintamani Dasi with Radhadesh temple residents.
Natasha Menon, who lives in London and headed up marketing and communications for the Festival, commented that it helped devotees delve deeper into the meditation behind Ratha Yatra and invite Lord Jagannatha into their hearts. She also noted that devotees in England appreciated being able to virtually participate in other European Ratha Yatras.
Nikunja Vasini Dasi, who served as head pujari for Lord Jagannath in Amsterdam and main seamstress in Radhadesh, shared her memories
“Because London’s one of the biggest Ratha Yatras, a lot of people from Europe come to London, but Londoners don’t always attend the other festivals,” she said. “So it was a nice experience, and was very interesting for devotees here to hear about the histories of the other Ratha Yatras.”
“While we were happy to share our glorification of Lord Jagannatha, it was also very fascinating to experience the atmosphere and mood in the different temples,” ISKCON Zurich devotees added in a written report after the event. “Every presentation was unique and added beautiful flavour to the whole festival. The fact that four European Temples worked enthusiastically together with the aim to glorify Lord Jagannatha was very inspiring and created a spirit of feeling closer to each other and to the Lord, which is the ‘Spirit of Ratha Yatra!’”
Radhadesh devotees put on a Ratha Yatra in the 1980s
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* The quote from Bhakti Charu Swami, recounting how Srila Prabhupada said “our real love for him would be shown by how we cooperate with each other to continue his mission,” is taken from Ravindra Svarupa Dasa’s book “Srila Prabhupada: The Founder-Acarya of ISKCON.”
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