(An edited version of this article appeared in the Time of India’s Speaking Tree column with the title Yatra of love)
Today some of us will see on the roads in our cities a massive procession that we recognize as a familiar festival – the Ratha Yatra Utsav, an annual festival that dates back to centuries, even millennia. Back in those days, it was more for the residents of Odisha, Bengal and some nearby states. But today it is much more – it’s a global cultural phenomenon. It’s celebrated in over 100 countries and 500 cities, from Boston to Belfast to Brisbane; and from Dublin to Dubai to Dnepropetrovsk. In fact, New York boasts of its own annual Ratha Yatra for twenty-six years. 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 to modern minds the world over as they, like us, seek to evolve as better beings.
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 triune Divinities – 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 1968, Srila Prabhupada, ISKCON’s founder, inspired the first non-Indian Ratha Yatra in San Francisco, which also hosted Jagannatha’s first Western temple. Since then, this pan-Indian festival has assumed a trans-national proportion. Indeed, Jagannatha has become a charming face of the beauty and mystery of Indian spirituality.
Much of the mystery of Jagannatha centers on his face. He is said to be non-different from Krishna, yet he looks much different. The difference in their appearances is testimony to the transformational power of love.
The bhakti tradition holds that emotions are eternal – and are gateways to the eternal. Approaching the Absolute Truth requires not the eradication of emotion, but their elevation. In fact, life’s crowning emotion, love, is the heart of the life eternal – relationships between the Lord and the devotee.
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 akin to 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 beheld this extraordinary form. Becoming blissful, he begged that the Lord bless everyone with that divine darshan. His desire was fulfilled through a later king Indradyumna, whose blooper turned out be a serendipity. The king had assigned the task of fashioning the Deity of the Lord to an expert artisan. 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 completely with no sign of recommencing, 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 came the revelation that the incomplete-looking forms were devotionally complete – they manifested perfectly the Lord’s ecstatic feeling of incompleteness in separation from his devotees.
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 an additional 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 on the occasion of 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 lila. They envisioned taking Krishna back to Vrindavana on a chariot – drawn not by horses, but by 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 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.
In summary, the Ratha Yatra manifests an expansion of 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 with the divine to re-connection.