Srila Prabhupada, the founder acharya of Iskcon, has played a significant role in spreading Jagannath Rath Yatra and Jagannath worship all over the world. Let us explore some interesting facts about the Rath Yatra festival and how Prabhupada helped to spread it across the globe.
Friar Odoric was a Franciscan missionary. In early 14th century he visited India. In India, he saw a huge deity of Lord Jagannath on an enormous chariot in the streets of Puri. Thousands of people were pulling the chariot with a rope. He carried the story of Jagannath deity riding on a huge chariot to Europe. The story spread throughout Europe. By 19th century Europeans started using the word juggernaut, although they meant Jagannath. Any enormous object which had crushing capability was called juggernaut.
Little did the Europeans knew that the same massive chariots whose story had fascinated them would one day ride through the streets of Europe. Name any major cities of the world and you will see it celebrating Rath Yatra festival. The festival is celebrated in the same way as it is traditionally celebrated in Puri, India. The massive chariots of Lord Jagannath, Lord Baladeva and Subhadra Devi travels majestically and is pulled by hundreds of people.
Hundreds of men and women watch in amazement and even participate in pulling the ropes. Men and women, young and old, rich and poor, Hindus and non-Hindus, black and white all participate. Caste, colour, race, gender discrimination ceases to exist when everyone come together to pull the chariot of Jagannath.
Srila Prabhupada’s love for Jagannath
A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder acharya of Iskcon, established the worship of Jagannath outside India in a prominent way and made Rath Yatra global. He was fondly called “Srila Prabhupada.” He would say that Jagannath is Lord (nath) of the Universe (jagat), so why not give everyone, irrespective of caste, creed, religion and nationality, the opportunity to worship Jagannath. Srila Prabhupada was one of the most influential spiritual leaders of India post- independence. He played a crucial role in spreading Vaisnavism throughout the world. And he has made Jagannath Rath Yatra hugely popular.
Prabhupada was attracted to Jagannath since his childhood days. He was born in Kolkata in 1896. His parents, Gour Mohan De and Rajani De, gave him the name Abhay. Abhay means one who is fearless having taken shelter of the Lord. As a child he was fascinated by Rath Yatra festival. He always wanted to visit Puri to take darshan of Jagannath and participate in Rath Yatra. He would constantly look the train timetable to find out the trains for Puri. Especially he wanted to go during the Rath Yatra period and wanted to pull Jagannath’s chariot. But for little Abhay, it was not possible to go to Puri alone.
So, once he thought why not have my own Rath Yatra at home. His father bought him a small cart. He beautifully decorated it and invited his sisters and neighbourhood kids to join him in the Rath Yatra procession. Small deities of Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra was placed on the chariot. Seeing the enthusiasm of Abhay, his parents and neighbourhood elders too decided to participate. His mother cooked nice food items to offer to Lord. And on the Rath Yatra day little Abhay with his little friends organized a successful Rath Yatra. Everyone enjoyed the festival.
Prabhupada meets his spiritual master
When Abhay was a young man. He met Srila Bhaktisidhanta Saraswati Thakura, a renowned Vaisnav saint, scholar and founder of Gaudiya Math. The first meeting itself transformed Abhya’s life.
“You are an English educated young man. Why don’t you use your intellect and talent in enlightening the western world with the teachings of Krishna and Chaitanya? Indians are blindly imitating the west. They are forgetting their culture. So, if people in the west starts appreciating Indian wisdom and culture then the Indians will start valuing them too.”
These words of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura deeply touched Abhay. He decided to follow the sagely advice and requested Srila Bhaktisidhanta Saraswati Thakura to accept him his disciple. Srila Bhaktisidhanta Saraswati Thakura accepted him and initiated him in 1932 in Gaudiya-Vaishnava tradition.
Preaching in the western world
Prabhupada was working hard to fulfil the order of his guru. He took sannyasa, renounced order of life, in 1959 to dedicate his life completely in preaching Krishna Consciousness. Prabhupada wrote several books and tried his best to preach. He was also looking for an opportunity to go to west. Finally, he got the chance in 1965 to go to USA. Although he was 69 years old by that time but still he had burning desire to carry the message of Lord Krishna and Lord Chaitanya to the western world.
During his initial months in USA, he struggled hard to preach. But he did not give up. Slowly young American boys and girls started getting influenced by his preaching. His sincerity, simplicity and deep devotion to Krishna started attracting people. And slowly many started taking up devotion to Krishna. They became disciples of Prabhupada. Prabhupada engaged them in chanting Hare Krishna Mahamantra and also taught them how to worship the deity of Radha and Krishna.
In 1967 in San Francisco, Jagannath deity miraculously came to Prabhupada. And Prabhupada decided to establish the worship of Jagannath in Iskcon and planned to celebrate Rath yatra festival in different countries of the world.
Lord Jagannath appears in San Francisco
One day Malati, a female disciple of Srila Prabhupada, brought a unique looking wooden doll. She placed it in front of Srila Prabhupada. As soon as Prabhupada saw the wooden doll, he immediately folded his hands in reverence and paid obeisances. All the assembled students were amazed. What is so special about this doll? They wanted to know. They looked at Srila Prabhupada. Prabhupada had a big smile on his face. He looked so happy. It seemed that he was meeting his age-old friend after a long time. Prabhupada looked towards his young curious American disciples and said, “This is Jagannath, the Lord of the Universe. He looks different but he is Krishna.”
His American students had just begun learning about the Indian Vedic culture. They had started chanting the Hare Krishna Mahamantra on beads. They had begun donning Indian dress. Men would wear dhoti and kurta and women saris. Just like the devotees of Krishna in India, they would apply sandalwood tilak on their body. On the forehead they would put tilak in the shape of Krishna’s lotus feet and make a Tulasi leaf from the paste on the upper part of their nose touching Krishna’s feet. They looked perfect Vaishnavs. But still they had to know a lot about Indian culture, Indian tradition and the way the Indians worshipped the deities.
Devotees excited to know about Jagannath
Srila Prabhupada was their friend, philosopher, and guide. He would always encourage his disciples to go deep in spiritual life. He thanked Malati for bringing Jagannath. She had never thought that this wooden doll would please her spiritual master to such an extent. Everyone except Srila Prabhupada had heard the name “Jagannath” for the first time. In fact, majority of the Americans would not have known about Jagannath. Srila Prabhupada explained them in detail about the worship of Jagannath in India especially in Puri. He spoke about the grand rath yatra festival at Puri. When he said that thousands of people irrespective of caste, creed and gender come to pull the ropes of the chariot, everyone was mesmerised.
Srila Prabhupada explained them that Jagannath is none other than Krishna. He is worshipped along with his brother, Balarama, and little sister, Subhadra. Malati excitedly said that two similar looking dolls were also there in the shop.
“From where did you get this?” Prabhupada asked.
“From an import store at Cost Plus,” Malati said.
“Why don’t you get the other two dolls as well – of Balarama and Subhadra.” Prabhupada asked.
Installing the deity of Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra in San Francisco
She hurried back to the store with her husband, Syamasundara, and brought Balarama and Subhadra. Prabhupada was eagerly waiting for them. As soon as Balarama and Subhadra arrived, Prabhupada properly placed them – Jagannath to the right, little Subhadra in the centre and Balarama to the left. Srila Prabhupada loved Jagannath. Seeing him, he got a desire to start the worship of Jagannath in the western country in a grand way.
He wanted to spread the worship of Jagannath all over the world. Lord Jagannath had appeared in San Francisco by his own will. He wanted to establish the worship of Jagannath in San Francisco. For this to happen, a big wooden deity of Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra had to be built. He expressed his desire. His disciples were always eager to fulfil their guru’s wish. Syamasundara knew carpentry. He took the responsibility of carving the deities from the wood.
Srila Prabhupada explained him the shape, size, width and height of the deities. He took a pen and paper and wrote down all the details. He further said, “Jagannath should be painted black, Baladeva should be white, and Subhadra should be yellow.” Syamasundara began his work.
Jagannath deity was installed on Gaura Purnima
March 26 was Gaura Purnima, the appearance day of Lord Chaitanya. Prabhupada decided to install the deity of Lord Jagannath on that auspicious day. Lord Chaitanya had played a crucial role in spreading sankirtana – devotion to Krishna by congregational chanting of Hare Krishna Mahamantra – in India in 15th century.
After taking sannyasa, renounced order of life, Lord Chaitanya lived in Puri near the famous Jagannath temple. He visited the temple daily for darshan and stood for hours in front of Jagannath. Srila Prabhupada had gone to west to spread the teachings of Lord Chaitanya. So, the appearance day of Lord Chaitanya was the perfect day to install the deity of Lord Jagannath. A beautiful wooden altar from the redwood tree was built for the deities.
The deity installation day
On the installation day, which was also the Gaur Purnima day, Prabhupada said that entire day they all will read about Lord Chaitanya and his teachings, chant the Hare Krishna Mahamantra and sing kirtana. Everybody will fast the entire day. The much-awaited installation ceremony will be in the evening followed by big feast. Throughout the day devotees absorbed themselves in chanting the names of Krishna and hearing the pastimes of Chaitanya. Some of the devotees were also busy making arrangements for the evening. In the evening the temple room was full. Many people from the neighbourhood also came to see the installation ceremony.
Newly carved wooden deities of Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra were placed on the beautifully decorated wooden altar. A yellow canopy gave the altar a majestic look. Prabhupada led the kirtan and the disciples and assembled guests began offering lamp to the three deities. Blue, red and yellow lights on the altar glittered when devotees were offering the lamp. The deities looked beautiful and colourful. It was a festive atmosphere. Lamp offering was followed by big feast.
The installation ceremony was simple but devotional. Everyone present felt attracted to Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra. Prabhupada taught them the prayer which they should chant for Jagannath – jagannathaḥ svami nayana-patha-gami bhavatu me, O Lord of the Universe, please be visible to me. Prabhupada said that Jagannath has chosen to appear in San Francisco, so, let us call San Francisco as “New Jagannath Puri.”
Jagannath goes to Golden Gate Park
Devotees were happy. Next day some of the devotees took the deity of Jagannath from the altar to the nearby Golden Gate Park. They would often go out to do kirtan. So, they decided to even take Jagannath with them. Hundreds of Americans were excited to see Jagannath in the park. Devotees chanted the Hare Krishna Mahamantra and danced around Jagannath for several hours.
Meanwhile when Prabhupada saw the deity missing from the altar he was upset. Jagannath deity does not leave the altar except on one especially day. And that is called Rath Yatra. He said, “If you all really want to take the deities outside then organize a Rath Yatra festival.” His young American disciples got excited to hear this. Prabhupada said, “Let us have Rath Yatra in San Francisco.” Everyone agreed.
First Rath Yatra celebration in San Francisco on 9th July 1967
Prabhupada wanted to celebrate Rath Yatra festival the way it is celebrated in Jagannath Puri. Three different chariots for the three deities and devotees pulling the chariots with ropes. But he knew that it was not possible to arrange such big chariots in America. His disciples were not trained to build chariots. And to get it in a foreign land where Rath Yatra would be celebrated for the first time was not possible.
So, it was decided that a flatbed truck would be converted into a chariot. And in future devotees can plan for big chariots. They choose a yellow flatbed truck and decorated it in a way so that it looks like a chariot. Devotees made five-foot columns on the truck and a colourful cloth canopy. On the day of Rath Yatra they took the deities from the altar and placed it on the chariot under the canopy. Jagannath faced towards the right side of the truck, Baladeva towards the left and Subhadra towards the rear.
First Jagannath Rath year begins
The three deities rode on the streets of San Francisco on the yellow chariot. People on the road were amazed and excited to see this. The chariot moved slowly. Devotees sang the Hare Krishna Mahamantra and danced in front of Lord Jagannath. Hundreds of people participated in the procession. Police tried to finish the procession quickly. But so many people were in front of the chariot that they could not do anything. In fact, they too liked the devotional spirit.
Meanwhile devotees were distributing prasadam – oranges, apples and bananas were being given. From the chariot they were throwing flowers on the crowds, and people loved it. They were also releasing dozens of Rath Yatra ballons. It was a festive atmosphere. Devotees enjoyed their first Rath Yatra festival. Those who participated in the procession too loved it. Prabhupada was immensely pleased and satisfied. He had taken an arduous journey in his old age to the west to spread Krishna Consciousness. And it seemed he was succeeding.
Jagannath worship and Rath Yatra festival has spread all over the world
Today Jagannath worship and Rath Yatra celebration takes place in almost all the major countries of the world like USA, UK, Canada, Russia, Germany South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Malaysia and even in Islamic countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh. One can see massive Rath Yatra chariots rolling through the streets of San Francisco, New York, Washington, London, Berlin, Moscow, Johannesburg, Melbourne, Kuala Lumpur, Dhaka. In India Iskcon organizes Rath Yatra in all the major cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Jaipur, Guwahati, Mayapur, Vrindavan and many more.
Iskcon organizes world’s first virtual Rath Yatra during Covid
During Covid Pandemic it was not possible to celebrate Rath Yatra on streets. So, Iskcon organized world’s first digital Rath Yatra which covered six continents. The festival was named as “Mercy on Wheels.” There were 108 rathas (chariots) and thousands of people from all over the world participated virtually.
- Srīla Prabhupada-lilamrta Volume 1, Chapter TWENTY-FOUR, New Jagannātha Purī
- Srīla Prabhupada-lilamrta Volume 1, CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX, Swamiji’s Departure
- Definition of juggernaut: Merriam Webster
- ISKCON plans world’s first virtual Rath Yatra across 6 continents amid Covid-19 pandemic: Hindustan Times