On Tuesday the 11th of November, priests and cultural enthusiasts affiliated with the extremist group Sri Jagannath Sebayat Sammilani protested the timing of ISKCON’s Ratha Yatra festivals by burning an effigy of ISKCON Founder-Acarya His Divine Grace AC Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in front of the main entrance of the ancient Jagannatha temple in Puri, India.
In the Ratha Yatra festival, Jagannatha, translated literally as ‘Lord of the Universe’, is taken on public procession along with his older brother Baladeva and sister Subhadra Devi. In the ancient town of Puri, this festival has taken place for thousands of years and is a celebration steeped in tradition.
As a child, Srila Prabhupada would re-enact this religious festivity among neighbours in Kolkata. In his elderly years, as leader of an international spiritual movement, he introduced Ratha Yatra in large scale in major cities around the globe.
Robert Provost, Adjunct Professor at Berkeley University in California, USA comments, “History shows that the Founder Acharya of ISKCON was the person solely responsible for spreading the worship of Sri Jagannatha in the entire world, outside of India. Any academic in the field of religion and eastern philosophy will concur because the facts speak for themselves. Millions of people who were otherwise ignorant of Jagannatha worship have been enlightened about this sacred tradition by this one person’s efforts and his books which are now ubiquitous. Because of his efforts, Jagannatha is now worshiped the world over.”
Now, over thirty years since Srila Prabhupada’s passing away, the popularity of this festival has reached global proportions by the endeavours of his followers. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness now holds Ratha Yatra parades in London, New York, Moscow, Los Angeles, Durban, Chicago, Sydney, Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai and several other metropolises.
The logistics behind organizing these parades often require conformity to schedules mandated by city authorities who may not fully understand the sacredness of the festival. But does this mean that Jagannatha’s parade is not appreciated? It wouldn’t seem so.
For over twenty years in Washington, D.C., ISKCON has been invited to bring Jagannatha’s colourful cart to the National Independence Day Parade, dubbed as ‘Americas Birthday Party’, seen by over 300,000 onlookers and millions of television viewers. This year the July 4th parade happened to fall on the same day as the Ratha Yatra in Puri.
“The principle should take precedence over the specific ritual,” said Anuttama Dasa, ISKCON spokesperson and organizer of the Washington D.C. festival. “We are glad that we could hold the festival on the same date as the original celebration this year, but for us the more important principle was being able to share spirituality with hundreds of thousands of people who would otherwise not have had the opportunity. We think that this is in keeping with the spirit behind the Ratha Yatra in the first place.”
Early ISKCON member Mukunda Goswami recalls, “The first Ratha-yatra held in the west was in 1967 in San Francisco. At that time we didn’t have a purpose built cart so we carried Jagannatha through the Haight-Ashbury district on the back of a truck. Srila Prabhupada was not present at the parade itself, but was recovering from a heart attack in nearby Stinson Beach. He didn’t stress the formality of holding the festival on a specific day, though. A few years later, the acting mayor Joseph Alioto officially declared the day of the occasion a local holiday. ”
Lord Jagannatha has also graced such notable historical places as the Eifel Tower in Paris and Trafalgar Square in London. In his translation to Srila Krishnadasa Kaviraja’s Sri Caitanya Caritamrita (Madhya 13.19), Srila Prabhupada comments in relation to the picture that accompanies this article (see upper left):
“The Nelson Column is a very impressive statue of Lord Nelson and can be seen from a good distance. Just as the residents of PurÄ« compared the Ratha-yÄtrÄ car to Mount Sumeru, the residents of London considered the car rival to the Nelson Monument.”
Does the spirit of broadcasting the glories of Lord Jagannatha worldwide necessarily preclude adherence to the traditional timing based on a lunar calendar that these major cities have, for the most part, never heard of?
General secretary of Sri Jagannath Sebayat Sammilani, Hare Krishna Mahasuar retorts, “The time is apt to sensitize the ISKCON temples about the tradition of the Jagannatha temple. Even though Jagannath temples exist in every nook and corner of the world, the Jagannatha Temple at Puri is the real abode of Lord Jagannath. Going by the age-old tradition, the annual Ratha Yatra of the Lord is observed on asadha sukla dwitiya. That usually falls in June and July on the Gregorian calendar.”
“Time and again the ISKCON society is flouting our tradition and norms. Last year too they did not pay heed to our protests and went ahead with celebrating Ratha Yatra on different dates at various places in the country,” said Priyadarshan Pattanaik, the national convener of the protest group.
One of ISKCON’s regional leaders Bhakti Purusottama Swami responded, “This kind of procession has been going on all over the world for the past forty years. However, in the past two years some individuals have raised concerns about ISKCON holding Ratha-yatra on the wrong day. ISKCON has taken these complaints seriously, yet despite hearing of and reading reports of these concerns in the media, ISKCON is still unaware of who the right authority is to address these concerns to, or whom to meet with and discuss the issue.”
Enraged over untimely celebration of the festival, the protestors publicly burnt an effigy of Srila Prabhupada. Shouting slogans against ISKCON, they even went so far as to threaten an outright ban on ISKCON followers entering the town of Puri.
In response to this, ISKCON GBC representative Sivarama Swami implored, “Do they really think that Jagannatha so much cares about the exact time and place where his Ratha Yatra takes place? Is He not more interested in giving the opportunity for people in the world to see Him, to pull His cart, to take His prasadam [sanctified food], to chant His name, and to participate in His festival that ensures them liberation?"
He continued, “Everyone can express their opinion on something and they have a right to that. But to burn an effigy of Srila Prabhupada is not something that we as followers can just sit still and tolerate. It must be protested."
In this regard, ISKCON’s Governing Body Commission is encouraging all leaders, disciples and followers of Srila Prabhupada to immediately express their disapproval via petitions and personal complaints to the Puri Temple administrators and officials.
You can direct your letters, faxes and phone calls to the following individuals.
Gajapati Maharaja Dibyasingha Deb: Chairman, Sri Jagannath Temple Managing Committee Sri Nahar, Puri 752001 Phone 1: 91-674-2511166 Phone 2: 91-6752-222829 Fax: 91-674-513842 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Mr. Suresh Chandra Mohapatra: IAS Working Chairman Shri Jagannath Temple Office, Puri Phone 1: 91-6752-223002 Phone 2: 91-6752-222002 E-mail: email@example.com
Mr. Bhaskar Jyoti Sarma: IAS Collector & Deputy Chief Administrator Shri Jagannath Temple Office, Puri. Phone (Office): 91-6752-222033 Phone (Residence): 91-6752-222034 Fax: 91-6752-223939 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sailendra Narayan Sarangi: Chief Administrator, Jagannatha Puri Temple E-mail: email@example.com
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