In the early 1970s, just a few years before meeting the love of her life, Judith Syer was the victim of a terrible car crash.
The result was a spinal chord injury that left her partially paralyzed. At first, doctors told her that she didn’t have long to live; then that she would survive but would never walk again.
She defied both predictions, eventually getting to her feet with the aid of crutches. But recovery wasn’t easy. She had the trauma of the accident to deal with, and the atmosphere around her didn’t help: everyone, even her family, identified her as disabled and were convinced that she’d have to use a wheelchair for the rest of her life. Soon she, too, began to think of herself as disabled.
Then, one day in the summer of 1976, while living next to Washington Square Park in New York City, Judith spotted a colorful poster that caught her eye. Upon closer inspection, she saw that it was advertising Ratha Yatra, an Indian “Festival of the Chariots” put on by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Her brother had joined ISKCON three years back, and so she decided to go, hoping to see him there.
She did. Now known as Prithu-Shrava Dasa, he explained that Ratha Yatra, a celebration dating back over 5000 years, was still observed annually in the holy city of Jagannatha Puri in Orissa, India, and had been introduced to the west in 1967 in San Francisco by ISKCON founder Srila Prabhupada.
Devotees, he told her, believed that if they got the honor of pulling the ropes of the giant chariot carrying Lord Jagannatha, the Lord of the Universe, then at the end of this life they would be granted eternal service to the Lord in the spiritual world.
“I know you can’t walk the whole parade down Fifth Avenue,” he said. “But if you just stay here, you’ll get to see Lord Jagannatha arriving on His cart, and Srila Prabhupada too.”
As the huge chariot with its brilliant red canopy rolled up, Jagannatha sitting majestically upon it, Judith watched in awe, taking in the Lord to whom she would devote the rest of her life. Then, as Srila Prabhupada delivered his speech on Krishna consciousness, she watched and listened with rapt attention.
“It was one of those transcendental experiences where I felt like he was talking directly to me,” she says now. “It was as if he was pulling me towards the devotees, saying, ‘Don’t go back to your old way of life.’ I was scared, because Krishna consciousness was so different from anything I had ever known. But all of a sudden I realized, ‘I have to join this movement.’”
The Lord Removes All Obstacles
Judith began her new way of life at ISKCON Boston months later, then moved to upstate New York, where her five-year-old son Govinda attended the Gurukula boarding school at Lake Huntington.
When she walked into the school’s temple room, she stopped still. There, on the altar, were the same deities of Jagannatha, His brother Baladeva, and His sister Subhadra that had so entranced her at her first Ratha Yatra. New York’s 55th street temple in Manhattan had been sold, and while its presiding Deities of Sri Sri Radha-Govinda had remained in the city, Jagannatha had moved.
“It was amazing to see Him there, and what happened next was even more amazing,” she says. “I had joined ISKCON barely able to walk, and identifying myself as a disabled person. But the new energy around me in the temple was so positive—nobody thought of me as disabled—and the devotees were so fired up, that I found myself walking around serving the Deities all day.”
Her tone is serious and filled with gratitude. “I believe that Lord Jagannatha gave me the ability—when we have the strong desire to do devotional service, the Lord removes all obstacles.”
By the early 1980s, Judith had received the spiritual name Yadunandana Dasi, and soon after, she took brahmana initation and became one of Lord Jagannatha’s pujaris, or priests. Her energy and physical ability remained, as she became head cook at Lake Huntington Gurukula, preparing meals for the Deities as well as 100 devotees every day without the aid of crutches.
When the Gurukula closed down in 1986, and Jagannatha, Baladeva and Subhadra were moved to Baltimore, Maryland—where They remain to this day—Yadunandana, now Their main priest, moved with Them and continued to serve Them. “I was so attached to Them,” she says. “Being a pujari was my life and soul.”
The Traveling Deity
In 1989, Jagannatha created another unique way for Yadunandana to serve Him. Missing their Lords, devotees at the New York temple, now in Brooklyn, arranged for Them to spend one month in New York City every year for the annual Ratha Yatra festival—and Their dedicated priest Yadunandana came with Them.
During the first two weeks, the wooden Deities of Jagannatha, Baladeva and Subhadra would be given Their only bath of the year in the Snana Yatra ceremony, then “get sick” and spend time “recovering,” when, according to tradition, a priest would leave a window open. The grand Ratha Yatra parade would then be held on New York’s Fifth Avenue, after which the Deities would spend a further two weeks in Their own quarters at the Brooklyn temple’s Prabhupada Museum.
“We set everything up in there so that it was like Their own little temple,” says Yadunandana, “And the devotees that had been in New York in the early days when They were first installed would come to visit Them. Everyone was so happy that their Jagannatha, Baladeva and Subhadra had returned. Some devotees would make Them new slips or handkerchiefs for Their aratis, while others would make burfi and other sweets. During Their recovery period, some would bring Them carrot juice or tea. We’d have bhajans and spiritual discussions there in the museum. We kept up the same routine for ten years in a row. It was so personal and sweet and enlivening. Those are some of my best memories.”
New York wasn’t the only place that Lord Jagannatha went to visit for His summer holidays. “Jagannatha became the traveling Deity,” Yadunandana says. “We took Him to Ratha Yatras in New Jersey, Washington D.C., and even Chicago. In the late 1990s, we started to also spend one week at the Potomac temple, holding special programs and inviting people for darshan. Those days were so ecstatic.”
Service in Separation
In 1999, however, Yadunandana moved to the rural ISKCON community in Alachua, Florida to be near her son Govinda, and moved into a mobile home on the farm right next to the temple.
The move was a difficult one. Being separated from her service to her beloved Lord Jagannatha caused Yadunandana much pain. And although she would fly to New York every year to help dress and worship Him at the Ratha Yatra there, being away from Him for the rest of the year was hard to bear.
“Serving in separation is said to be the highest relationship with the Lord,” she thought sadly. “Maybe this is what I have to do now. Maybe I’ll never get to serve Them every day again.”
Then one day in 2004, news reached her that local devotee Bhadra Dasa had purchased a Ratha Yatra cart with the aim to hold Ratha Yatra parades all over Florida, and for a moment her heart began to beat fast. But her excitement subsided when she heard that nobody in the community had large Jagannatha Deities suitable for the procession, and no plan had yet been launched to acquire any.
A few days after hearing this news, Yadunandana went on her annual trip to New York. There, she met Maheshvara Dasa, who had carved the New York Jagannatha Deities in 1976 on Srila Prabhupada’s request. Conversationally, she mentioned to him that the devotees in Florida had a plan to hold Ratha Yatras all over the State, but didn’t have any Jagannatha Deities.
Suddenly, Maheshvara’s eyes got really big. “Mother Yadu,” he said, “I’m going to carve you some Jagannatha Deities, so that you can keep doing your service to Them, and so that Ratha Yatras can be held in Florida.”
He kept his word, starting work on the Deities in October, and finishing by January 2005. That very month, Jagannatha, Baladeva and Subhadra were honored in their first Ratha Yatra in Tampa, Florida—then promptly moved into Yadunandana’s home, where They are so large that They fill nearly half of her small living room.
“It was inconceivable that suddenly, Jagannatha could be right there in my home, and that I could once again continue serving Him every day,” she says. “I never imagined that that would happen.”
The Lord of the Sunshine State
Now 63, Yadunandana just recently began using a wheelchair again, after falling and hurting her knees while caring for the Alachua temple’s sacred tulasi plants. She continues to serve her Lords just as energetically from her electric wheelchair, however, offering Them a full arati every day, sewing all Their outfits, and enlisting the help of her friends to dress Them often.
She also plays a major part in each of the seven Ratha Yatras that are currently held in Florida every year: In St. Augustine on the first day of spring; in Tallahasee in early April for the annual Springtime Parade, which draws 70,000 participants; in Jacksonville Beach in late May or early June; in Tampa in July; in Orlando in early September, in Daytona Beach in mid-September, and in Gainesville in October, for the University of Florida Homecoming Parade.
During each one of these, Yadunandana rides the Ratha Yatra cart and tends to Jagannatha, Baladeva and Subhadra throughout the parade and festival. She conducts Their arati ceremony and offers Them the many food preparations donated by Indian families and others. If the rain comes down, as it often does during a typical Florida summer, she holds an umbrella over the Deities to make sure They stay dry. At the end of the festival, when members of the public are allowed to ascend the cart to serve the Lord, she gives them a peacock fan to fan the Deities with, and fills their hands with Maha Prasad—food that has been offered to Lord Jagannatha.
“We don’t take Radha-Krishna or Krishna-Balarama on parades, but the public can see Jagannatha and engage in serving Him,” Yadunandana says. “The spiritual text Chaitanya Charitamrita states that anyone, regardless of their understanding or background, can make an offering to Lord Jagannatha on Ratha Yatra day. And that’s why He’s known as the most merciful.”
Second and Third Generation Inspiration
Yadunandana’s son, Govinda, also plays a major part in Florida’s Ratha Yatra festivals, helping Bhadra Dasa to organize them and engaging all his friends.
“My vision when Lord Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra first arrived here in Florida was that They were coming to enliven ISKCON’s second generation,” Yadunandana says. “And that’s what’s happening. Govinda’s friend Gaura Shakti is in charge of the entertainment at every Jacksonville Ratha Yatra, and serves as the MC. Bhadra’s daughter Ganga and other second generation dance students performed a traditional Odissi dance for Lord Jagannatha at both the recent installation of Krishna-Balarama in Alachua and at Jacksonville Ratha Yatra. And on Janmastami, the annual celebration of Krishna’s birth, Jagannatha is worshipped at Village of Vrindavana, a project by the youth that recreates the place of Krishna’s appearance.”
Yadunandana is inspired by the second generation’s determination to serve in Krishna consciousness, as well as their enthusiasm and creativity.
Once at Jacksonville Beach Ratha Yatra, she recalls, the cart’s axle broke and one wheel collapsed, buckling inwards. Some panicked, but within moments, Govinda and his friends had hatched a plan. Finding cinder blocks and a wooden board seemingly from nowhere, they set up a makeshift altar on the back of a pickup truck that was being used to pass out water bottles to the crowd.
Next, they they carried Jagannatha, Baladeva and Subhadra off the cart and placed Them on the truck, facing backwards. Excited, other devotees removed the decorations from the Ratha Yatra cart and decorated the truck with them. Finally, they attached the cart’s ropes to the back of the truck, put the vehicle in neutral, and pulled it down the beach. The Ratha Yatra parade was saved.
“When I pass away, I’m sure that Govinda will continue the Ratha Yatras, and that his friends will help,” Yadunandana says. “The second generation are just so naturally Krishna conscious, and I have a lot of faith that they are the way this movement will continue.”
She’s also inspired by the children of her son’s generation—the third generation of ISKCON. “I live right by the Alachua community’s day school, and I see these three-year-old kids running around chanting, ‘Radhe Shyam! Radhe Shyam!’ all day,” she says. “And my grand-daughter is only 21 months old, but she’s loves Jagannatha. Whenever she comes to my house, she picks up the arati ceremony items and says, ‘Grandma, arati, arati!’ She wants to go pick flowers, to fan the Deities, to offer Them incense and ghee lamps.”
At a recent Ratha Yatra, Yadunandana spotted Chandramukhi, a little third-generation girl, sitting on the cart and fanning Lord Jagannatha. She recalls: “I asked her, ‘Chandramukhi, aren’t you hungry? Don’t you want to go and get some prasadam?’ And she looked at me, and these were her exact words: ‘No… I just want to sit here and look at Lord Jagannatha for the rest of my life.’ These kids inspire me so much, and give me confidence that one day they will take up the mantle of this Ratha Yatra service.
“Until then,” Yadunandana concludes, “My plan is to keep participating in Ratha Yatras and serving Lord Jagannatha for as long as I can.”
“O God of Gods! O Jagannatha, the Lord of the Universe! O You who are an ocean of nectarean compassion and whose abode is most attractive, I offer my obeisances to You again and again! You uplift and deliver the fallen souls, but how you do this no one can understand. O ocean of mercy, I offer you my respectful obeisances!”
– From Jagannath Pranama
“I offer my respectful obeisances unto Lord Balarama, the best of the strong and the support of the earth. Obeisances unto You, O enemy of Pralamba! Please deliver me, O elder brother of Krsna.”
–From Baladeva Pranama
“O Devi, the lotus seat of Your heart is the sitting place of great loving devotion to Lord Visnu. All glories to You, the bestower of bhakti! You are famous as the supreme controller of these material universes. All glories to You, Subhadra Devi, the giver of auspiciousness to one and all.”
–From Subhadra Stuti