Ratha-yatra... With An Old Insider"
Interview Printed in Back To Godhead Magazine
12 No. 6, July, 1977)
recently, Ratha-yatra was a strictly Indian celebration. It made its way
indirectly into Western culture when the British first watched it in Puri and
coined the term juggernaut, after the chariots of Jagannath, to indicate an
overwhelming, irresistible force. They felt moved by the immensity of the
canopies and wheels, and by the fervor of the devotees' exultant chanting of the
holy names of the Lord. However, the name Jagannath does not directly mean what juggernaut
means. Jagan-nath indicates "the Lord of the Universe" – the
Lord not just of India and Indians but of the whole universe and all living
Therefore, a hundred
years ago a devotee of Jagannath known as Bhakti-vinoda Thakur started writing
books about Krishna consciousness in English and sending the books to libraries
in the West. His son, Bhakti-siddhanta Sarasvati Goswami, carried on the
international educational program. The fruition came in 1966 when the Goswami's
most dedicated disciple, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada,
founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in New York City.
In the summer of
1967, the city of San Francisco saw the Western world's first Ratha-yatra.
Although earlier many other swamis and
yogis had journeyed to the West, none of them had brought the purity
and devotion of Srila Prabhupada. And none of them had the vision of Srila
Prabhupada: to establish ancient India's Krishna conscious culture around the
world on its own terms – not watered down, but as it is. Thus, Srila
Prabhupada introduced Lord Jagannath as He is, in the original format of the
ancient and glorious Festival of the Chariots. Before, no one had dared think it
possible, but Srila Prabhupada dared and was triumphant.
Jayananda Das, one of
Srila Prabhupada's early disciples, took part in every San Francisco Ratha-yatra
since the first one back in 1967 – and an unusually active part at that. In
fact, his expert engineering of the huge chariots used in the San Francisco
festivals earned him the nickname, "Mr. Ratha-yatra." For each of the
first four Ratha-yatras, Jayananda built the chariots from the ground up. And
although in the last few festivals the same vehicles were used each year, still
he continued to improve them. To find out the inside story on Ratha-yatra past,
present, and future, Back To Godhead interviewed
how did you first get involved in Krishna consciousness?
heard Srila Prabhupada speaking in San Francisco, and somehow I knew he didn't
want to cheat me. So I just wanted to work for him.
now for ten years you've worked on the Ratha-yatra carts.
were the first Ratha-yatras like?
first year, 1967, we just rented a
flatbed truck and started out in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco.
We decorated the truck with flowers and put the Deities on the back, and the
girls passed out fruit. A good crowd walked along with us at the beginning, and
when we turned off Haight Street a smaller group of maybe fifty people came with
us and we went all the way to the beach.
The second year (1968)
we made our own cart, with saffron silk canopies, small ones. And we had the
parade through Golden Gate Park to the beach. By that time the San Francisco
temple had grown a little – we had maybe 30 devotees – and about 100 people
came with us through the park. The chanting was very nice that year.
Then in 1969
we built a much bigger cart, with a tall silk canopy, like the ones they
build in Jagannath Puri in India. But in 1970
we worked for two months straight and built the three big carts, basically
the same ones we use now. Also, we had all kinds of publicity – TV,
billboards, posters. And Srila Prabhupada came to that Ratha-yatra. So a lot of
people came, maybe 12,000 people. It was big – a tremendous success. We had a
few mishaps, though. One cart broke down in the middle of the parade. And it was
a bitter cold day. But even though it was so cold at the beach, thousands of
people stayed there with us and ate a lot of Krishna prasad (spiritual food offered to Krishna). We brought 20 50-gallon
barrels of prasad, and they ate it
Later that year, the
auditorium we used at the beach was torn down. So in 1971
we decided to end the parade in the park, at Lindley Meadow. That year and
in 1972 and 1973, the parade was a little smaller than in 1970.
Bhakta Das came to San Francisco to be temple president, and he decided to
expand the Ratha-yatra. He spent more money on it than before, and maybe 20,000
people attended that year. The police remarked that we were the only group that
could get such a large gathering together without creating a problem for them.
Srila Prabhupada came
that year and gave a speech at the Meadow. He was sitting beneath the Jagannath
Deities on Their opulent three-tiered stage. Even without much understanding
everyone could appreciate that here was a majestic, awe-inspiring celebration.
Another wonderful thing we started that year was the fairground-type booths at
the Meadow. You could see the unlimited scope of the Vedic culture. We had a
Deity worship booth, a transcendental art booth, a literature booth, and of
course many booths selling food. Now that's become a regular feature of the
I tried out making steel wheels, but the chariots were so heavy they
flattened the steel and made the ride very bumpy for the Deities. So now we're
back to the standard wooden wheels.
instructions has Srila Prabhupada given you about Ratha-yatra?
never got much personal instruction. He just told me to make everything strong.
I'm not a real visionary about it – I just built the carts.
Ratha-yatra do you think has been the best so far?
New York last year (1976) – that
was the most festive. Not until then had I experienced so many of the
transcendental qualities of Ratha-yatra. You know – for a parade there's
nothing like Fifth Avenue; it's the most important street in the world. And when
we went to Washington Square Park to pull the carts home, hours after the parade
had finished, thousands of people were still there chanting. They were
everywhere. People were coming out of their apartments and coming out of bars
shouting "Hare Krishna!" Only in New York could you get such a
us, from your own experience, what the public gets out of Ratha-yatra.
impact is so powerful that everyone's affected. In New York there were thousands
of people out on the streets, and they were astounded. It's not that I'm
claiming it; the people were interviewed on TV and that's what they said. Also I
remember one man with his girl friend (she didn't like us at all) who told me
some time after the festival that when he saw the carts coming down the street
he felt a parade had just come down from heaven, and that he often remembers the
carts and the chanting with pleasure.
So people are hit by
it. It's so far beyond their usual experience. You can't measure the impact. All
year long they do more or less the same things. Maybe they catch a few parades,
like the Thanksgiving Day parade. They stand and watch some big balloons go by.
But it's all the same. Then, when you have a whole troupe of devotees singing
and dancing around these lofty, transcendental chariots – then the people are
transformed. They used to be mundane creatures, but when they see the
Ratha-yatra, they're angels. It brings out the best in people to see Lord
Jagannath smiling at them. I tell you, at first their faces looked like they
hadn't changed in 25 years, and then all of a sudden it was like glass cracking,
and you'd see the whole face transformed just by a few moment's association.
And what to speak of
those who take part?! Ratha-yatra encourages everybody to take part. "Come
on, walk with us, dance, grab a rope and pull!" We don't say, "Don't
touch." No – "Join in, have fun." By our nature we all want to
participate. Nobody wants to be a bystander. And those who take part are
purified of all their sinful karmic reactions
just by chanting Hare Krishna and seeing Lord Jagannath.
there people who regard it as idol worship?
– they may feel that before, but the impact of the festival is so strong that
after it they feel otherwise. They see Lord Jagannath, and they see how merciful
He is, and they can feel that it's not idol worship. And if they read Srila
Prabhupada's books, then they'll understand logically how Lord Jagannath is not
an idol. Of course, at the festival there are always a few fault-finders. Last
year in New York one of them had a bullhorn and was shouting, so one of our men
poured water down it and that stopped him.
is your understanding of the purpose of Ratha-yatra?
celebrate the pastimes of Krishna. Krishna's so kind; He comes to earth and
displays so many wonderful pastimes. Ratha-yatra celebrates His going to
Kuru-kshetra with Balaram and Subhadra, and His meeting there with the residents
of Vrindavan, where He was born. The expressions of love shared between the Lord
and His devotees make that one of the sweetest pastimes. Ratha-yatra offers a
chance for so many people to be engaged in Krishna consciousness. People don't
come to our temples much, but millions are out on the streets. Now here's a
chance for them to advance in spiritual life – here comes Lord Jagannath's
festival! They're touched – they become part of the transcendental vibration,
and they're purified.
Also, for the
devotees it's very beneficial – maybe more for me. Ratha-yatra is the service
that's given me so many of my realizations, the flowering of whatever Krishna
consciousness I have. It's not a long-term occupation. It happens all at once,
like a big explosion, in the summer. It brings together so many devotees all
working together under the spiritual master with one plan. And all the
transcendental paraphernalia is there – the Deities, the prasad,
the chanting, the booths, the theater – it's such a surcharged atmosphere.
You never forget it.
For a devotee to be
able to participate in Ratha-yatra is very good for his Krishna consciousness.
When you have these festivals, it gives you a big, powerful event to look
forward to, and to work towards. It helps your devotion.
about the future growth of Ratha-yatra?
thing that's important is that all the temples should celebrate this wonderful
festival. But it isn't practical for each center to construct three carts. So
now in Los Angeles we're putting together a traveling party that can go from
city to city, with displays and carts that you can assemble and take apart. Then
the great expense will be eliminated. Also, we'll have year-round Ratha-yatras
– the South in the winter, the North in the summer. It can be expanded so
people will be hearing about Ratha-yatra all year round – and that will be the
perfection of their lives!
sounds wonderful! Thank you very much, Jayananda.
you. Hare Krishna!
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