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Every year on the auspicious day of Ashadh Sud 2, in early July, Hindus celebrate the Rath Yatra festival. Rath means chariot, Yatra - a pilgrimage or procession. Though this festival is celebrated all over India, it originated in Jagannath Puri on the eastern coast. Every year the deities of Jagannath Mandir - Lord Krishna, Balaram and Subhadra - are traditionally installed on huge chariots. Devotees pull the chariots in a yatra (procession) through the streets. The local king used to serve by humbly sweeping the road ahead with a golden broom.
Rath Yatra 2000, Jagannath Puri
Rath Yatra, Jagannath Puri
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Rath Yatra 2000, Calcutta
Rath Yatra
, Calcutta

A look at the several stories associated with its origins throws light on the sentiments underlying the festival:

  1. Kamsa, the maternal uncle of Lord Krishna, invited Krishna and Balram to Mathura with the malicious intention of killing them. The evil Kamsa sent Akrur with a chariot to Gokul. Lord Krishna and Balram climbed onto the chariot with Akrur, taking leave of the Gopis to proceed to Mathura. This day of departure is celebrated by the devotees as Rath Yatra.

  2. Jubilant devotees celebrated the day when Lord Krishna, having vanquished the evil Kamsa, gave them darshan in Mathura in a chariot with his brother, Balaram.

  3. Devotees in Dwarika celebrated the day when Lord Krishna, accompanied by Balaram, took Subhadra - his sister, for a ride on a chariot to show the city's beauty.

  4. Once in Dwarka, Lord Krishna's eight queens requested mother Rohini to narrate the divine episodes of Lord Krishna with the Gopis while he was in Vraj. For a while Rohini dithered. Finally, after a lot of insistence she relented. However, considering it unbecoming of Subhadra to hear such episodes (Leela), she sent her to guard the palace doorway. Yet the Vrajkatha soon absorbed Subhadra. Soon, Lord Shri Krishna and Balaram arrived at the doorway. With arms wide apart, she stood between the two, preventing them from entering. However, from where they stood, Rohini's katha soon engrossed them all! Just then sage Narad arrived. Seeing the siblings standing together like murtis, he humbly prayed, "May the three of you grant darshan in this manner forever." The Lord granted the boon. And the three eternally reside in the Jagannath Mandir in Puri.

  5. There is an interesting story of Lord Krishna becoming the Sarathi - driver of Arjuna's chariot, during the eighteen-day battle of the Mahabharat.

  6. Finally, a story which has been passed on from mouth to mouth, concerns about what happened after the cremation of Lord Krishna's mortal body.

    When Shri Krishna was being cremated in Dwarika, Balaram, overcome with grief, dashed into the ocean with Shri Krishna's partially cremated body. Subhadra too, followed both the brothers. At the same time, on the eastern shore of India, King Indradyumna of Jagannath Puri had a dream that the Lord's body would float up to the shores of Puri. He should build a huge mandir in the city and consecrate the wooden murtis of Shri Krishna, Balaram and Subhadra. The bones (asthi) of Lord Krishna's body should be placed in the hollow in the back of the murti. The dream came true. He found the splinters of bone (asthi) and took them. But the question was who would carve the murtis. It is said that the architect of the gods - Vishwakarma - arrived as an old carpenter. He stipulated that while carving the murtis nobody should disturb him and if anybody did, he would stop work and leave. A few months elapsed. Driven with impatience, Indradyumna opened the door of Vishwakarma's room, who vanished instantly as he had stipulated. Despite the incomplete murtis, the king consecrated them, placing the holy cinders of Lord Krishna in the hollow of the murti and installed them in the mandir. Every year a grand procession is carried out with the murtis of Lord Krishna, Balaram and Subhadra in three gigantic floats. The floats are pulled by devotees from Janakpur to the mandir in Jagannath Puri. The murtis are changed every twelve years, the new ones being incomplete too.

    The Jagannath Mandir in Jagannath Puri is one of the four most sacred mandirs in the four directions of the Indian sub - continent. The other three are: Rameshwar in South, Dwarka in West and Badrinath in the Himalayas. Probably the mandir in Jagannath Puri is the only mandir in the world housing murtis of three deities who are siblings - Lord Krishna, Balaram and Subhadra.

There are several Raths mentioned in the Hindu scriptures:

Katha Upanishad (1/3/3-4) - the Body Rath

Yama, the Lord of Hell reveals to young Natchiketa the Rath with which one can attain Brahma-vidya - knowledge of Brahman.

Atmanam rathinam viddhi shareeram rathameva tu,
Buddhim tu sarathim viddhi manaha pragrahameva tu.
Indriyani hayanyahur vishayansteshu gocharan,

The atman is Rathi - owner of the `chariot' - the body,
The intellect is the Sarathi - driver,
The mind is the rein,
The senses are the horses, and
The Panch Vishayas - material objects of the five senses - are
the fields of pasture for the horses.

i.e. The person whose Sarathi - intellect - is wise, whose mind fully controls the senses, can traverse Samsara to reach the desired goal - the Lord's abode.

Ramayana - The Samsara Rath
Lord Ramachandra describes his chariot to Vibhishan, with which he is always victorious:

Courage and tenacity are its wheels,
Immutable truth and character are its flags,
Strength, discrimination, self-control and charity are its horses,
Forgiveness, mercy and equanimity are the reins, and
Devotion to the Lord is its Sarathi.

With such a chariot one can surely traverse Samsara.

Mahabharat- The Life Rath
Shri Krishna becomes his devotee, Arjun's Sarathi, leading him and the Pandavas to victory.

Shri Krishna says in the Gita (18/78) that, where there is Krishna and Arjuna, there's wealth, victory, power and immutable morality. This was borne out during the battle when the mighty warrior Bhishma vowed to kill Arjuna on the tenth day. Lord Krishna anxiously searched for Arjuna and found him asleep. Bewildered, Lord Krishna asked him how he could sleep with such a pledge looming over his life. To his astonishment Arjuna answered, "Because you are awake!"

The ultimate essence of the chariot stories is that the Jiva should unwarrantedly surrender to the supreme Sarathi - God or the God-realised Sadhu, if he wishes to successfully traverse the yatra of life, Samsara.

Rath Yatra Festival in Gujarat
In many cities of Gujarat like Amdavad, Surat, Bhavnagar, etc, glorious processions are carried out annually with devotional fevour and joy. The Jagannath Mandir in Amdavad organises a yatra through the walled areas of the city. People make kaleidoscopic Raths and floats of various materials mounted on trucks. This year many youth and religious organizations in the city of Amdavad constructed ninety-eight Raths, which followed the Jagannath Mandir's fifteen decorated elephants. Onlookers and devotees thronged the narrow alleys, buildings and balconies, patiently awaiting up to three hours for the 5-km-long colorful procession to pass by at a sedate pace. When the chariots with the murtis arrived, people ritually sprinkled rice and gulal powder as a form of puja. The participants sitting in these raths liberally handed out fistfuls of prasadam of raw, sprouted mung beans. Children were given sweets and confectionary. Finally, at the rear were three raths of Subhadra, Balaram and Lord Krishna. These were all hand-drawn and pushed by devotees. The flurry and festive excitement was enhanced by the jubilant chanting of `Jai Ranchhod Makhan Chor'. Indra, the god of rain, too arrived to participate! It has been noted that sometime during the Rath Yatra, usually late afternoon or early evening, he sprinkles a light shower, never a heavy downpour, sanctifying the occasion.

The festival of Rath Yatra is celebrated at all the Swaminarayan Mandirs of the BAPS. Every year the center in Calcutta celebrates it on a large scale with colorful floats pulled by devotees and dignitaries. This year the Satsang center in Surat carried out a procession of eight floats with 15,000 devotees joyously chanting the Lord's name. The 1.5 km long procession inspired reverence and devotion in thousands of bystanders and pedestrians.

The Rath Yatra is a festival suffused with devotional sentiments for the Lord. For over five thousand years, Hindus have celebrated this spectacular festival. Gathering together, they earnestly pray to the Lord to steer the chariots of their mundane lives through the vicissitudes of Samsara.

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© 1999, Bochasanwasi Shree Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, Swaminarayan Aksharpith