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Holy Rathayatra San Francisco 1969

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Lord Jagannath’s Triumphal Ride To The Sea

—by Nara-Narayan Viswakarma

1969-01-30-16

Suddenly, at noon on the 27th of July, a frenzied storm of 10,000 young and old chanters startled the heart of San Francisco. A sea of people poured around the corner of Haight and Ashbury Streets in the dazzling noonday sun, completely surrounding the thirty-five foot high, brilliantly decorated Rathayatra car. The brightly painted wooden vehicle had wheels eight feet high and a twenty foot tall magenta satin dome decorated with gold, painted with lotus flowers and topped with a fringed flag on a spire. Below, amidst multi-colored wooden columns decorated with gold lotuses, fringed flags and swinging strings of Vedic cowbells, sat a dozen musicians playing drums, cymbals and a hand organ, filling the whole area for blocks around with amplified charting of Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. The car rolled heavily to the intersection and stopped—emitting clouds of fragrant frankincense and myhrr from large sensors on the car’s second level, high above the crowd. At the front of the car, upon a palanquin decorated with a gold-scalloped canopy and magenta draw-curtains, were the beloved Jagannath Deities: Krishna, Subhadra and Balaram. Smiling, Their Arms extended and Eyes blazing, the three Deities presided over the chanting mass of people; Their garlanded silk-clad Forms welcomed all who had come to pay them homage. The car had stopped for an important reason, although the excited crowd almost pulled it away several times in their anxiety to begin dancing all the way to the sea. They were, however, persuaded to wait, as the spiritual master of the Krishna consciousness movement, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami—saffron-robed and smiling—stepped from a nearby automobile. He was at once guided through two protective rows of robed devotees toward velvet-cushioned, rose-petalled steps extending up to a giant red throne set on golden lions’ claws. The spiritual master’s throne was decorated with hundreds of roses and carnations and covered with a gold-fringed magenta canopy. The whole front of the car, consisting of a large platform holding the throne, was upholstered with pink satin and draped with carnations, rich bunting and flags. As His Divine Grace stepped up the stairs, his ecstatic, weeping disciples pressed their heads on the petalled cushions where his feet had walked. They cried out, “Prabhupada!” a name which indicates a soul so great that even great spiritual masters can take shelter at his lotus feet. He sat down on the throne, located right under the three Jagannath Deities on the front of the car, and gazed over the wildly chanting devotees and participants. Spectators were gathering to witness the Festival. Many stopped their cars, left their parcels and baby-carriages and approached to find out what was attracting so many people. The spiritual master pressed his palms together, and, after smiling his Blessing on the assembled crowd, began to speak as follows: “My dear American boys and girls, I thank you very much for taking part in this great ceremony known as Lord Jagannath’s Rathayatra. This ceremony is performed every year for the last two thousand years or more in India. Today this inauguration of Rathayatra ceremony will bring a new chapter in the history of the world. It is stated in the Vedic literature that anyone who sees Lord Jagannath seated on this car will no more have to take birth within this miserable world. It is that potent. This Krishna consciousness movement is to take you to the highest state of eternal bliss and knowledge. It is not a sentimental movement, but is the practical means of perfect spiritual realization. If within this life you practice Krishna consciousness, then you will very easily be able to go to Goloka Vrindaban, and you will have your blissful life, eternal and full of knowledge. So today you should start this process. Simply chant Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. I request you that you follow this car of Lord Jagannath, and make progress in your life to Goloka Vrindaban, instead of wasting your time for the moon planet. Thank you very much.”

When he had finished speaking, a signal was given and the crowd picked up the thick ropes fore and aft of the car and surged forward, guided by the enthusiastic directions of saffron-robed devotees. Thus the tilting and creaking 8,000 pound wooden car began its ponderous five mile journey to the sea.

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As the car found its way up Haight Street to the entrance of Golden Gate Park, His Divine Grace’s voice soared in resonant tones leading the chanting of Hare Krishna, Hare Rama, accompanied by the musicians inside the car. The turbulent, dancing crowd was swaying in the power of the mantra, walking backwards, unable to take their eyes off the magnificent car shimmering in the sunlight or the Divine Passengers riding in glory above their heads. Certainly this day “opened a new chapter in the history of the world.” The spiritual master was hailed and glorified, and that alone brought an epoch of hope to the benumbed and frustrated world, so torn as it is with false hopes and desires. Higher and higher his voice rose announcing to all sentient beings the all-protecting nature of the Lotus Feet of Lord Sri Krishna, the factual Refuge for all in this miserable world. “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna,” the crowd chanted back, bewildered, yet grasping at this ray of hope, bliss, eternal supreme knowledge. A devotee with a peacock fan fanned Lord Krishna on the second level of the car, and the all-pervasive incense curled in wafts through the confused, yet thrilled throng. Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna. Groups had started to dance in circles in the midst of the river of people, and everywhere sticks of incense were sending up thin trails of smoke and fragrance. Hare Krishna! Bobbing heads were chanting everywhere, and incense sticks were seen moving up and down in the hands of shaved-headed devotees. Hare Krishna flags and banners waved above the heads of the crowds. The giant voices were amplified so loud that it seemed the car itself was chanting. Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Waves of transcendental emotion flowed through the thousands, each exposed to the direct vibration of the mantra.

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Rejoice, rejoice in the Lord! Out of the nihilistic hearts of today’s youth flowed the nectar of love, Hare Krishna, Hare Rama. Washed and washed with the shudders of transcendental ecstasy, the many-voiced crowd seemed to chant with one voice. The mantra was sung first, like nectar, from the lips of the spiritual master, and then the reply came from thousands of mouths chanting in reply—Hare Krishna, Hare Rama. Where was the end to all this? No matter how ecstatically one chanted, there always seemed to be a higher level to which one could go; and the chanting rose and rose in the sublime. There were no enemies that day. Stolid-looking citizens walked side by side with stooped and bearded youths, while small children rode on the shoulders of their fathers or asked to ride upon the car. Elderly ladies also rode upon the car, swaying back and forth, their eyes closed and hands clapping softly, singing the transcendental words. Overhead the cow bells clanged their varied tones. To the side, the mounted policemen astride their chestnut horses eyed the spectacle with genuine wonder. The car, the chanting, the wild yet stately procession, the joyful people, the richly decorated and garlanded Deities smeared with fragrant oils and fanned with a peacock feather fan—what was it all about? The spiritual master seated with his legs folded beneath him upon the sumptuous red and golden throne sat perfectly serene in knowledge of it all, of all that had been done and was yet to be done. Who was he? He sat clapping his hands slightly, eyes almost shut, his form exasperatingly yet exquisitely beyond the mental grasp of the mundane mind. Looking around the crowd, one could see that he was the object of it all. His divine glance had brought us all. We were once like blind and stumbling refugees; now we knew that happiness lay in the glorification of the Transcendental Lord.

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Lord Jagannath! Lord of the Universe! Hari Hari Vol! There was no doubt as the chanting reached new peaks, for every heart could hear beyond its limited reach—at least on that one day. Each person knew that beyond material woe lay the divine nectar released for once by the chanting of the Holy Name. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami purified us all with the chanting of Hare Krishna, personally distributing the Holy Name of the Lord, offering to everyone the nectar of love of God. Shining and pure, the Holy Jagannath car directed its ponderous self through the churning, swaying throng. Rumbling and trembling, seemingly fixed in place, it moved with great resolve to the sea. To the sea! Would we ever get there? Miles and miles the massive domed car rolled on. No one knew if he was really tired. It was hard to say. The hot crowds, the endless marching, dancing, labored breathing; yet the chant constantly suspended us and carried us on. Such ecstasy! Everyone was a bit surprised. Who had ever done such a thing before? Were we all bewitched? But No. It was easy to see. This was no satanic orgy or bohemian cavort, nor was it a college frolic. Rather it was a transcendental event never before seen in this whole land, a giant colorful festival solely for the pleasure of the Supreme Lord. Unlikely perhaps, but there it was, as lovely as could be!

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About halfway through the park, when the chanting had reached its peak, the whole procession came upon the low arch of a bridge spanning the roadway. Somehow, above the roar of the chanting, the order was given just in time: “Stop the car!” The car stopped, and everyone looked relieved. The devotees who had been there the year before smiled to themselves as they saw the baffled crowd gazing at the thirty-five foot car in front of the fourteen foot opening. No one knew what to do! Some laughed and others cried, while the majority never let up on the chanting of the Holy Name. The devotees from last year smiled again as they remembered how the car had been a bit too tall, and, while the devotees had leaped and chanted hoping for a miracle, one had climbed up and lowered the top with a saw. This year everyone gathered around the car and clapped their hands. The chanting crescendoed and melted the hearts of everyone present. When nothing could be heard but waves of Hare Krishna, Hare Rama, Prabhupada stood up on the front of the car, his garlands swaying back and forth. He began to dance and then leap up and down, exhorting the now-whirling mass of devotees by his stance and gesture. In this whirling ecstasy akin to madness he was leading us higher and higher, dragging us out of our sins and reviving our Krishna consciousness. By his divine example we were soaring in transcendental bliss. Each gesture revealed new truth, and as our appetite for self-knowledge grew, so did the vibrancy of his leading chant. Greater and greater rose the chanting, Hare Krishna, Hare Rama. How perfect he is, and how fallen we are. We let loose our hearts and shouted, “Hari Vol [chant the Name]!” Through the chanting few noticed that an internal mechanism had lowered the dome of the car, and with the spire adjusted to the side the car barely made it under the bridge. When Prabhupada had seated himself once again in his blissful composure, the car started under the bridge, with Hare Krishna echoing forever under the tunnel. On the other side, there was the sun again and the freely moving ecstasy picked up with no more anxiety. As the ocean appeared before us, some of us recalled that the gopis paying their obeisances to Krishna is compared to the thundering of the ocean waves on the shore. And through our minds flowed the remembrance of the great prayer to the spiritual master: “The spiritual master is always engaged in chanting and hearing the Message of Lord Chaitanya (Hare Krishna Mantra), and sometimes he is dancing in ecstasy. Sometimes he feels quivering in his body on account of spiritual trance. I offer my respectful obeisances unto the lotus feet of such spiritual master.” Down the Great Highway the car swept on, the sea breeze billowing the magenta dome and causing the flags to flap in wild array. It was quite ordinary now to see cars stop by the side of the road, fascinated drivers climbing out from behind the wheel to join in the tumultuous, jubilant procession. On and on we went, the cymbals clashing and drums thundering through the hidden speakers on the car; and Prabhupada’s voice leading us onward, onward.

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The oceanside dance hall showed just ahead, with crowds already gathering at the doors, waiting for the promised mass-chanting, and especially the feasting. The day before, the women devotees spent long hours into the night preparing spiced sweet rice, “simply wonderfuls” (powdered milk, sugar and butter, rolled into balls with nuts and raisins and spices), hot spiced apple chutney, fresh fruit salad and a huge piece of watermelon for every plate. During this preparation, the last decorations were being put on the car by the brahmacharies while thousands of flowers were strung.

On the cart’s arrival at the ocean auditorium, the doors opened and the feast was seen in the courtyard. Fifteen thousand paper plates loaded with relishable foodstuffs ranged along the walls and in numerous rows over the entire courtyard. Guests swarmed into the giant hall where an altar had been set up with the Deities presiding in Their palanquin, and Prabhupada seated on the red throne. No one seemed willing to stop chanting, and His Divine Grace Swami Bhaktivedanta led everyone again in chanting Hare Krishna, Hare Rama. Meanwhile many of the guests congregated on the beach around large bonfires, where watermelons were cut open and plates were distributed. Even hours later guests were delightedly distributing simply wonderfuls to the incredulous Sunday beachcombers. Back at the auditorium, Prabhupada finished the chanting and gave a short talk on the importance of Krishna consciousness as a means of achieving the supreme goal—love of God. Then everyone feasted, and gazed with admiring glances at Prabhupada and the magnificent altar. No one had feasted like that before. So many people ate sumptuously, yet not a single animal had been killed. Everything was prepared from food grains, vegetables and milk products, yet no one was dissatisfied. It was glorious and abundant. Again the devotees recalled the prayer to the spiritual master: “The spiritual master is always offering four kinds of delicious foodstuffs, analyzed as that which is chewed, licked up, drank and swallowed. Four kinds of prasadam are offered to Krishna, and when the devotees are eating Bhagavat Prasadam, the spiritual master is satisfied. I offer my respectful obeisances unto the lotus feet of such spiritual master.” Everyone was satisfied.

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Note on Krishna Consciousness:

The International Society for Krishna Consciousness is a group of mostly young people who are dedicating their lives to living the teachings of the topmost Vedic transcendental scripture, The Bhagavad Gita As It Is, under the direction of their spiritual master; His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada came from Vrindaban, India three years ago just to impart this knowledge to the western world. Hitherto the Bhagavad Gita, as well as other Vedic teachings, were beyond the scope of comprehension as presenting a practical way of life for the average American. But when His Divine Grace, who is acharya (one who teaches divine life by example), came to this country, his scholarly knowledge as well as his ability to perfectly live the divine scriptures immediately drew hundreds of disciples to him. The Rathayatra Car Festival is only one of many such occurrences which are emerging untainted from the scriptures under his masterful guidance. The huge crowds that gathered chanting Hare Krishna and dancing in ecstasy are an excellent example of the magnetism of these transcendental festivals. Everyone had a glorious time; the festival and feast were over only eight hours after the beginning of the march to the sea. The guests all went home at peace with themselves, carrying to their various abodes the transcendental vibration, Hare Krishna, Hare Rama, the endless song of Krishna’s Abode. As for the devotees, they were already planning the next festivities to be held, in Los Angeles, in New York, in Boston—and throughout the twenty-five Krishna conscious centers around the world, which are all being carefully guided by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami.

“The spiritual master is receiving benediction from the ocean of mercy. Just like the cloud pours water on the forest fire to extinguish it, so the spiritual master extinguishes the blazing fire of material existence. I offer my respecfful obeisances unto the lotus feet of such spiritual master.”

Prabhupada writes in Nectar of Devotion, “… as it is said in the Brahmanda Purana, ‘A person who sees the Lord’s Rathayatra Car Festival, and then stands up to receive the Lord, can curb down all kinds of sinful results from his body.” Many people stood that day, July 27th, when Prabhupada’s devotees and many other young people pulled the Rathayatra Car through the streets of San Francisco. On the car sat Lord Jagannath, the Lord of the Universe, and Prabhupada, the Lord’s best friend. Thousands of people stood alongside the road or came to their windows or stood on elevated places and rooftops to watch the Rathayatra Car Festival pass by.

“A person who is in jubilant spirit and with profound devotional ecstasy while dancing before Me [Krishna], manifesting features of bodily expression, can burn away all the accumulated sinful reactions he has stocked up for many, many thousands of years.”

-Dwarka Mahatmya

1969-01-30-17

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