Ox Cart Sankirtana by Lokanatha Swami

An age-old mode of travel goes a long way in awakening Vedic culture in rural India.

During the eleven years from 1966, when Srila Prabhupada founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in New York City, to 1977, when he passed away in Vrndavana, India, he circled the world fourteen times, started temples, asramas, schools, and farms on six continents, wrote more than seventy books, and introduced literally millions of people to the chanting of the Hare Krsna mantra.

Yet in addition to this great concern for spreading Krsna consciousness outside India, Srila Prabhupada was also eager to revive it in his own country and not just in the big cities like Bombay, Calcutta, and New Delhi either, but in the more than a half million villages of India.

Planes and trains will not take you to these villages. Not even buses reach some of them. Thus, Srila Prabhupada revealed his plan. A small party of devotees, traveling from village to village by ox cart, would perform sankirtana: chanting Hare Krsna, distributing transcendental literature, and giving out prasadam (vegetarian food offered to Krsna).

About the time that Srila Prabhupada conceived his plan, I and about thirty other single male devotees had just finished traveling and preaching throughout parts of India in several Mercedes vans. Not only were the vans expensive to maintain and always breaking down, but in due course we had to ship them back to Germany, because their permits had expired. We were in New Delhi at the time, and when Srila Prabhupada arrived and came to know that we no longer had vehicles for our preaching program, he called me to his room and instructed me to start the ox cart sankirtana program.

We all rushed to Vrndavana, about ninety miles south, to get everything ready. The devotees at our Krishna-Balaram Mandir in Vrndavana had already heard of our ox cart sankirtana, and they were enthusiastic to help us. The head priest came forward and offered his personal set of Gaura-Nitai Deities. (Gaura is Lord Caitanya, and Nitai is His spiritual brother, Lord Nityananda.) We took this gift to be the special mercy of the Lord. Five hundred years before, Lord Caitanya had traveled extensively throughout India spreading Krsna consciousness, and now once again He was to head up a program of traveling and preaching. The Lord’s participation greatly inspired us.

Soon we had acquired some cooking pots and a supply of Srila Prabhupada’s books in Hindi. We also had a few thousand copies of a handbill that described our program and our destination Mayapur, the birthplace of Lord Caitanya. When everything was ready and we were all set to go, we went to see Srila Prabhupada, who was now visiting Vrndavana, to get his blessings. He spoke to us about how Gandhi had wanted to stop the flow of people from the villages to the big cities, but had been unable to do so. Srila Prabhupada said we could accomplish this, however, simply by giving the people a taste for the holy name of Krsna. If they developed a taste for chanting Hare Krsna, he said, they would be content with their simple life in the villages and wouldn’t run after the illusory pleasures of the cities. They would remain at home, happy in Krsna consciousness. Finally, Srila Prabhupada advised us always to camp near a well or other source of water. The well, he said, is the heart of the village. With Srila Prabhupada’s blessings, about eight of us started from Vrndavana toward Mayapur, nine hundred miles away. It was October 1976, and we planned to cover the distance in five months so we could attend the yearly festival at ISKCON’s center in Mayapur. We would pass through the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and West Bengal.

When we started from Vrndavana, we had everything we needed except the oxen and the cart. So we got a ride to Agra, the city of the Taj Mahal, where I sent the devotees out in pairs to the homes of our patron members to solicit funds for the oxen and the cart. I also sent two devotees to Jaipur for the same purpose. After a few days we had raised enough money, and we went to a weekly animal bazaar near Agra where we bought a pair of white oxen for a little more than two thousand rupees (about $230). We also bought a cart and equipped it with automobile tires. Now our ox cart sankirtana party was ready to get into full swing.

India is thickly populated, with villages everywhere, so for us to stop in each village along the way would be impossible. Usually we would pass through a village chanting Hare Krsna, passing out handbills, and trying to sell some of Srila Prabhupada’s books. As soon as we arrived in the village where we were going to stop for the night, most of us would get down and form a chanting party at the front of the cart. Only the driver and one other devotee, who held a big poster of Srila Prabhupada, would stay in the cart.

As we passed along the main roads of the village chanting Hare Krsna, two devotees would approach the houses on either side of the road. Carrying shoulder bags, they would beg for a little rice and dal (beans) and whatever they needed for cooking. During this sankirtana procession, someone would always come forward and suggest a place where we could stay. Every village, small or large, had a temple or at least a public dormitory, and sometimes a farmer would invite us to stay at his house.

When we arrived at the place where we were to stay, we would unload our things, install the Deities, and immediately begin cooking. We had no gas or kerosene stove, so our cook would simply find three medium-size rocks or some bricks and make a fireplace, while several devotees collected wood for fuel and several others collected grass for the bullocks.

Then I would have a devotee take a megaphone and go throughout the village to announce our evening program of kirtana, arati (offering of incense and other articles to the Deities), lecture, and prasadam. The turn-out was always good. Sometimes everyone in the village would come. In many villages the people were already practiced to chant the Hare Krsna mantra, and they would participate in the kirtana very enthusiastically. After the lecture, the last and most popular part of the program would be the distribution of prasadam. We would serve kichari (a spicy dish made with rice, dal, and vegetables), and the villagers would come for seconds and even thirds.

We would also have our early-morning devotional program, of course, but that was mainly for the devotees, although sometimes a few villagers would also participate. Without fail the devotees would get up early (around 4:00) and bathe either by dipping into a nearby river or pond or by drawing water from the village well and throwing a few bucketfulls over themselves. And then, as at any ISKCON temple, we would have mangala-arati at 4:30. Then we would go through the village chanting Hare Krsna and singing a song called Jiva Jago (“O Sleeping Souls, Wake Up!”). Both adults and children would come running straight from their beds. The sound of the drum, the cymbals, and the holy name reminded them of Krsna and of their Krsna culture, and they were invariably pleased.

After our kirtana through the village, we would return to our camp, do our japa (private chanting on beads), and have a class on the Srimad-Bhagavatam. Then one or two devotees would cook breakfast. After taking prasadam, we would load everything back into the cart, and by 9:00 we would be ready to start.In some villages the people were so enthusiastic that we would spend two or three days. Sometimes they wouldn’t let us proceed, but would beg us to stay for a few more days. Because of this popularity we were averaging only about twenty miles per week.

For the most part, the villagers were very simple and friendly. We spoke their language, we talked about their welfare, we entertained them with kirtana, and we fed them with prasadam. They would all honor the bullocks, the cart, and the devotees especially the foreign devotees, who were the main attraction. The villagers would always follow them and look for a way to interact with them. In most of the villages we visited, no one had ever seen a foreigner.

And these foreigners weren’t just ordinary foreigners they were foreign sadhus! Their bodies may have been foreign, but the religion they were practicing wasn’t at all foreign: it was the villagers’ very own, which they were unfortunately no longer following very strictly. For these villagers, seeing foreign devotees of Lord Krsna was a big surprise and also a necessary reminder. The foreigners were requesting the villagers to study the Bhagavad-gita, their own most holy book, and to chant the holy name of Lord Krsna, who had appeared in their country and who was supposed to be their worshipable Lord.

Today most Indians, including those living in the villages, are busy imitating the Westerners. The people in the villages are eager to go to the cities, and the people in the cities are looking forward to the day when they can go to the West. Srila Prabhupada’s idea was that if the Indians at all want to imitate the Westerners, let them imitate these Westerners who have taken up Krsna consciousness. Then, by such imitation, all of India would again be Krsna conscious, to its great benefit.

In January we reached Allahabad, the city where three holy rivers converge. It was the year of the Kumbha-mela, a large gathering of the faithful that takes place every twelve years at that city, and Srila Prabhupada had come from Bombay by train to participate in ISKCON’s programs. When we met him, he gave us a lot of attention and mercy. He heard our ox cart sankirtana stories at length, and he especially appreciated how the devotees would go from door to door begging handfuls of rice or anything else the householders would offer. The begging taught the devotees humility and engaged the villagers in Krsna’s service.

At the Kumbha-mela several devotees joined us, and now we had about a dozen on the ox cart. We had the Deities, books, pots, the devotees’ personal things, sacks of grain, some food for the oxen, and on top of everything, a dozen devotees all in one ox cart!

Next we reached Varanasi, a famous holy city on the banks of the Ganges. In February the Mayapur festival was to take place, and since we were behind schedule, we decided to load our whole show into a truck and get to West Bengal fast.

Arriving in West Bengal, we again began traveling by ox cart from village to village. We had many ecstatic adventures. Especially successful was our program of distributing prasadam. As our sankirtana party would reach the gate of someone’s home, the ladies of the house would come out and wash the feet of all the devotees, offer obeisances, receive us with folded hands, and offer us a basketful of rice with some vegetables on top. So we carried on our simple traveling and preaching in the land of Lord Caitanya.

When finally we reached Navadwip, just across the Ganges from Mayapur. we were greeted by crowds of enthusiastic people. They were surprised at the simple ox cart sankirtana organized by the Hare Krsna devotees. On top of the cart, as usual, a devotee held up a big portrait of Srila Prabhupada, and everyone got the blessing of seeing His Divine Grace, as they happily joined in the chanting of Hare Krsna. At the bank of the Ganges we loaded everything into a small ferryboat and headed for Mayapur.

Upon arriving at ISKCON’s Mayapur project, we held a big kirtana as we passed through the gates. We went all the way up to the temple and entered. Just as we entered, the curtains opened, and we had an ecstatic view of the Lord in His Deity incarnation. Then we went up the stairs and there was Srila Prabhupada on the balcony. He immediately called us into his room and had us garlanded and given milk sweets. We sat down at Srila Prabhupada’s feet, and he asked us about the journey. He was smiling. He was satisfied, and that was our perfection.

We explained to him that we’d visited seventy-two villages between Vrndavana and Mayapur. When we had come to large highways, we had marveled at how everyone was running and riding in a great hurry. They were going nowhere, we had realized, whereas we were marching slowly but steadily back home, back to Godhead. Once one of our tires had been punctured, and we had had to pay four rupees (about fifty cents) to get it repaired. That had been our only expense throughout the entire journey!

As I sat with Srila Prabhupada, we expressed our sorrow that no new devotees had joined us. Because we had remained for only a very short time in each village, people hadn’t had enough time to build up their faith in the chanting of Hare Krsna and the philosophy of Krsna consciousness. But Srila Prabhupada encouraged us: “Do not mind,” he said, “You have sown the seed. I am very happy to hear of your nice activities on ox cart sankirtana. I wish I could have joined you. I like your program very much. If you continue this program, you will be benefited, the people will be benefited, and everyone will become happy in Krsna consciousness.”

Rathayatra Pastimes by Lokanath Swami

Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu spent His later years in Jagannatha Puri, Orissa, immersed in love of Godhead and absorbed in wonderful pastimes with His intimate associates and with the Deity of Krsna in Puri, known as Jagannatha, “the Lord of the universe.” This was nearly five hundred years ago.

One of the most attractive of Lord Caitanya’s pastimes was His role in the yearly Rathayatra, the Festival of the Chariots, in which Lord Jagannatha parades through the main street of the city on a huge decorated cart pulled by devotees. Year after year for eighteen years altogether Lord Caitanya took part in the Rathayatra festival in Puri.

Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu was Krsna Himself in the mood of Srimati Radharani. So during the festival He used to chant and dance in front of Lord Jagannatha’s cart, acting out a drama. Srila Prabhupada, commenting on the Caitanya-caritamrta,where these pastimes are described, says that the two Lords Lord Caitanya and Lord Jagannatha were reenacting a conjugal pastime, or madhurya-lila. Lord Caitanya, absorbed in transcendental emotions, would play the role of Srimati Radharani, Lord Jagannatha’s eternal consort. Sometimes Lord Caitanya would fall behind Lord Jagannatha’s cart. The cart would then stop as Jagannatha tried to catch sight of Caitanya Mahaprabhu, attracted by His graceful and enchanting dancing.

The two Lords were reenacting the pastimes performed five thousand years ago in the holy place of Kuruksetra when Sri Sri Radha and Krsna met after many years of separation. They had last seen each other in Vrndavana, when Akrura had come to take Krsna and Balarama to nearby Mathura. That day had been the worst day for Radharani, the gopis (cowherd girls), and all the Vrajavasis (residents of Vrndavana). As Krsna left, He promised that after killing the demons outside Vrndavana He would return.

Krsna, the life of the Vrajavasis, stayed in Mathura for some time and then moved to Dvaraka, where He continued His wondrous pastimes. During these many years, Radha and the Vrajavasis intensely, almost unbearably felt separation from Krsna’s lotus feet.

The Meeting at Kuruksetra- When Nanda Maharaja (Krsna’s father) and Srimati Radharani and the other residents of Vrndavana learned of Krsna’s plan to visit Kuruksetra, not far away, they at once decided to go there. The long-awaited meeting of Krsna with these devotees from Vrndavana took place in Kuruksetra on the occasion of a solar eclipse, when the residents of Dvaraka came to bathe in Kurukshetra’s holy lakes.

The residents of Dvaraka, members of the Yadu dynasty, erected their royal camp, and nearby the cowherd Vrajavasis parked their simple carts. Krsna and His brother Balarama, Their sister Subhadra, and the residents of Dvaraka and Vrndavana like Vasudeva, Devaki, Nanda Maharaja, Yasoda Mayi, Rohini, Radharani, the gopis all met together, mingling and sharing one another’ company.

The Vrajavasis and the gopis were especially pleased to meet Krsna, the Lord of their life. Yet they felt that meeting Him at Kuruksetra was different from meeting Him in Vrndavana. They were accustomed to see Him as a simple cowherd boy, not as a royal prince. The Kuruksetra setting left them unsatisfied. They wanted Krsna to come back to Vrndavana.

When Radha and Krsna met, Radharani, unable to hide Her desire, expressed Her feelings in this way (Caitanya-caritamrta, Madhya-lila 13.126-131):

You are the same Krsna, and I am the same Radharani. We are meeting again the same way that We met in the beginning of Our lives. Although We are both the same, My mind is still attracted to Vrndavana-dhama. I wish that You please again appear with Your lotus feet in Vrndavana.

Kuruksetra is crowded with people, their elephants and horses, and the rattling of chariots. In Vrndavana, however, there are flower gardens where the humming of the bees and chirping of the birds can be heard. Here at Kuruksetra You are dressed like a royal prince, accompanied by great warriors, but in Vrndavana You appeared just like an ordinary cowherd boy, accompanied only by Your beautiful flute.

Here there is not even a drop of the ocean of transcendental happiness that I enjoyed with You in Vrndavana. I therefore request You to come to Vrndavana and enjoy pastimes with Me. If You do so, My ambition will be fulfilled.

Radharani also pleaded on behalf of the Vrajavasis: “Why is it that You are simply keeping them alive in a state of suffering? The inhabitants of Vrndavana do not want You dressed like a prince, nor do they want You to associate with great warriors in a different country. They cannot leave the land of Vrndavana, and without Your presence they are all dying. What is their condition to be?” (Cc. Madhya 13.145-146)

Hearing Srimati Radharani’s pleas further stirred Lord Krsna’s love for the residents of Vrndavana and perturbed His body and mind.

“My dearest Radharani,” the Lord said, “Please hear Me. I am speaking the truth. I cry day and night simply remembering all of You inhabitants of Vrndavana. No one knows how unhappy this makes Me.

“All the inhabitants of Vrndavana-dhama My mother, father, cowherd boyfriends, and everyone else are like My life and soul…. I am always subservient to the loving affairs of all of You. I am under Your control only. My separation from You and residence in distant places have occurred due to My strong misfortune” (Cc. Madhya 13.149-151).

Full with the desire to take Krsna back to Vrndavana, the gopis tried to convince Him and pull His chariot. And again, just as when He had left Vrndavana on Akrura’s chariot, the Lord promised Radharani He would return. “Your loving qualities always attract Me to Vrndavana,” Krsna said. “Indeed, they will bring Me back within ten or twenty days, and when I return I shall enjoy both day and night with You and all the damsels of Vrajabhumi” (Cc. Madhya 13.158).

The Secret Behind Lord Caitanya’s Dancing- In this meeting of Sri Sri Radha and Krsna lies the secret behind Lord Caitanya’s drama at the Jagannatha Puri Rathayatra. Only a few of Lord Caitanya’s intimate associates could understand it. Srila Prabhupada comments that the whole mood of the Rathayatra festival is that of bringing Krsna back from Kuruksetra to Vrndavana. The imposing temple of Lord Jagannatha in Puri is taken to represent the kingdom of Dvaraka, the place where Krsna enjoys supreme opulence, and the temple of Gundica, to which the Lord is brought, stands for Vrndavana, the realm of His sweetest pastimes.

Assuming the part of Srimati Radharani, Lord Caitanya felt the ecstasy of this most exalted of the gopis. By falling behind the Rathayatra cart, He was testing Lord Jagannatha, seeking His reciprocation: “Is Krsna remembering us? I want to see. Does He really care for us? If He does care, then He will wait and try to find out where we are.”

Amazingly, every time Lord Caitanya would go behind the Rathayatra cart, it would stop. Lord Jagannatha was waiting, trying to see, “Where is Radha? Where are the Vrajavasis?” Lord Jagannatha, who is Krsna Himself, was trying to convey that transcendental feeling to Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. “Even though I was away from Vrndavana, I have not forgotten You, My dear devotees, especially You, Radharani.”

The Deities’ Unusual Forms– Anyone who sees the forms of Lord Jagannatha, Lord Baladeva, and Subhadra as They are worshiped in Jagannatha Puri may wonder why They look the way They do. Usually Krsna is worshiped in His humanlike form of Syamsundara, playing the flute. Why would Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu choose to worship Lord Jagannatha, this crude, strange-looking form of the Lord? And why has such a form appeared in Puri in the first place? To discover the reason, let us go back to Kuruksetra.

During the visit by the Vrajavasis, a confidential pastime took place. Rohini, Lord Balarama’s mother, met in a big tent a group of residents of Dvaraka. She had been staying in Vrndavana and now wanted to tell the residents of Dvaraka how much suffering the Vrajavasis were going through because of separation from Krsna. Before beginning her narration, she posted Subhadra at the entrance of the tent. “If Krsna and Balarama come this way,” Rohini told her, “don’t let Them in.” She didn’t want the Lords to hear her report, which would certainly agonize Them.

When Krsna and Balarama did happen to come by, Subhadra dutifully stopped Them from getting in. But They managed to listen from outside the tent. As They began hearing, Krsna, Balarama, and even Subhadra, who stood between Them, became motionless. They were completely dumbfounded, immersed in intense thoughts of Radha, the gopis, and all the Vrajavasis.

Krsna, Balarama, and Subhadra had heard of the Vrajavasis’ feelings of separation, but never directly from a Vrajavasi like Rohini. As a result, Krsna, Balarama, and Subhadra became simply astounded. Their eyes grew bigger and bigger in amazement, and other parts of Their bodies arms, legs, and neck withdrew into Their bodies, until Krsna, Balarama, and Subhadra exactly resembled the Deities now worshiped at Puri.

How Jagannatha Came to Puri- How then did these forms come to be worshiped? A few thousand years ago, Visvakarma, the architect of the demigods, agreed to carve Deities of Lord Jagannatha, Baladeva, and Subhadra, at the request of a great devotee king named Indradyumna. The king promised to let Visvakarma carve in seclusion until the work was finished. But the impatient king broke into the room early, and Visvakarma disappeared, leaving behind the set of unfinished Deities. As the king began lamenting for what would be the use of unfinished Deities? Lord Jagannatha revealed His identity.

The Lord told the king that He had appeared in this form to fulfill the Vedic statement that although He is without hands and feet He accepts the offerings of His devotees and walks about to bestow His blessings upon the people of the earth. He added that the devotees who have achieved love of Godhead see Him as Syamasundara, Krsna, the original Lord, holding a flute.

Then the sage Narada came on the scene. He disclosed that Lord Krsna had appeared in this particular form once before in Kuruksetra. Narada himself had had the good fortune to see this. Hearing these statements, the king accepted Lord Jagannatha as his worshipable Lord. He understood that the form of the Deities was not an accidental creation: because he had been feeling intense separation from Krsna, the Lord had appeared in this form. This was also a sign that the Lord had felt similar separation from the king. Overwhelmed with ecstasy, King Indradyumna began his worship. Since then these forms of Jagannatha, Baladeva, and Subhadra have been worshiped in Puri.

The Ideal Place for Caitanya Mahaprabhu

It is not by chance that Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu lived in Puri and there worshiped the Deity of Lord Jagannatha. Lord Caitanya, during His final pastimes, showed more and more the mood of Radharani. Day and night He lamented His separation from the Lord with intense feeling. Lord Jagannatha is the form Krsna assumes as He thinks intensely and solely of the Vrajavasis, the gopis, and Radharani. Therefore the most appropriate Deity for Lord Caitanya, who had assumed the mood of Radharani, was Lord Jagannatha.

The Meaning of the Rathayatra Festival

Externally, Rathayatra is spectacular colorful and entertaining. Yet the Gaudiya Vaisnavas, the followers of Lord Caitanya, see in the Festival of the Chariots much more than just a happy event. The pulling of the cart by the Lord’s devotees symbolizes the attempt of the Vrajavasis, especially Radharani and the gopis, to bring Krsna, Balarama, and Subhadra back to Vrndavana.

Vrndavana can also represent the heart of Krsna’s devotee. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu prayed to Lord Krsna, “For most people the mind and heart are one, but because My mind is never separated from Vrndavana, I consider My mind and Vrndavana to be one. My mind is already Vrndavana, and since You like Vrndavana, will You please place Your lotus feet there? I would deem that Your full mercy” (Cc. Madhya 13.137). For the devotees of Lord Jagannatha who follow in the footsteps of Lord Caitanya, pulling the Rathayatra cart is like pulling their worshipable Lord, Jagannatha or Krsna, into their heart.

Festivals Around the World

The Lord of the universe now parades in major cities all over the world, increasing His mercy unlimitedly, responding to the desire of His pure devotee Srila Prabhupada, who brought the Rathayatra to the West. The first Rathayatra outside India was held on July 9, 1967, in San Francisco. That year the Deities rode on a flatbed truck borrowed from a group of hippies. In later years the Deities were placed on a more traditional chariot, a large wooden structure decorated with canopies and flags and pulled through the streets by the festival-goers.

As years passed, the chariots were made taller, and more beautiful, and soon ISKCON began holding Rathayatras in many cities: New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Rome, Zurich, Sydney, Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Guadalajara, Rio de Janeiro, Moscow. Srila Prabhupada happily acknowledged, “In 1973 there was a gorgeous Rathayatra festival in London, England, and the car was brought to Trafalgar Square. The daily newspaper The Guardian published a front-page photo caption: ‘ISKCON Rathayatra is rival to the Nelson Column in Trafalgar Square.’ “

People everywhere are becoming attracted to the joyful and colorful Rathayatra festival. Thousands of pleasure-seekers throng to behold the giant chariots, chant and dance a bit, enjoy tasty prasadam given free to all, or take part in a full festival of music, dance, exhibits, and spiritual entertainment. And because Lord Jagannatha is a most merciful form of the Lord, even those who hardly understand the philosophy behind Rathayatra benefit just by seeing the festival or taking part in it.