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Festive First Encounters; On Experiencing Lord Jagannath’s Festival for the First Time

by Andrew Elliot Apong

Posted July 10, 2012

In early July 2008, I emerged from a hike through a densely wooded patch of a Toronto city park to see a poster taped to a street corner lamppost. The poster’s image consisted mainly of a face that I had learned about in an undergraduate course just a few weeks prior. The face belonged to Lord Jagannath—an incarnation of Lord Krishna, God, represented in His transcendental form. I was with two friends, and I excitedly shared this tidbit of info with them whilst directing their attention to the poster. The poster itself promoted a summer event that was to take place within the month—the annual Festival of India. “I’m going to that festival,” I told my friends.

The Festival of India/Ratha-yatra was to be an integral piece of what has become my ongoing ardour for Vedic culture. Coming from what I deemed a very general Canadian background, I always supposed my attitude towards life was typically North American. I felt I didn’t have or experience much in terms of culture. My upbringing was a rather plain vanilla.

Yet that summer’s Festival of India became the prelude to the deluge of flavours that would soon wash over my life. My friends were all either busy or didn’t know enough about the Festival of India to be interested in attending, so I arrived at the event alone. I remember first looking on as a bystander as the metropolis I grew up in melted away into a new vision. I wasn’t standing in downtown Toronto anymore. I was somewhere else. Crowds of the most exuberant people I had ever seen paraded past me, themselves swathed in exotic garbs and colours, and charged with an almost frenetic happiness. Entrancing drum beats and wisps of incense filled the air, circling and enclosing me. And then, slowly, turning around the corner, I began to see the chariots, towering high, well over ever any car or truck or streetcar in the city. Yet the chariots gave off no exhaust since their fuel was only the simple drive and devotion of all those of who came together to pull them. And finally I saw Lord Jagannath, sitting on the third chariot, smiling with all His usual everlasting glee. I recall listening to the words that those people in the parade were chanting and remembered learning of that same mantra, again during my undergraduate studies. “Well, when in Rome”, I thought, as I jumped into the parade and joined in the procession and chanting. I even had an opportunity to help pull one of the chariots. The festival was unlike anything I had participated in in Toronto. I remember wishing that my friends and family were there to experience it all with me. What did it take to bring that festival, that liveliness, that culture to the city? And who exactly were all these people?

In the years to come I would learn much about Srila Prabhupada and his faith and devotion, and of his love for Krishna. Srila Prabhupada risked his life in coming to North America at his advanced age impelled only by a sincere desire to follow his guru’s instructions. Prabhupada’s work bequeathed the western world with a culture that allowed us new possibilities–including the possibility for all the world to hold such festivals as Ratha-yatra. His gift to us was indeed matchless.

God works in mysterious ways. And I now find myself good friends with many of the people responsible for bringing that festival to the city. Today, as a part of Toronto’s Ratha-yatra planning committee, my only wish is for more and more people to come and experience the joy of that event which convinced me resolutely of all the richness and vitality that continues to course through Vedic culture.

The 40th Annual Festival of India in Toronto will take place in less than 20 days. In the few years that I’ve been a part of this Ratha-yatra planning committee, I’ve seen many strides and innovations made in the name of sharing Lord Jagannath’s mercy with the city. This year’s Ratha-yatra features a pre-festival launch party at Yonge-Dundas Square, a pre-festival 12-hour kirtan with Madhava das and other renowned kirtaniyas, as well as a slew of VIPs, all of whom I am eager to meet and take association with.

Srila Prabhupada attained Samadhi in 1977 and in doing so he passed a torch on to us. These Ratha-yatra festivals, I now find, are a prime way that we can hold that torch high, above all the more petty squabbles and meanderings of our contemporary lives, above towards the heavens, above our heads—for we are merely servants of Someone far more wonderful than most of us can imagine—above for all fallen souls to see.

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