It is believed that due to multiple attacks on Srimandir by foreigners, Muslim rulers in particular, in the past, the temple administration restricted non-Hindu admission into the 12th century shrine. So much so that Gajapati Ramachandra Dev-II, who once embraced Islam to save the temple and the deities, didn’t break that rule and had to have a darshan of Patitapaban from outside. However, as they say, Lord Jagannath or Rath Yatra is no longer a matter of religion, it has evolved into an emotion over the centuries. The festival is celebrated in over a hundred cities around the world, demonstrating how the Jagannath Cult has integrated other faiths into its fold.
Even though non-Hindus are not permitted inside the temple, many of them nonetheless exhibit their devotion to Jagannath, the Supreme Being. Thousands of such fervent believers have accepted the Lord’s spirit, discarding their birth names like old leaves in favour of Hindu names that connect with the divine energy pulsating through their souls.
They argue that this amazing fusion of spirituality and multiculturalism displays unbounded love and devotion that knows no boundaries, where the heart recognises no distinctions and all are joined under the kindly gaze of the Lord of the Universe.
Ahead of Rath Yatra, a few devotees from nations like Russia and the US share their thoughts on Lord Jagannath, Rath Yatra, and their motivation behind shunning their birth identities.
Natalia Milanova, aka Narayani Radhe, Moscow
Natalia Milanova, also known by her spiritual name Narayani Radhe, is a Moscow-based Jagannath follower. She claims that the Jagannath culture has spread throughout Russia and acquired popularity. “We have Lord Jagannath, Lord Baladev, and Goddess Subhadra ties in many cities throughout our country, and Rath Yatra is celebrated elaborately here. They are not as large as in Puri, but they are as large as the police and administration allow. Despite the cold and bitter weather in Moscow (about -20°C), people crowd the chariots during the Rath Yatra. Devotees also make and give Jagannath and his siblings nice winter clothing,” she continued.
Her entire family worships the idols of Jagannath, Balabhadra, and Subhadra at her home. “I worship Patitapavan Jagannath, a small wooden idol. Everything we prepare is offered to the Lord by our entire family. Whenever we have guests, we serve the same food, and they love it,” she said.
“As a devotee, my interest in Lord Jagannath and the Rath Yatra festival was sparked by my deep fascination with different cultures and spiritual traditions,” explained Narayani.
“Growing up in Russia exposed me to a wide variety of belief systems, and I was drawn to the vivid and magical qualities of Hinduism. My initial introduction to Lord Jagannath came through books, documentaries, and conversations with fellow spiritual seekers,” she stated.
“I got increasingly enthralled as I learnt more about Lord Jagannath and the significance of the Rath Yatra event. The vivid descriptions of the deities, the intricate rituals, and the deep devotion of the followers all piqued my interest. As I dug deeper into my Hinduism research, I uncovered the underlying idea of Lord Jagannath’s unconditional love and acceptance of all beings. This spoke to me strongly since this concept was quite different from the other faiths. The inclusive element of Lord Jagannath’s worship, in which people from all walks of life, regardless of social or cultural background, greatly appealed to me.
“The Rath Yatra festival, in particular, piqued my interest due to its grandeur and spiritual significance,” Natalia says adding “I was captivated by the spectacle of gigantic chariots being pulled through the streets, accompanied by vivid processions and enthusiastic choruses. It appeared to be a festival that symbolised both devotion and unity, a manifestation of devotees’ and the Lord’s holy journey.”
She went on to add, “My interest in Lord Jagannath and the Rath Yatra festival arose from a genuine desire to connect with the divine and to experience the richness of this ancient tradition firsthand. I travelled to India to see the Rath Yatra celebration, where I immersed myself in the atmosphere of devotion, mingled with devotees, and sought to comprehend the event’s spiritual importance.”
She wrapped up, “The Rath Yatra festival has allowed me to forge meaningful connections with people from diverse backgrounds. It has allowed me to gain a better understanding of Hinduism and appreciate the beauty of its ceremonies and customs. My journey continues, and my dedication to Lord Jagannath and appreciation for the Rath Yatra celebration only grow deeper with each passing year.”
Erick Santagada, New York City, the US
Born in a Christian family at New Paltz of New York City, Erick Santagada had a deep interest in spirituality and a desire to find God. However, he was unable to find solutions in organised religion. This sparked his interest in learning about diverse world religions, yoga, and meditation. During this search, Santagada was introduced to the Jagannath culture.
Rechristened Ekacakra-prana Dasa, he told how he encountered Jagannath faith in New York. “I discovered that God, the one supreme lord, has many names and appears in many traditions. When I came to Nashville, Tennessee, I was a musician and yoga instructor, so I began attending kirtan events where people chanted Hare Krishna, Jai Jagannath, and other names of the supreme lord. I was introduced to the Bhagavad Gita, kirtan, prasadam, and ISKCON at that time. I began travelling the world as a musician, performing in kirtans. I attended the Rath Yatra in New York City a few years ago, which has been running the festival for the past 46 years. It was a fantastic full circle. I returned to my native state after traversing the world, and Jagannath was just next door to me. I’ve been playing bass on stage for Lord Jagannath and assisting devotees during Rath Yatra celebrations ever since,” he shared.
“I grew up in New York and never knew anything about Lord Jagannath, and then I travelled all over the world looking for him, and when I returned home, I met him on the streets of New York City,” he quipped while adding that God does, indeed, work in unexpected ways. People wander around looking for the divine, only to discover that it is already within them.
“I have never been to Puri, India, to witness the original Yatra, but here in New York, I feel his presence and am happy to be a devotee of the Lord, but one day I would love to visit the Lord at his abode in Puri, Odisha,” he concludes.
Larry Pugliese, aka Laksmi Nrusimha Das, New Jersey
Larry Pugliese, aka Laksmi Nrusimha Das, of New Jersey, has been a Lord Jagannath devotee since his adolescence. From 1976, he has been attending Rath Yatra ceremonies in New York City. “Rath Yatra is a very auspicious and exciting time for me. Devotees flock from all over the world to attend it in New York City. It begins on 5th Avenue, New York’s most influential street, and culminates at Washington Square Park with dance performances and kirtan on the stage. It’s a sight to behold,” Larry said.
The pandemic had halted all celebrations around the world, but it couldn’t dampen the spirits of New York’s enthusiasts. “Last year, Rath Yatra was commemorated with a massive online event. It drew people from all around the world and was a big success. The permit for the Rath Yatra parade is issued on the second Saturday of June in the United States. We have already celebrated Rath Yatra on June 12 this year. It was a fantastic event, and devotees were overjoyed to be a part of it after missing it the previous year,” he said.
However, one his desires remains unfulfilled. “I’ve been to the Puri Jagannath temple but have never been able to attend the Rath Yatra celebrations. I’d like to be a part of it at least once,” said the retired New Jersey English teacher.
Recalling, he added, “It all started when I stumbled upon a book on Eastern philosophy, which introduced me to the profound teachings and vibrant culture surrounding Lord Jagannath. I felt an inexplicable connection and peace in the presence of Lord Jagannath as I dug deeper into the texts and began attending temple functions. His divine form, loving character, and all-inclusive devotional philosophy greatly resonated with my soul, inspiring me to adopt a life dedicated to Lord’s worship and service.
“I’d like to emphasise the significance of approaching the Rath Yatra and Lord Jagannath’s teachings with an open mind and a genuine desire to learn. Respect for the traditions, rituals, and beliefs is crucial. We need to recognise that the Rath Yatra is a religious procession that commemorates Lord Jagannath, his brother Balarama, and his sister Subhadra’s celestial voyage. It represents the devotee’s desire to accompany the Lord on his trip and progress spiritually,” he signed off.
Madhusmita sahu, op