Statement from ISKCON’s Governing Body Commission (GBC) Regarding Recent Events in Jagannatha Puri, India
By Anuttama dasa – ISKCON Communications
November 21, 2008
It was with great shock, dismay, anguish, and anger that we received recent reports that a handful of misguided persons committed a great offense to His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada, the Founder-Acarya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), by burning his effigy in Jagannatha Puri, India.
Whatever criticisms an individual or a group may claim to have with ISKCON, to purposefully offend a Vaishnava saint in such a blatant manner is irreconcilable with the principles of Vaishnavism, Hindu culture, morality, and common decency. We condemn any and all such acts.
Srila Prabhupada’s Contributions
Srila Prabhupada has been credited world wide by scholars, religious and government leaders, historians and others for the tremendous contributions he has made in spreading Vedic dharma, promoting God consciousness, translating and publishing scores of Sanskrit sastras/scriptures, and for exemplifying the highest standards of personal integrity and piety.
The city of Jagannatha Puri is worshipable for members of ISKCON. It is an important holy place, or tirtha. It is the home of the famous Jagannatha Rathayatra, said to be the world’s largest annual religious event, which draws millions of pilgrims every year.
One of Srila Prabhupada’s greatest achievements is that by his vision and personal direction Jagannatha Rathayatra is now observed-in an authentic, traditional manner-in dozens of the world’s major cities. Rathayatra is now celebrated across India as well as in London, Paris, Moscow, Washington, D. C., New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, Durban, Sydney, and many other metropolises. Literally millions of people around the world attend ISKCON Rathayatras annually.
Thus, Srila Prabhupada and his ISKCON movement have spread the fame of Jagannatha, and Puri, literally around the world, demonstrating that Srila Prabhupada is arguably one of the greatest devotees of Lord Jagannatha in history.
Why Was Such an Offense Committed?
Why then was his effigy treated so disrespectfully?
There are people in Jagannatha Puri who object that ISKCON observes Rathayatra on days other than the traditional date specified in the Vedic Calendar. On the basis of this “fault,” a few people struck out against ISKCON by disrespecting our Founder-Acarya.
One might ask, if some see it as wrong to violate the traditional dates, why doesn’t ISKCON strictly adhere to the calendar and avoid such extreme reactions?
In fact, ISKCON is well-reputed for its commitment and careful adherence to Vaishnava tradition and standards of Deity worship (puja), as well as its commitment to sharing Krishna Consciousness and bringing new people-of all races and religions-into the service of Lord Krishna. Occasionally, these priorities come into conflict.
ISKCON Rathayatras are Major International Events
ISKCON temples internationally are sometimes unable to follow the Vedic calendar in regard to Jagannatha Rathayatra. Here is why:
First, ISKCON holds Rathayatra Parades and ceremonies in the southern hemisphere in countries including South Africa, Argentina, and Australia. In those places, summer comes December through March. Simply put, this outdoor event can’t be held in June/July-in the winter cold.
Second, ISKCON holds Rathayatra in cities that require official permits to assemble huge crowds, close streets, distribute free food (prasada), and erect stages for devotional music. In those places, ISKCON must accept whatever dates are available and offered by the government authorities.
Third, because Rathayatra draws large crowds, events in most countries must be held on Saturdays and Sundays, and sometimes must avoid other local holidays and traditional events.
Fourth, in countries like America, the huge 40′ high Rathayatra carts that are the center of the Rathayatra Parade, are shared between multiple city temples who sponsor the Festival for the spiritual benefit of their city. These cities, including places like Washington, D. C. and Philadelphia, could not have a Rathayatra if they had to design, fund, build, store and maintain their own set of Rathayatra Chariots.
While this may upset a small number of people, the larger reality is that in order to spread Krishna Consciousness, Vaishnava culture, and devotion to Lord Krishna and Lord Jagannatha, we must be flexible to adapt to the societies in which we live. Thus, ISKCON has found it necessary to adjust festival dates to bring Rathayatra to the world.
ISKCON believes that the essential principle is to serve our previous acaryas (spiritual teachers) who stressed the urgency of teaching spiritual practice and sharing the culture and worship of Lord Jagannatha world-wide. The date of the event is a detail that may, out of necessity, be sometimes adjusted. (We find guidance in this regard in the Srimad Bhagavatam and from Srila Prabhupada, Srila Rupa Goswami, Srila Sanatan Goswami and many other acaryas.)
Our Desire to Cooperate with the Puri Temple
At the same time, it is ISKCON’s earnest desire to work cooperatively with the leaders of the Jagannatha Temple. Members of ISKCON have great respect and love for Jagannatha Puri, the Temple, and foremost the Deities of Jagannatha, Baladeva, and Subhadra.
Just this month, in November 2008, ISKCON Governing Body Commissioner Bhakti Purusottama Swami led a pilgrimage of more than 5,000 ISKCON members to Puri. While there, those pilgrims prayed, chanted and observed traditional worship. They also strictly observed the Vaishnava principles of no meat eating, no illicit sex, no intoxication, and no gambling.
The ISKCON Governing Body has requested Bhakti Pursottama Swami to approach the leadership of the Jagannatha Temple and explain to them our deep reverence for the Temple, and its traditions. He has also been asked to explain to those leaders why, as stated above, ISKCON temples sometimes have no choice but to adjust the dates of their Rathayatras. And, he has been requested to inform the Puri Temple leaders that ISKCON is studying to see if, despite all obstacles, there is more ISKCON can do, particularly in India, to adhere to the traditional dates.
It is important to note that the terrible action committed against the effigy of Srila Prabhupada represents the feelings of only a small handful of people. It does not reflect the leadership of the Temple, nor the city of Puri. The Indian media has reported that even the perpetrators of the offense have expressed regret for their actions.
We are also hopeful, that through an increased dialogue with the Puri Temple leadership over these issues, we can increase the good will between leaders in Jagannatha Puri and ISKCON. In that spirit, we hope the Temple leaders will consider our long standing request, that all devotees of Lord Jagannatha-irregardless of race or national origin-have the opportunity to enter the Temple. Too many of our members, while devout and strict Vaishnavas, are-simply because of their birth-banned by temple policy from entering the Temple.
We do not agree with this policy. While it has been a long-standing custom, we believe it does not reflect Vaishnava tenets nor the reality that genuine and strict worshippers of Lord Jagannatha now hail from all nations and races. Following the example of Srila Prabhupada, we remain humble and tolerant in respecting this policy.
For more than forty years, hundreds of thousands of ISKCON members have visited Puri and stood outside the temple gates, under the watchful eye of temple guards, to offer their prayers to Lord Jagannatha from a distance. We pray that the time is soon coming when those Vaishnavas will be welcome inside the Temple.
It is our prayer that the current very unfortunate event, and the dialogue that we hope grows from it, will inspire the leadership of the Jagannatha Temple to remove the barriers and welcome their fellow devotees of Lord Jagannatha, Lord Baladeva, and Lady Subhadra with open arms and open hearts.
ISKCON Governing Body Commission
Ramai Swami Chairperson
Anuttama dasa Minister of Communications