ISKCON New Vrindaban’s 5th annual Chariot Street Fest, held in Wheeling, West Virginia took place on Saturday, July 17th in grand style marking the 50th anniversary of Sri Sri Jagannatha, Baladeva, and Subhadra’s installation in New Vrindaban. These astonishingly large and beautiful deities were drawn in their towering chariot by many jubilant devotees and guests. Glenn Elliot, Mayor of Wheeling, was among the distinguished guests who helped kick off the event by offering lamps to the Lord and breaking sacred coconuts on the ground before the chariot.
After an exuberant procession, the parade ended beside the Ohio River at Heritage Port where the Festival of India crew, undaunted by heavy rain, had set up a stage and numerous stalls for presenting the philosophy and culture of Krishna to visitors. New Vrindaban’s Eco-village team distributed fresh organic produce, and various devotee vendors offered delicacies from quesadillas to veggie kebabs to fresh squeezed orange juice. Kirtan resounded from beginning to end, creating a lively and spiritually uplifting festive atmosphere.
As the first major public event in Wheeling since the pandemic, the Chariot Street Fest, traditionally known as Ratha Yatra, marked the beginning of a new era. It was an exciting opportunity to get together again, and to help us let everyone know about it, Mikey from LOVE OV did an amazing social media video promo which reached 44,000 people. Needless to say, the attendance was unprecedented. It was refreshing to see the community gathering together again in person to talk and eat and sing and dance in the streets.
This spirit of coming together is what Ratha Yatra is all about. The festival is a commemoration of an event which took place over 5,000 years ago in which Lord Krishna is reunited with His beloved family members and childhood friends after a long period of separation. Sitting on a royal chariot with His brother Baladeva and sister Subhadra, He pulled by ropes of pure love from the stately battlefield of Kuruksetra back to His birthplace, the rural village of Vrindavan, India, where He had enacted His sweetest, most endearing childhood pastimes.
Ratha Yatra is festival which has deep significance on many levels. For us as individuals, it is about being our authentic selves. Most of us have experienced how life sometimes pushes in certain directions, and we end up in places we would rather not be. This may be in relation to a career, a relationship, our health, or our spiritual journey. At such times, we reflect on our situation, and think, “What am I doing? What happened to my life? This is just so NOT ME!”
The mind then recollects other times in our lives when we were authentically ourselves, when we were doing what we loved with people we cared about and who believed in us, when we got out of bed each morning feeling thrilled about the new day. And we think, ‘I need to get back to that. I need to reconnect with my deepest self and my highest purpose.’ But how?
That requires some effort. We need to summon our determination and pull ourselves out of our rut, pull ourselves away from everything that is toxic in our lives, pull ourselves in a new direction which is authentic and inspiring. Perhaps we’ve gotten too absorbed in the material side of life and neglected our spiritual life. Fragmented and frustrated, we seek to become whole again. Actually, as eternal souls, real life is spiritual life, and spiritual life means living in connection with the Supreme Spirit – Krishna. It is only in relationship with Krishna we can fully be our authentic selves. In the highest sense, Ratha Yatra means pulling Krishna into our hearts.
And what is the relevance of Ratha Yatra for the world? At this point in the world’s history, Ratha Yatra means pulling everything back to normal. After so many months of Covid-19 pandemic restrictions, we are pulling ourselves back to work, back to school, back to meetings and social gatherings. But as we do, we need to reflect. Are these really the things that are sustaining us? What is the guarantee that everything won’t collapse again? And is this where we want to be – on an uncertain path toward an unknown future? Is this really normal?
It’s time to look deeper, to the source of everything, to the ultimate purpose of it all, to the eternal absolute Truth… to Krishna. It’s time to end the uncertainty and anxiety by firmly adhering to a genuine spiritual path on which steady progress toward a known spiritual destination is guaranteed. This is normal, healthy, happy life. Let us all pull together to bring the world to a new, more enlightened normal, to a lifestyle that is aligned with the purpose of the Creator, divinely blessed, full of love and joy. This is our Vrindavan, the place where every soul, whether they are aware of it or not, deeply yearns to be.
We urge everyone to make Ratha Yatra not just a once-a-year event, but a way of life, a consistent effort to live a life of spiritual integrity and to support others in doing the same. We are inspired by the success of this year’s Chariot Street Fest, we heartily thank everyone who participated, and we look forward to expanding the festivities to include an additional Ratha Yatra in Pittsburgh next year.