HH Bhakti Tirtha Swami Pastimes in Jagannatha Puri

“A funny thing would happen when I would go to India. Many local people would laugh at me because they would try to speak to me in the local languages and not understand why I could not respond. They assumed that I would understand the languages due to my dark complexion. Once, due to my appearance and the mercy of the Lord, I had the most breathtaking experience in 1978, which was my first visit to India after Prabhupada had left. For this reason, I made special prayers to Lord Jagannatha for the protection of the movement.

During that year, I had a personal chance to go to Jagannatha Puri. I was touring South India and a few other places with a group of devotees who were all ecstatic. For most of us, it was our first time visiting Puri. We had some classes by the sea and visited sacred places in the area. Of course, due to the fact that we were foreigners and ISKCON devotees, we were not allowed to go and see Lord Jagannatha in the temple; nevertheless, I had this passion to see the Lord. I have a rather interesting history or certain karma enabling me to get into different situations.

At one point, I stood outside the temple, and watching the little I could see from the outside, I started to consider, ‘How can I sneak in there?’ I noticed so many sadhus, saintly people, pilgrims, as well as people in general from the city coming and entering the temple. It dawned on me, ‘I can sneak in there…no problem.’ Remember my previous experiences in which many Hindus thought of me as one of them. Of course, I took special notice of the position of the guards because it is rather dangerous if you are not Hindu. They will even beat a foreigner if they catch him or her trying to enter.

Then I got an idea. ISKCON devotees tie dhotis in a certain way so these guards could easily recognize such devotees. I think that they might not even allow Hindus to enter who have on ISKCON dhotis. I realized that my dhoti looked distinctly like an ISKCON cloth and too show tell which would expose me as a westerner. As I watched the people enter, I realized that I could try to enter by putting on karmi clothes. Since it was dark and my hue is dark, I would look like a South Indian. I also decided to tie something around my head in order to hide the texture of my hair, and waited until dark so that the night would aid in perhaps minimizing my exposure. As soon as it got a little dark, I then decided to just walk in.

I got into the courtyard but it was extremely crowded, almost like a carnival, and so many people were just bumping shoulders. I didn’t want to seem bewildered or uncertain about what to do because, as the crowd enters, the guards stand rather high up, watching the people who come through the general area. There are guards on both sides with clubs who have a duty to stop certain people from entering. Of course, I did not even think of looking up at them and drawing any attention by seeming intimidated or fearful. I didn’t know where to go, but the crowd pushed so intensely that, before I knew it, I literally got pushed right into Jagannatha, Baladeva, and Subhadra’s main temple. I waited in the back, just sort of watching and thinking. It was ecstatic but, at the same time, very fearful.

Then I got pushed again. I tried to avoid it because I didn’t want to go towards the front but the crowd just became so intense and pushed me right up to the altar. The altar is rather unusual. First, there is a big rail and then a long hallway in front of the Deities. The actual altar where the Deities reside is very high with this barrier in front as well. Every now and then, the pujaris open the barrier and allow a few people to go towards the Deities to receive some tulasi or prasadam. I tried to stay back because the closer you go, the more attention you draw. However, I didn’t also want to fight against the current because that would also draw attention. Consequently, I was somehow pushed up to the rail.

Unfortunately, it was somewhat like a business in that the different priests would look in the crowd, especially for Indian tourists who might appear wealthy due to their clothes or jewelry. They particularly looked for such wealthy tourists because they wanted some money from them. Perhaps not all of the priests had this mentality but this was definitely going on to a certain extent. So, in this way, some people got called in through the barrier.

Anyhow, I was pushed right up to the head pujari who gave me some tulasi and caranamrta. He then held out a tray for money and I offered a few rupees. When he started to speak to me, I thought, ‘Oh my God, I am in trouble.’ He spoke again and obviously I couldn’t respond because I didn’t understand his language. Then I got really nervous and started moving farther towards the back. I was trying to find a way to run out. I figured that he might try to call one of the guards.

However, as the offering began to happen, I became somewhat stunned while watching the cooks run back and forth in the midst of bells, cymbals, drums, and other types of loud noise. The priests ran with these big pots of bhoga from the kitchen and tried to put as much on the altar as possible before it was time for the offering. All of this activity practically hypnotized me. It was really amazing to watch the people screaming and the pujaris running with all of the drums beating in the background. I didn’t really want to leave; I just wanted to observe this a little longer. I got way in the back and just watched. With all this action happening, the doors began to close very slowly, almost closing in the last pujari. When the doors finally closed, the people were screaming and almost fainting.

Suddenly, I snapped out of it, realizing that I really needed to leave. I was waiting to find a way to move, hoping that the crowd would change, but it didn’t. It was still packed. Then I saw one of the priests motioning to someone. I became really afraid when I realized that he was motioning at me. I thought, ‘How does he see me? There are so many people here.’ It was the same one who had tried to talk to me earlier but I had merged way back in the midst of hundreds of people. I thought for sure I had hid myself. I was just amazed that he was singling me out.

I was in a dilemma. Do I go towards him although he might call the guards on me or do I run out? However, it was a long way to run. I thought, ‘I’ll never get out of here with all of this crowd. I won’t even be able to get out of the door, what to speak of into the courtyard. I better go up, find out what he wants, plead with him, and tell him I’m leaving right away. I’ll ask him not to call the guards.’ I approached the gate slowly and I saw him still pointing at me. Then I thought he wanted more money. He said something again in his language but just motioned that I should wait. Did that mean wait while he calls someone? Do I run away? Then I thought, ‘Maybe if I act nice, they will have mercy on me. Even if they beat me, maybe they won’t beat me so bad.’

I waited for about five or ten minutes although it seemed like much longer. The offering had stopped and the curtains opened. Then the priests again singled out some of the more wealthy pilgrims and maybe some who were also devotional. It seemed devotional but probably also commercial. They then took these few people aside and escorted them down the hallway. In this hallway, there were at least five or six other priests at different intervals and the initial priest brought the guests to where the other priests stood with trays. Each priest offered something to the visitors who were then supposed to offer some money in return. Then they took these selected people close to the altar. I watched that for about a minute and a half before that same priest pulled me around the gate. I realized that he had wanted me to wait until the offering ended.

I thought that I should try something since my life could be at risk so I started to speak English. At least I could try to minimize my beating. I said something like, ‘I feel so embarrassed that my family has kept me out in the West and I don’t know my own language. I only know English.’ I thought of trying something to elicit some sympathy. I don’t know if he understood what I said but he didn’t seem to be anxious or worried. I felt a little better, thinking, ‘Well, he is not angry so I don’t have to worry right now.’

Once he opened the gate and let in a few people, the main priest grabbed me and started taking me to the altar which took about five or six minutes due to the crowd. It was interesting because every time we would approach a person with a tray, he would push him out of the way so I didn’t have to give any money. Wondering about his reason for this, I became a little more afraid. I thought, ‘What is really going on? He looks like a nice person.’ But, since he still didn’t seem anxious, I somehow relaxed. He continued to let each person give me something such as tulasi or caranamrta. After they gave and held out the tray for money, he would just push me along.

At one point, we got up to the altar, to the Deities. The altar is very high and Jagannatha, Baladeva, and Subhadra are very big. He then grabbed me tightly by the hand, causing me to feel very nervous, and started going around the altar. When he reached one corner of the altar, he grabbed my head. This was the high point; I almost freaked out. I was practically about to cry because I was so nervous. It was sort of mystical and fearful at the same time because I didn’t know what he was going to do. He pushed my head up against the altar and started to chant some mantras. Afterwards, he took me around to the other side and again pushed my head up against the altar. He took me to all four corners, pushed my head hard, and chanted these mantras. After the third time, I realized that he wasn’t doing something bad. He was giving some blessings on the altar at Jagannatha’s feet while saying some prayers. Then we circumambulated the whole altar and came back out.

I suddenly remembered what had happened earlier. At the time when I first arrived and initially got pushed to the front, I was happy to have the darsana of Jagannatha although simultaneously worried. I offered my full dandavats and somehow I felt this internal realization, for lack of a better word, that I should pray. I started praying for the success of ISKCON and felt that somehow Lord Jagannatha had let me come there so that I could make that prayer. And, as a rather new sannyasi, I was also praying to be freed of sex desire. When I finished these prayers, the pujari called me forward.

At that moment, when the pujari had me behind the altar, I was praying again, but this time more for my physical well-being that they wouldn’t beat the hell out of me. Then I thought, ‘Maybe they just give some blessings before they plan to kill me.’ He was still holding onto my hand as he took me back down the hall and outside the main temple. There is the main temple and there are other small temples in the courtyard. He began to take me to the other small temples to have darsana of the Deities and take caranamrta. We would offer obeisances in each temple and literally run to the next temple. We went to four other temples. During that time, there were all of these people outside selling things which seemed more like a market than a spiritual atmosphere. You can see why Prabhupada said that Jagannatha left Jagannatha Puri. Even some of the priests eat fish themselves. Although they don’t serve fish to Jagannatha, they take it themselves.

Then I decided that I should leave. I thought, ‘Okay, I saw Jagannatha, Baladeva, and Subhadra; made prayers; had darsana; and got some type of blessings from the priest who hopefully had some potency.’ Before leaving, the priest gave me a piece of Jagannatha’s cloth and speaking English, he said, ‘Jagannatha is very happy that you have come so far.’ Then, he gave me the cloth. I walked out very carefully and went to the dharmasala where we were staying. I told all the devotees about the experience, explaining how I got in with a gamcha tied around my head and with some borrowed karmi clothes.

I then tried to sleep because it was very late at that point but I just couldn’t fall asleep. I kept thinking about the experience and my body felt so restless. Why I came up with this next thought, I do not know. As I reflect back now, I don’t know how I could have thought of such a thing. Nevertheless, I thought, ‘I should go back.’ This greedy mentality…

It must have been 11 or 12 o’clock at night but I decided to return. I wanted to find out what else went on in the courtyard because there were different sections. I thought, ‘It’s dark and I’ll just look around. I’ll never get this chance again in a lifetime.’ So, I went back and people were still there but nothing like the amount of people earlier that day. Then I got a little too comfortable as I passed by one set of the same guards who hadn’t bothered me before. The main temple was closed so I just walked around. They have an area where they bury Lord Jagannatha when they change Him and they have an area where they make carts. I guess I was being a little nosy, trying to get some more blessings and to see these different places.

Since there were not as many people, I was more obvious and some guards by the cart noticed me looking around rather inquisitively. Then one of them spoke to the other and then to me. He yelled over from a distance. Of course, I couldn’t respond and I just acted like I didn’t hear him. He came closer and started to address me again at which point I started moving, realizing that I was really in trouble. Whatever he said, I didn’t understand and I was supposed to understand. So, I started running and he started running. However, I used to be pretty athletic in school. I ran track, wrestled, and played a little football so I really started running and the guards also started coming after me from all different places. I thought, ‘No one even knows I’m here. If these guys kill me, no one will ever know. I shouldn’t have been so greedy. Now I have been chastised.’ I ran and prayed. Somehow or other, I was able to dodge them and I actually made it away safely. I think one of them threw a club but I got out.

It was interesting and exciting in one sense to see Jagannatha, Baladeva, and Subhadra, and have that experience. It was like going back to ancient times. At the same time, it was somewhat sad to see the emphasis on commercialism outside the temple and even sometimes right in front of the altar due to the mood of the priests.

As I thought about it days and weeks later, I just really accepted that somehow Jagannatha had given me a chance to come on behalf of the ISKCON devotees and to make a prayer to Him on behalf of the movement. Prabhupada had just left and of course we were all going through shock. I felt it was a special mercy from Srila Prabhupada to be able to come and make such a prayer in front of Lord Jagannatha, especially since I was not so clear about the situation, having been pushed so forcibly up towards the altar. I could see how it happened beyond my own arrangements. Often we see this happen in our own lives. Sometimes very unusual things happen in spite of ourselves or beyond what we particularly try to do.”


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