No One Can Stop the Lord’s Journey

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Corona or not, the Lord of the Universe’s journey cannot stop under any circumstances. The age-old custom of Mahaprabhu Lord Jagannath’s cannot be disrupted for fear inviting the wrath of the Lord. And so the rath moves on, despite sans devotees

-Dr Nityananda Agasti

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Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic hit India, debates have been going on on various platforms including on social media about whether the world-famous Rath Yatra, an annual festival of Shri Jagannath Temple at Puri, Odisha will be conducted or not.
On this auspicious occasion, millions of devotees from all over the world visit Puri to receive the blessings of Mahaprabhu Shri Jagannath. It is quite natural to have discussions on this massive event during this unforeseen crisis that makes social distancing mandatory to prevent transmission of Corona virus 2019. To conduct this festival without endangering the safety of public health, several suggestions were sent to the Government of Odisha by devotees around the world. Following the request of the temple managing committee, the Ministry of Home Affairs allowed the construction of chariots (Rath) without any religious ceremony while observing physical distancing.
To conduct this festival without endangering the safety of public health, several suggestions were sent to the Government of Odisha by devotees around the world 
Just 10 days before Rath Yatra, a public interest litigation (PIL) was filed in the Supreme Court by an NGO, seeking cancellation of the Rath Yatra citing the spread of COVID19 among devotees, if the festival is conducted. The valid apprehension of the petitioner and the annual festival could have been addressed simultaneously by scaling down the festival through a special arrangement to prevent transmission of COVID-19. Fully realising the need for the important festival without compromising the safety of public health during the COVID-19 pandemic situation, the Temple Management Committee on May 30, 2020, suggested the conduct of Rath Yatra this year without a congregation of devotees and with appropriate measures to prevent the transmission of Corona virus. Devotees also made many feasible suggestions through different platforms for conducting the festival by following all guidelines to contain COVID-19. But, in response to the PIL, the Supreme Court on June 18, 2020, ordered a ban on Rath Yatra at Puri this year. The decision to cancel the Rath Yatra, an age-old custom of Mahaprabhu Shri Jagannath culture, practised since time immemorial, hurt the sentiment of its devotees across the world. Though the decision has been taken in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic, the proceedings clearly show that it’s an order passed in total haste. Perhaps, a detailed plan to conduct the festival without involving a congregation of devotees and with the due restrictions to prevent transmission of COVID-19 could have resulted in a decision permitting the age-old festivals with strict conditions.

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Puri Jagannath Rath Yatra 2020
Rath Yatra, the car festival is performed every year on the specific day (Ashadha Shuklapaksha Dwitiya), at Puri, Odisha. Mahapraphu Shri Jagannath along with his brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra visits the sacred place of his first manifestation (called Gundicha Temple, 4 kilometres away from Sri Jagannath Temple) and spends seven days there. The three deities ride on three newly built chariots (Rath). The name of Mahaprabhu Shri Jagannath’s chariot is Nandighosh, Subhadra’s chariot is Devadalan and that of Balabhadra is Taladhwaja.

Just 10 days before Rath Yatra, a public interest litigation petition was filed in the Supreme Court by a dubious NGO, seeking cancellation of the Rath Yatra citing the spread of COVID-19 among devotees, if the festival is conducted

Thousands of devotees from across the world join this annual festival and pull the chariots from Shri Jagannath Temple to Gundicha Temple on Grand Road (Bada Danda). It is considered to be a sacred moment for the devotees to see Mahaprabhu Shri Jagannath sitting on the chariot rolling down the Puri Grand Road. As mentioned in the Skanda Purana;
दोले तू दोलगोविन्दम चापे तू मधुसूदनम
रथे तू वामनं दृष्ट्वा पुनर्जन्मं न विद्यते।
(In Purusottama Kshetra or Puri, if one looks at Lord Dolagovinda in Dola Yatra, Lord Madhusudana in Chaapa (Boating journey of the Lords) and Lord Vaamana in the Rath or Chariot during Rath Yatra, one will get moksha or get liberated from the cycle of birth and death). Lord Vamana is one of the incarnations of Lord Vishnu, and Mahaprabhu Shri Jagannath appears in the form of Vamana while sitting on the chariot. This is the uniqueness of Mahaprabhu Shri Jagannath, who comes out of his temple once a year to bless all beings in the whole Universe. After spending seven days at Gundicha Temple, the three deities again ride their respective chariots and come back to the main temple. That festival is called Bahuda, which signifies the return of deities. This is not just a festival but a right of Mahaprabhu Shri Jagannath statutorily mandated by the record of rights (part-II, pages 69-81) framed under The Puri Shri Jagannath Temple (Administration) Act, 1952. The distinct nature of this festival warrants it to be conducted every year and in case the Rath Yatra is not conducted once, it cannot be conducted for the next 12 years. Therefore cancellation of Rath Yatra would have violated the fundamental right of the deity.
Realising this, devotees around the world started making appeals to both Central and State Governments to explore legal remedies to approach the Supreme Court for reconsideration of its judgment and allow to conduct of Rath Yatra with every possible restriction and, without putting a complete ban on it. Standing up to the expectations of devotees, review petitions were filed before the court and in response to those, on June 22, 2020, the court allowed Rath Yatra only at temple town Puri asking Government to take all possible measures to prevent transmission of COVID-19.
Finally, Rath Yatra was held with restrictions like, imposing curfew in temple town Puri, suspension of all passenger bus and trains to Puri, closing all entries to Puri, allowing only those servitors who got tested COVID-19 negative to pull chariots, allowing only 10 servitors on each chariot, allowing Rath Yatra to be freely covered by visual media, etc. Fully respecting the guidelines of Government devotees also were confined to their home to take blessings of Mahaprabhu Shri Jagannath on television. Though this unique festival symbolises the union of Mahaprabhu Shri Jagannath and his devotees out of his temple, this year’s festival saw no common devotee on the Grand Road. Probably this was the wish of Mahaprabhu Shri Jagannath. It is commonly said that Mahaprabhu Shri Jagannath does engage himself in different activities to please his devotees,‘मम भक्त बिनोदार्थे करोमि विविध क्रिया’
(The author teaches Chemistry at the University of Delhi and has spearheaded the appeal from Academics to Chief Minister of Odisha for review of the judgment to cancel Rath Yatra. Views expressed are personal)