Washington, D.C. – Dubbed “America’s official birthday party,” the National Independence Day Parade, held on the Fourth of July, attracts more than three hundred thousand spectators each year. This year, the Washington D.C. Chapter of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) was again invited to join the procession, adding an authentic Indian chariot, deities of Lord Krishna, and devotees dressed in traditional dhotis and saris. The chariot, along with exhibitions and food stalls set up at the Mall, were part of the Ratha Yatra and Hare Krishna Festival of India.
This year, the inclusion of the Ratha Yatra in the Independence Day Parade had added significance, as July 4 also happened to be the day of the Ratha Yatra in Jagnnath Puri, which ISKCON models its festivals after. Because Hindus follow a lunar calendar, the sacred day falls on different days on the Western calendar each year.
Ironically, a contingent of orthodox temple authorities in Jagannath Puri had earlier raised objections to ISKCON’s holding its version of the Ratha Yatra festival on different days of the year, calling the international celebrations “incongruous” and “outrageous.” Some of the conservative priests had even taken to the streets in protest.
“The Jagannatha Puri mandir sevaites [who are protesting] seem to have not understood the complexities of staging Ratha Yatra festivals around the world,” opined Ekendra Dasa, ISKCON Newsweekly managing editor. “Often we can’t tell the city authorities when the festival is, we ask them when it can be. Chariots are shared between venues and need to be scheduled to move from city to city. And the best attendance in a given city – which means more people for Lord Jagannatha to come and see – may not always be possible on the actual date from the traditional calendar.”
Calling the fact that the Washington D.C. and Jagannath Puri celebrations overlapped a “happy coincidence,” ISKCON leaders defended their right to hold the festival on different days.
“The principle should take precedence over the specific ritual,” said Anuttama Dasa, ISKCON spokesperson and organizer of the Washington D.C. festival. “We are glad that we could hold the festival on the same date as the original celebration this year, but for us the more important principle was being able to share spirituality with hundreds of thousands of people who would otherwise not have had the opportunity. We think that this is in keeping with the spirit behind the Ratha Yatra in the first place.”
Anuttama estimates that almost 8,000 plates of freshly made prasadam (sanctified vegetarian food) were distributed, completely free of charge. Aside from the free feast, the Festival also included displays on Krishna conscious philosophy, booths offering henna and face painting, and a large stage featuring classical Indian dance performances, bhajan singing, and dramas.
Since the Washington D.C. Ratha Yatra is an official part of the National Parade, it generates significant media attention, and its accompanying Festival of India draws thousands of visitors, tourists, and curious spectators.
Anuttama said that the Washington D.C. devotees will continue to hold Ratha Yatra on July 4, as part of the National Parade, regardless of the date set by the Jagannath Puri temple.