Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Celebrate Good Times

Jagannatha Puri “Simply by worshiping Krishna one can easily achieve all the results of heavenly opulence, liberation, supremacy over the planetary systems of the universe, all the opulences of this material world, and the mystic power of performing the yoga system.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 10.81.19)

In the world of professional sports, there is no end to the competition. Each particular sport has its own season, which includes championships, tournaments, and trophies. Even though these events occur on a regular basis, not everyone comes out a winner. Some teams can go over one hundred years without winning a championship, even though they give it their best every year. Since winning the ultimate championship each season is such a great accomplishment, it makes sense that the victors, along with their fans, want to savor the moment for as long as possible. One of the more popular ways of celebrating a championship in team sports is through the parade. In America, the teams in the four major professional sports all have a home city, so when a team wins a title, there is almost always a parade that follows as a form of celebration. Ironically enough, this parade concept originates from the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India. There has been one parade in particular, celebrating the Supreme Lord, which has been an annual occurrence for hundreds of years.

The Stanley Cup No parade would be complete without an object of worship. In the arena of team sports, the players are certainly adored and fawned over. But more than just the players, the actual championship trophy is what best symbolizes the extraordinary accomplishment of victory. In all of sports, there is no more celebrated trophy than the Stanley Cup, the reward given to the champion of ice hockey at the culmination of each season. Though there are many professional hockey organizations, the National Hockey League [NHL] is considered the topmost. The league consists of teams from the United States and Canada, but it is truly a global sport, for it boasts the best players in the world. Hockey is especially popular in Canada, but this doesn’t mean that every player in the NHL is Canadian. Russians, Americans, Swedes, and Fins contribute to the dynamic makeup of the league.

The Stanley Cup is named after Lord Stanley, a Canadian government official of the late 19th century. The trophy is over one hundred years old, and it is given to the best team in the league at the end of each playoff season. Though the actual format of the playoffs has changed over time, the basic layout of a typical NHL season has always remained the same. There is a regular season where teams compete with one another to see who will make the playoffs. The playoffs are an elimination round type tournament. For the past quarter century or so, the playoffs have consisted of sixteen teams, eight from each of the two conferences in the league. The conferences, along with their divisions, are divided up by the geographic location of the teams. Teams that are close to one another are put into the same division.

Making the playoffs is itself a great accomplishment. Currently the regular season consists of eighty-two games played between the months of October and April each year. The playoffs is where the fun really begins. Teams are pitted against one another in best-of-seven elimination round series. The first team to win four games in the series advances to the next round of the playoffs. In order to win the Stanley Cup, a team must successfully win four series, i.e. win sixteen games over the course of two months. Needless to say, this is no easy task. Many storied franchises have gone decades without winning the cup. The famous New York Rangers franchise went through a fifty-four year drought after winning the Cup in 1940. It seemed like all hope was lost until finally the legend Mark Messier was able to lead the team to victory in 1994.

Kane scoring the winning goal In recent times, the team with the longest Cup drought was the Chicago Blackhawks, who last won in 1961. Yet through a sudden revival in the team, aided by several young superstars like captain Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, the Hawks were able to end the drought in 2010. The conclusion of the final playoff series was quite dramatic, as Kane scored the Cup clinching goal in overtime of game 6. In playoff games, if the score is tied at the end of regulation, the game goes to overtime. Overtime consists of full twenty minute periods, with play continuing until someone scores. The first team to score wins the game; hence overtime is often referred to as sudden-death. This makes for a very exciting finish to playoff games, especially when the stakes are raised. Kane’s overtime goal was unique in that he was the only one to see the puck go into the net. Kane took a shot from a sharp angle, and since the puck went through the goalie’s legs, no one knew where it ended up. Kane, seeing that his shot went in, immediately started celebrating, skating across the ice. Finally, the referees were able to find the puck lodged in the back of the net, signaling victory for the Blackhawks and an end to their Stanley Cup drought.

Captain Jonathan Toews during the parade The city of Chicago wasted no time in organizing a parade. Held two days after the clinching game, the parade brought out millions of Chicago residents, who all came to pay homage to their favorite team and to get a look at the storied Stanley Cup. One of the unique things about the Stanley Cup celebration is that the players and coaches from the winning team get their name inscribed on the trophy. This means that once you win, your name is on the hallowed trophy forever. Unlike other sports, a new championship trophy is not created each year in the NHL; the same Stanley Cup gets passed down from team to team. Another nice tradition that was started in recent times allows each player from the winning team to have the Cup all to himself for one day during the following summer. Some players take the Cup to their hometown, while others find unique ways to celebrate. All of this adds to the mystique and aura of the famed trophy.

When you break things down to their core components, the Stanley Cup and the parade celebrations that follow are all just forms of worship. After all, fans invest great time and emotion in their favorite teams. They spend good amounts of money going to the games, buying jerseys, and watching the games on television. Many fans will even get into arguments with other fans, defending their team’s honor and prestige. So naturally when your favorite team wins, you’ll want to celebrate; you’ll want to show your love. The Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, tell us that of all the objects of worship that are out there, nothing is greater than God. Since God is all-attractive and the supreme giver of pleasure, He is known by the name of Krishna.

Radha Krishna In the Vedic tradition, God is not only worshiped internally within one’s heart and mind, but also externally in the temple. The temple is not simply a place of gathering, but rather an inviting home for a specific incarnation of the Lord known as the archa-vigraha. Vigraha refers to a body or form and archa refers to archanam, or the offering of worship. Thus the deity is the worshipable form of the Lord. Why does God need a worshipable form? The deity exists due to Krishna’s mercy. Just as the Stanley Cup is a worshipable form which represents the milestone achievement of a hockey team, the deity is the worshipable form representing the glorious nature of the Supreme Lord.

The difference between ordinary idols/trophies and the deity form of the Lord is that the deity is non-different from the Lord. Though the archa-vigraha is made out of wood or stone, the crafted image is not something concocted by the mind. Rather, the form represents a specific incarnation, or avatara, of the Lord. An avatara is one who descends from the spiritual world, thus it is an eternally existing form of the Lord. It is not material, so it is not subject to creation and destruction. The deity is a replica of that eternal form, and since God is absolute, it is non-different from the original. Therefore deity worship is one of the central components of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service.

Temple worship is sufficient to allow lovers of God to show their affection and give thanks for the blessings they receive. But as we all know, a celebration is always more fun when more people are involved. For this reason, one of the oldest Vedic traditions involves a parade of the glorious deity forms of the Lord. This parade is known as Ratha-yatra, and it has been going on for centuries in the famous city of Puri.

“A person who sees the Lord's Ratha-yatra car festival and then stands up to receive the Lord can purge all kinds of sinful results from his body.” (Brahmanda Purana)

Ratha-yatra deities As previously mentioned, the deity forms of the Lord aren’t concocted by the mind. Though God’s original form is that of Lord Shri Krishna, He takes innumerable expansions based on a person’s natural propensity to offer worship. When Lord Krishna personally descended to earth some five thousand years ago, He brought with Him His brother Balarama and sister Subhadra. Ratha-yatra celebrates the occasion when these three siblings went to Kurukshetra-dhama on the occasion of a solar eclipse. At this event, Lord Krishna reunited with His intimate associates, the gopis from Vrindavana. For the Ratha-yatra celebration, deities of Krishna, Balarama, and Subhadra are placed on elaborately decorated carts and paraded around the city of Puri. What’s interesting to note is the unique appearance of the deities. Though Ratha-yatra celebrates Lord Krishna, the specific form of the Lord put on the cart is that of Lord Jagannatha, the presiding deity of the Jagannatha temple in Puri. Jagannatha is another name for God which means “Lord of the universe”.

Lord Jagannatha There are several interesting accounts of the origin of Ratha-yatra found in the Puranas. Sometimes there are discrepancies found amongst the various Puranas, but this is due to the fact that God's appearances on earth are recurring events, so His pastimes aren't always performed in the exact same way in each kalpa, or creation. For Ratha-yatra, the basic story is that there once was a great king named Indradyumna who wanted to take darshana of Lord Vishnu. Vishnu is just another form of Lord Krishna, so they are essentially the same. When the king arrived at Purushottamma-kshetra, the Vishnu deity was not visible to him. A voice from the sky told the king not to worry and to follow the advice of the great Narada Muni. Narada then advised the king to install a deity of Lord Narasimhadeva, followed by the performance of many yajnas. After this, a voice from the sky instructed the king to send a carpenter into the temple to carve out the deities of Lord Jagannatha, Baladeva, Subhadra, and the Sudarshana-chakra that the king wanted to see. The king was ordered to make sure that drums were beating the entire time, so as to ensure that no one could hear the carpenter do his work. Once the deities were completed, the voice asked the king to paint these deities properly. Later on, Narada advised the king to have three chariots made for the deities so that they could be paraded around the city. Hence Ratha-yatra was born.

“Everyone was astonished by the dancing of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, and even Lord Jagannatha became extremely happy to see Him.” (Chaitanya Charitamrita, Madhya 13.98)

Lord Chaitanya dancing The real benefit of Ratha-yatra is that it allows people to see the form of the Lord. However large a temple may be, it can’t accommodate as many people as a parade can. In Jagannatha Puri, this annual parade features thousands and thousands of people. The pictures from this event are just astounding. It is even said that Lord Jesus Christ visited Jagannatha Puri prior to becoming a preacher. The Ratha-yatra parade also features loud chanting of the holy names of the Lord, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, along with dancing. Lord Chaitanya, Lord Krishna’s most recent incarnation to appear on earth, was especially fond of Lord Jagannatha and Ratha-yatra. Lord Chaitanya was known for His never-before-seen displays of emotion and love for God. During Ratha-yatra, He would dance in front of the deities like no one had before, showing His intense love for Krishna.

In recent times, Ratha-yatra has become a global affair, with parades occurring annually in cities around the world. This is all due to the sincere efforts of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada and his disciples. If we get a chance, we should attend one of these parades and bring our friends and family. Just seeing the deity once is an experience that will stay with us for a lifetime.