In the year 1513, the Festival of the Chariots held a special
meaning for Maharaja Prataparudra, the king of Jagannatha Puri.
ON Ratha-yatra day in the summer of A.D. 1513, Lord Sri Krsna Caitanya Mahaprabhu and His associates rose in the dark and bathed. The predawn streets were busy with last-minute festival preparations as the Lord and His party hurried to the temple of Lord Jagannatha (Krsna as "the Lord of the universe"). For weeks carpenters and craftsmen had been at work building the festival's three colossal wooden carts and decorating them with brightly colored canopies, with silk banners and flags, with mirrors, pictures, gongs, bells, camara whisks, and flower garlands.
Hundreds and thousands of pilgrims had arrived in Puri to see massive wooden deities of Lord Jagannatha, Lord Balarama, and Subhadra Devi ride through the streets on these festival chariots. The entire town of Puri, residents and guests alike, joyously prepared to serve and glorify the deities, incarnations of the Supreme Lord, during the Jagannatha Rathayatra parade.
Maharaja Prataparudra, the king of Jagannatha Puri, was up early too, his mind occupied with the coming events. The king took a personal interest in the Jagannatha temple and in all the details of this annual celebration. The sheltering and feeding of the pilgrim throngs reflected upon him and was his pleasure. Friends and subordinate rulers attended as his guests, not to mention his own queens, children, and retinue.
The regular duties of administering a sprawling kingdom up and down the coast of the Bay of Bengal pressed upon him as well. But most of all, for the first time Lord Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu would be attending Rathayatra, and Maharaja Prataparudra had the promise of a private audience with the Lord. Along with his festival functions, King Prataparudra could think of little else.
When Lord Caitanya and His party arrived at the Jagannatha Temple, the king and his entourage were waiting to let Him through the crowds and give Him an honored vantage point to watch Lord Jagannatha emerge from the temple.
To the tumultuous sounds of various musical instruments, devotees specially chosen for their strength, carried the heavy deities of Jagannatha, Baladeva and Subhadra from the temple to Their festival chariots. Before crowds of his subjects and visitors, King Prataparudra took the part of a lowly street sweeper, using a broom with a golden handle to sweep the road in front of Lord Jagannatha as the deity moved toward His chariot. The king also sprinkled the road with sandalwood-scented water. Seeing this humble public example set by King Prataparudra, Lord Caitanya became very happy.
A king and a street sweeper may be at opposite ends of the social spectrum, but in a society dedicated to the service of Lord Jagannatha everyone equally becomes a menial servant of the deity. We are kings or sweepers temporarily. Our permanent and exalted position is as humble servants of Krsna. Lord Caitanya Himself had made it clear that He wished most of all to be a servant of a servant of the servants of Krsna, to serve Krsna holding all other servants as superiors.
The King's Aspiration
In the two years since Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu had first passed through Puri on His way to southern India, King Prataparudra had aspired to meet the Lord and had steadily served Lord Caitanya's followers. The king had released Ramananda Raya from government duties and provided him with a generous stipend for Lord Caitanya's service. He had respectfully approached Lord Caitanya's disciples in Puri and asked them to arrange a meeting with the Lord. And in the past several weeks he had eagerly provided lodging for two hundred of Lord Caitanya's followers from Bengal and had enjoyed learning their names and hearing of their exceptional qualities.
Now Maharaja Prataparudra had eagerly rendered menial service to Lord Jagannatha. As a humble servant both of Krsna and of Lord Caitanya's followers, King Prataparudra greatly satisfied Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, the universal guru, and became a sure candidate for Lord Caitanya's mercy. While the Lord continued to outwardly regard King Prataparudra as a sensual materialist and to avoid him, He prepared to bless the king during the Rathayatra parade.
As the chariots rolled forward, drawn by sturdy servants of Lord Jagannatha tugging on thick ropes, Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu wandered through seven chanting parties. He chanted the holy names and shouted "All glories to Lord Jagannatha! All glories to Lord Jagannatha!" Inspired by Lord Caitanya's participation, the devotees chanted and danced with all their hearts, forgetting all fatigue while the hours passed. In every direction the sound of the holy names and the music of sankirtana filled the air as Lord Caitanya, to further raise the blissful atmosphere, displayed His inconceivable potency as the Supreme Personality of Godhead by expanding Himself into seven transcendental forms, dancing and chanting in all seven parties simultaneously. Everyone was thinking, "Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu stays with my group, showing us special favor. He does not go anywhere else." Only the most confidential devotees, those absorbed in pure devotion, could see and understand that seven forms of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu danced and chanted.
One of those devotees, standing motionless in stunned astonishment, breathless with the vision before him, was King Prataparudra. Still externally singled out by the Lord as a dangerous worldly man, still refused a personal audience, Maharaja Prataparudra became an intimate devotee of the Lord by the Lord's mercy, privy to the Lord's confidential mystic powers. In all the crowds of celebrating pilgrims and among all the assembled followers of Lord Caitanya, only Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya joined the king in observing and relishing the Lord's seven-fold transcendental performance.
Catching his breath, Prataparudra informed Kasi Misra of Lord Caitanya's feat, and Kasi Misra replied with heartfelt congratulation, "O king, your fortune has no limit!"
Meeting At Last
Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu's expansive powers as the Supreme Lord were not all that had transfixed Maharaja Prataparudra. Lord Caitanya's demeanor as a devotee of the Supreme transformed the king as well. The Festival of the Chariots is a grand display of opulent worship commemorating the grandeur at Kurukshetra during Lord Krsna's pilgrimage there with the royalty of the Yadu dynasty. Lord Caitanya, with His first Rathayatra in this historic summer of 1513, sweetened the joyously opulent celebration of Lord Jagannatha's glories with ecstatic remembrance of the residents of Vrndavana, who came to the Kurukshetra gathering to see Lord Krsna for the first time in many years. While many kings and devotees at Kurukshetra took satisfaction in observing Lord Krsna's opulence and in glorifying His position as the Supreme, the villagers of Vrndavana saw Krsna as their fellow villager and prayed that He return home with them. Lord Caitanya's absorption in the mood of the residents of Vrndavana shone through in His performance of sankirtana with His devoted Bengali followers. This too entranced King Prataparudra.
When the procession reached a place called Balagandi, the carts stopped and from all sides pilgrims as well as local devotees offered their best cooked foods to Lord Jagannatha. King Prataparudra, his queens, ministers, friends, and all other residents of Jagannatha Puri made offerings wherever they could.
Taking advantage of this interlude, Lord Caitanya and His followers went to rest in a nearby garden. Exhausted from hours of dancing and chanting, they lay down on the ground beneath the garden trees and enjoyed the cool, fragrant breezes.
King Prataparudra too, setting aside his royal apparel, entered the garden dressed in simple cloth like a devotee of Krsna. Humbly taking permission from Lord Caitanya's followers, the king bowed down before the Lord, who was lying on the ground with His eyes closed, and began to expertly massage the Lord's legs. The king also recited verses from the Srimad- Bhagavatam about Krsna's pastimes with the gopis.
Hearing this, Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu said again and again, "Go on reciting, go on reciting."
As the king happily continued his recitation, Lord Caitanya embraced him and cried, "You are most kind! You are most kind!"
Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu was in ecstasy and did not seem to recognize the king.
"Who are you?" the Lord asked. "You are doing so much for me. All of a sudden you have come here and made me drink the nectar of Lord Krsna's pastimes."
"My Lord," King Prataparudra replied, "I am the most obedient servant of Your servants. It is my ambition that You will accept me as such."
The devotees resting in the garden praised Maharaja Prataparudra's good fortune in receiving Lord Caitanya's mercy, and in doing so their minds became open and blissful. As pure devotees, they were happy to see another servant elevated in devotional service. King Prataparudra replied by offering prayers to the devotees with folded hands. Then he bowed again before Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu and humbly left the garden.
The king's service to Lord Sri Caitanya's followers brought him a meeting with the Lord, and that meeting confirmed his desire to serve the devotees. Srila Prabhupada writes (Madhya-lila 14.8): "The greatest achievement for a devotee is to become a servant of the servants. Actually no one should desire to become the direct servant of the Lord. That is not a very good idea. … Being the servant of the servants of the Supreme Personality of Godhead is the highest benediction one can desire."
Mathuresa Dasa, a disciple of Srila Prabhupada, has written many articles for BTG. He and his wife, Ganga-gati Devi Dasi, and their four children live in Alachua, Florida.