The Bronx Welcomes Lord Jagannath With Open Arms
For the third year in a row, residents of the Bronx, NY were fascinated by the appearance of Lord Jagannath in their Bronx Week Parade, held on Sunday May 20th.
Three colorful chariots carrying the beaming Lord of the Universe along with His brother Baladeva and sister Subhadra joined a host of marching bands, community groups, schools, sports teams and civic groups in celebrating the best of the New York Borough.
The parade, which marched along the tree-lined Mosholu Parkway—shut down to traffic for the event—was viewed by crowds of thousands who lined the street. The local audience included African Americans and Caucasians, as well as Latin Americans from a variety of backgrounds, such as South American, Panamanian, Puerto Rican, and Guatemalan.
At a review stand on the parade route, dignitaries including Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. introduced each organization.
Throughout the three-hour parade, the 150 ISKCON devotees in attendance from Queens, New Jersey, Washington D.C., Maryland, Boston and Pennsylvania sang the Hare Krishna mantra and danced before Lord Jagannatha’s chariot. They were headed by Bhakti Vasudeva Swami and Chandrasekhar Swami, and Rathayatra organizers Vilasa Manjari Dasi and her husband Paramananda Dasa, who are originally from Guyana.
Also bringing their own wonderful brand of enthusiasm to the parade were several devotees from Pennsylvania’s Gita Nagari farm, including the indomitable Hari Chakra Dasa, a disciple of the late Bhakti Tirtha Swami.
“Hari Chakra is super empowered by the Lord,” says Vilasa Manjari. “He carried the microphone, and he would just approach anybody and everybody, hold it to their lips, and they would chant Hare Krishna. When he approached the uniformed police guiding the parade, many devotees froze, wondering what they would do. But soon, he even had the police happily chanting Hare Krishna!”
Alongside the chanting, devotees distributed 1,500 free packages of sanctified vegetarian food, or prasadam, and 2,000 pamphlets based on the ancient spiritual text Sri Chaitanya Charitamrita explaining how to “cleanse the heart.”
As the parade concluded, a street fair was held along Mosholu Parkway, where there was a band-stand with live performers, games and food for families to enjoy. For some time, the colorful Rathayatra chariots carrying Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra graced the fair, as devotees continued to chant, and fascinated observers gathered to dance with them, and to snap photos of the astonishing sight.
Devotees chant and dance down Mosholu Parkway during the Bronx Week Parade
“The locals were also delighted to receive a multi-course gourmet meal for only $3 a plate,” says Vilasa Manjari. “They couldn’t believe they were getting that kind of food for so little money! We served out over 300 plates of Guyanese specialties such as coconut buns, and Bora beans with potatoes and paneer in a creamy sauce; as well as kidney beans and soy, rice, roti, hushpuppies made from fried paneer, mango drink, sweet rice, and red velvet cake.”
Books by ISKCON founder Srila Prabhupada, and the late ISKCON leader Bhakti Tirtha Swami were also sold on site, inspiring browsers and book stall staff alike.
“My thirteen-year-old niece Nkasiobi, whose family are not devotees but who loves devotees herself and spends a lot of time with us, was taking care of the book table,” says Vilasa Manjari. “I told her, ‘I’m very proud of you, Nkasiobi,’ and she announced with so much enthusiasm, ‘I sold three Bhagavad-gitas!’ She was so happy!”
The family mood extended beyond Vilasa Manjari and her niece, to all the Bronx locals attending the festival, giving it an especially unique flavor amongst Rathayatras.
“In the Bronx, people are more homey, more down to earth, and more approachable,” says Vilasa Manjari. “I would say it’s because of their humble beginnings. It makes them very friendly and receptive.”
People would take one plate of prasadam, and come back for more, with a charming kind of hesitancy about whether they were allowed to or not. What’s more, they were fascinated by the lack of meat in prasadam, constantly asking, “Is this not meat? Are you sure? Because I don’t eat meat. It tastes so good!”
People were also extremely receptive to the philosophy.
“When I was passing out pamphlets during the parade, many were anxious to know where our temple was, and how they could find out more,” Vilasa Manjari says. “And later, I was happily surprised to see that most people were not dropping the pamphlets on the ground, as often happens, but were keeping them, embracing them close.”
Getting a similar impression of the Bronx and its people, visitor Bhakti Vasudeva Swami commented, “This place is ripe for Krishna consciousness.”
Back in 2004, when Vilasa Manjari lived with her husband Paramananda in the Bronx, she thought the same thing.
“We were always looking for ways to spread Krishna consciousness there,” she recalls. “Then my godbrother Garga Rishi Prabhu, also a disciple of Romapada Swami, started a Rathayatra in Queens, and I thought: ‘We have to put one on in the Bronx too—people will enjoy it so much!’”
With Vilasa Manjari and her family already juggling a jam-packed schedule of holding monthly congregational programs at their home, volunteering for New York City Rathayatra, and traveling to Guyana to spread Krishna consciousness, however, the plan took many years to come to fruition.
But in 2010, Lord Jagannath finally made His first appearance in the Bronx, when Vilasa Manjari successfully applied for a place in the Bronx Week Parade, with her organization New Yogapith, named after the birthplace of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.
“That first time, everyone was so amazed to see the Lord,” remembers Vilasa Manjari. “The local Councilman was so excited that he was standing in front of the chariot, jumping up and down, and yelling, ‘Go, New Yogapith!’ The lady next to him had to nudge him and say, ‘Cut it out,’ trying to get him to the move so that the parade could proceed!”
Since then, Lord Jagannath has participated in the Bronx Week Parade every year.
Lord Jagannath, Baladeva and Subhadra rest at the Street Fair after the Bronx Week Parade
Alongside the Rathayatras, Vilasa Manjari and Paramananda, who moved to the US from Guyana in 1988, are also extremely active in spreading Krishna consciousness in a myriad of ways from their home in New Rochelle, New York.
Just as in the Bronx, their mood is a family one.
“Our door is literally always open to everyone,” says Vilasa Manjari, who has a temple room in her home. “People call us up or just stop by and say, ‘Can we come pay our respects to the Deities?’ One man in particular, who has some difficulties in his life, comes, puts coins at the Lord’s feet, and asks if he can just sit down in front of the altar for five minutes to chant Hare Krishna.”
In fact, people in the area are becoming so familiar with Krishna consciousness that when one devotee from India went for a walk along nearby North Avenue while visiting, he was amazed to have strangers on the street simply walk up to him and say, ‘Hare Krishna!’
Today, with their children having flown the nest, Vilasa Manjari and Paramananda are planning to use their home as a hub for book distribution teams, as well as to continue with their regular congregational programs.
Meanwhile, they’ll be traveling to Guyana with a team of devotees to reach out to the Afro-Guyanese community there for the third year in a row this year. Their trips have been great successes so far, with a celebration for the 25th anniversary of Guyana’s presiding Deities the first year, a Rathayatra the second year, and a five day Padayatra, or walking pilgrimage, last year.
In the meantime, they’ll continue to reach out to the people of the Bronx, with no less than four Rathayatra chariots and two sets of Jagannath Deities planned to attend next year’s Bronx Week Parade. And, with the continued cooperation of their supportive team—whom they are extremely grateful to—the couple “prayerfully hope” that the Bronx Rathayatra will continue to be an annual event.
“As long as there is health and strength in my body, I’ll be there,” says Vilasa Manjari, who worked a solid day and night through to make this year’s parade happen. “No matter how tiring it is.”