New York Ratha-yatra, 1976
by Dasaratha-suta Das
So Subuddhi and I drove his old bread truck cross-country to New York, parked somewhere near 55th Street in Manhattan and went into the large and busy temple lobby. Not knowing what else to do or even where to go to get situated, I just sat down on the floor with my gear and waited to see what would happen next. After all I had heard of Jayananda’s famous reputation, I was very excited while anticipating a personal meeting with this virtual superman of devotional service. Then an older-looking man dressed in tattered clothes approached me very directly and inquired in a meek yet enthusiastic tone, “Are you Bhakta Dave?” “Yes,” I replied, and he continued, “Oh jai, they said you were coming to help us on the Ratha-yatra carts!” So after a very brief acquaintance, he turned me over to a devotee at the desk who directed me to a room number upstairs, and I went up to shower and get settled. The devotees caught me completely off-guard when they told me I had just met the legendary Jayananda!
Because of my wildly imaginative expectations, I was astonished and even a bit confused with my first impression of the extremely plain, matter-of-fact, and shabbily-dressed Jayananda. Before, when I was told he was the most advanced disciple in the movement, I had envisioned a sparkling and radiant image, swathed with impeccable saffron cloth and effusing a bold and assertive spiritual confidence that inspired every onlooker with devotional fervor. But what I experienced at that first meeting, in my grossly ignorant perception, was practically the opposite – a mild-mannered, very simple and down-to-earth person with dirty hands and torn-up work clothes. He completely surprised me.
Later we had to give up our rooms in order to accommodate the many visiting devotees that would be arriving, so Jayananda picked me up and drove me down to the cart-building site. Just off 60th Street and 11th Avenue, it was in a big parking lot next to some old Conrail loading docks. These docks were surrounded by rusted railroad tracks, nearby was the breezy Hudson river, and we lived there and slept on the open concrete platform.
There were a few overhead lights up in the high metal awning, and our simple cold shower was a garden hose dangling over some wooden pallets. Jayananda was our fearless leader, and the early crew included Jambavan (Jayananda’s long-time friend and helper from earlier San Francisco Ratha-yatras), Kanu (also from the Radha-Damodar bus crew), John B. (a local friend of the temple, later initiated as Jiva-dhara), Bhakta Mike and his brother Larry (later initiated as Murli Krishna and Lakshmishvar), Mayeshvar and a few other part-time bhaktas.
I remember being driven around in an old beat-up car with Jayananda at the wheel, careening crazily through the chaotic traffic-jammed Manhattan streets to chase down various parts and supplies at Hardware stores or machine shops. If you’ve ever been to Manhattan, you know how wild the taxi drivers are – well, Jayananda just fit right in with their driving style and expertly zig-zagged in, out, and through the hurtling masses of passionate and unruly vehicles. I was a bit apprehensive of his sudden swerving, dodging and dramatic starts and stops, but since he was always talking about Krishna and chanting, I guess I felt in good hands. He used to take me out and go on excursions like that, and it became obvious that he had been an experienced taxi driver in the past.
Frequently Jayananda would take a few of us out in the old beat-up bread truck, scouring the streets for any useful building materials that were freely available. There was no gas pedal in that truck, so the driver had to have a string hooked up to his right big toe in order to gun the gas. The windshield wipers also didn’t work, so if it was raining the front passenger had to pull on two strings, one going out the right window and one going out the left. They went around to the front and were attached to the dead windshield wipers, thus being activated by pulling left, right, left, right.
So Jayananda would take us out and we would stop and pick up any old planks, scraps of plywood, chunks of metal or whatever else that looked useful. We drove up and down practically every street, side street and back alley in Manhattan at one time or another. Since we were building the carts out at the old abandoned Conrail docks, naturally there were many dusty warehouses, rusting storage sheds and cluttered equipment yards to explore. Sometimes Jayananda would spot a dilapidated old railroad car just loaded up with planks or four-by-fours. Waiting until nightfall, we would skulk around with the truck and pack it full of the “free” wood. If it was a plentiful stash, we would come back and raid it again and again. We never thought of it as stealing, since the entire railroad yard was quite abandoned and the stuff we were taking had every chance of just rotting away uselessly. Jayananda always had his principles carefully worked out. He was impeccably honest, but there was a side of him that was almost like a mischievous, transcendental thief in the sense of happily pilfering tons of otherwise useless materials to be used solely in the Lord’s service.
I was amazed when Jayananda took us out into the railroad yard and we actually pulled up the stakes and snatched away whole sections of railroad track, to be used for the axles of the huge Ratha carts. You just can’t imagine how heavy a 30-foot section of solid steel railroad track is, but somehow Jayananda got our motley crew fired up enough to lift, drag and wrestle that stuff into the truck.
Down at the docks we maintained our spiritual program, but in some ways it was externally a bit looser than strictly-disciplined temple living. I remember many times along with Jayananda we would have spontaneous kirtan around the carts. We would chant and dance around in our filthy work clothes, and encouraged by him we were grabbing anything we could get our hands on to bang upon. We were pounding out the beat on large plastic buckets or metal paint cans, smacking sheets of plywood with pieces of two-by-fours, shaking trays of nuts and bolts, and thus led by Jayananda we created a bizarre and ragtag kirtan band with a unique sound that was unheard of anywhere in ISKCON. That kind of wild behavior was never found during the musically-tasteful kirtans in a clean and orderly temple room. Those were really special times.
Building the carts Jayananda-style was a lot a hard work, and oftentimes you had to give up your personal preferences and just do whatever he asked of you. For example, we had no power tools to cut six-foot sections of half-inch threaded steel rods into shorter lengths for bolting the cart sections together, and we sawed them by hand – hundreds of them – with a hacksaw. I really, really hated doing that job! It was hard to do, required a great amount of elbow-grease, took a long time to cut even a single one, and the hacksaw blades constantly wore out. If anyone else would have told me to cut those darn things, I would have told them to get lost. But whenever Jayananda asked you to do something, you just felt like it was best to put aside your personal likes and dislikes and just do the job. Even when you thought that it was finally done – you somehow sweated and strained to cut the last rod and then breathed a sigh of ultimate relief – Jayananda would begin work on another section and suddenly holler down, “We need 24 more rods, 6 inches long!” Instead of screaming in despair, I would just surrender and start sawing away, only because you would do anything that Jayananda asked.
At one point Jayananda was finalizing the design of the rope-and-pulley winch system connected to the telescoping steel masts that lifted the main canopies up and down. Tying off the looped rope-ends on the end pulleys was always a problem, and the only available solution was just to double the end of the rope over and secure it to itself with a bolting clamp. But somehow Jayananda made an arrangement that Chaitanya-simha would come from the temple down to the site to show him how to splice a rope. Chaitanya-simha had previously been in the Navy or Merchant Marines or something, and Jayananda was very excited at the thought of learning a new trick to make Lord Jagannath’s carts better. So he came down and the two of them sat together on the dock, Chaitanya-simha patiently demonstrating the rope-splicing technique as used by sailors of old. And Jayananda was sitting there in clearly radiant bliss, being exceedingly pleased to learn this art. Just by the way Jayananda was so enthused during this little scenario I got the impression that Jayananda was perhaps a sailor or something in a previous life. Of course in physical stature and general looks he appeared like a sailor or a wharf hand. And he naturally took to this rope-splicing technique; I remember watching his hands while he sat and patiently wove the unraveled rope-ends in and out, this way and that. It was just something that he had always wanted to do.
During that period of cart construction, in May and June of 1976, Jayananda was becoming more and more uncomfortable with the painful lumps on his legs and armpits. He didn’t know what it was, and didn’t even care to know, since he was so focused on completing the construction of the Ratha-yatra carts for the pleasure of Srila Prabhupada and Lord Jagannath. Anyone who knew Jayananda understood that personal consideration was absolutely last on his list of priorities, for he was always concerned with how to perform more and more selfless devotional service.
The temple authorities became worried for his health, and so we set an old couch up on the loading dock for Jayananda to sit and direct from. It was a practically useless program, because we would get him to sit there for a brief spell, but as soon as someone would call down from the cart, “Hey Jayananda! How should I fit this piece right here?” then he would scramble right off that couch and up on the cart to do the work. Then he would just keep working, and we never could get him to stay on the couch and let us act as his arms and legs. He would always jump up and get into a lot of hard work for the rest of the day.
Right on up to the festival day, Jayananda was becoming increasingly crippled with the swollen lymph glands on his legs. He could hardly walk. Especially during the last few days before the parade, nobody got any sleep at all; that kind of schedule was very rough for us young, strapping youths, so certainly it must have been devastating for Jayananda with his failing health. But the amazing thing was that this crippled and hobbling Jayananda miraculously danced and danced and danced like a energetic teenager throughout the entire Ratha-yatra parade! All the way down Fifth Avenue from Central Park to Tompkin’s Square Park – fifty-two blocks – Jayananda was dancing and chanting Hare Krishna while steering Lord Jagannath’s cart in the lead. He sometimes turned around and walked backwards in order to enthusiastically look up at Lord Jagannath’s smiling face, then he would turn around again and skip forward, shouting “Jai Jagannath!” as he raised one hand in the air. There is a movie taken of that parade, and you can see Jayananda cavorting about like a wild young stallion. So this was incredible to witness such a level of transcendental devotion being manifest in his person, especially if you were aware that his body was actually very ill and unable to walk very well.
Here is one interesting and perhaps amusing detail about Jayananda’s appearance during this parade. As you can see from the photos (see cover), he was wearing a gold-colored nylon wind-breaker. This was one of the jackets that many devotees had, with a big black “BBT” (Bhaktivedanta Book Trust) logo on the back. Now in the photos or in the movie you cannot see any logo on the back. This is because Jayananda had been wearing that jacket and working in it for a few weeks solid before the parade, and since it was now quite dirty and shabby-looking, I saw him turn it inside-out and put it back on just before the parade started! He certainly wanted to look his best for the festival, but not having anything that was nicer, Jayananda chose the humble and frugal path rather than ask anyone else for another jacket.
For example, once he found some old table lamp that had a wooden base, or maybe someone had donated it to be sold in the shop. But Jayananda would enthusiastically tell everyone all day long that it was made from wood taken directly from the Lord’s Ratha cart in Jagannath Puri, India! Or else if he had some saris to sell, all day long he would proudly proclaim to everyone that they were made from the prasad clothes previously worn by the Jagannath Deities in Puri! In this way, I noticed that Jayananda habitually took ordinary items and whole-heartedly accepted them to be factual remnants of the Lord’s mercy. Thinking back, we can now see that this was his transcendental vision. But at the time, it was obviously just a bunch of tall tales and fantastic stories he was telling. Watching all this going on, I wouldn’t reveal it to anyone, for it was like a little secret we had. I saw many persons go, “Oooh! This is from Puri? I’ll take it!” Since Jayananda was so lovable and energetic about whatever he was doing, we all accepted his association with good cheer, even if he was playing pranks on us.
Once I remember going upstairs to visit Jayananda in his tiny room, and he was lying on the floor on his belly, attentively absorbed in reading Sri Chaitanya-Charitamrita. He was holding the book open with both hands and exclaimed, “You know, I never had much time to read Srila Prabhupada’s books, but now this disease is a blessing because I finally get a chance to sit still and read the Chaitanya-Charitamrita. It’s ecstatic! Just listen to this!” And he started reading the pastimes of Lord Chaitanya aloud to me with immense relish. Even if he was suffering great pain and discomfort, you wouldn’t know it because of the way he acted and spoke. He could overwhelm you with Krishna Consciousness, which would divert your attention from even considering what he was actually experiencing on the physical platform. And thus you had no chance to feel sympathy for him or feel sorry for his diseased condition. Jayananda just remained transcendental to his bodily situation and consistently caused you to also be swept away in some form of devotional nectar.
All glories to Jayananda Prabhu!