Today was Ratha Yatra, a Hindu festival originating from my state of Odisha that celebrates the journey that the main deities of Puri Jagannath temple—Jagannath, Balabhadra, Subhadra and Sudarshana—undertake every year. Also known as the Car Festival or the Chariot Festival, the festival is now observed across all major cities of the world.
For those who are unfamiliar with the Ratha Yatra of Lord Jagannath, you must have used or at least heard of the English word 'juggernaut' which refers to any huge, powerful and overwhelming force. This term came about when the British witnessed the Ratha Yatra for the first time in the 18th century and were completely awed by the size and grandness of the chariots being pulled by what often seems like an ocean of people.
There are many beautiful mythological and historical stories associated with Puri's Ratha Yatra, but I won't touch upon them in this article. Instead, I would like to highlight three psycho-spiritual lessons we can all take from this festival. As I have been researching and reflecting on different evidence-based approaches for wellbeing, I am amazed at how much wisdom lies behind many Hindu festivals and how we can literally transform our lives if we celebrate these festivals a little more mindfully.
1) Develop of a strong and healthy body: You may be wondering, “What does the Ratha Yatra have to do with a strong body?” No, I am not referring to the physical strength you would need to pull the ropes of the ratha, although that would certainly be very helpful. The importance of a strong and healthy body can be understood if we read the Katha Upanishad, which describes ratha (Sanskrit for a chariot) to be symbolic of the physical body. So the ratha yatra that we celebrate every year is essentially symbolic of our life's journey (yatra is a Sanskrit word for journey). We all want our life's journey to be a happy one. Does the ratha yatra give us any hints about how we can achieve this objective? Yes, have a strong and healthy body. According to yogic literature, the biggest impediment to happiness is a sick body. So it is very important to develop a strong and healthy body, the exact same way that so much of attention is paid every year to building strong rathas (chariots). Diseased and weak rathas (and bodies) cannot withstand the stress of the ratha yatra (life's journey).
2) Do not identify with the body: While a strong and healthy body helps us live a happy life, it is also important to remember that we are not our body. Again, according to Katha Upanishad, our true self is the Atma (pure consciousness) and the body is just the ratha (or the vehicle) that the Atma uses to complete the journey of life. This aspect is sometimes described through the quote, "We are not physical beings having spiritual experiences. We are spiritual beings having physical experiences." The ephemeral nature of our bodies is beautifully represented in the cyclical nature of the ratha yatra: each year new rathas carry the deities from the Jagannath Temple to the Gundicha Temple and back, after which the rathas are discarded. Our life's journey is similarly cyclical, where we take up a physical body in one life, then discard it at the time of death, before moving on to another body for another cycle of life. Now the philosophical implications of this cyclical nature of life is enormous that is beyond the scope of this blog post, but from a very practical point of view, it means that most of our suffering is caused because we identify too strongly with our body. It is no wonder then that the most powerful meditation techniques (in terms of their efficacy on mental wellbeing) are all geared towards creating a distance between our self and our body. If you do not know how to meditate, it is worth your time to learn it, since it has been consistently shown across numerous research studies to have a positive impact on your wellbeing.