Gaura Purnima Festivities Ring in Vaishnava New Year
ISKCON temples around the world were alive with joyous celebration this February 28th in honor of Gaura Purnima, the appearance day of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.
A sixteenth-century saint worshipped by Gaudiya Vaishnavas as Krishna, or God, Himself, Mahaprabhu popularized the public singing of the Hare Krishna mantra as the foremost way to connect with God in this age. He also rejected the conservative and privileged outlook of the caste brahmanas who dominated Hinduism at the time, traveling all over India and taking his message of loving devotion to God out onto the street and to the people.
Celebrations in countries across the globe included some variety of Hare Krishna chanting, talks on Sri Chaitanya’s teachings and activities, dramas depicting his life, bathing of deities of the Lord and his associate Nityananda Prabhu in a traditional Abhishekha ceremony, fasting throughout the day, and finally a sumptuous feast at moonrise.
Festivities in India, the country of Mahaprabhu’s appearance, however, were especially impressive, adding extra activities onto the usual oeuvre.
In Mumbai, devotees attended Gaura-Katha, narration of Sri Chaitanya’s pastimes, for the week leading up to his appearance day from February 22 – 28. On Gaura Purnima itself, they flocked to ISKCON’s Juhu Beach temple early in the morning to chant, dance, and offer their prayers to deities of Gaura-Nitai (Sri Chaitanya and Nityananda Prabhu) dressed in new outfits specifically designed for the occasion. Later in the day, they attended Shobha Yatra, a procession during which devotees carried a beautifully decorated palanquin seating deities of Gaura-Nitai.
Meanwhile at ISKCON’s flagship New Delhi temple, thousands of national and international devotees and guests added on to the Gaura Purnima events by celebrating Holi, the festival of colors, as well. Locals showered each other with powdered and liquid dyes in the streets amidst cheering and shouting. Everyone had the same excuse: “Bura Na Mano Holi Hai!” (Don't Mind! It’s Holi).
An exuberant day associated with the eternal love of Lord Krishna and his consort Radha, Holi is traditionally celebrated at the onset of spring. It also signifies the triumph of good over evil, commemorating the survival of the great boy devotee Prahlada Maharaja, whose devotion to the God kept him safe even when his evil father Hiranyakashipu tried to burn him alive.
ISKCON devotees in Ludhiana, Punjab, also celebrated Holi, albeit a more gentle version using flowers instead of colored dyes. Gaura Purnima, however, was the main focus, with a huge venue being rented some distance from the temple to accommodate the more than ten thousand attendees. The area was beautifully decorated with lights and flowers, while massive billboards directed people to the festival. Devotees performed the traditional Abhishekha ceremony for Gaura Nitai on specially-erected stages outside, while people waited in long lines for two hours hoping to get a chance to bathe the deities. As the ceremony was conducted, local and national devotees chanted the holy names in a tremendous kirtan which had the general public joining in enthusiastically.
Yet it was of course at ISKCON’s headquarters in Mayapur, West Bengal, where Sri Chaitanya appeared in 1486, that the grandest festival took place.
With this year marking the 500th anniversary of Shri Chaitanya’s taking sannyasa, the renounced order of life, Mayapur devotees began the festivities early on January 14th with an epic walk known as “Sankirtana Yatra.” First visiting Katwa, the very place where Mahaprabhu took Sannyasa, they went on to visit many holy places that the Lord passed through while spreading love of God throughout India, including Ekachakra, Shantipur, Remuna, and Shakshigopal.
The group returned to Mayapur on February 4th, with only a two-day break before ISKCON’s Governing Body Commission gathered for its Annual General Meetings from February 6th to 17th, discussing ISKCON’s efforts at spreading Sri Chaitanya’s message throughout the world.
The main bulk of international devotees arrived in Mayapur for the world-famous Mayapur Festival on February 13th, while the meetings were still in session. With everyone gathered, the festival’s inauguration, as well as the historic inauguration of the brand new Temple of the Vedic Planetarium, was held on February 14th.
The finished Temple, a project that has already been thirty years in development, will be thirty storeys high and house several altars for deities of Radha Madhava, Pancha Tattva, Nrsimhadeva and the Gaudiya Vaishnava gurus; it will of course also include the eponymous planetarium, which will offer a stunning tour of the cosmic creation as described by sacred texts such as the Srimad-Bhagavatam. Its historic inauguration ceremony, presided over by one of India’s best known Vastu Shastra consultants, was attended by many prominent ISKCON figures including project Chairman Ambarisa Dasa.
The Mayapur Festival activities continued from February 18 to 24 with Navadvipa Mandala Parikrama, a walking pilgrimage through holy spots relating to Shri Chaitanya’s life. Starting at his exact birthplace, Yogapitha, the three separate groups—a 2,500 devotee Bengali group, a 1,000 devotee international group, and, for the first time ever, a separate 900-devotee Russian group—immersed themselves in the pastimes of Lord Chaitanya, led by senior devotees such as Lokanath Swami and Bhakti Charu Swami.
Many other events, including seminars, drama, dance, and a Rathayatra festival parading Jagannatha deities through Mayapur, continued the lead-up to the special day itself.
On Gaura Purnima Day, three prominent ISKCON leaders gave the morning’s Srimad-Bhagavatam class, after which devotees went to the nearby river Ganga to bathe and purify themselves. Fervent chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra pervaded throughout the day, while in the evening, Lord Chaitanya and Lord Nityananda were bathed in milk, yogurt, honey, and fruit juices, as devotees showered them with flowers and called out the holy names of the Lord. The event, held in Mayapur’s Lotus Park, was broadcast live on the web at Mayapur.tv. Devotees then broke their day-long fast at moonrise with a grain-free meal, while the next day—New Year’s Day for Gaudiya Vaishnavas—they enjoyed a full delicious feast.
With the Mayapur Festival ending, many devotees now plan to travel on to Vrindavana, Lord Krishna’s birthplace. There, ISKCON will hold a guided pilgrimage around holy places related to Krishna’s pastimes from March 4th to 9th. March 10th will see devotees celebrate the famous “Boat Festival,” wherein small deities of Radha-Shyamasundara will go for a boatride in the temple’s water-filled courtyard. And on March 11th and 12th, many devotees will take a special two-day trip to Jaipur to pay their respects to the original deities of Vrindavana. These deities, including Radha Madanmohan, Radha Govinda dev, Radha Gopinath, Radha Damodar, Radha Vrindavan Chandra and Radha Vinod, where installed by Krishna’s own great-grandson King Vajranabha and given over to the care of Vaishnava Rajasthani kings when Muslims invaded Vrindavana.
It’s a suitably special end to an incredible two months of celebration—and an inspiring beginning to a brand new Gaudiya Vaishnava year.