If you visited a Hare Krishna temple recently, you probably looked around at all the singing, dancing, and feasting and wondered, “Do these guys ever do anything but celebrate? How many holy days can one religion have?”
The truth is that our calendar is so packed full of saint memorials that sometimes even we find ourselves realizing we don’t know a thing about the person we’re supposed to be remembering. But each holy day is dedicated to someone who contributed hugely to our Vaishnava tradition and culture and who set exemplary standards in their own life of devotion.
I realized this when I noticed that January 19th heralded the birth of Jagadish Pandit sometime in the sixteenth century. I know my Hare Krishna festivals well, but I’d never heard of Jagadish Pandit. Why were we celebrating his birthday?
It turns out that he was born in Assam in North East India, but moved to Mayapur on the shores of the Ganga and built a home near that of one Jagannath Mishra. Mishra, of course, was the father of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the great saint and founder of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, accepted by many to be Krishna Himself. Jagadish became close friends with Jagannath Mishra and he and his wife Dukhini loved young Nimai, as Chaitanya was called, like a son.
A mischevious child, Nimai would often trick his parents and the other villagers into chanting the names of Krishna. He’d burst into tears without warning, and only stop when they sang the Holy Name. But one Ekadasi day, he kept crying despite everyone’s vigorous singing and clapping. In desperation, his parents begged, “What must we give you to make you to stop crying?”
Nimai answered, “Jagadish has made a rice offering to Vishnu at his house today. Give me some of it and I will stop crying.”
Jagannath Mishra was distraught. How could his son know that Jagadish had made an offering of rice? And would it be right for him to eat it on this holy day when everyone was supposed to fast from grains? When he rushed to his friend’s house, however, the pandit calmly gave him the entire offering, knowing that Nimai was in fact Krishna Himself. Nimai immediately stopped crying when his father returned with the plate, and sat down to eat with delight.
When Nimai grew up as a great saint and leader and became known as Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Jagadish moved to Jashora in the district of Nadia, but continued to serve him. Once, Chaitanya sent him to Jagannath Puri to propound the holy name of Krishna. When he had to return to Bengal, Jagadish’s heart felt heavy; he wished he could bring Jagannath back with him.
Hearing this, the King of Orissa presented him with a Jagannath deity, which he strapped to a stick and brought back to his village of Jashora. The same Jagannath is still worshiped at the temple there today, as is the stick with which He was carried – the temple priests will be happy to show it to you and tell you its story.
Chaitanya Mahaprabhu visited Jagadish at this temple on several occasions, remembering he and his wife’s parental devotion. On his last visit, when Chaitanya was leaving the area to go to Jagannath Puri, Jagadish’s wife Duhkhini began to cry. Seeing her distress, Chaitanya gave her a golden colored deity and said, “I will eternally remain in your house in the form of this Deity.” The deity, Gaura-Gopala, is also still being worshipped at the Jashora Jagannath temple today.
The temple itself, also home to Sri Sri Radha Vallabhaji, is presently under the charge of Sri Chaitanya Gaudiya Math, and is a rickshaw ride away from Cakdaha railway station, on the Sealdah-Krsnanagar line. It doesn’t hold a Rathayatra festival, but Snana Yatra, or the bathing of Lord Jagannath, is celebrated in grand style in June, attracting large crowds. There is also an annual festival in memorial of Jagadish Pandit’s passing on the tenth of January, the same month in which he appeared in this world.
But let’s remember Jagadish Pandit as he would have liked us to: dancing and singing the names of Krishna at the center of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s huge group of followers. While perhaps less familiar to us than others such as Advaita Acarya or Srivasa Pandit, he was famous as an expert dancer and was very dear to Lord Chaitanya.
So let’s all dance our hearts out for Krishna in his honor on January 19th, despite those confused visitors at the door wishing we’d take religion seriously for once.