Ratha Yatra is an important part of Bramhotsawam
Among the several festivals conducted on the Hill, a festival called Brahmotsavam is the most popular one drawing huge crowds. Varaha Purana mentions Brahmotsavam is so called because the very first festival is said to have been conducted by Brahma. The following is the summary of description of these Brahmotsavams as given by Sri Sitapati. [Sitapati:143]
"The festival actually commences on the first day with the Dhvajarohanam caremony in which the Lord's flag with the Garuda emblem is flown on a flag staff erected next to the Dhvajastambhan. ... The Lord's Utsava Vigraham (with or without his consorts Sridevi and Bhudevi) is also taken in procession twice--once in the day time and again in the night time with the appropriate Vahanam..."
"The important festival days are the fifth, eight and eleventh days. The morming procession of the Lord on the Seventh day with Surya Prabha Vahanam is also worth seeing.
"The Utsavam on the night of the fifth day is called the Garuda Seva or Garudotsavam. On this day the processional deity alone is taken in procession on the Garuda; the consorts of the Lord are not seated by His side on the Vahanam as usual. On this day, the Lord is given 'Uyyala Seva'in the evening. This Uyyala Seva or 'Seva in the Swing' takes place in the open area near the Dhvajastambhan..."
"The deity is then taken and installed on Garuda Vahaanam...The vahanam is then taken in procession around the east, west, north and south Mada streets of Tirumalai. The Lord has the usual paraphernlia during this procession such as Chatra, Chamara, Mangala Vadyas, recital of the holy books etc.
"The car festival taakes kplace on the eighth day. This 'Rathotsvam' attracts the largest crowds during the Brahmotsavam festival days. The Utsava murthi along with the consorts is brought on to the temple car and the temple car are then gaily decorated; the temple chariot is to be taken round the streets of Tirumalai. On the eleventh day of the festival, the processional deity is taken on a Tiruchi Vahanam to the Swami Pushkarni. The Chakram of the Lord (also called Chakrattalvar) then gets a bath in the Swami Pusshkarini... The Brahmotsavam comes to an end with this snana or bathing of the Lord in the Pushkarini."
From this description it should beclear that procession of Deity i.e. Ratha Yatra forms the main and poppular part of this festival. We will see further that Ratha Yatra, though seen in many modern brahmnic temples, is basically a Buddhist practice, and a relic of Buddhist traddition.
Ratha yatra in old records
After the image worship had started in India the practice of festivals, where procession of deities formed the main and imkportant part, was started. Sri Vasudeo Upadhyaya has given ample evidences about Ratha Yatra in various shrines in India from old copper plate inscriptions. The following is the summary of it. [Upadhyaya: 295]
1. Harsha inscriptions of Vigraha Raja of Vikram Samant 1030 describes the gift of four villages on the occasion of Ratha Yatra near Pushakar Tirtha.
2. It is mentioned in the Nadalai gift place of the same dynasty of Vikram Samant 1200 that on the occasion of Ratha Yatra the king used to impose taxes on rich people.
3. Ekpigraphica Indica part 11 p.42 gives inscription of Vikram Samant 1200 of Ram Pal Deva mentioning gift for the purpose of Ratha Yatra.
4. In the Bhimamal gift plate of Udaya Sinha deva, king of Rajasthan describes collection of 40 rupees for the purpose of Deva Yatra.
5. From Anjaneri copper plate of MadhyaPradesh (Corpus Inscription Indecorum part 4 p.150) it becomes clear that people were donating one rupee at the time of Ratha Yatra.
6. Account in ChahaMan inscription for the Ratha Yatra of Jain deities is similar to the account of Hindu gift plates. Lalarai copper plate of Lakhan Pal Deva of Vikram Samant 1133 describes Deva Yatra of Tirthankar Shaantinath. (Epigraphica Indica Part 11 p.51)
7. Plates of Chaha Man King Alhan Deva mentions the payment of taxes by merchants on the occasion of Deva Yatra.
Ratha Yatra was seen by Fa Hain
All the above evidences belong to 11th century and onwards, that was the time when the practice of Ratha Yatra started among the Hindus. As a matter of fact this was an imitation of Buddhist practice of Ratha Yatraa which was seen in Buddhist temples even 500 years before the above mentioned instances of Ratha Yatra in Hindu temples. The following observations by Nalinaksha Dutt will make it clear that Ratha Yatra existed amongst Buddhist much earlier.
"Both Fa-Hein and Hiuen Tsang noticed another iimportant Buddhist ceremony, viz. procession of images. Fa-Hein saw the Khotan procession reads as follows:- " On a four wheeled chariot is seated in the centre the image of Buiddha with two Bodhisattva on the two sides. The chariot is decorated with seven precious stones, silken streamers and canopies. The king prostrated himself before the image while the queen and the other ladies scattered flowers. The ceremony commenced on the first day of the fourth month and ended on the fourteenth." Hiuen Tsang gives a similar account. I- tsang does not refer to such processions but gives an elaborate account of the daily ceremony of bathing images. He sayss that it was incumbent upon the monks of a monastery to wash the image of Buddha daily with scented water and other suitable requisites." [Dutta: 1970: 193]
Sarkar's views that the Ratha Yatra of Jagannath, Balaram and Subhadra at Puri is nothing else but a transformation of Ratha Yatra of Lord Buddha surrounded by Bodhisattva and that this Ratha Yatra was seen by Fa Hain in 5th century, so also Dave's view that Puri is Dantapura, where sacred Tooth of Buddha was preserved, is already mentioned in Chapter 3.
Ratha Yatraa is against Chaturvarna system
Why Ratha Yatra cannot be considered as Brahmnical practice would be clear if we consider that the Varna dharma which led to caste system is sine quo non of Brahmnism. It is not possible for a Hindu to indulge in activities which will be inducive to the mnixing of various castes. And what is a Ratha Yatra, if it is not the free mixing of people of differnetr castes. Not only the deities but also the priests are exposed to people of various castes in a Ratha Yatra. Ancient Hindu literature is full of evidence to show that free mixing of people of different castes is sacrilegious to Brahmnical tenets.
Even those who do not consider that Lord Buddha's main message and purpose was to abolish caste sysgtem, e.g. L.M.Joshi also think that Buddha's teachings led at least to lessen the barriers of caste.
And all forms of Buddhism, including Tantrik Buddhism, from ancient to modem time, howsoever so called corrupt, never gave any importance to varna Dharma and always denounced the caste. Vajra Suchi Upanishad e.g. which has tremendous arguments against caste and which was tried to be shown to belong to Brahmanic religion by some recent scholars, is in fact also a Buddhist text, not withstanding its name as an Upanishad. It might be interesting to know that a Marathi shudra saint poet Tukaram in 17th century got his Brahmin disciple Bahinabai to translate it in Marathi.
How can it be expected of a devoted propagator of Chaturvarna system,to inddulge in activities like Ratha Yatra, where people will be free to take part in it without disclosing their castes.
As is well known "the Agamas proclaim curses on the man who goes into the temple with upper part his body covered ..." [Raghavacharya: 193] Thus there are arrangements in temples to know who the Shudras are, making it obligatory for male devotees to remove upper garments to see the presence or otherwise of Yadnyopavitam, so that appropriate mantras could be used for a particular devotee. In Tirupati though there is no caste distinction like Pandharpur or Puri while distributing prasad and Dharma Darshana etc., still at certain Arjitha Sevas of the Lord, male devotees mostly remain present without garments above the waist.
Shudras have different mantras in Vaishnavism
We have already seen that, in the Mantra "Om Namoh Narayana", already referred to as Ashtakshara or Tirumantram, word "Om" is omitted for the Shudras, by some sects. Those conversant with history of Maharaja Shahu of Maharashtra, will remember the episode that a brahmin priest, who after a visit to dancing girls used to attend the palace for puja, without a bath, and he refused to perform puja according to Vedic rites and insisted on puranic lore, on the ground that Chhatrapati Shahu was a shudra, and not entitled to Vedic Puja.
So Ratha Yatras are shramnic in origin, started by Buddhists and then by Jains but later on copied by people of Brahmnic reigion, much against their wishes and now it presists there as a relic of Buddhist faith.
Mention may be made here about 'Waking up ceremony' of Lord performed every morning by siging the praises. These verses were composed, according to tradition in the 14th century. Vedas were ordered to be sung in 1430 A.D. There are a few verses from this 'Venkatesvara Suprabhatam' which need to be mentioned. One of them reads:
"Thy devotees that shine by wearing thy dust on their heads, desire not either Heaven or Moksha; they grieve that another 'Kalpa' may deny them thy grace. Oh Sri Venkatachalpati! Awake." [Sitapati:115]
"A 'Kalpa' runs for about the few lakhs of years. According to tradition, the Lord of Tirumalai is the deity of Kaliyuga, in Sweta Varahakalpam. The position may change in the Kalpa that follows. Hence the grief and distress of devotees of the Lord of Tirumalai." [Sitapati:115]
In another verse ten avatars are mentioned without the Buddha avatra.
As per Maricha Samhita 'Sri Vimanarchana Kalpa' the Lord is worshipped as GURU [Sitapati:8] It is also well known that Panduranga and Jagannatha are praised as 'Guru', but both are considered to be 'mouni' in Kaliyuga. i.e. they maintain silence during the kaliyuga. This appears to be very effective devise used by brahmins to preach the people that Lord will only give darshana, but will not preach, i.e. His Teachings are not to be followed in kaliyuga. The same is true of Tirumalai. Here also Lord is considered 'mouni' by the Varaha Purana. [Sitapati:124] It is noteworthy that both Jagannatha and Vithala are confirmed to be old Buddhist shrines, as already seen.