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  • Nishant Singh

The Jagganath Cult

Every year in the month of June-July (Ashadha), the Rath Yatra (Chariot festival) is observed in the temple town of Puri, Odisha. Thousands of devotees flock and swarm all over the temple city to get a glimpse of Lord Jagannath. This festival is known to be once in a lifetime opportunity for every devout Hindu to witness the annual spectacle, where the wooden images of the Lord Jagannath along with his sister Subhadra and brother Balbhadra are carried in huge chariots to visit their aunt in Gundicha Temple, which is few miles away from the main temple. This is facilitated with the help of gigantic chariots especially built for each of the deities called “Rathas’’known as Nandighosha, Devidalana, and Taladhwaja. These chariots are made months before the Rath Yatra by traditional carpenters and craftsmen, who are serving the Lord Jagannath for ages. Three chariots have three distinct color combinations. The chariot of Lord Jagannath, Nandighosha with sixteen enormous wheels and innumerable legends and mythological anecdotes has a British era history to its credit.

Rath Yatra, Puri

Merriam Webster defined the word Juggernaut as a massive inexorable force, campaign, movement, or object that crushes whatever comes in its path. In the early 14th century, Franciscan missionary Friar Odoric brought to Europe the story of an enormous carriage that carried an image of the Hindu god Vishnu (whose title was Jagannath, literally, "lord of the world") through the streets of India in religious processions. Odoric reported that some worshippers deliberately allowed themselves to be crushed beneath the vehicle's wheels as a sacrifice to Vishnu.

That story was probably an exaggeration or misinterpretation of actual events, but it spread throughout Europe anyway. The tale caught the imagination of English listeners, and by the turn of 19th century, they were using juggernaut to refer to any massive vehicle (such as a steam locomotive) or to any other enormous entity with powerful crushing capabilities(Merriam Webster).

The making of the Jagannath Cult:

Lord Neela Madhav - Purushottama

The many legends of the origin of the great temple tradition -

Odisha has the third-highest number of tribal population in India. Tribals or the Adivasis have influenced and contributed to Odiya culture and formed a continuum with the non-tribal population. An outstanding example of this continuum is the lord himself. Jagannath may be associated with the class of aborigines called Sabara. The deification of Jagannath in the wood of the Neem Tree is a practice usually seen in the pagan religions of tribals. A class of non-Brahmin priests called Daitas is associated with the ceremony. This is called Navakalebara. Anncharlot Eschmann holds that Navakalebara Ceremony i.e. the ceremony of periodical renewal of the deity is a tribal custom. Such practices of renewal of wooden deity are to be found among the primitive tribes like Saoras and Khonds (A.C.Pradhan).

In the ‘Srimad Bhagavadgita’ Bhagavan, Shrikrushna has explained to Arjuna regarding the body and the soul. The soul is eternal, whereas the body is transient. When the body becomes old, the soul discards it and takes on a new body, which is similar to the discarding of old cloth to put on a new one. (July - 2015 # Odisha Review). This theory is a synthesis of Vaishnavite (Hindu) and Tribal Synthesis of Jagannath Cult.

Lord Neela Madhav - Purushottama

Eschmann argues that Jagannath was known as Nrusimha (Half Lion Half Man incarnation of Vishnu). According to Vishnudharma, an unpublished Sanskrit manuscript of the 3rd century, Krishna was referred to as Purushottam in Odradesh (Classical name of Odisha). Vaman Puran (7th century AD) mentions the worship of the Purushottam deity at Puri. There is also some influence of Shaivism as Jagannath bears resemblance to Ekapada Bhairava, whose worship was prevalent during the Bhauma period. The propagation of Vaishnavism by Ramanuja, Adi Shankaracharya, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, etc… made Jagannath popular with Vaishnavism.

King Indrayumna performing Ashwamedha Yagna
King Indrayumna performing Ashwamedha Yagna

The Buddhist traditions maintain that the image of Jagannath contains a tooth relic of Buddha. According to Dathavamsa Khema, one of the disciples of Buddha took the tooth relic from the funeral pit of Buddha and gave it to Bramhadatta, King of Kalinga in Dantapura. The Trinity: Jagannath Balabhadra Shubdra is symbolic of Buddha Dhamma Sangha. The Kaivalya – sharing of sacred food everyone irrespective of their Caste is a Buddhist influence. Sarala Das, a 15th Century Poet wrote, “To deliver mankind, Jagannath has manifested himself in form of Buddha”. Daru Bramha Gita of Jagganath Das says “To assume the form of Buddha the Lord gave up his hands and legs”.

Jagannath has no ears, no hands and no feet.
Jagannath has no ears, no hands and no feet.

The Folklore, popular in Odisha is an extension of the great Indian epic Mahabharata. After the conclusion of the war, while lived Krishna was resting, an aborigine hunter Jara kills Sri Krishna unintentionally. His body turned into a log of wood, which floats and reaches the shores of Puri. It is taken by King Indruyumna, who requests Vishwakarma to carve 3 idols from it (Chapter 47, Bramha Puran). Vishwakarma agrees but with the precondition that he must not be interrupted or disturbed for 21 days, while he was busy carving the deities out of the log of wood. Legend has it that after 15 days, no sounds were heard from inside, which created apprehensions in the Royal Court. At the insistence of Queen Gundicha, the King and his entourage entered Vishwakarma’s workshop in violation of the agreement. To their utter surprise and shock, they found none inside except half made deities without arms and legs. It seems Enraged by this breach of trust Vishwakarma had left the work unfinished, hence Jagganath does not have arms and legs.

Evolution of Jagannath Cult through the ages and empires:

Jagannath and puri temple wielded huge influence on the local population and a source of political power. Chodaganga, the founder of the Ganga Empire in the south had to construct a Jagannath Temple even though he was a Shaivite. Anangabhima III called his empire Purushottama Samrajya and took the title of Raut (Representative). Kapilendradeva carried out his administration in the name of Jagannath. Salabega, a 17th-century poet, son of a Muslim subedar became a great devotee of Jagannath and brought the lord to the masses at the pinnacle of the Bhakti movement.

Adi Shankaracharya on visiting Puri wrote, Lord Jagannatha is an ocean of mercy and He is beautiful like a row of blackish rain clouds. He is the storehouse of bliss for Lakshmi and Saraswati, and His face is like a spotless full-blown lotus. He is worshiped by the best of demigods and sages, and His glories are sung by the Upanishads. May that Jagannatha Swami be the object of my vision. (Sri Jagannatha Ashtakam (4))

Jagganath is the finest example of the continuity and unity of Indian traditions, representing inextricable linkage of Tribal and Modernity, Equality, faith, and devotion and worship.


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July - 2015 # Odisha Review

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