The origin of the Jagannath idol is the subject of many tales. My favourite comes from Sarala Dasa, the 15th century Odia poet who wrote his version of the Mahabharata. In it, he imagines Krishna’s death. The actual way that Krishna dies is somewhat innocuous. A hunter named Jara sees Krishna’s foot sticking out from behind a tree and, thinking it to be the ears of a deer, shoots an arrow and kills Krishna.
A disconsolate Arjuna comes along and tries to cremate his friend. But Krishna’s heart doesn’t burn. As always, a divine voice echoes from the heavens. It tells Arjuna to throw Krishna’s heart into the ocean tied to a log. Over aeons, this log floats all the way around from the west coast of Dwarka to the east coast where Puri is located.
Jara, the hunter who had killed Krishna, is reborn as a Shabara tribal man named Biswa Basu. He discovers a congealed blue stone—Krishna’s heart—in the forests around Puri and worships this giant stone as Nila Madhava. A local king called Indradyumna hears about this miraculous blue rock that is being worshiped by tribals. He wants it for himself, as kings are wont to do. So, he sends a Brahmin priest, Vidyapati, into the forests to discover this blue idol. The only problem is that the tribal hunter refuses to reveal the location.
The Brahmin “falls” in love with the daughter of the tribal man—either by design or not. As the new son-in-law, he begs his tribal father-in-law to take him to see the blue idol. The tribesman blindfolds the Brahmin and takes him deep into the forest. But the Brahmin is smart. He drops black mustard seeds all along the trail. He waits a few days for the yellow mustard flowers to sprout and retraces his steps back into the forest to where the idol is hidden.
Once he discovers the spot, he rushes to King Indradyumna to tell him the story and the location. The king gathers up his forces and goes towards Nilachala, or Blue Mountain. He goes to the cave, but the blue stone idol has vanished. A disconsolate king makes a bed of Kusha grass, lies down on it, and says that he is going to fast unto death.
That night, the blue lord appears in his sleep. “Build a large temple for me,” says the lord. “Go to the seashore. You will find a large log of wood with markings that include a conch, a chakra, a mace and a lotus (shankha–chakra–gada–padma), the four things that are carried by Lord Vishnu. Carve this log into four idols and install them in your temple.”
The king builds a giant temple by the seashore. He tries to have his men lift the log, but even an entire army cannot move the thing. The king decides to kill himself—again. That night, the lord appears in his dreams—this is getting to be a habit.
“Have my tribal devotees help your soldiers lift the log. Only then will it move,” says the voice.
This confluence of efforts—by the tribals, warriors and Brahmins—brings the log into the precincts of the temple. This continues to this day. The servitors of Jagannath temple include tribals (who are the cooks) and Brahmin priests.
Okay, so now the log is in the temple. But there are no images of the gods. The kingdom’s finest sculptors come to convert the log into the four idols. Every time they touch the log, their chisels break. Finally, an old stranger walks in. He says that he will carve the log into the four god images so long as nobody disturbs him for 21 days.
You know where this story is heading, right? The old man takes the giant monolithic log into the temple and shuts the door. Days go by. The door isn’t opened. What is the sculptor doing for food? A concerned queen orders that the door be opened after 15 days.
When the door opens, the sculptor has vanished. Of course, he is the lord himself. The half-finished idols are installed at the Puri temple. The black one is Jagannath, the yellow one is his sister, Subhadra; the white one is the elder brother, Balarama; and the last one is the Sudarshana chakra held by Lord Vishnu.
Was this story made up to explain the ancient, tribal, almost totemic images of these idols? Or do the idols look this way because events occurred exactly as the story described?
Jagannath. The literal translation is lord of the universe. But you see, and this is where the story gets complicated, that isn’t his name. He has many names and incarnations, this god. When I said that everyone claimed him, I wasn’t kidding.
Perhaps the most authentic claim comes from the tribals or adivasis, who view the Jagannath trio as gods who were tribal in origin. Many reasons are offered as proof.
Scholars have referred to the “unfinished, premature, aboriginal, savage, exotic look” of the deities; the use of wooden idols that look like totems in tribal cultures—rather than the more common metal or stone sculptures of gods; the continued practice of including tribal priests in the Jagannath cult; and most important of all, the cooking style of the Jagannath kitchens, where food is boiled with very little use of spices, similar to the tribal cooking style.
All this does not stop other religions from claiming this god.
“Jagannath is primarily a Jain institution,” said the late sanskrit scholar Pandit Nilakantha Das, who is a recipient of the Padma Bhushan award. The sacred food in Puri is called Kaivalya, which is similar to the Jain notion of salvation. Most Jain tirthankaras have names ending with “natha” such as Rshabhanatha, Neminatha, Parsvanatha and Gorakhanatha. Why not Jagannatha?
After all, Jainism had spread all over Kalinga—the earlier name forOdisha. There are accounts of one king conquering this land and taking away the “Kalinga Jeena”, or Jain idol. So, in fact, the argument goes, Jagannath is Jeena-natha.
The Buddhists too claim him, stating that the three idols represent not Hindu gods but the “three jewels” or “tri ratnas” that are the central principles of Buddhism: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. (The fourth idol—a carving of the Sudarshana chakra—sits somewhat behind the current idols, so if you ask someone about Jagannath, they will tell you that there are three idols.)
The most interesting Buddhist claim has to do with an unknown substance called “Brahma” that lies inside the navel of the main idol, Jagannath. Hindus say that it was the original blue stone, but Buddhists say that this Brahma is Buddha’s tooth relic that was brought from Kushi Nagar, where he died, to Puri.
Buddhists say that the snana yatra (bathing ritual) and ratha yatra(chariot journey festival) are Buddhist in origin. A Buddhist temple in Nepal is called Jagannath temple. When Buddhism got absorbed into Hinduism, its images, idols and ideas were usurped and subsumed. Buddha was nothing but an avatar of Vishnu, sang the poet Jayadeva, who—no coincidence—was from the area around Puri.
Prior to the 8th century, scholars say, the area around Puri was Buddhist. Along came Shankaracharya, whose goal was to make Hinduism flower in India again. He went to the four corners of the country; established mathas; and engaged in long debates with Buddhist scholars and won them over to his faith.
Simultaneously, he tried to reform Hindus who were caught up in empty rituals and the rapidly congealing caste system. Puri was one of the epicentres of the battle that Shankara waged against the Buddhists. He succeeded. For a while.
Wave after wave of religious change washed over India during that period, usually in a reaction to what happened before. Jainism of the 3rd and 4th centuries, followed by Buddhism in the 5th to 7th centuries, then the Advaita philosophy propagated by Shankara in the 8th century, followed by an upsurge in Shaivism or Shiva worship in the 10th century, which is where we encounter a charismatic, controversial king who built the current temple of Jagannath in Puri.
The interplay between statecraft, religious dominance and influential kings all play a role in the hoary history of this temple. Consider the builder of the current temple, as it stands today. This wasn’t King Indradyumna, the man in the ancient tale, who sulkily decided to fast every time he encountered a hitch in his devotion.
The king who built the current Jagannath temple was a hardy mixed-blood monarch named Anantha Varman Chodaganga Deva. His mother was a Chola princess, Raja Sundari. His father was a Ganga king called Rajaraja. He ruled in the 11th century, for 72 years, beginning as a minor and then giving up his throne at a ripe age.
In ancient India, royalty seem to be involved in three activities: warring against each other; marrying each other; and performing giant sacrifices to consolidate their power.
So it was with this king, Chodaganga, who had the blood of the virile Gangas and the stalwart Cholas in him. He was fighting off neighbouring insurgencies; trying to expand his kingdom; and reining in a diverse citizenry who were all engaged in intense religious activities—as was typical in those days before Facebook or even television. People prayed and procreated. That was about it.
Chodaganga, like his Ganga ancestors, was a staunch Shaivite or Shiva worshipper. That changed when he encountered a South Indian Vaishnavite (Vishnu-worshipping) saint named Ramanuja, who had come up north to convert more people into becoming Vishnu worshippers.
Anyone who says that Hinduism is a passive religion without evangelicals are living in the wrong era. In the 11th century, there was a king who worshipped Shiva; a saint who wanted him to worship Vishnu; and a fickle public.
Scholars argue over whether Ramanuja succeeded in converting the king to Vaishnavism. They point to inscriptions and seals where Chodaganga refers to himself as Parama Maheshwara (one who worships Shiva) or Parama Vaishnava (one who worships Vishnu).
What seems to be true is that Odisha was at the crossroads of multiple faiths in the 11th century. For me, the most fascinating of these is the god that they called Purushottama, or noblest man.
“He drew patterns on her pitcher-like breasts with a paste of musk and saffron.” That’s what stood out; particularly since the verse was describing a god. The actual verse by the 10th century dramatist, Murari, is more detailed and of beautiful rhythm, even for a non-Sanskrit speaker.
“Kamala–kuca–kalasa–keli–kasturika–patran–kurasya…” And so it goes in one long breathless sentence.
“Oh, all ye spectators assembled on the occasion of the yatra or voyage of Purushottama, the exalted one who is like a new sprout of the dark green tamala tree growing in the forest; who resides near the salty ocean; who is like the big blue sapphire which decorates the head of the three worlds; and who sports with Kamala, the goddess Lakshmi by drawing patterns with the paste of musk and saffron on her pitcher-like breasts.”
The god that Murari was talking about is Purushottama or Vishnu. I read this verse in a 1,000-page book called Cultural Heritage of Odisha Volume XII, Puri District, Special Volume, put out by the State Level Vayasakabi Fakir Mohan Smruti Sansad, Bhubaneshwar, and sold for a mere `300. It is required reading for anyone interested in the Jagannath cult, Odisha, or Puri.
In an essay titled, Concept of Purushottam in the Agamas, scholar and professor G.C. Tripathi describes how the god that we all now call Jagannath wasn’t really Jagannath at all. His earlier name was the equally complex Purushottama. Purusha means individual soul. Purushottama means highest among individual souls, or divine soul.
Descriptions of Purushottama with his consort, Lakshmi, is what Bertie Wooster would call, “ripe stuff”. In one commentary by Raghava Bhatta in the 15th century, Purushottama holds Lakshmi on his lap in a tight embrace and gazes at her lovely face through “liquor-addled eyes”. How did Hindus go from the overt sensuality of this verse to the Bajrang Dal? When did we become such prudes?