Legends of Sri Jagannath

Forging an Asian Identity
Manoj Das

As we know, of the four Dhams – Badrinath, Dwaraka, Rameswaram and Puri, the deities of the first three have their specific identities and personalities – if the divinities can be called personalities. The first is Vishnu; the deity at Rameswaram, founded by Rama is Lord Siva; it is Krishna at Dwaraka – the kingdom established by him. But who is Sri Jagannath, the presiding deity of the fourth Dham? Was he a deity once worshipped by a forest-dwelling tribe transferred into a traditional shrine? Was he a Jain icon? Was he Buddha? Did he represent a Tantric tradition? Or could it be that he represented the mysticism of Shunyavada, the Nihil that enjoyed wide acceptance in the medieval Kalinga? Was he a Vaishnava divinity?

About no other idol had there ever been so many contesting theories; no deity anywhere had commanded allegiance of so many sects. What is amazing, there had never been any sectarian clash or conflict around Sri Jagannath. He seemed to have quietly absorbed and assimilated all the ideas and ideals in the light of which he had been viewed at different times and by different people. Devotees of each religious school had seen in him the object of their devotion. In other words, the deity had fully satisfied one of the primary qualities of the Divine – the quality of Omnipresence. From Shankaracharya to Chaitanyadev, great mystics have seen in the deity the epitome of their experience, be it the profundity of non-dualism or the ecstasy of dualism.

This author’s acquaintance with Sri Jagannath began in a two-fold way. When I was aged four or so and had not learnt to read Bengali, my mother used to recite a tiny verse from Tagore:

Rathyatra lokaranya maha dhumdham
Bhaktera lutaye pathe karicche pranam
Rath bhave ami dev path bhave ami,
Murti bhave ami dev hase antaryami.

(The grand Chariot Festival is on. The devotees prostrate themselves on the road and offer obeisance. The chariot takes itself to be the object of people’s devotion, the road too thinks the same; the image thinks that it is the deity, making the Lord smile!)

The verse woke me up to the truth, with a pleasant jolt, that the Divine, the Antaryami, was something much more sublime than even the figure we adore. This left such a deep impression on my subconscious that even today, the moment I look at the deity, I feel that he was smiling and asking how far I had succeeded in knowing the Antaryami behind the mask!

About the same time came another memorable experience. In those days there were no hotels or guesthouses in Puri, barring a few of Dharmasalas – charitable lodges for pilgrims. However, the Pandas – the hereditary Brahmin guides – tens of thousands of families in India were attached to specific lines of these guides for generations – had their own arrangements for accommodating the pilgrims. My mother and I were lodged in a pukka room in the residential complex of our guide, a fair old Brahmin adorned by a pair of gold earrings and the snow-white sacred thread flowing across his bare upper body. He was the patriarch of the clan of Daitapatis. In fact the Daitas and the Patis were two different lines, but were fused into one in popular perception.

The venerable Daitapati kept sitting in his huge easy chair, silently supervising his assistants managing the affairs of the pilgrims. I would often stand near him, attracted to his person that exuded loving warmth and reminded me of the fascinating story behind the hoary origin of his clan. How much I wished that he talked to me! But all he did was occasionally cast at me a look and a brief smile.

It was a summer noon when my mother led me into the temple. There was some festivity and the hall in front of the sanctum sanctorum was crowded to every inch. Advent of electric light into the temple was decades away and hardly anything could be seen in the glow of the earthen lamps. For some reason or for no reason at all a stampede broke out, accompanied by panicky shouts and shrieks and everybody was anxious to get out into the open for the sake of dear life. Mother and I were pushed to the wall, Mother holding me tight by one hand and struggling to ward of the squeezing pressure on us by the other. It was a desperate situation and I was about to swoon with suffocation.

Suddenly I saw a pair of long soft arms flanking us thrown towards the wall and heard a thunderous command: “Halt! – Stand still wherever you are – each one!”

The commotion stopped at once and there was total calm. I looked up and saw our old Daitapati protecting us. The voice was his.

He escorted us to the open and took my mother to task in a tender mode: “My daughter, why didn’t you ask one of my men to accompany you?”

“Pardon me, Baba!” said Mother and the old man left us with a smile.

“Mother, your Baba rarely spoke!”

“Indeed, only he who knows how to keep quiet can prove so powerful when he speaks!” Mother told me.

The old Daitapati used to conjure up in my imagination enchanting images of a remote past, for he was none other than the scion of the Brahmin Vidyapati and his consort, the tribal princess Lalita, the couple inseparably linked with the core legend of Sri Jagannath. I must make it clear that there are several variations of the legend I am about to narrate, though without any essential difference among them. Nobody can vouchsafe for the authenticity of any particular version. What I have accepted as the core legend is the one I had heard for the first time in my childhood from the members of the Daitapati clan.

Indeed, that was in a remote – mythical past. King Indradyumna, an ardent devotee of Vishnu had the strange and uplifting feeling – call it intuition or inspiration – that somewhere in the region of Kalinga, not far from Puri, there lay hidden a physical object radiating the Presence of Vishnu. Time had come for the Presence to be revealed to all. But where was it? How to locate it? The king had no clue to these mysteries.

He sent four of his courtiers who had some mystic insight, in four directions. The one who headed to the east and soon took a northeasterly turn was the young Vidyapati. He lost his way in the forest and, to his great good luck, came face to face with Lalita, the daughter of the Savara chieftain Visvavasu, and her companions, a group of Savara damsels, before nightfall. Lalita, on behalf of her father, invited the stranger, who of course introduced himself as a member of King Indradyumna’s court, to be their guest.

Vidyapati readily accepted the offer.

Visvavasu, though a devotee of Vishnu, had rarely any chance to discuss issues of higher value with anybody. No wonder that he should be enamoured of his scholarly guest. But, evidently, his daughter was even more enamoured of Vidyapati. When the prudent Visvavasu proposed their marital union, Vidyapati obviously welcomed it. Married, he continued to live in that charming sylvan world.

But were all such developments in consonance with his mission? We do not know whether the question bothered him or not or if his inner voice assured him that all was just fine!

Soon what intrigued him was Visvavasu’s practice of leaving home with a handful of flowers before sunrise every day, notwithstanding storm, fog or cold, to return after an hour.

“What is the destination of your father’s ritual trip?” Vidyapati asked Lalita.

Willy-nilly, Lalita had to answer him, for the ethics of the day would not approve of a wife keeping anything secret from her husband: “Inside a cave unknown to anyone excepting the eldest son of our line, there is preserved the object most sacred to us. Father, being the eldest son of my grandfather, must pay his obeisance to the divine object every morning. That explains his routine.”

An uncanny sensation shook Vidyapati. Was he nearing the fulfillment of his mission?

“I must have the privilege to see the object!” said Vidyapati and once again willy-nilly Lalita had to carry the submission to her father. A lot of persuasion from the loving daughter made the fond father yield, but on condition that Vidyapati would be led into the cave blindfold.

So they started early in the morning one day, Vidyapati unable to see the route. But as soon as his eyes were unsealed inside the cave, a bluish golden light dazzled him. Though what was worshipped in a stone casket had no palpable form, the mystic in Vidyapati was left in no doubt that it was a thing divine – the object that was the goal of his quest.

He let a few days pass and then told his wife that he must go home to prepare his parents to receive her as their daughter-in-law in a proper way! The blushing Lalita could not have objected to it. Vidyapati left before dawn broke out, but he could find his way to the cave because it was a full-moon night and because a handful of mustard seeds he had secretly carried in his palm and had gone one strewing all along the path had sprouted after the rains.

He entered the cave and lifted the sacred casket and hurried to Puri, to his king. Intuitively the king realized that what Vidyapati had fetched was indeed the stuff charged with the Lord’s Presence. But the stuff must be contained in a regular form. What should be the form? At night the king was directed in a dream to proceed to the seashore in the morning and find a floating log out of which the form was to be carved. The king was delighted to see an impressive log rocking on the waves. His men rowed into the sea and tied the log to their boat and tried to draw it ashore, but in vain. More boats, more men and more force – but to no avail. Without touching a morsel of food the king kept sitting on the sands for the whole day. As darkness fell, he saw, in a state of daze, the condition of Visvavasu – who too sat in front of an empty cave, without food or sleep – his mortified daughter shedding tears non-stop!

The king, guided by Vidyapati, headed into the forest as soon as it was morning. He embraced the Savara chief and apologized to him for the conduct of his emissary and convinced him that there was a time for everything and that the time had come for the divinity in his personal custody to be revealed to all. That was the Lord’s will.

The noble Visvavasu reconciled to the situation and came along with the king. When he and the king together pulled the log, it came ashore as if no heavier than a pack of feathers.

But then the question as to what should be the exact shape of the deity still awaited unresolved. The sculptors of Kalinga were experts at carving images out of stone, but not out of wood. As the king waited for some indication from above, an old man approached him and offered to undertake the job, on condition that he must work all alone and nobody should give him any suggestion or should interfere in his work or even enter the premises of his workshop until the job was done and he came out on his own. Once again the king intuitively felt that he was the sculptor destined for the work.

A spacious hall was allotted to the stranger. Its doors shut, the sculptor began his work. Although the king had no doubt about the man’s competence to work all by himself, his queen, Gundicha Devi, had her misgivings. Day after day she would go and press her ear against the doors and hear the sound of implements at work. One day she heard no sound. The total silence was repeated the next day. The queen lost patience. She forced the doors open. The old man, as if shocked, looked back for a flitting second and clean disappeared. He was none other than Visvakarma.

King Indradyumna was upset, for the image looked incomplete. But he was told by a voice sublime that this was the form he must worship. If it appeared incomplete, it represented the state of mankind – its incompleteness.

The stuff Vidyapati had brought was placed inside the Navipadma – the lotus-like navel – of the deity. The deity was enshrined and the regular worship began.

The descendants of Visvavasu, of Vidyapati and Lalita, are among the important priests of the Lord. They are the Daitapatis.

The legend raises as well as sheds light on several issues. Was Viyapati right in his actions – marrying the tribal girl and then stealing the sacred treasure of her father? From the moral or ethical point of view he is to blame. But there are inspirations and truths above the moral or the ethical plane. Vidyapati obviously acted from such a higher plane – not from infra-rational or rational but from supra-rational plane.

Now we come to a vital question. What was that stuff worshipped by Visvavasu and his forefathers? According to the legend, that was a handful of Relics of Sri Krishna. After Jara Savara unwittingly killed Sri Krishna in the forest near Prabhas, mistaking his feet to be the ears of a deer and shooting an arrow at them, Arjuna arrived there and both joined hands in performing the last rites of Sri Krishna.

While the mortal remains of Krishna were dedicated to the ocean, a few bits of them were treasured by Jara Savara. Krishna no doubt had assured him that he had done nothing wrong and had only become an instrument of what had already been providentially ordained. Even so, Jara Savara grew remorseful and, leaving his native place near Prabhas, began walking along the coast till he reached the shores of Kalinga and settled down in a forest, in an area subsequently known as Kantilo. A number of people of his clan had either accompanied him or they came later, following his footsteps. He was the chieftain in the new settlement. The Relics became the object of worship of his dynasty and the practice continued for several generations. Visvavasu was the direct descendant of Jara Savara.

Those who accept this legend as true believe that the Relics are still there in the Navipadma, transferred from one image to another – the new one – when the Nava Kalevara or the new embodiment of the deity takes place at intervals of years, the length of intervals determined by astrological calculation. Daitapatis are the ones who had the sole right to transfer the object. It is difficult to say if all the three images were there from the beginning or those of Balabhadra and Subhadra were added later and if the Relics were divided into three portions for ritual transfer into the three deities.

Historically speaking, Sri Jagannath was claimed by different sects during their dominance over the social milieu of Orissa at different times. The modern Jajpur that was Yajnapur in an ancient era was a great seat of Tantric sadhana. In the heyday of Buddhism there was interaction between the two disciplines and there evolved a school of Tantric Buddhism. This was a widespread force in the middle ages and had a tremendous influence on the philosophers and poets of Orissa. It was then that Sri Jagannath was portrayed as the image of the Buddha, Balabhadra as that of Samgha and Subhadra as that of Dharma. (Sudarshana, the weapon of Krishna which is also worshipped as a deity from an unknown past, was left out of this interpretation.)

But even before that Sri Jagannath had been described as a Jain deity, particularly during the reign of the Jain king Kharavela who revitalized the kingdom, after the devastation wrought by Ashoka through what is famous as the Kalinga War. Kharavela reclaimed through a triumphant martial expedition a huge Jain statue that had been carried away to Pataliputra by the Magadhan kings.

Some scholars pointed out that the term Nath is a popular affix for the celebrated line of Natha saints such as Matsyendranath, Gorakhnath and others. But the exponents of this theory are contested by other scholars who point out that if Lokanath could be a popular name of the Buddha, why not Jagannath?

However, what is to be noted is, whatsoever be one’s faith, standing before the deity one feels overwhelmed or one sees one’s own god in the image. Take for example the case of Goswami Tulsidas, a great devotee of Rama. He had been told that Sri Jagannath was a form of Vishnu. Since Rama was an incarnation of Vishnu, the Goswami visited the temple with the hope of feeling the vibrations of his god – Rama. But as he gazed at the image he did not feel even a remote suggestion of Rama in it. He came out disappointed, but no sooner had he begun descending the tiered passage famous as the Baish Pahacha (Twenty-two Steps), a monkey came hopping and snatched away the shawl covering his upper body.

It was evening. In those days the temple was not crowded as it is today. The Goswami stood rather undone. Suddenly a person – rather a radiant personality – appeared on the scene and advised the monkey to return the visitor’s property. Hailing from Varanasi, losing something to a monkey could not have been any new experience for the Goswami, but the monkey quietly obeying the command of a human being certainly intrigued him.

At night he heard his Lord’s voice: How come you failed to recognize me in the image? The spirit of Hanuman had possessed the monkey who just wished to give you a little shake whereas the man whom the monkey obeyed was none other than Bibhishana.

Indeed, it is believed that every night Bibhishana and Hanuman visit the temple of Sri Jagannath.

Next day Tulsidas beheld in the deities Rama, Lakshmana and Sita.

References to Tantric, Buddhist, especially to the Vajrajani claims around Sri Jagannath will require a long treatment and in any case the scope of my work is limited to legends. The mighty wave of popular devotion for Sri Jagannath that was marked during the time of Sri Chaitanya Dev has not disappeared. The sway generated by Sri Chaitanya’s devotion can be appreciated from the stand taken by Sri Ramakrishna. The Paramahamsa never visited Puri. But why? Because the devotional force, the Mahabhava released by Sri Chaitanya could swallow him up and his body may not survive its tremendous impact. He advised the celebrated chronicler of his life, Shri ‘M’ to visit Puri and once he embraced ‘M’ and felt inexplicable vibrations because ‘M’ had embraced the deity. Mother Sharada Devi had been to the temple several times and once she carried a tiny image of Sri Ramakrishna and placed it touching the deity.

The amazing fact is, Sri Jagannath has been a living experience for each seeker or devotee according to his own psychic need. He has denied Grace to none.

Numerous legends emphasize that the relationship between the deity and the devotee can be strictly personal. The Lord’s response can be double-edged; while removing an individual’s anguish, it can also teach him an unforgettable lesson. Take for example the legend of Arjun Mishra. He spent much of his time reading the Gita. One evening his wife told him ruefully that they must pass the night without food, for he neither worked nor arranged for any! Arjun Mishra was then reading a passage where the Lord asserts that one who turned to him had no cause for despair. The assertion was unfounded, murmured Mishra and he scratched the line and went out of his house. It began raining and an hour later his wife opened the door at someone’s knock. She was surprised to see two lads, one of fair complexion and the other of dark, carrying two loads of foodstuff, entering the house. As they placed their burdens down, she observed a deep scratch on the dark boy’s back and asked what had happened to him. “Mother, your husband got angry with me when I found it difficult to lift this burden and inflicted this on my back.” Then under some pretext they left the house immediately before Mishra was back.

“How could you be so cruel towards a tender boy?” demanded the embarrassed and agitated lady, of which Mishra could not make any sense. Soon, however, the truth dawned on him. What the boys had brought was Mahaprasad; and the boys were none other than Krishna and Balarama. Gita was as good as the body of Krishna and the scratch he made on the text was reflected on the back of the Lord.

Many of the paraphernalia and rituals amidst which Sri Jagannath dwells are human. He even suffers from fever and undergoes diet-control and treatment.

He could fight on behalf of his devotees as he did for Purushottam Dev during the latter’s expedition against Kanchi. When the poet Jayadeva was uncomfortable with the line that had occurred to him, Dehi pada pallavamudaram, and was reluctant to write it down, the Lord came assuming his figure and took the manuscript from the poet’s wife, Padmavati and wrote that down.

Sri Jagannath, like the transmigration of the human soul from one body to another, leaves his old sheath and enters the Navakalevara, the new body. That takes place deep at night – a night of immense import. The sacred city must be without a single flame of light. The colossal doors of the temple complex must all be shut. None excepting the Daitapatis could be present in the vast complex. Blindfolded they would transfer the Navipadmas from the old images into the new ones. They cannot even feel the hallowed stuff, for their hands would be under wrap.

Some of the rituals, after centuries, have come to an end. A hoary tradition ended not long ago, with the demise of the last Devadasi – a woman of extraordinary devotion and knowledge. Devadasis were not necessarily as they are portrayed through modern eyes. Among them were dedicated souls who were adored and accorded a position of respect.

Sri Jagannath went to sleep while listening to the Devadasi’s song and enjoying her dance. The song she presented was Gitagovinda of Jayadev including the narration of the Dasavatar – chronology of the Ten Incarnations of Vishnu ending with that of Kalki – the only futuristic myth in the world – a myth presenting a new future to be brought about by Kalki, marking the end of the barbaric man and advent of the transformed man. The image of Sri Jagannath that was left unfinished because of human skepticism and impatience, would then probably find its fulfillment.

Sri Aurobindo who wrote in English had also written a few articles in Bengali one of which is entitled Jagannather Rath – the Chariot of Jagannath. The opening paragraph, translated, reads: “An ideal Society is a vehicle of the Divine, the Divine as the inner Soul of collective humanity. It is the Chariot of Jagannath, the Lord of the World, and its four wheels are unity, freedom, knowledge and power.” The said article concludes with the observation that makes one wonder if Sri Aurobindo had read in the Jagannath tradition some futuristic hint:

“A day will come, when inspired by the Will of the World-Spirit, soul-unity will manifest as the result of the synthesis and unification of knowledge, emotion and work; then will the Chariot of Jagannath come out on the thoroughfares of the world. Then shall its light spread in all directions. The age of Truth will descend on the earth, the world of mortal man become the playground of the Deity, the temple-city of God, the abode of spiritual delight.”



About Manoj Das

For thousands of men, women and children of the past two or three generations, Manoj Das has been the very synonym of light and delight, whose writings in Odia and English inspire in his countless readers faith in the purpose of life and also open up concealed horizons of confidence and compassion in humanity a dire need today.