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Lord Jagannath: The Handless Enigma Controlling The Universe!

Lord Jagannath: The Handless Enigma Controlling The Universe!

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Lord Jagannath

Explore the enigmatic origins and multifaceted significance of Lord Jagannath, a deity with confirmed tribal roots, worshipped by diverse religious communities including Hindu Vaishnavites, tribal priests, Tantric Buddhists, and Jains.

Which deity in the whole world has a confirmed tribal origin,

  • is till date worshipped by both tribal priests as well as Hindu Vaishnavite ones,
  • is deeply enmeshed with Tantric Buddhist scriptures,
  • is said to have a connection with the Jain religion,
  • and the deity is offered food cooked by a mythical Tantric deity
  • a temple that was remodelled by a Shaiva king who converted to Vaishnavism,
  • and at whose premises one of the highest reformers and promoter of Vaishnavite Bhakti Movement in India, Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, was in all probability assassinated?

While Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent abandoning of his key election slogan of “Jai Shri Ram”, and taking recourse to “Jai Jagannath” seemed perplexing to political pundits, most pundits of religion are equally perplexed by the deity himself. For it is a complete bhulbhulaiya, a maze of claims and counter claims. Just the simple bullet points above are sufficient to make anyone feel dizzy, that too, not counting the Tantric Buddhist allegation of one of their best monasteries having been destroyed to construct this temple as one of the most important in Hinduism and central to the Vaishnavite segment.

And yet, all this is true, as true as the fact that this is also the only deity who has no hands, though incomplete idols are a strict No-No in Hinduism. To the point of boring those who already know, let us get one basic question answered for those who may not know: why was the Lord denied his own hands with which he purportedly controls the universe?

The Mysterious Maker

The story goes that one particular king of modern-day Odisha had dreamed of the diol and wanted to get it constructed. To cut out the frills, Lord Vishnu appeared before the king in the guise of a carpenter and said he could construct it for the king. But, he said, the temple door must remain shut till he himself opened it on completion of the idol. The carpenter, the myth goes, warned that if anyone dares to open the door till he himself does it, he shall immediately abandon the job. “Tathastu,” said the king: “Granted”! And so the idol-making commenced.

Days and weeks went by with the temple door shut, and no one knew of what was happening inside, for there was not a murmur, let alone the sound of hammers banging on chisels for constructing a wooden idol – again, something complete at variance with any other idol of any deity of Hinduism, all made from stone.

The anxious queen of Odisha felt that by then the sculptor must have gone caput! So she prevailed upon the king to get the door opened. And the moment that was done, the sculptor, in his true image of Lord Vishwakarma, a form of Lord Vishnu, stopped the work. Within the interregnum, he said, he had completed the idols of Shubhadra and Balaram, and almost completed that of Lord Jagannath, barring his hands! And Lord Vishwakarma abandoned the idol handless!

Lord Jagannath with Shubhadra and Balaram
Lord Jagannath with Shubhadra and Balaram

As I said, any idol that is “defective” with any of the body parts absent, or broken, has to be abandoned in a sacred Visarjan, or submerging in a river. In all of my studies, I have found only one such example. Maa Anandamayee’s temple of Kali was once burgled and the thief had broken the idol’s hand to loot the jewellery. But Maa, the 20th-century Goddess on earth, had sanctioned that it could be repaired with clay and a few drops of her own blood and worshipping could go on. But this is a completely isolated and extraordinary incident. So how could an incomplete idol of Jagannath be worshiped? It is said then that Lord Vishnu had himself appeared in the king’s dream and granted that special permission. But this is mythology, which possibly hides a whole range of historical truths, some not so savoury.

The Hidden Histories

The present-day Jagannath Idol definitely has a tribal basis in its origin. Remarkable similarities have been found in certain aspects of the Lord’s face with the features of the tribal populace. One such is most remarkable. This is perhaps the only idol of a Hindu male god that is nlack, suggesting further the tribal angle. The ancient records of the temple say that though the original temple was commissioned by King Indradyumna of Avanti, the present temple was rebuilt from the tenth century onwards, on the site of the pre-existing temples in the compound, but not the main Jagannath temple. The work was begun under the patronage of King Anantavarman Chodaganga, the first king of the Eastern Ganga dynasty. Incidentally, the mythical Indradyumna could be any of the several kings, thus named in Hindu scriptures from eons ago. In fact, this Anantavarma was originally a Shaivite, and like Emperor Ashok, re-tuned his faith after he conquered Kalinga (modern-day Odisha) and in an opportune move, became a Vaishnavite.

Lord Jagannath Temple in Puri
Lord Jagannath Temple in Puri | Photograph by Dilip Poddar,

What need was there for Anantavarma to change his faith from Shiva to Vishnu is not recorded, but what recent findings of researchers indicate is that the king needed just that specific thing that Emperor Ashok needed centuries ago to become a Buddhist: to spread a creed that was seemingly non-violent so that no one in his kingdom would take to arms.

Though the link may seem tenuous, either through his intelligence circuit or through some proverbial dream, Anantavarma had realised that the tribals of his nascent kingdom had a great and powerful deity they called Neel Madhav. This was supposed to be a blue idol so strikingly dazzling and powerful that it could grant moksha (Nirvaan, liberation from cycles of births and deaths) at merely being beheld. This Neel Madhav was buried un hadder the ground. Some say that it was kept hidden by an express order of Lord Brahma. But some modern scholars contend that the tribals, mainly those of Shabar community to protect tribal power from the rising Hindu kings.

Historical Conflicts

It cannot be ignored that the severe differences – and often wars between kings espousing the respective faiths ‑ between Hinduism and Buddhism had started in the 5th and 6th centuries BC. So there were three powers in the contention: Hindu, Buddhist, and tribal power. King Anatavarman is said to have waged a war with the tribals. The reason behind this could be that with the resurgence of Hinduism, it had already vanquished Buddhism, and Tantrayaan Buddhists (started in the 9th century in Nalanda) have alleged, and still do allege, that the current Jagannath temple or nearby areas were actually a sprawling Buddhist Vihar (university) or a major monastery and the Hindus had destroyed it to build a Vaishanvite temple.

Puri Jagannatha Temple from the book 'Account Of The Temple Of Jagannath Lord Of The World Puri' 1895. Author : Rajendralala Mitra
Puri Jagannatha Temple from the book ‘Account Of The Temple Of Jagannath Lord Of The World Puri’ 1895. Author : Rajendralala Mitra

Though Hinduism shall never accept this, my studies show that it indeed may have been a nasty truth of history. Or else, what is the reason behind Tantric Buddhist scriptures being part of many of the rituals in the sanctum sanctorum? Wikipedia seems to support this contention, noting: Many of the temple rituals are based on Oddiyana Tantras which are the refined versions of Mahayana Tantras as well as Shabari Tantras which are evolved from Tantric Buddhism and tribal beliefs respectively. In fact, the oldest mention of the idol is found in the Vajrayaan sect of Tantric Buddhism said to have been scripted by King Indrabhuti of Oddiyana, a land known to have been around Pema Tso Lake on Himachal Pradesh.

So kings like Anantavarman were under threat: the threat from Buddhism had died down, conquered by a Shaiva king. It must be noted that post the reforms by Adi Shankaracharya (788 to 820), the warrior phalanx of the Shaiva sect was the real striking power against Buddhists. So it is a fact that cleaning up the remnants of Buddhism from Kalinga, the Shaivite king took to Vaishnavism, but there was still the threat of tribal power. And it is well calculable that the king would defeat them not on the battlefield but by robbing their inner strength: the faith that Neel Madhav would always ensure their victory.

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Mysteries Galore

No one really knows what happened exactly, and many scholars have indeed contended that Neel Madhav was brought by unsavoury means to the Jagannath Temple. Then there came a double compromise: The Shabar Tribe was allowed to have their own priests along with the traditional Hindu ones, and the rituals absorbed several critical practices of the Tantric Buddhist school that had been given shape by Guru Padmasambhava in the Nalanda Vihar in the late eighth century. In fact, few know that Lord Jagannath always has the prasad of Devi Vimala, a Tantric goddess before setting out for his annual yatra to their maternal aunt’s home for a week.

But this is not all about the mysteries of the Jagannath temple of Puri. There remains the issue of erotica in the temple’s outer and inner sculptures, which is also a largely avoided issue. The Archaeological Survey of India during repairs inside the temple found certain portions of the ceiling peeled off and revealed scores of Kama Sutra-like statuettes.

One scholar, Jagadananda Das wrote in his on August 5, 2015: “Life-size carved figures of men and women in various sexual postures (mithuna) as described in the Kāma-sūtra of Vatsyayana have long been visible on the outside of the temple building and inside the Jaya Vijaya gate. Even so, with the de-plastering and restoration program of the Archaeological Survey of India, many more such carvings on the temple came to light after being hidden for centuries.

For a devotee, the erotic depictions that cover the temple present something of a problem. If God is transcendental to this world, and if sexuality is the aspect of the material creation that most strongly binds us to it, then how can it be so explicitly glorified on the house of the Lord? As one scholar, A. P. Singh, comments, these sculptures appear to be “an apparent contradiction to the spiritual and religious fervor noticeable in the sacred precincts of the temple.”

When British Christians first came to Orissa and saw such explicit depictions of the Kāma-sūtra on the outside of religious buildings, they were shocked. It added fuel to their prejudices against Hindu society as decadent. They considered these sculptures to be pornographic representations mirroring the degeneration of moral standards in Orissa, reflecting the perverted tastes of the patrons of the temple. They even took them as proof that ritual activities of a fertility cult, so-called “sacred prostitution,” took place in the temple – even though there is no proof of the existence of any such lewd rituals.

Rath Yatra
Rath Yatra

But Lord Jagannath and his temple in a very strange way have united three faiths and perhaps this is why he commands such a widespread devotion. I do remember that coming from a Bengali Shakta family, we were narrated some nursery rhymes and even some metaphorical sayings, such as ei honuman, kola khabi / joy jogonnath dekhtey jaabi? Transliterated, this means, “Oh Langur, have a banana? And go to see the Rath Yatra?”  Like most infant rhymes it will be a mistake to look for logic in these two woefully unrelated things. But the real essence of this is that from infanthood, millions of Bengalis – and Bengalis are mostly Shakta, or worshippers of Shakti, or feminine power such as Kali and Durga – get the love of Vaishnav deity Jagannath ingrained in their thoughts. In fact, in a land of Shakti worshippers, try out a Ram Rath Yatra and it will tank. But defying all logic, Jagannath Rath Yatra runs on massive scales in every district, every town, village, and every small neighbourhood of the state.

Some Known Facts Repeated

  • The Jagannath idol is worshipped along with his celestial brother Balaram and sister Shubhadra
  • The biggest Jagannath temple and the epicentre of the north Indian Vaishnavite sect are in Puri on Odisha, an eastern Indian state.
  • The temple is massive, spread across 10 acres of land, and has a height of 214 feet.
  • It has been seen that the flag atop the crown of the temple never casts a shadow.
  • The idol is made from neem wood and is entirely replaced every 12 or 19 years.
  • Once a year, the three idols are taken on three multi-storied chariots from their sanctum sanctorum to their maternal aunt’s home.
  • Millions of people visit Puri every year to draw the chariot across the streets of Puri and special security and emergency medical facilities or organised to help people who get injured in the melee and often faint
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