• Sat. Jun 15th, 2024

    Jagannath Rath Yatra: Serving Hinduism’s Capability to Be Inclusive

    Jagannath Puri
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    Read Time:10 Minute, 43 Second

    Jagannath mythology captures the spirit of Hinduism by uniting the lowest and highest strata of mediaeval Odisha centuries before the Bhakti movement began in northern India.

    This year, the week of June 20–28 has been set aside for Jagannath and his annual Ratha Yatra, which is sometimes referred to as the “Chariot Festival.” The rituals connected with Jagannath’s departure from the big temple and his two companions’ return nine days later have been recalled.

    Can we, however, get behind the trappings and celebrations of this Hindu yearly rite and understand the spirit of an ancient Indian practice of accommodation? We may be able to more clearly understand the true plural nature of Hinduism once we are able to free ourselves from the “hold” of these very alluring tourist and television packages surrounding the deity and his festival, as well as, of course, observe matters other than the overwhelming religiosity of the masses. Without wasting any more time, this tolerant part of Hinduism has to reassert itself and displace the odd, intolerable brand that is now being aggressively and brazenly promoted for votes by certain horribly closed minds.

    Discover the fascinating tale of Jagannath, an intriguing wooden deity that defies norms and embraces diversity within the realm of Hinduism. Unlike the typical anthropometric gods found in Brahmanically-approved pantheons, Jagannath proudly remains aniconic with no hands or feet. This unique representation reminds us that our ancestors’ religion was open to various forms of deities, cults, beliefs, and even extraordinary oddities.

    Every year, millions of devotees flock to Jagannath and his two companions, eagerly seeking a touch of the sacred cables that pull their remarkably heavy “wooden buildings on wheels.” Unfortunately, this act of piety was misunderstood by white colonists who labeled it as “mass suicide” by pagan Hindus throwing themselves under their merciless heathen god, the unstoppable Juggernaut. These grotesque interpretations, conjured by the misinformed, often spread rapidly and deeply influence unsuspecting believers, perpetuating repulsion and fear.

    The mythology of Jagannath, which unified different social strata in medieval Odisha long before the Bhakti movement in northern India, embodies the spirit of Hinduism. The roots of this cult and its deity can be traced back to the Savara or Saura tribes of Odisha, who worshipped featureless wooden stumps known as sthambeshwar or khambeshwari. Heidelberg University’s impartial research further supports this claim, although some argue that the Khonds, not the Savaras, were the original worshippers. Even today, in Puri, there are special non-Brahman priests called Daita and Soaro, who proudly claim to be descendants of the original Savara ritual practitioners assimilated into the expanded ancient cult.

    The significant aspect is that, around the 12th century, by accepting the deified wooden stump from tribal Odisha and elevating it to the esteemed pantheon of “high Hinduism,” India’s assimilationist tradition achieved a historic victory against those who aimed to confront the “other” and suppress adversaries. Just like other prominent Hindu rituals, festivals, and pilgrimages, Jagannath Puri’s Ratha Yatra demonstrates the adeptness and delicate mechanics of harmonizing diverse notions of India. Nevertheless, it’s important to acknowledge that conservatism exists in all religions, including Hinduism. Some social groups in Puri still face restrictions, reminding us that this open, mass-based religion stands in stark contrast to the casteism that recently emerged in western UP or Bhima Koregaon, under the pretext of “pure” Hinduism.

    Unlike many renowned religious sites claiming ancient and undateable deities, Puri doesn’t make such exaggerated assertions. It is widely known that the neem tree stumps representing Jagannath and his companions are replaced every 10-20 years. This event, known as Nabakalebara or the consecration of a new body, is celebrated through an elaborate ritual. The search for the “holy tree” involves a large team of various types of priests, once led by two inspectors and 30 police officers. Today, it remains an honor for police and government officials to serve Jagannath. Once the right tree is found and a yagna (sacred fire ritual) is performed, the tree is felled and transported to the temple. Traditional hereditary sculptors work secretly for 21 days and nights, burying the old idols once again.

    Hindu deities take the form of both humans and non-human representations, such as the Shiva linga. Jagannath occupies a unique middle ground between anthropomorphic and aniconic forms. Although the tribal worshippers didn’t insist on it, later Hindu traditions added two outstretched arms to add a human touch. The distinctive large eyes adorning the three divinities are painted on the logs.

    The cult’s immense popularity stems from its democratic nature and the historical practice of taking the deities out of their sanctum sanctorum directly to the masses. Unlike other major Hindu temples that only display iconic representations of their deities called Utsava-murtis during public processions, the Jagannath Puri temple stands as a rare exception, bringing out the original deities themselves.

    Explore the captivating tradition of Jagannath and his remarkable journey, celebrated during the vibrant fortnight of Ashadh. The three idols, magnificently adorned, are placed on intricately decorated chariots and transported approximately two kilometers to the Gundicha temple. Along the way, they make a stop at their “aunt’s” place to indulge in Jagannath’s favorite Poda Pithaa. Researchers find these religious rituals fascinating as they reenact historical agreements between different socio-economic groups. The halts and the return journey a week later provide valuable insights into the inclusive nature of Jagannath’s public procession, which encourages mass participation irrespective of caste or class. This stands as a unique characteristic within the hierarchical structure of Hinduism.

    Interestingly, the construction of the three rathas is a yearly affair, using wood from special trees sourced all the way from Dasapalla, a former kingdom. In the past, the heavy logs were set afloat on the Mahanadi river and collected in Jagannath Puri, where hereditary carpenters transformed them into magnificent chariots. Every aspect of this elaborate process defies the usual ad hoc nature associated with Indian rituals. The meticulous planning and execution signify the allocation of rights, duties, and privileges, representing crucial elements of the complex social treaty known as Hinduism.

    Notably, Brahmanism has often obscured the direct records of numerous tribal worship practices absorbed throughout Indian history, leaving behind limited evidence. However, in the case of Jagannath, we have a rare and indisputable record of what anthropologist Nirmal Kumar Bose referred to as “the Hindu method of tribal absorption.” This exemplifies how ethnic and linguistic groups rose above their own inherited beliefs, deities, and rituals to accommodate others by embracing what they cherished the most—their gods. These “local treaties” and “acceptances” allowed diverse groups to coexist, share resources, and live harmoniously under the same sky.

    This ongoing process of bringing together vast communities of people was essentially the task undertaken by the religion later known as Hinduism. The essence of this religion lies in providing a common platform that accommodates different and sometimes conflicting sets of values and beliefs. Undoubtedly, the cult of Jagannath incorporates practices, beliefs, and contributions from Buddhism, Jainism, tribal religions, Tantric worship, and remnants of Saiva and Sakthi cults, all within the overarching framework of Vaishnavism.

    The Tale Of Jagannath

    The tale of Jagannath has always captivated attention due to its well-documented metamorphosis and gradual assimilation of various religious traditions, setting it apart from other major cults and pilgrimages. A convergence of amorphous myths and recorded history can be found, supported by inscriptions and documented narratives that provide substantial comfort to scientific researchers, who often encounter challenges in other forms of worship.

    Fascinating origin stories exist, such as the Skanda Purana mentioning King Indrayumna of Avanti, who dreamt of the great deity known as Nila Madhava, worshipped at the Nilachal or blue mountain. In a country where the boundaries between fact and fiction are often blurred, it is crucial to not only lament the unscientific temperament but also temper our aversion to exploring nebulous religious subjects. We should embrace the opportunity to study epics, puranas, myths, gods, heroes, heroines, and other characters, breaking the unofficial academic taboo observed mainly by anthropologists and historians. It is through unbiased research that we can connect the dots scattered throughout the landscape, linking and evaluating the assertions of myths with plausible historical interpretations, as we do in the case of Jagannath Puri.

    It is time to move beyond the Western perspective that dismissed Hindu festivals like Puri’s Ratha Yatra as heathen practices. Such positions are often exploited by certain groups to incite passions. Let us not forget that in 1633, William Bruton, the first Englishman to visit Puri, labeled it as “the mirror of wickedness and idolatry.” This marked the beginning of the European denigration of the deity. Even in 1900, W.J. Wilkins condemned the Jagannath Ratha Yatra as a “disgusting and demoralizing exhibition.” However, we must commend the diligent studies conducted by the Sud Asian Institut of Heidelberg University during the 1970s and 1980s under the ‘Orissa Research Project.’ German scholars conducted field studies, examining the cult scientifically yet empathetically, resulting in compelling evidence and interpretations of this syncretic tradition. It is important for Indians to engage in historical and anthropological research to avoid perpetually falling prey to “pride and prejudice.”

    The enlightened chief minister Harekrishna Mahtab initiated a debate in 1948 by suggesting that the Jagannath cult originated from Buddhism. This viewpoint had been expressed earlier by historian Rajendralal Mitra, as well as British scholars W.W. Hunter, Alexander Cunningham, and Monier Monier-Williams. Faxien, the Chinese pilgrim from the fifth century, mentioned the strong presence of Buddhism in Odisha and the Puri region, where a famous festival in Dantapur involved a procession carrying a relic—a tooth of Lord Buddha. Additionally, Jain influences can be traced in the worship of the three deities in Puri, according to historian Kedar Nath Mahapatra. However, there were opposing historians who presented strong arguments against attributing Buddhism and Jainism too much credit. Eventually, it was settled that while the cult’s origins were not entirely Buddhist, it had undoubtedly been profoundly influenced by Buddhism. The three deities were believed to embody the Triguna of the Gita—sattva, rajas, and tamas.

    Jagannath Puri holds significance as one of the four legendary dhams or Hindu centers established by Adi Shankaracharya. It is also home to an iconic mutt or monastery built in the 12th century by the Vaishnavite saint Acharya Ramanuja. The temple chronicles of Puri, known as the Madala-panji, state that Raja Ananga Bhima of the eastern Gangas constructed the existing temple in the first half of the 13th century. However, the Dasgopas inscription mentions that it was Choda-ganga who established it two centuries earlier, while German scholars suggest that Yayati the First began building the temple 100 years before that. Early inscriptions refer to the deity as Purushottam, and it likely took a couple of centuries for the deity to become fully integrated into Hinduism and bring the other two companions into the temple. The Purushotham-Kshetra Mahatmya contains intriguing stories of Vidyapati meeting the chief of the Savaras to catch a glimpse of the original deity, Neelamadhava.

    Although precise historical dates remain uncertain, there is no doubt that the Jagannath cult played a vital role in uniting the Odia people of all classes and castes through a common worship, at least from the 13th century onwards. This unity was unique to Odisha and was instrumental in the region’s resistance against Turkish and Pathan invasions for nearly 400 years after the 12th century. In contrast, neighboring Bengal experienced a different history. The 12th century Sena dynasty, comprising Kannada Brahmins, attempted to impose orthodox casteism and religious rigidity, which was met with resistance. As a result, a significant portion of Bengali-speaking people in West Bengal, Bangladesh, Tripura, and Assam abandoned this closed, hierarchical version of Hinduism and embraced a more inclusive form of Sufi-led Islam.

    In the 16th century, Sri Chaitanya relocated from Bengal to Puri, considering Jagannath as the true source of inspiration. For centuries, priests and promoters from Puri visited households throughout India to sing praises of Jagannath and encourage people to make pilgrimages to Puri. Ratha Yatras, replicated in many states, have a strong economic and cultural aspect. These colorful fairs, known as Ratha Melas, combine piety, commerce, and entertainment, offering a joyful atmosphere with various food and recreational activities.

    Ultimately, it is not wood or stone that determines the immense popularity of any form of worship. It is the universal appeal and exceptional qualities that withstand the test of time and flourish.

    Hinduism thrives on accommodation, and it is important to reiterate this fact to fanatics who seek to confine the religion or promote intolerance. True Hinduism never seeks to coerce others into submission or uphold xenophobia. Jagannath of Puri serves as a prime example of how Hinduism excels in managing contradictions, reaffirming the religion’s essential plurality and accommodative nature through rituals.


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