Lord Jagannatha: God Transformed by Ecstasy

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A look at the history, significance, and spread of one of the world’s longest-running religious festivals and the deity at the center of it all.

“The same result obtained from seeing the Lord’s ten most prominent incarnations is available simply by once gazing upon the Supreme Person in His form as Lord Jagannatha.” (Skanda Purana, Utkala Khanda)

Upon first viewing Lord Jagannatha, especially for one reared in the Western world, one is likely to think of Native American totem poles – primitive-looking painted faces carved one above the other on large vertical wooden beams. The poles represent “spirit-beings,” embodying the essence of family, clan, lineage, tribe, or locally worshiped guardian spirits. But the image of Jagannatha goes far beyond such conceptions. With His reddish crescent-moon smile, jutting arms, rectangular legless torso, and large, perfectly symmetrical black-and-white eyes – visually so different from flute-carrying Krishna, the Supreme Person, of whom Jagannatha is a manifestation – He is traditionally viewed as the epitome of beauty. He is God in a most confidential and ecstatic feature.

The word jagannatha literally means “Lord of the universe.” The most famous Jagannatha is the wooden deity of Krishna who for centuries has been worshiped and adored in the main temple at Jagannath Puri, in the state of Odisha, on the eastern coast of India. The name itself gives us the English word juggernaut, “a massive and unstoppable force.” But the Jagannatha story harkens to a more thoroughly transcendental phenomenon, wherein God Himself experiences transformative joy by the simple act of hearing His own pastimes.

The Essential Narrative

Slightly divergent versions of the Jagannatha story appear in the Skanda Purana (Utkala Khanda, chapters 1–19), the Brahma Purana (part 2, chapters 41–47), the Narada Purana (Uttara-bhaga, chapters 53–54), and elsewhere. The summary below is chiefly based on these accounts.

Long ago, during the epoch of world history known as Satya-yuga, Indradyumna Maharaja was king of the Surya dynasty. He ruled in Avantipura (Ujjain), then associated with the country of Malava. After meeting a traveling Vaishnava who happened into his royal assembly exclaiming about the beauty and excellence of Nila-Madhava, the “Blue Lord,” Indradyumna became obsessed with seeing this divine entity.

The king sent numerous brahmanas in search of the Lord. Unfortunately, each one soon returned to the capital without success. Only the royal priest known as Sri Vidyapati was unaccounted for. Vidyapati was relentless, and he eventually found himself in the midst of obscure jungle tribesmen in the hills of Odisha. They were known as Sabaras. To his surprise, the Sabaras were secretly worshiping Nila-Madhava deep in a nearby forest.

After seeing the deity, Vidyapati returned to Indradyumna’s kingdom and announced that he had found Nila-Madhava. The king was thrilled and set off with Vidyapati to see the Lord.

It was a long journey to where Nila-Madhava stood. Previously, the wise Vidyapati, knowing that it would be difficult to retrace his steps, had sprinkled mustard seeds to mark the path, and those seeds had now grown into mature plants, which were easy to follow. Consequently, he and the king were able to find their way to Lord Nila-Madhava.

But all was not so easy. Indradyumna was not able to see the Lord, because the deity had been moved. At that point the king’s life lost meaning. Like the yogi king that he was, he decided to fast until death. But the Lord would not have it. He appeared to Indradyumna in a dream, insisting that his lamentation was needless.

“Build a large temple for Me on top of Nila Hill in Puri. There you will see Me – not as Nila-Madhava, but in a form made of wood.”

The Lord told Indradyumna to wait for a giant log to float to Puri’s beach. When the log arrived, the king appointed Vishvakarma, architect of the gods, to carve the deity from it. (Jagannatha is thus called daru-brahma, “wood-spirit”.)

The eccentric Vishvakarma stipulated that he would carve the deity only if he could remain undisturbed for twenty-one days. If anyone interrupted him before that allotted time had passed, he would leave, even if his work remained unfinished. The king consented, and the divine carpenter toiled behind closed doors.

After some time, however, Indradyumna’s curiosity got the better of him, though some say it was Queen Gundica, his wife, who could wait no longer. Whatever the case, the royal doors were flung open, and Vishvakarma, true to his word, had disappeared from the room, leaving behind three unfinished deities: Jagannatha, Baladeva, and Subhadra, i.e., Krishna, the Supreme Lord; His brother Balarama (an alternate name for Baladeva); and His sister Yogamaya. They had no hands or feet, and they didn’t look like Krishna, Vishnu, or any divinity Indradyumna was familiar with.

Still, because both Indradyumna and the sculptor had exhibited attachment (raga) and divine love (prema) for the Lord, and because they both had the proper conception (bhava) that allowed for the flow of devotion (bhakti), the Lord agreed to fully manifest in the unfinished deities.

An Esoteric Narrative

This story of Jagannatha’s origins is often coupled with one about His specific countenance. While the sculptor’s leaving prematurely explains the deity’s odd, unfinished features, there is an esoteric narrative that more thoroughly explains Jagannatha’s unique form. It tells us that Jagannatha is Sri Krishna in the mood of acute separation from Radha, His female counterpart. Jagannatha is Krishna transformed by intense emotion.

Once, in Dwarka, Krishna’s many wives asked Rohini Devi, Lord Balarama’s mother, about Krishna’s time in Vrindavan, Rohini Devi having lived there while Krishna was growing up.

“Sometimes we hear Him talking in His sleep,” they said. “With a sweet voice He calls out the names of His friends like Sridama and Subala and the names of His cows. At times He shouts, ‘O Lalita! Vishakha! O Radhika!’ Or He says, ‘Mother, where is My fresh butter today?’ Sometimes He cries in His sleep and then He wakes up and sobs for hours. How special are those residents of Vraja! Please tell us everything about them.”

Seeing their love for Krishna, Rohini agreed to describe His wonderful pastimes for them. But she stipulated that Krishna and Balarama should not hear these talks under any circumstances, lest They become uncomfortably self-conscious. She suggested that she meet with the queens when the two divine brothers were not nearby.

And so, one day when Krishna and Balarama were busy with other concerns, all the queens gathered in a huge hall, anxious to hear Rohini revel in Krishna’s Vrindavan pastimes. This she did, but not before instructing Subhadra to guard the front door to make sure Krishna and Balarama did not come back unexpectedly and perchance overhear their discussion.

As Rohini rapturously communicated the childhood pastimes of Krishna, the queens listened with full attention, never once becoming distracted from the nectar that filled their ears. Even Subhadra, stationed at the door, became absorbed in hearing the narration, and though she tried to be conscientious about the task given to her, she failed: Krishna and Balarama suddenly appeared and stood on either side of her. No matter. The three of them found themselves ecstatically engrossed in Rohini’s words, and mystical transformations turned them into unrecognizable beings. Their eyes became oversized and dilated; their hands and legs withdrew into their bodies. They became Jagannatha, Balarama, and Subhadra as they now appear in Puri.

Lord Jagannatha is identical to Sri Krishna and is thus the supreme divinity, the source of all avatars. This is confirmed by the most senior of the six Goswamis, Srila Sanatana Goswami: “His transcendental form, the one source of all incarnations [avatara eka nidhana], expands all of His various pastimes. Whichever of His forms a devotee finds attractive, that form the Lord shows him.” (Brihad-bhagavatamrita 3.5.211)

The Glorious Rathayatra Festival

In the rainy season (June or July) Lord Jagannatha is brought out into the street, revealing His form and abundant mercy for all to see. Millions attend this festival, celebrating, singing, and reciting songs with unabashed devotion. The three deities – Jagannatha, the Lord of the universe; Balarama, His first expansion, manifesting as His elder brother; and Subhadra, His energy potency, manifesting as His sister – are lifted onto massive Rathayatra chariots waiting just outside their home at Puri’s main temple. There is much history, philosophy, and nuance to this festival, and only the best Vaishnava scholars know it all. The rich tradition of Rathayatra includes a vast variety of overarching truths, tangential storylines, and numerous subplots, permeating every aspect of the celebration. Here we will summarize only the main parts of the festival.

Rathayatra is a “journey” (yatra) of “chariots” (ratha). The three chariots, each about forty-five-feet high, are made of wood, like Jagannatha Himself. Jagannatha’s chariot has eighteen wheels, Balarama’s sixteen, and Subhadra’s fourteen. A platform bearing the deity and the priests is topped by bright red, green, blue, and yellow canopies stretched high into the sky and elegantly embroidered with simple designs of Odisha.

Thousands of devotees and pilgrims pull the chariots along Grand Road using long yellow ropes, the pulling being a metaphor for pulling the Lord back into one’s heart. Scriptural sources say that merely touching the ropes or seeing Lord Jagannatha on His chariot is enough for one to achieve liberation.

The festival begins with the ritual called Chera Pahara (“cleansing with water”), wherein the current king of Puri sweeps the road, humbly making way for the deities and their chariots. This act conveys the notion that Jagannatha is the real king of the region, and that everyone – even the king – must bow down and perform menial service in His presence. Then, in the midst of intense song and dance, with millions in attendance, the deities are pulled on their chariots from the Jagannatha temple to the Gundica shrine, two miles away. Pilgrims saturate the area for as far as the eye can see, not just on the street but on rooftops and terraces, hanging out of windows, cheering and crying.

The deities stay at Gundica for nine days while the devotees sing and laugh and feast, deepening their devotion for Lord Jagannatha. Thereafter, the deities enjoy yet another journey on their chariots as the devotees return them to the main temple.

The Meaning of the Festival

What does this festival mean, and why is it so important to Gaudiya Vaishnavas, the followers of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu? Its esoteric significance may be traced to an incident in Lord Krishna’s pastimes on earth.

When Krishna left the simple, rural atmosphere of Vrindavan to rule as king of Dwarka, the residents of His rustic home missed Him more than life itself. Especially Srimati Radharani. She could not bear His loss and yearned intensely to meet Him again. By Krishna’s arrangement They would meet at Kurukshetra some years later, the meeting orchestrated by the Lord to bring Radharani’s love to even greater heights.

Sri Radha loves Krishna with all Her heart, but She shows us through Her own example how love for Krishna deepens. Separation makes the heart grow fonder, and Radhika demonstrates for all souls exactly how this is so.

To secretly meet Radha at Kurukshetra, Krishna used the occasion of a solar eclipse to travel there on pilgrimage along with Balarama, Subhadra, and many other residents of Dwarka. But when Sr Radha saw Krishna surrounded by regal splendor, She could think only of bringing Him back to the simple village of Vrindavan, with its unique mood of intimacy. Although Her joy at again being with Krishna knew no bounds, Her sense of separation from Him in Vrindavan intensified Her feelings. This is the inner meaning of Rathayatra.

The celebration harkens to this event, and just as it did in Radha’s life, it is meant to entice us to deepen our own love for Krishna by reuniting Him with Radha, His greatest love in Vrindavan.

Thus Rathayatra is a regional festival embraced by millions and particularly important to locals and those who make Jagannatha worship their daily devotions. But it is also an esoteric phenomenon, universal in application, embodying the deepest theological implications of the Gaudiya tradition.

“The Rathayatra expands divine love in circles of increasing grace,” Chaitanya Charana Dasa wrote in a July/August 2015 Back to Godhead article. He continued:

First, it expands divine grace from the sacred space of the temple to the rest of the city. The Lord riding atop the majestic chariot offers the blessing of His darshana (audience) to one and all – even those who do not come to the temple. The sway of the magnificent chariots, the embellishments with many meaningful motifs, the beauty of the three deities (Jagannatha with His brother Baladeva and sister Subhadra), the symphony of musical eulogies by skilled singers, and the worshipers’ heartfelt cries of “Jaya Jagannatha!” – all such potent devotional stimuli at the Rathayatra kindle life-transforming spiritual experiences.

Second, the globalization of Rathayatra expands the grace beyond Jagannatha Puri and even India. In 1967, Srila Prabhupada inspired the first Rathayatra outside India, in San Francisco, which also hosted Jagannatha’s first Western temple (New Jagannatha Puri). Since then, the festival has assumed international proportions. Indeed, Jagannatha has become a charming face of the beauty and mystery of Indian spirituality. . . . The Rathayatra expands divine love from the temple to the rest of the city, and indeed the whole world. And it offers us a chance to elevate our devotional love from separation to union, from disconnection from the Lord to reconnection with Him.

The Force Moves West

Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Krishna Himself in the guise of His own devotee, spent the last eighteen years of His life in Jagannath Puri. His deep emotional relationship with the deity serves as a profound template for Vaishnava devotion, embraced by Gaudiya Vaishnavas for more than five hundred years. The desire to spread the glory of Jagannatha worldwide, in fact, was initially suggested in the Chaitanya-bhagavata (Antya 4.126), one of Mahaprabhu’s earliest biographies, even if Jagannatha is not explicitly mentioned. In that verse the Lord Himself says, “The chanting of My name will spread to every town and village of the world.” The reference to “My name” indicates the names of Krishna, of which “Jagannatha” is prominent. The fateful scenario depicted in that verse would be pushed to the fore some four hundred years later, in the time of Bhaktivinoda Thakura (1838–1914), whose life and work – due to both globalization and his profound spiritual insight – would plant the seed for Jagannatha’s journey to the Western world.

Through his books Bhaktivinoda developed the overall vision of sending Vaishnavism to the West. His son Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura (1874–1937) tangibly put into effect his father’s dream by sending disciples to England and Germany. But in the present context, it is especially significant that Sarasvati Thakura was precise, mentioning Jagannatha specifically.

On May 19, 1934, at the ancient temple of Lord Alarnatha in Brahmagiri, Odisha, near Puri, he said, “We must take Lord Jagannatha in an airplane chariot to Eastbourne and to London.”

He further opined that the mercy of Jagannatha, in accordance with His name, should be available throughout the jagat (universe), adding that Jagannatha deities are especially needed outside India.

He was firm on this latter point because Jagannatha is renowned for being kind to those who need Him most. He is popularly known as Patita Pavana, “deliverer of the most fallen.” People in the Western world, said Bhaktisiddhanta, are generally bereft of Vaishnava teaching and all it implies, and could thus particularly benefit from Jagannatha’s mercy.

The climax of this story is traceable to Srila Prabhupada, the founder of the Hare Krishna movement, who at the behest of Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati brought Vaishnavism to Western shores and established it as an irrevocable fact. It might be added that Prabhupada was devoted to Jagannatha in particular even as a five-year-old in Kolkata. He celebrated Rathayatra with a miniature homemade cart, pulling it throughout his neighborhood with local friends. In other words, he had an inborn love for Lord Jagannatha throughout his life. Thus, in 1967, a year after incorporating his International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), he planted the seeds for establishing the festival worldwide by inaugurating the first Rathayatra in the Western world.

Today his disciples continue to watch those seeds sprout in cities around the world, as Rathayatra annually makes its way to London, Paris, Sydney, Tokyo, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and on New York’s renowned Fifth Avenue, to name but a few cities. The festival not only replicates the mammoth chariots and traditional parade of Puri, but it now includes a Festival of India in place of Gundica, with colorful displays, entertainment stages, musical performances, free-feast booths, and a variety of cultural displays and exhibits.

Prabhupada was obviously aware of Sarasvati Thakura’s statements about Lord Jagannatha and the West. For example, in February 1970, when his movement was already firmly established in the West, Srila Prabhupada wrote to Hanuman Prasad Poddar, the founder of Gita Press, with whom he had a friendly relationship: “The deities worshiped in ISKCON temples are Jagannath Swami with Balarama and Subhadra and Radha-Krishna. When we first start a temple, we start with Jagannath Swami. My Guru Maharaja recommended temples of Jagannath in these countries, so I was inspired to establish first of all Jagannath Swami because He is kind even to the mlecchas [foreigners]. Then, when there is the opportunity, I establish Radha-Krishna murti.”

From the very beginning of ISKCON, Prabhupada wanted to install Lord Jagannatha in his temples. In a little-known incident, for example, Prabhupada asked Brahmananda Dasa, one of his first disciples, to help him in this regard, even before there were any deities in the movement. Brahmananda recalled in an interview by me:

I had first come to a kirtana in the first week of August, 1966, and was initiated in September [Radhashtami]. Shortly after this, say in October or November, I was sitting with Srila Prabhupada in his room, and he gave me an assignment. He wanted a statue [murti] made from stone. He made a drawing of this flat-headed stubby image with funny arms, which he said was the shape of Lord Jagannatha, the primary manifestation of Krishna in Puri as worshiped by Lord Chaitanya – it was “the Lord of the universe,” he said. And he wanted me to go across the street and ask the tombstone seller to carve this shape out of granite. This was Provenzano Lanza Funeral Home, at 43 Second Avenue, directly across the street. It’s still there.

Anyway, from Prabhupada’s point of view, this was a perfectly reasonable request, but I was shocked by it. How could a tombstone seller make this shape he had never seen before, and, more, why should he do it? How could I explain why I wanted this thing? To me it seemed like an untenable idea. At the time, I didn’t know that deities are routinely hand-carved from marble slabs in India and then decorated and worshiped. I don’t think I had ever seen a photo of a deity at that point of time, only artwork, paintings of Krishna.

Anyway, I obediently went across the street and carried out the assignment. I was relieved that they didn’t give much attention to the strange shape in the drawing and politely explained that they only sell the tombstones and do not manufacture them. And the stone-cutters use machines to cut the quarried stone into fixed shapes and sizes and do not do custom hand-carved shapes, especially something as unconventional as this.

So, Lord Jagannatha did not appear in Srila Prabhupada’s movement at this time; it would happen a short time later in San Francisco, where he was provided not only the deities by Malati’s grace, but a disciple [Syamasundara] who could carve and paint large deities out of wood, exactly like the Lord of the universe at Puri.

Jagannatha’s Appearance in San Francisco

The story to which Brahmananda refers at the end of his quote happened in the spring of 1967. One day, Syamasundara, one of Srila Prabhupada’s earliest West Coast disciples, hurried into his guru’s San Francisco apartment, carrying a surprise. He excitedly took a small item out of his shopping bag and placed it on Prabhupada’s desk for authoritative perusal.

“What is this?” Prabhupada asked, his eyes opening wide as he looked down at the three-inch wooden image before him.

For Prabhupada it was a familiar form, but entirely out of context – what was it doing here in San Francisco, in the middle of the hippie era? It was His very own Lord Jagannatha, making an unexpected if long-awaited appearance.

Srila Prabhupada immediately folded his palms in traditional anjali style and bowed down, offering the exotic figure full Vaishnava respects. Prabhupada then started reciting melodious Sanskrit prayers and encouraged both Syamasundara and Mukunda, another early disciple in the room, to bow before little Jagannatha as well. With no knowledge of the rich tradition behind the Prabhupada’s actions, the disciples were shocked.

“You have brought Jagannatha, the Lord of the universe,” he said, smiling, and delighted beyond words. “He is Krishna. Thank you very much.”

Prabhupada was overcome with joy and proceeded to tell them the Jagannatha story.

“But where did you get this deity?”

The young men explained that Malati, Syamasundara’s wife, had found it in a store called Cost Plus Imports.

“Bring her to me.”

And so they did.

“Malati, you have found this?”

“Yes.”

“There are others?”

“Oh yes, a whole barrelful.”

“No, no. Two others?”

“Yes, two more barrels with different figures.”

Prabhupada held up little Jagannatha and said, “This is Krishna. The other two figures will be His sister, Subhadra, and His brother, Balarama. Bring them.”

Malati and Syamasundara rushed to the imports store and bought the two other figures in the set. They hurried back and dutifully gave the little statues to their spiritual master. As he placed the three forms on his desk, he looked at them with loving affection. Then he looked up at his disciples and asked if any of them knew how to carve.

By Krishna’s divine arrangement, Syamasundara had been a wood sculptor by profession. Prabhupada asked him to carve larger replicas of the little deities. He did so, and thus Lord Jagannatha manifested in the Western world. On March 26, 1967, at 518 Frederick Street, Srila Prabhupada conducted ISKCON’s first installation ceremony, effectively bringing the deities Jagannatha, Balarama, and Subhadra to the Western world, as predicted by his spiritual master. He also introduced ISKCON to a new mantra, jagannathah svami nayana-patha-gami bhavatu me: “Lord Jagannatha, Lord of the universe, please be visible to me.”

About the Author: 

Satyaraja Dasa

Satyaraja Dasa (Steven Rosen) is an initiated disciple of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. He is also founding editor of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies and associate editor of Back to Godhead magazine.