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HomeExpositionsTheologyWhy Jagannath has big eyes without eyelids

Why Jagannath has big eyes without eyelids

The first story in this article about the unusual murti of Jagannath (Jagannātha) is not known as much as the second one, which is included too

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There are two stories associated with the big, eyelid-less eyes of Jagannātha (spelt जगन्नाथ in both Sanskrit and Hindi, but the terminal थ is pronounced with a vowel accompaniment in Sanskrit while the Hindi pronunciation ends without the vowel. It’s a 4-syllabic word in Sanskrit (ज-गन्-ना-थ Jagannātha) but a trisyllabic one in Hindi (ज-गन्-नाथ् Jagannath). The first story is not known as much as the second one.

Jagannātha (spelt in Odia as ଜଗନ୍ନାଥ, literally meaning “Lord of the Universe”, which inspired the English coinage “juggernaut”, implying “a large and powerful force or institution that cannot be controlled” according to the Oxford English Dictionary) is a deity worshipped in regional Hindu traditions in India and Bangladesh as part of a triad along with his brother Balabhadra, and sister, Subhadra.

Jagannath in Odia Hinduism is the supreme god, Purushottama (पुरुषोत्तम) and the Para Brahman (परब्रह्म). To most Vaishnava Hindus, particularly the Krishnaites, Jagannath is an abstract representation of Krishna, or Vishnu, sometimes as the avatar of Krishna or Vishnu.

To a minuscule section in the large sect of Shaiva and Shakta Hindus, Jagannath is a symmetry-filled tantric form of Bhairava, a fierce manifestation of Shiva associated with annihilation.

In the first story, Rohiñī (रोहिणी), Balarāma’s (बलराम) mother, had witnessed the līla in Vrindāvana (वृंदावन). Once in Dwaraka (द्वारका), all queens of Kriśña (कृष्ण) approached her to recount the stories. Initially, she was hesitant, thinking Vrindāvana was so attractive that its recollection would make Kriśña move back there, which they did not want. So, she asked Subhadrā (सुभद्रा), sister of Kriśña and Balarāma, to guard the place and not let Kriśña in.

But as Rohiñī started, Subhadrā got engrossed in the story. Kriśña then arrived and stood quietly by His sister and then so did Balarāma. The brothers were so discreet that the sister did not notice their arrival.

Then, as Rohiñī narrated the accounts of gopīs’ love, the eyes of Kriśña, Balarāma and Subhadrā widened; their pupils dilated while the legs and hands shrunk into their eyes. This transcendental form was to express to the bhaktas (भक्त) the deep emotion Bhagavān (भगवान्) feels when He receives our love.

All of a sudden, Nārada (नारद) arrived. The siblings immediately got back to their normal human form. But by then, the devarshi had caught a glimpse of the mahābhāva prakāša (महाभाव प्रकाश) already. He pleaded with God to let the whole mankind benefit from the adbhut rūpa. Kriśña agreed and said that He, along with His brother and sister, will appear as Jagannātha, Baladeva (बलदेव) and Subhadrā in Puri.

In the second story, which is the most popular legend of Puri (पुरी), Višwakarmā (विश्वकर्मा) was making these mūrtis under the condition that he would not be disturbed until he finished his work, but he was. Višwakarmā left when the door of his workshop was knocked. Rājā Indradyumna (राजा इंद्रद्युम्न) was aghast, looking at what he thought were incomplete figurines. As he lamented, an ākāshavāñi (आकाशवाणी) explained what the mūrtis meant.

Comprehensive theology of Jagannath/Jagannātha

For the complete theology and rituals associated with the Jagannātha tradition, one must study the relevant Vedas, Puranas and also some tantras. According to the RgVeda and Sāmaveda, He is the Purushottama, the supreme masculinity, the effort part of creation and also Narayana.

Where scholars disagree: Speaking of history, RgVeda’s hymn 10.155 mentions a दारु (wooden log) floating in the ocean as apurusham., which Acharya Sayana interpreted as Purushottama, the wooden log being an inspiration for Jagannath। This placed the origin of Jagannath in the 2nd millennium BCE. Other scholars refute this interpretation stating that the correct context of the hymn is “Alaxmi Stava” of Arayi.

According to Bijoy Misra, Puri natives refer to Jagannatha as Purushottama, consider driftwood a savior symbol, and later Hindu texts of the region describe the Supreme as ever present in everything, pervasive in all animate and inanimate things. Therefore, while the Vedic connection is subject to interpretation, the overlap in the ideas exist.

The Vishnudharma Purana says that Krishna is worshipped in the form of Purushottama in Odra (Odisha). He is the same as the metaphysical ParaBrahma, the form of Krishna that prevades as abstract kāla (काल/time) in Vaishnava (वैष्णव) philosophy. He is abstraction which can be inferred and felt but not seen, just like time. Jagannath is chaitanya (चैतन्य/consciousness), and his companion Subhadra represent Shakti (शक्ति/energy) while Balabhadra represents Jnana (ज्ञान/knowledge).

Among the Shaivas who revere Jagannātha, He is the tantric Bhairava. Interestingly, a version of the more popular legend above comes from Skanda Purana, which is a Shaiva Purana. The complete story is as follows:

In the Satya Yuga, Indradyumna, the fifth in the family line of Brahma, ruled Earth as his kingdom. His capital was Avantinagara, situated in modern-day Uttar Pradesh. The king was a pious ruler who followed the Vedas and had deep devotion for God. He had a wish to speak directly with the Lord in his human self (but direct communication with God is impossible unless one elevates to heaven). The king hosted several events to pay respect to Brahmans and Vaishnavas who travelled to various pilgrimages and sacred places. They used to have long detailed discussion on the Vedas, Bhagavata and other religious scriptures. Every time the king would make a humble enquiry if any of them ever met any god who would speak to them and blink like a live human, the saints would say they haven’t come across such a deity.

The news of Indradyumna’s desire to meet a live god spread like wildfire. After years and years, a very old man with fine white hair and long white beard appeared one day in the court of Indradyumna. The man declared in the heavily attended court that he had met a god who spoke and blinked like human beings. The god, he said, was an exact replica of human but He was not human but God.

Indradyumna’s joy knew no bounds. He earnestly requested the old man for the whereabouts of this god. The old man said, “in the east of India, in Odradesha (modern day Odisha), close to the coastline lies the Nilagiri mountain. On the peak of the tallest mountain is present Nilamadhava.” Indradyumna vowed excitedly that he would visit Nilamadhaba as quickly as possible. The old man disappeared the next moment, indocating that he was not an average human saint but a very powerful one.

To confirm this, Indradyumna requested his trusted and knowledgeable aid, a Brahmana called Vidyapati, who was the rajaguru’s (royal priest) younger brother. Vidyapati was a learned scholar and expert in all the Vedas and Upanishads. He accepted the king’s request and started his journey to the Nilagiris right away.

After travelling for many days on a chariot, Vidyapati reached the foot of the Nilagiri hills. He tried to climb the hills on chariot but failed. He tried to climb by foot but failed, for the hill was very steep and covered with thick trees and the floor was covered with slippery moss. He circled the base of the entire mountain but could not find a way to the top. In the afternoon, he gave up and sat beneath a banyan tree and prayed to God to help him reach Nilamadhaba.

An hour later, a tribal man appeared and was surprised to see a Brahmana meditating at the base of the Nilagiri hills, for the forest was uninhabited. Even animals did not inhabit the place. except for his own tribesmen. This was an obscure tribe. He enquired the identity of the Brahmana and introduced himself as “Vishwabasu”. After knowing the intentions of Vidyapati, Vishwabasu helped him climb up to the peak of the Nilagiri hills to see Nilamadhaba.

Vidyapati was amazed seeing Nilamadhaba who blinked his eyelids like a human and communicated with words. Vidyapati fell to the ground immediately, paid his obeisance and prayed for a long time.

As instructed by king Indradyumna, after confirming the whereabouts of Nilamadhaba, Vidyapati set out to return to the king. On hearing the account of Vidyapati, Indradyumna decided to set out to visit Nilamadhaba. He made an announcement all over his city that anyone who wanted to visit Nilamadhaba in the Nilagiri mountain could join the king in the pilgrimage. The king said he would be in charge of the whole journey for all members of every family.

In a couple of days, all preparations for the journey were finished. When the king reached the city gates, he saw all citizens ready to join the pilgrimage. That was when Naradmuni (the brother of Indradyumna’s grandfather) appeared. King Indradyumna dismounted his horse and fell at Narada’s feet. Narada gave his blessings for the sacred journey and stated that he had been ordered by Brahma, king Indradyumna’s great-great grandfather, to accompany him in this great task. The king was even happier to have Narada’s company.

On entering the border of Odradesha, the king visited all the sacred temples, starting with Charchita at the border, then Ekamrakana (modern day Bhubneshwar), Kapotswara and Bilveswara.

They reached Shrikhetra and Vidyapati guided the king and a few trusted aids to the top of the hills, only to discover that Nilamadhaba had disappeared and the surroundings were covered with sand flown from the sea coast.

Seeing this, King Indradyumna fainted. Water was sprinkled on his face, expert physicians were called. When the king regained consciousness, he cried inconsolably over the tragic disappearance of Nilamadhaba.

That was when a divine prophecy was heard from the sky,

Worry not, King Indradyumna, perform one-thousand horse sacrifices, then I will manifest as four wooden idols and you can see Me with your physical eyes.

Hearing this, Indradyumna began preparations for a horse-sacrificing ceremony. Narada instructed the king to visit Narasimha who resided in an age-old temple at a nearby mountain. Indradyumna visited Narasimha and prayed to grant him and his people safety during the sacrificing ceremony.

The ceremony was carried out with great care. Hundreds and thousands of demigods and saints were invited. Infinite amounts of golds, silver, precious stones and cows were given away in charity. Grand feasts were arranged for the guests of honour. But the commotion of this massive herd of millions of cows eroded the ground and a giant hole was thus created, referred to as the Indradyumna pond in modern day.

Exactly after the completion of the thousandth horse sacrifice ceremony, a sandalwood tree appeared near the seashore. Narada and Indradyumna, meanwhile, discussed how to build the murtis, of what size and length, when another unembodied divine prophecy was heard:

There will be a carpenter who will carve out the idols of God. During the carpentering process, the area of construction should be covered. No one will be allowed to peep in or hear any noise, should anyone does, it will result in blindness and deafness. Let the covering be opened after fifteen days to receive the four wooden idols.

Right after the divine proclamation, an old carpenter appeared with some heavy tools. As directed by the ethereal voice, King Indradyumna arranged for an altar covered from all sides. Drums played all around the perimeter day and night to prevent any escape of sound. When the altar was opened after 15 days, instead of the sandalwood log, there stood Lord in four forms. The old carpenter had disappeared.

Jagannatha bore the conch, discus, iron club, and lotus. Balabhadra held iron club, mace, discus, and lotus. Subhadra had a charming face, and held a lotus in her hands. Sudarsana chakra stood as a tall pillar. Seeing this, King king Indradyumna fell at the Lord’s feet and prayed.

Narada suggested to the king that they invite Brahma to install the gods with due respect in the sacred shrine. Indradyumna instructed his men to build a magnificent temple etched in precious gems and plated with gold. He assigned the empire’s duties to his sons and daughters and set off with Narada in the flower chariot (which moved as fast as the mind) to the abode of Brahma.

Brahma welcomed Narada and King Indradyumna with deep affection. On receiving the invitation, Brahma was excited and they immediately began their return journey to Earth. By the time they reached Earth, however, millions of years had passed (a year in Brahmaloka equals 12,000 years on Earth). None of Indradyumna’s family or attendants were alive. But the four forms of God stood exactly as before and the temple was complete and was as good as new.

The king fell at the Lord’s feet and thanked Him for the grace of waiting all this time and taking care of His mansion all these years. Seeing King Indradyumna alone, Brahma asked the demigods for support. Brahma wrote an elaborate instruction of the inauguration ceremony, describing the regulations of the sacrificial fire. He also requested that chariots be made to move the Lord from the altar to the temples.

The then ruler of Earth, King Gala was a Vishnu devotee. He had installed a Madhaba idol in the shrine. King Indradyumna with great respect moved the Madhaba idol to another temple, which was built just as a palestine. When King Gala came to know of this, he became furious and set off to stop King Indradyumna.

When he reached Srikhetra (then Nilagiri, current name Puri) he was dumbstruck to see the activities going around and forgot his purpose. King Indradyumna met him and recounted all the past incidents about the disappearance of Nilamadhaba, the performance of horse sacrifices, and the travel to the abode of Brahma. King Gala surrendered to Indradyumna and requested to allocate some tasks to serve the divine purpose. King Indradyumna was equally elated to receive his services.

With the completion of inauguration yajna (यज्ञ/sacrificial fire) and moving the deities to the temple through chariots (currently being celebrated annually as Ratha Yatra), the four deities were installed to the Ratna singhasa (Jewelled throne) of the Shri Jagannatha temple.

Brahma followed by King Indradyumna and King Gala offered their respectful obeisances to the Lord. At last, King Indradyumna appointed King Gala to continue taking care of the four gods as he took leave of Earth, returning with Brahma to his abode.

Salabega, Odia, Assam and Karnataka culture

Salabega says that the Jagannath tradition assimilates the theologies found in Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism, Buddhism, Yoga and Tantra traditions.

The Jagannath theology overlaps with those of Krishna. For example, the 17th-century Odia classic Rasa kallola by Dina Krishna opens with a praise to Jagannath and then recites the story of Krishna with an embedded theology urging the pursuit of knowledge, love and devotion to realize the divine in everything.

The 13th-century Jagannatha vijaya in Kannada language by Rudrabhatta is a mixed prose and poetry style text which is predominantly about Krishna. It includes a canto that explains that “Hari (Vishnu), Hara (Shiva) and Brahma” are aspects of the same supreme soul. Its theology, like the Odia text, centers around supreme light being same as “love in the heart”.

The 15th-century Bhakti scholar Shankaradeva of Assam became a devotee of Jagannatha in 1481, and wrote love and compassion inspired plays about Jagannatha-Krishna that influenced the region and remain popular in Assam and Manipur.

The mediaeval era Odia scholars such as Ananta, Achyutananda and Chaitanya described the theology of Jagannath as the “personification of the Shunya, or the void”, but not entirely in the form of Shunyata of Buddhism. They state Jagannath as “Shunya Brahma”, or alternatively as “Nirguna Purusha” (or “abstract personified cosmos”). Vishnu avatars are descend from this Shunya Brahma into human form to keep dharma

Iśopanishad calls the form “Om purñam” (ॐ पूर्णम्), perfect and complete, although not visibly so. Besides seeing, the eyes of Jagannātha (जगन्नाथ/Jagannath) perform all the work that limbs can and those eyes feel, smell, taste, speak and hear too. It’s the concentration of all senses and more, as those eyes can do what no able-bodied human being can.

Contestable claims of Jagannath in Buddhism

Since relic worship is integral to Buddhism, Jagannath Puri is found in Buddhist narrations as well. There exists, for example, an unexamined relic in the Jagannath shrine in Puri, about which some local legends state that the shrine relic contains a tooth of the Gautama Buddha – a feature common to many cherished Theravada Buddhist shrines in and outside India.

Another legend states that the shrine also contains bones of the human incarnation of the Hindu god Krishna, after he was accidentally killed by a deer hunter. However, in the Hindu tradition, a dead body is cremated, ashes returned to nature, and the mortal remains or bones are not preserved or adored. However, in Buddhism, preserving cetiya or skeletal parts such as “Buddha’s tooth” or relics of dead saints is a thriving tradition. This made some foreign Indologists like Scottish missionary John Stevenson suggest that Jagannath may have a Buddhist origin. However, this rationalisation is weak because some other traditions such as those in Jainism and tribal folk religions have had instances of preserving and venerating relics of the dead. That does not mean Jagannath could be a Jain god as well.

Then, some observers assumed that Jagannath might be Buddhist, as the Ratha Yatra involves a stupa-like shape of the temple and a dharmachakra-like discus (chakra) at the top of the spire. The major annual procession festival has many features found in the Mahayana Buddhism traditions. Faxian, the 400 CE Chinese pilgrim and visitor to India, wrote about a Buddhist procession in his memoir, and this has very close resemblances with the Jagannath festivities. Further, the season in which the Ratha-Yatra festival is observed is about the same time when the historic public processions welcomed Buddhist monks for their temporary, annual monsoon-season retirement.

Another basis for this theory has been the observed mixing of people of Jagannath Hindu tradition contrary to the caste segregation theories popular with colonial era missionaries and Indologists. Since caste barriers never existed among devotees in Jagannath’s temple, and Buddhism was believed to have been a religion that rejected caste system, colonial era Indologists and Christian missionaries such as Verrier Elwin suggested that Jagannath must have been a Buddhist deity and the devotees were a caste-rejecting Buddhist community.

According to Starza, another foreign Indologist, the theory above is refuted by the fact that other Indic traditions did not support caste distinctions, such as the Hindu Smarta tradition founded by Adi Shankara, and the traditional feeding of the Hindus together in the region regardless of class, caste or economic condition in the memory of Codaganga. This reconciliation is weak also because Jagannath is venerated by all Hindu sects and not merely Vaishnavas or a regional group of Hindus. Jagannath has a pan-Indian influence. The Jagannath temple of Puri has been one of the major pilgrimage destination for Hindus across the Indian subcontinent since about 800 CE.

Yet another evidence is that Jagannath is sometimes identified with or substituted for Shakyamuni Buddha, as the ninth avatar of Vishnu by Hindus, when it could have been substituted for any other avatar. Jagannath was worshipped in Puri by the Odias as a form of Shakyamuni Buddha from a long time. Jayadeva, in Gita Govinda described Buddha as one among the Dasavatara while many Hindu scholars contest the claim because the Buddha’s way of sannyasa by abdication is considered a lesser method than Krishna’s who did not abandon his family to stay detached from samsara. Also, speaking of history, Dashavatara was an afterthought that emerged centuries after the Bhagavata sect worshipped Krishna alone.

Indrabhuti, the ancient Buddhist king, describes Jagannath as a Buddhist deity in Jnanasidhi. Further, as a Buddhist king, Indrabhuti worshipped Jagannath. This is not unique to the coastal state of Odisha but possibly also influenced Buddhism in Nepal and Tibet.

Shakyamuni Buddha is worshipped as Jagannath in Nepal. This circumstantial evidence is contested because the reverent mention of Jagannath in the Indrabhuti text may merely be a coincidental homonym, may indeed refer to Shakyamuni Buddha, because the same name may refer to two different persons or things.

Some scholars argue that evidences of Jagannatha’s Buddhist nature are found from Medieval Odia Literature. Many medieval Odia poets conceptualized Jagannatha as Shunya Brahman, which is similar to the great void found in Mahayana Buddhist philosophies. Odia poet Sarala Dasa of the 15th century in his Mahabharata describes Jagannatha as Buddha.


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