JAGANNATHA OF PURI AND RATHA YAATRA
DISCOURSE BY N. R. SRINIVASAN, JULY 2012
In the four quarters of India there are four important temples collectively known as "CHAARDAAM" (four abodes). They are BADRINATH in the North, where the Lord is worshipped as Bardrinarayana; PURI in the East, where He is worshipped as Jagannatha, Lord of the Universe; DWAARAKA in the West where He is worshipped as Lord Krishna; and RAMESWARAM in the South where He is worshipped as Lord Shiva.
The marvelous sea town of Puri on the Bay of Bengal in the state of Orissa, in India is well known as the land or abode of Lord Jagannatha. Tantric worshippers call Puri as Srikshetra City of Divine Mother. Subhadra is the central deity on the Ratna Simhasana in Puri and in Puranas she is known as Kaataayini (Bhuvanesvari) the form in which she appeared in dream to Indradyumna. Sudarsana is her attendant whose icon is installed as wooden pole with cloth strips wrapped round it to her left. Sudarsana appeared inside a pillar in the dream of Indradyumna (sthambha-madhyastham). Three main deities are seen dressed in saree style clothes indicating the Taantric culture. Puri is one of the four important Tantric Devi centers.
Durga is also known as Naarayani as we chant in the famous sloka: "Saranaagata deenaarta paritraana paraayanay | sarvas-yaartiharay Devi Naaraayani namostu Te ||". Legends speak of her as sister of Lord Krishna who in Mahabharata is Subhadra. Durga shares many details with Vishnu including the dark complexion. The Aagamas prescribe that worship to her must be accorded in the same manner as to Vishnu. So Krishna, Subhadra and Balabadra are also worshiped as Vaasudeva, Kaatyaayani(Durga)and Sankarshana by Tantric followers.
Jaydeva who is an ardent devotee of Jagannatha in his Dasavatara Stotra excludes Krishnavatara from the list and says all the ten avataras came from Krishna who is none other than Jagannatha, Parabrahman. He was responsible for the spread of Vaishnavism in the North along with Chaitanya. Puranas indicate there existed Bhairava originally, the fierce form of Rudra along with Jagannath in the main dais who has been later replaced by the protagonists of Vaishnavism. However Narasimha, the counter part of Rudra in Vaishnavism occupies a predominant position in Orissa temples particularly at Bhuvanesvar, a staunch saivite center. Narasimha along with Soorya are invoked during rituals at Puri. Probably he is the replacement for Bhairava of Saivism.
The names Sadyojaata, Vaamadeva, Aghora, Tatpurusha and Mahaadeva signify the five heads of God Rudra. There are five mantras in Mahaanaraayana Upanishad relating to these five forms of Rudra also known as Panchaanana. But these five mantras are called by the name Panchabrahma and these mantras are explained as related to Brahman. In Narasimha Tapaneeya Upanishad Narasimha is praised "Easaanah sarvavidyaanaam" as in the above Upanishad. Sadyoejaata is a term appropriate to Lord Narasimha as well as Lord Siva as both were born at will instantly. Narasimha, an avataar of Vishnu was born out of pillar in a terrible form as Man-Lion. Siva was born as an endless column of Fire in a fierce form as Lingodbhava Moorti. They both are praised as Ghora, Aghora and Ghoraghora—-terrible, not terrible and terribly terrible. It is therefore no wonder Bhairava was substituted by Narasimha for worship in Orissa Temples under the Vaishnava influence at a later period. Soorya is identified with Savitar which is the other name for Brahman like Parmaatman. In Jayadeva's concept Krishna is Jagannatha and Jagannatha is Paramaatma. Hence Krishna is not among the ten avataaras (Dasaavataara). Soorya and Narasimha worship is popular in Orissa.
The Aagamas describe a number of festivals such as Rathotsava (Ratha-Yatra). Brahamotosava is an important festival in all Vishnu temples conducted annually. This festival is believed to be conducted by Lord Brahma himself in honor of the presiding deity of the temple. Ratha Yatra generally marks the climax of the Brahmotsava. In this festival the deity is taken around the town in the beautifully decorated chariot of the temple. The chariot is drawn by the devotees to the accompaniment of divine music and Veda chanting. In aagama concept Ratha symbolizes Mount Meru.
The Temple at Puri conducts worship as per Tantric rituals. Therefore they do not conduct Brhamotsavam like temples in the South that follow Aagama Saastras, nevertheless they conduct Ratha Yaatra. The world famous Ratha Yatras of Balabhadra, Subhadra and Jagannath at Puri are thrilling and spectacular events which attract devotees from all parts of the world. The chariot Of Jangannath is drawn by ropes symbolizing the divine serpent Vasuki. The other two chariots are also drawn by ropes symbolizing other two divine serpents. The Ratha Yatra at Puri is observed on the second day of the bright fortnight of Aashaada (June-July) month each year. Ratha Yatra at Puri is several thousand years old in tradition, before the concept of Brahmotsava, connecting it to the first installation of deities. The chariot of Subhadra is called Dwarpadalana (Trampler of Pride). The chariot of Jagannth is called Nandighosh. The chariot of Balabhadra is called Taaladwajha, named after the symbol it carries. The chariots are taken to Gundicha and brought back through Badaa Danda or Grand Road.
Ramanuja reached Purushottama Kshetra during his conquest trip (vijay yaatra) and stayed there for some time. He founded a monastery in Puri and called it Embar Math, named after his disciple Govinda. Ramanuja wanted the priests in Puri to worship the Deity there according to the Panchratra Aaagama and also was eager to establish his doctrine there. He requested the king for arranging a discussion with the local priests to elaborate on his doctrine. But the local priests were averse to any change. But frightened they took refuge in Sri Purushottama during the night. A strange thing happened that night. The Lord wanted to please both his ardent devotees. It is said, that on that night, while Ramanuja was asleep, he was moved over to Koormakshetra, a hundred yojanas (around nine miles) away from that place and was also separated from hundreds of his followers without his knowledge. Ramanuja realized that it was an act of God and started the worship of the Lord in his incarnation as Varaaha at that place with his doctrine of Aagama saastra. His disciples joined him there. After propagating his message from that place he moved to Simhachalam in Andhra Pradesh after some time where he regularized the worship of Vishnu in his incarnation of Varaha-Narasimha.
Lord Jagannath accepted both the forms of worship--Taantric as well as Aaagama coming from his devotees with unquestionable faith. He also did not want to disappoint his devotee Ramanuja who had come to Orissa to spread his message. Thus he reaffirmed by his strange action what he once said in Bhagavadgeeta:
Yo yo yam yam tanum bhaktah sraddhaya-architum icchati |
Tasya tasyaachalaam sraddhaam taam eva vidadhaamy-aham || 7-22 ||
Whoever desires to worship whatever deity using any name, form, and method with faith, I make their faith fruitful. [For, all obeisance and prayers to any deity reach the Supreme Being alone.]
Planning and preparation for the festival starts many months earlier. Every year three new chariots are constructed. Currently, according to some estimates 92 carpenters, 81 helpers, 22 black smiths, 22 painters are engaged in the construction of the chariots, indicative of huge skilled staff employed. 1200 meters of green, red, black and yellow cloth is used in this artful work to cover the chariots (Ratna Mandaani). 250 feet of coir rope cable is employed to pull the chariot along the 3 km. road. The chariot is 12 meters high with 16 wheels of 2 meters diameter each. Balabhadra's chariot has Taala-dwaja; emblem of Taala flower, Subhadra's chariot bears the emblem of Devadalana or Padma-dwaja, emblem of the lotus; Jagannath's chariot carries the emblem of Nandighosh also known as Kapi-dwaja. Thousands of devotees draw/pull the chariots. Jagannath is presented predominantly in black hue; Balabhadra is seen in white; Subhadra in Yellow and Sudarsan in Brown. These are the only colors of human races in the world whatever their origin may be. They thus are symbolic of the universe.
The most prevalent ancient story about the construction of the temple of Lord Jagannath at Puri runs as follows: King Indradyumna, a staunch devotee of Lord Vishnu was searching for a good carpenter to make the icons of the deities. No suitable person was found, but at last an old carpenter came forward to make the deities. He put forth several stipulations to work; no one was to see him at work; no one was to disturb him; he was to be locked up inside a large room without any windows for 15 days. King Indradyumna agreed to all the conditions and the work commenced on an auspicious day. The Queen Gundicha, also a devotee of Lord Vishnu, was listening to sound of constructions daily. When one day she did not hear any sound from inside the sealed room, she became anxious, since no provision for food was made for the old carpenter. She prevailed on the king to check on the old man, to make sure he was all right. Heeding to her request he ordered the doors to be opened prematurely. When the doors were opened, to everybody's surprise, the carpenter had disappeared, deserting the partially sculpted icons, although there was no exit from the chamber.
According to our Shastras (Vedas and Upanishads), the creator is not separate from the created. The Lord himself manifested as the carpenter, carved the icons and merged with the icons when the doors were open. This supports the Shastras, as the created and the creator are the same. Lord Jagannath is none other than the Para-brahman. The symbolism of the ultimate Para-brahman is very much incorporated in the idol of Jagannath. Nobody knew how to perform the Praana-Pratishta of the Lord Para-Brahman. King Indradyumna along with sage Naarada traveled to Brahma-Loka and requested Lord Brahma to guide him in doing the Praana-Pratihsta. Lord Brahma graced the occasion of this auspicious consecration. Subhadra symbolizes Divine Mother and Adi Parasakti. Sudarsana is held on the right hand index finger of Lord Vishnu in disc form in all Vishnu Temples. Here he is installed to the left of Subhadra as a pole covered with cloth and plays the part of an attendant on Devi. Therefore he accompanies her in the same chariot.
Another popular legend runs as follows: King Indradyumna, a staunch devotee of Lord Vishnu performed a penance as a result of which Vishnu appeared in his dream in four fold form:Purushottama (Vaasudeva), Bala-bhadra (Samkarshana) Subhadra(Kaatyaayini) and Sudarsana. He then contemplated getting his vision translated into iconic representation. Then a huge block of manjishtha (madder red) color wood came floating on the sea, and there also appeared on the scene an old sculptor-carpenter (vardhakee). He was none other than the divine builder Viswakarma. According to legends after the mortal remains of Lord Krishna were cremated in Prabhaasa–Patna near Dwaraka, there rose a great Pepal tree from the ashes which fell into the sea. It made its way to the coast of Orissa where it was found as huge log of floating wood by Indradyumna.
The King wanted to build a temple for the Lord of the Universe, Jagannath, as the story goes. The King asks Viswakarma, the architect of the celestial gods, to create these icons. Viswakarma agrees to carve the icons on condition the no one sees him at work. However the anxious king goes to see the sculptor at work and this enrages Vishwakarma, who leaves the work half completed, and thus the icons were left with no hands or feet. No amount of apology or begging by the king changes Vishwakarma's adamant decision. Finally Lord Brahma came to the king's rescue and brought life into these icons, which are worshipped to this day as Lord Jagaanath, Balabhadra and Subhadra.
The year 1996 was a special year for the Ratha Yatra; the three iconss of Lord Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra were newly sculptured. This event is called "Nabakalebar" or the symbolic ascent and decent of Lord Jagannath, which is held every 12 to 19 years. The new idols are made from seasoned wood of selected margosa trees.
Silpa Sastra covers the arts of sculpture, iconography and temple building. The images of Gods are generally made of stone, wood, clay or metal. In order for a silpi (sculptor) to bring an image to life, he not only requires great talent and skill but the material of finest quality. From ancient times, Hindus have worshiped plants and trees and regarded flora and fauna as sacred. Margosa has also great medicinal values and is least decaying. Prior to starting any renovation work, during the Jeernoddharana, the divine presence of the Murtis (icons) must be transferred to the holy waters contained in the Kumbhas (kalasaas), if the repair work lasts less than a month. Aagama sastras recommend wood carved figures as transfer media for the divine powers, in place of Kalasaas, if the repair work lasts for a longer period of a year or more. Kalasa and the carved image remain in a miniature temple structure known as a Baalaalaya. Traditionally, Puri Temple, at Jagannath has chosen wood as the choice material for the deities, in place of the popular stone or metal. Perhaps this is how the ancient arts of wood carving and painting are traditionally preserved in Orissa, which was started by the Lord Himself, and Viswakarma, in creating artistic divine idols in accordance with Silpa sastra.
On Ratha Yatra day, after the completion of all the rituals for the Lords, both in the temple and on the chariots, Lord Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra and Sudarsana are taken out from the "Rathnavedi" of the magnificent main temple in a ceremonial procession called "Pahandi Bije". They are placed in their respective gigantic rathas, standing in front of the temple. Lord Jagannath and Balabhadra have separate chariots. Goddess Subhadra and Sudharsana are placed in one chariot in the middle. On the occasion of the car festival day, when the Lord is taken ceremoniously to his seat on the chariot, any human being of any caste, creed or religion can go to the Lord, stand very close to him, embrace and offer worship to one's heart content. The Raja of Puri called Gajapati Maharaj is the head of the temple management. The Maharaja of Puri is brought to the chariots, to perform the duties of a sweeper. He holds in his hand a golden broom to sweep the ground around the deities. This is called "Chera Pohara". Thus the Ratha Yatra preaches the gospel that in the eyes of the Lord, all human beings are equal, irrespective of their social status.
Lord Jagannath moves in the joyous company of Subhadra and Balabhadra from the sanctum sanctorum of the main temple. Traditionally the chariot of Balabhadra moves first; the chariot of Subhadra with Sudarsana, her attendant follows the chariot of Balabhadra and the chariot of Jagannath moves last. Thousands of devotees hold the 250feet of the holy coir-cable and pull the chariot along the 3 kilometers grand road to Sri Gundicha Mandir. Here the deities are rested for seven days and are carried back to the main temple.
The act of pulling the chariot, however insignificant ones contribution is, said to confer great merit, thus those who have faith turn out in thousands seeking salvation. It is a festival of joy that dispels sorrow and melancholy from life. It is divine joy out of which the universe was created. Even as the ocean receives into itself all the river waters flowing into it, so should a man receive into his inner being all the so-called "eternal" joys and mix them with the ocean of "Aananda" (joy), which is Himself. Any joy that comes out from outside must become one with the self as plenary "Aananda", joy. When that consciousness dawns, the little joys of the world will not require to be sought after, which will soon be only a fraction of the universal bliss, one always enjoys. Eternal joy sustains joy within, the joy to be one with the Self and the Supreme. This is the message of this magnificent festival, Ratha Yatra.
Ratha Yatra is also held in the other parts of India. In the South the famous temple of Sri Rangam and Tiruvarur have similar car festivals at other times of the year. In fact almost all temples have a Ratha Yatra on a smaller scale, Puri being reputed for the grandest of them all. In Tiruvaarur, the Deity Tyagaraja is taken in procession around the temple, and invariably when the chariot gets stuck on the road it would take many days for the chariot to be drawn back to the temple. Chariots used to be pulled by the devotees, but in the recent past, motor driven chariots and rubber tires enable the smooth travel of these huge structures.
Ratha Yatra has also become a celebration in North American temples of which Sri Ganesha Temple of Nashville is one. It is an annual celebration held usually around the July 4th Independence holiday. A picturesque Ratha has been imported from India for this purpose. Many devotees come to Nashville from far and near to partake in these festivities. On Ratha Yatra day, after prescribed rituals, deities are taken in ceremonious procession by the devotees, to the accompaniment of music and mantra chanting. The Ratha is pulled by several devotees to Gundicha and deities return back to the main temple after nine days. Speakers from India are invited to speak on Jagannath philosophy at this time. Bhajans, music and Orissa dance performances mark the special occasion. People share the Prasad (blessed food) offered to Lord Jagannath and enjoy the dinner at the temple.
Our Sastras say that once you see Lord Jagannath with devotion on the Ratha, you will be liberated from repeated cycles of birth and death and attain Moksha or salvation. Kathopanishad describes the life of a human being as a journey. Any journey has a destination to reach. The destination is the goal of the journey. The aim of life is to reach that goal, and that goal is limitless and full. All the equipment to carry on this trip has been provided to man. Man's chariot is his body; the horses are the sense organs; the reins are the mind; which control the sense organs. The charioteer is in the form of the intellect. With the help of this chariot, everybody is constantly traveling in life reaching different places, attaining different goals.
The journey of life is fulfilled only when one reaches that desired goal. So, one must understand the ultimate goal, the desired end of life to be achieved. When the goal is clear and kept in view, the journey will be directed and followed appropriately and the goal can be achieved. The goal of life to be achieved is called Saadhya. The means by which the Saadhya is achieved is called Saadhana (spiritual pursuits). The person trying to reach a desired goal is called Saadhaka. At the beginning, the Saadhaka is a seeker. When the goal is achieved, the seeker becomes Siddha. When the seeker accomplishes the desired end, he or she is no more a seeker. The person becomes Siddha Purusha.
Yatra means journey. Ratha is the jnaani's, body, mind, sense complex, provided to complete the journey to reach the desired goal in view, that is to reach the desired end. Only then is the journey complete. When the goal is not clear, the journey is misdirected. One will be wandering everywhere without reaching the ultimate goal.
It may be of interest to note that the English word 'Juggernaut' meaning a large heavy truck or an object that crushes whatever is in its path (symbolically all egos) actually came from the name 'JAGANNATH" and the event of the huge car procession in Puri in Orissa.
This lecture for Vedanta class has been prepared by suitably extracting, abridging and editing texts from the following publications as well as based on lectures delivered by visiting dignitaries:
- Devdutt Pattanaik, Vishnu, Vakils. Feffer and Simons Ltd., Mumbai, India.
- Prof. S.K. Ramachandra Rao, Vishnu Kosha, Kalpatharu Research Academy, Sharada Peetham, Bangalore, India.
- Swami Harshananda, Hindu Gods and Goddesses, Ramakrihna Math,Chennai, India.
- Swami Harshananda, Hindu Pilgrim Centers,Ramkrishna Math, Chennai,India.
- N.S.Anantrangacharya, Chandogya Upanishad, Bangalore, India.
[This discourse is compiled by N. R. Srinivasan with considerable help from Dr. P. Satpathy, Nashville TN and Rahul Acharya from Puri, Orissa, India which are gratefully acknowledged.]