Jagannath: The Epitome of Supreme Lord Visnu


Jan 2, PURI, ORISSA (SUN) — The significance of Visnu iconography is explained in the Puranas and several minor Upanisads. The two most common representations show him sleeping above the Ocean on the coils of the Serpent Remainder (Sesa-naga) or standing with four arms and a number of attributes as the ruler of Sattva, the cohesive or centripetal tendency.

The worship of Visnu or Vaisnava cult was prevalent in Orissa long before the advent of Shri Chaitanya. The 9th-10th century grants of Dandi Mahadevi and Tribhuvana Mahadevi, two renowned queens of the Bhauma Dynasty, tell that they were great followers of Vishnu. Shrimad Bhagavata had already been translated into Oriya before Shri Chaitanya came to Orissa. With the rule of Chodaganga Deva in 1078, Orissa also came in contact with the Alvar School of Vaishnavas. Rai Ramananda was a learned Vaishnava poet who flourished even before Shri Chaitanya came to Orissa.

The Padma Purana describes twenty-four epithets of Vishnu (Kesava, Narayana, Madhava, Govinda, Visnu, Madhusudana, Tribikrama, Vamana, Sridhara, Hrisikesa, Padmanabha, Damodara, Sankarsana, Vasudeva, Pradyumna, Aniruddha, Purusottama, Adhoksaja, Narasimha, Achyuta, Janardana, Upendra, Hari, Krisna). In Orissa, Narayana, Madhava and Krisna forms of Visnu have gained immense adoration. And all these forms have been symbolized in the form of Lord Jagannath. Lord Jagannath has been undoubtedly taken as the epitome of Supreme Lord Visnu.

He is the beloved Krisna Gopinath, He is Madhava, and He is Purusottama. He is the outcome of many shapings and reshapings by the religious cross-currents of this land. The peculiar iconography of the wooden images of Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra with their thick and massive heads and stumps emerging out of the middle of the head; devoid totally of the legs, speaks of its origin and character even to a layman.

During the period when the wooden image or images of Jagannath were accepted in the Hinduistic fold, the most popular Visnu images in Orissa were those of Madhava, who was also known as Nilamadhava, since those images were carved out of the black chlorite - black or blue being the body hue of Vishnu. Madhava, (as it is said earlier) is a standing form of Vishnu with four arms in which he holds (beginning from the upper left) a conch, a mace, a lotus (in Orissa, however, this lower right mostly displays the varada-mudra) and a discuss respectively. A number of such images belonging to the 8th - 10th centuries have been found and excavated in the valley of the river Prachi, not far from Puri.

In the beginning of the present millennium therefore, when the worshippers of Jagannath felt the necessities to explain to themselves and others this strange form and wooden character of their Deity, they naturally thought first of Nilamadhava which was the most common form of Vishnu in those days. Initially the Lord was worshipped by Viswavasu, a Chief of the Sabara race. Bidyapati, a Brahmin emissary of king Indradyumna of Malava wanted to have a darshan of the Lord. He discovered the Lord. But the Lord vanished and a divine voice was heard to the king that the Lord would now no more be visible to the people in His Nilamadhava form which was appropriate only for the golden age of humanity (Krtayuga) but would instead assume a new shape more suitable to the prevailing time to be worshipped as a Deity made of wood.

Why the wooden images of Jagannath etc. have exactly these peculiar and uncommon features, has also been explained either as the will of Visnu, Who Himself appears as the Carpenter to fashion the images, or as a result of the uncalled for curiosity of Gundicha, the legendary queen of Indradyumna, who opened the doors of the carpenter's workshop after the lapse of fourteen days, whereas they were to remain shut up for three weeks, an act which offended the divine carpenter so much that he disappeared leaving the work unfinished.

Leaving aside here the question, how Lord Jagannatha's wooden Form was identified with Visnu, we may recall that Jagannath has very often been characterized as the Buddha incarnation of Visnu in the Orissan literary tradition. Sarala Das, (first half of the 15th century A.D.) refers to this identification several times in his Odia Mahabharata. This tradition persisted and flourished in the works of the Panchasakha (beginning of 16th century A.D.) and others. Buddha is not the only form of Visnu, with whom Jagannath is identified. There are sufficient evidences in the cult practices to show that at least in a certain phase of his development, Jagannath has really been considered as identical with Narasimha, the man-lion. The Purusottama Mahatmya of Skanda Purana for example, mentions Narasimha as a combined form of all the three deities, Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra.

The cult of Krsna became increasingly popular in the beginning of the 11th and 12th centuries in Bengal and Orissa owing to the tremendous influence of Bhagavata Purana. Latest by 1250 A.D. there stood three images in the temple of Puri, which were identified with Krsna, his elder brother Balarama and their sister Ekanamsa. The identification of Jagannath with Krsna was so popular that Sarala Das was inspired to evolve an interesting story about the material identification of the wooden image of Jagannath with the dead body of Krsna. Gradually, the relationship between Krsna and Jagannath was changed, however. The Oriya poet Karttika Das, writing a little later in the same 16th century, tells us that it was Jagannath who became the son of Devaki in the Dvapara Yuga, not the other way round.

That Jagannath is the avatari from whom all the ten avataras have emanated was propagated vigorously in the 17th century also by the poet Dinakrusna Das in his work 'Rasakallola' and especially by Divakara Das in his Jagannath Charitamrita, who declares Krsna (Balakrsna) to be only the 16th part (one Kant) of Lord Jagannath.

Kavindra Upendra Bhanja, the greatest of the Oriya poets, writing in the second half of the 18th century, describes the images of Jagannath etc. as shapeless, devoid of form being the svarupa of Visnu. Jagannath, to him, represents the Nirguna (non-qualified) form of God. Thus the development of the concept of Jagannath is also the history of the development of philosophical speculations in Orissa.

Book References:

Nandita Krishna - The Art and Iconography of Vishnu Narayana, Publisher - D.B Taraporevala Sons & Co. Pvt. Ltd, Bombay, 1980

T.A. Gopinatha Rao - Elements of Hindu Iconography, Vol - 1, Part I & II, Publisher - Motilal Banarasi Das, Jawahar Nagar, New Delhi - 7, 1968

Kamapala Das, Matsya Purana, Ed. by Balaram Das, Nityananda Pustakalaya, Cuttack, 1955

Kamapala Das, Vishnu Purana, Edward Press, Cuttack, 1915. Jayanti Rath is the Curator-in-charge, Numismatics Section, Orissa State Museum, Bhubaneswar-14


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