Srikshetra - A Replica of Indian Culture


Lord Jagannath-Visnu
Orissan Pata-chitra

Feb 07, JAGANNATHA PURI, ORISSA (SUN) — India's cultural and religious diversity is reflected in the essence of Jagannath Puri Dhama.

Srikshetra, or Jagannath Puri as it is commonly known, is a truthful replica of Indian culture. To understand this culture, one has to have some idea of the history of this land, which is different from that of other countries of the world. Indian history does not contain accounts of imperialistic aggressions or invasions into the territorial integrity of any nation. It is, on the other hand, a history of assimilation and a perfect adjustment to a specific environment, which began thousands of years before the period's history known as the Indus Valley Civilization.

Both Mahenjodaro and Harappa reveal that their creation was not from an incipient civilization, but rather they had millions of human endeavours behind them. As Jawaharlal Neheru felt, "It was like some ancient palm leaf set, on which layer upon layer of thought had been inscribed and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been there previously."

The culture that grew up here and that is hinted at by Nehru was not an anthropomorphic entity, but a perfect synthesis and adjustment of diverse racial cultures. If one cares to analyse further, he would find out that it is a curious mixture of free thought and orthodoxy. Nevertheless, it is the inner creativity of the people belonging to this country, and their strong religious and spiritual faith that led to the growth of a dynamic Indian culture based on tolerance.

A person trying to understand the basics of Indian culture can very well study the history of Srikshetra, which has innumerable temples, Maths and Ashramas. However tantalizing they may appear outwardly, they would at long last espouse the essence of Indian culture, which is basically a harmonious blending of diverse thoughts and philosophies -- not a synthesis, but a perfect agreement, each maintaining its own peculiar phenomena, yet forming into one indivisible whole named "Indian". This Indian-ness is an emotional experience, which breeds and develops a queer feeling of oneness.

Jainism and Buddhism

Of these two religions, Jainism is older than Buddhism, and it basically approved the precepts of the Vedas. On the other hand, the Hindus were the believers in the Vedas from which the Brahmin religion had its impetus. The Vedas are first cast as mantras (Prayers etc) and brahmanas (Rituals, etc.) and the Brahmin religion started thriving on the tenets of the Vedas.

The historians believe that Rishabhadeva or Rishabha, traditionally known as the founder of Jainism, is inseparably associated with the cultural history of ancient Orissa. The Hatigumpha (Elephant's Cave) inscriptions have a reference to an image of Kalinga Jina, being carried away from Orissa by a king belonging to the Nanda Dynasty of Magadha. Whether that was the image of Sitalnath or Rishabha is a matter of controversy. But fact remains that the gospel of Jainism was preached extensively in Orissa, and its impact on the religious firmament of Orissa reached its all time high during the reign of Kharavela, in the 1st century B.C. Stone inscriptions and sculptures speak of the glory of this impact, and finally of the Trinity of the cult.

That there had been a cross-cultural fertilization between the resident non-Aryans of India and the immigrant Aryans is a foregone conclusion. It is this cross-cultural integration which precisely gave a peculiar shape to Indian culture. The appearances of the Indians residing in the foothills of the Himalayas, to their living in 'Person's Pygmalion Point' in the Nicobar Island (for that is the Southern-most tip of the Indian sub-continent); their language, food, dress, art and music, so also their architecture, all point unmistakably to this grand fusion of many subcultures into a big one.

When we concentrate our attention on Srikshetra, we perceive immediately that it enshrines within its limited boundaries a fusion of various faiths, traditions, and sub-cultures to give it the most acceptable shape of a replica of Indian culture. A study of the Jagannath cult and a survey of Srikshetra give strength to this idea.

Starting from Lord Jagannath Himself, one history has it that He was a tribal deity, adored by the Savaras as a symbol of Narayana. Another legend claims Him to be Nilamadhaba, an image of Narayana made of blue stone and worshipped by the aboriginals. He was brought to Nilagiri (Blue Mountain) or Nilachala and installed there as Jagannath, with Balabhadra and Subhadra.

So we may safely claim that the beginning of the cultural history of Srikshetra is found in the fusion of Hindu and Tribal Cultures, which has been accepted as a facet of our proud heritage. The three Deities came to be claimed as the symbols of Samyak Darshana, Samyak Gyana and Samyak Charitra, usually regarded as Triratna (of the Jaina Cult), on assimilation of which, a human being is led to moksha (salvation) or the ultimate end.

The growth of Buddhism in India is also an important phenomenon, since the 6th century B.C., and is considered to wield much impetus to the intellectual movement of the contemporary period. Some Indian historians consider Buddha to be a great social reformer, while others tend to attach some importance to his humanitarian approach. However, Buddhism also grew up enormously and transcended the geo-political boundaries of India.

Chandashoka (Ashoka, the violent or fierce) turned into Dharmashoka (Ashoka, the religious) in 261 B.C., after the blood bath he had in Kalinga. Ultimately, the Maurya Empire declined after Ashoka. The Kalinga War was a turning point in Indian history, as the Conquered Kalinga conquered her conqueror, The holocaust witnessed by the emperor Ashoka left an indelible mark on his sensitive mind, and he accepted Buddhism and followed the same throughout his life.

Although historians differ in their opinions, if Kalingan was the turning point in the life of Ashoka, there is no doubt that this is one of the reasons that Chandashoka turned to Dharmashoka. His Rock Edicts, better known as the Kalinga Edicts say, "All men are my children. Just as for my children I desire that, they be united with all welfare and happiness of this world and of the next, precisely, I do desire it for all men."

Some scholars have come forward to stake a claim on the Trinity, on behalf of Buddhism. According to them, Lord Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra stand for Buddha (the enlightened), Dharma (the religion), and Sangha (the organization). As we all know, the Buddhists do have strong allegiance to these three aspects of their religion. Some Hindus have also put a seal of recognition on their claim by accepting Jagannath as the symbol of Buddha.

That Srikshetra does not recognize differences of caste and creed is the focal point on which the Buddhist base their claims. The caste system, as it is commonly known, is a basic idea of Hinduism. Without going into the claims and counter-claims of the scholars, we can safely announce that so far, we have noticed a fair amount of cross-cultural cohesion in the growth and development of the Jagannath cult. Lord Jagannath is worshipped as Vishnu, Narayana or Krishna, and is simultaneously regarded as the Bhairava (Shiva, the formidable) with Bimala (the Bhairavi or the concort of Shiva), installed near the temple.

So ultimately, we find a fusion of Saivism, Shaktism and Vaishnavism of the Hindu religion with Jainism and Buddhism in the cult of Jagannath, and the cultural tradition so relevantly held together in Srikshetra.

History has it that Guru Nanak (1469-1539), the founder of Sikhism in India, traveled extensively through the length and breadth of India. He paid a visit to Puri with two of his disciples, Bala and Manda (the former a Hindu and the latter a Muslim), and stayed here for some days. His disciples dug a hole in the sea beach in quest of potable water for the use of their Guru. On being considered holy, subsequently it was converted into a well and a Gurudwara was created in memory of Guru Nanak. Granth Saheb, the Sacred Book of Religion of the Sikhs, was placed there for reciting hymns from it.

Muslim invasions into the Hindu Kingdom of Orissa started in the 13th century A.D with their strong base in the adjoining province of Bengal. Those invasions were repulsed, with intermittent spells of defeat, by the contemporary ruling Ganga kings of Orissa. This kind of attack and counter-attack continued up to the 16th century, when finally in 1568 A.D. Orissa came under Afghan rule.

The impact of Muslim rule cannot be traced so much in the Puri district, although it is felt to have left a permanent imprint in the district of Cuttack, in the form of Muslim monuments and burial grounds. Although Srikshetra does not contain any such monument, it can boast of the burial place of Salabega, a Muslim, yet a great devotee of Lord Jagannath and composer of a lot of hymns for the Lord. Haridas, 1450-1530 A.D., a Muslim disciple of Sri Chaitanya, is better known as Javan Haridas (Haridas, the Muslim). He died in Srikshetra, and Sri Chaitanya himself buried his mortal remains in the seashore.

At the outset, we have mentioned that Srikshetra represents the essence of the Indian culture -- unity in diversity. So far, we have tried to present legendary and also historical facts to prove our contention that Srikshetra stands for its unique cross-cultural phenomenon, and the fact is unchallengeable that Lord Jagannath is a symbol of diverse concepts and ideologies in regard to God and religions. Lord Jagannath plays the multi-faceted role of Vishnu and Shiva on one hand, and Trinity as the symbol of Jainism and Buddhism on the other. Even the Muslims like Salabega and Haridas offered him prayers for their salvation. It has to be accepted, therefore, that the philosophy that grew up in Srikshetra with Lord Jagannath in the centre stage defies a simplistic, or for that matter a dogmatic definition. And moreover, the shrine known as Srikshetra is a place with monasteries performing diverse rites according to their ideology. It is the most liberal outlook of the contemporary king of Khurda or the Raja of Puri, who granted pieces of land to the founders of these monasteries.

Historically, Govardhan Pitha of the Sankaracharya sect seems to be the oldest of the monasteries in Puri, established by one of his disciples. Sankaracharya preached Advaita Philosophy (Monism). But nevertheless, Srikshetra can boast of monasteries belonging to the sects preaching Dvaitavad-Dvaita Dvaitavad, (qualified dualism), Bishistadvaitavad, so on and so forth. So, there are monasteries belonging to Ramanuja sect, Ramanandi sect, Nimbarka sect, Gaudiya Vaishnava sect, and so on.

Some other monasteries are also found, which preach slightly different philosophy, besides the eminent ones mentioned above [the four true Sampradayas]. They follow different rituals and way of life also. Kali Tilak Matha, Balabhadri Akhara, Bada Odia Matha, Ramakrishna Mission Ashram and others fall into this category. Outwardly, they may be having different religious philosophies and different missions to perform, but this can be said for certain -- that all these institutions have their unfailing devotion to Lord Jagannath, and many of them have been taking part in the temple rituals on a routine basis for centuries past. So, it can be said that other organizations are now ingrained in the infrastructure of Srikshetra.

Some of these monasteries are having rich libraries, containing printed books and manuscripts. They also offer shelter to people belonging to their sects, while some of them have arrangements to provide temporary shelter to pilgrims. Most of them also carry on charitable functions in some form or other. So, taking all these pieces of brief information about their organizations alongside the colourful administration in the temple complex, engaging hundreds of Sevakas, their supervisors and top administrators, the total picture is almost incomprehensible.

Jagannath Puri Dhama

But, one aspect one can glean out of the whole discussion is that Srikshetra stands out uniquely and pre-eminently as a replica of Indian history and culture. Whether it is a Shaiva Kshetra or a Vishnu Tirtha seems entirely out of context and not in conformity with the philosophy that has grown up here during the centuries past, with Lord Jagannath as the pivotal force.

The only consideration that prevails here is that everything belongs to Him and He belongs to everybody, every organization, or even every dwelling house of common people and the palace of the King, as well. Nothing in Srikshetra, the holy concourse, can be conceived of without Purusottama, or Lord Jagannath as the King of Puri. He is the great synthesizing force behind the entire gamut of Srikshetra and fraternity. Therefore, it has assumed its stature, which can unmistakably claim to be a faithful replica of India.

Sarat Chandra Mahapatra is the Secretary of Sri Jagannath Research Centre, Puri.


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