There is certainly something that makes Lord Jagannath stand apart from the rest of the pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses. The name itself evokes an ineffable wonder as the literal meaning of the word Jagannath implies Lord of the Universe. This is unique, as no other god of any religion carries the sobriquet. Different gods have their names associated with things seen in the world, but the universe is and was beyond comprehension. Many centuries of myths, legends and history have mingled into a grand composite culture of Jagannath. The cult of Jagannath is not a sectarian religion but a cosmopolitan and eclectic philosophy, which has spread globally. For the people of Odisha, the cult of Jagannath is a natural outcome of their religious aspiration for devotion-based worship of a single personal God (Aikantika Bhakti). The sediments of non-Vedic traditions evolved into an Aryanised form, and various major faiths like Saivism, Saktism, Vaishnavism, Jainism and Buddhism have been assimilated into this Jagannath cult. Another aspect of Jagannath that has bewildered devotes for ages, is his physical form. The figure does not resemble either any human or animal form. Guru Nanak, during his visit to Puri in 1506, was awestruck at the sight of the Lord. Being a follower of the Bhakti tradition, he was a believer of the Nirakar, the formless. On seeing Jagannath, he had quipped, “Na Aakar, Na Nirankar—Kimkar”. By “Kimkar” he had questioned the three different colours, three different shapes; all mind boggling.
And last of all, a God dying like any mortal is something inconceivable; given the way the Hindus perceive their religion. The Lord at Puri succumbs to a cycle of death and rebirth every fourteen years or so, in a ritual called the Nabakalebar. No logic can convincingly explain this exceptional facet, not seen in any other culture or custom.
Jagannath is the god of the common masses. The humanisation of the Lord is manifested during his Rath Yatra, which is also known as Patitapaban Yatra. Even the Gajapati, the King of Puri takes on the role of a sweeper and cleans the chariots in which the deities are placed. Nowhere do we see such a unique feature, where a king becomes a commoner for the Lord’s service. The rituals of Sri Jagannath temple are quite different from the ritual system of Puja or offering performing in other temples. It is an accumulation of many faculties of Hindu religion which synergizes here in one platform. They have become very complicated in the course of time.
The recent brouhaha over the gross irregularities committed by the servitors during the conduct of the Nabakalebar has reached its height. It has hurt the sentiments of the people of Odisha and raised a big hue and cry all over the state. The government and the temple administration are at the wit’s end to assuage the hurt caused by the blatant exposures of sacrilege committed by the priests. The demystification of the secret ceremony, which is witnessed only by four of the designates priests, but was gate-crashed by dozens of their fellow brethren, was seen as a heretic act which is unpardonable. It was not a one off incident; the build-up had been coming for the last year. The treatment meted out to the Sankaracharya of Puri during last year’s <Rath Yatra> was a precursor of things to come. What happened recently was the culmination of this build-up. The situation was such that, for a few days, it seemed that things had reached a cul-de-sac. The Sankaracharya sulked, the Gajapati Raja threw up his hands in dismay, the inept temple administrator was at loss of words, the Chief Minister cocooned himself up, the servitors and Daitapatis were defiant and the people of Odisha, the Jagannath bhaktas, were heartbroken and wept.
What happened was shameful. Odisha has always been in the news for all the wrong reasons, be it cyclones, scams, tribal killings, poverty et al. The Nabakalebar was a golden chance to showcase the beautiful state and its rich culture to the world. The gathering would have been the second Kumbh. The government had ample time to set up the infrastructure for receiving forty lakh devotees. Even the Centre had opened its purse strings, funds were no constrain. But they failed on every front. It was Murphy’s Law—everything that could go wrong, went wrong. And the damage control was miserable. The people of Odisha, the ruling government and the Jagannath bhaktas only have prayers to help them conduct the Nabakalebar and the Rath Yatra in a smooth manner. There is hope. Jagannath is the all-encompassing one. In the words of Pandit Nilakantha Das, “Here is no discarding any religion of man, all the gods and goddesses have found a place in the compound of the temple. Jagannath has welcomed and embraced all, but been overwhelmed by none
and has lost Himself in none.” But in this context, we must not forget the following words of Rigveda, “Ekam Sat Vipra Vahuda Vadanti “(Truth is one, the wise speak of it in different ways). Jai Jagannath.