Sri Jagannath History and Iconography


BY: SUN STAFF - 18.7 2019

A Jagannath retrospective by Padmanabha Mahapatra, for Orissa Review.

On the high platform ratnavedi inside the inner sanctum of Srimandir, seven images are seated at present. They are Balabhadra, Purusottama Jagannath, Subhadra, Sudarshan, Biswadhatri, Laxmi and Madhab. Their origin and the evolution of their worship phase by phase, from pre-Vedic period to-date will be discussed in this article.

Daru-upasana during Pre-Vedic period

The origin of Jagannath worship at Puri is mysterious, but it is a fact that Lord Jagannath is a pre-Aryan and pre-Vedic God. The initial inhabitants of the richly wooded blue mountain, subsequently known as Niladri, were the Austric linguistic Savars. The Austrics were Brikshya-Pujaks because for them, the tree was the source of life. The trees provided them fruits as their food, rinds for their clothing, leaves and flowers for medicines, firewood for cooking. Shadows below them were used as their domestic shelter and parts of trees as furniture, as well as arms and ammunition.

Researchers state that such trees worshipped by them were Peepal or Aswastha trees and the then Dharma of the Savars was Aswastha Dharma (the cult of the Ficus tree). This Brikshya-Puja has subsequently been accepted as 'Nyagrodhambaroaswastham' in Sri Vishnu Sahasranama. Even today, the puja of Tulasi, Banyan, Aanla, Baul and Ashok trees are prominent in Orissa. Over t he course of time, these tribals started worshipping trees and logs of wood (stambha), which were otherwise known as Madala Puja and Daru-upasana. In Savar language, their Deities were known as 'Kitung' and 'Jaganta'. At a later stage, worship of stone-made Deities also became popular in the tribal community.

It has not been possible so far to infer any direct reference to the worship of Lord Jagannath or any of His previous incarnation in Nilachala from the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Ramayan. In the Vedas we find that the Arya Rishis were worshipping Agni, Bayu, Surya, Chandra, Basu, Rudra, Biswadeba, Brihaspati, Indra and Barun, etc, but there was no idol worship. Rigveda (First Mandala 164 Mantra - 46) states - Ekam sadbiprah bahudha badanti '- There is only one God, saints and seers exhibit Him in different names. That one God is the Highest God, Sahasra Shirsha Purushah. (Rigveda - Tenth Mandala - Purush Sukta).

In the Swetaswatara Upanishad, 6-11, it is said - Eko debah sarbabhuteshu gudhah, sarbabyapi sarbabhutantaratma - There is one God, He resides within every one, He is universal, and He is present as the soul in every living thing.

In Ramayan only we find (a) the description of hospitality rendered by Savara-raja Guha to Sri Ramchandra in course of his Banabas, and (b) worshipping and providing sweet fruits to Sri Ramchandra by one Sabaruni, which establish the existence of Savars during the time of Ramayan and their good relationship with the Aryans.

Historical background of Antarvedi/Mahavedi as referred to in the Mahabharat

In Mahabharat there is mention of a 'Vedi' within the 'Brahma-bana' near the sea in Kalinga. (Mahabharat - Bana Parba - 114 -16 to 28) In the course of Agnyata Banabasa, after crossing the River Baitarani, Yudhisthira along with his four brothers and Panchali were intimated by the sage Lomasha:

"This is the divine forest of Brahma, the self-existent one, where magnanimous dwellers are reciting their audible prayers. Here Viswakarma performed religious rites (Yagnya), and on such occasion Brahma made a gift of the entire earth to Kashyapa, by way of gratuity, for ministering as a priest. The earth became so unhappy after being treated as such that she descended into the bottom of the nether world. Then saint Kashyapa beheld the Goddess Earth, performed a propitiatory act to appease Her wrath, as a result of which Earth was pleased, she uprose from within the waters and showed herself in the form of a sacred alter (Vedi) by the side of Mahodadhi."

Rishi Lomasha explained to Yudhisthira:

"This is the very altar, which reaches as far as the sea and rests itself upon its bosom, ascend over it and thou would gain valour and strength. You must recite the following words of truth and ascend the Vedi, This altar (Vedi), uprose from within the waters, is the creation of Agni and Surya. This Vedi is 'Sri Nivas', residence of the daughter of the ocean. The Bhumi is created out of Yagnyagni (fire of sacrifice) and Sri Vishnu is the Yagnya- Purush. The Vedi is the place of union of Sri with Vishnu, here Sri has been recognized as the consort of Sri Vishnu." [1] Keeping this truth in mind, do necessary japa and tapa and take bath in Mahodadhi".

As per instructions, Yudhisthira, his four brothers, along with Draupadi, performed all that the saint had directed, bathed in the ocean, and then started towards the south.

Researchers have identified that Vedi as the present Antarvedi or Mahavedi, [2] and Madhab as the Adya Vishnu of Srikshetra. The Bhumi (Earth) that came out of water where fire sacrifice was performed was Bhudevi (Biswadhatri). The Yagnya Sharirdhari-Purush was Madhab (the 'Dhab, 'husband of Ma Laxmi - Madhab), the descent flame in the left side of Yagnya Purush was Laxmi. (Sri - consort of Vishnu and the daughter of the Ocean).

The Yagnya-sthala (Brahma-bana) was the place of union of Vishnu and Laxmi as husband and wife. Moreover, the Yagnya-Jupa has subsequently been considered as Sri Sudarshan. The thirty-two petalled lotus drawn on the Vedi, the Chakrabja Mandal on which the Yagnya was performed, was later designated as Yagnya-Narasimha and His basic upasana was made under Mantraraja mantra.[3]

Hence Sridevi, Bhudevi (Biswadhatri) and Madhab are the three initial Deities of Srikshetra, at present seen in small figures on the Ratnavedi / Antarvedi / Mahavedi within Srimandir.

Development of Worship of Madhab, Narasimha and Nilamadhab in Srikshetra

The Mahabharat puts forth - Maunadhyanascha yogascha biddhi bharat Madhabh (5-10-4). On account of His silence (mouna), prayer (dhyna) and yoga, He is the epithet of Madhab. Out of the 24 main Avatars of Vishnu -- Keshab, Narayan and Madhab sprang from Para-Vasudev -- the Supreme Brahman, who has neither beginning nor end. Chaturbhuja Madhab is Chakra-Sankha-Padma-Gada-Dhari. In Orissa, the following Mangalastak of Madhab is chanted On all auspicious occasions and before initiation of any good work:

Madhabo Madhabo Vishnuh 
Madhabo Madhabo Harih 
Smaranti Sadhabo Nityam 
Sarbakaryeshu Madhabam

Madhab is Laxmikanta, Sarba-Subha-Phal-Pradayak, so His name is uttered five times before taking up any work. Maa is Laxmi, Sarba-Subha-Phal-Pradayini; She is Khirabdhi-tanaya, Lokamata and Ramaa, Agra-pujya in all spheres.

In due course of time, the idol worship of the primitive Sabars entered into the Vedic culture and the worship of Madhab was initiated in a joint venture. The shrine of Nilamadhab at Puri appears to have its origin during the rule of the Sailodbhaba kings of Kalinga, the then Kangoda. The copper plate grant of Madhabaraja of Sailodbhaba dynasty is the first reference of Madhab worship in Kalinga - Prabratta-Chakra-Chakradhar eba Bhagaban, Madhab Raja Kushali.

The Madhabaraja and Madhaba Barman designated Sailodbhaba kings, as it appeared from their names, were tribals. They lived on the Saila, or mountains, their ancestors were Sabars, or their synonyms. During their reign, the Sabar chieftain Biswabasu must have been entrusted with the Sevapuja of Nilamadhab. Vidyapati, the messenger of Maharaja Indradyumna, after his arrival at Nilasaila, has seen this Nilamadhab as described in Skanda Purana.

In Skanda Purana, after his return from Nilasaila, Vidyapati narrates to Indradyumna:

"On the top of Nilagiri there is a perennial Bata Brikhya, towards its west there is Rohini Kunda and there is a Sphatik-manimaya Vedi around it. Gada-Padma-Sankha-Chakradhari, sapphire colored, Indra-nila-manimaya, Nilamadhab, is seated on a golden lotus, on this Vedi, under the cooling shade of the Banyan tree, His lotus-like hands embrace Laxmi, who is seating on His left thigh and playing flute, Ananta Nag in backside covers Him in shape of an umbrella. Sudarshan is seen in front of Him and Garuda is seated with folded hands just in the front side."

This image of Nilamadhab and the Rohini Kunda are stated to have vanished (buried under the sands) due to a severe cyclone, in between the periods when Vidyapati saw Nilamadhab and Indradyumna arrived at the holy place. However, Sri Narasimha, enshrined on the Nilasaila under an Aguru tree, was all along present before and after the disappearance of Nilamadhab. Orissa Review July - 2008

Initiation of Purusottam Upasana

At this juncture, Acharya Sankar arrived at Srikshetra. His mission was to revive the Vedic system of worship of all the Indian Gods and Goddesses and to eliminate the Buddhist influence on Hindu rituals. Acharya Sankar, the Founder/Acharya of Purusottam Tatwa during 9th century, in his Gita Vasya justified that the Nilamadhab worshipped in Sri Khetra was Gita's Purusottam: Atoasmi loke Bede cha prathitah Purusottamah. In this process, he revived the cult of Purusottam in the holy land of Srikshetra, consequent upon construction of a new temple and consecration of a blue stone-made Parameswar therein, during the reign of Jajati Keshari. However, there was no basic difference in the iconographic features between Nilamadhab, vanished earlier, and Purusottam worshipped later on.

Sri Narasimha Upasana by King lndradyumna, Construction of Daru-Devatas

Maharaja Indradyumna, along with Narada, reached Srikshetra but could not get the darshan of Sri Nilamadhab, and became very much worried. In the absence of Nilamadhab, he could get the darshan of Sri Narasimha under the Aguru tree, and as per the advice of Narada, worshipped Him and obtained His blessings, conducted Ashwamedha Yagnya, found the Aporusheya Daru on the nearby seashore, along with three images of Narayana, Laxmi and Ananta within it, and arranged their construction in Adapa Mandap (presently Gundicha Temple). But there was a prolonged delay in their consecration and in shifting them to the present Srimandir.

End of worship of one God and the initiation of the Hindu Triad

The Brahmin culture in the then Kalinga accepted the worship of Jugal-murti and 'many images' in their temples, based on the Buddhist influences. The upasana of Laxmi-Narasimha, Durga-Madhab and Siva-Parbati were its specific examples. Acharya Sankar was worshipping Purusottam as Siva during the 9th century, but Acharya Ramanuj started describing Subhadra and Jagannath as Laxmi-Narayan during the 12th century.

The present Srimandir was constructed in-between the period of both the Acharyas. Sri Purusottam (combination of Balabhadra, Subhadra and Jagannath) in due course of time was separated into three icons: Sri Balabhadra, Sri Subhadra and Sri Jagannath, and they are being worshipped under different mantras.

Some researchers have come to the conclusion that Sri Subhadra, Jagannath and Balabhadra, the principal Daru-Devatas represent Brahma, Vishnu and Maheswar respectively. In Kaliyuga, Brahma is not to be worshipped, hence His Sakti Subhadra has replaced Him.

In synthesizing the philosophy of the Trimurti, the great Sanskrit poet Kalidas mentions:

"In those, Three persons the one God was shown- Each first in place, each last - not one alone; Of Siva, Vishnu, Brahma, each may be First, Second, Third among the Blessed Three."

Sri Sudarshan is referred to as a thousand-spoked Sahasrara. He represents the violent aspect of Vishnu and many elements of Sri Narasimha. Garuda, the most liked vahana, got his place on the Garuda Stambha. As regards the presence of Daru Madhab, metallic images of Bhudevi and Sridevi, placed by the sides of Sri Jagannath on Ratnasimhasan, we have discussed their backgrounds in earlier paragraphs.

The word "Jagannath" is neither a Sanskrit nor a Pali word. Presumably it is the Sanskritised form of the Austric word 'Jaganta', used a long time back by the Pre-Vedic Sabars.[4] Sri Jagannath is made of Daru, i.e., wood. Within His wooden body Brahman has been placed, so He is Daru-brahman. Brahman is omnipresent. As a man shedding worn-out garments takes another new one, Brahman likewise is the embodied soul, casting off worn-out bodies, entering into others which are new. (Bhagavat Gita-2-22). Based on the above interpretations, we have got so many Gods and Goddesses on the Ratnasimhasan of Srimandir.

Lord Jagannath in some other name or shape has resided in Orissa since the pre-Vedic period. Many preachers who have come here and gone have left their ideologies in Purusottam Kshetra. All of them claim that Jagannath is their God, but the Kshetra has remained unaffected by such preaching. Sri Jagannath has maintained His independent identity, He has accepted something from many cults, and established a religious harmony of all the cults found all over India.


Suggested Readings:

1. Pandit Sri Harihar Mahapatra, Srimandir Purohit - Srikshetrare Madhab Sanskrutir Aitihya, Srimandir magazine Rath Yatra Vishesanka, 2005 (p. 5) 
2. Man Mohan Ganguly - Orissa and Her Remains (p. 399) 
3. As at Sl. No.1 (p. 7) 
4. Dr. Benimadhab Padhi Daru Devata (p. 52-54)