Faith & Reason for The Independent
10th July 1999
Even if they are a practical necessity for a consumer society, Juggernauts hardly seem a cause for celebration. But, this is a time-honoured tradition – at least, in India.
This Wednesday, just as for over 1000 years, on the second day after the new moon in the Hindi month of Ashadh, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims will converge on the town of Puri on the Bay of Bengal to enjoy the festival of Jagannath Rathayatra. A colourful procession of massive carts carrying the worshipable images from the ancient Jagannath temple will be hand-pulled along Puri’s grand parade.
As well as explaining the origin of “juggernaut” from Jagannath, my helpful dictionary notes that “devotees formerly threw themselves under the wheels of the cart carrying Juggernaut, an idol of Krishna”. Thus, another great tradition is kept alive – perpetuating prejudices about foreign customs and beliefs through the judicious use of the English language.
In the early 19th century, there was a concerted effort to undermine the hold of the Hindu religion in the sub-continent to allow for easier colonial and missionary domination. Lectures were offered in Oxford “to help candidates for a prize of two hundred pounds for the best refutation of the Hindu religious system”.
No doubt the world has moved on. There is generally a greater appreciation for the worth of other faith traditions, even if not an acceptance of their intrinsic truth. But just this week, in the instances of the donated organs for “whites only”, and a senior army officer’s assertions that all Catholics are Republicans and hence IRA sympathisers, we have been reminded of the how prejudice and misconception run deep within our society.
India, of course, is not without bigotry. I have visited Puri several times but, although I have been a practising convert to Krishna-devotion for 25 years, I am not allowed access into the Jagannath temple. That right is reserved solely for Hindu-born Hindus. The rationale is that, although my efforts at spiritual purification are laudable, I will need to await my next birth as a Hindu to enjoy the privileges.
The consolation is that this is not widespread. I have been wonderfully welcomed elsewhere. Nor is it a new stricture. Even in the 16th century, Haridas Thakur, renowned within his lifetime as the epitome of Krishna devotion, was barred from the Jagannath temple because he was born in a Muslim family. Without complaint or petition, he accepted the ban and focussed himself on the recitation of one third of a million names of God every day.
Haridas’s inspiration was the saint and reformer, Sri Chaitanya (1486-1534), who actively challenged the caste system and sectarian prejudices of the time, not by political or social pressure, but by preaching a message that God is accessible for all. Jagannath, literally translates as “ Lord of the World”. Sri Chaitanya used the annual cart festival to involve everyone, regardless of background, in the spiritual experience of chanting and dancing. As he said, “ I do not belong to any caste, nor to any community. I wish only to be the servant of the servant of the servant of God.”
Contemporary with the Renaissance and Reformation in Europe, Sri Chaitanya’s message revolutionised the popular style of the Hindu religion, despite the challenges it faced from the Moghul rule and, later, the British Raj. By stressing the universal ability to worship God anywhere, Chaitanya brought religious life out of the temples and to the people without diminishing the value of temple visits for regular worship and pilgrimage. He challenged the high priests’ stranglehold on the Sanskrit scriptures, yet commended the benefits of a genuine teacher-disciple relationship.
Jagannath’s own appearance is another challenge to prejudice. He is black. Europe has celebrated God’s Caucasian form through Blake and Michaelangelo. So, the image of Jagannath is striking – a seven-feet high jet-black figure with large round eyes – more reminiscent of an African mask than other temple deity forms of Krishna. A Hindu apologist theology emerged in the 19th century that tried to counter the charges of “primitive idol-worshipping” from Christian missionaries by explaining that the temple images, although not merely mundane statues, were just pointers towards God – a means of focussing one’s concentration in prayer.
Initially, this may have been discretion to conceal the more esoteric assertion of the Vedic scriptures – that when the temple image is properly prepared and installed it is a divine incarnation. The Hindu temple is not just the house of God, but His home. God personally resides there, available to commune with visitors and to accept their homage and acts of devotional service.
“But,” as I was once asked, “ does this mean that God looks like that?” No, Jagannath is just one way in which God appears to human society. In the same way I was taught during my Presbyterian upbringing that the burning bush was a manifestation of God. There is no monopoly on God’s appearance, but understanding Jagannath offers some particular insights into the nature of the personality of Godhead.
No one can know God in fullness, but each of us is allowed a glimpse. Perhaps, our visions over-lap. Perhaps, they appear to have no correlation. But, each person’s realisations contain vital truths of God and spiritual life. In my experience, religious dialogue becomes enriching when we set aside close-minded prejudices and are truly open to discovering the truth within another’s spiritual viewpoint – no matter how strange it may appear at the outset. Such generous communication can strengthen the faith of both participants and help each of us make better sense of our own fragments of the jigsaw puzzle.
Commissioned by The Independent, Faith & Reason