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Jagannath- Dharma is a compendium of, probably, all existing and possible facets of spirituality. Its autochthonous richness combines and absorbs within its fold all cross-cultural spiritual philosophies, and, at times, transcends these. So, "cult" is misnomer and "religion", of too narrow dimension to connote it. "Jagannath- Dharma" is the appropriate way to name this eternal (sanatana) concept of spirituality. It is not merely intellectual conformity or ceremonial piety. It is not an amalgam, but a spiritual synthesis. It is expansive and constrictive, pluralistic and sectarian. Its lesson is that religion must be construed not in terms of any particular belief but simply as a way of lacking at the world of human - experience as a whole.
Jagannath was called "Purusottama" since his origin at Puri or Purusottam - Kshetra (the abode of Purusottam) since pre-historic times. The Rig Veda refers to him as the Daru (sacred log of wood) of Purusottama, afloat on the eastern sea. The name "Jagannath" (Lord of the Universe) is invariably a collective representation of the Triad (Jagannath - Balabhadra - Subhadra) and has been in use since the dawn of the last millenium.
Jagannath - Dharma believes in the Rig Vedic concept of the Supreme Truth. The Triad, conceived as one, represents the three attributes of creation, maintenance and destruction. The use of "OM" in the worship is a reflection of the Vedic strain. Sudarshana, the Jyoti Brahma, represents the formless and along with the Triad is conceived as one. The Supreme is formless and with form, He is with qualities and beyond qualities. The Supreme is shown as transcending contradiction in his infinite perfection.
He has multiform manifestations. He is Siva or Bhairava and goddess Vimala is Bhairavi. Saivism and Saktism are fused in him. The use of "Klim" mantra in worship gives him a tantric image.
The Triad is deified by the Jainas as manifestation of the Jaina "Tri-ratna" (three gems of Jainism) representing right knowledge, right thought and right perception.
Jagannath is identified with Buddha. His iconographics representation without hands and feet is approximating to the meditating Buddha. The Triad is depicted as Buddha, Dharma and Sangha - the three gems of Buddhism, some Buddhists even find discernible affinity of the car-festival with Buddhist festivals. The Tooth-relic of Buddha is supposedly inside the images of the triad and is known as "Brahma-Padartha" (Divine-Matter).
Christian authors like Sylvan Levy and sources like the Aquarian Gospel have established that Puri was visited by a Christian Apostle during the times of Jesus Christ. The Christian concepts of love, compassion, charity and fellow-feeling are almost exact reproductions of the value- endowed Vedic paradigms of humanistic tradition that PurusottamaKshetra signified in those remote times.
Initial animosity and ignorance of the Muslims had seen many attempts at desecration of the Jagannath Temple during early period of Muslim rule. A gradual moderation in the fastidious Muslim outlook brought them to reconcile with Jagannath Dharma. Even the Muslim broke through Islamic Thackles to visit the Temple and eat the Mahaprasad (food-offerings to the Triad) with the Hindus jointly. The Mahaprasad brotherhood continued long and this tradition transcends inter - religious barriers. visitors like Amir Ali, writers like Niamatullah, Ahmad Razi, Asgar Ali, Malik Mohammad Jaisi and poets like Osman of Gazipur attest to it. Salabega, a Muslim of Orissa, consecrated his life to devotion of the triad and his mystic yearnings and pleas before Jagannath still reverberate. His tomb on the path of the Car-festival bears testimony to it.
Interestingly, tradition has it that Kabir visited Puri and was enamoured of the Triad. A monastery was set up by him at Puri which still goes by the name of Kabir- Chaura, Till now, Hindus and Muslims visiting Puri have to go there first and jointly eat food and drink (Torani) there. The inter- religious fusion is more than just a tradition. The human race cannot be vitiated by religious distinctions in the larger contexts of spiritualism is the supreme message. It is unique, and is not to be found elsewhere.
Similar is the tradition of "Guru Ka Langar" at Bauli and Mangu monasteries set up to commemorate Nanak's visit to Puri. A universal mode of spirituality and religious tradition irrespective of time, clime and country, being craved for by Nanak, was at last found by jim in the Jagannath Dharma during his visit to Puri. This tradition of the founder of Sikhism was so rich that devout sikhs continue to adore the Triad. Even Maharaj Ranjit Singh wanted to present the Koh-i-noor diamond to Lord Jagannath.
Adi Sankaracharya visited Puri and set up his monastery (Govardhan Math) at Puri under his disciple Padma padacarya. Sankara stood for the philosophy of Advaita (non-duality). For redemption of soul, one must learn the Vedas and cap it by personal mystic experience through Laya (complete absorption) in Brahman. This is the path of mystic trance (samadhi) for the Jivanmukta. The other path is vyutthana or reversion to common life when the spectacle of the world returns but does not delude him since he has already realized its metaphysical falsity. At Puri, Sankara found in the Jagannath Dharma a magnificent blend of both. He understood that divinity should not be held apart from humanity. The crest of Bhagavatism which Sankara was riding then converged with the Jagannath Dharma which he realized as the summum Boonum of every spiritual and metaphysical pattern. The head (Mahant) of the Govardhan Math at Puri is a house-holder, unlike the other three set up by Adi Sankara. The tradition still continues.
Tradition of pilgrimage brought other savants to Puri, The Jerusalem of Hinduism' Vaisnavism was championed by Narahari Tirtha at Puri till the visit of Ramanuja, the 4 saint of vishistadvaita philosophy. He preached the gospel of self surrender, got royal approval to start the "Pancaratra" mode of worship, introduced goddess Lakshmi and the offering of cooked rice, and put a premium on chanting of the holy name. He found in Jagannath- Dharma a harmonious combination of absolutism with personal theism along the Vedantic line of "Prasthanatraya". The Emar Math and the tital mark on the temple bear his testimony.
Nimbarka the vaishnavite saint of south India visited to introduce the concept of Radha and Krushna. The saint poet of Orissa, Jayadeva was to take it up through his monumental work "Geetagovinda". The "Devadasi" (virgin consecrated to God) was introduced. Yet, not until Chaitanya would such a concept gain ground. Vishnuswami of South India was another illustrious savant. Madhvacharya introduced "Rama" cult in Puri.
Keeping with the rich spiritual tradition, King Kapilendra Deva proclaimed Jagannath as the "King" and himself as His first servitor. The "Chhera Panhara" tradition is its supreme manifestation. The resurgent Brahminical tradition was kept in effective check and the synthesis of tribal- Aryan tradition since the legendary king Indradhumna was kept alive as a tradition of caste-less, spiritually egalitarian society. The role of the Sudras as an integral part of the categories of temple servitors blends well with Caste - less Mahaprasadbrotherhood till today.
Ramananda, the mentor of Chaitanya, believed in devotion but Chaitanya apotheosized it through ecstatic trance. Ganapati Bhatta saw Ganesha and Tulsidas saw Rama in the Triad.
Indeed the Triad represents the supreme divine consciousness, epitomsing Sat, Chit, and Anand. Such a powerful conception of synthesis and regenesis is unique in the entire world.