Funny gods…. Reflections on idols and less known religions from the Jagganath Temple, India
The “Fear Of Ghosts” was constantly on the mind of primitive man.
One day he saw people walking, eating and talking, and the other day they were dead….
“Surely one does not just vanish into thin air…” thought the primitive man.
And thus the belief in ghosts who live in the unseen realm originated in many tribes all over the earth.
Those who had a guilty conscience, and who did something to one who died, feared retribution from the ghost of the dead.
They believed that maybe they were “cursed” or would be affected by the angry ghosts.
They believed that the spirit of the ghosts could cause someone to lose his fortune or to fall ill.
Many attempts to pacify the ghosts were developed.
Man later found a need to believe that since this is a world of duality, of Yin and Yang and of opposites…. Then if there are evil spirits or ghosts, there MUST be also good spirits, or guardian spirits or angels.
From this came the belief that there MUST be someone who was guarding the whole shebang…. Who was judging between the good and the bad, organizing things like the seasons, sunrises and sunsets, influencing the movements of the stars, the moon, the sun… After all, every state and every village had to have a governor, or a head of the tribe, or a presiding king or a Lama….
In most parts of the world in ancient times, people believed that it cannot be that ONE God will preside over the WHOLE big earth.
After all, they noticed that their own rulers were protective, and concerned ONLY with the interests of their own tribes or states…. How could someone have the interest of EVERYONE on his mind?
Thus sprouted the belief in multiple gods.
Some adopted a trinity, others adopted a dozen, some believe in thirty five gods, or a hundred and eight, and some, like the Hindus, still believe in many, many gods.
If there were multiple gods, they assumed that each god must be in charge of a certain part of the abundance and luck of the Universe.
Thus they would pray to the god of good health, the god of good fortune, the god of fertility, the god of harmony and happy marriages, the god of compassion, the god of Infinite wisdom, etc.
The concept of secular belief, agnosticism, or an adaptation of “scientific belief” developed only in “modern times,” or more accurately in the times of technological advancement, also called nowadays…
In olden times, people looked for safety by living in groups, and nobody dared to believe in contrary ideas, which could ostracize one from the collective.
Even in our times, those who choose to live alone are seen as antisocial, or as people who maybe…. Just maybe, simply cannot get along with others….
This is a sad misconception…
There is much talk nowadays about the importance of living in a community.
No doubt that it is important for one to learn to be considerate and kind to others, and to grow to understand that we are all connected, and that what is good for one is good for another, and for everyone.
But it is also true that in order to progress along the path towards greater understanding and towards Enlightenment, one MUST become an independent thinker.
The only way to become an independent thinker is by not depending on others for guidance, and by not believing that one is dependent or needy.
This is why many masters isolated themselves in meditation caves and in remote places, to shut off the illusory world and to find the quiet, inner guiding Voice.
Even nowadays, Buddhist monks who seek to become high Lamas, or to reach Enlightenment, spend years in meditation away from the noise of the world, and away from the way other people understand and interpret the scriptures.
In other cultures, in which isolation and meditation are not part of their practice, people live in communities and develop rituals and beliefs that feed the collective needs, the collective fears and the collective hopes.
Sometimes this leads to extremes and unexamined ideas….
In some parts of the world, ancient animist religions have morphed into a new religion with a new set of rituals and practices, and nobody really knows or can trace back the origin of the core belief.
I encountered one of those religious practices while visiting a Hindu temple complex in the Himalayan town of Namchi Bazaar in Sikkim.
The temple was a small replica of the Jagannath temple in Puri, in the Indian state of Orissa.
Inside it were the most fabulous and striking gods I have ever seen….
They looked like cartoon characters, but it was apparent that the worshippers did not feel the same….
The kneeled, and crowded around them to say their devotional prayers.
The icons of Jagannath that are the deity worshipped at the temple, are carved and decorated wooden stumps.
On these wooden stumps, they paint large round eyes and add stumps as hands.
Sometime they simply cut a piece of wood that already has two “arms.”
The three deities have no legs.
The three deities are considered a Trinity, in which the middle deity is very small.
The worshiping rituals are VERY precise, and include dressing the wooden stumps and changing their clothing a few times per day, laying them down to sleep at the end of the day, and parading them on annual festivals that attract many hundreds of thousands of worshippers.
The origin and evolution of Jagannath worship, as well as its iconography, are totally unclear and has been the subjects of intense academic debate.
The deities are known as the Trimurti (trinity), and also as Chaturdhamurti.
In all the temples, the deities are dressed and decorated a few times per DAY.
There are very particular traditional ways to dress and to decorate the deities.
Flowers, tender leaves, silken fabrics and golden ornaments are some of the materials that are used to decorate and dress the deities.
Sandalwood paste, musk and camphor are used to scent the deities.
I am adding some of the daily and annual rituals, taken from the Puri Jagganath Temple website:
AT 5 A.M.
The doors of the temple open early in the morning, in the presence of the five specific attendants.
There is a verification of the “seal” given during the night before.
Soon after the opening of the door, sacred lamps are lit and offered to the deities with prayers.
AT 6 A.M.
At this time some specific attendants change the clothes, flowers, Tulasi leaves of the deities worn on the previous night.
After removal of the old clothes, new clothes known as “Tadap” and “Uttariya” are put on the deities.
6 A.M. TO 6.30 A.M.
Purification rites like brushing the teeth of the deities and giving them a bath, which is known as “Abakash.“
At this time the Temple Astrologer reads out loud the “Tithi” – the astrological details of the day for each deity and according to that, that very day’s rituals are performed.
At this time the deities change their clothes again and wear another set of clothes.
Another attendant known as “Akhanda Mekap ” puts in the inner shrine sanctum a lit lamp or a candle which will burn all day until it is time to put the deities to bed.
7A.M. TO 8 A.M.
This one hour is spent to facilitate pilgrims who enter the inner sanctum of the temple to have a free Darshan with the deities.
A Darshan is akin to “An Audience,” in which the pilgrim gets to spend time with the deities, pray, confess, and ask for grace and for blessings.
Sometimes during festive days, this free Darshan is not allowed, since the deities are “busy” with special rituals.
After the Darshan, the deities are again dressed up, which the pilgrims can witness from a distance.
The deities are also adorned with gold and precious stones.
The precious stones are chosen to suit different festive occasions.
8 A.M. to 8.30 A.M.
While some attendants are busy with adorning the Deities, other special attendants perform a Fire Sacrifice at the kitchen, and a special puja.
The statues of the two gate keepers named ‘Jaya’ and ‘Vijaya’ that are placed on both sides of the entrance to the Temple are worshipped (they look like dogs with a man’s face and a big black mustache, and a large penis sprouts from their heads).
It is time for a royal Breakfast for the gods.
At this time, sweet popcorn, sweets made from coconut, ripe bananas, Yogurt and pieces of coconut are offered to the gods.
At this time a Puja is performed by three other attendants (called Pujapandas) surrounded with an additional 16 attendants (called Upachars or Sodasha).
Three priests come to sit in front of the altar, and worship the three deities.
At this time food offerings are placed in front of the deities.
The offerings contain Rice, Green leaves, Ginger tonic, Cakes etc…
After the food offering Puja, the Deities change their clothes again and are moved behind the Garuda pillar of the inner temple.
Huge quantities of offerings, such as Rice, Dal, Curries, Saga and Cakes of different kinds are offered to the Deities.
These food offerings are for sale to the general public.
11A.M. to 1 P.M.
Afternoon food offering.
A puja is also performed in the afternoon.
The food offering items are in larger quantity than that of the morning offering.
Pilgrims are allowed to go near one of the Deities for Darshan by paying a special Darshan fee of Rs 25.
1 P.M. to 1.30 P.M.
If all morning and noon rituals went fine and according to schedule, the Deities retire for the afternoon.
In the evening, sacred lamps or candles are again offered to the deities.
The deities change their clothes and wear another set of clothes.
7 P.M. to 8 P.M.
Food offerings are offered to the deities.
This time the food offering amount is less in quantity and numbers.
After the Puja, a lamp offering is made.
After this, the deities change their clothes again, and are anointed with Sandalwood paste mixed with camphor and other oils.
Pilgrims can witness this ritual by paying a special Darshan fee.
After this, the deities are dressed with silken robes embroidered with the Geeta Govinda scriptures, along with flower ornaments.
After this is the last food offering of the day.
A Puja is performed with watered rice and other food offerings.
The bedsteads of the deities are arranged.
The Deities receive an offering of green coconuts, betel nut and camphor, and then the Deities retire to their beds.
After this the doors of the temple are sealed by a special attendant.
Temple is closed for the night and no visitors or outsiders are allowed to remain inside.
Some of the annual rituals:
A sweet-scented paste of sandalwood is applied to the stump bodies of the deities during the months of Vaisakha and Jyestha, for 42 days.
During this time one of the deities is dressed like Ganesh, the Hindu god with the elephant head.
Right after the day of Snana Purnima, the deities remain out of the public eyes for 15 days.
Only the temple attendants continue to take care of them, feed them, dress them and put them to bed as per the daily rituals above.
After the fifteen days, on the eve of Ratha Yatra the Deities are gorgeously dressed and give “Darshan” to the visitors.
They are dressed with very charming robes meant to enhance their look, and make them appear like youthful and attractive people.
In the month of ‘Asadha,’ when the deities are brought back to the main gate of the temple to be seen by the adoring masses, they are paraded each in their respective chariots, and are decorated with gold jewelry and ornaments.
On the ‘Amavasya’ day of the month of ‘Sravana,’ the deities are decorated with forehead ornaments made of gold, diamonds, sapphires and emeralds.
Sandalwood paste and musk are also put on the the three principal deities.
There are many other annual festivals where the deities get different dresses and decorations.
In some festivals, one of the deities is dressed like a king, a dwarf, or like Lord Krishna, and decorated with creeping ivy, to honor Lord Krishna who used to give sermons to his friends in the forest.
So….. How all this is different from any other religion, in which people worship idols and icons made of metal, wood or clay?…..
It is not really different at all….. it is just that when it is OUR religion, we tend to make allowances, and say that it is not really the sculpture of Jesus on the cross, or the picture of Mother Mary, or the statue of the Buddha, or guru Rinpoche that we worship, but the IDEAS that those statues represent….
But it is not so….
When you put an image or a sculpture of an idea on an altar, people unavoidably end up worshiping exactly what is in front of them….
In some holy temples in Bhutan and Tibet, women are not even allowed to approach certain altars decorated with certain sculptures, and I stood there feeling so weird…. To hear that I must not come close to a wood sculpture covered in clay and paint….