For an Odia like me, despite being born and raised in faraway Mumbai, visiting Jagannath temple in Puri is to visit a beloved relative. I may skilfully slip past other relatives when on a whirlwind business trip like this one, but I cannot avoid this very delightful god-friend of mine, especially when he is dying.
Jagannath means “lord of the world” and is the form of Hindu gods Krishna/Vishnu worshipped in Odisha. Locally Jagannath is called Kaliya, for its black colour, with great affection, although modern colour prejudice makes many insist that Krishna is actually blue. He is God, of course, spelt with a capital G, but more than that he is your friend, as the dominant mood in the temple is of sakha-bhaav, devotion through the emotion of friendship.
The unique feature of the temple is that Krishna is worshipped not with a spouse, but with his siblings, his elder brother Balabhadra and his younger sister Subhadra. The images are malformed, with no hands or feet, and disproportionately large heads. They are not made of metal or stone, but of wood and cloth and resin, and therefore must be replaced from time to time, leading to rituals in which the enshrined deities fall sick, die and are reborn.
The drive was wonderful. No traffic, mercifully, and a fantastic road, with the state gearing up for Nabakalebara, or the ceremony of the deity’s rebirth, which takes place every 10-19 years. It is a ritual that takes place when the extra month (adhik maas) meant to align the Hindu lunar calendar to the solar cycle appears in the summer so that there are two months of Ashadha (June-July), not just the one.
This is a god who has lived a full life and will continue to do so when he is reborn, and is ready to ride his chariot once again a month later. It is this world-affirming aspect of Bhagavata Dharma that I love and look forward to every time I visit the lord of the world who resides in Puri.
Devdutt Pattanaik is an Indian physician turned leadership consultant, mythologist, author and communicator whose works focus largely on the areas of myth, religion, mythology, and management.