[Each year since 1997, during his world preaching tours, Srila Narayana Maharaja has been lecturing on the glories of Lord Jagannatha for one week, when the time in the West corresponded with the Puri Chariot Festival. A collection of his five years of lectures were compiled into a book called The Origin of Ratha-yatra, and this book is at the printers in Tennesee at the present moment. The entire book is available here in .pdf format.]
The first history of the appearance of Lord Jagannatha is given in the Skanda Purana, as well as in the Padma Purana, the Purusottama-mahatmya, and The Diary of Jagannatha. The particular version presented here is from the Skanda Purana and the Purusottama-mahatmya. There are minor differences in the versions from the other scriptures, but the history is basically the same.
In Satya-yuga there lived a King named Indradyumna Maharaja, and his wife was Gundica. That King reigned in the beginning of the first half of Lord Brahma's day, when Brahma first created the material world by the mercy of Krsna and with the help of Mahamaya. He lived in middle-India, in the ancient city of Avanti Nagari in Ujjain, where Krsna was taught by Sandipani Muni. He and his queen were very religious and advanced devotees, and although they were royalty they were always engaged in the service of Bhagavan. That King wanted to see the Supreme Personality of Godhead with his own eyes, and he continually waited for an opportunity. He always prayed, "When will a day come that I will see my Lord?"
The King used to receive and host travelers from the various holy places of the world, especially those in India, in the compound of his palace. One day, some pilgrims came and spent the night there. They had just come from a very high class of holy place (tirtha) and had taken darsana of the beautiful four-handed Nila-madhava; now they discussed among themselves the glories of that deity. A devotee overheard their conversation and informed the King's minister about it, and he in turn informed the King and made him aware of the deity's beauty. He told the King, "Anyone who receives Nila-madhava's darsana will not have to return to this world and will be liberated forever. He will attain a four-handed form and become an associate of Narayana in Vaikuntha. Even if someone simply vows, 'I will go to His temple to see Him tomorrow,' but dies that day without reaching the temple, he will still go to Vaikuntha and attain a four-handed form."
The King wondered, "How can I obtain the darsana of Nila-madhava? Where is He located?" He wanted to ask the pilgrims, "Where can I find Him?" but they had departed during the night; so he became upset and decided to somehow search for the deity. He called Vidyapati, the very intelligent son of his priest, as well as his officials and commanders, and ordered them all to search in different directions: "Some of you go to the east, others to the west, others south, and so on. You should all return within three months. I will give vast wealth and an important position to the one who informs me of the deity's whereabouts." In this way, all the officials enthusiastically set out in all directions from Madhya Pradesh. Vidyapati, who was very young and handsome and who possessed all good qualities, went toward the east.
After three months they had all returned except Vidyapati, and the King was worried because no one knew where he was. Vidyapati had gone to the east coast of India, near the Indian Ocean, and there he traveled continually, searching and searching for Nila-madhava. One day, on the shore of the ocean, he saw a very beautiful village, where there was a mountain covered with flowers and trees and where the residents were very cultured. Evening was approaching and he decided to stay in that village, so he told some of the residents, "I would like to rest here tonight." They replied, "Visvavasu is the prominent leader of this village. He is a sabara (a lower caste), but he is very qualified and religious-minded, and he is also intelligent, humble, and liberal. Whenever any traveler or guest comes, he visits Visvavasu's house; so you must go there."
When Vidyapati arrived, Visvavasu was not at home. Only his very beautiful sixteen-year-old daughter, Lalita, was there. She opened the door and said, "You can wait for my father, because he is not here. He has gone out, but when he returns home he will arrange everything. Kindly wait outside." After some time Visvavasu arrived. A very sweet fragrance emanated from his body, and he was wearing very beautiful and aromatic tilaka. When he saw his guest, he became ashamed and told him, "Oh, excuse me for returning so late. Now you may come in." He and his daughter took their guest inside. Very happy to see that beautiful personality, Visvavasu told him, "You can reside here for some days." Then he told his daughter, "Take care of this brahmana. Give him food and everything else he requires, and look after him in all respects. There should be no lack of anything."
Vidyapati took his meal and rested there. He smelled a very beautiful fragrance in the house, especially when the master of the house was home, and he wondered, "Where does that beautiful fragrance come from? I have never smelled anything like it in my entire life. And that girl is so beautiful. I should wait here for a few days, and it may be that I can find Nila-madhava." He then began searching here and there for some days.
Lalita was now regularly serving him, and gradually she became attached to him. Vidyapati began to develop a close friendship with her, and after some time he fell in love with her. He was already married to someone else, but still he had great affection for Lalita; so he requested her to ask her father to allow him to marry her. She asked her father, he agreed, and Vidyapati became Visvavasu's son-in-law.
Visvavasu went out regularly every day, and returned in the evening very fresh and fragrant. One day Vidyapati privately said to his wife, "My dear, now you are my wife, and I have great faith in you. Can you tell me where your father goes every day for worship, and where that fragrance comes from? Please tell me."
Lalita replied, "I cannot say. My father ordered me, 'Do not tell anyone where I go. Keep it secret ery, very secret.' "
Vidyapati said, "You cannot tell me? You are one with me, non-different from me. You must tell me, because I am your husband."
She replied, "Then you must promise that you will never tell anyone."
Vidyapati then said, "A wife should not speak like this. I know you are a very chaste wife, so you must tell me." He then became silent.
Lalita said, "I will tell you. He goes to worship a deity."
"Which deity?" Vidyapati asked.
She replied, "I promised not to tell, but I will tell you because you are my husband. He goes to worship Nila-madhava."
Vidyapati became very happy and thought, "After such a long time I have finally heard the name Nila-madhava. Nila-madhava must be somewhere nearby." He began to show so much love and affection to his wife that she revealed everything to him, and he then requested her, "Please ask your father to take his son-in-law with him."
She said, "Yes, I will help you."
After her father returned from worship in the evening and had taken prasada, Lalita approached him and sat on his lap. With much love and affection she told him, "My dear father, I want one benediction from you."
He replied, "Oh, very good. I desire to give you a benediction. What do you want?"
She told him, "I want something very special. I know that you will be hesitant to give this to me, but I want it."
Her father asked, "What do you want?"
She replied, "O father, I desire that you take my husband with you to see Nila-madhava. He wants to take darsana."
Visvavasu pondered whether or not to take him. Worried that if he brought anyone the deity might be taken or simply vanish, Visvavasu was hesitant. When Lalita saw that he was not very willing, she said, "If you do not show Nila-madhava to my husband, I will take poison and die right in front of you. Your objection means that you do not consider me your loving daughter." And she prepared herself to take poison.
These are the most powerful weapons of ladies: "I will die," "I will take poison," "I will commit suicide." What will a husband or father say then? Of course, He will say, "Oh, you can have whatever you want."
Visvavasu was now in a dilemma and thought, "What shall I do? I must save my only daughter. I must give her this benediction."
He said, "I don't want you to die. I will take your husband with me and show him Nila-madhava, but there is one condition. I will tightly bind his eyes with a black cloth, and when we reach there I will remove it so he can take darsana. After that, I will put on the blindfold again. So he will have darsana, but he will not know where he is."
Lalita then went to her husband and told him, "Father has agreed to take you. He will blindfold you during the journey there, but never mind." Vidyapati was overjoyed and agreed to wear the blindfold. After that she told her father, "Yes, you can bind his eyes with a black cloth." Later, when they were seated on the bullock cart, Visvavasu placed the black cloth over Vidyapati's eyes. Lalita, being very clever and intelligent, gave her husband some mustard seeds and said, "Keep these in your pocket. Now it is the rainy season. You can drop them one after another along the way. After some time, those mustard seeds will grow into plants producing bright yellow flowers. Then you will be able to follow the flowers and go there by yourself; you will not have to ask my father the way."
Visvavasu then took Vidyapati with him along a zigzag route on the bullock cart. Vidyapati dropped the mustard seeds one by one on the ground without his father-in-law knowing. When they arrived at the foot of the mountain, they left the bullock cart there, and Visvavasu took Vidyapati by the hand and led him to the temple of Nila-madhava on the top of the mountain. When they entered the temple, Visvavasu removed the blindfold so that Vidyapati could see Nila-madhava. The deity was four-handed, and He carried the sankha (conch), cakra (disc), gada (club), and padma (lotus flower). He was very beautiful, but unlike Nanda-nandana Krsna, He had no flute and no peacock feather He was more like Narayana. Narayana is very beautiful, but Krsna is the most beautiful of all.
Vidyapati became very happy and began to weep, thinking, "I have been searching for Him for such a long time so many months and now I am satisfied. My life is now successful." Visvavasu then told him, "Wait here a while. I am going to the forest to bring some flowers and other paraphernalia to worship Him. Then I will offer candana and other articles, perform arcana, and then we will return home."
While Vidyapati waited, he noticed a beautiful lake with lotus flowers, humming bees, and some sweetly-singing birds. The branches of a mango tree hung over the lake, and a black crow that was sleeping on one of the branches fell in. Immediately, his soul appeared with four hands. Then Garuda quickly came, took that very beautiful and glorious four-handed personality on his back, and flew to Vaikuntha. Vidyapati began to think, "Oh! With no practice in bhakti at all, he very quickly went to Vaikuntha. He never did anything auspicious. He was impure a crow eating flesh and other abominable things. Yet, simply by falling into the pond he became four-handed and went to Vaikuntha. Why should I remain here?" He wanted to climb the tree and jump into the lake as well, so that he could also attain a four-handed form and go to Vaikuntha. "I should not wait another moment," he thought, and at once began to climb the tree. When he was about halfway up the tree, however, an aerial voice called to him, "Don't commit suicide just so that you can be liberated and go to Vaikuntha. You will have to perform many important services for the benefit of the entire world, so don't die yet. Be patient. Everything will be accomplished. Return to Maharaja Indradyumna at once and tell him that Nila-madhava is here."
In the meantime, Visvavasu returned with many flowers and other paraphernalia and said to Vidyapati, "Oh, come join me." He had no idea what had happened. Visvavasu prepared candana and other ingredients, and throughout the whole day he performed worship, offered prayers, and engaged in many other devotional activities. All the residents of that village were known as dayitas, which means those who are very near and dear to Krsna. Visvavasu was known as dayita-pati, the master of all those who are near and dear. He served in this way, although he was a sabara. He was fully surrendered and always called out, "Nila-madhava!" Now Vidyapati was also very much charmed with the glories of the deity and, seeing the worship of Nila-madhava performed by his father-in-law, he became overjoyed.
When Visvavasu had completed his services, he again covered Vidyapati's eyes with the blindfold, and they departed. After some hours, traveling again in that zigzag way, they reached their home. Then Visvavasu heard Nila-madhava telling him, "You have served Me for a long time. Now I want to take the royal service of a very high class of devotee named Indradyumna Maharaja. Don't be afraid and don't worry." Visvavasu, however, immediately became upset and thought, "Oh, Thakurji will go to Maharaja Indradyumna? I cannot bear the thought of separation. This boy will return and tell the King, and the King will come and take Nila-madhava." He then practically arrested Vidyapati and imprisoned him within one of the rooms of his house.
Vidyapati could not go anywhere, so he told his wife, "Please help me. I want to return to Madhya Pradesh very soon. I have promised my King, who wants to come with his whole family to serve Nila-madhava. Please help me. You are my wife my other half."
Lalita agreed and said, "You can go. I will help you." She then told her father, "If you do not release him from this jail, I will commit suicide at once." She was ready to commit suicide, so her father's heart melted in compassion and he released Vidyapati. Now free, Vidyapati assured his wife, "I will return very soon. Don't worry." He then quickly left and proceeded towards Indradyumna's kingdom.
He walked continually until he finally arrived back in Avanti Nagari. He had been gone for over six months, and King Indradyumna became very happy when he heard from Vidyapati, "I have discovered Nila-madhava. Please come with me." The King decided, "I shall go with my entire kingdom, my wealth, my wife, and my soldiers and commanders." He wanted to bring Nila-madhava to his kingdom, to worship Him for the rest of his life. Proceeding from Ujjain, he reached the place about a hundred miles south of Puri. But when he reached there, there were no mustard seed flowers. There was also no hill and no village, for by the desire of Nila-madhava, the entire village was covered with over a hundred feet of sand. Everything was covered, including the hill, and Nila-madhava was not there.
The King began to weep. He sat down on a straw mat facing the ocean and decided, "I will not take anything to eat until I have darsana of Nila-madhava; if I do not see Him, I will die. I came with my whole kingdom, all my wealth, my wife, and family, but I did not get the darsanaof the Lord. Oh, I must give up my life." Then, as he began to chant, "Nila-madhava! Nila-madhava! Nila-madhava!" remembering the Lord, an aerial voice called to him, "I will not come, but do not worry. I will not come here to give you darsana, but you will be able to see Me. I am sending Brahma. You should come with Brahma to Vaikuntha, and there you can take My darsana. In this world I will not give you darsana in the shape of Nila-madhava, but I will manifest in four forms: Jagannatha, Baladeva, Subhadra, and Sudarsana cakra. Wait near the sea where Banki-muhana is located." This place is presently known as Cakra-tirtha, and it is by the part of the ocean known as the Bay of Bengal, where the water moves towards West Bengal. "Go there and wait, and a daru-brahma (Bhagavan in the form of wood) will come. He will manifest in the form of a very large, fragrant, reddish log, and the signs of sankha, cakra, gada, and padma will be seen everywhere on that form. Go there. Take Me out and make four deities from that log. Then you will be able to worship Me."
Brahma quickly came and took the King with him to Vaikuntha, where he could freely gaze at Nila-madhava as He conversed with His associates. The King became even more attached and began to weep, and then Brahma told him, "Let us go. He will not come to Earth in this form, but He will come as four forms. Let us now go to the place that He has designated, and wait for Him there."
In the meantime, while the King was gone, many years had passed and the entire world had now changed. Before going he had constructed a very large and beautiful, high temple, but now it was also covered by sand. The sand had been removed many times, but the temple had become old and dilapidated. A new King had come and repaired it, and he had declared, "I am the builder of this temple." Now that King Indradyumna returned, he told the new King, "This is not yours; I have built it, so I am the owner of this temple. You have only made repairs." There was a crow named Kakabhusundi, who had been witness to the pastimes of Ramacandra and also King Indradyumna's building the temple; and now he testified on the King's behalf. Brahma also came forward and agreed, "This King has built the temple. You have only repaired it." In this way, King Indradyumna again became the master.
Somehow, by Krsna's mercy, the King's wife was there. He had no child at all, so there was only he and his wife. The King and his new associates and army waited for the deity, and at last he saw the red tree-trunk, marked everywhere with sankha, cakra, gada, and padma. He approached that trunk with his soldiers and elephants and they tried very hard to take it out of the water, but they could not do so. Many elephants and strong men, and even his entire army, could not take the tree-trunk out of the water.
The aerial voice came again and told the King, "Bring My old servant Dayita-pati Visvavasu, and his daughter as well. Visvavasu will carry Me from one side, and the brahmana Vidyapati will take Me from the other side. And bring a golden chariot for Me. I will come out easily, and then you can arrange everything." By the power and will of Nila-madhava, Visvavasu, Lalita, and Vidyapati were still alive and now they were brought on a chariot with honor. The King requested the three of them to enter the waters of the ocean and lift the log. Vidyapati and his wife and father-in-law then began to lift and simultaneously pray to the log, "Jaya Jagannatha! Jaya Jagannatha! Nila-madhava! Nila-madhava! O please, please be merciful and come upon our chariot."
The log came out very easily, and it was brought on the golden chariot to the place near to where the Jagannatha Temple is now situated. The King kept the log there in a big hall, and he invited all the carpenters of Orissa, telling them, "I will give you vast wealth if you can make the vigraha." Very famous carpenters came there wanting to make the deity, but their instruments and tools broke as soon as they touched the iron-hard log. An old but beautiful brahmana then came forward. He had brought some tools, and he told them, "My name is Maharana. I am very expert, and I can make you the vigraha." That brahmana was actually Nila-madhava or Jagannatha Himself, in the form of an old brahmana. He continued, "I will complete the vigraha in twenty-one days, but you must promise that the door of this hall will remain closed. I will be alone there with my tools, and after twenty-one days I will open the door so that you can see the deity. At that time you can take Him into the temple and serve and worship Him." The King replied, "Yes, I will obey your instructions. I will not open the door."
The brahmana went inside with his tools, and locked the door from inside. For fourteen days there was no sound, and Indradyumna Maharaja became very worried. He thought, "What can be the matter? The brahmana has not taken a drop of water or anything to eat this entire time. Perhaps he is dead." His Prime Minister then told him, "Don't open the door. There is some mystery behind this. Only open it after twenty-one days; not before." However, his wife pleaded with him, "If you don't open the door now, the brahmana may die and we will be guilty of brahma-hatya (the sin of killing a brahmana). We must open the door. Please hurry." The King replied, "The brahmana told me not to open it before twenty-one days have elapsed. How can I open it?" She beseeched him again and again, and finally the King called for his carpenters to cut away the locks; he opened the doors forcibly and entered.
Inside the hall, the King was struck with wonder, for he could not see the brahmana. "Where is the brahmana Maharana?" he asked. The four deities Jagannatha, Baladeva, Subhadra, and Sudarsana cakra were there, but they had not been fully completed. Their eyes and noses were only round shapes, their arms were not full-length, and their hands and feet were not completed nothing was completed. The King began to weep. Opening up his heart to his Prime Minister, he said, "I have committed an offense by breaking my promise. Now what shall I do?" Weeping, he again wanted to commit suicide.
In another account, perhaps in another creation, when the King opened the door, the brahmana was present and at once told him, "Why have you come in the middle of my work? Now only fourteen days have passed. I wanted another seven days to make the vigrahas very beautiful. Why did you open the door? Now there are only round eyes. Well, I think it must be the wish of God Himself Jagannatha. Otherwise I would have been able to complete the task, and you would not have interrupted me." Saying this, the carpenter disappeared, and at that time the King and his associates knew that he was not simply a brahmana carpenter he was Krsna Himself. They began to lament in separation.
The deity then ordered the King through His aerial voice, "Don't worry. There is a mystery behind this. I desired to manifest like this, and there is a very deep reason for it. Keep Me in the temple and begin to worship Me in the form of these deities." Jagannatha continued, "Please carry out My orders. Visvavasu and his son-in-law Vidyapati will worship Me, along with Vidyapati's two wives. The sons of Vidyapati's brahmana wife will take turns to worship, and the sons of his sabara wife will cook many varieties of preparations. Many dayitas in the dynasty of Visvavasu will serve Me for ten days during a Ratha-yatra Festival. Only they will worship Me at that time; no one else will perform the worship. They alone will take Baladeva, Subhadra, and Me on chariots, and they will bring us to Gundica Mandira. Make a festival for ten days beginning from today, and take these chariots to the Gundica Mandira."
It was due to the request of Queen Gundica that the events of this pastime unfolded as they did, which is why the mandira was named after her. Thakurji continued, "We will remain there for those days, and then you may take us back. You should perform many festivals, like Snana-yatra, Candana-yatra, Hera-pancami, and so on."
During Candana-yatra, Jagannatha's entire body is covered with candana for many days. At that time, the vijaya-vigraha deity known as Govinda is placed on a very beautiful boat in Narendra-sarovara, and His boat pastimes take place. Then, during Snana-yatra, the deity receives abhiseka from thousands of pitchers of water brought from all the holy places in India, and His bath is so long that he becomes sick. His stomach becomes upset and He falls ill. At that time, Laksmi takes Him to her palace and closes the door for fifteen days. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu could not survive without the deity, and therefore He went to Alalanatha and cried, "Where is Krsna? Where is Krsna?" He became mad, so much so that when He touched the stones at Alalanatha they melted. Wherever He offered his pranama wherever His hands, head, and other limbs were placed their impressions became visible in that piece of stone.
Only the dayitas, the family of Visvavasu Sabara, can serve Jagannatha at the time of Ratha-yatra. Actually, there are two kinds of servants. One is coming from the dynasty of Vidyapati's original brahmana wife, and these devotees do arcana and seva. Those who descend from Lalita are called supakara (excellent cooks), because Jagannatha has accepted them as His cooks even though they are of a low-class birth. They very quickly and easily cook not less than one hundred mounds of rice and dahl, and a variety of other preparations. They are expert in using many stoves, and they place at least twenty-five earthen pots on one stove.
The King prayed, "O Thakurji, I want a boon so that I may serve You."
Thakurji replied, "What boon do you want?"
The King said, "I desire that there should be neither sons nor daughters in my dynasty. I do not want any children. I know You will grant my desire."
Thakurji smiled and asked, "Why don't you want children?"
The King replied, "After I die, they will quarrel over money, and they will have no interest in serving You. So much money will come for Your service, and they will think, 'This property is mine' or 'Jagannatha is my property.' I don't want any of my family members to think, 'This temple is mine, Jagannatha, Baladeva, and Subhadra are my property, and all the money coming as pranami (donations) is therefore mine to enjoy.' If they think in that way, they will use everything for their own sense gratification and go to hell."
Nowadays we see this mentality all over India and everywhere else. These days, neophyte devotees approach people and say, "Give me some money to serve my gurudeva. I want to serve Thakurji Jagannatha, Baladeva, and Subhadra. I want to serve Radha and Krsna, so donate something." Then, when they get that donation, they do not give a single cent to gurudeva or to Thakurji. They think, "Now I am the enjoyer!" They keep the money in their pocket, and then they enquire, "Where is the best bank for me to make a deposit?" Someone may reply, "You can go to Switzerland; it is the very best." Then they will say, "No, I want to keep my money in India so that I can live there. Can you tell me which is the safest bank in India to keep my money?" They forget that they collected that money for gurudeva. Would anyone have given the money if they thought it was for that disciple? And what will be the punishment? Krsna is in anxiety that as yet He has created no hell that is appropriate for them.
In India, too, many gosvamis think they are the owners of their temples. They take the pranami and engage in many bogus activities. You should be always careful about this; otherwise bhakti will not come to you. She will think, "This person is very selfish. He wants to be the master of his gurudeva, and also of Krsna."
The King therefore requested, "There should be no one to take even a single paisa. You are the owner. You Yourself should depute those who will serve you. The managers should regularly be changed, and they should be servants, like trustees." A trustee is one who can be trusted to serve without any desire for self-gain. The King of Orissa is always the trustee, and someone else is selected after him. They are not actually kings, in the sense that they cannot take a farthing or a paisa for themselves. If they were to, they would be ruined.
Upon hearing the King's words, Jagannatha began to smile, and thus the Ratha-yatra Festival began. There are so many relevant teachings found in this history.