The British derided the roughly carved form of Lord Jagannatha as He rode on His Chariot in Puri, but a century later that same form would with the worship of thousands of Westerners…
RAVINDRA SVARUPA DASA holds a doctorate in religion from Temple University, Philadelphia. He has been a devotee of Krsna for nine years.
Few things seemed more expressive of heathen idolatry to British missionaries in India than the annual chariot festival at Jagannatha Puri in Orissa. When the three great forms of Jagannatha (Krsna, "Lord of the Universe"), Balarama (His first expansion), and Subhadra (His spiritual energy) were pulled on towering chariots mobbed by ecstatically chanting devotees, missionary outrage knew no bounds. Published reports from the last century evince an utter inability to comprehend the spectacle. Jagannatha is denounced as "the Moloch of Hindoostan:" with "a frightful visage painted black, with a distended mouth of a bloody color." The European failure to understand Jagannatha naturally placed the onus on the Indians: the parade of Jagannatha was simply an instance of the cultural inferiority of Indians, an example of primitive idol worship in all its pomp and savage ostentation, to be expected in India, "where the benighted Hindu," as one hymn put it, "bows down to wood and stone."
The British Empire has vanished, while the festival at Puri goes on. What is more, Lord Jagannatha now yearly rides His huge chariot through the streets of New York, London, Paris, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston, and many more cities. Thousands of Westerners turn out to throng about the chariots. The times have changed; Jagannatha has prevailed. The triumph of Jagannatha means at least that the worship of the deity, once so incomprehensible to Westerners, has become intelligible and important to many of us. It has transcended mundane cultural differences and become the focus of a universal spiritual culture in its own right.
I want to tell you how Lord Jagannatha came into my own life, how I came to understand and indeed to worship Him as God Himself. Even though you may not embrace such worship yourself, you might like to understand why some of us do. The coming of Jagannatha to the West is arguably one of the significant cultural events of our time, and anyone who wants to understand these times will have to understand how Jagannatha came to be pulled down Fifth Avenue. My own story is part of that history.
I can see how the physical appearance of the deities of Jagannatha Puri could lead some to a superficial apprehension of them as "heathen idols." Krsna Himself is usually shown in His eternal, spiritual, two-handed humanlike form. (Precisely speaking, our human form is Krsnalike.) But in the form of Jagannatha, Krsna appears somewhat stylized or abstract, like a work of primitive art. His body is rounded, without visible legs. His two arms come sraight out at you, and His hands are indicated only by the outline of a discus on the end of one arm and of a conch on the other; these are emblems of divinity held by the Lord. His large countenance is jet black, and He has huge and perfectly round white eyes that stare at you intently. His wide red mouth is drawn up in a mirthful smile. Balarama, who is Krsna's first expansion and who appeared historically with Krsna as His older brother, is slightly larger. His complexion is pure white, and His red-rimmed eyes are shaped like teardrops. Balarama is smiling in delight. The deity of Subhadra, Krsna's spiritual potency and, historically, His sister, is yellow complexioned. Her arms are not visible at all. Her eyes are like Balarama's, and she is smiling almost mischievously from her place between her two larger brothers. All three fix their gaze on you with the round black centers of their wide eyes.
It is said that King Indradyumna first commissioned these three deities, and engaged Visvakarma, the architect of the demigods, to carve them. The impatient king took a peek at the work before the sculptor was finished, thus breaking his promise. Angered, Visvakarma walked off the job, and Indradyumna installed the deities as they were. We understand, however, that Krsna intended to appear in these particular forms; there was no happenstance. A person with spiritual vision can see that the deity of Jagannatha is nondifferent from Krsna Himself. A devotee once asked Srila Prabhupada (who introduced the authorized process of deity worship to the West) why Jagannatha looked different from Krsna. "Oh?" Srila Prabhupada replied. He looks different?"
The deity of Krsna is a form of Krsna Himself, and this is directly perceived by an advanced devotee. The appearance of Krsna as the deity is, however, especially intended for those of us who are not so advanced, who do not have the purified vision to see directly the spiritual form of God. God is not wood or stone: He is spirit. But He is capable of appearing as wood or as stone. Since we can see or touch only wood and stone, God, out of mercy to us, appears so that we can see and serve Him personally. For God there is no problem in turning matter into spirit and spirit into matter. The authorized worship of the deity is thus quite different from the worship of idols, of manmade surrogates for God. I will return to this point later.
I came into personal contact with Lord Jagannatha in the summer of 1968, some time before I met His devotees, who revealed His identity to me. I had just finished my first year of graduate work in religion. My study of religion was far from academic. I had come to view the historic collapse of value and meaning in Western civilization as an immense threat not only to our culture but to me personally. Religion had been on the retreat for at least five hundred years, and all attempts to construct secular substitutes had failed. I saw that most sensitive, intelligent people held no convictions at all, while those who believed did so with a fanaticism that exposed their convictions as a desperate defense against the terror of their own bottomless nihilism. I needed options other than these. I had decided to study religion especially to see if any solutions were available outside contemporary Western culture.
That year I had learned Hinduism from a scholarly swami of the impersonalistic or monistic school; I found his teachings attractive. He taught that the highest truth, called "Brahman" in the Vedas, was "the negation of all attributes or relationships." If we can destroy the illusion of multiplicity, we will realize our identity with Brahman and be liberated.
The characterization of "Brahman" by thoroughgoing negations was plausible to me, since it was cognitively no different from the atheistic or nihilistic view of reality I already held. To think that there is nothing beyond the world and to think that beyond the world is "Brahman," without relations or qualities, is practically the same. The latter idea, however, occurs in a context that promises ultimate liberation from the world.
We also learned about karma-yoga and bhakti-yoga as means to attain impersonal liberation. Bhakti was the worship of God in a personal form, a worship that ultimately ends, according to my teacher, when the aspirant realizes that the difference between himself and God is illusory. And that summer I tried practically to apply the swami's teachings about karma-yoga.
During the summer I worked in a tin-can factory in Salem, Oregon; my wife and I were visiting her family there. The pay was good, the work hellish. Our ears plugged against the din, we crawled like ants around the sprawling body of a roaring assembly line that devoured sheets of metal at one end and spewed out endless racks of finished cans at the other. Serving the machine like a robot, moving without letup at the machine's pace in a fixed mechanical routine, I tried to apply the "yoga of work" as taught by the swami.
In the Bhagavad-gita, Krsna says that we should perform our work as an offering to Him by surrendering the fruits of our work to Him. This means practically I should give the fruit of my work my earnings to Krsna's representative, the devotee, for him to use in Krsna's service by preaching, temple worship, and so on. That is how we can perform our work for God without attachment: we give the results to Him.
This straightforward understanding of the Gita, however, was not available to the swami, since, according to him, we ourselves are God. To keep the money for ourselves is to give it to God. The swami had to propound a more convoluted doctrine. He taught that karma-yoga entailed a sort of conceptual renunciation, trying to become unattached to the fruits of our labor by a mental act, while, all the same, we enjoy them. To do this, the swami said, you should try not to think about the results of your work while you are working: you should try to work for the sake of the work itself. You should merge yourself totally into your work, become lost in it. So, day after day, I tried to merge into the tin-can factory, to become absorbed with all my might in the endless repetition of a mindless routine. But I felt no liberation, no ecstasy. The only joy I could take in the work was getting the paycheck at week's end.
Yet in spite of my bad instruction in karma-yoga, there may have been something sincere in my efforts, for as it turned out, part of the fruit of my work did become used (without my knowledge) for Krsna. Krsna says in the Gita that He is in the heart of every creature, and when He sees in one a sincere desire to return to Him, He makes the proper arrangements.
At the end of summer my wife and I visited a famous import plaza in Portland, where we wandered for hours, making a few purchases with the summer's savings. As we were preparing to leave, I happened upon a large cardboard box filled with carved figures six inches high; some were black, some white, and some yellow.
I stopped and picked one up, staring in wonder at its glowing black face; its wide round eyes looked back into mine. I examined each figure in amazement. They seemed to be primitive works of art, and yet they achieved an effect so sophisticated it contrasted startlingly with the apparent crudeness of execution. The faces of the figures, with their intensely staring eyes and their broad smiles, exquisitely combined profound wisdom and spontaneous joy. The unity was fascinating, and I remember thinking how unfathomable was the mentality that had produced these figures.
Having only enough money left to purchase one of them, I stood before the box, picking up one and then another. When we left, I was carrying Lord Balarama home with me.
"One cannot attain the Supreme or any form of self-realization." Srila Prabhupada writes in Krsna. "without being sufficiently favored by Balarama. One must have the spiritual strength which is infused by Balarama. Balarama is spiritual power, or the original spiritual master. And the spiritual master is the representative of Balarama, who gives spiritual strength."
Not knowing the identity of my figure, not even knowing that He was somewhere an object of worship, I placed Him on the shelf over my desk in Philadelphia, where for the next two semesters He watched over my labors, my speculative struggles to find some transcendent purpose to my life. His face, which so extraordinarily fused knowledge and bliss, never lost its fascination.
It was the height of the social warfare of the sixties. I belonged to both sides and equally mistrusted both. I attended classes, read books, wrote papers, even taught courses, but I saw no future for me in the academic establishment. ("Twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift," Bob Dylan wisely warned.) My friends belonged to what came to be called the counterculture. In the evenings we would sit together seeking pharmacological liberation, watching reality crumble. Sweet anarchy sang to us from the streets. We waited for the end, that apocalypse just around the corner, which for some reason never came. The most evident disintegration was taking place in the relationships and in the personalities of the people about me: there was no future in it.
I delved into the world's religions, toiled over books while my white-faced figure smiled down. I concluded that year that some essential teaching of all religion had been succinctly captured by the Buddha in three propositions. The first was that material existence is suffering. Some people never see this; to me it was excruciatingly obvious. The second proposition was that the root cause of this suffering is our cravings, our desires. I accepted this on the testimony of the Buddha and many other spiritual authorities from different traditions: it made a great deal of sense to me. Consequently, I accepted the third proposition: freedom or release from suffering is attained by extirpation of these desires.
As I became increasingly convinced of these things, I also became more and more aware that the life I was leading was wrapping me tighter and tighter in the skein of desires. Both the counterculture and the establishment were dedicated to the satisfaction of material desires; the whole disagreement was in the method to achieve it. Whether indigenous or imported, all the religions with which I had had personal contact had also accommodated themselves to the same enterprise. No help or even encouragement would ever come from these quarters. Yet by myself I was utterly unable to control my senses. I wanted to extirpate all material cravings and attachments, yet I couldn't even quit smoking cigarettes.
Whatever illusions I retained about the possibilities of material life were completely shattered in the fall, when my brother Bob, two years my junior, was killed on the highways. Death shed its abstractness and lived with me with the vivid immediacy of another person. And beneath all the turmoil of grief, I began to gain the hard kernel of a dreadful, awesome clarity. I saw that we live our ordinary lives only by virtue of a frenetic denial of death. The close proximity of death released me from the desperate charade so necessary to our ordinary life: the denial of mortality that makes confidence men of us all. I saw how we waste our spirit in elaborate self-deceptions, in the endless barren labor of a fake consciousness. Yet I knew that in time these deceptions would grow back. We require our lies. We must pretend not to see the slaughter all around us, the knife at our throats. Consciousness would destroy our paradise. I realized that the only means to a consciousness free of illusion and self-deception lay in becoming genuinely unattached to material existence. After the death of my brother, my desire for release became intense and urgent.
That same fall, when crossing campus on the way to class, I saw for the first time a row of saffron-robed Krsna devotees chanting. It intrigued me that the missionary effort was now coming this way. The next time I saw them, I purchased a pamphlet called Who Is Crazy? I gave it a quick reading and couldn't make much of it. Soon after that, a friend dropped by with news of something new in town, something really "far out": a Hare Krsna "love feast." He had never been to anything more far out. He came Sunday to take us. I had to be coaxed; I hated to disturb the languor of my Sundays.
We parked on a drab street of tightly packed row houses, went up some broken steps, left our shoes on a sagging porch, and when the door opened walked into dazzling splendor and overwhelming beauty. That was my immediate impression. Looking back, I realize that the temple then was rather makeshift and barren: a few pictures on the wall, a tacked-together altar against the front window. Still, the air was thick with heady incense and the pungency of exotic spices cooking; the throbbing chant of the Hare Krsna mantra came from the temple room, where a press of bodies, hands upraised, swayed to the music. We chanted, heard a lecture, feasted. My senses were overwhelmed by the density of stimuli put out by this utterly strange environment; every item of the feast exploded against my palate like a small revelation.
I never heard anything as welcome as the lecture after the chanting. The devotee spoke very strongly about the need to become free from material desires. He laid down four regulative principles, the pillars of spiritual life: no meat-eating, no intoxication, no illicit sex, no gambling. I know that many people who hear this in a Krsna temple are put off. I was attracted at once. At last, I thought, someone is willing to tell the truth.
Then the devotee began to explain how the control of the senses was practically possible. Mere negation or suppression of material desire, he said, will not work. The senses require engagement: if you try to stop the material activities of your senses without replacing those activities with something superior, you will quickly fall down. But if you give your senses superior spiritual engagement, your material activities will naturally cease, and you will remain fixed in consciousness. Spiritual life, he said, begins with control of the tongue: eating for sense gratification and talking of material things bind us firmly to material existence. Of course, it is virtually impossible to stop eating or talking. But if we eat only the spiritual food offered to Krsna and chant and talk only about Krsna, then our senses have spiritual engagement and automatically cease their material activities. Similarly, the devotee explained, all the other senses can be engaged in the spiritual activity of devotional service.
For the first time I had heard a reasonable account of how to become free from material desires. The devotee had, as if talking directly to me, explained my own failure and told me how to succeed. The lecture was so sensible, and the devotees and their temple were so attractive, that I began that week to chant Hare Krsna, and I returned to the temple next Sunday with enthusiasm.
If I had realized how coherent the philosophy of Krsna consciousness was, I might have been able to deduce from the lecture on sense control that it was integral with an extremely personal conception of God. Without such a conception, the idea of "spiritual activity" or "transcendental engagement of the senses" becomes meaningless. If God has no name, form, or qualities, how can we talk about Him? If He is not an individual person, how can we serve Him? If the impersonalists are right, then chanting and hearing about Krsna or serving Krsna are material activities, and they would not purify our senses and gradually uproot our material desires.
I naturally assumed, however, that the devotees were impersonalists like me. They were speaking strongly to the contrary, but it took some exposure for their words to penetrate the barrier of my own impersonalism. Their conception of God, of Krsna, was so concrete, so specific in its detail, that I assumed it had to be taken as a symbol or qualified in some other way. Krsna's luminous blue complexion, the peacock feather on His fine black hair, the silver flute raised to the smiling lips surely these were material images, at best a manifestation in the world of time and space of something originally unmanifest, before which all words and images must fail. If we brought such words and images to the Supreme, then wouldn't we be limiting it by our mundane conceptions?
All my preconceptions were destroyed, however, when at the love feast I overheard a devotee say to someone: "Oh, no, you don't understand. Krsna is beyond that light! The clear light is emanating from the transcendental body of Krsna!" Instantly, all the different pieces of the Krsna conscious philosophy I had heard came together coherently. And in my mind the conceptual edifice of impersonal philosophy came crashing down as though someone had put a bomb under it.
The devotees presented a powerful case. I had thought that a personal conception would have limited the Supreme, but I found their arguments that the impersonal conception was the most limiting of all to be completely persuasive. For what is the difference between God defined completely by negations and no God at all? (I recalled the ease with which I had passed from nihilism to impersonalism.) What is great about a big zero? It is the impersonalists, the devotees argued, who impose their material conceptions on the Supreme, not the personalists. The impersonalists assume that if God has form, it must be a material form like ours; if He has activities and qualities, they must be material activities and qualities. Upon hearing about God's name, form, qualities, and activities, the impersonalists immediately limit Him by thinking of them as material. Therefore, they deny all these attributes and reduce God down to a nullity. Because they are enmeshed in the material conception of life, they cannot comprehend that there can be spiritual name, spiritual form, spiritual qualities, and spiritual activities. The devotees of God accept such transcendental variegatedness. They admit that God has an impersonal feature, but they affirm that He also possesses, beyond that, an eternal personal feature of transcendental name, form, qualities, and activities full of bliss and knowledge. In this way, there are no limits placed upon the Supreme. Specific form does not limit God, for He has unlimited transcendental forms (but of all such forms, that of Krsna is the highest).
I found these arguments unassailable. True, it was still amazing to think that God was, in His highest feature, a bluish youth, tending cows in His spiritual abode but then, on the other hand, shouldn't God be amazing, the most amazing of all?
The detailed artistic depictions of Krsna I saw in the temple were more than just accurate representations of Him; they were nondifferent from Him. This was a feature of His absolute or spiritual nature. Krsna, the devotees explained, is absolute, or nondual. The variety of the spiritual world is not affected by the duality that characterizes material variety. When, for example, I say the word water, it doesn't quench my thirst, because in the world of duality the object and its name are different. But in the spiritual world there is no such duality. I say "Krsna" and Krsna is fully present. As He is fully present in His name, Krsna is also fully present in His picture or statue. Because of such nonduality, we can associate with Krsna directly through His name, or through the deity, and we become purified by that association. (I knew this to be factually true: after a few weeks of chanting, I was beginning to give up my bad habits; the clamor of material desire was subsiding.)
Thus, the deity worship of the Krsna devotees, as witnessed with such distress by the foreign missionaries at Puri, is based on a cogent and powerful philosophy of personalism, one which, I became convinced, far excels any religious philosophy produced in the West. At the root of the missionaries* failure to understand the worship of Jagannatha was their own deep impersonalism. For even though Christianity claims to be a personal religion, it has become undermined by impersonal speculation. If you ask a Christian to describe God, he will generally be able to give you only a concatenation of abstractions, which he will then qualify by saying that they do not literally apply to God. What little he gives with one hand, he takes away with the other. As the great Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas confessed "We cannot know what God is, but only what He is not." If this is so, then how can we love God, a cipher, an unknown? There can be no spiritual engagement for the mind and the senses, only denials and barren abnegations, and then an inevitable return to material activities in frustration. This is the tragedy of Western spirituality.
The full import of the philosophy of personalism came to me gradually. I studied the books of Srila Prabhupada with close attention, and one by one tested all his arguments until I was fully satisfied of their soundness. But at the same time, I could feel the effects of chanting as a direct experiential confirmation. And on my third or fourth visit to the temple, something extraordinary happened.
During the chanting, my eyes roamed about the temple. I was only beginning to take in all that was there. Suddenly I saw, high over the altar, something that stopped me cold. There, looking down at me, was an intimately familiar face: the same pure white complexion, those same intense eyes, that same wide smile. It was a larger version of the figure who had stood for so long over my desk. I was so shaken I could hardly eat. As soon as I could, I sought out the temple president.
"Who is that figure over the altar the white one?" I asked him with great trepidation.
"That's Lord Balarama," he said. "He's Krsna's brother. He's Krsna's first expansion and is nondifferent from Krsna."
"The black one is Krsna?"
"The black one is Krsna, and the white one is Balarama."
I had to tell him.
"Look." I said, "I don't know what to do about this. But the white one "
"Balarama. I have Him at home."
The devotee looked at me.
"Really. I have Him at my house. I got Him at an import plaza a couple of years ago … What should I do with Him?"
"Worship Him," the devotee said immediately.
So when I got home, I took Lord Balarama down and dusted Him off. I got some cloth and made a place in my living room for Him. I began to offer Him incense, and I would sit and chant in front of Him.
It was impossible to persuade myself that there was merely a coincidence here. It amazed me each time to look upon that face which had attracted me for so long, whose mystery I had tried so often to fathom, and now to know that it was in fact the face of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
Balarama had led me to Krsna consciousness. A devotee had told me that by the grace of Krsna you get a spiritual master, and by the grace of the spiritual master you get Krsna. I didn't doubt that at all.
A year later, my wife and I and our two children moved into the Krsna temple. By the summer of 1972, when I was president of the Philadelphia temple, by the kindness of Srila Prabhupada I was able to install in the temple large and gravely beautiful deities of Jagannatha, Balarama, and Subhadra and to take them out through downtown Philadelphia in the first chariot festival on the East Coast of America.
I wanted to give you a personal glimpse into a small part of a large story of the coming of Jagannatha to America. You can see many elements at work: the frustration of material life, the pressures of a turbulent time, even an intellectual confrontation between personal and impersonal theology. Many elements were at work, but there is one thing that should not be overlooked. Krsna Himself in the forms of the Jagannatha deities was there for me to take. He had arrived on these shores coincidentally with His pure devotee, Srila Prabhupada. Jagannatha came to the West of His own accord, because He wanted to. Because we were at long last ready for Him.