Who is a Hindu? The temple as saviour

Puri’s Jagannatha temple was built by Anantavarman Chodagangadev in the 12th century. (c) Wikimedia Commons

Published on 29th April, 2018, in Mumbai Mirror

By the end of the 13th century, the Gangetic valley, right down to Bengal’s delta, was under the control of Muslim kings. This, despite fierce resistance put up by the Rajputs. By the end of the 14th century, most of the Deccan was also under Muslim control, despite fierce resistance by the Vijayanagara kings. This history is known to all of us, thanks to textbooks, comic books and Bollywood. However, what is not popularly known is that there was a large pocket of India that remained free of Muslim control during this time – the coast of Odisha and the tribal lands around it.

In fact, even after the Afghan invasion of the 16th century, followed by Mughal, Maratha and British rule, Hindu faith has thrived in the region, with the Muslim population accounting for less than five per cent, compared to the national average of about 15. All thanks to the Jagannatha temple of Puri and the unique relationship of the people in the region with this temple, consolidated by the local kings.

What is special about the temple is that it is syncretic: though people keep trying to reduce it to a Krishna temple, the local people see Jagannatha as a unique, local combination of Vaishnava, Shaiva, Shakta, Buddhist, Jain and tribal beliefs. This is reinforced by its unique totemic forms, and the fact that the images of the deities ‘fall sick’ every year; they ‘die’ every 12 to14 years and are ‘reborn’, mimicking the Hindu view of life. And during their lifetime, they engage in various activities — from eating food, to going on hunts and boat rides and chariot rides, to enjoying song and dance — that pilgrims can witness. The sacredness of the shrine, and the resulting inflow of pilgrims (and, consequently, pilgrim wealth), has played a significant role in contributing to the survival of this site, earning the grudging protection of even the Mughals and the East India Company.

Until the Islamic invasion of India, temples of Hindu gods were local centres, worshipped in villages and sometimes patronised by local kings who, through the deity, sought the support of the local people. It is only after they arrived that temples became centres of political power, meant to assert sovereignty. And that is why some of the massive temple complexes we see today are really products of imperial power, less than a thousand years old. Before that, temples were much smaller, private and intimate structures, meant for local devotees and the annual pilgrim.

The rise of tall vimanas and gopurams with massive ramparts are really a reaction to the arrival of a foreign faith. The great Puri temple we see today was built, at the site of the ancient and already popular Purushottam kshetra, by Anantavarman Chodagangadev in the 12th century , perhaps mimicking the Cholas of Tamil Nadu. His grandson, Anangabhima, fought the Bengal Muslim sultans and, during that period, declared Jagannatha as the ‘rashtradevata’ and [the local rulers] as God’s viceroy (rautta). Opposing them was akin to betraying (droha) God.

Historians avoid using terms like ‘Islamic’ invasion and ‘Muslim’ rulers. They refer more ethnic, racial and tribal identities like Turk, Central Asian, Mongol and Afghan. This secularisation, they feel, is necessary, as these invasions were more for economic reasons than religious ones. But invasions post the seventh century were very different from the ones before. The Greeks, the Huns or the Scythians who came to India before, were assimilated into the local population and even contributed to the local faith. The need to distinguish and define Hinduism began only after the invasions of tribes, who claimed to be followers of a new faith of one God, and who denounced idol worship.

The phrase ‘Hindu dharma’ emerges during the rule of the Vijayanagar kings of the 13th century as a way to distinguish themselves from the ‘Turuku dharma’ of their enemies. This term was later used by poets such as Kabir and Vidyapati, and became an administratively-defined unit in British times. Before the arrival of Islam, there were tensions between the Brahmins, Buddhists and Jains, all competing for royal patronage. At that time, there was no need to define Hinduism. The academic tendency to use nomenclature selectively for political reasons is one of the reasons the general public is suspicious of their worthwhile contributions — a suspicion that has been manipulated by politicians.

The dreaded Afghan general Kalapahar (Black Mountain) attacked and destroyed the Jagannatha temple and its sacred images in 1568. But as per the Madala Panji, a temple chronicle, the undamaged portions of the image were rescued by one Bisar Mohanty from the bottom of the Ganga river and restored in the form of new images carved by King Ramachandra of Khurda, who established the temple and its rituals nearly a decade later. This king gained the title of Second Indradyumna, the legendary king who established Jagannatha temple. But all was not well. Across Odisha, one finds tales of caves and hill forts where the Jagannatha image had to be repeatedly hidden to protect it from marauding armies through the 17th and 18th centuries. Jagannatha would return to Puri for the annual chariot ride, and then be hidden away again, the ‘rebirth’ rituals always ensuring his continuity.

Despite centuries of attacks and invasions, the deity survived, the temple survived and the religion thrived. It inspired poets to compose songs of love, like the Gita Govinda. It was where devadasis sang and danced before being driven out by Victorian values. Here is a lesson of surviving through faith and love, tact and negotiation and not through hatred that modern politicians ‘defending’ the faith desperately need.