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Jagannatha is considered as the Lord of the Kali Yuga, the form of Lord Vishnu who appeared to regulate the four yugas in popular conception. But there seems to be some sort of mystery associated with the true identity of Lord Jagannatha and it has ever since been intriguing the scholars for a long long time. Some are of the opinion that the temple was originally constructed as a Bouddha temple with a triple figure of Jagannatha, Balabhadra, and Subhadra. They are considered as representatives of the Triratna of Buddhism i.e. Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. In addition to that, Buddha is often referred to as Jagannatha in many Pali texts. As we all know that the influence of Samrat Ashoka in the Kalinga region is historically significant, it became easy for many to believe that the Jagannatha temple might have been a Buddha temple at some ancient time. However, one can not accept the argument as a fact because the actual number of Vigrahas found inside the sanctum is not three, but four - Sudarshana being considered as the fourth one.
A statement on the same controversy was released by the Government of Odisha:
“The Dhauli Region ff Odisha was once a Buddhist , particularly after the Kalinga War ff Ashoka. It is, therefore, likely that Buddhism might have exercised some influence over the cult of Jagannath. Possibly, there arose a conflict between the Buddhists and the Hindus in the 7th or 8th century and as a result of which Indrabhuti, a Buddhist of Sambalpur region affected a compromise by using the epithet Jagannath as a synonym of Buddha in his work ‘Jnana Siddhi’”.
It is believed that inside the murti of devatas inside the Jagannatha temple, there exists a sacred object that possesses incredible power and unbelievable spiritual potency. It is believed that when in every twelve years, a new murti is consecrated, the power from the old murti gets transferred into the new one by a priest and this secret ritual is performed behind closed doors. Some believe that the sacred object is a body part, a tooth that belongs to the historical Sakyamuni. Others believe in something that is even more far-fetched - when Lord Krishna was leaving His body, a stone which was lying nearby, got imprinted by the supernatural powers of Lord Krishna and the same stone now resides inside the vigraha. Many others also believe that the vigrahas contain specially consecrated Shaligramas which were placed inside the Tantric yantras of three Mahavidyas named Kali, Tara, and Bhubaneshwari.
As per the Mahaniravana Tantra:
"Ugratara Sulapani Subhadra Bhuvanesvari Niladrau Tu Sakshat Jagannatha Dakshina Kalika"
“In Niladri, Balabhadra is Ugratara, Subhadra is Bhuvaneswari, and Jagannatha is Dakshina Kalika.”
Other Tantric literature considers Lord Jagannatha as Mahabhairava and Bimala Devi as the Mahabhairavi and the entire area of the temple as a chakra wherein one loses his/her caste if he/she consumes the mahaprasada of Lord Jagannatha. Perhaps this close association between the Shakta and Vaishnava ideas paved the way for a merger of the two paths in Eastern India. This further lead to some Tantric texts which declares unequivocally that both Lord Krishna and Kali are the same deities who appeared in two separate perspectives.
Lord Jagannatha is also considered as Surya at times and the priests chant mantras related to Surya while performing the rituals. At the Jagannatha temple in Puri, one can find a combination of Vaishnava, Shakta, Saurya and the Tantric paths. As per some medieval spiritual literature, Lord Jagannatha has been described as Daru Brahma. Also, Lord Jagannatha is referred to as Shunya Brahman - the void manifesting in a personal form.
Some even claim that the Jagannatha temple was originally a temple of God Narasimha that represents a Krodha or angry Narasimha. In general, the Narasimha mantras are traditionally used during specific crucial aspects of the puja like that of protecting the Mahaprasada or during the Navakalevara or ritual transference of prana from the older murtis to the new one.
Although it is predominantly a Vaishnava pitha, the Tantric roots cannot be ignored as during the Sandhi puja of Navaratra-s, people still sacrifice an animal before Bimala Devi and the head and blood of the animal are offered to the shakti of the Kshetra.
The most prominent among the various associations made with Lord Jagannatha is the association with the term Sri Purushottama. It is mentioned in the Gita that beyond the Kshara and Akshara Purusha stand the Purushottama who is the Lord’s ultimate power who manifests both as a silent observer and plays the role of a detached actor in the world of creation. It is really not possible to know how one should worship the Purushottama perfectly but studies over a period of time confirm that it should be an electric mix of various paths and a beautiful manner of personalizing the impersonal through strains of seva that should be based on bhakti.
"Jagannathah swami nayana–patha–gami bhavatu me!"
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