Word With a Past: Juggernaut

The Hindu god Krishna is worshiped in the form of Jagannatha (Lord of the World) in a famous 12th c temple in Puri, in the Indian state of Orissa.

The most important of the annual festivals associated with the Jagannatha temple is the Chariot Festival.  The god’s image is placed in a highly decorated wagon and taken on procession from the temple to the country house of the god.   The wagon is so heavy that it takes hundreds of worshippers to move it.   The procession is accompanied by thousands of pilgrims, who crowd around the wagon.  Between the crush of the crowd and the weight of the wagon, accidents are common.   Occasionally an ecstatic pilgrim throws himself under the wagon’s wheels.

he Chariot Festival of the Jagannatha temple, Puri, Orissa, India. Enclyclopedia Britanica


Quiet devotions by individual worshippers don’t make much of a story.  Huge crowds and an inexorable wagon that crushes worshippers under its wheels?  The stuff that travelers’ tales are made of.  As early as the 14th century, European travelers in India were fascinated by the story of the Chariot Festival, and the worshippers who “cast themselves under the chariot, so that its wheels may go over them, saying that they desire to die for their god,”  (Friar Odoric, c 1321. Just to give an example.)

In the nineteenth century, more than one responsible British official checked the Orissa province records and reported that the instances of death by chariot wheel were greatly exaggerated.  It  didn’t  do any good.  The story of the chariot of Jagannatha  had become a metaphorical juggernaut, capable of  crushing mere facts beneath its wheels.

Juggernaut, n.   Anything that draws blind and passionate devotion, or to which people are ruthlessly sacrificed.




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