The English word “Juggernaut” originates from the name of Lord Jagannath. The word travelled to the English language through the stories of Hindu God Vishnu. One of the names of Lord Vishnu is Jagannath.
During Rath Yatra, an annual festival in Puri, worshippers throng the Jagannath temple. A large lavishly decorated chariot carries Lord Krishna’s idol. The devotees pull the chariot from one place to another. During this festival, there is a history of devotees getting crushed while pulling the chariot. Travellers from abroad witnessed it and exaggerated the story. Thus, the legend of revellers throwing themselves under the rolling juggernaut to die was born.
History of the word ‘Juggernaut’
The word ‘Juggernaut’ means ‘a huge unstoppable force that seems to stamp out everything in its way’.
Friar Odoric, a Franciscan missionary, witnessed the puling of chariots by the devotees and an accident in the 14th century. He thus wrote about the huge chariot in a European journal.
The description that Friar Odoric gave of Puri Jagannath Rath Yatra was of one that evokes fright and disdain. He wrote that humans sacrificed their lives in front of the Chariot. The word thus developed a negative undertone.
‘Juggernaut’ is the anglicized name for the Hindu God ‘Jagannath’. The word entered the English language in the early nineteenth century when colonial Britishers encountered Rath yatra at Jagannath Temple and tried to decode whatever they saw in their way. Indians celebrate Rath Yatra every year at the Jagannath Temple in Puri.
Christian Missionaries view of the word ‘Juggernaut’
The first British official in India to popularise the word ‘Juggernaut’ in the early 1800s was Rev. Claudius Buchanan in Britain and the United States. Buchanan was a Christian missionary in India. And as might be expected from them during the colonial period, Buchanan took a negative view of the ritual of Rath Yatra at Jagannath Temple. According to him, it was a dangerous and violent religious cult.
He presented in the Christian researches in Asia about the religious state of India where he described the practice carried out at the Jagannath Temple during the Chariot festival where followers throw themselves under the wheels of the Chariot.
He compared it with the Heathen God Moloch to explain it better to the Christian audience. There was a ritual to sacrifice children before the Moloch of Cannan according to the Bible. Similarly, in India, people self-sacrifice their life before the idol of Juggernaut (as pronounced by the Englishmen) which to Buchanan was a symbol of bloodshed and death.
His description became quite popular during that time and was published in every missionary magazine. American Missionaries represented Lord Jagannath as fierce and idolatrous during their visit to India and let it published in the American Missionary magazine.
The word ‘Juggernaut’ redefined
As Americans learned more about Indian history the word ‘Juggernaut’ had begun to split. It split between the general use as a dangerous force to its specific use of the Hindu God at Puri.
An article published in 1878 in Harper informed its reader that ‘Juggernaut’ was really named ‘Jagannath’. It also gave details about the history of the Temple at Puri. It informed its readers about the temple and the rituals followed by devotees, unlike earlier missionary representation.
According to Hindus, the word Juggernaut is a distortion of the name of Lord Jagannath. It is also the result of the wrong spelling typed by Friar Odoric. Many regarded such representation as an insult to Hindu God.
With time the American and British imagination of the Hindu temple and God has changed. They no longer use the word’ Juggernaut’ in reference to Hindu God. The image of the idol rolling through the streets of India vanished. But, the sense of the gigantic, violent, unstoppable force moving ahead still prevails.