Origin: 1630–40; < Hindi Jagannath < Sanskrit Jagannatha lord of the world (i.e., the god Vishnu or Krishna), equivalent to jagat world + natha lord
In the last few week of November 2013 and for a few weeks afterward, every Indian news channel I watched, and every newspaper I opened, chewed on the ignominy of what had happened in the world of Indian journalism. An organization called Tehelka, the lord and purveyor of investigative journalism in the country, was lambasted for suppressing the misdemeanors of the man at its helm, Tarun Tejpal.
He had allegedly molested a young staff member during a leadership conference in Goa in early November. With the revised laws in India following the Delhi gang rape incident of December 2012, Tejpal was not just accused of sexual misconduct and harassment; his offence was now deemed to be rape. Furthermore the powers at the juggernaut called Tehelka were hauled up for suppression of information following the incident in Goa; under the Vishaka guidelines drawn up in 1997, it was “the duty of the employer or other responsible persons in work places or other institutions to prevent or deter the commission of acts of sexual harassment and to provide the procedures for the resolution, settlement or prosecution of acts, of sexual harassment by taking all steps required.”
The word “juggernaut” comes from the Sanskrit term “Jagannatha” which means “Lord of the World.” It denotes the form of Krishna as he is worshipped in Puri, Orissa, where during the annual festival the image of this avatar of Lord Vishnu is carried through the streets on a lumbering chariot called a “rath.”
During this time the three deities of Jagannatha, Balabhadra and Subhadra are taken out in a grand procession in specially crafted gigantic temple-like cars that are pulled by thousands of devotees. To imagine such a vehicle inspires awe. The chariot at the temple of Thiruvarur in South India, for instance, is one of the biggest in Asia. At 96 feet tall, it weighs more than 300 tons. This grand floating temple is finished with intricate wooden carvings and massive wheels. The chariot steering Thyagarajaswamy, another aspect of Shiva, is pulled by a minimum of ten thousand people to move the chariot through the four streets hugging the temple at festival time.
When the British first watched the spectacle of the Rath Yatra in Orissa in the 18th century, they wrote up descriptions that then gave rise to the term juggernaut, meaning “destructive force.” The accidental deaths of some devotees under the chariot wheels caused by the crowd and commotion is still an occurrence at temple chariot processions around the country; children are often victims under the ominous turn of the wheel. The figurative sense of the English word later began to embrace the evil or the sense of “something that demands blind devotion or merciless sacrifice.” Thus, today, the word sometimes alludes to a large rumbling machine, or a grassroots organization, or a political movement in which people work as a unit to make it function. It’s easy to see why the term often has a negative connotation.
My 90-year-old father once told me how, when he was young, he was always haunted by the fear of dying under the majestic wheels of a village temple’s chariot. He was not a risk-taker and so he would never get close to the chariot. Other uncles of mine often talked about the magnificence of the yearly chariot festivals when they were growing up in the village of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. On the day the deity was herded around the village in a procession pressed by hundreds of people, the children of the village were cautioned about the dangers of a stampede. They could be crushed under the mighty carved wheels. No one would know until you had been chewed by the spokes on god’s whirring wheels.
On some rare days when I’ve had little control over the course of my life, I have nursed the feeling that life itself is about doing a balancing act inside a large chariot, while keeping myself from toppling onto the road and being crushed by its enormous wooden wheels.
Through the years I’ve got a sense of how my own family members, in turn, experience their course through life.
“You’re trying to crush me with your idea of the person I should become,” my son said to me last month when he arrived in India for a series of concerts. In the eagerness to have him perform in Chennai during the December performing arts season, I had signed him up somewhat excessively, with scant regard to his enormous commitments during the semester at school. He enjoyed music greatly but he wished to have the freedom to chart his own course and draw up a different schedule, especially now that he also had to prove himself in college and in his chosen career. I imagined my son at that moment, a scrawny, slight young man in the last teen year of his life, screaming silently from under my enormous chugging engine, his torso buckling under my wooden stance. It wasn’t difficult then to imagine how nurture could warp into a scourge.
In February 2013, Tejpal and his magazine had actively sought to talk about the issue of sexual violence in India, but by the end of the year, they were heaving under accusations of vehemence and hypocrisy.
No one in the nation had missed the stark irony of what the news juggernaut had wrought. The arrows that Tarun Tejpal had once launched from his quiver were now hurtling back towards him. I sensed how hubris could, with one mighty grind or turn, make an oppressor of a visionary.