(This post is not about Sarala Mahabharata. It is about a ritual in Shri Jagannath Temple in Puri and the story associated with it. The ritual continues but the story is all but forgotten.
The inspiration for this post has come from some observations of Ms. Sewa Bhattarai regarding some fading worships in Karnali and the stories and the festivals connected with them.)
For a month, from the eleventh day of the waxing phase of the moon of the month of Aswina till the tenth day of the waxing phase of the moon of the month of Kartika, both days inclusive, a special ritual is conducted in Shri Jagannath temple (“Shri Mandira”, as it is also called) in Puri. After the daily ritual of abakasha (washing face, bathing, etc.) the Deities, Jagannath, Balabhadra, Subhadra and Sudarshana wear a special besha (dress) called “Radha Damodara besha”. Then after the ballavadhupa (the first food offering of the day, called ballava) and the sakala (morning) dhupa (the second food offering of the day), which are daily rituals, an additional food offering or dhupais held. This dhupa is called “baala dhupa”.
While the puja of this dhupa takes place, the devotees, assembled in the presence of the Deities, repeatedly recite a simple couplet, containing a few names of the Supreme god Narayana as Krishna. One of these names is Damodara. The first line of the couplet is of interest here: jaya raadhaa daamodara gobinda (Victory to Radha and to Damodara, and to Govinda, who is also known as Damodara). Noticing that I was not reciting it, a servitor, an old person, came up to me and asked me to repeat it. Say it, Babu (a polite address and reference term in Odia), it’s a mahaamantra, great mantra, he told me. I noticed that though most were saying “raadhaa daamodara”, a few were saying “raai daamodara” instead. Later when I asked one of these devotees, he told me that the right word is really “raai” not “raadhaa” and that Rai was not Radha. He didn’t elaborate; neither did I ask him to do so. I do not remember why I didn’t; I must have thought that he really didn’t know. I knew that in colloquial spoken Odia, Radha sometimes becomes Rai and she is occasionally mentioned as Rai in Odia Vaishnava literature as well. In any case, standing in front of Jagannath, who would care what is the right word!
Far away from Puri, after many Kartikas, one day I recalled what that devotee had told me and tried to find out if Rai is different from Radha. What I found was that Rai and Radha are not indeed the same and this is Rai’s story, so tender and sweet:
One day the bada panda (one of the chief servitors) invited Jagannath home. He had performed the sraddha ritual for his forefathers and had cooked special food. Jagannath went to His great devotee’s house and the servitor and his wife offered Him food with utmost devotion. He was very pleased. What did he want from Him, He asked him. The servitor said that he wanted Him to marry his daughter, Rai. The Supreme god obliged; she was born with the attribute of goddess Lakshmi, He told him – thus the great tradition of the classical narratives appropriated a local tale. After a while He wanted to return to the Big Temple. The servitor folded his palms and said that he was poor and had nothing to give Him as dowry and implored him to forgive him and accept his surrender to Him.
One day the Supreme god asked the pregnant Rai what she wished to eat. She wanted to sit on His lap and receive worship and eat coconut, banana, moong sprout, khai(fried paddy), kora (a coconut-based sweet), etc., she told Him. For that she had to please goddess Lakshmi, He said. When, He told her, the goddess would grant her a boon, she must tell her that she wanted to sit on His lap and receive worship in the month of Kartika. Rai served the goddess well. Very pleased with her, one day she told her that she wanted to grant her a boon. Rai asked for Damodara. Lakshmi was stunned. She was not angry; she did not feel that the girl had been clever and had trapped her, so she did not want to punish her for her unfair request – she was only deeply perturbed and sad. How could she ask for Him, she asked her. The generous girl told her not to worry, it was for just one month, the month of Kartika, she told her. Lakshmi was relieved. But Kartika is a special month, the most sacred month; give me five days of Kartika, she requested Rai and she readily agreed. If not then, later the goddess realized that it was His wish. Thus Jagannath’s special raadha daamodara besha and the additional baala dhupa come to an end one day before the ekadasi of the waxing month of Kartika. On the day of ekadasi, the Deities wear what is known as thia kia besha, known also as Lakshmi Narayana besha. Jagannath has returned to Lakshmi.
Rai’s is a local girl’s tale. She did not love Him; she was not His devotee and marrying Him was not in her mind. Neither was she in His mind – but who knows about Him. They were married because of her father, who was His devotee. The bhakta offered and Bhagawan accepted. Rai expected nothing from Him, did not ask Him for anything. It was only when He wanted her to ask Him for something that she expressed her desire. What she asked for is so very childlike, innocent and sweet – sitting on His lap, she wanted to enjoy the festive dignity and the serene grandeur of the food offering ritual and share the food with Him. This is what a child could ask of her father. She was not possessive about Him. She was not jealous of goddess Lakshmi; neither was she afraid of what would happen to her when she would find out. She surely knew what He had told her father about Lakshmi – she was “ati dusta” – very wicked. With the goddess, she did whatever He wanted her to do. Her attitude is outside of navadha bhakti (nine types of devotion); it is perhaps surrender in one form. As Jara’s is, in Sarala Mahabharata.
The above could just not be Radha’ story. She and Krishna longed for each other with great intensity. Virtually each couplet of the immortal love poem, the Gita Govinda, celebrate their longing, as have innumerable shastrik (roughly, scholarly and philosophical) texts and kavyik (literary) creations. Lakshmi or Rukmini, viewed as a form of Lakshmi in dwaapara yuga(aeon of Dwapara) never entered the Radha narrative. Radha was very possessive and jealous with respect to Krishna and could certainly not have accepted a situation in which she would have or would have had to share him with anyone: gopi or goddess. The avatara left her and later married Rukmini but innumerable legends and practices and worships have ignored her and celebrated Radha’s and Krishna’s togetherness. In any case that’s different and is not our concern here. As for Lakshmi, in puranic literature (at least in Odia puranic literature) she may not be openly possessive about Bhagawan Vishnu but there is no episode in which she shared her Spouse with any one, either willingly or forced by circumstances, without feeling anger and hatred towards that other. In the Jagannath Temple in Puri, a floral garland of Jagannath (called “adhara” by the servitors) which He wears in the bada simhara besha (the “big dress”, which is the last dress the Deities wear for the day and which is a flower – and tulsi – -based dress) is ritually offered the following morning to goddess Lakshmi but before it is offered to her, every single tulsi leaf is taken away from it. Because she cannot stand a sautuni – the other female, with whom she shares her husband.
And Jagannath? No one knows His origins. So call Him swayambhu. When He entered the discourse of Sanatana dhama is a matter of interpretation – in the Rig Veda? Or in the puranas? Not resembling any Vedic or puranic god, He came into this rich discourse with no story of His own. As different sects of Sanatana dharma embraced Him, stories got attached to Him – some of these were Vishnu’s, some others were of Vamana’s, Krishna’s or Rama’s, for example. Those were the stories that celebrated the doings (or the leela) of Krishna, Rama, etc. Jagannath had no doings; there was no leela of His, so no stories of His own. The Odia bhaktas created a few, some of these being of Dasia Bauri (the low-caste Dasia), Manika Gauduni (the milk maid called Manika, whose story is not reminiscent in the least of that of the gopis), Bandhu Mohanty, the hungry devotee to whom He carried food, Salabega, for whom He waited on His ratha till he returned, Karama Bai whose khichriHe loved to eat, the nameless girl who sang couplets from the Gita Govinda as she plucked brinjals from the field and of course Rai. As Jagannath was incorporated into the “great tradition” of Sanatana dharma, much that happened to Him includes His acquiring attributes, doings and a family. His Rai became the Vaishnavite Radha – for those who prefer to see Him in terms of Sanatana dharma, Rai was “elevated” into Radha. Radha, who belongs to the “great tradition” has a highly visible presence; Rai, who belongs to the local loka katha(folk tales) is faceless. No literary work, major or minor, in Odia language has celebrated her. Neither has any painting. (Or the girl who was plucking brinjals. We will tell her story another day.) Today a few might remember Rai’s story but a couple of generations later, she would be entirely forgotten. Radha would have substituted her in the mind of the people. Today, the established paanjikaas (almanacs) that inform about the rituals in the Big Temple use the word raadhaa, nor raai in this context. It wouldn’t of course matter to Rai. Let her name be lost. Because come Aswina sukla ekadasi, for a whole month from that day, Jagannath will dress beautifully for her, have a special dhupa, at which she will sit on His lap and receive worship.