The origin and development of the Cult of Jagannath is quite mysterious. Different scholars have different views regarding the origin and development of Jagannath Cult in Odisha which can be discussed as follows:
Tribal origin of Lord Jagannath
The cult of Jagannath is stated to be of tribal origin. It is difficult to determine whether this tribal origin of God Jagannath is pre-Vedic or not. As per the depiction of Sarala’s Mahabharata, God Krishna, killed by the arrow of Jara Savara, was not burnt in wood fully after his death. As per the order of the divine voice, Arjuna and Jara threw the half-burnt body into the sea and that body was, later on, worshipped by Jara in the Dhauli hill at Bhubaneswar. In the mean while, Galamadhava, the king of Kanchi knowing about the death of Krishna, sent a Brahmin named Vasudeva to collect the body who located it in Bhubaneswar and transferred it to Nilachala. By that time, king Indradyumna had constructed a temple at Nilachala and by divine order, the king proceeded to that place. With the help of Jara, he brought the daru (wood) from Rohini kunda and installed the image inside the temple at Nilachala. Due to his folly, the images of God Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra were found incomplete as he opened the door of the temple defying the request of the sculpture (Bisvakarma in disguise) who had instructed the king not to open the door before the expiry of fifteen days. The story revealing the tribal origin of God Jagannath is different in the Skanda Purana.
The Purusottama Mahatmya section of that Purana narrates that the original place of worship of Nilamadhava (God Jagannath) was at Nila Saila (blue mountain) amidst a thick forest. In a dream, king Indradyumna of Avanti saw it and sent Vidyapati, a Brahmin to bring the God. Vidyapati married Lalita, the daughter of the tribal chief Visvavasu. After much persuasion of his daughter, Visvavasu took his son-in-law for the visit of Nilamadhava. While going to that place with his eyes covered, Vidyapati, cleverly threw the mustard seeds on the way. In the rainy season, the seeds germinated which clearly indicated the way to the place of worship of Nilamadhava. Vidyapati informed this to king Indradyumna who went to pays visit to the God. To his utter dismay, the God had vanished from that place. The king dreamt that a sacred log was coming from Svetadvipa where lied God Vishnu.
In the next morning, he was informed that a log containing the signs of God Vishnu was found on the sea-shore. The king rushed to the sea-shore immediately and the log was brought with much rejoicement. Out of the log, four images i,e. Jagannath, Balabhadra Subhadra and Sudarsana were made and installed in the temple constructed at nila seus (Puri). Though this fact is narrated differently in the Deula Tala of poet Nilambara Das and the work of the same name of Sisu Krishna Das, the fact remains the same that God Jagannath had a tribal origin which has been accepted by many notable scholars like B. Padhi, G.C. Tripathy, H. Kulke and A. Eschmann. Further, the association of the sevakas of God Jaqannath in Puri bear the name Daitas. The Vanayaga before the search of Daru for Navakalevara of the God also speaks of the tribal origin of God Jagannath. The three tribal deities like Jaleri Penu, Tana Penu and Murani Penu, worshipped by the Khonds Odisha are regarded as Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra
Vedic origin of Jagannath
Many scholars trace the Vedic origin of God Jagannath. The 3rd verse of the 155th Sukta in the 10th Mandala of Rig Veda states :
“There is a log floating on the sea and no one claims this as his property. O’ ugly evil spirit, ride
on that and remove yourself to the other side of the ocean.”
On the otherhand, Sayana, a 15th century commentator interprets the above quoted sukta as such :
“O, you are difficult to destroy, take resource to the (sacred) log of wood which has no creator
and which exists on the far distant sea coast, and achieve your salvation by the object.”
Through the above mentioned Sukta and its interpretation given by Sayana, the Vedic origin of God Jagannath is traced by several scholars. As, primarily, the cult of Jagannath is associated with tribal origin, which is non-Aryan in character, the Aryans might be aware about it and might have reflected that in a different way in the Rig Veda. This definitely gives a clue to the scholars to think the prevalence of the worship of Jagannath in a daru (log) from long before the Vedic age. However, this is controversial.
Jaina origin of Lord Jagannath
The Jaina origin of God Jagannath is traced by several scholars. As a heterodox religion, Jainism gave great challenge to Vedic religion. It has already been discussed earlier that before 6th century B.C., Jainism had entered into Odisha. It received royal patronage from Kharavela, the mighty monarch of the Chedi dynasty. Jainism gained momentum in the nook and corner of Odisha. The numerous Jaina monuments of Odisha amply justify the fact. Owing to the popularity of Jainism in Odisha, Balabhadra, Subhadra and Jagannath have been regarded as the three cardinal principles of Jainism like Samyak Jnana, Samyak Charitra and Samyak Drishti by N. K. Das. The concept of Kalpa tree in Jainism is regarded as the Kalpavata inside the sacred complex of God Jagannath temple at Puri. Kaivalya Mukti, one of the tenets of Jainism is identified with the Kaivalya (Mahaprasada) of Lord Jagannath that offers salvation to man. Further, B.M. Padhi tends to locate Vaddha Managala and Nandipada, the two Jaina symbols in the image of God Jagannath that give scope to presume the Jaina origin of the deity. However, these facts did not conclusively prove that Jagannath had a Jaina Origin. The principle of Kaivalya Mukti or salvation of Jainism is found in other religious faiths too. Similarly, Kalpavatas are worshipped in different parts of India.
Buddhist origin of God Jagannath
Some scholars trace a Buddhist origin of the trinity of the Jagannath temple. It is said that the tooth relic of Lord Buddha is preserved in the image of Jagannath, that the three deities – Jagannath, Subhadra and Balabhadra – represent Buddha, Dharma and Sangha respectively, that the Snana Yatra (bathing festival) and Ratha yatra (car festival) of the Jagannath temple are of Buddhist origin and that the sharing of Kaivalya (sacred food) on equal footing by all castes is due to the Buddhist impact. There are some literary evidence of co-relation between Lord Jagannath and Buddhism.
According to some scholars, Jagannath is a common epithet of Buddha. In Tibet, one of the names of Buddha is Jagannath. Jayadeva, the twelfth century Vaishnava poet who, according to some scholars, identified Jagannath with Krishna or Vishnu also accepted Buddha as the ninth incarnation of Krishna or Vishnu. Sarala Das, the fifteenth century poet, in his Mahabharat regarded Jagannath as an embodiment of Buddha. He wrote, “To deliver mankind, Jagannath has manifested himself in the form of Buddha.” Daru Brahma Gita of Jagannath Das says, “To assume the form of Buddha the Lord gave up his hands and legs.” Some Oriya Vaishnavas regarded Chaitanya as the partial manifestation of Buddha. In the Chaitanya Bhagavata of Isvar Dasa, Shri Chaitanya is reported to have said, “I am Chaitanya in the form of Buddha.” Evidently there was a synthesis between Buddhism and Vaishnavism at some stage, and Jagannath cult bears the imprint of that synthesis.
The Saiva-Tantric origin of God Jagannath
Though by the tenth century A.D., the presiding deity of Puri was known as Purushottama, which is one of thousand epithets of Vishnu, yet during the Bhauma period, the deity appears to have been profoundly influenced by Saivism, Shaktism, Tantricism and Buddhism which were simultaneously prevalent. Scholars are of the opinion that the image of Jagannath has striking similarity with that of Ekapada Bhairava (Bhairava with one foot, which is a manifestation of Siva, whose worship was prevalent during the Bhauma period). Some Tantrik texts refer to Puri as a seat of Shaktism, Vimala as the Shakti and Jagannath as his Bhairava. The prevalence of Saivism at Puri is proved by the existence of such Saiva shrines as Markandeyesvara, Patalesvara and Lokanath.
Jagannath Cult and Saktism
The prevalence of Shaktism at Puri is borne out by the worship of Vimala inside the temple, and the existence of Saptamatruka image. The ‘Utkal Khanda’ of Skanda Purana describes Subhadra as the Shakti of Jagannath. The name ‘Purushottama’, though an epithet of Vishnu, has Tantrik significance according to some scholars. It represents the erotic aspect of Vishnu. Purushottama is to be found with Lakshmi, the female erotic partner. In the Anargharaghava natakam, Murari Mishra describes Purushottama with Lakshmi on his lap. Jayadeva, in his Gitagovinda, dealt with erotic sports of Krishna with Radha, and identified Radha with Kamala or Lakshmi, the consort of Narayana. Jayadeva also regarded Jagannath as Krishna. Subhadra was treated as Lakshmi during the Ganga period, and afterwards. The Purushottama Mahatmya of Skanda Purana (a work of 13th century A.D.) and of Vishnurahasya (a work of 16th century A.D.) referred to the female wooden image between Jagannath and Balabhadra as Lakshmi.
Vaishnavite origin of the Jagannath cult
The Vaishnavite origin of the Jagannath cult is traced by some scholars Purusottama Mahatmya projects God Jagannath as Narayana, Krishna-Vasudeva, Buddha etc. Poet Jayadeva, as stated earlier, had popularised Vaisnavism in Odisha thro his immortal creation Gita Govinda. Further, during the Suryavamsi Gajapati rule, particularly during Prataparudradeva, the visit of Srichaitanya and his intimate association with the temple of God Jagannath made Vaisnavism popular in Odisha. Several festivals associates with Krishna cult like Krishna Janma, Nandotsava, Kaliyadalana, Kemseveare Vakasuravadha, Chandana Yatra etc. were intimately associated with the festivals of temple of God Jagannath as are being celebrated till now. No doubt, Vaisnavism was intimately associated with the Cult of God Jagannath in comparison to any other religion. Though, the origin of Jagannath cannot be traced satisfactorily, one thing is certain that the Cult, the assimilation of tribal element, Vedic religion, Jainism, Buddhism, Saivism, Saktism, tantric elements,Vaisnavism, is found.
Sikhism and Jagannath
It is told that Sikhism has relation with Jagannath. The Mangu Math of Puri bears its memory. That math has the photograph of Guru Nanak. The Sikhs believe that Guru Nanak has visited Puri. The future research will provide more fact on this.
Jagannath and Islamism
Jagannath was regarded as sacred by the Muslims of Odisha. Yavana Salabega had given importance to him. He had composed many Bhajans for Jagannath. Those Bhajans are very popular in the nook and corner of Odisha even today.