Shashi Tharoor’s Word of the Week: Juggernaut
This term, which comes to us via our own kindly deity, Jagannath, ought to mean something else.Updated: Jul 05, 2019, 19:49 IST
Juggernaut (noun): an unstoppable, relentless moving force that destroys anything in its path
Suggested usage: When the German stormtroopers marched into Poland, the hapless Poles proved unable to resist the Nazi juggernaut.
Though the word looks vaguely Germanic, juggernaut is actually a mangling of Jagannath, the name of the deity carried in devotional procession in Odisha four times a year in elaborate yatras on land and water, of which the most famous is the Ratha Yatra, or Chariot Procession, in the Hindu month of Ashadha. This is when the idol is wheeled to the Puri temple in an enormous chariot as devotees line the streets in a frenzy, hailing the Lord with chants and prayers and craning their necks for a glimpse of the deity seated in the chariot, followed by lesser chariots bearing statues of his brother Balarama and sister Subhadra.
Orientalism began early, alas: four centuries before the British conquest of India began, falsely distorted tales about India were propagated in the 14th-century travelogue of John Mandeville, who described the festival in his Travels, and depicted Hindus throwing themselves under the wheels of the enormous Jagannath chariots as a religious sacrifice and being crushed to death. Hinduism in fact has no concept of such human sacrifice; if Mandeville really saw a Hindu killed under the wheels of a chariot, it can only be because a poor devotee stumbled and accidentally fell upon the path in the tumult and the enormous chariot could not easily stop or swerve on the narrow road.
Still, the tale, the false image of the faith it portrayed, and the unfortunate associations of the word, persisted. By the 18th century, juggernaut was in common use as a synonym for an irresistible and destructive force that demands total devotion or unforgiving sacrifice — the sense in which it pops up in the novels of Charlotte Bronte and Charles Dickens, and even Robert Louis Stevenson, who applied it to Dr Jekyll’s foil, Mr Hyde. It was only Mark Twain, in his Autobiography, who described Juggernaut as the kindest of gods; and indeed the millions of worshippers in Puri will tell you that Lord Jagannath is a figure of reverence, not of fear. But alas, by then the damage had been done, and ‘juggernaut’ had passed (yes, unstoppably!) into the language.