How Lord Jagannath Appeared In The Western World

By Shyamasundar Das - 17.5 2017

Our Haight Street apartment in San Francisco was constructed after the great earthquake of 1906. There was an old iron fireplace with a mantel in the front room. On the mantel we kept our little doo-dads and sacred objects, like our gods-eye, a couple of photos of the Swami, and some shells and pretty rocks. One day in mid-February, 1967, I noticed a brightly painted wooden figurine there. It was about three inches high.
“What’s this, Malati?”
“I, uh, I got it the other day at Cost Plus—it’s from India. There was a whole barrel of them.”
“How much was it?”
“Well, let’s just say there was a big discount that day.”
“What is it?”
“I have no idea, but it says ‘Made in India’ on the bottom.”
Aha! My scheming mind began to click. Maybe I can take this up to the Swami, this thing made in India, and ask him what it is, get closer to him, get some attention.

Malati: I had gone into Cost Plus Imports, just wandering around, and I had no money, but I was looking at stuff from Mexico. I always wanted one of those embroidered Mexican jackets with pockets in the front. But the attraction wasn’t the same any more. I wondered then what I was doing in there. But as I was leaving, in front of the cash registers were these three wooden barrels, each full of different colorful painted figurines. I was attracted to a black one with big eyes and a red smile, and on the bottom was a little label, “Made in India.” So I thought, Swami is from India, the maha-mantra is from India, and I just put Him in my pocket and walked out.

Whenever you came to the Swami’s door, your heart was in your throat. (This feeling never left me, even after a thousand trips to that door.) There was a heightened sense that something marvelous was about to occur, a tingling in the blood. You never knew what to expect, just that it would be a wonderful surprise, whatever happened. He’d be sitting behind his little table or in his rocker clicking his beads, dressed in saffron, maybe with a white sweater, sunlight through the south-facing window shining on his freshly-oiled head and his face a radiant gold, emerging from some deep bliss—and he would welcome you no matter what hour of day or night.
Dropping the doll in his outstretched hand I said, “Swamiji, we found this in a shop. It’s from India. Can you tell us what it is?”
This startled look comes over the Swami’s face. He leaps from his rocker and places the doll on his metal trunk and falls down on the floor before it, beckoning “Down, down!” to Mukunda and me, who are trying to make sense of this. We bow down beside him. And then he starts praying in Sanskrit, saying, jagannatha swami nayana patha gami bhave tu me over and over.
Flushed and beaming, the Swami rises and asks me, “From where you have got this doll?”
“Malati found it.”
“Then tell her to come here, immediately.”
Malati: I was cooking in the temple one morning when someone came down and said, “Swamiji wants to see you.” So I turned off the flame and ran upstairs, went in, and Shyamasundar and Mukunda were there. And on Swamiji’s metal trunk was that figurine. I thought, “Oh, no, I’m busted again!”
“Malati, you have found this?”
“There are others?”
“Oh, yes, a whole barrelful.”
“No, no. Two others?”
“Yes, two more barrels with different figures.”
The Swami held up the little doll and said, “This is Krishna. The other two figures will be Krishna’s sister, Subhadra and His brother, Balaram. Bring them.”
Then we sat, and he told us the story of Lord Jagannath:
In ancient times, King Indradyumna was anxious to worship the form of Krishna as Lord of the universe. In a dream Krishna told him that on a certain beach he would find a huge log, and from that sea-borne log he should have the Deity carved. All sculptors who tried to carve the log failed; their chisels broke. Finally, an old man—who was really Krishna in disguise—put his chisel to the wood and easily made his mark. The king was jubilant. But the old sculptor said that he would only carve Lord Krishna if he were allowed total privacy for twenty-one days. After fourteen days had passed, the king, overcome by curiosity, entered the workplace. There, he saw the forms of Lord Krishna, Subhadra, and Balaram, with bodies, arms and legs unfinished, exactly as we see them today. Because the king had broken his promise by opening the doors seven days early, Lord Jagannath manifested Himself in this crude way, as part of His sporting play with His devotees.
The Swami looked at us and asked, “Is there anyone who can carve this statue, big size?” and he indicated a height of about three feet.
“I can do it, Swamiji,” I said. “I’m a carpenter and know how to carve wood.”

—-Pages 117-119, Volume One, “Chasing Rhinos With The Swami” by Shyamasundar das.