For those who are known as Magnanimous, the entire creation constitutes one family. And who can be more magnanimous than the Lord of the Universe with the perpetually stretched out all-embracing arms. The celebration of Rath Jatra at Puri is a portrayal of ‘Vasudaiva Kutumbakam’, or ‘the universe is one family’, the underlying principle of the Sanatan Dharma. On this day there is no discrimination on the basis of caste, creed, birth, and everyone present on the ‘Bada Daanda’ or the Grand Road at Puri is an equal recipient of the Lord’s grace.As kids we grew up listening to the story of Bhakta Saalbeg and learning his short hymns filled with intense yearning and devotion which he had composed for Lord Jagannath. Bhakta Saalbeg was born to a Muslim father, the Mughal Subedar Laalbeg who was in charge of the Orissa region. Saalbeg’s mother was a Brahmin widow from Daandamukundapur near Puri by whom Laalbeg was extremely smitten and Saalbeg was born to them sometime in 1606/07. When Saalbeg grew up he joined his father’s campaigns and on one such occasion he was severely injured. As no amount of treatment was able to cure him, on the advice of his pious mother, he prayed to Lord Jagannath. He was miraculously cured and this recovery from a seemingly hopeless situation marked a turning point in the life of young Saalbeg. Soon after this he seemed to lose interest in worldly matters and spent his time singing praises of the Lord.
As Saalbeg was a muslim, he was denied entry into the Shri Mandir at Puri. He would therefore stand outside at the Lion’s Gate or ‘Singhadwaar’, the main entrance to the temple, and gaze lovingly at the image of ‘Patitapaabana’, one of the manifestations of the Lord, who was visible from outside. Saalbeg identified Lord Jagannath with Lord Krishna. He would wait patiently for the annual Rath Jatra so that he could see the Lords as they came out from the sanctum sanctorum to mount the chariots and go on their yearly sojourn to their aunt’s home. Saalbeg would also visit Vrindaavan and on one such visit his return was delayed due to illness and he could not reach Puri for the Rath Jatra. He fervently prayed to the Lord to wait for him as he could not afford to miss the opportunity of the divine vision that was granted to him only once a year. At Puri, Lord Jagannath’s chariot ‘Nandighosha’ developed a snag and actually came to a halt at a point called ‘Balagandi’ on the Grand Road from where no amount of force could move it an inch forward. It was only after Saalbeg reached Puri and paid his obeisance to the Lord that the chariot moved forward and resumed the jatra. Infact Saalbeg has been interred at this very point and till date the three chariots stop for a while at Bhakta Saalbeg’s samadhi before moving ahead to the Shri Gundicha temple.Saalbeg’s deep devotion is reflected in the numerous hymns which he composed in the form known as ‘Padyavali’. His usage of unusual similes and metaphors is unique in bhakti literature. He was never allowed into the temple premises and yet his descriptions of the inner compound and the inner sanctum provide the most distinct and accurate imagery among all devotional writings in Oriya literature. This is best reflected in his hymn ‘Aahey Neelagiri … ‘ in which he perfectly describes the ‘Bedha Parikrama’ or circumambulation of the inner shrine without ever having seen it.
Saalbeg would end his hymns with the line “kahey saalabega dina jaati re mu jabana” … meaning, “says Saalbeg the lowly one, by birth I am a Yavana …”. But he who is dear to the Lord himself, experiences divine grace as the divine power demolishes all man-made barriers and embraces His devotee. The Lord says “naaham tisthaami vaikunthe yogina hridayena cha … mad bhaktaam yatra dhyaante tatra tistahami Naarada” meaning … “O Naarad, neither do I stay in the heaven nor in the heart of saints; I reside in that place only where my devotees worship Me.”
Tomorrow as the lakhs of devouts congregate on the Bada Daanda, it will be yet another culmination of ‘Vasudeiva Kutumbakam’. Reading and listening to these stories of Saalbeg and other non-hindu devotees of Lord Jagannath has been a profound and enriching experience of our growing-up years. One has naturally learnt to be non-discriminating inspite of being a part of a family and household where hindu rituals and traditions have strongly held sway. One therefore cannot help but feel that the Sanatan Dharma of Lord Jagannath is etched in our DNA’s through the handing-down of these beautiful stories that make up the cult of Lord Jagannath.
May the great Lord of the Universe bless us all. Jai Jagannath Hare!
[The two flowers leaning against each other symbolising ‘ananya-aaashrita’… meaning that the Lord and his devotee are dependent on each other and one cannot do without the other.]