It is certain that Odisha was the birthplace of Tantric Buddhism and a major seat of different Buddhist groups, and the Jagannatha tradition in Puri also recognizes a strong connection with Buddhism. The researches have strongly reflected the Buddhist connection with Jagannatha cult. This is proved by the fact that the mention of Lord Jagannath is found for the first time in the Buddhist literature of Indrabhuti, the king of Sambalaka, the famous preacher of Vajrayana Buddhism. It is described in his Gyanasiddhi:-
Pranipatya jagannatham sarvajinabararcitam |
Sarvabuddhamayam siddhi — byapinam gaganopamam |
Sarvadam sarvasattwebhyah sarvajna vara vajrinam |
Bhaktyaham sarvabhaven kakshye tatsadhanam vajrinam |
It is evident from these lines that Indrabhuti tried his best to bring unity and integrity among the Jagannatha culture and Buddhism. Lord Jagannath is mentioned as Buddha for the first time in this scripture. The goal of Buddhism is to achieve Nirvana or Salvation. For achieving this one should follow the three jewels (Tri Ratna) of Buddha i.e. Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
In the tantrik cult, Lord Jagannath is regarded as Bhairava and the Goddess Vimala as Bhairavi.
“Utkala Navi Deshescha Bimala Purushottame / Bimala Bhairavi Yatra Jagannathastu Bhairava.//”
So the Bhairavi Chakra has been drawn near the Ratna Simhasana or Vedi in the Jagannatha temple. Sri Jagannath is installed on this Srichakra. Image of Bhairava was also installed on the Ratna Simhasana.
Buddha is one of the dasa-avataras, the ten main incarnations of Vishnu listed in the famous song written by Jayadeva Gosvami in his Gita Govinda:
nindasi yajna-vidher ahaha sruti-jatam sa-daya hrdaya darsita pasu-ghatam
kesava-dhrta buddha-sarira jaya jagadisa hare
“Moved by deep compassion at the sight of the animal slaughtering performed because of a mistaken and offensive interpretation of the instructions about sacrifices contained in the scriptures, the Lord appeared in the form as the Enlightened, Buddha. Triumph, Hari, Lord of the Universe!”
Bhagavata Purana (1.3.24) confirms:
tatah kalau sampravritte sammohaya sura-dvisham,
buddho namnanjana-sutah kikatesu bhavisyati,
“At the beginning of the age of Kali, the Lord will appear in the province of Gaya as Buddha, Anjana’s son, to confuse the demoniac beings who are always envious of the good people.”
The Utkala khanda of Skanda purana affirms that Purushottama Jagannatha is the origin and sum total of all the 10 avataras:
ato dasavataranam darsanadyai tu yat phalam tat phalam labhate martyo drstva sri-purusottamam
“A mortal being can get the benefit of contemplating all the ten avataras simply by seeing Sri Purushottama”.
A statue, I found in Lalitagiri Mahavihara. This is statue of Buddha, no doubt but you can find steps inside that. This may be a symbol of Jagannath Temple. Also, you can see the dome shaped thing, which may be a symbol of Brahma.
Now see the series of photos below. here you can see a buddhist stupa, in a wooden log form. As I went closer and closer, I clearly see the image of Jagannath in that stupa. The difference is that, traditionally jagannath does not have eye-brows and this deity has. But the shape of eyes, nose and mouth are almost similar.
Buddha also appears as one of the main 22 avataras listed in Bhagavata purana and commonly associated with the 22 steps (baisi pahacha) leading into the inner courtyard to the Jagannatha temple.
Some people claim that Jagannatha’s worship has borrowed some characteristics from Buddhism. It would be like saying that the father takes from his son. For example, the tradition of inserting the Brahma inside the new bodies of the Deities during the Navakalevara rituals is compared by many to the sacred tooth of Buddha that was placed inside the Buddha image, as related by the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Fa-hien (around 400 CE), who also described a yearly procession of this image and relic in a place called Dantapur in Kalinga (the ancient name of Orissa). This procession still takes place in Kandy (Sri Lanka). It is also a well known fact that Buddhism borrowed a lot of theological concepts and symbologies from Hinduism, including Devas and Devis. As Buddhism developed into a major religion precisely in Orissa under the reign of Ashoka, it is perfectly legitimate to conclude that it absorbed many of the characters of the worship of Jagannatha that was already popular there. For example, the concept of “Lord of everyone” (without distinction of caste and color), as well the peculiar concept of “form without a form” exhibited by the Deities of Jagannatha. However, we have seen that sometimes academic scholars, such as Wilson, James Fergusson and General Cunningham, tend to stretch themselves a little too much to defend the Buddhist theory. The equivalence claimed by some Buddhist-oriented scholars between the triad of Jagannatha/Balabhadra/Subhadra on one side and the triad Buddha/Dharma/Sangha on the other side is rather controversial.
The claim that the Brahma padartha that is moved from the old Deities to the new ones during the Navakalevara rituals is actually a tooth-relic of Siddhartha Gautama, or that the “lack of hands and feet” of Jagannatha is supposed to depict a “meditating Buddha” seem to be rather unlikely.
Similarly controversial are the connections between Jagannatha and Christianity and Islam that some scholars strive to establish, mainly because many people confuse the circumstances of one’s birth with personal beliefs and especially with the adherence to the teachings of the religious authorities of the specific traditions. However, it is a fact that Orissa has a strong Buddhist tradition and many holy places in the Buddhist tradition.
The most famous site is Dhauli, where emperor Ashoka, shocked by the violence of the Kalinga war, found enlightenment and consolation in the doctrine of Buddha and introduced it as the State religion of his empire, actively propagating it even as far as Lanka and Indonesia through his personal ambassadors, carving his edicts in the rock still visible at Dhauli and establishing strict vegetarianism for himself and his court.
There are also several other remains of ancient Buddhist settlements, such as Lalitagiri and Langudi hill, Ratnagiri Mahavihara and Udayagiri (near Cuttack), Brahmavana (Salipur), Banesvaranasi(Narasinghapur), Ratnagiri (Jajpur), Kuruma (near Konark), Padmapura (Rayagada), Ayodhya, Kupari, Solampur, Khadipada and Soro (Balasore), Banpur, Visvanath hill, Jaugada (Malati hills), Gandhamardana hill and Ganiapali (Sambalpur), Naraj, and Bhubaneswar.