Saturday March 24, 2018

Nabakalebara: When Gods take rebirth


By Nithin Sridhar

Photo Credit: @PratyashaNithin
Photo Credit: @PratyashaNithin

Yesterday was Jagannatha Rath Yatra, one of the most important days in the celebration of Nabakalebara in Odisha. Nabakalebara is one of the unique festivals celebrated in the Hindu religion.

Once every 19 years, the old idols of Lord Jagannatha, Lord Balabhadra, Devi Subhadra, and Sudarshan are replaced with new idols. The idols made of wood represent the bodies that the Lord and his family occupy. And once the bodies become old, they are discarded and replaced with new bodies.

The whole ritual is all the more interesting because it is rooted in the most basic philosophy of Hinduism: Karma and re-birth. Can there be a better illustration of this phenomenon than Gods themselves showing this by example?

Surajit Dasgupta, a senior journalist, writes on Twitter: “The Lord demonstrates how soul passes from one body to another by being the subject of change Himself.”

One should remember that in the Bhagavad Gita (2.22), Lord Krishna (with whom Lord Jagannatha is identified) says:As after rejecting worn-out clothes a man takes up other new ones, likewise after rejecting worn-out bodies the embodied one (i.e. the Self/Atman) unites with other new ones.”

In other words, every person who has a birth will eventually die and further he will also be reborn again. Just as people change objects like shoes, clothes, or machines (in factories) when they have decayed, likewise, the Self changes its bodies once they have become useless. It takes on new bodies to fulfill its Prarabdha Karmas.

In the case of Lord Jagannatha and his family, their bodies (idols) are made of Neem wood that decays just like human bodies. Hence, by this ritual of Nabakalebara, the Lord is allowed to take on new bodies while his Self or the Tattva/essence called as “Tattvapadhartha” remains the same.

The fact that the outer bodies change but the inner essence remains the same is stressed by Lord Krishna as well. In Gita (2.21-23), he says that the Self is indestructible, eternal, birth-less, and un-decaying, and it cannot be cut, burnt, or be harmed in any way. That is, Atman, the innermost Self, is eternal, without birth and death, it is only the outer body which has birth, decay, and death.

Therefore, a person should not be attached to his body and possessions, but should dive deep into his innermost Self. The Hindu Puranams speak about various incarnations of Lord Vishnu, who takes birth as various living beings: fish, boar, half lion, dwarf, and human. These incarnations clearly depict one fact of life that death is inevitable, but it is not the end.

Just as Gods reincarnate from time to time for upholding dharma (righteousness/duty), people take re-birth to fulfill their own svadharma. So the biggest message of Nabakalebara festival is that when the old bodies are discarded, one should not feel sorrow. One should not be afraid that one must die. Instead, one must let go of the attachment to the body.

One must celebrate, like the celebration of the rebirth of Jagannatha, one’s own eventual rebirth in a new body. One must celebrate that one is finally being able to discard the old and useless body and will be able to take rebirth in a new body that would be fit to practice dharma and other purusharthas (human life purposes).


  1. Nabakalebara: It means “New Body”.
  2. Karma: Literally it means “actions”. It refers to the sum total of all actions, the past, present and future as well. Karmas are divided into three categories: Sanchita- actions accumulated from previous lives, Prarabdha- that portion of Sanchita, that are presently giving fruits in this life, and Agami- the present exertion of free will, that will give fruits in future.
  3. Tattvapadhartha: Literally “essential material”, and it refers to the essence or the innermost Self/Atman that manifests as Jagannatha.
  4. Purusharthas: The four hold purpose of life: Dharma, Kama, Artha and Moksha.
  5. Svadharma: The duties that a person is obliged to perform in his life, based on his temperaments and station in life.
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Right of Nature: Are Rivers Living Beings?

Should rivers be considered Living Entities?

Right of Nature
Many cultures across the globe believe that rivers are living beings or Gods/Goddesses and they just take the form of water bodies.

By Dr. Bharti Raizada, Chicago

Science says that water bodies are not living entities, as water does not need food, does not grow, and reproduce. Water is required for life, but in itself it is nonliving.

However, many cultures across the globe believe that rivers are living beings or Gods/Goddesses and they just take the form of water bodies.

The Maori tribe in New Zealand considers the Whanganui River as their ancestor and the Maori people fought to get it a legal status as a living being. In 2017, a court in New Zealand gave this river the status of living being and same rights as humans, to protect it from pollution. Thus, now if someone pollutes in it then it is considered equivalent to harming a human.

ALSO READ: Worshiping mother nature part of our tradition: Prime Minister Narendra Modi

Right of Nature
Rivers are sacred in many religions, including Hinduism. Image courtesy: Dr. Bharti Raizada

Rivers are sacred in Hinduism also. Hindus believe that the Ganga descended from heaven and call her Ganga Maa. A few days after New Zealand’s court decision, Uttarakhand high court in India gave the Ganga and Yamuna rivers and their tributaries the status of living human entities. The Court-appointed three officials as legal custodians. However, the court did not clarify many aspects related to this decision.

After this verdict some of the questions, which naturally came to mind, were:

Can Hindus still do rituals of flowing ashes, leaves, flowers, diyas in river or no? Can a dam be built on the river after this judgment? If some damage, to a person, animal, plants, or property, occurs because of river e.g. overflow, hurricanes, flooding etc., how the river will pay the liabilities? What if all rivers, oceans, ponds etc. are given the status of living beings? Will drinking water from river become a crime? What about taking water and using it for routine needs,  agriculture or building structures? Will it be illegal? If a child throws a stone in water, will it be a criminal act? Will fishing be considered stealing? What about boating? If someone is using heat near water and water evaporates, is it equal to taking the body part of a human being? What about taking a bath in the river?

Right of Nature
If the river gets a living status, as human, then we cannot use it for anything without its permission, so everyone has to stop touching the water. Image courtesy: Dr. Bharti Raizada

ALSO READ: Decoding supernatural: What is the nature of entities and gods who influence human behavior

Other queries, which arise, are:

Will animals and plants get the same status? What if you kill an ant or a chicken etc. or cut a tree? Will all animals and plants get a legal custodian?

Where is all the waste supposed to go? It has to go somewhere back in nature, right?

Uttrakhand state government challenged the judgement in Supreme Court and the latter reversed the judgment.

Right of Nature
So where do we stand? In my opinion, granting living status to nature is a different thing than giving protected status or preserving nature. Image by Dr. Bharti Raizada

ALSO READ: How nature destroys the negative tendencies in a positive manner

Ecuador’s constitution recognized the Right of Nature to exist, specifically Vilcabamba river, in 2008.

Then Bolivia passed the law of the right of mother earth and granted Nature equal rights as humans.

Many communities in the U.S.A. passed the Right of Nature law.

These laws are creating a dilemma or quandary also, as people need to use these resources. We cannot live without using natural resources. However, there is a difference between using natural resources and afflicting or destroying these. So, please use natural resources very diligently. Try not to vitiate nature.

On World Water Day (March 22), please start taking care of rivers, so that there is no need for future celebrations. It should not be a one-day celebration anyway, we should scrupulously look out for nature all the time.

Dr. Raizada is a practicing anesthesiologist.