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.