Friday, September 25, 2009
Okay, I think we all know what this means. It means something like 'a force that comes along and runs you down or tears you limb from limb'. Right?
I was having dinner with friends the other night and someone brought up this word, mentioning that 'juggernaut' stems from an Indian festival where the procession of the local god, in the form of a statue, would be wheeled through the streets, with the unfortunate side effect of, well, mowing down some of the devotees.
Fair enough. True or not, it wouldn't have roused my blogging instincts, except that someone asked, "India? But juggernaut's been around a long time in the West, hasn't it? Doesn't it have to with do Roman soldiers somehow?"
So I started thinking that the "-naut" part of the word "juggernaut" certainly sounds Western. Jason and the Argonauts, for example. And "astronaut" as well. But I am pretty sure the first person had it right about the Indian festival, because this sounded familiar. But "juggernaut" has got to be a hybrid.
Or does it?
Well, yes and no, but mostly no. I'll beg forgiveness in advance from any Indian or even Hindu knowledgable readers here for this cobbled together explanation, which they should of course feel free to correct. The source for "juggernaut" is Jagannath, or, more precisely, "Lord of the World", a title for Vishnu, particularly in the form of his avatar, Krishna. At a festival held in Puri (no, of course I don't know precisely where in India that is--must I do everything?) Krishna is drawn in a cart through the streets, and apparently western observers--I'm guessing British, since they were the colonizers--got the wrong end of the stick and thought that devotees threw themselves under the wheels in their devotion to the god, but apparently, it was more a case of devotees simply getting run over in the crush of the crowd.
So. Where are we? First, I can't find any indication that juggernauts had any connection with the Roman army at all. What I am curious about is where this friend got this idea. My hunch is that there is some confusion of words, maybe even with the fabled Greek Argonauts, which led her to think the word had reached the west a lot earlier than it did. I'm guessing that the "-naut" instead of the "nath" ending is simply a Western reaching for an approximately related sound. In reality, the word seems to have leapt the Hindi-English divide as recently as 1841, and it's revealing that "juggernaut" is used as a word for a big, heavy truck, the usage being "chiefly British".
I am a bit unhappy to report that our English word juggernaut may have taken a perfectly lovely Indian festival, and used it as a metaphor for the horrible. In one sense, we have it being used as a synonym for a steamroller, and in another extension, to mean a blind or destructive devotion to an institution that treats people like fodder.
We can end on a lighter note, though, surely. It's possible that one or two readers of this blog will be unhappy at my leaving out the most recent avatar of the word, Juggernaut of the XMen comics. It is possibly even a sign of hope and a changing attitude about juggernauts in general, that Juggernaut started out as a pure villain in the XMen comics, and then took on new and more complex roles for awhile. But like his Indian--born verbal counterpart, Juggernaut is finding that "villain" is a hard role to shake...