In the Hindi language, Jagannath is a title for Krishna, the eighth incarnation (or avatar) of the god Vishnu. A compound formed from the Sanskrit words jagat, meaning “world” or “universe,” and nathas, meaning “lord” or “master,” the term was also once used as a name for the large cart or wagon upon which an image of Krishna is carried during certain Hindu festivals in eastern India. In the fourteenth century, European missionaries returning from the Indian subcontinent recounted tales in which they described how the god's devotees, caught up in the religious fervor of the festivals, would sacrifice themselves to him by jumping in front of the Jagannath wagon and getting crushed beneath its massive wheels. While such stories were likely exaggerated for the sake of drama and Christian expediency, they were nonetheless quite popular in England, and Jagannath soon became a somewhat informal English term for anything deemed to be both compelling and destructive. By the time the nineteenth century rolled around, however, English speakers had long since forgotten the word's connection to India, and circa 1840, the word was Anglicized to juggernaut and took on its now familiar sense of “an overwhelming and unstoppable force or object.” In contemporary Britain, juggernaut is also a designation for any large commercial truck, a usage that dates back to the 1940s.
©2013 Michael R. Gates