No matter which corner of the planet you are from, you must have heard of the Hindu god Krishna. Depicted as a blue-skinned human, he is the seventh avatar of Vishnu, the protector.
Krishna is one of the most-loved Gods of Hindu mythology. The reasons for this are many, but the main one, perhaps, is because he was a loving, lovable and very playful, mischievous god. Indeed, one of the most frequently told anecdotes about Krishna is how he was constantly stealing butter when he was a child. How could you not adore such a down-to-earth god? That adoration is exactly why his birthday is anticipated and celebrated with so much gusto. Krishna Janmashtami marks the day that Krishna appeared on Earth.
Krishna Janmashtami in 2013: August 28
Indian Festival – Krishna Janmashtami
How Krishna Janmashtami is celebrated
Krishna Janmashtami is one big birthday party replete with decorations, music, tons and tons of food, new clothes, story-telling and a general sense of bonhomie. But this is no ordinary birthday bash. For one thing, close to one billion people (that’s one-sixth of the planet’s population!) joins in the festivities. Secondly, there’s fasting and prayer involved, but with a very festive undercurrent. Let’s take a peek into what a typical Krishna Janmashtami looks like.
The festival is marked by enthusiasm, beginning much before dawn and lasting throughout the day right until midnight which is when Krishna was said to have been born.
Hours before the sun rises, worshippers make their way to temples dedicated to Krishna. The priests or holy men in charge of the temple will have performed a puja long before the crowds arrive. People will come in and offer individual prayers as well as join in with several others to sing rousing kirtans (holy songs) praising Krishna. Those who participate in the kirtan singing in particular report that it is moving, life-changing and uplifting.
The priests, holy men or learned men present in or around the temples on this day will tell stories of Krishna or read from the Bhagvad Gita (the holy book of the Hindus).
Those who cannot attend temples will perform a puja at home. They may dress up an idol of Krishna in new clothes and also pour milk, honey, youghurt and ghee over it. Families, friends and neighbours will visit each other and kirtans will be sung together. Chanting of mantras is also done both in private and as part of a group.
Apart from the sick, very young and very old, every devotee of Krishna fasts on his birthday. The fast lasts through the day right until after sunrise of the day following Krishna Janmashtami or at the very least until midnight. The fasting is believed to bring the devotee closer to Krishna and to help him/her to break free from the cycle of birth and rebirth (moksha).
However, the fasting does not always mean a total abstinence from food. There are indeed a few who will observe what is known as a nirjal fast where they will not allow even a drop of water to pass their lips. But most people, especially children and those who are expected to be up and about all day, will observe another form of fasting called a phalahar fast where a few foods and water will be allowed, particularly a variety of fruits, milk and dishes made from milk (probably because Krishna was known to be extremely partial to milk and milk products). Grains, however, are in general not consumed at all during the fast, neither is salt.
Not all the food comes after the fasting though. Remember that Krishna liked milk products? He also had an insatiable sweet tooth. So plenty of sweetmeats made from milk are prepared throughout the day, first offered to Krishna, and then consumed. However, most people will indeed wait till the stroke of midnight or the next day before they partake of any of the goodies. Some of the common sweetmeats include pedas, ladoos, different types of payasam and kheer, shrikhand, neyyappam and kalakand.
Some devotees (those who have the time, skill and for whom it is convenient) will prepare at least 100 dishes on Krishna Janmashtami which are consumed after the breaking of the fast. Temples in particular are famous for preparing a feast of at least 108 dishes for the grand celebration!
Just like the story of Jesus’ birth is enacted on Christmas day, so are some of Krishna’s childhood antics. Some people will hold private skits in their homes. Sometimes, it’s not even that anything is prepared but rather that everyone gets into the spirit of the moment and puts on an impromptu skit.
Street plays are common too, with a small group putting up a play at different points in the city.
Others may put on a full-blown production for the community on a proper stage at a fixed venue with lights, decorations et al. These will often be attended and enjoyed by people of all faiths. The stealing of the butter is one anecdote which is retold on over and over whether by a loving grandmother, a stern-faced priest in the temples or through the numerous plays put up during Krishna Janmashtami.
In the Indian state of Maharashtra in particular, this story is one that is told by word of mouth, re-enacted and also incorporated into an annual ritual called dahi handi which literally translates into yoghurt/buttermilk in a pot. Buttermilk is poured in an earthen pot and hung from the middle of a rope that is strung up several meters from the ground. Several youths, usually young boys, will proceed to form a human pyramid and the fellow at the top of the pyramid (if he can get there) breaks the pot and the buttermilk pours over his mates below him. These young boys will spend the day going all over the city and attempting to break as many pots as possible; for fun, of course, but also because there is nowadays a huge cash prize for those who successfully accomplish it.
If you are blessed with a vivid imagination, then you have already guessed that Krishna Janmashtami is a spiritual festival, yes, but it is marked by fun and joy. So whether or not you are a Hindu, join in the celebrations and you’ll be allowing yourself an experience you won’t soon forget.
Happy Birthday, Krishna!