Hindu Festival: Krishna Janmashtami

Lord Krishna's birthday, Srijayanti or Krishnashtami also known as Janmashtami is the most popular festival in the whole of India. These two are the names by which this festival is called by the Vaishnavas, while among the Smartas it is known as Gokulashtami, and in Northern India as Janmashtami. Whatever the name, this festive celebration of the birth of Lord Krishna is observed as a holy day by all Hindus throughout India. According to the Puranas Krishna was born on the 8th lunar day (Ashtami) of the waning moon of the month of Smvana at midnight, upon the moon's entrance into Rohini asterism.

On account of this sacred occasion a fast is held on the day preceding the date of his birth, the fast being broken as usual by a feast on the following day. The observance of the fast varies with different sects. The followers of the Smriti Smartas-commence their fast with the commencement of the lunation whenever that takes place; the Vaishnavas and the Madhvas regulate their fast by the moon's passage through the asterism of Rohini.

Krishna is the most popular deity throughout the whole of India and is considered as the eighth Avatar or incarnation of Vishnu, one of the Hindu Trinity, and the following is a brief account of Krishna's history as collected from the several Puranas.

In days gone by there reigned in Mathurna, a most wicked and unpopular king, named Kansa, who had a cousin named Devaki married to Vasudeva, of the lunar race. On the date of the latter's marriage, Kansa, the tyrant, drove the car in which Devaki and Vasudeva were conducted in procession. As the procession passed along the streets an unknown voice, deep as thunder, came from above. "Oh you fool, Kansa! The eighth child of the lady in the car that you are now driving will put an end to your atrocious life."

As soon as Kansa heard this ominous voice, he became greatly enraged and attempted to put Devaki to death thereby preventing to possibility of the birth of his future enemy. But Vasudeva argued with the tyrant and pacified him by promising to deliver into his hand all the children that Devaki may bring forth. Kansa satisfied with this assurance desisted from putting his threat into execution, and true to his promise Vasudeva handed over to Kansa's custody the First six children that were born to Devaki.

Balarama, the seventh child of Devaki, was saved by divine interference and Krishna was the eighth son. Of course Kansa had placed strict guard throughout the palace to prevent the eighth son from being in any way saved. How then was Krishna saved? Vasudeva, as soon as the eighth child was born, took it and went out. The guards of the palace were all charmed by Yoganidra- a kind of hypnotic sleep. Rain was pouring down in torrents that night, and to protect the baby from the heavy rain, Sesha, the many-headed serpent, followed Vasudeva and spread his hood over the child's head.

The Yamuna was flowing full and it had to be crossed. Though the river was usually deep and dangerous with whirlpools, the waters at that time went down, running only knee deep. Thus by divine favour the several obstacles were overcome and the other side of the river was reached. There was a cowherd there named Nanda, whose wife Yashoda had delivered a female child. Vasudeva placed his son in the daughter's place, while Yashoda was also under the spell of magic sleep, and quickly returned home carrying away the female child. When Yashoda awoke she found that she had been delivered of a son and rejoiced at it.

Yashoda's female child was now placed by Vasudeva in the bed of Devaki, no suspicions being aroused in anyone's mind. The guards who were set to watch by Kansa were awakened by the cry of the new-born babe and starting up they sent word at once to their master. Kansa immediately repaired to the mansion of Vasudeva and seized hold of the infant. In vain did Devaki entreat him to spare her child; but the tyrant ruthlessly dashed it against a stone, when lo! it rose into the sky and .expanded into a gigantic form and laughed aloud, striking terror into the hearts of on-lookers, and addressed Kansa in a thundering voice-"What avails with the belief that thy enemy is destroyed? He is born that shall kill thee, the mighty one amongst the gods." Thus saying the being vanished.

Kansa was greatly alarmed. He called a big council and ordered active search to be made for whatever young children there may be on earth and ordered that every boy in whom they observed signs of unusual vigour be put to death without any remorse. Notwithstanding all these precautions, Balarama and Krishna were growing up at the abode of Nanda, where they were roaming in the woods and joining in the sports of herdsmen's sons and daughters. When he attained to man's estate Krishna proceeded to Gujarat, built Dwarka and transferred to that place all the inhabitants of Mathura, after killing Kansa in combat.

Krishnashtami is the festival which is celebrated in honour of the birthday of Krishna. At about midnight, on the Ashtami night, a clay image of Krishna in the form of a baby is made in every Hindu house and worshipped. Several dishes of sweets are offered to the god, to be consumed afterwards by the inmates of the house. Apart from its importance from a religious point of view the feast is very popular with Hindu children on account of the sweets that are distributed to them on the occassion.

The great festival is celebrated at Gokul, which is situated on the banks of the river Yamuna, about 7 miles from Mathura.

The spot is famous as the place to which the infant Krishna was brought by his father and exchanged with the newly born daughter of Yasoda, wife of Nanda, to save him from his uncle, the giant Kansa, who threatened to kill him.

Near by at Mahaban, is an interesting temple called the palace of Nanda, the tester-father of the changeling Krishna, and here relics of the god's infancy are preserved, which are inspected with reverential awe by thousand of pilgrims year after year. The god's cradle, a rude structure covered in red calico and tinsel stands in a pillared hall, and a blue-black statue of the sacred child stands under a canopy against the wall.

One pillar of the temple is said to have been polished by the hand of Krishna's foster mother Yasodhara, as she leaned against it while churning butter for the household, and the actual churn she used is shown, consisting of a long bamboo sticking out of a carved stone. Other pillars have been equally polished by the pious hands of the streams of Vishnu worshippers who have passed through the hall all down the ages.

The temple guides, point out a spot on the wall where the sportive milkmaids are said to have hidden Krishna's flute, but if you find one in a communicative mood, he will tell you that the old temple was destroyed and re-erected by Aurangzeb from ancient Hindu and Buddhist materials, to serve as a mosque.

The festival is celebrated with great enthusiasm and eagerness. Streets are illuminated; images of Krishna are installed at places and in central places. Worship and offering are made; cold drinks are liberally served to the passersby. It is a great occasion for meeting relatives and friends. Sound and light tableaus are installed.

People visit temples and take their turn in pulling the string of the cradle in which Krishna's image has been installed. It is considered auspicious.

The Celebrations:

The celebration generally consists of bhajan, kirtan, chanting of holy mantras, and preparation of 'jhoolan' or swing, where the idol of lord Krishna and His beloved Radha is kept and worshiped in the evening. Preparation of sweets and traditional goodies, dressing up small children the same way lord Krishna did in His childhood days, etc., are some of the other important aspects of this festival.

However, what attracts the pilgrims most is the raasleelas-a kind of folk theatre that narrates the various aspects of Krishna's life. Every year, with the onset of the rainy season, the raasleelas begin. Under a huge canopy, a vast crowd (men on one side and women on the other) sits in rapt attention, watching the events unfold on the stage. Raasleelas are held in every corner of the city, particularly in Brindavan. Some are staged by troupes that have been around for 50 years; some are not so old; but all of them are put up with great love and devotion by the actors and musicians, and are watched by an equally devout audience. In fact, while watching the raasleelas the audience periodically breaks out into the resounding cry, Krishna bhagwan ki jai! (Hail Lord Krishna).

The raasleelas are always put up on a stage blazing with light and color. Huge sheets of silk in bright colors (red, blue, yellow) embellished with sequins and gold work form the backdrop. The raasleelas are usually in Brajbhasha, the dialect of the region, but once in a way, the actors improvise and break into Hindi. The musicians sit in one corner of the stage, singing with the barest accompaniment-just a harmonium and a tabla. The most interesting aspect of the raasleelas is the fact that Krishna is always played by a young boy, never a grown up man, and when the show ends, the people quietly queue up to go onstage and offer their prayers to Lord Krishna. Reverentially, they touch the little boy's feet, and drop their offerings in a big urn placed next to him. For the devotees, the young boy playing

Krishna is not human at that time-he is a manifestation of Lord himself.


The ceremony that follows is a very simple affair. To the chanting of mantras, the priests bathe the idol with Gangajal (water from the holy Ganges river), milk, ghee (clarified butter), oil, and honey. Yellow-robed priests pour all these from a conch shell. Once the ceremony is over, it is time for devotees to break their daylong fast and to pack their bags and head homeward. Janmashtami is celebrated on the eighth day of the new moon in the lunar month of Bhadra corresponding to the months of August-September of the western calendar.

In Janmashtami, the moment of importance is midnight when Krishna is born. People fast all day (some without even water) and eat only after the midnight birth ceremony is over. Temples and homes all over India display jhankis (tableaux) showing important incidents from the Lord's life. Often the image of the baby Krishna is placed on a swing and bathed with charanamrit holy water). Midnight prayers are performed. The sound of hymns and religious songs extol the greatness of Krishna

Regional Celebrations:

Except for Dwarka, which is in Gujarat, most of Krishna's story unfolds in Mathura and its environs. Brindavan , where he played the flute, sported with the gopis, and wooed his sweetheart Radha; Govardhan where, as a child, he is said to have held aloft the Govardhan mountain on his finger for seven days and nights to protect the cowherds from a deluge; Gokul , where baby Krishna was kept hidden and sheltered from the evil King Kansa by his foster mother Yashoda; Barsana , the birth place of Radha; all these and many other small towns are significant because they were in some way connected with Krishna. Not surprisingly, the entire area, called Brajbhoomi, is deeply steeped in Krishna lore. Janmashtami is celebrated in this entire area with incredible fervor and gaiety. However, the place which is considered the holiest is obviously Mathura, and within Mathura too, one particular temple that is built on the exact site where Krishna was born.

Besides Mathura, this festival is celebrated all over India with the special procedure and the regional festivities that are normally followed in each region.

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