Krishna Janmashtami: Krishna Leela

The Hindu festival of the birth of Krishna Janmashtami which falls during the dark fortnight in the month of Bhadra, is celebrated to commemorate the birth of Krishna to annihilate Kansa. It is marked by fasts, prayers and the enactment of incidents from Krishna’s childhood. Janma literally means ‘birth’ and ashtami means the ‘eighth day’. The eighth day of the dark fortnight in the month of Bhadrapad is celebrated as Krishna Janmashtami. It commemorates the birth of Krishna, born to annihilate Kansa, the evil king of Mathura.

This festival is very popular in north India. People observe a day-long fast which is broken only at midnight, the time when Krishna is believed to have been born. The festival is a community celebration, and people visit Krishna temples which are specially decorated and lit for the occasion. The image of Krishna is ceremonially bathed in a mixture of curds, milk, honey, dry fruit and basil or tulasi leaves. This mixture is then distributed as prasad to all devotees. The idol is dressed in new clothes and offered food, sweets, fruit and clarified butter. Priests chant mantras from religious scriptures. The temple too reverberates with devotional songs in praise of the god. In Mathura, believed to be Krishna’s birthplace, and other places near by, these ceremonial observances are amplified by the staging of dramas. In them, Krishna makes himself available in an especially vivid manner to his devotees through child actors.

These Brahmin boys act out incidents from Krishna’s childhood and are, for that period, considered to be the god. Devotees treat them with respect and veneration, even prostrating before them. Tableaux featuring scenes from the life of Krishna abound the streets all through Krishna’s childhood pranks are re-enacted in dramas performed by small boys the day. A little before midnight, devotees pour into temples to participate in the special arati and to relive the birth of Krishna. Till midnight, devotional songs are sung in anticipation of the holy birth. Special cradles are installed at temples and a small statue of the god is placed in them. At exactly midnight, temple bells are rung to announce the birth of Krishna.

Everyone clamours to rock the cradle of the newborn. Then aspecial arati is performed, after which devotees partake the special prasad. Details of celebrations for Janmashtami are found in many scriptures. The Dharmashastras specify the day to be celebrated as a vrata. The Bhavishya Purana cautions against the non-observance of this vrata saying: ” Whether a man or woman, if one neglects to observe the birthday vrata of Lord Krishna, the defaulter shall be re-born as a female serpent in a deep forest.” Other such references leave little doubt that Krishna Janmashtami originates in ancient times and that the vrata is considered mandatory. Interesting games commemorate this event.

One of the most popular is the breaking of the dahi handi or ‘pot of curd’. A terracotta pot containing milk, butter and curd is hung high up across a street. Groups of men form a pyramid to try and break this pot. The group that succeeds is named the winner, and its leader is treated with respect by the community. This game is believed to have been specially dear to Krishna and his friends. Another form of public recreation is theRaslila. According to the Puranas, Kansa was an evil king of Mathura who had overthrown his father and imprisoned him. His attrocities drove the gods to Vishnu who promised to take his eighth incarnation in the human world. He was then born as Krishna in the 28th year of the Dwapara Yuga.

Vishnu took his eighth incarnation of Krishna to kill the evil king Kansa. According to a legend related to Krishna’s birth, Kansa had a cousin called Devaki, whom he loved dearly.In due course, Kansa arranged a suitable match for her and married her with great pomp and show. However, an oracle foretold Kansa that Devaki’s eight child would be responsible for his death. Enraged, Kansa was about to slice off her head when her husband Vasudeva intervened. He begged Kansa not to kill Devaki and in return promised to give him all their children at birth. Kansa agreed, but imprisonedb the couple to ensure this. In time, he killed six of their children by throwing them against a stone slab outside the prison. The seventh child however was transferred to the womb of Rohini, another of Vasudeva’s wives, and Kansa believed that Devaki had suffered a miscarriage. When she was pregnant with the eighth child, Kansa increased security at the prison and ordered the guards to bring the newborn to him the moment he was born. It was midnight on the eighth day in the month of Shravana, on a dark, rainy and windy night. Just before the child was born, the guards all fell into adeep slumber and the locks on the prison door opened. Devaki and Vasudeva too were freed of their binds. And Krishna was born.

A voice from the heavens instructed Vasudeva to carry Krishna across the Yamuna river to a village called Gokul. There, he should go to the home of his sister Yashoda and her husband Nanda and replace Krishna with their new-born daughter. Vasudeva put his son in a basket and went quickly towards the Yamuna. When he reached the shores, he found the water level rising. He put the basket on his head and began to wade through. The water level rose but everytime it touched the baby’s toes, it receded. Suddenly, a cobra sprang out of the water. Vasudeva froze but the snake stopped to spread its hood over the basket. It was Sesha Naga protecting Krishna from the rain.

Vasudeva realised his son was no ordinary baby. He hurried to Gokul, exchanged the children and returned to the prison. As soon as he entered, the locks hut and the guards awoke. Hearing the baby cry, they informed Kansa who rushed to the prison. He was about to smash the little girl against the stone slab, when she slipped out of his hands. As she rose towards the sky, she warned him that he one responsible for his death was safe. When Krishna grew up, he killed his evil uncle and restored the throne to his grandfather.

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