Janmashtami : A Festival imbibed into the cultural ethos of India
Janmashtami is an important festival of India which celebrates the birth of Lord Krishna. As per Indian Calender system of Vikram Samvat, Shri Krishna was born on midnight of Ashtami of krishna paksha of Shravan month, which usually falls in July/ August as per Gregorian calendar, and is celebrated as Janmashtami. However, on the basis of lunar calendar of India, the Krishna Janmashtami may fall in the month of Shravan month or Bhadrapada month. Many calculations are done on the date of birth of Shri Krishna by various Jyotishacharyas and historians but the exact date is not known. It is believed that the date of birth is either 18, 19, 20 or 21 of July 3228 BCE (Before Christ Era) as per Gregorian calendar. In the year 2022 Shri Krishna Janmashtami will be celebrated as 5249th birth anniversary of Lord Krishna. It is believed that Shri Krishna died on February 18, 3102 BCE and Kalyuga (the present kaal) started thereafter. But as of now, Krishna Jayanti is not observed as Krishna is known to be the unique driving force of this universe who is never born and never dies.
Krishna as Avatar of Lord Vishnu
Shri Krishna is believed to be the 8th avatar of Lord Vishnu, who is ‘the Preserver’ among the principal deities, others being Brahma and Shiva. The other seven avatars of Lord Vishnu are Matsay (Fish) Avatar, Kurma (tortoise) avatar, Varah (wild boar) avatar, Narsimha (half man-half lion) avatar, Vamana (dwarf man) avatar, Parshuram (sage with axe) avatar who is immortal, Rama ( Prince of Ayodhya) avatar and 8th being Krishna.
Kamsa was the king of Vrishni dynasty having Mathura as capital, whose cousin sister Devaki was married to Vasudev, a prince of Yadav dynasty. As their marriage solemnized, there was an Aakashwani (voice from heaven) that Devaki’s 8th child will be the reason for Kamsa’s death. Kamsa immediately put both of them in jail. Whenever Devaki gave birth to a child, Kamsa would kill the child by smashing their head on the stone. However, at the time of 7th birth, with the blessings of Lord Vishnu, the foetus disappeared from Devaki’s womb and got settled at Rohini’s womb, another wife of Vasudev at Gokul who was living there with family of Nand, the brother of Vasudev. This child of Devaki took birth from the womb of Rohini and was named as Balarama. Balarama is believed to be the avatar of Sheshnag on which Lord Vishnu rests.
At the time of 8th birth to Devaki, with the blessings of Lord Vishnu, Yashoda also got pregnant at the same time with Yogmaya, Adishakti Durga. As the auspicious time of child birth occurred at midnight, Lord Vishnu ordered Vasudev to take Krishna to Gokul and replace with Yogmaya. All guards fell asleep, all locks were opened to facilitate this transfer. As it was the rainy season, the water level at Yamuna river was very high. However, as Vasudev, carrying Krishna in a basket enters the river, Yamuna water touches the feet of Krishna and the level comes down to allow Vasudev to cross river easily. Vasudev replaces his son with Nand’s daughter and comes back to prison. All locks got intact and all guards woke up to see the birth of a girl.
The news of girl’s birth was conveyed to Kamsa, who laughed at the Akashwani which said the 8th son will be the reason for his death, as 8th child was a girl. But taking no chances, he caught her by her feet and tried to hit her head on the stone. But she slipped from his hand and flown to sky. She turned into Durga avatar and yelled at Kamsa that his destroyer had already taken birth. She further said that she can also kill him but since he touched her feet, she would spare him. She then vanished to sky.
Thereafter, Shri Krishna displayed many unique abilities which caught the attention of Kansa and he tried to kill him through his army of demons. But he finally gets killed by Krishna at Mathura.
Shri Krishna Janmashtami is celebrated usually at community level by organising Jhaanki of Shri Krishna, Radha and other family members with depiction of various Krishna Leela activities. The unusual acts displayed by Krishna are known as Krishna Leela. During Jhaanki, a procession of horse driven or motor driven caravan is taken out in the streets in which young boys and girls depicting Krishna and Radha are worshipped. They shower their blessings on devotees. The other depiction may include scene of prison at Krishna’s birth, Vasudev carrying newly born Krishna through Yamuna river, Krishna killing demons or Kamsa, Krishna giving Geeta Updesh (covered in Shri Bhagwad Geeta scriptures), Krishna extending saari cloth to Draupadi (covered in Mahabharata epic), Krishna keeping Govardhan mountain at tip of his little finger, Krishna doing raas-leela (singing and dancing) etc.
During the celebrations an important event called Dahi-Haandi is organised by the youth. In this event a collection of money is made from the locals and shopkeepers. An earthen pot is prepared with white butter, curd and the bounty and is hung in the centre of road crossings with the help of ropes to a greater height. More the bounty, greater the height. During the day of Janmashtami, the groups of young boys and girls move around the city to capture the Dahi-Haandi. The only way to reach to that height is by making a human pyramid. As the height increases, the risk to the young lads gets higher. The group has to make a successful human pyramid, reach to the pot and break it to own it. At some places this is considered a prestigious catch which wins the hearts of locals. This has been a common phenomenon shown in Bollywood movies as well. However, due to the risk involved and lives lost during such events, this practice has mostly been stopped.
ISKON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) has been the front runner in organising Shri Krishna Janmashtami all over the world through its branches, temples and devotees. The devotees sing “hare krishna hare krishna krishna krishna hare hare hare ram hare ram ram ram hare hare” and dance in groups on streets, roads and everywhere using musical instruments like dholak, manjira/taal/thallam etc. Similarly the devotees keep dancing through day and night in ISKON temples.
When the devotees visit temples they prefer to give swings to little Krishna. The temple management keeps the little krishna idol on a throne with swing. Such swings are also displayed at community places to allow visitors to give swings to little Krishna and Radha. At some places, children organize display of different structures related to Shri Krishna or social events, localities etc. People visit such pandals and praise the creativity of children.
Raas-Leela or Dandiya events are also organised during Janmashtami where young and old, men and women dance playing with dandiya sticks and creating magical moments of togetherness and love. In many cities Dandiya night events are organised around Janmashtami period every year mostly to attract young crowds.
The Bhog or Chhappan Bhog (56 items for eating)
All through the celebrations of day and night everyone awaits for the midnight for Krishna’s birth. As the clock struck 00:00 there is a flow of emotions and enthusiasm among devotees to have a glimpse of Shri Krishna idol which would be decorated with beautiful clothes, flowers, jewelry, flute and the Crown after its bath with various holy items and cleaning. As the curtains are off the Krishna idol, the happy songs are sung by all to welcome little krishna. The Krishna Aarti is sung by all to praise him. After the aarti, Shri Krishna is offered items to eat. Though krishna can be offered anything to eat as we do there is a special place for Chhappan- Bhog. As per the legend, Shri Krishna kept Govardhan mountain at his little finger for 7 days to save the community from incessant rain which were caused by an angry rain god Indra. However, after 7 days, Indra realised his mistake and apologized. Then Yashoda, mother of Krishna, prepared variety of food items for Krishna @ 8 times per day x 7 days totalling 56. There is a separate celebration of this on the day of Govardhan Puja or Annakoot. However, many devotees offer Chhappan- Bhog to Shri Krishna on the night of Janmashtami.
Chhappan Bhog Items List may include:
- White butter
- Rice Kheer
- Khoya Peda
- Tulsi leaves
- Jaggery (Gur)
- Cucumber (Kheera)
- Coconut Burfi
- Coriander Burfi
- Besan Namkeen
- Poha/ Chivada
- Aloo sabzi
- Kaddu sabzi
- Dhania Parantha
- Boondi laddoo
- Besan laddoo
- Mix daal
- Sauce (Chatney)
- Sweet Lassi
- Lemon Shikanji
- Charnamrit (mixture of ghee, curd, milk, honey, water with Tulsi leaves)
- Saag (Sarson/ Chaulai/ Chana/ Palak)
- Kadi Pakoda
- Sweet Paan
- Dahi Bhalla
- Aloo Tikki
- Besan Cheela
- Sooji Halwa
- Moong Daal Halwa
- Aloo baingan
- Butter milk (chhaachh)
The Chhappan Bhog Items can be changed as per the availability. The preference is for the milk based items especially the sweets. The devotees use Tulsi leaves aggressively during these preparations as Shri Krishna (Lord Vishnu) is very pleased with Tulsi leaves. The water may be offered many times during the bhog. And the paan or simply a piece of cardamom as mouth freshener is offered in the end.
Some devotees prepare 56 Bhog and go to the temple with family and friends. However, in today’s busy life, people share the items to be prepared as part of 56 Bhog and offer to Shri Krishna collectively. Some devotees prepare a place to keep idol of Shri Krishna as toddler, called laddoo gopal, and do all rituals of bathing, decorating with beautiful clothes and ornaments at home. They offer him 56 Bhog at home and consume or distribute it as Prasad.
Things dear to Kanha
1. Flute: The musical instrument associated with Krishna. As per legends the Gopies of Vrindavan and Radha were influenced by the tune of flute played by Krishna. The flute had a magical effect on them.
2. White butter: As the residents of Mathura, Vrindavan and Gokul reared cows, there were plenty of milk based items like milk, chhaachh (butter milk), Lassi, curd, sweets made from milk, white butter etc. Out of these items, white butter is dearest to Shri Krishna. To save butter from Kanha, Yashoda maiyya used to hung the butter in earthen pot called Haandi at a height. However, Kanha used to make a human pyramid and gulp all the butter himself and distribute among other children. To mark this event, Dahi- Haandi is organised now a days.
3. Rice Kheer: Kanha enjoys rice kheer too much. It’s prepared by boiling rice in milk for a long time till it gets densifies. The kheer should be full of dry fruits, coconut and Kesar (saffron).
4. Tulsi (Basil) Leaves: As per legend Tulsi (Vrinda) was the power of Jalandhar, a demon king, who fought unending war with Lord Shiva. Since Jalandhar took birth from anger of Lord Shiva himself, he was invincible. More so due to the purity of his wife, Vrinda who was a devotee of Lord Vishnu. To save the world from Pralay (catastrophe), Lord Vishnu slept with Vrinda by transforming into Jalandhar. This destroyed the chastity of Vrinda and Jalandhar was killed by Lord Shiva. Though, Vrinda cursed Lord Vishnu to turn into stone but Lord Vishnu blessed her with boon to honour her sacrifice for the humanity. He blessed Vrinda to take the form of Tulsi plant on Earth and announced that his puja will not be complete without the offering of Tulsi leaves. In continuity, as per another legend when Narada, the sage, convinced Satyabhama, Krishna’s wife, that Shri Krishna would love her more than Rukmani, another wife of Krishna, if she donated Shri Krishna in alms to him and then took in return by weighing him in tula (balance) with precious jewels. Accordingly, tulabharam ceremony was organised by Satyabhama by keeping Shri Krishna on one side and putting jewels on other side. When the weight of Shri Krishna remained more even after keeping all jewels, Rukmani was called for help. Rukmani then kept a leaf of Tulsi over the jewels and now the side with Tulsi leaf became heavy. Even after removing all jewels, the Tulsi leaf side remained heavy. This was displayed to show that God is not interested in money but the feeling and love with which the puja is done. This way the ego of Satyabhama was melted.
5. Raas – Leela: Raas-Leela is a kind of dance performed by Shri Krishna with Shri Radha and Gopis (young girls) of Vrindavan. As per legend, Dandakaranya forest (a jungle of punishment) was abode of demons during Ramayana era. It was ruled by Khar & Dushan in the kingdom of Ravana, the king of Lanka. While in exile, Rama spent most of his time with Sita & Lakshman wandering in these forests and fighting with demons. During this time the rishis and sages living in that area desired to have the association of Lord Rama. Rama convinced them to wait for his next Avatar as Krishna to have this association. All of them were then born as Gopis who were cosmically connected to Shri Krishna. These Gopis would leave their homes when they would hear the music of Krishna’s flute. They will take part in Raas-Leela and get satisfied with their connection with God Himself. It is believed that each Gopi danced with Krishna in Raas-Leela at same time. Shri Radha Rani, the chief Gopi, is known as the power of Shri Krishna and always took part in Raas-Leela. The same Raas-Leela is depicted in various idols, scriptures, carvings etc.
6. Love and devotion: It is believed that Shri Krishna took birth on earth to spread the message of love (prem). He did so by involving every person with him with a love bond. He believed in pious and eternal love not the physical love making. He said that the people of the world can find God by way of surrendering to the wills of God through unconditional devotion. He displayed this with Radha Rani, his strength and companion. As a legend, Radha Rani was cursed by Sudama, Shri Krishna’s friend, in his previous birth that she will forget Krishna for 100 years. During the Raas-Leela time at Vrindavan, Shri Radha Rani was unaware of her reality. But she was cosmically attached to Krishna as Gopi. After many many years, Meera Bai, a devotee of Lord Krishna, became so attached to Krishna that her stories of love were spread all over the world. Another saint Surdas, who was born blind, could see and interact with Krishna, it is believed. He drew a sketch of Krishna’s beauty through his poems in praise of Lord Krishna. Those who had extraordinary eternal love for Shri Krishna were able to find him and got submerged in him forever.
7. Cow: As the people of Gokul were keeping the cow herds, the cow was revered as mother and goddess by Braj vaasis (the residents of Braj area). Shri Krishna considered cow as holy companion and worshipped them as the cow gave him milk, from which white butter is prepared, which Kanha liked the most. Krishna is often seen playing flute with cow in pictures and idols. Even today, cow is considered to be the Gau Mata (Cow, The Mother) for Indians. Gau-daan is considered the most effective donation for the people seeking Moksha (Liberation from the cycle of births).
Fasting during Shri Krishna Janmashtami
Some devotees keep fast on the day of Janmashtami. They don’t eat anything during the day. Some even don’t drink water also. But some devotees take tea, fruits, milk etc during fast. They consume meals after the birth of Shri Krishna at midnight. During such meals, Chapati made from kuttu atta are consumed with potato sabzi, radish, curd etc.
Shri Krishna Janmashtami is an important festival in India which binds the people socially to spread love and affection among the masses for all round development of the society. It also reminds us that whatever be the circumstances, we must continue our struggle to live our lives to the fullest. We also learn to be involved in the community service and help each other to form a caring society.
Jai Shree Krishna