Janmashtami: Celebrating the birth of Balkrishna

Janmashtami is a popular Hindu festival, which falls during the dark fortnight in the month of Bhadra. The festival commemorates the birth of Krishna, who was born to annihilate Kansa and spread the divine message through Bhagvad Gita.
The festival is marked by fasts, prayers and enactment of incidents from Krishna’s childhood. There is an interesting legend associated with this festival.

According to Puranas, Kansa was an evil king of Mathura who had overthrown his father and imprisoned him. His atrocities drove the Gods to Vishnu who promised to take his eighth incarnation in human world. He was then born as Krishna in the 28th year of Dwapara Yuga. Kansa had a cousin called Devaki, whom he loved dearly. In due course, Kansa arranged a suitable match for her and married her off to him. However, an oracle foretold Kansa that Devaki’s eighth child would be responsible for his death. Enraged Kansa was about to slice off her head and when 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 imprisoned the couple to ensure this.

In time, he killed six of their children by throwing them aside a stone slab outside the prison. The seventh child was however, transferred to the womb of Rohini, another of Vasudeva’s wives and Kansa believed that Devaki suffered a miscarriage. When she was expecting the eighth child, Kansa increased the security of the prison and ordered the guards to bring the new born 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 fell into a deep slumber and the locks of the prison opened. Devaki and Vasudeva too were freed of their binds. And Krishna was born. A voice from heavens instructed Devaki and Vasudeva to take Krishna to Gokul. There he should go to the house of his sister Yashoda and replace Krishna with their newborn daughter. Vasudeva put his son in a basket and went quickly towards Yamuna. On reaching the shores he saw 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 feet 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 the Shesha Naga protecting Krishna from the rain. Vasudeva realised that his baby was not an ordinary person. He hurried to Gokul, exchanged the children and returned to the prison.

As soon as he entered the prison the guards awoke and the locks closed. 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 out towards the sky, she warned him that the one responsible for his death was safe.

When Krishna grew up, he killed his evil uncle and restored the throne to his grandfather.

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 calorified butter. Priests chant mantras from religious scriptures. The temple too reverberates with devotional songs in praise of the God.

A little before midnight, devotees pour into temples to participate in the aarti and to relive the birth of Kirshna. Till midnight, devotional songs are sung in anticipation of the holy birth. Special cradles are installed at temples and a small statue of 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 a special aarti is performed after which devotees partake the special prasad.

The Dharamshastras 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.”

Interesting games commemorate this festival. One of the most popular is the breaking of dahi handi. A terracotta pot containing, milk, butter and curd is hung high up across a street. Groups of men form a pyramid to tray and break this pot. The group that succeeds in breaking the pot is named the winner. This game is specially dear to Krishna and his friends. Another form of public recreation is the Rasa Lila.
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