The festival is celebrated with great enthusiasm and vigor by Hindus all over India and abroad. People observe fast the whole day, sing hymns and conduct prayers at midnight to rejoice the birth of Lord. Raas lila, dramatic enactments of the life of Krishna, are a special feature that is showcased in every part of the country, as it re-creates the flirtatious aspects of Krishna's youthful days. Another interesting aspect of Krishna Janmashtami is the practice of Dahi-Handi. This game portrays the playful and mischievous side of Krishna, where teams of young men form human pyramids to reach a high-hanging pot of butter and break it.
According to the Puranas Krishna took birth 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. This day is marked as Janmashtami. Krishna is one of the most worshipped Gods in India and belongs to the Hindu Trinity. He is believed to be one of the eight incarnations of Lord Vishnu. The story of birth of Krishna is an intriguing one. The story goes like this: One day Mother Earth was appalled by the number of sins that were being committed on her surface. She went to Brahma that God of the Gods and appealed to him for help. Brahma, after listening to her, appealed to Lord Vishnu who said that He would take birth on earth and His avatar will destroy every kind of sin that was being committed on earth then.
During that time, Mathura was in miserable state as Kansa, brother of Devki, had put his father, King Ugrasen in prison and declared himself the new king. To put an end to his evil rule, Lord Vishnu decided to take birth in the human form. As such, at the wedding ceremony of Devki and Vasudev, there was a divine prophecy which proclaimed that Vasudeva's eighth son would kill Kansa. To protect himself, Kansa rushed to kill his sister but gave up the idea of killing after being assured by Vasudev that he will hand over all his children to Kansa. Kansa put his brother-in-law and sister in prison. Kansa killed all the six infants as soon as they were born. The seventh child (Balram) was saved due to divine intervention, when he was transferred from Devki's womb to that of Rohini's (other wife of Vasudev).
As Devki conceived the eighth child, everything around was imbued with benevolence and majestic beauty. Lord Krishna was born in the divine form with lotus like eyes, his palms bearing the signs of a lotus, while his sole has a swastika sign. He was adorned with jewels and was wearing a crown. Just as he was born at midnight, a chain of events astonished Vasudev, when he saw the gates of the cell flow open and all the guards fast asleep. He immediately thought of Nand, his close friend in Gokul and decided to hand over his child to him in order to save him from the clutch of Kansa. Crossing the River Yamuna, Vasudev reached Nand's residence and exchanged his son with Nand's daughter. Upon reaching the prison, the door got locked behind him and he was chained again as if nothing happened in between. The guards also woke up and after hearing the cry of the baby, informed Kansa about the birth of the eighth child. Just as Kansa rushed to kill the baby, it slipped out of his hand and flew towards the sky, proclaiming that the annihilator of Kansa was born and was safe.
Hindus all over India observe fast on this day and recite the life story and teachings of Sri Krishna noted in the form of 'shlokas' in Bhagwad Gita. Temples of Lord Krishna are decorated most beautifully and children are adorned as Lord Krishna and Radhika, his spiritual beloved. Krishna Leela or the plays depicting scenes from Krishna's life, especially childhood, are performed. At midnight, when Lord Krishna was believed to have taken birth, an 'aarti' is performed and people break their fasts by feasting on sweets and delicious dishes prepared especially for the occasion. In many parts, the idol of baby Krishna is installed in a swing and offered sumptuous food, especially 'Makkhan' (butter) and 'Mishri' (sugar cubes).
Janmashtami is one such festival that is celebrated equally in North and South India. Preparations for the same start weeks in advance. Different parts of the country celebrate the festival differently. In South India, the celebrations are most prevalent in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. In both the places, the idol of Lord Krishna is placed in a decorated mantapa. Bhakshanam (snacks and sweets in Sanskrit), are specially prepared for the festival, and offered to Lord Krishna. Along with it, fruits that are his favorites are also offered. In some parts of Karnataka, chakli, avalakki and bellada panaka are prepared especially for the festival. In North India, celebrations are no less than being called extravagant and splendid. While Gokul and Vridnavan (Lord's birth and growing up place) witness flocks of visitors coming to the place to celebrate the festival at Krishna janamabhoomi, the other parts organize different events and practice different rituals to mark the occasion. In the cities of Mumbai and Pune, dahi-handi is organized wherein a group of men form human pyramid to reach a high-hanging pot of butter and break it. In the city of Dwarka in Gujarat and the eastern states of Orissa and West Bengal, people celebrate it with fasting and doing puja at midnight. Though the rituals practiced vary from one region to the other, the spirit and devotion to the Lord is same everywhere. Thus, it wouldn't be wrong to say that Krishna is the most loved and celebrated God in India.
This article is written by Royston Pinto, a first year Philosophy student of Loyola College, Chennai and an old student of St. Aloysius, Mangalore.