Hindu World

Why We Celebrate Janmashtami

The anniversary of the birth of one of the most revered and devoutly worshiped gods of Hindu mythology, Lord Krishna – Janamashtami is celebrated with passionate fervour by devotees in India and abroad alike. Lord Krishna was believed to be born on the eighth day (ashtami) of the Krishna Paksha (dark fortnight) of the month of Bhadrapad (August–September) in the Hindu calendar and this year’s Janamashtami falls on August 25. While the festival is a time of jubilation with its beautifully decked temples, raas lilas and Dahi Handi competitions, the legend behind the Krishna’s birth is a fascinating one. According to mythology, when the goddess of earth Bhudevi had become tormented with the excess of sin on the planet, she implored Lord Vishnu for help. He promised her that he would be incarnated in human form and destroy evil. Thus, he was born as Krishna, the eighth son of Vasudeva and Devaki. But his birth too wasn’t without impediments. Devaki’s brother, Kansa had ascended the throne of Mathura by imprisoning his own father. It was prophesised that Kansa would meet his doom at the hands of the eighth child of Devaki. Terrified of the ominous prediction, Kansa imprisoned Devaki and Vasudeva and cruelly slaughtered six of their children. To protect her seventh child, Devaki faked her miscarriage while the child, Balrama, was miraculously transported to the womb of Rohini (many hail this to be one of the earliest references to embryo transfer). And when Krishna was born, his father, Vasudeva, took the little infant to Gokul, crossing the treacherous waters of river Yamuna, which made way for him to safely pass through. Upon reaching Nanda’s house, he secretly exchanged his son with Nanda’s daughter. Thus, Krishna grew up with his foster parents, Nanda and Yashoda. Years later, Krishna killed Kansa, thus freeing Mathura from his evil tyranny. The festival consists of several events to pay tribute to the lord. In Maharashtra, Janamashtami is better known as as Dahi Handi, in which the participants called “Govindas” form a human pyramid and compete to break an earthen pot (Handi) filled with buttermilk, which is hung at a difficult height. The competition is held to mimic and celebrate Krishna’s fondness for butter as he was called “makhanchor” (butter thief) during his childhood. Meanwhile, in Mathura and Gokul, places of significance because of their close association with Krishna’s childhood, raas lila’s are organised, which recreate the flirtatious side of Krishna’s youthful days. The celebrations finally culminate at midnight with a crescendo as the ‘witching hour’ is believed to be the time of Krishna’s birth. A huge part of Janamashtami celebrations is the jhankis. These scenes from Lord Krishna’s life are enacted by people – mostly kids – dressed up like gods and ‘worshipped’. The scenes are elaborately built, kids and adults who play the parts are painstakingly costumed according to their roles and these jhankis/scenes are then either established at public places/temples or on large trucks and driven around towns. One of the rituals of celebrating Janmashtami is organising the Chhappan Bhog, or a feast of 56 items, that is offered to the god and then later distributed as prasad. The Bhog mainly constitutes of Krishna’s favourite foods – and he was quite a foodie! – sweets, fruits, sweet and salty beverages, namkeen and pickles, among others.  

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