Krishna Janmashtami, also known simply as Janmashtami or Gokulashtami, is an annual Hindu festival that celebrates the birth of Lord Krishna, the eighth avatar of Lord Vishnu, It is observed according to the Hindu luni-solar calendar, on the eighth day (Ashtami) of the Krishna-paksha (dark fortnight) in Shravana or Bhadra (depending on whether the calendar chooses the new moon or full moon day as the last day of the month), which overlaps with August or September of the Gregorian calendar. Many colourful legends exclaim that Lord Krishna is a prominent figure in Hindu writings - “As a child, Lord Krishna is noted for His pranks such as the fore-mentioned butter stealing and images of Him as a child; often showing Him the joyous dance, holding a ball of butter in His hands”.
It is an important festival, particularly in the Vaishnavism tradition of Hinduism. Dance drama enactments of the life of Lord Krishna, according to the Bhagavada Purana(such as ‘Rash leela’ or ‘Krishna leela’), devotional singing through the midnight when Krishna was born, fasting (upavasa), a night vigil (Ratri jagaran) and a festival (Mahotsav) on the following day are a part of the Janmashtami celebrations. This festival is celebrated particularly in Mathura and Vrindavan, alongwith major Vaishnava and non-sectarian communities found in Manipur, Assam, Bihar, West Bengal, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujrat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and all other states of India. Krishna Janmashtami is followed by the festival Nandotsav, which celebrates the occasion when Nanda-baba distributed gifts to the community in honour of the birth of Sree Krishna.
Significance : Krishna is the son of Devaki and Vasudeva and his birthday is celebrated by Hindus as Janmashtami, particularly those of the Gaudiya Vaishnavism tradition as He is considered as the supreme personality of Godhead. Janmashtami is celebrated when Lord Krishna is believed to have been born according to the Hindu tradition, which is in Mathura, at the midnight of the eighth day of Bhadra (overlaps with August and September in the Gregorian calendar). Krishna was born in the era of chaos. It was a time when the persecution was rampant, freedoms were denied, evil was existing everywhere and when there was a threat to His life by His maternal-uncle king Kangsha. Immediately following baby Krishna’s birth at Mathura, His father Vasudeva Anakadundubhi took Krishna across the Yamuna, to foster parents at Gokul, named Nanda and Yashoda. After the midnight-hour birth of Sree Krishna; statues of baby Krishna are washed and clothed, then placed in a cradle. The devotees then break their fast by sharing food and sweets. Women draw tiny footprints outside their doors and kitchen of the house; walking towards their house as a symbolism for Lord Krishna’s journey into their homes.
Divinity in the concept of Janmashtami : It is the time of the celestial year when the doorway to every home is dotted with little pink feet that mischievously lead to pot full of butter tacked away in the sanctum. It is an act of faith, hope and anticipation where we await for the personification of love ‘Lord Krishna’ to come home in the late hours of night and feast upon many wondrous treats prepared just for Him. Treats are prepared to celebrate Lord Krishna’s coming to our world with His favourite mounds of silky butter. Lord Krishna, the embodiment of love, the personification of beauty, the perfecter of all arts, captor of devotee’s hearts. His time here on earth enriched our planet and its residents with the most glorious and spectacular events, starting right from the miraculous moment of His birth.
Dear Krishna, the epitome of divinity, was born after the sunset, within the dungeons where His mother, Queen Devaki and king Vasudeva had been imprisoned for years, awating His birth. A plan hatched by His demon maternal uncle king Kangsha, who had been told that Lord Krishna would be the cause for His demise. Knowing their darling child would need to be whisked away before Kangsha came to know about His birth; king Vasudeva swiftly bundled up his precious baby and carried Him in a basket out of the prison walls, across the holy Yamuna river which withdrew to allow the safe passage of the Lord where He would be raised by His foster parents Nanda and Yashoda. So, began some of the most awe-inspiring events in our history; born a prisoner, growing into a mischievous prankster, blooming as the captor of all hearts and rising as the warrior king who would decide the fate of the entire universe.
In Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna said to Arjuna, “O, dear Arjuna, my birth and ‘Karma’ (work) is a wondrous occurrence – anyone who can understand this will be able to understand this existence. He or she will be able to decipher the mysteries of the world, comprehend the happenings and also be able to predict its future outcomes. This supernatural ability and knowledge will be bestowed upon such a person who will achieve the wholeness”.
Aesthetical point-of-view : The beauty in our ancient stories is that they were never made location-specific or time-specific. Ramayana and Mahabharata are not just events that happened a long time ago, they are re- happening in our everyday lives. Their essence is completely eternal. There is aesthetical symbolization to the story of Sree Krishna’s birth too. Mother Devaki symbolizes the body and Vasudeva symbolizes the life force (‘prana’). When ‘prana’ rises in the body, ‘joy’ (Sree Krishna) was born. But the ego (Kangsha) tried to eliminate joy. King Kangsha was the brother of Devaki, which indicates that ego is born along with the body. A person who is happy and joyful does not create trouble for anyone. It is the one who is unhappy and emotionally wounded who ends up causing disruption. Those who feel injustice has been done to them end up being unjust to others out of their ego.
The biggest adversary of ego is joy. Ego cannot survive and has to bow down where there is joy and love. A person can hold a very high position in society, but he melts in front of his own child. When the child falls ill, however strong the person is, they feel a little helpless. Ego simply melts when confronted with love, simplicity and joy. Lord Krishna is the epitome of joy, the quintessence of simplicity and the very source of love. The imprisonment of Devaki and Vasudeva by king Kangsha signifies that when ego takes over, the body feels like a prison. The baby girl born at Gokul before the birth of Lord Krishna represents the ‘Mayashakti’, killed by king Kangsha (the ego of the body). When Krishna was born, the prison-guards fell asleep. The guards here are the senses which protect the ego because they are turned outward when awake. Inner joy sprouts in us when the senses turn inwards. All the senses (symbolized by prison-guards) fell asleep. The five senses (eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin) are the guards of the body and they always look outwards for joy. They are actually the guards of king Kangsha (symbolization of ego). One must control the ego even in real life, keeping the desires inwards removing the egocentric desires. Controlling the ego is depicted as a snake, sitting over the basket and guarding Lord Krishna. Controlling the desires and attachments is easy but controlling the ego is most difficult. That is what, is represented by the fact that at the time of birth of Lord Krishna, demon-king Kangsha still remained alive and it took many years for Lord Krishna to kill the ego through demon-king Kangsha.
Lord Krishna is known as ‘butter thief’. Milk is the essence of nourishment and curd is a cultured form of milk. When curd is churned, butter comes up and floats on top. It is nourishing and yet light, not heavy. Similarly, when our intelligence is churned, it becomes like butter. When knowledge dawns in the mind, one gets established in oneself. Such a person remains unattached to this world and his mind does not sink in it. Lord Krishna stealing butter is a symbolism depicting the glory of love. So attractive is the charm of Lord Krishna and skill that He steals the mind of even the most dispassionate.
Why does Lord Krishna have the peacock feather on his head? – A king is responsible for the whole society and that responsibility can become a burden, which seats on the head as the crown. But Lord Krishna fulfills all His responsibilities effortlessly, like a game. A mother never feels taking care of her children as a burden. Similarly Lord Krishna wears His responsibility lightly and plays His roles colourfully, just like the peacock feather on His crown.
Lord Krishna is the most attractive, joyful space within all of us. When there is no restlessness, worry or desire in the mind –a person is able to take deep rest and it was in the deep rest that Lord Krishna was born. Thus Lord Krishna signifies ‘Ananda’ (Bliss, purity and happiness). We all express our happiness by celebration. So, Janmashtami is the festival to celebrate ‘the birth of bliss’. Janmashtami is the day when divine-joy is manifested. Actually, it is not right to use the word ‘birth’ in this case. Lord Krishna was never born. The divine-joy was present, but it was on this particular day that it manifested and became evident (in the form of Lord Krishna).
To look for Lord Krishna we should look everywhere. Lord Krishna himself said, “One who sees Me everywhere, in everyone and sees everyone in me is truly intelligent”. Now, no one wants to be foolish in this world, everyone wants to be intelligent. So, one who recognizes ‘the Paramatma’ (Supreme soul or all-prevading one Consciousness) as that ‘Ananda-tattva’ (the element of bliss) is manifested throughout ‘creation’, which is truly an intelligent step. Everything in this universe has emerged from that ‘Ananda-tattva’ – this is the special message of Janmashtami. What does one need for this ? – One should be innocent at heart, one should have that child-like innocence. It is said, “Bhole bhaav miley Raghurai” (One attains the Lord through the innocence and purity of feelings).
Spiritual Principles on birth of Lord Krishna : Lord Krishna represents the consciousness of Brahman or God. Krishna avatar is synonymous with self-realization. Normally desires and negative thoughts core our consciousness with ignorance. The journey to self-realization involves removal or shedding of this ignorance which can only be done by eight spiritual principles as described by the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – these are ‘Yama’ (self-control), ‘Niyama’ (self-discipline), ‘Asanas’ (bodily postures), ‘Pranayama’ (control of breath), ‘Pratyahara’ (one-pointed), ‘Dhyana’ (contemplation) and ‘Samadhi’ (self-realization). Ignorance is symbolized by the prison, which represents darkness, narrow-minded approach (small entry gate) and limitedness to everything (small room). The chain in the prison means the bondage to lust, greed, desires and ego. Birth of Krishna in the prison means ‘self-relaization out of ignorance’. It can only acquired by adhering to the eight principles of ‘Ashtanga Yoga’ with ‘Abhyash’ (hard work). Lord Krishna was born as the eighth child of Devaki, representing the eight limbs of yoga. The self-realization can only occur after the seven strips are successfully negotiated and the mind is purified in the process. Even in the state of Samadhi, there is spontaneous birth of the self. In this state, (‘sama’ means equal and ‘dhi’ means intelligence); one controls equality and balances himself between the good and the bad.
When Lord Krishna was born, the chain that bound His father fell off; the doors that had been bolted flew open and the prison guards immediately went into sleep. Father Vasudeva took Krishna and went to Gokul, by placing Krishna in a basket and walking across the Yamuna river, where at the same time Yashoda, the consort of Nanda had given birth to a female child. The chains here mean the bondage to the external world and the five senses. A self-realized person is free from all bondages of our universe. ‘The opening of gates’ symbolizes control over lust, desire, greed and attachments. ‘Sleeping of the guard’ symbolizes that in a self-realized state, one is totally cut off from the world. Everything else perishes and one gets detached. ‘The thunderstorm, the rain and the fire’ – all represent the internal turmoil of the uncontrolled desires and hatred. The moment Lord Krishna’s feet touched the turbulent water, everything settles. The spiritual lesson is that by turning inwards and towards, one’s pure consciousness in any turbulent state of mind can be controlled.
Acquiring a state of self-realization should not be the ultimate goal in one’s life. After self-realization if the ego is not controlled one can misuse one’s spiritual power. The ultimate aim in life should then be to kill the ego which Lord Krishna does ultimately.
Celebration of Janmashtami in India : Hindus celebrate Janmashtami by fasting, singing, praying together, preparing and sharing special food, night vigils and visiting Krishna or Vishnu temples. Major Krishna temples organize recitation of ‘Bhagavat Purana and Bhagavat Gita’.
Janmashtami is the largest festival in the Braja region of Northern India. In cities such as Mathura, where Hindu tradition states that Lord Krishna was born and in Vrindavan where Lord Krishna grew up - Vaishnava communities of these regions celebrate Janmashtami with a festive mood. Krishna temples are decorated and lighted up. They attract numerous visitors on this day, while Krishna devotees hold bhakti events and keep night vigil. Temples and community centres are decorated with regional flowers and leaves; while various groups recite or listen to different chapters of Bhagavad Purana and Bhagavad Gita. The communities organize the dance drama events called ‘Raash-leela’ or ‘Krishna-leela’. The tradition of Raash leela is particularly popular in the Mathura region and also in parts of Rajasthan and Gujrat. The Raash-leela is acted out by numerous teams of amateur artists, cheered on by their local communities and this drama-dance begins a few days before Janmashtami every year. In Jammu, the kite flying from roof tops is also a part of the celebration of Krishna Janmashtami.
Janmashtami is widely celebrated by Hindu Vaishnava communities in the states of North-eastern India. The wide-spread tradition of celebrating the birth of Lord Krishna in these regions is credited to the efforts and teachings of Sankaradeva and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in 15th and 16th century. The philosophical ideas are developed along with the new forms of performing arts (Borgeet, Ankia Naat, Sattriya and Bhakti Yoga) to celebrate the birth date of Hindu Lord Sree Krishna. The Sree Govindajee temple and the ISKCON temples of Assam mark the Janmashtami festival in their respective centres called ‘Namghar’. According to the tradition, the devotees sing the ‘Nam’, perform pujas and share food (prasada).
In the Eastern state of Odisha, specifically the region around Puri and in Nabadwip of West Bengal – this festival is referred to as ‘Sree Krishna Jayanti’ or ‘Sri Jayanti’. People maintain the process of fasting and worship until midnight. Devotees bring water from river Ganga to bath Radha Madhava during the ‘abhisheka’ ceremony. A grand ‘abhisheka’ is performed at midnight for the small Radha Madhava deities while food (bhoga)-offering of more than 400 items is offered to their Lordships with devotion.
Gokulashtami or Janmashtami is celebrated with great fervor in South India. In Kerala, people celebrate Janmashtami in the month of September according to Malayalam calendar. In Tamil Nadu, people decorate the floor with kolams (decorative pattern drawn with rice-batter). ‘Geeta Govindam’ and other such devotional songs are sung in memory of Lord Krishna. The households draw the footprints of Lord Krishna, from the threshold of the house to the pooja- room, which depicts the arrival of Lord Krishna in their house. The festival is celebrated during evening as Lord Krishna was born at midnight. Recitation of Bhagavad Gita is a popular practise. The offerings are the favourites of Lord Krishna such as betel, butter, seedai, sweet-seedai, Verkadalai, Urundai. In Andhra Pradesh, number of temples dedicated to Lord Krishna are very few – there Sri Krishna is worshipped through paintings, not idols. Popular South Indian temples dedicated to Lord Krishna are Rajagopalashwamy temple in Mannagurdi in the Tiruvarur district, Pandavadhoothar temple in Kanchipuram, Sri Krishna temple at Udupi and the Krishna temple at Guruvayur are dedicated to the memory of Lord Vishnu’s incarnation as Lord Krishna. Legend says that the Sree Krishna idol installed in Guruvayur is from Dwarka, which is believed to be submerged in the sea.
Celebration of Janmashtami outside India : In Arizona, United States; the Governor Janet Napolitano was the first American leader to greet a message on Janmashtami, while acknowledging ISKCON. The festival is celebrated widely by Hindus in the Carribean countries of Guyana, Trinidad and Tobaggo, Jamaica and the former British colony Fiji as well as the former Dutch colony of Suriname. Janmashtami in Fiji is known as ‘Krishna Ashtami’. The Janmashtami-celebration in Fiji is most unique because it lasts for eight days, leading upto the 8th day (the day of birth of Lord Krishna). During these eight days, Hindus gather at homes and at temples with their ‘mandalis’ or devotional groups at evenings and nights; reciting Bhagavad Purana, sing devotional songs for Lord Krishna and distribute ‘prasadam’. Many Hindus in these countries originate from Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar; descendants of indentured immigrants from Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal and Orissa. ISKCON temples celebrate ‘Krishna Janmashtami’, as well as the birthday of ISKCON founder Swami Prabhupada (1st September 1896).
In Nepal, about eighty percent of the population identify themselves as Hindus and celebrate ‘Krishna Janmashtami’. They observe Janmashtami until midnight by fasting. The devotees recite the Bhagavad Gita and sing religious songs called ‘bhajans’ and ‘kirtans’. The temples of Lord Krishna are decorated. Shops, posters and houses carry Krishna motifs.
Janmashtami is a national holiday in Bangladesh. On Janmashtami, a procession starts from Dhakeshwari temple in Dhaka, the National temple of Bangladesh and then proceeds through the streets of old Dhaka. The procession dates back to 1902, but was stopped in 1948. The procession was resumed in 1989.
Janmashtami is celebrated by the Hindus of Pakistan in the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Karachi, with the singing of bhajans and delivering of sermons of Lord Krishna.
Among the Malabars of the French island, a syncretism of Catholicism and Hinduism can develop. Janmashtami is also considered to be the date of birth of Jesus Christ there.