Janmashtami is a Hindu festival that marks the birthday of Lord Krishna. Know all about its rituals, traditions, celebrations and dates.
Janmashtami, also known as Krishna Janmashtami, is a Hindu religious festival that marks the birthday of Lord Krishna, the eighth incarnation of God Vishnu. It is one of the biggest religious festivals, not only in India, but all across the world. The festival is celebrated at midnight on 'Ashtami' or the eighth day of Krishna 'Paksha' (dark fortnight) in the month 'Shravana' (August-September) of the Hindu calendar, when Krishna is believed to have been born. Worldwide researchers have unanimously concluded that the period from 3200 BC to 3100 BC is the era of Lord Krishna. Every year, Janmashtami is celebrated with much fun and grandeur. There are several rituals and customs associated with the festival. 'Ras Leela', a dance drama portraying the life of Lord Krishna, is a common enactment of the day. Another ritual, the 'Dahi Handi' (curd pot) celebrates Krishna's mischievous nature of stealing butter as a child; young men form a huge human pyramid to reach a high-hanging earthen pot of curd and break it for fun. For devotees, the festival of Janmashtami signifies divine revitalization and merriment.
Rituals and Traditions
Many customs and rituals are associated with the celebration of Janmastami. Household devotees observe a fast for the whole day. They break their fast after midnight which is believed to be the birth time of Lord Krishna. Some prefer to observe 'Nirjala' fast which requires fasting without food and water while some others prefer to have only milk and milk products. 'Bhajans' (devotional songs) in praise of the Lord Krishna are sung throughout the day. Devotees chant unique 'mantras' and 108 names of the Lord Krishna to invoke his blessings. Apart from chanting of mantras, many plays that depict the life of Lord Krishna are enacted. Since Lord Krishna was very fond of milk, butter, and buttermilk, his devotees make sweets and offer to him. The ritual of 'Dahi-handi' (curd pot) is a stunt by young agile boys, depicting Lord Krishna trying to grab butter/curd from an earthen pot. This fun tradition is hugely practiced in the cities of Mathura, Dwarka, Vrindavan and Mumbai. A group of young boys form a human pyramid, and then they try to break a hanging earthen pot filled with milk. People gather below and throw water on the boys to prevent them from reaching the pot. Another tradition, the 'Ras Leela' or the 'Dance of Divine Love' is a fun activity that Krishna popularly performed with his 'Gopis' (group of cow-herding girls). There are several types of Ras Leela, such as Janamleela, Shankarleela, Putanaleela, Nagleela, etc.
Janmashtami is celebrated with great pomp and show all over India. On this day, homes and temples are beautifully decorated and illuminated. In the temples, prayers are offered all night and religious mantras are sung by devotees, who observe a day long fast. They worship Lord Krishna, listen to his tales of adventure, recite hymns from the Gita, sing devotional songs, and chant mantras. Lord Krishna's birthplace, Mathura (in present day Mathura district of Uttar Pradesh) and Vrindavan celebrate this occasion in the grandest manner possible. All over northern India, song and dance performances mark the occasion. The town of Dwarka in Gujarat, which is Krishna's own land, is thronged by several enthusiastic visitors on this day.
The International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) organizes 'Bhajan sabha' for the devotees. People affiliated to the organization dress up in saffron coloured clothes and dance to the rhythm of "Hare Rama Hare Krishna". Ras Leela is performed to depict the playful adventures of Lord Krishna and to honour his love for Radha. At midnight (the Lord's birth hour), an idol of infant Krishna known as 'Gopal', is bathed and placed on a 'jhula' (cradle). The jhula is then decorated with flowers and rocked, amidst the blowing of conch shells and the ringing of bells. In Northern and Western India, people enact 'Dahi handi' - a re-enactment of Krishna's childhood attempts to steal butter and curd from earthen pots. A similar pot is hung high above the ground and groups of young people form a human pyramid to reach the pot and break it.
In temples, the idols of Sri Krishna and Radha are decked up with new clothes and bright jewelries. At 'Vaishnava' temples, celebrations begin before dawn and continue all day until midnight. The festivities include 'Kirtan', singing and praising the Lord's name together with other devotees, and 'Japa', private chanting and prayers. Devotees fast all day, take turns to cook a gourmet offering of over a hundred dishes; bathe, clothe and ornament the idol of Krishna, thread long flower garlands, burn incense sticks, decorate the temple, read from the Gita, and perform short plays and dances. At midnight, the beautifully ornamented deity of Krishna is revealed and celebrations continue with kirtans. In the state of Gujarat, Janmashtami is celebrated in a different way. Folk women take a break from their daily domestic chores and get together to play cards. This practice may have started as a means for women in the joint family system to pass the time, while they observe day long fast and stay awake for the entire night.