The birthday of Krishna is celebrated by Hindus with a joyous festival filled with worship (puja) in homes and temples, storytelling of Krishna’s antics and adventures as a youth, and a sportive ritual of breaking pots filled with milk products.
Janmashtami is the name of the festival dedicated to the birth of Krishna, a Hindu deity believed to be an avatar (appearance) of Vishnu. Krishna’s birthday is observed on the eighth day of a lunar fortnight in the month of Bhadrapada.
The name of the holiday literally means “birth” (jamna) on the “eight day” (ashtami). Since the Indian calendar is lunar, this holiday falls at different times during the solar calendar used in the West. This year it fell on Sept. 6.
The story of Krishna’s nativity is full of drama. His mother Devaki and his father Vasudeva were imprisoned by her evil brother Kamsa. Kamsa had killed all her children at birth because he had been warned that her eighth child would kill him. On a stormy night eight days after the full moon, Krishna was born. The doors of the prison opened miraculously. The parents smuggled out the baby in a basket and carried him across the river, which parted when the toe of the child touched the water. Krishna was given to foster parents to raise in a village in the forest.
The heart of the festival is the observance of Krishna’s evening birth. Devotees fast until midnight. Then an image of the baby Krishna is bathed and rocked in a swinging, flower-showered cradle. The fast is broken with a feast of traditional foods and delicacies made from milk and curds. Children are invited to stay up late and participate.
The next day, pots of milk, yogurt and butter are suspended high up. People form human pyramids in order to reach up and break the pots. Onlookers try to stop them by throwing colored water on them.
The whole frolicsome spirit of the festival reflects the stories told about the young Krishna, who was quite mischievous. The stories also say that Krishna loved to eat butter and sweets as a child. He would break pots and steal butter to get his snacks. As he grew older, he enjoyed pranks and would cavort with the gopis (cowgirls).
Celebrations also take place in temples. Songs, dances, ringing of bells and blowing of conch shells mark the occasion, along with chanting from texts that tell the story of Krishna, such as the Bhagavad-gita and the Puranas. Homes may be decorated with jhankis (tableaux) that portray important events in Krishna’s life.
A circus-like atmosphere surrounds the Raasleelas (folk theater). This enactment of Krishna’s life is staged by troupes of actors and musicians, or sometimes by children. While watching, the crowds may shout out: “Hail Lord Krishna!” The costumes are colorful, and the stage is decorated brightly and draped with sequined sheets of red, blue and yellow silk. Krishna is always played by a young boy. After the play is over, the people line up to offer their prayers to Krishna, in the form of the young boy who played him, by touching his feet and placing offerings in an urn.
In a contemporary twist, celebrants can even send a Happy Janmashtami greeting card via email!
James Browning is assistant professor of religion at Pikeville College in Pikeville, Ky.