Fares of Faith: Krishna Janmashtami

Krishna Janmashtami, or simply Janmashtami, is the two-day birthday celebration of the Hindu deity Lord Krishna. The holiday is celebrated throughout India and in Hindu homes around the world, but the spirit of devotion is especially prevalent in the ancient cities Mathura and Vrindavan, where Krishna spent his childhood.

Hindus believe Lord Krishna is the personification of love, joy and knowledge. He is considered the most personable Hindu deity, always ready to answer the prayers of his followers. A brave hero, wise teacher and loving friend to all, Krishna has had an overwhelming influence on Indian philosophy and culture.

The legend of Janmashtami begins about 5,000 years ago, when Mother Earth and her children were grieving terribly under the dark rule of the demon kings. The outlook was so bleak that Lord Vishnu, the Godhead of the Hindu trinity, chose to be reborn as baby Krishna to bring love and peace to the world and end the rule of evil kings.

Celebration and Fasting Janmashtami festivities last two full days, which generally fall in August or September. Devotees spend the first day of festivities fasting, singing and preparing Krishna’s favorite foods — mostly sweet, milk-based dishes — to offer their Lord at midnight. Beautifully decorated temples and homes exude an aroma of rich desserts and flavorful spices.

Many devotees fast on the first day of Janmashtami. In Hinduism, fasting is considered a sacrificial gift that allows individuals to grow closer to God and repent for sins. In a phalahar fast, worshippers are allowed to consume fruit, water and milk but must refrain from cereal and salt. The most devoted followers keep a nirjal fast, which excludes food and water. During the fast, devotees spend the day preparing Krishna’s favorite dishes, singing songs and chanting mantras. At midnight, the carefully prepared food offering, or prasad, is given to Krishna. Fasting is broken by eating the prasad.

Temples at Midnight

Festivities peak at midnight, the time of Krishna’s birth. Devotees flock to temples adorned with sparkling lights, hanging flowers and colorful decorations. Holy mantras are chanted, and a conch is blown to symbolize the destruction of evil. A representation Krishna, such as a small statue or figurine, is bathed in a mixture of honey, ghee, sugar and curds, then placed in a cradle. It is believed that those who visit the temple to rock the cradle will have a wish granted. The sweet aroma of Krishna’s favorite dishes fills the air as they are placed in front of the cradle. Some Krishna temples prepare as many as 108 dishes, a sacred number in Hinduism.

Breaking the Butter Pot

Dairy products, such as milk, butter and curds, are important staples of Indian cuisine. This is reflected in one of the holiday’s most beloved traditions, Dahi Handi. This ritual, carried out on the second day of festivities, is a celebration of Krishna’s playful and mischievous side. In a daring public display of acrobatic strength and balance, Dahi Handi participants, or govindas, build a human pyramid to reach a dangling butter pot suspended out of reach. The last govinda climbs to the top and strikes the pot until it cracks, spilling curds onto those below.

According to legend, the children of Vrindavan village were deprived of milk products because every drop had to be given to Mathura, the home of evil King Kansa. In response, Krishna and his friends made a human pyramid to reach the pots hanging from ceilings and distribute the prized butter to local children.

Foods of Janmashtami

Food prepared as an offering for Krishna is made with only the finest ingredients in highly sanitary conditions. Because Krishna was known for his sweet tooth and love of milk products, most dishes prepared for Janmashtami are desserts with a milk or yogurt base. Meals are typically vegetarian, as Hindus strongly promote nonviolence and believe all animals have souls. As providers of precious milk, cows are considered sacred in Hinduism, so there are no holiday beef dishes.

Traci Pedersen
Traci Pedersen is a freelance writer who specializes in psychology, science, health and spiritual themes.