Hindus around the world today are observing Janmashtami, a holy day that celebrates the birth of Krishna, who is believed by devotees to be the eighth avatar of Vishnu (the Hindu deity of cosmic maintenance) and the Supreme Lord of the Universe.
Krishna, whose name is often translated as “all-attractive,” is honoured and worshipped in many ways. To his devotees, he is not only the Supreme Lord and a wise teacher, but also a dear friend, beloved child, and a handsome lover.
Krishna is the teacher in the Bhagavad Gita, a 700-verse scripture set on a battlefield that contains some of the most important teachings of Hinduism. He is often depicted in the form of a dark-skinned young boy playing a flute, wearing a peacock feather crown and yellow garments.
According to Hindu teachings, Krishna was born at midnight on the ashtami or the 8th day of the Hindu lunar month of Shravan in a prison to Vasudev and Devaki in the town of Mathura. Moments after his birth he escaped to the village of Gokul, where Krishna was raised by Nanda and Yasoda, his foster parents. The stories of Krishna’s childhood and youth paint the picture of a mischievous and endearing flute-playing cowherd who loved to play pranks on everyone and flirt with the gopis, or cowgirls.
Janmashtami is a festive occasion and celebrations on this day re-enact popular tales from Krishna’s childhood. Many devotees fast on this day and stay up all night worshiping, listening to stories about Krishna’s childhood and singing devotional songs. In Krishna temples across the world, a statue of the infant Krishna is bathed and placed in a cradle which is rocked by devotees amidst the chanting of devotional songs.
One particularly popular Janmashtami tradition in India is dahi handi. In this observance, a clay pot filled with butter or curd is hung high on a rope while a human pyramid is formed underneath it. The person on the top tries to catch and break the pot with a blunt object. This tradition is based on popular Krishna narratives according to which he would steal butter, prepared by the women of the village and hung on handis. In fact, one of Krishna’s many names is maakhan chhor, meaning one who steals butter.
Many Hindus believe that one night when Krishna played the flute, all the gopis of the village were so entranced that they left their houses and families to come and dance with him in the forest for the entire night. In bhakti or devotional paths of Hinduism, the supreme form of devotion is understood to be the soul’s ecstatic love for Krishna, who is believed to be the Supreme Lord. On Janmashtami, young boys and girls dress up as Krishna and his gopi lovers, and in this spirit of devotion, perform Rasa Lila.
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