The birth of Lord Krishna
This festival celebrates the birth of Lord Krishna. He is considered to be the eighth incarnation of Lord Vishnu, the preserver of the universe. As his name implies, he was born at midnight on the eighth day of the waning moon in the month of Shravana. This would fall in July - August according to the Gregorian calendar.
Janmashtami is celebrated with great pomp and splendour in the homes and temples of Krishna devotees. It was he, after all, who gave us the invaluable message of the Bhagavad Geeta, considered one of the world's greatest classics.
Krishna's life was an eventful one. From the time of his birth, his uncle, the evil king Kansa wanted to kill him. This was because Kansa had been told that the eighth child of his sister, Deviki, would kill him. Deviki and her husband Vasudev were imprisoned in the palace dungeon. Deviki gave birth to seven children, all of whom were killed by Kansa. However, when the eigth child was born, a miracle occurred. The gates of the dungeon flew open, the guards fell asleep and a voice from the heavens commanded Vasudev to take his child to Gokul where his friend Nand and his wife Yashodha lived and exchange his son for their daughter. Thus, Kansa's plan to kill Krishna was foiled.
Krishna's childhood and youth
As a child, Krishna was incorrigibly mischievous. He had a weakness for butter and was very good at stealing it. The phrase "makhan chor" was coined to describe him. In Gokul, he tamed Kaliya the snake as he was harassing the people and cattle entering the lake. He lifted the Goverdhan peak with his little finger to give refuge to the people when an angry Indra showered a thunderstorm on them.
Hearing of his brave deeds, his evil uncle summoned him to Mathura to engage him in a duel with a mighty wrestler Chanura. As Krishna made his way to the wrestling hall, Kansa let loose a mad elephant to trample Krishna. Krishna merely picked the elephant by its trunk, flung him high into the air and killed him. He then wrestled with Chanura and killed him as well. Finally he rushed towards Kansa and killed him.
As a young man, he became the Pandava Arjuna's closest friend and ally. He chose the humble role of a charioteer to be by Arjuna's side in the great Mahabharata war, gave him the counsel of the Geeta and led the Pandavas on to victory. He also claimed the princess Rukmini as his bride when she declared her love for him and told him she was being pressured to marry another. Krishna's favourite pastime was playing on his flute with the gopis of Brindavan and enjoyed the Raas-Leela they created together.
Homes are cleaned and decorated. In the afternoon, prasad is prepared for distribution in the evenings. This is known as paggi hui meva. A small thaali containing water, rice and flowers and fruits like apple and bananas finely sliced, is kept ready to place before the lord as offerings. A lamp is lit at dusk as the sky begins to darken. A small bell and arti items are kept ready as well as these will be used at midnight, the time of the birth of Lord Krishna.
At the auspicious time, teeka is applied on the idol of the lord. Water is sprinkled and rice is showered on him. Bhajans are sung in praise of Krishna, the most notable being Om Jaya Jagdisha Hare. Musical instruments like the tabla and harmonium form the accompaniment for the singers and enliven the proceedings. Prasad is then distributed to all those present. Everyone then sits down to a sumptuous vegetarian meal. The next day people take to the streets to break matkis tied at a height, reliving Krishna's favourite childhood prank of stealing butter from the pot.