This August 13th to 14th, devotees of Shri Krishna around the world celebrated Janmastami, the day of the Lord’s appearance on earth. The time of this appearance is often cited as roughly 5,000 years ago, although according to scholars the western equivalent of the exact date, given by Vedic philosopher Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura, was July 19th, 3228 BC.
Staying on this earth for 125 years, Krishna enacted many wonderful pastimes and fulfilled his mission explained in the Bhagavad-Gita: “Whenever and wherever there is a decline in religious practice, O descendant of Bharata, and a predominant rise of irreligion—at that time I descend Myself.”
Those who have heard little about Janmastami may think it’s a small ethnic festival, observed by a select few. But in fact it is one of the biggest holy days in the world. Of the 930 million Hindus around the world, including 560 million who consider themselves Vaishnavas, most celebrate Janmastami or at least honor it as a special day.
And Janmastami is not only celebrated by Hindus and Vaishnavas. God is one, whether you call him Krishna, Jesus, Buddha, Jehovah or Allah. Janmastami, therefore, is a non-sectarian festival. And, especially in India, persons of different faiths often participate in the celebrations.
Why are so many people drawn to God’s form as Krishna? The answer lies in his unique quality of reciprocating his devotees’ love in very human ways. He is a son to Vasudeva and Devaki, a friend to Arjuna, a lover to the cowherd damsels of Vrindavana, a husband to thousands of wives, and more. This fact, that he responds to the distinct feelings and desires held most deeply in the heart of every single worshipper, makes him most loved as a deity.
On Janmastami, devotees make an extra effort to express this love for Krishna, immersing themselves in thoughts of him and service to him from before sunrise until after sunset.
In ISKCON, devotees start the day early with congregational chanting and music at 4:30am. They then take a two-hour break for more meditative, personal chanting, followed by more congregational chanting and then a talk on Krishna’s nature and activities. In temples, mornings often see the deities of Radha and Krishna dressed in stunning new outfits, sometimes made entirely out of flowers.
Throughout the day, devotees chant, read and serve the Lord. They may cook in the kitchen, decorate the temple, prepare performances, or do any number of other activities.
An important feature of Janmastami is a public bathing ceremony called “Abhishekha” (meaning “a sprinkling”), wherein the deities of Krishna and His consort Radha are bathed with fruit juices and milk products. Devotees then take a sip of the bathing mixture, which is said to cleanse away their sins.
Other festivities include devotional singing, full-length dramas detailing the specifics of Krishna’s appearance and activities, reading of sacred texts, and traditional Indian dances.
Although they fast, devotees cook throughout the day and offer 108 different food dishes to the Lord – a significant number, since there are 108 Upanishads (Vedic books of learning) and 108 gopis (cowherd devotees of Krishna who assist Him in His earthly pastimes).
At midnight, the time when Krishna is said to have been born, devotees crowd into the temple to catch a glimpse of the Lord in another new outfit, and to praise him with more singing and music.
By this time, after such a long day of spiritual immersion, devotees are filled with emotion and enthusiasm despite their exhaustion, and the atmosphere is electric.
Besides the typical Janmastami schedule, devotees often express their devotion to their unique deity in wonderfully unique ways. During “Dahi Handi,” a ceremony held in Maharastra and other parts of India, young men and children form a human pyramid to reach a clay pot filled with butter or curds, break it and claim the prize. This practice evokes Krishna’s famous childhood pastime, wherein He and His cowherd friends stole milk products hung out of reach by their mothers.
Some devotees set up a diorama of Krishna’s birth scene, including the divine child in some sort of crib, his father and mother, and other ladies from his village of Gokula. According to instructions from Puranic literature, the devotees then worship the image, and give gifts to the divine child. This tradition presents an interesting parallel with Christianity.
At the ISKCON community in Alachua, Florida, second generation devotees run “Village of Vrindavana,” a miniature version of the real Indian holy place. This year—its third in a row--it was one of the most popular features of the festival.
“We painted and decorated particle board to look like temples, set up a bunch of large tents, and attached the facades to the front of them,” says organizer Raghunatha Dasa. “In that way, we created the seven main temples of Vrindavana: Radha-Madan Mohan, Radha Damodar, Radha Shyamasundar, Radha Gokulananda, Radha Ramana, Radha Gopinath, and Radha Govinda. We then asked devotees to bring their home deities, all decked out in beautiful outfits and jewelry, to preside over each temple.”
Raghu and his team also recreated other major Vrindavana temples such as Gopisvara Mahadeva and Sona Gauranga, as well as holy places like the sacred tamarind tree Imli Tala, Chir Ghat, where Krishna stole the gopis’ clothes, and Seva Kunj, where the Rasa dance took place. Always keen to improve, the team added two new holy places this year: Nityananda Vat, were Lord Nityananda sat to meditate in Vrindavana, and Kaliya Ghat, were Krishna killed the snake demon Kaliya.
For three hours from 8pm to 11pm this August 13, the Village of Vrindavana came to life. In the darkness, torches and well-place lighting created a magical ambience that transported devotees to Vrindavana Dhama. There, they paid their respects to the various deities, received food offered to them from the priests, gazed in wonder at elaborate artist recreations of Krishna’s pastimes—a papier mache sculpture of the serpent Kaliya, complete with glowing red eyes and tongues, was a a major attraction this year—and watched a surprise dance performance. Some took the Village of Vrindavana tours, hosted by Pundarika Vidyanidhi, Prana Govinda, and other devotees expert in narrating stories connected with the holy places.
One of the biggest Janmastami celebrations is, of course, held at ISKCON’s Krishna Balarama Mandir in Vrindavana, India, where Krishna was born. Here, as well as large scale observance of the usual festivities, devotees listened to daily talks on Srimad-Bhagavatam, the epic work on Krishna, for the seven days leading up to Janmastami. The seven days of “Bhagavat-Katha” represented the seven days in which the scripture was originally spoken by Sukadeva Goswami to King Pariksit. They were hosted by his holiness Radha Govinda Swami, making his first public appearance since his recent health crisis.
In England, an incredible 65,000 people visited the Bhaktivedanta Manor temple near London to celebrate Janmastami. There they were introduced to the temple’s new farm complex, dubbed New Gokul, which will act as a blue-print for compassionate and sustainable farming. Guests learned about new ethical techniques of farming, causing many to change the way they thought about food production. They also had the chance to traverse a unique flower walkway through spiritual gardens, beautiful statues and paintings of deities surrounded by 23-carat gold leaf.
Krishna’s appearance day is even celebrated in the virtual world. This year, 17,000 people from over 100 countries participated in online Janmastami celebrations at Krishna.com. For many people who do not live near temples, this service is the only way they can celebrate the festival.
Visitors can choose from recipes to try out and cook for the Lord; audio recordings about Krishna’s pastimes; a kid’s section with coloring pages, games and songs; and Krishna.com’s webcasts, arguably its most popular feature. With two new locations added this year, web users could watch live Janmastami festivities in seventeen temples around the world, including Vrindavana, Mayapur, Moscow, London, Los Angeles, Alachua, and even Suva, Fiji.
Visitors this year enjoyed two new features: On the Janmastami Conference Call, they could join senior devotees Karnamrita das and Archana-siddhi dasi for a question and answer session on topics including the mercy of Krishna for His devotees, how He works for the devotees’ highest good in all circumstances, and how He protects them. On Krishna.com radio, visitors could listen to bhajans by Srila Prabhupada, music and lectures from various temples around the world, and broadcasts from various ISKCON radio stations including Italy’s Radio Krishna Centrale and KHQN Utah.
There’s no doubt that Janmastami 2009 was a globe encompassing, hugely well-attended expression of devotion to Lord Krishna, both within the ISKCON world and without. And now, enlivened and inspired, devotees around the world launch into another fresh year of service to their Lord.