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The sacred Hindu festival of Janmashtami (or Gokulashtami) celebrates the birth of Sri Krishna, the eighth avatar of Bhagwan Vishnu. He was born in Mathura in 3228 BCE, at midnight on the ashtami of the Hindu month Bhaadrapada. The embodiment of supreme consciousness and bliss, His life is a message and a source of joy and inspiration for humanity.
Even before his birth, Krishna’s life was riddled with challenges. Kansa, the evil ruler of Mathura had a sister named Devaki. The day Devaki got married to Vasudeva, a heavenly voice prophesied that Devaki’s eighth son would bring an end to Kansa’s evil rule and kill him. And so a frightened Kansa imprisoned Devaki and her husband in the dungeons of Mathura. The first seven children born to Devaki were killed at birth by Kansa but when the eighth child—the Baby Krishna—was born, the prison was suddenly filled with light and the guards all fell asleep. The locks to the dungeon opened and a divine voice instructed Vasudeva to take his newborn son to Gokul. The night was dark with torrential rain when Vasudeva crossed the Yamuna river. The waters of the mighty river rose and Vasudeva held up his new born son above his chest. But the waters rose further till they touched the feet of the Lord and then magically, the waters receded again.
When Vasudev reached Gokul, he exchanged Lord Krishna with a new born girl child of Yashoda and Nandlal and returned to the prison with the girl child. When Kansa came to know about the new-born, he went to kill the infant, but the girl transformed into the goddess Yogamaya, and said, “O foolish Kansa! What will you get by killing me? Your nemesis is already born.” She then ascended to heaven, leaving Kansa angry and frustrated.
The miraculous story of Krishna’s birth and early childhood has fascinated and inspired devotees for millennia. Across India and among Hindus across the world, the birth of Krishna is celebrated with great devotion, joy and enthusiasm. Krishna was loved by all. When Kansa sent his men to capture him, thousands of boys wore the peacock feather on their heads to impersonate him and despite being tortured, none would give Krishna away.
As a young boy growing up in Gokul, Krishna defeated many powerful adharmi Kings like Kansa and Jarasandh. After Kansa Vadh and his Upanayan ceremony, He was taught in Rishi Sandeepani’s ashram and in 64 days, He mastered 14 vidyas and 64 kalaas. This was also the time when Krishna released the 16,000 women captured by the demon Narakaasur. And to ensure that these women got their due respect in society, he gave them the status of wives of his. He was the perfect friend and His friendship with Sudama is celebrated even today. He stood by Draupadi when none else could. He supported the Pandavas in the Kurukshetra war and motivated Arjuna to pick up his weapons when he was distraught. The updesh given by Sri Krishna to Arjun before the Kurukshetra war, encapsulated in 18 Chapters in the Srimad Bhagavad Gita, is timeless knowledge and wisdom which serves as the finest handbook for life. Krishna is thus jagatguru and the Srimad Bhagavad Gita, his gift to all humans.
Like most Hindu festivals, Janmashtami also signifies the victory of good over evil. In the Srimad Bhagavad Gita, Sri Krishna says to Arjuna these immortal lines:
यदा यदा हि धर्मस्य ग्लानिर्भवति भारत ।
अभ्युत्थानमधर्मस्य तदात्मानं सृजाम्यहम् ॥४-७॥
परित्राणाय साधूनां विनाशाय च दुष्कृताम् ।
धर्मसंस्थापनार्थाय सम्भवामि युगे युगे ॥४-८॥
The English translation of the above Sanskrit verses is:
“Whenever there is a decline in righteousness and an increase in unrighteousness, O Arjun, at that time I manifest myself on earth. To protect the righteous, to annihilate the wicked, and to reestablish the principles of dharma I appear on this earth, age after age”.
This assurance by the Lord that He will always come to the aid of the faithful and the oppressed, is a beacon of hope to all mankind.
Gokulashtami is celebrated by maintaining a daylong fast (upvaas) and chanting with devotion the mantra ‘Om Namo Bhagvate Vasudevay’ and Hare Ram, Hare Ram, Ram Ram, Hare Hare, Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare. The celebrations begin at midnight by placing a murti of Baby Krishna in a cradle. The baby is adorned with beautiful clothes and jewellery and offered flowers, milk, curd and butter. After the celebration of the birth, devotees partake of the ‘prasad’ and break their fast. This is followed by the singing of bhajans and keertans. The festivities abound. While Krishna is worshipped at all times, this devotion grows in intensity on Janmashtami, when Krishnatatva is heightened in the universe.
Krishna Mandirs are found in every nook and corner of India. We have the famous Radha Krishna Mandir in Udhampur (J&K). The Krishna Mandir in Kinnaur (HP), at a height of 12000 ft, was built by the Pandavas in the middle of a lake during their exile. The Jagannath Mandir in Puri, Odisha, and the Dwarkadhish Mandir in Gujarat are both part of the Chardhaam yatra. Famous Krishna Mandirs are to be found from Assam in the East to Kerala and Tamil Nadu in the South. And then there are numerous ISKON Mandirs spread across India and the world.
Krishna is indeed the epitome of Supreme Bliss. There is an anecdote of a poor woman who was an ardent devotee of Krishna and who, having no money to celebrate the birth of the Lord, nevertheless started her prayers and in a joyful trance she imagined all her empty utensils were full of food and offerings to the Lord. As she offered imaginary sugar, she thought it to be too much and put some back in the box. Just then, Krishna appeared in front of her, in all his glory and said, ‘maai just because you have shortage of sugar why are you taking it out of my share?’ This anecdote simply shows that pure love and bhakti is all that we have to offer the Lord. As the Lord says in the Gita,
“Whosoever offers to Me with devotion a leaf, a flower, a fruit, or even water, I appear in person before that disinterested devotee of sinless mind and delightfully partake of that article, offered with love by My devotee in pure consciousness”.
Pure love and Bhakti is enough to attain salvation as Mira Bai demonstrated by her love for the Lord. In the anecdotal story of Lord Krishna, Radha and the flute, Radha asks the flute, “Why is Krishna always with you”. And the flute gently replies “perhaps he likes me because I am empty”. This implies the surrender of the ego and emptying ourselves of “me” and “mine”. The Lord then enters to fill the vacant space. As we celebrate Janmashtami, let us also attempt to live up to the timeless message conveyed by the Lord of selfless action. And let us surrender to Him in full measure.
Janmashtami greetings to all.
Haathi Ghoda palki Jai Kanhaiyya Laal ki!
 Each vidya usually took over two years to master.
 Srimad Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 4, Verses 7&8.
 Srimad Bahagavad Gita, Chapter 9, Vers 26.