Janmashtami

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Janmashtami (Krishna's Birthday)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Hindu)
Date of Observation: August-September; eighth day of the Hindu month of Bhadrapada
Where Celebrated: India
Symbols and Customs: Curd Pots

ORIGINS

Janmashtami is a celebration in Hinduism, which many scholars regard as the world's oldest living religion. The word Hindu is derived from the Sanskrit term Sindhu (or Indus), which meant river. It referred to people living in the Indus valley in the Indian subcontinent.

Hinduism has no founder, one universal reality (or god) known as Brahman, many gods and goddesses (sometimes referred to as devtas), and several scriptures. Hinduism also has no priesthood or hierarchical structure similar to that seen in some other religions, such as Christianity. Hindus acknowledge the authority of a wide variety of writings, but there is no single, uniform canon. The oldest of the Hindu writings are the Vedas. The word "veda" comes from the Sanskrit word for knowledge. The Vedas, which were compiled from ancient oral traditions, contain hymns, instructions, explanations, chants for sacrifices, magical formulas, and philosophy. Another set of sacred books includes the Great Epics, which illustrate Hindu faith in practice. The Epics include the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Bhagavad Gita. The Hindu pantheon includes approximately thirty-three million gods. Some of these are held in higher esteem than others. Over all the gods, Hindus believe in one absolute high god or universal concept. This is Brahman. Although he is above all the gods, he is not worshipped in popular ceremonies because he is detached from the day-to-day affairs of the people. Brahman is impersonal. Lesser gods and goddesses (devtas) serve him. Because these are more intimately involved in the affairs of people, they are venerated as gods. The most honored god in Hinduism varies among the different Hindu sects. Although Hindu adherents practice their faith differently and venerate different deities, they share a similar view of reality and look back on a common history.

The Hindu gods appeared in human or animal forms at certain times in history so they could perform great deeds. Each time a god went through another incarnation, it became the occasion for a new Hindu holiday. Vishnu appeared first as a fish, then as a tortoise and a boar. Later he appeared as a man-lion, a dwarf, the son of a great sage, and a prince. His most memorable incarnation, however, was when he appeared as Krishna, whose life and heroic deeds are described in the great Hindu epic, the Mahabharata.

The birthday of Lord Krishna, the eighth incarnation of Vishnu, is one of the most important Hindu festivals. Born at Mathura, in Uttar Pradesh, a state in northern India, Krishna's mission on earth was to get rid of the demon Kamsa, who had seized the throne, imprisoned the real king, and persecuted good people while making life easy for the wicked. His evil ways became so unbearable that Vishnu decided to incarnate himself as a man and bring about Kamsa's destruction.

Krishna grew up among the herdsmen of Gokul. As a child, he was adored for his mischievous pranks as well as his miracles. As a young cowherd, he became renowned as a lover, and the sound of his flute lured the wives and daughters of other cowherds to leave their homes to dance with him in the forest. When he finally returned to Mathura to slay the wicked Kamsa, he found the kingdom unsafe and led the people to the western coast of India, where he reestablished his court in what is today the state of Gujarat.

Janmashtami-the name comes from Janma, birth, and ashtami, the eighth-is celebrated on the eighth day of Bhadrapada by Hindus of all sects and castes throughout India, particularly in and around Mathura. The celebrations there include dancing, in imitation of the young Krishna's moonlight dances with the cow-girls, the singing of religious songs and hymns, and recitations from the great Hindu epics. Everyone, even children, fasts for twenty-four hours. The floor from the doorway to the inner meditation room of the house is often marked with a child's footprints, made by mixing flour and water, to create the impression that Krishna himself has walked through the house. Pilgrims from all over India visit the temple of Shri Rangji, where Krishna is known to have spent his childhood. When the fast is broken at midnight, the ringing of temple bells, the jingling of cymbals, and the blowing of conch shells is ongoing. The image of Lord Krishna as a child is bathed in milk while his name is chanted, and, at the hour of his birth, the image is rocked in a cradle decorated with garlands of flowers.

SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

Curd Pots

Dairy foods are usually served on Janmashtami because Krishna was very fond of milk and butter as a child. In some parts of India, the celebration includes the shattering of curd pots (unglazed ceramic pots containing sour milk), which are hung up high over the streets by young men forming human pyramids, or suspended from a pole supported by two uprights. The pots are knocked down and broken in imitation of the young Krishna, who was so fond of milk that he used to steal, with the help of his friends, curds and butter that had been hung in earthen pots from the kitchen ceiling to keep it out of children's hands. After the curd pots are broken, the celebrants dance as Krishna danced during his stay among the herdsmen of Gokul.

FURTHER READING

Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Gaer, Joseph. Holidays Around the World. Boston: Little, Brown, 1953. Gupte, B.A. Hindu Holidays and Ceremonials. 2nd ed. Calcutta: Thacker, Spink & Co., 1919. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Sharma, Brijendra Nath. Festivals of India. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, 1978. Sivananda, Swami. Hindu Fasts and Festivals. 8th ed. Shivanandanagar, India: Divine Life Society, 1997. Thomas, Paul. Festivals and Holidays in India. Bombay: D.B. Taraporevala Sons, 1971.

WEB SITE

Society for the Confluence of Festivals in India www.krishnajanmashtami.com Janmashtami

Janmashtami (Krishnastami; Krishna's Birthday)

August-September; new moon day of Hindu month of Bhadrapada
One of the most important Hindu festivals, Janmashtami cele ­ brates the birthday of Lord Krishna, the eighth incarnation of Vishnu and the hero of both rich and poor. Throughout India it is a fast day until the new moon is sighted. Then there are ceremonies and prayers at temples dedicated to Krishna. Rituals include bathing the statue of the infant Krishna and then placing his image in a silver cradle with playthings.
In Mathura, Uttar Pradesh, where Krishna was born, there are performances of Krishna Lila, the folk dramas depicting scenes from Krishna's life. In the state of Tamil Nadu, oiled poles called ureyadi are set up, a pot of money is tied to the top, and boys dressed as Krishna try to shinny up the pole and win the prize while spectators squirt water at them.
In Maharashtra, where the festival is known as Govinda, pots containing money and curds and butter are suspended high over streets. Boys form human pyramids climbing on each others' shoulders to try to break the pot. These climbing games reflect stories of Krishna, who as a boy loved milk and butter so much they had to be kept out of his reach.
In Nepal, a religious fast is observed on Krishnastami, and Krishna's temple at Lalitpur is visited by pilgrims. People parade in a procession around the town and display pictures of Krishna.
Numerous rich legends tell of Krishna's life. He is supposed to have been adored as a child for his mischievous pranks—tricking people out of their freshly churned butter or stealing the clothes of the cow maidens, called gopis, while they bathed in the river. Later, he used his flute to lure the gopis to amorous dalliances. He also defeated the 100-headed serpent Kaliya by dancing it into submission. Paintings, sculpture, and classical dances depict the many episodes of his life. Portraits of him as a child often show him dancing joyously and holding a ball of butter in his hands. Most often he is shown as the divine lover, playing the flute and surrounded by adoring women.
CONTACTS:
Ministry of Tourism, Government of India
Rm. No 123, Transport Bhawan, No. 1, Parliament St.
New Delhi, Delhi 110 001 India
91-11-23715084; fax: 91-11-23715084
www.tourisminindia.com
Uttar Pradesh Tourism Department, Directorate of Tourism
Rajarshi Purshottam Das Tandon Paryatan Bhavan
Vipin Khand, Gomti Nagar
Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh C-13 India
91-522-2308916; fax: 91-522-2308937
www.up-tourism.com
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BkFest-1937, p. 160
BkHolWrld-1986, Aug 26
DictFolkMyth-1984, pp. 590, 924
DictWrldRel-1989, p. 304
EncyRel-1987, vol. 4, p. 454
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 516
HolSymbols-2009, p. 423
RelHolCal-2004, p. 174
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