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Janmashtami: The Festival of the Birth of Lord Krishna

Janmashtami: The Festival of the Birth of Lord Krishna
Item Code: HL20
Water Color Painting on Paper
Artist: Navneet Parikh
13.5 inch X 10.8 inch
The painting, portraying the child Krishna – Bala Mukunda as this form of Krishna is usually known, sprawling on the floor of a large cradle supporting his body on one hand and carrying a ‘laddu’ in the other, represents Lord Krishna’s initial ‘lila’ – divine act, the root of all subsequent ‘lilas’. In iconic tradition this form of the deity-image is seen as representing his birth and all related events : Vishnu appearing in the vision of Devaki and Vasudeva in the prison of Kansa, prison guards falling in deep slumber and prison-gates unlocking of their own, a determined Vasudeva deciding to transfer the newborn away from Kansa’s hands as soon as he was born, sky pouring with torrential rains but not a drop of water reaching the child the hood of the serpent Shesh emerging as his umbrella, river Yamuna in great spate but giving safe passage to the child, and at Gokul Nand’s consort Yashoda bearing a child and none of the husband or the wife knowing anything about it making it easier for Vasudeva to exchange his son Krishna with their daughter.

As scriptural tradition has it, after Devaki’s marriage with Vasudeva, Kansa, her brother, out of his exceptional love for her decided to drive her to her in-laws’ house. When midway, a divine voice announced that he would be killed by none else but by Devaki’s eighth child. The outraged Kansa drew his sword for killing Devaki; however persuaded by Vasudeva on condition that they would hand him every child born to Devaki soon after it was born, Kansa agreed to imprison Devaki and Vasudeva. The six children born to Devaki were handed to Kansa and he killed them. By a divine miracle the foetus of the seventh was transferred from the womb of Devaki to that of Rohini, Vasudeva’s other wife, and was born to her as Balarama. The eighth was Krishna, Vishnu’s incarnation emerging on the earth for redeeming her from the atrocities of Kansa. The tradition contends that he only emerged on the earth and was ever unborn; hence whatever his form, a child’s or of the grown-up, his maturity level was always immeasurable by human scales. This also justifies how a little grown up image of Bala Mukunda represents the event of his birth : a much earlier stage.

Thus, Krishna’s image as Bala Mukunda, when placed on a specially decorated cradle with a pot of butter, flute and rattler-type playthings around, as represents this miniature, is symbolic of Krishna’s birth. Krishna was born exactly at mid-night on the eighth day of the dark half, that is, Krishna-paksha, of Bhadrapada. By its association with the divine birth – ‘ janma’, this eighth day – ‘ashtami’, became known as Janmashtami : ‘ashtami’ of ‘janma’. The term does not indicate as to whose ‘janma’ it alludes to, but unlike Rama-navami in which the name of Rama is associated with ‘navami’ – ninth day, for denoting the day of his birth, Janmashtami is universally celebrated as the day of Krishna’s birth without his name associated with it. The day is also known as Krishna-Janmashtami, Gokulashtami and Ashtami Rohini, obviously Rohini – a significant and rare lunar asterism, being the astronomical position when Krishna had his birth.

Krishna’s cult has worldwide and trans-sects followings, and hence Janmashtami, the festival of Krishna’s birth, is also celebrated beyond sectarian lines on two levels, the ritual and festive. To these conventional modes is added a new cult which celebrates the occasion discovering the accomplishment of the rites in greater festivity, gaiety and celebration. The Janmashtami rituals begin with the day-long fast, a huge number of Vaishnava followers observing it. The most glorious as also the most painful moment in a woman’s life is when she gives birth to a child. The Janmashtami denotes this moment in Devaki’s life. Apart, Devaki’s child had to eliminate evil and restore righteousness – a divine cause. The fast is the expression of people’s fellow-feelings for Devaki and thereby for all mothers as also the expression of their solidarity with the divine objective of Krishna’s incarnation. Preparations for celebrations go on the whole day. Before mid-night, the time when Krishna was born, the idol of Bala Mukunda is bathed in ‘Panchamrita’ – five elixirs, the sacred Ganga-water, milk, curd, honey and ghee – clarified butter, with dry-fruits and leaves of Tulsi plant mixed in it; and at mid-night with illuminating lights and chanting of hymns it is consecrated in a splendidly adorned cradle. This is revered as his emergence on the earth. The ‘Panchamrita’, used for bathing the idol along with parts of other offerings made to the deity is distributed among all as the sacred food with which fasting ones terminate their fasts.

Those favouring greater emphasis on celebration-aspect dance, sing and beat drums and rejoice the whole night. Janmashtami’s festive aspect reveals in ‘jhankis’ – tableaux, displaying ‘lilas’ of Krishna, flooding all temples, public places and road-sides, more significant among such ‘lilas’ being the representation of Krishna stealing butter from a high-hung pot riding the human pyramid of his ‘sakha’ – friends. This ‘lila’ is staged in the form of ‘handi-phor’ – pot-bursting, competition celebrated with great zeal everywhere, in Mumbai being especially popular. In the competition a ‘handi’ – pot, is hung high enough to reach. The participating groups try one after the other rising to the pot’s height through human pyramids and the successful group not only gets all –money and even other precious things, that the pot contains but is also declared as the winner for the year.

This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of literature and is the author of numerous books on Indian art and culture. Dr. Daljeet is the curator of the Miniature Painting Gallery, National Museum, New Delhi. They have both collaborated together on a number of books.

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