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On 31 August this year (2002), Hindus celebrate the festival of Kríshna Janmáshtami, the birth of Lord Kríshna. Ashutosh Vardhana explains the significance of this festival, which has many similarities with Christmas.
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God born as man
Hindus believe that the one invisible GOD THE ABSOLUTE, manifests in the shape of many personal gods and appears in material form from time to time to reduce evil, to support the good and to renew his teaching for mankind.
One of the most beloved of the Lord's ten incarnations was when he came in the form of Lord Kríshna, whose birth we celebrate on the day of Kríshna Janmáshtami (31 August this year).
In the city of Mathúra, there was an evil king, Kámsa. He was told that the eighth child of his sister Dévakí would kill him. He put her and her husband into prison and killed most of her children.
When Kríshna was born at midnight, the prison warders fell asleep, the gates miraculously opened and Dévakí's husband Vasudéva carried the child through the stormy night and across the river Yamúna to the village of Gókula. A many-hooded serpent protected the child like an umbrella against the rain. Vasudéva exchanged baby Kríshna for a baby girl (the goddess Dúrga) that had just been born in Gókula and took her back into his prison.
When King Kámsa came and flung the baby Dúrga against the wall to kill her, she slipped out of his hands, flew up into the air and turned into a fearsome woman: 'Wicked man, you cannot escape your fate. The child that will kill you lives safely in Gókula.' With that she disappeared.
Kríshna grows up
Kríshna was strong and intelligent beyond his years and gradually revealed to the people around him that he was God in human form. When he was twelve, he killed King Kámsa.
The customs of Janmáshtami vary in different parts of India and outside India. Communities outside India have to adapt to different work patterns and the societies in which they live. What people do also varies greatly from one person to another.
There are many similarities between the stories of Janmáshtami and of Christmas.
Like Jesus, Kríshna was born at midnight. People fast for 24 hours preceding that auspicious moment. While working they fill their mind with the presence of the Lord by doing jápa, i.e. they murmur the Sanskrit mantra (prayer) 'Om Namó Bhagavaté Vásudeváya' (Praise be to Lord Kríshna), similar to the continuous repetition of the 'Jesus prayer' (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner) which is popular in the Russian Orthodox church.
We clean and adorn our homes. We prepare delicacies, especially milk-based sweets (butter and cream were Kríshna's favourites). They are taken to temple as an offering to God.
Families mark the passage from their front door to their meditation room with a child's footprints (made of flour and water), symbolising the entry of Baby Kríshna.
When the work is done, we bathe and put on fresh clothes, the usual preparation for prayer and meditation. Some people read the entire Gíta (18 chapters), the 'New Testament' of the Hindus in their native language or listen to its being chanted in Sanskrit.
At sunset people assemble in temple where they sit for hours and chant bhájans (devotional songs). The image of Baby Kríshna will be hidden behind a curtain. Only the priest has access.
At the stroke of midnight, the curtain will be opened, and the image of Baby Kríshna be revealed sitting in a swing which is suspended from a horizontal pole and can be rocked by pulling a string. Devotees will ring bells (the size of ships' bells), blow conch shells, strike gongs and shout their welcome for the new-born saviour (cf 'Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise' [Psalm 98:4]). The greater the noise the better. This will continue for several minutes.
The image will be bathed in milk and honey and rinsed, a token of love and respect.
They will receive from the priest prasád (food that has been offered to God and thereby been sanctified) and will now break their fast and go home for a joyful and sumptuous family meal at about one or two in the morning.
I remember an occasion about thirty years ago when I was a visitor to New Delhi and stayed in a hotel overlooking a savannah. I did not know where to find a temple. Deep in thought, I went for a walk at about 11 p.m. and heard chanting come across the dark savannah. I walked towards it and found myself outside a tiny, open-air temple, surrounded by a crowd of about 200 worshippers. A model of the town of Mathúra (similar to a Christian belén/crib) had been built.