The festival of Krishna Janamastami is the celebration of Lord Krishna's birthday. Krishna, the eighth incarnation of Lord Vishnu, is an unique character in Hindu mythology. He was naughty in his childhood days, romantic as a young man, and proved to be a profound philosopher in his adulthood as illustrated by the Bhagwat Geeta.
The birthday of Krishna falls on the Astami of Krishna Paksh (the eighth day of the dark fortnight) in the month of Bhado (July-August), eight days after Raksha Bandhan. The exact date of Krishna's birthday has not been determined but is conjectured to be around 1400 B.C. when the Aryans got settled across the Indo-Gangetic plain. It was the rainy season in India and Krishna was born at midnight, in the prison of Kamsa, during the middle of a perilous rain and storm. Thus goes the story of Krishna's birth.
Kamsa, a despot, was then the king of Mathura. He had imprisoned his father in order to become the king. Devaki was his sister and was married to a noble man Vasudeva.
Kamsa one day heard a heavenly voice, saying, "Kamsa, your days of tyranny will soon be over, you will be killed by the eighth child of Devaki."
Kansa got frightened. He immediately imprisoned Devaki and Vasudeva. He did not want to take any chance and killed at birth each and every child of Devaki, until the time came for the delivery of the eighth child. To feel more secured, Kansa increased the number of prison guards, kept strict vigilance and put Vasudeva in chains. But God planned otherwise.
At midnight when the eighth child was born, the guards fell fast asleep and Vasudeva's chain fell off his hands and feet. Wasting no time, Vasudeva picked up the newborn baby, and carrying it in a basket, he started towards Gokul. Gokul was a village of cowherds, located across the Yamuna river, where his friend Nanda lived.
It was a dark stormy night with blinding rain continuously pouring from the sky. When Vasudeva reached the river bank of Yamuna, the river was in spate. The wind and storm were blowing wild, and Vasudeva was in a fix.
"Lord, what should I do," said Vasudeva in a hopeless voice.
Suddenly a miracle happened, the river parted and Vasudeva walked over the river bed. Throughout the way Vasudeva and the baby were protected from rain by the hood of the great eternal snake, Vasuki. Finally, Vasudeva reached Nanda's house.
Upon reaching Nanda's house Vasudeva found the mother, Yashoda, and her newborn baby girl in deep sleep. He had no time to think. He quickly exchanged the babies and returned to the prison with the infant girl, while the guards were still asleep.
As soon as Vasudeva entered the prison cell, the door got locked behind him and he was chained again as if nothing happened in between. The guards woke up and heard the cry of the baby. Kansa was immediately informed and he came running to kill the child. But to his utter surprise he found it to be a girl and not a boy, as he expected. Devaki begged for the newborn baby's life from her brother.
"What can a girl do to you Kansa? Spare her life, please!" appealed Devaki, lying at the feet of her brother.
The inhuman Kansa did not pay attention to the appeal. As he was ready to kill the baby by smashing its head on a big boulder, the child slipped out of his hand and flew towards the sky.
At that moment, a heavenly voice was heard, "Kansa, the one who shall destroy you still lives. He is growing in Gokul."
Next morning, Nanda and his wife Yashoda discovered the boy, left by Vasudeva, lying in the crib. They were a little puzzled but did not want to fuss about it because they might loose the baby. The baby was of dark complexion, so he was named Krishna.
Kansa was frightened by the heavenly voice. He immediately sent for Putna, his wicked maid, and asked her to kill all the babies born on the same day when Devaki gave birth to the baby. Putna smeared poison on her breast and went around in the town of Gokul to breast-feed the babies born in the month of Bhado. In the beginning people, out of their goodness, did not suspect Putna's heinous plans, but as time passed, they found out that all the babies whom Putna fondled were dead. They began to search for Putna. In the mean time Putna reached Nanda's house and lovingly asked Krishna's mother, Yashoda, to give the baby to her to love and fondle. Yashoda gave the baby and, without any suspicion, went on with her daily chore.
Suddenly there was a loud shriek. Everyone came running to the courtyard and found to their surprise the dead body of Putna lying on the floor while Krishna was smiling and kicking. People now knew that Krishna was not an ordinary boy. Yashoda happily picked up Krishna and felt safe.
Krishna grew in Yashoda's house until he reached his teens. He later challenged Kansa and killed him. Then he released his grandfather Ugrasena and reinstated him to his thrown. He respected and loved both his parents, Vasudeva and Devaki, and his adopted parents, Nanda and Yashoda.
Janamashtami is celebrated with great pomp and show in Hindu temples and homes in India and the USA. The festival is celebrated for two days; on the day when Krishna took birth in the prison of Kansa at Mathura and also on the following day to commemorate Krishna's presence in the house of Nanda and Yashoda at Gokul. Ardent devotees pray at the middle of the night celebrating Krishna's birth on the first day. Children join the celebration on the next day with worships (puja) and sweets (prasad). Decorations depicting Krishna's birth and his transfer to Gokul, are displayed very much the way Christ's birth is displayed during Christmas. This is called jhanki, a peek in the past. In Bengal, it is called, Gupta Vrindavan, meaning hidden Vrindavan, where Krishna spent time with his consort Radha. It is a great fun planning and executing the decoration that depicts Krishna's life in Gokul. The display is left for few days for friends and relatives to enjoy. The grandparents (or other elders) narrate to the children the interesting stories of Krishna, his pranks of childhood, romance with Radha in his young days, and finally, his days of kingship offering us the eternal truth of the great Bhagavad Gita. There is nothing in the world that can be compared with the profound philosophy of Gita written in that hoary past.