Janmashtami commemorates the earthly appearance of Krishna, who is described in India’s sacred writings as God Himself. This year the day is celebrated on 25 August.
It is one of the biggest religious celebrations in the word, celebrated by 930 million people, 2 million of which are located in the United States.
It’s like Christmas and New Years
To explain Janmashtami in Western terms, it’s one celebration that encompasses both the meaning of Christmas and New Years. It’s a day of deep spiritual renewal that then leads into the new year. If you can imagine what a large festival Chrismas and New Years would be together, you have an idea of how important this festival is to the devotees of Krishna.
How Janmashtami is celebrated
The celebrations at Hindu temples start even before day break and they last until after midnight. Midnight is the moment when the Krishna appeared, so the entire day’s festivities will lead up to this moment. Religious specific prayers are the kirtan, which involves singing the Lord’s name along with other devotees, and the japa, a private, more intimate prayer.
Janmashtami often goes hand in hand with a large feast. A myriad of delicious, traditional dishes will be packed out and a feast of epic porportions will ensue. This feast will often coincide with dance and drama performances, much like the Christian navity plays.
People also greatly enjoy making beautifully elaborate flower arrangements to decorate the temple with. This adds even more cheer to the surroundings during the day.
During the course of the day, selected people will decorate the deity of Krishna in beautiful and colourful robes and accessories. Finally, at midnight, priests pull apart the curtains to reveal the freshly dressed deity of Krishna on a cheerfully festooned altar. The excitement builds, and a rousing kirtan ensues. It truly is a day of happiness and cheer.
Celebrating Janmashtami outside of India
While Janmashtami is widely celebrated in the United States, you still may not live near one of the temples where the celebrations take place. This doesn’t mean that you can’t share in the joy and hope of the day. Here are a few ways in which you can celebrate Janmashtami at home, wherever you find yourself in the world.
Get people together
If you have family, friends or even co-workers who share the same beliefs as you, invite them to your house. Celebrating together is always more fun than celebrating alone.
Decorate your house
If you can’t partake in decorating the temple, then decorate your house. This is a fun activity the entire family can enjoy. Make flower garlands, or simply blow up many balloons and hang them around the house. It’s like setting up for a party, only more fun. Be creative with the ways in which you decorate the house. The only rule is that it has to be bright and cheerful.
Sing and play music
Get yourself a copy of the Vaishnava Songbook, or download some of the songs off the Internet if you can’t access a hard copy. Choose your favorite devotional songs and sing together. If someone in your family or group plays in instrument, ask them to play along to make the singing more fun.
Bhajan recordings are also widely avaialable, so if you’re not singing, you can play the music throughout the house for a sense of traditional cheer.
Read the story
Read the story of Krishna again to be reminded of the tale and how the appearance took place. Even if you know the story by heart, it is nice to be reminded of its impact once a year.
Enjoy the feast
Eat only light foods during the day, or fast for the day if you’re able to. When the evening comes, enjoy a large feast together. You can prepare together during the day, or you can ask every guest to bring something from home. Enjoy the feast and be merry in the company of your loved ones on this very special day.
When you return to work the next day, do it with new religious rigour and focus. Be inspired by the celebrations to go forth and live out your beliefs.