The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) was founded by Swami Prabhupada in 1966. Janmashtami — sometimes called Krishnashtami, Krishna Janma, Gokulashtami or Krishna Jayanti — is the celebration of Krishna’s birth and therefore, it’s one of the biggest events for the Hare Krishna devotees. Janmashtami is celebrated by millions of Hindus and Vaishnavas worldwide.
The Story of Krishna’s Birth
The king Kamsa, Devaki’s brother had taken control of Mathura by imprisoning his father, King Ugrasena. Frightened by a divine prophecy that predicted his death at the hands of Devaki’s eighth son, he imprisoned Devaki and her husband Vasudeva into a prison cell. After Kamsa killed the first six babies, and Devaki’s apparent miscarriage of the seventh (being transferred to Rohini as Balarama) Krishna took birth. Hare Krishna devotees generally do not say Lord Krishna was “birthed” or that Devaki “gave birth,” as Krishna doesn’t take on a human body and always manifests in his original body.
The Srimad Bhagavatam describes the appearance of Krishna as an auspicious time, with the Rohini constellation appearing and an atmosphere of peace and beauty. It is believed that Krishna was born on Wednesday, the eighth day of the second fortnight in Shravana month in the Dwapur Yug (July 19th 3228 BC). Krishna first appeared in his divine four-armed form wearing yellow garments and adorned with jewels. After explaining to Vasudeva and Devaki the purpose of his appearance, Krishna transformed into a baby and the guards fell asleep. Vasudeva’s iron chains opened and the gates of the prison cell unlocked. He immediately took Krishna to Nanda Maharaja, his friend in Gokul to save him from attack by Kamsa.
Fasting on Janmashtami
Swami Prabhupada explains the importance of Janmashtami, stating, “One has to learn how Krishna takes birth. It is not an ordinary birth. Had it been an ordinary birth, then why should we observe the Janmashtami ceremony? It is Divine, Transcendental.”
Krishna is believed to have descended on Earth at midnight so devotees celebrate the anticipation by keeping strict fasts. Some keep a nirjala fast where nothing not even water is consumed. Many observe a partial fast eating milk, fruits and nuts. Breaking of the fast usually occurs at midnight with prasadam – sanctified food offered first to Krishna. The prasadam served is similar to preparations made on Ekadasi. Fasting is accompanied by chanting the Hare Krishna maha-mantra and kirtan, as devotees join together and sing about Krishna with music and dance.
Janmashtami Celebrations at ISKCON
ISKCON celebrates Janmashtami festival at centres around the world. More elaborate celebrations are held in the large temples such as Mayapur, Vrindavan, Watford and New York. Thousands of visitors participate in the celebration, and a variety of cultural programs run throughout the day. Vrindavan and Mathura are particularly elaborate with their festivities and devotees often walk through the spiritual path of Vrindavan (parikrama). Walking the parikrama promotes Krishna consciousness and devotees often chant the Hare Krishna maha-mantra as they walk and remember Krishna’s childhood pastimes.
The temple altar is decorated with flowers and new outfits are offered to Krishna along with jewels and ornaments. The deity of Krishna is bathed in milk and other auspicious products (abhishek). The birth of Krishna is then celebrated with devotional songs, dances and plays of the various divine pastimes (leelas) of Krishna. At ISKCON temples a hundred and eight variety of dishes (bhog) is offered to Krishna at midnight and then the prasadam is distributed among devotees. Milk based dishes are made as Krishna is particularly fond of milk and butter.
Janmashtami is a big celebration that takes place at ISKCON temples at a grand scale. Hare Krishna and Hindu devotees remember Krishna by chanting the maha-mantra, reading Srimad Bhagavatam, fasting and visiting the temple to participate in the cultural programs.