Thursday, September 2, 2010

Happy Krishna Janmashtami (Here's Why)

Indian holidays are pretty much entirely incomprehensible to me. As is, I'm afraid, most of Hinduism. My knowledge of Hinduism pretty much extends to a couple of over-view books I've picked up in my free time, being in India and possessing a somewhat absorbent personality, and a habit of reading the spirituality bits of the local newspaper. My friend Raj is fond of saying (in a thick Indian accent) "Oh my various gods!" and we all find this hilarious.

As I am in India again and will doubtless be back, I feel a need to fix this state of affairs. So. I bought a copy of the Gita. I am asking my Indian friends a lot of stupid questions.

Krishna sporting with the Gopis. Yowza!

Tonight is Krishna Janmashtami, a holiday celebrating the birth of Lord Krishna. You probably know him as The Blue One, as he is usually portrayed in Indian art and mythology. Krishna Janmashtami, insofar as I can determine, is rather like a Hindu variant on Christmas: there's a holy child, there's a lot of nativity scenes running around, and there's midnight services for the particularly devout (or those looking for a good excuse to stay up late).

Hindus celebrating the holiday fast, or engage in upavasa. Many culture uses fasting as a way of moving closer to the Supreme. Me, I'd just get hungry and nasty. The fast of Janmawshtami does not mean eating nothing at all, though - devotees take milk and dairy products, as these are thought to be a favorite of the child Krishna. You're not really supposed to use salt either, though there's apparently a special kind of salt now that is mostly okay. Chanting is also a big part of Janmashtami - these are usually mantra and shoklas which are supposed to make the lord happy. Krishana is supposed to be exceptionally keen on sweets, especially those involving dairy, so people merrily consume large quantities of desserts at this time. (Again, Christmas parallels). In Gujarat, women celebrate the holiday by chucking all their usual house hold responsibilities, instead spending the day gambling with cards. I like it.

The holiday involves the usual array of ceremonies, rituals, and traditions. Dahi Handi is a ceremony that gets a lot of play on Indian television this time of year. It's a re-enactment of the impish child Krishna's attempt to steal butter from a pot suspended from the ceiling of his home. Participants fill an earthen pot with ghee, milk, and dry fruit, then suspend it from a ceiling - 20-30 feet high ensures extra fun times. Young men then attempt form human pyramids to bring down the pot, while onlookers chuck water at them to make their lives more difficult. Celebrants hang silver coins along the rope to provide an extra incentive and a prize for successful human-pyramid climbers. Seems like a lawsuit ripe endeavor to me, but hey, this ain't America! Oh, the broken pieces of the pot are supposed to keep away mice. In case you were concerned about your vermin problem.

American Pediatric Society might have something to say about this.

Sheila and I headed to the temple nearby Khan Market today. She was feeling a bit under the weather and decided to opt out of the midnight scrum, but we had a look at the decorations and the preparations for tonight's fun. There were a number of "Jhanki" tableau - these are hand-made statues and paintings that strongly resembled Christian nativity scenes. Indians and Americans share a similar love of light up, sparkly, religious kitsch. Those seeking particularly good favor with the Gods donate clothing or jewelry items to the tableaux.

Krishna going to war. It's in the Gita. Okay, okay, I'll read it. Sheesh.

Pooja ceremonies are performed throughout the day of Janmashtami. The devout will bathe Bal Gopal's idol (get yours today) with ghee, water, honey, and curd. They'll also dress it in nice new clothes. Extra points for yellow. "Bhog" or food offerings are also offered -56 seperate dishes is an especially impressive assortment. Finally, the Krishna pooja is performed - this usually involves rocking a cradle containing the God's idol, blowing a conch, and singing songs or reading out the multifarious names of the lord. Some people break their fast after this is achieved (at some point in the evening). The more hardcore wait until midnight, considered to be the approximate time of Krishna's manifestation.

Rasleela perfomances are also a not-uncommon occurrence at this time. These are performed by young Brahimin boys and document important events from Krishna's life. Must be totally mortifying for the poor little nippers. I support this practice whole heartedly. It's meant to symbolize Krishna's sporting with the milkmaids.

I don't know if I'll make it to a temple tonight or not - my plans for the evening appear to be more along the lines of "go to a nice nightclub" which doesn't really depress me - but watch this space.

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