"Janmashtami, the birth of Lord Krishna at midnight which is the darkest moment of the night, symbolizes that the Lord manifested Himself from the prison cell, thus vigorously illuminating the universe, dispelling the darkness of ignorance," says Dr. Uma Mysorekar, president of the Hindu Temple Society of North America.
Having grown up in New Delhi, I have vivid memories of the Janmashtami celebrations at the pink sandstone Lakshmi Narayan temple, which was lit up beautifully. In the gardens of the temple complex is a pond in the middle of which a statue of Vashdev carrying the Baby Krishna on his head had been set up. I still remember it and the festive air as hundreds pushed to get a better view. Janmashtami is a time of devotion, as I found at a recent celebration in New York where hundreds crowded into a temple in Queens, singing, dancing and chanting.
Many devotees also fast on this day, eating only after midnight, says Pundit Mahesh Shastri, a Hindu priest in New York. He explains that the icon of Krishna is bathed in milk, yogurt, ghee, honey, sugar, and water. A traditional prasad or benediction is given to all the devotees--the Panchajiri, made of five ingredients, in North Indian temples while South Indian temples favor puffed rice, a great favorite of Krishna.
In India, the day after Janmashtami is one of revelry, keeping with Krishna's fun-loving spirit. Clay pots of curds and butter are suspended from poles in the streets in towns like Mathura and Vrindaban, where Krishna lived, and also in cosmopolitan cities like Mumbai.
Bands of boisterous youth form human towers to get to the pots, mimicking Krishna's exploits. To shouts of 'Govinda Ala Re!' (Govinda is coming!), colored water is thrown on bystanders and participants--and yes, the pots contain money for those daring enough to reach them.
The revelry is fun, of course, but it's much more than a birthday bash for Krishna. Underlying the celebration is the importance of devotion to Krishna's teachings. As the Lord explains in the Bhagavad Gita: "Before creation I alone existed. There was nothing, neither existence nor non-existence. I am that which remains after dissolution."