Krishna Janmashtami

August 21-22, 2011

In the house of Vasudeva will the Supreme Lord, the original transcendental person, personally appear…

Bhagavata Purana, 1:23

After midnight, we’re gonna let it all hang down.

Eric Clapton, After Midnight

Though worshipped differently across many Hindu sects, Krishna is one of the holiest figures–if not the holiest–in the Hindu religion. He was born at midnight on this, the eighth day after the full moon of Bhadrapada/Shravan, in the year–well, before you were born.

In 2010 Sri Krishna Jayanti, or Krishna Janmashtami, falls on September 1 or 2, depending on location.

Krishna is considered the eighth and greatest incarnation of the god Vishnu. In art, he’s commonly pictured as a baby or as a youngster playing the flute. Krishna means “black”, but he’s more often depicted as blue.

Before Krishna was born, a prophecy was told to the King Kamsa. That he–the king–would be killed by his cousin’s son. Kamsa placed his cousin Devaki and her husband Vasudeva in prison. Every son that Devaki bore, Kamsa had killed. Six children in all. The seventh boy, Balarama, was magically transfered to the womb of another woman. The eighth child Vasudeva managed to sneak out of the prison. The boy was Krishna. Vasudeva encountered a cow-herding couple who had just given birth to a daughter. They switched babies and Vasudeva returned to the prison, showing Kamsa that the child was a girl, not a boy.

Krishna grew up with the humble cow-herding family. He was a mischievous kid, known for playing pranks and for seducing women with the romantic music of his flute.

When the King heard of Krishna’s existence he invited Krishna to a wrestling match, set up to trap and kill Krishna and his elder brother Balarama. The brothers foiled King Kamsa’s plans, defeating first a mighty demon elephant and the King’s best wrestlers.

When the King drew his sword, Krishna grabbed him by the hair and crushed him to death, fulfilling the prophecy.

The holiday comes to a climax at midnight tonight, when Krishna was said to have been born. Krishna is worshipped through the chanting of Vedic hymns, and mantapam structures built in his honor are decorated with thindis snacks and fruits…

After midnight, it’s all gonna be peaches and cream.

— Eric Clapton

Indian Independence

August 15

The Twentieth Century witnessed over 140 countries gain independence. [35 of them in the years 1960 and 1991 alone]. But few, if any, stirred such emotion, involved so much conflict, changed and disrupted so many lives, inspired so many future leaders, and so fundamentally altered the world we live in, both politically and philosophically, as the independence of India.

A hundred-year struggle against imperialism and colonization came to a climax as Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru addressed his people on the eve of India’s long-awaited independence:

Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long surpressed, finds utterance.

Nehru during his Tryst with Destiny speech
Nehru's "Tryst with Destiny" speech

India found that, like so many other countries, while freedom and self-determination solved some ills, other problems were exacerbated. The partition of India into two separate, independent nations disrupted millions of lives and led to a bloody conflict that has not healed to this day.

Less than six months after independence, the Pakistani-Indian conflict would take the life of Mohandas Gandhi himself, the Indian former-lawyer who used civil disobedience to combat racial injustice in South Africa and who raised peaceful resistance to a new level to free his own countrymen in India. On January 30, 1948, Gandhi was shot by a Hindu radical, who was angry at Gandhi’s cooperation with Muslim Indians and Pakistanis.

Indian flag rises above Red Fort, Delhi

Despite the death of its greatest leader, the story of Indian independence showed the world that the principles Gandhi preached, concepts of non-violence and the power of peace, were not mere religious dogma, not words spouted by the powerful to keep the powerless meek and compliant, but were weapons capable of ending an Empire.

Swami Vivekananda was once asked by an Englishwoman, “What have you Hindus done? You have never even conquered a single nation.” To which the Swami replied…

That is true from the point of view of the Englishman…but from ours it is quite the opposite. If I ask myself what has been the cause of India’s greatness, I answer, because we have never conquered.

The gift of India is the gift of religion and philosophy, and wisdom and spirituality. And religion does not want cohorts to march before its path and clear its way. Wisdom and philosophy do not want to be carried on floods of blood. Wisdom and philosophy do not march upon bleeding human bodies…but come on the wings of peace and love, and that has always been so.

Swami Vivekananda Vedanta Lecture – Spirituality, the Gift of India

Raksha Bandhan

August 13, 2011

All across India sisters tie special colored bracelets of thread around their brothers’ wrists, as a symbol of protection. Likewise, the thread reminds the brother of his pledge and duty to protect his sister.

The threaded bracelet is called a rakhi and the holiday is Raksha Bandhan, a Hindu and Sikh celebration of brothers and sisters. It falls on the full moon (Shravan Poornima) in August. (August 16, 2008. August 5, 2009.)

There are two main stories of how the tradition came about.

One is that the goddess Draupadi tore a strip from her sari and wrapped it around Krishna’s wounded finger after battle. Later, Krishna returned the favor. When Draupadi’s malevolent brother-in-law attempted to dishonor her by removing her sari, Krishna continuously elongated her sari so she could not be disrobed.

Another is that Shashikala blessed a silken talisman and tied it around Lord Indra’s right wrist to protect him from harm during the battle of gods and demons. The rakhi gave him the strength to defeat them.

The tradition was further popularized during India’s Moghul period in the 16th century. Facing attack from the sultan of Gujarat, Queen Karnavati of Rajasthan sent a sacred Rakhi thread to the Mughal emperor Humayan, to remind him of their special connection and in the hopes of receiving assistance against the enemy.

This year in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, about 700 young men and women at H.K. Arts College reversed the tradition. Boys bestowed Rakhi on the girls as a symbol of determination to stop female foeticide, a crime that is largely responsible for lopsided male:female ratio in India, especially in states like Gujarat where that ratio is 100 to 83.

Female Foeticide in India