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Krishna, Lord of Love and Life

THE eighth incarnation of Vishnu, Krishna, has evolved into a distinct and composite persona over the millennia. Krishna devotees ardently look upon him as the Godhead, more emotively evocative than most of the other avatars.

His birthday on the eighth day in the dark fortnight of Sravana, in or around the month of August, is still celebrated with great joy and enthusiasm every year as Janmashtami. In many places, especially in Mathura, where he was born, jhankis, comprising glimpses into his childhood episodes, are displayed with lights and images of the divine child. 

In Maharashtra, pots of curd and buttermilk are hung high in the streets and human pyramids are formed to go up and reach out for their contents, reminiscent of the child Krishna's playful exploits for wresting milk and butter from the pots kept beyond his reach. A similar ceremony is observed in south India, where people climb up poles to win the prize money.

The Jagannath temple at Puri has wooden images of Jagannath (Krishna), a Balabhadra (Balaram) and Subhadra, their sister.

The popular Rathayatra from the temple to the countryside, about two km away, is a ritual enactment of the journey of Subhadra to Dwarka in a chariot, escorted by Krishna and Balaram; the festival is celebrated on Asadha Sukla dvitiya, around June.

According to another legend in the Bhagavata Purana, Akrur was sent by Kansa, the king of Mathura, to Gokula to ask Krishna to visit Mathura.

Krishna and Balaram, therefore, travelled in a decorated chariot to Mathura, followed on foot by the gopis (milkmaids) and the cowherds on this day. Hence the Rathayatra procession today.

The festival of Holi heralds the advent of spring and a new world of colour and gaiety, recreating somewhat the ambience in which Krishna played with the gopis, splashing colour all over.

Since the venue was Vrindavan, the most lively celebration of the festival takes place in this region. It is during Holi that effigies of Putana are burnt every year in parts of northern India.

Putana, as the legend goes, was a female friend sent by Kansa to Gokula to suckle the infant Krishna and poison him to death. But the omniscient Lord sucked her blood out, killing her in the process. Her death symbolises the destruction of evil despite heavy odds. 

Holi is called dol (swing) purnima or dol yatra in certain parts of eastern India.

An image of Krishna is kept on the swing and worshipped.

Central to Krishna's childhood was his dance with the gopis, called raasa-lila, which later became the object of worship by many of the devotional sects. Scenes from raasa-lila are now enacted with great verve not only in the Mathura-Vrindavan region but also in Assam and Manipur, sometimes in the Manipuri dance style.

But the intensity of feeling portrayed in such episodes in the Puranas and Harivamsa is an outgrowth of bhakti, a form of religious sentiment enunciated comprehensively for the first time by Krishna in the Gita, on the eve of the battle of Kurukshtra in the Mahabharata, an earlier text. Rig-Vedic hymns did allude to the nature of devotion but not so cogently. Bhakti, as advocated in the Gita entailed total self-surrender to the supreme Lord in the form of Krishna, shorn of the wasteful accessories of costly rites and rituals, as a simple way to salvation, without displacing the methods of moksha through karma and gnyana which evolved out of the Vedic religion.

As for the theophany in the eleventh chapter of the Gita, Arjuna has a vision of Krishna's awesome cosmic form and feels overwhelmed. The Lord assures him that those with an unswerving devotion to him, in the true spirit of bhakti, can see him. A complex amalgam of the human and the Divine, he is seen differently by different people. To the Pandavas he was their true friend and guide, to the cowherds he was just one of their own, to the Vrajagopis the highest object of love and the yogis saw him as the absolute truth. While his concept of bhakti as preached in the Gita has undergone changes, developing more passionate and even sensuous overtones in the hands of poets like Jayadeva, the philosophic message of the Gita has remained a perennial source of inspiration for all.



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