Musings on Krishna Janmashtami: Feasting or fasting

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Krishna remains till date one of the most loved figures all over the world. Countless poems have been written on him in many countries and countless critiques and interpretations and analyses have been written about his Bhagvad Gita. His incarnation is still eagerly awaited – especially during Covid 19 days and many have asked him loudly or under the breath or quietly in their minds “where are you? You promised you will come.”

While that wait may last a little too long, his birthday comes every year and every year it drives his devotees and non devotees crazy with utter joy and happiness. Except this year. This year the birthday has come and is almost gone without any celebrations or joy. He has been decked up and he has been presented with “Bhog”, but there are no swooning devotees believing him to be really there amongst them. Social media including YouTube are full of videos of temples in Mathura, his birthplace; Gokul, his home; Vrindavan, his home where he and his clans people immigrated. But these are videos of empty streets and empty temples, although decorated. No visitors are allowed into the temples. Some still stand outside the temples and pay their respects. But the hustle and bustle and overcrowding at the Pooja Samagri shops and Mithaee shops seems to have gone in Covidbernation. Dwarka’s Jagad Mandir which has been drawing crowds in thousands has been streaming live virtual Pooja and Aarati, as have been many other temples.

Janmashtami, the day of Krishna’s birth at 12 midnight of the Hindu Lunar calendar’s 8th day is the day of fasting and waiting for his birth, and since he was whisked off to Gokul in few hours and was discovered as Nand and Jashoda’s son on the morning of the 9th day, the 9th is when the real birth celebrations take place. Symbolic of his childhood pranks, some of the states in India have traditions of “Matki”, typically Maharashtrian, or “dahi-handi” in the northern states. This challenge of reaching the earthen pot filled with dahi tied very high is also a real challenge for the participants who climb on each other’s shoulders and break it after reaching the height. This human pyramid participants are then showered with water, flowers, money and more. And, of course, singing of “Govinda aalaa re aalaa” and dancing. This visual treat full of enthusiasm among the onlookers is a big part of the celebration and is missing this year due to social distancing requirements. In Maharashtra, specially Mumbai, this would be followed by teams of native street artists visiting society complexes and houses and performing a Radha Krishna song dance. Krishna is, of course, a man dressed as Krishna, but Radha is also a man dressed as Radha. This lovely tradition has been disappearing in the city which is fast losing its grassroots cultural traditions, as do all cities perhaps.

Here in the U.S., which boasts of close to 900 Hindu temples, Janmashtami is usually celebrated by only some temples with stage performances, a full day of activities and eating at the stalls, and aaratis within the temple halls. Every year, it is a day to dress up and meet people and have fun with them before going home tired. Some temples also have been holding the wait-for-the-birth and celebrating the birth at midnight. The Radha Govind Dham in Glen Oaks, New York holds a chanting the night of the birth and a street fair full of food and dancing and playing Dandiya Raas at the end of it all every year. This year, all their celebration activities are virtual. The BAPS Swaminarayan Temple in Flushing, New York is closed for renovation and creation of a larger parking lot. The other temples including the Hindu Temple Society’s Radha Krishna Temple and the Sai Temple have held their own poojas by their priests inside the temple without any visitors. The ISKCON temple had announced an in-person Abhishekam by appointment with only 15 persons allowed within with masks and gloves. But no further updates have been put on their website. Similarly, the New Vrindavan temple of West Virginia has also announced in-person Abhishekam offering an overnight stay for pre-registered visitors.

Basundi, left, and Rajgira Sheera by Asha Shukla (Photo: courtesy Asha Shukla)

All this has still not dampened the Krishna followers who have observed the Fast, meaning not eating till the birth. But, what are fasts for if not eating all the things permitted during the fast? So they keep snacking on fruits and dry fruits and potato chips and peanuts and other nuts through the day with a refrain “I am fasting for Janmashtami”. There is also a sumptuous lunch, a full thali, of Rajgira parathas or pooris, Potato subji, Pepper subji, Rajgira or Peanut Kadhi, Sago Khichdi, Sama Khichdi, and Sabudana Vada. And since no fast is complete without sweets, there is Angoor Rabdi, Milky fruit salad, Dry date and Peanut bars, and what not. No wonder everyone wants to fast for Janmashtami.

Recipe for Shengdana Amti:

One may know how to make Rajgira Kadhi but only Maharashtrians know how to make Shengdana Amti. If you want to try making it, you will  need dry roasted peanuts, equal amount of dry sliced coconut, few  green chillies, salt, cumin seeds, coriander leaves, and peanut oil or ghee if you do not eat vegetable oil during fasts. First you will have to grind the peanuts, coconut green chillies and salt together. The first round of the blender will yield a coarse mix. You will need to add a little bit of water and grind it to a fine mix. And then, of course, you will need to heat the ghee or peanut oil in a pan, add cumin seeds and let them roast and pour in the fine paste of peanuts and coconut. After that, you will have to add water in the required amount to maintain a medium thick consistency and then add salt and let “ukli” or boil. After two or three boils, your Amti is ready and you can serve it with coriander leaves. This is usually eaten with Samvat Bhaat in Maharashtra or Samo or Moraiyo Khichdi.

No need to soulfully look at the sky or inwards and sigh “Krishna, where are you?”. Krishna lives within each person. One must eat nice rich things for his birthday and be happy. That will make him happy too!!

 

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