“Utsava means ‘pleasure.’ Whenever some function takes place to express happiness, it is called utsava. Utsava, the expression of complete happiness, is always present in the Vaikunthalokas, the abode of the Lord, who is worshipable even by demigods like Brahma, to say nothing of other, less important entities such as human beings.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 3.19.31 Purport)
One of the wonderful things about Krishna consciousness is that there’s always something to celebrate. Every moment of the day is meant to be spent in blissful contemplation of the Absolute, whose transcendental features are attractive in every way, rightfully earning Him the name Krishna. To aid in that contemplation are limitless activities, some of which are kindly described in ancient Sanskrit texts. Poets and saints have come along the way to expand on those descriptions, adding in their own realizations in the process, all the while remaining true to the original message, that of divine love being the ultimate occupation for man.
The activities described are either of the original Lord Himself or one of His avataras. The Sanskrit meaning to the word is “one who descends.” Avatara does not mean one who suddenly puts on a material dress. It does not mean one who subjects himself to the threefold miseries of life, going through the cycle of birth and death like the rest of us. The avatara specifically descends from the spiritual world, which means that the identity of the personality is fixed, as is their position in greatness.
There are also partial incarnations, which are a specific kind of avatara. In these avataras, the potency of the original Lord descends in the represented personalities, who may not be exactly the same as the original Lord. God empowers these people to appear and deliver the society at large. If we think about our present circumstances, likely it was a few leaders of the past who formed the system of government we currently operate under. Basic things we take for granted like fire departments, lending libraries, electricity, fireplaces, and daylight savings time actually were discovered or significantly improved upon by a single man.
So these are the workings of the Lord, who arranges everything perfectly, to take place at the proper time. As the personalities who glorify Him are one with Him in interest, celebration of their appearance and activities is just as worthwhile as remembrance of God’s own amazing deeds. Depending on which tradition you follow, there may be many more or a few less celebrations throughout the year, but for the devotee of Krishna or Vishnu, some of the more common ones are mentioned herewith: [The dates fluctuate since the lunar calendar is used]
Around February or so, there is the celebration for the appearance of Nityananda Prabhu, the dear brother of Lord Chaitanya. Together these two, incarnations of God and His lead servitor respectively, revived the bhakti tradition in India some five hundred years ago. Unlike with previous incarnations, there were direct outreach efforts made. Nityananda Prabhu specifically begged anyone he met to chant the holy names of God.
Lord Chaitanya’s appearance festival comes next, sometime in March typically. Lord Chaitanya gave the peace formula in a Sanskrit verse that best encapsulates the spirit of the Supreme Lord and His tremendous potency. That verse is “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.” As in the material world man is by default averse to devotion to God, thinking himself to be eligible for assuming the post of the greatest person in the world, Lord Chaitanya did not openly speak philosophy with everyone He met. He instead asked them to just chant the holy names. Lord Chaitanya was the most intelligent, so He could engage anyone in any argument. Sometimes He would even argue about something in many different ways, ultimately showing that the only correct explanation to anything is its relation to Krishna, or God.
Sometime in April comes the appearance day anniversary of Lord Ramachandra, of the Ramayana fame. He is the Supreme Lord who appeared many ages ago to uphold virtue, protect the righteous, and destroy the miscreants, who were led at the time by the king of Lanka, Ravana. Lord Ramachandra is known by His closest associates, Sita, Lakshmana and Hanuman, who are always celebrated along with His endearing memory. Lord Rama is the Rama addressed in the maha-mantra.
Along with the flowers of Spring, May also brings the mahotsava for Lord Narasimhadeva. The same Rama and Chaitanya, He appeared in an interesting form, one that was half-man and half-lion. He protected the innocent five year old son of a king. The boy Prahlada was harassed by his father, and having no other protection, he simply remembered his beloved Vishnu. Finally the Supreme Lord arrived on the scene to do away with the powerful and evil king Hiranyakashipu.
Typically in early August the Vaishnava celebrates the appearance day of Lord Balarama, the elder brother of Shri Krishna. He is the same Nityananda and Lakshmana, the original spiritual master, or guru. By Lord Balarama’s grace one becomes fearless in their accepting and following of the orders of the spiritual master, and they soon turn from trying to stay on the devotional path to remaining on it with such a firmness that no one can ever knock them off of it. The Rama addressed in the maha-mantra can also refer to Balarama.
A few weeks later is the appearance day celebration for Shri Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. This occasion, known as Janmashtami, brings to mind the sweet and adorable child who lived in Vrindavana under the care of mother Yashoda and Maharaja Nanda. The child Krishna enchanted all the town’s residents with His smile, the sounds of His flute, and His delightful play. He later on delivered the Bhagavad-gita to the distressed warrior Arjuna. This Bhagavad-gita is famous today, with its most authorized translation and commentary authored by His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.
Speaking of His Divine Grace, Shrila Prabhupada appeared on this earth on the day after Janmashtami. His appearance day is celebrated as Vyasa Puja, or the worship of the spiritual master, who follows in a line of succession from Vyasadeva, who compiled all of the major works of the Vedas, the original scriptural tradition of the world. Worship of the guru and worship of Krishna go side by side, on parallel lines. Thus Vyasa Puja is as important as any other festival throughout the year.
A few weeks later is the anniversary of the appearance day of Shrimati Radharani, Shri Krishna’s eternal consort. Known as Radhashtami, this day brings to mind the love that Vrishabhanu’s daughter feels for Krishna. She never thinks of anyone else, and she is of the purest character. She has every trait desirable to Krishna, and since their love is so strong, they are considered one.
In October or November comes Diwali, which is likely the most widely known festival of the Vedic tradition. In secular circles, it is described as the “festival of lights,” but those lights have a religious significance. They were first laid out as a welcome by citizens eager to again feast their eyes on the beautiful Shri Rama, who finally returned home after being away for fourteen years. He came home with Sita, Lakshmana, Hanuman, and a host of other heroes who had helped to rescue Sita from the clutches of the evil Ravana. That initial celebration gave birth to Diwali, which is a tradition still honored to this day.
The day after Diwali is Govardhana Puja, which is a tradition instituted by Krishna Himself during His time on this earth. One year in Vrindavana He advised that the neighboring Govardhana Hill be worshiped instead of the king of heaven, Indra. Indra retaliated by trying to drown the inhabitants with a flood. Krishna then used the massive hill as an umbrella to save them. This festival is notable for its tremendous feast, which is served to all members of society, regardless of their social status.
These are just some of the important festivals in the Krishna conscious tradition, and they all serve the same purpose: to keep one conscious of God. That consciousness should be in love, and so the festivals are always times for the expression of complete happiness. As felicity in life comes more from every day improvements rather than waiting for a single fortunate occurrence, the same festive atmosphere is meant to be recreated every day by chanting the holy names, hearing about Krishna’s pastimes, and doing service to those kind souls who continue to pass on the message of divine light, pure love, and everlasting truth.
Told to be conscious of God now,
But with trouble this accomplished how?
Mahotsava the Lord to us gives,
So that in remembering Him we’ll live.
Many celebrations throughout the year,
Bring to mind Krishna and those to Him dear.
Take your pick and make favorite any,
Benefits from a single observance so many.