How To Properly Celebrate An Utsava

[Janmashtami]“There are many statements about the festive days in connection with Krishna’s different activities. One of these festive days is Janmashtami, the day of Krishna’s birth. This Janmashtami day is the most opulent festival day for the devotees, and it is still observed with great pomp in every Hindu house in India. Sometimes even the devotees of other religious groups take advantage of this auspicious day and enjoy the performance of the ceremony of Janmashtami.” (The Nectar of Devotion, Ch 26)

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Friend1: Let’s say you have a celebration coming up.

Friend2: How soon into the future? A week? A month?

Friend1: Enough time that you can prepare beforehand.

Friend2: What kind of celebration are we talking? Christmas? Thanksgiving? A birthday?

Friend1: For this discussion let’s say it’s a birthday.

Friend2: There’s a pretty standard pattern nowadays. Decorate the house. Get a cake. Invite some friends. You have to throw one of these or something?

Friend1: Actually, I’m asking in relation to the birthdays on the Vaishnava calendar. Yes, I understand those are more “appearances” than “births”, but for the person uninitiated in the traditions of the bhakti culture it is easier to tell them that we are marking birth anniversaries.

Friend2: On the tithi day, as opposed to the normal calendar. Something like Krishna’s appearance day, Janmashtami, might be in August this year and in September next year.

Friend1: The lunar calendar. I get it.

Friend2: You are correct, though. Krishna does not have birth in the typical sense. His appearance and activities are divyam, or Divine, as explained in the Bhagavad-gita.

जन्म कर्म च मे दिव्यम्
एवं यो वेत्ति तत्त्वतः
त्यक्त्वा देहं पुनर् जन्म
नैति माम् एति सो ऽर्जुन

janma karma ca me divyam
evaṁ yo vetti tattvataḥ
tyaktvā dehaṁ punar janma
naiti mām eti so ‘rjuna

“One who knows the transcendental nature of My appearance and activities does not, upon leaving the body, take his birth again in this material world, but attains My eternal abode, O Arjuna.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 4.9)

Friend1: A question I’ve been getting more frequently is how to celebrate these occasions. For example, on Radhashtami, what should be done?

[Shrimati Radharani]Friend2: The appearance day anniversary of Shrimati Radharani, the eternal consort of Krishna, the feminine side of the Divine, the energy matched with the energetic?

Friend1: Yes. What are the procedures? What prayers should be recited before and after?

Friend2: Umm, before and after what?

Friend1: The celebration, the puja, the sacrifice, the religious ceremony – whatever you want to call it.

Friend2: This is a good question. Let me take a small detour here to explain a higher concept. It is said that one of the offenses to chanting the holy name is considering the practice to be on par with the many rituals mentioned in the Vedas.

Friend1: Okay, but the Vedas are the original source of knowledge. The holy name comes from the Vedas. Vedic teachings explain how that transcendental sound is equivalent to the person it represents.

Friend2: The Vedas are like a tree with many branches. You have different departments of knowledge, meeting different interests. It is beneficial to follow, because at the very least some advancement of consciousness occurs. Nevertheless, bhakti is entirely different.

Friend1: How so?

Friend2: With something from the karma-kanda section of the Vedas, there are specific rules and regulations. Recite this prayer perfectly. Don’t eat anything leading up. Set up certain items on the altar. You have to do everything properly in order to receive the phala, or reward.

Friend1: Sure. Makes sense. If I don’t put the correct ingredients into the pan, a cake might not emerge from the oven after a few minutes. I will get something else, which may not even be edible.

Friend2: But with bhakti you are only trying to get more chances to serve. You are purifying the consciousness. There is no material reward; hence no rules exist.

Friend1: You mean there is no proper way to celebrate occasions like Janmashtami and Diwali?

Friend2: I’m glad you mentioned Diwali. The tradition today is actually an imitation of a spontaneous reaction, of worship without motivation. The people of Ayodhya welcomed home Shri Rama and family after a long period of absence. Rama is the same Krishna; another personal manifestation of God. There was no guidebook consulted. There were no rules and regulations. The citizens put out lit lamps in Rama’s honor.

Friend1: And today people do the same.

Friend2: Following a tradition.

Friend1: Okay, but what about people worshiping to get stuff? If they’re asking Krishna to help them with some issue, shouldn’t they follow a specific kind of worship?

Friend2: It is an offense to think that way, but there is still some benefit to the approach. At the very simplest, a person can chant the holy names on such a day: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Place a picture of the person or event being worshiped. Sit down together with family and hear pastimes and teachings relating to the day. Prepare something nice to offer and then partake of the prasadam. Nothing too crazy here, if you think about it.

Friend1: Okay, but what about the timings? Don’t people fast, also?

[Janmashtami]Friend2: You can get the rules from books or through consulting people who have celebrated many times in official temples. With Krishna there is generally fasting until midnight, but not everyone can do that. With Gaura Purnima the time is at moonrise. Again, I must stress that not following these procedures to the letter will not cause irrevocable harm. The idea is to remember. The utsavas provide an opportunity to remember with love so many times throughout the year, and those opportunities should be utilized to the fullest extent.

In Closing:

Poster for celebration showing,

But proper rules not knowing.

To honor Krishna’s birthday right,

Without deviation slight.

Actually for bhakti a different way,

For personal reward not proper to say.

Since consciousness the ultimate reason,

Calendar for yoga in every season.

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