Janmashtami, celebrated this year on the 25th of August, commemorates the Incarnation of the God Vishnu in the human form of a historic personality known as Krishna, one of the ten Hindu “Avatars” of the current great cycle of time.
“Avatar” means “descent”, in this case, the descent of Spirit into physical form. “Avatar” carries a meaning similar to the term “Christ” (“Annointed”). In both the Avatar and the Christ the Divine Spirit expresses itself by descending into, or pouring itself upon, human form.
Krishna is generally accepted, even by non-Hindus, as a “historic personality”, rather than a purely mythic one, because His name and His kingdom exist in the historic record, and because of a major traumatic event with which He was famously associated.
That event was the horrific battle of Kurukshetra, between two rival clans, the Pandavas and the Kauravas. The site of this battle is known, as is the approximate time of its occurrence. Krishna, taking the non-combat role of charioteer on the Pandava side, guides the Pandavas to a victory which, in the end, is seen to have been necessary, but in no way glorious. War is hell, in this telling, but in this instance inevitable and unavoidable.
On the first morning of battle, the Pandava hero, Arjuna, collapses in despair at the realization of the slaughter that is about to take place, and begs Krishna, whom he takes to be God in human form, to explain to him the reason and purpose for the pending destruction. Krishna’s answer, the BHAGAVAD GITA (“Song of God”), expounds the source and destiny of the soul, the meaning of creation, and all the states of existence. Every individual, Krishna explains, is subject to both karma and dharma, fate and duty. Release from the karma acquired in past lives requires the faithful carrying out of each one’s destined life duty, dharma. The dharma of the warrior, Krishna reminds Arjuna, is to fight when fate makes fighting unavoidable. In the pending struggle, Krishna advises Arjuna, the balance of creation needs to be restored. Larger forces are at play that Arjuna cannot see.
Having said this, one would think that commemorations of Krishna would generally have a martial flavor—images of valor and conquest. After all, the great text, the BHAGAVAD GITA, was delivered on a battle field.
But that isn’t the case.
Rather than Krishna the Warrior, we most often see depictions of Krishna as the Rascal Child, the Playful Youth, the Charmer and Devoted Lover, the Flute Player and Dancer.
Krishna’s love for His adored Radha, and her adoration of Him, are celebrated in songs and paintings and dances. They are the cosmic couple, the masculine and feminine aspects of Divinity, united. Their dance is the Dance of Creation.
So the great battle that resulted in the greatest of the Hindu texts is not celebrated in India, as such a battle would surely be in the militaristic cultures of the West, as a glorious triumph, with the great hero of the faith leading the charge. An older culture, perhaps, has gotten past seeing war, and even victory, as glorious.
What is happily recalled is the frolicking, merry youth, clasping His flute, inviting the Soul of Humanity to join Him in His dance.
--from the desk of Mark Keller