Lesson 1: The Beloved Lord

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Śūbh Janmāṣṭamī! This is literally a blessing that you have an auspicious 8th day of the fortnight (अष्टमी aṣṭamī) associated with a birth (जन्म janma). Millions of people around the world are celebrating a very sacred and special birth today – do you know who?

Here are some hints: He is an exemplary paragon of dharma, yet adorable, playful and sweet. He is a powerful protector and wise teacher, yet profoundly mischievous and impossible to predict. He steals hearts and captivates minds. He plays the flute, wears a peacock feather in his hair, and stands cross-legged. His dark skin shines bright against his rich yellow garments. His devotees experience him as the most intimate and loving form of the Supreme Presence, and joyfully lose themselves in singing his name!

As you are reading this, perhaps you are starting to smile as you remember him, and a feeling of sweetness automatically arises.

Yes, it’s Lord Kṛṣṇa’s birthday!

If there is any deity who invokes the मधुरभाव madhura-bhāva – the experience of sweetness, it is Śrī Kṛṣṇa. In fact, there is a whole hymn called Madhurāṣṭakam (which you can read and learn to sing in LESSON 9 of this course) that describes Śrī Kṛṣṇa as the “Lord of Sweetness”.

His devotees – and most Hindus – are exuberantly celebrating the birth of this amazing and unique incarnation of the divine (Bhagavān Viṣṇu). And, as with all deity myths, as a practitioner, it is helpful to study his life and story not as if it is describing a fictional past, but as a description of dynamics and processes that are happening in you and in the world right now.

So on this day, we celebrate the blessed presence of the divine “taking birth” in ourselves, and in our world. In particular, we honor and rejoice in Śrī Kṛṣṇa’s unique manifestation of the Supreme Presence. Lord Kṛṣṇa, like the other incarnations of Viṣṇu, is also a perfect embodiment of dharma, but a more morally complex and nuanced version. If Lord Rāma is the letter of the law, Lord Kṛṣṇa is the spirit of it. And in every stage of Śrī Kṛṣṇa’s life, we can learn different lessons and experience a different face of God.

We can start our remembrance by looking at where his life on earth began. One treasured practice on this day is to listen to and reflect on the miraculous story of his birth, which you can do in LESSON 2. Śrī Kṛṣṇa was born at the stroke of midnight, in a dungeon, and was miraculously spirited away to the beautiful village of Gokul before his demonic uncle who he was prophesied to kill could murder him. Even as an infant, he was adorable, captivating, and mischievous – beautiful childlike qualities that remained throughout his life. He is still widely worshipped in the form of a divine child – Bāla-Kṛṣṇa.

There is something about children that naturally inspires our devotion, mercy, and focused service. And in return, they also continuously surprise us, delight us, and fill us with a profound love and joy that we could not imagine. By worshipping God in this form, we cultivate all these divine qualities and also have a very playful, intimate, and unpredictable relationship with him.

As a child, Śrī Kṛṣṇa revealed his love and divine power by protecting the village from all sorts of demons and monsters. He grew up as a cow-herder, and was also a protector of animals and plants – a steward of all living things. From this, we understand that God can meet us at any level of existence – that he does not exist only as an enigmatic presence locked away inside a lavish golden temple! Perhaps the truth is that God plows the fields and works in the field like the rest of us. Perhaps like us, he enjoys playing silly games like stealing delicious homemade butter and dancing under the moonlight with his friends.

He also reveals the beautiful dance of loving God and being loved by him through his relationship with the gopīs, and especially Rādhā. In one famous story, the gopīs forget about him and take a bath in a pond, gossiping and chattering away. He sneaks in, steals their clothes, and climbs up on a tree. Some theologists interpret this to mean that God requires that when we get lost in our minds, we also lose our connection to him. The only way to “return home” again is to strip away any false layers or shame, and be willing to climb upwards towards him while naked and vulnerable, hiding nothing from God.  More than just a tale of teenage mischief, it is a wisdom tale preparing you for Kṛṣṇa-sādhanā and the yoga of bhakti.

As a young teen, Śrī Kṛṣṇa returns to free his parents from jail and puts an end to his murderous uncle Kaṃsa. He then becomes a disciple under his guru Sandīpanī and joins the gurukula, embodying the qualities of the ideal student and classmate. In LESSON 4, you can learn about the story of his friendship with Sudāma which begins during this time.

As an adult, Lord Kṛṣṇa then takes his rightful place as a king and manages his kingdom so that justice and prosperity abound through the region. He also serves as an adviser in the imperial palace, deepening his close relationship to his cousins the Pāṇḍavas and Kauravas, whose famous story is laid out in the ancient epic Mahābhārata.

A Protector of Women

Women throughout this tradition experience Śrī Kṛṣṇa to be their devoted and loyal protector. Not only does he free his own mother from jail, but when Princess Rukmiṇī was being forced into marriage with another king, she wrote to Śrī Kṛṣṇa for help, confessing her love for him and asking for protection. He showed up on the day of the wedding, fought the army of the other king, and took the grateful Rukmiṇī home with him and made her his beloved queen.

Another famous story is when a demon enslaved and raped over 16,000 women, they prayed to him for salvation. Śrī Kṛṣṇa heard their cries, and waged a fierce battle to set them free. Not only that, because no one would take them back after their ordeal, he replicated himself 16,000 times and married them. In this way, each woman got to individually experience his love and protection for the rest of her days.

In the Mahābhārata, when Queen Draupadī was being publicly disrobed and shamed through no fault of her own, she desperately cried out to Śrī Kṛṣṇa for help. He heard her prayer and made it so that no matter how much fabric they violently pulled off of her, she remained clothed and safe.

These are just a few of the countless instances where women have experienced him as their guardian and salvation. (Men have this experience too, but women of all ages tend to have a special place in their hearts for Śrī Kṛṣṇa. Perhaps because unlike other forms of the divine, he is easily accessible and the best way to worship him is simply to love).

Even in more recent centuries, countless female saints have written songs and poems about their profound experiences of Lord Kṛṣṇa’s love and powerful protection. Queen Mīrābāī was tortured and almost murdered repeatedly, and in each instance she felt that Kṛṣṇa’s love was holding her on the inside and protecting her on the outside.

Janabāī, an elderly servant, experienced Śrī Kṛṣṇa coming to help her with all of her difficult tasks, including turning the heavy millstones. Sakhubāī, another saint, was severely abused by her husband’s family and one day was even tied to a tree and abandoned there as punishment. Weeping, she prayed to her beloved Lord, who gently untied her and even took her place and form so that no one knew that she had gone free.

Śrī Kṛṣṇa’s love is so great that he takes on the pain and suffering of his devotees upon himself if he needs to. In fact, the first mantra taught to children in many Vaiṣṇava families is श्री कृष्न शरणं मम śrī kṛṣṇa śaraṇam mama – “Lord Kṛṣṇa, protect me!”. These special words are carried within one’s heart as a sacred talisman, a lifelong shield of God’s love and eternal companionship.

Kṛṣṇa as Jagadguru

For practitioners of most dharma lineages, Lord Kṛṣṇa is revered for his role as the great teacher (guru) of yoga and dharmic teachings. In this sense, not only is a sadguru, but he is a jagadguru – a teacher for our entire world. This is honored beautifully in a verse from the Kṛṣṇāṣtakam, which you can learn to recite in LESSON 7.

When the warrior Arjuna became depressed and paralyzed during the battle of his life, Śrī Kṛṣṇa, (who was his charioteer) froze time and began to explain to him what life is, what we are, and who God is. He explains to Arjuna – in 18 beautiful chapters – the truth of the human condition, the principles of yoga and dharma, and why we must be courageous and fulfill the purpose of our existence. Near the end of this dialogue, he also reveals his true universal form (viśvarūpa) as the entire cosmos, and we see once and for all that Kṛṣṇa is not an ordinary human being, but God himself.

We call this beautiful conversation The Bhagavad Gītā – the sacred song.  It remains the most influential and widespread scripture on yoga. In fact, many Vaiṣṇava families consider Śrī Kṛṣṇa as their sadguru and even take ritual dīkṣā from him as part of their yogic practice. He is their savior, teacher, guardian, and eternal companion. In fact, they would say that there is nothing and nowhere where he does not exist, similar to how Śaivites teach that nothing exists that is not Śiva.

Kṛṣṇa is Mine

In each of these stories, we are inspired not only by Śrī Kṛṣṇa’s example, but by all the varied forms his love can take. Each individual who loves Śrī Kṛṣṇa has the experience that he is intimately and uniquely theirs, and theirs alone.

Śrī Kṛṣṇa’s life is a testament that no matter how infinite and unfathomable God is, his love and his presence in our lives is tangible and personal. It is relational – whether he is your child, your friend, your lover, your brother, or your teacher. God takes whatever form he needs to in order to love us and protect us – and it is up to us to recognize him whether he’s a friend squirting us with water on Holī or guiding us in divine satsang during the most important battle of our life.

Practices for Śrī Kṛṣṇa Janmāṣṭami

Each lesson in this course covers will help you connect with Śrī Kṛṣṇa and a specific practice or teaching. There are many levels and ways in which we can celebrate him, so for this celebration almost any practice pertaining to him is appropriate.  Different regions and communities each have their own unique rituals and practices, but here are some common ones.

-On this day, many people decorate their entire house with hundreds of fresh flowers and colorful fabrics.  They also wear bright clothes and gather with their friends and family to do kīrtana (devotional singing) and traditional dance, they perform pūjā – ritual worship, have satsang and study his teachings, and also create or watch sacred art, music, and dance.

-A fun tradition known as Dahī Haṇḍī is where people form huge human pyramids to break pots of butter that have been strung up high in the streets, causing the same mischief that Lord Kṛṣṇa and his friends used to. Women gather to set up a small swinging baby cradle for Śrī Kṛṣṇa. And as with any child, they take turns “rocking him” to sleep as they sing, cherishing the sweetness of feeling that God is as close to them as their own child and joyfully receiving their love.

-Some Vaiṣṇava communities fast all day out of solidarity with Devakī, Kṛṣṇa’s mother, who was going through labor pain alone in a cold, dark jail cell. Throughout the day, they sing his name and pray, and it is also common to hear the story of his birth fresh each year.. At midnight, when he was born, they break their fast by eating something with yoghurt or dairy, and then the next day is full of lavish food and great rejoicing.
Finally, it is a very auspicious day to go to the temple and have darśan of him.  Kṛṣṇa temples around the world tend to have large festival celebrations and special worship ceremonies in honor of his birth.

However you choose to celebrate, just know that even inner remembrance of Śrī Kṛṣṇa is a great practice. Whichever traditions you follow, let yourself remember the wonderment and profound blessing of God taking birth amongst us, of walking with us and eating with us and playing with us… all so that we can be with him, and he can be with us, in perfect sweetness, perfect love.

Teacher: Shivani Hawkins

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