Two of the inspiring themes that run through the stories of Kṛṣṇa’s childhood are his deep love for cows – and the delicious milk, yoghurt and freshly churned butter that comes from their generosity – and Kṛṣṇa’s love for his friends.
These themes, and the stories through which they echo, are the inspiration for the various prasāda traditions for Janmāṣṭamī. They harmonize sweetly with Ayurveda’s advice on healthy eating during Varśa-Ṛtu, the rainy and/or late summer season during which this beautiful celebration of love and devotion occurs.
Let’s begin by looking at a few of these charming and inspiring anecdotes and the specific prasādas they inspire. Then we will review the qualities of this season, and look more closely at how wisely the ingredients of one of the popular prasāda have been chosen. Finally we will walk step by step through making a simple, sweet and popular prasāda called Poha Kheer in modern Indian languages.
As a small child, Kṛṣṇa quickly earned the title माखन चोर (Mākhan Cor in Hindi), butter thief. He was very fond of stealing the freshly churned butter that his mother and the neighborhood women prepared. With his mischievous, irresistibly sweet smile, he stole the hearts of these cowherd women, along with their butter.
These stories have made big balls of freshly churned butter a popular prasāda to offer Lord Kṛṣṇa on Janmāṣṭamī. (Note that these balls are later added to food for many people, and not eaten whole!)
As Kṛṣṇa grew a little bigger, he become very fond of yoghurt as well. The Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam describes how the gopīs, the cowherd women of Vṛndāvan, would go to great lengths to tie their pots of fresh yoghurt high in their rafters so little Kṛṣṇa and his friends couldn’t steal it. But Kṛṣṇa and his friends would form themselves into a human pyramid, and Kṛṣṇa would climb to the top to carefully retrieve the clay pot filled with deliciousness.
The first time I saw Janmāṣṭamī celebrations was in Mumbai on a rainy day. I looked out the window to see a rope stretched across a narrow inner city street. It was secured to the railings of two 3rd floor apartments on opposite sides of the road. In the middle a pot was tied, with flowers and money tied around its rim. In the street below the pot, a big group of boys and teenagers – the gopālas – were forming a human pyramid. They were cheered on by a crowd of friends and onlookers. It was raining constantly, so their bodies were wet and slippery, making their challenge all the more difficult.
Their pyramid must have been six tiers high when the pot was finally seized in victory, and the contents distributed as prasāda. This celebration is called Dahī Haṇḍī, after the earthen pot of yoghurt. Thousands of such pots are hung through the streets of Mumbai, Pune and other cities in the region.
So it’s easy to understand how another favorite prasāda to offer for Janmāṣṭamī is fresh yoghurt. In the desert regions of Saurashtra and Rajasthan, for example, devotees offer plain śrīkhaṇḍa, fresh curds that have been hung in a cloth till they become deliciously thick. And since the monsoon doesn’t make much of a presence in these deserts, they always seem to need some of the water-retaining quality of yoghurt to stay healthy.
Further south on the Indian subcontinent, there are devotees who like to offer prasāda of fresh yoghurt mixed with seasonal fruits, along with jaggery, puffed rice, and even cucumber pieces. This tradition recalls stories from Kṛṣṇa’s boyhood days as a cowherd. Kṛṣṇa would sit under a shady tree with all his friends gathered around to eat lunch.
Kṛṣṇa was so popular with the cowherd mothers that they would send extra food for Kṛṣṇa. But rather than eating it himself, Kṛṣṇa loved to share all his food with his friends. Soon it became their tradition to all share their food with one another so everyone could eat their fill and enjoy each others’ treats.
The devotional literature describes how celestial beings would gather to watch this scene, longing to be incarnated as Kṛṣṇa’s cowherd playmates so they too could receive prasāda from Kṛṣṇa’s lotus hands.
Recalling this scene, some devotees picture the proper prasāda for Kṛṣṇa as a mountain of all the most delicious foods imaginable. The idea actually comes from yet another of Kṛṣṇa’s childhood stories. But we will save this for Govardhana Pūjā, which comes as winter and good digestive fire approach.
In Maharashtra and much of south-western India where the monsoon rains rule this season, the traditional prasādas draw their inspiration from a story that begins in what we can think of as Kṛṣṇa’s school days.
Kṛṣṇa had to leave his idyllic life in Vṛndāvan to fulfill the next phase of his divine destiny. He destroyed the demonic king who had usurped the throne of his ancestors and imprisoned his birth parents. Leaving peace restored in Mathurā, he joined Guru Sandīpani’s gurukula to study the Vedas and sacred wisdom.
His best friend while he was studying was a boy called Sudāma. Sudāma was very pure and devotional by nature. He quickly recognized that Kṛṣṇa embodied the sacred knowledge they were being taught, even though Kṛṣṇa was so friendly and unassuming, and brushed off his awe by insisting that God lives in everyone.
Sudāma was studying the melodious Sāma Veda hymns. He had a very sweet voice. When he sat in the evenings to practice what he had learned, Kṛṣṇa would sit with him to listen.
Guru Sandīpani’s wife was very fond of these two charming and helpful friends. Sometimes she would slip these two the only treat she had: flattened rice, पृथुक (pṛthuka). Flavored only with her love, they relished it with delight.
When their gurukula days ended, they promised to remember each other, though Sudāma was to become a village priest, while Kṛṣṇa’s destiny was to become a king.
Many years later, though Sudāma’s spiritual life flourished, he and his young family lived in poverty. His wife told Sudāma he should go to his old childhood friend Kṛṣṇa. Since he was now a king, he would surely be able to help them out. Sudāma didn’t want to abuse their friendship like this. But he agreed reluctantly, for the sake of seeing Kṛṣṇa again. The only gift he could afford to take was a little bundle of flattened rice.
When he arrived at the palace gates after walking for days, the guards were suspicious of this skinny fellow in dusty rags who claimed to be Kṛṣṇa’s friend. But Kṛṣṇa spotted Sudāma from a balcony. He ran barefoot through the palace calling out to puzzled princesses and courtiers, “My old friend has come!” Reaching the palace gates, he embraced Sudāma with overwhelming affection, thanking him for his kindness in traveling to see him.
Kṛṣṇa and his queens gave Sudāma a royal welcome, bathing his blistered feet and tired limbs in fragrant water, fanning him and feeding him royal delicacies. Sudāma was overcome by Kṛṣṇa’s kindness. Afterwards, the two friends sat together reminiscing about their gurukula days together.
Sudāma kept the bundle of flattened rice carefully hidden in the waistband folds of his dhoti. How ridiculous this gift would look amidst the royal opulence and fine cuisine!
Kṛṣṇa face suddenly lit up. He said he smelled something he loved. Sudāma pretended to have no idea what Kṛṣṇa was referring to. But Kṛṣṇa knew that Sudāma would have brought him something tucked in the folds of his waistband, and jumped up to find it. Playfully he pulled out the bundle and untied it.
“My favorite! You remembered!” said Kṛṣṇa. His queens looked on aghast as Kṛṣṇa ate what looked to them like something stale and tasteless, wrapped in an old rag. But Kṛṣṇa relished the flattened rice as though it were nectar.
Sudāma stayed with Kṛṣṇa for a few days before heading back home. He never mentioned his family’s needs. Being in Kṛṣṇa’s company was all he could have wished for and more.
When he eventually arrived home, though, the hut where his family lived was gone. In its place stood a palatial home surrounded by fruit trees and flowers. People were delivering sacks of grains and fruits and gold coins. And there at the front door stood his wife and family in fine new clothes. “They said Kṛṣṇa sent them!” his wife said in amazement as Sudāma’s eyes filled with tears of gratitude and devotion.
No wonder flattened rice, known in Hindi as poha, is such a popular prasāda to offer Lord Kṛṣṇa on Janmāṣṭamī.
Teacher: Hema Patankar