September 2nd marked the festival of Krishna Janmashtami, a.k.a. Krishna Jayanti, a.k.a. Krishna’s birthday. For those of you not keeping track of the Hindu pantheon (it can be an exhausting pursuit), a brief primer: Krisha is widely worshiped as the eighth avatar, or incarnation, of Vishnu, while Vishnu himself is commonly portrayed as part of the trimurty (or trinity) of great Hindu gods, along with Shiva and Brahma. (I use these hedging adverbs – “widely,” “commonly,” etc. – because of the bewildering complexity and malleability of Hindu tradition.)
In popular legend, Krishna is also known for his dalliances with women, which – to put it mildly – stray from the norms of brahmacharya. An academic article commenting on this proclivity uses the dry understatement typical of scholarly writing, alluding to “Krishna’s well-known conjugal pleasures with many women.” Of course, many Krishna devotees downplay these divine dalliances, or at least put a metaphorical and spiritual gloss on them.
Krishna is also known as the princely young god who offered advice, both military and spiritual, to Arjuna on the battlefield, as told in the Bhagavad Gita. (This is why the Hare Krishnas try to give you the Gita in airports.) It’s not just zealous Westerners who enjoy the Gita; it’s popular here in India too. The Gita has always been an important Indian text, but it became even more prominent during colonial times, when some Hindus – influenced by Western ideas of religion – starting emphasizing the importance of central religious texts.
Still, even with the popularity of the Gita here, Krishna is probably most celebrated not as the dispenser of cosmic wisdom, but as the god-child raised by foster parents in an idyllic pastoral setting. (Of course, as this childhood bleeds into young adulthood, his relationship with the gopis or milkmaids of the village become playful in a different way, wink wink, nudge nudge.) Since Krishna-the-child is so adored, his day of his birth is celebrated with great fervor.