Sunday, 17 August 2014

Happy Janamashtami!

Today is a sacred day celebrating the birth of Lord Krishna - Janamashtami.  It is celebrated  the evening before through midnight acknowledging the dramatic events of the night of his birth and his subsequent escape from a prison where his parents were being held.  The day of Janamashtami, people fast.

Lord Krishna, as the avatar, is our guide and guru, the one imparting the wisdom of the Bhagavad Gita. So it is appropriate that the story of his birth be told here and an understanding of the significance of the tale be integrated into our spiritual practice. Chapter 4 of the Bhagavad Gita tells us who Lord Krishna really is:

I am the birthless, the deathless,
Lord of all that breathes.
I seem to be born:
It is only seeming,
Only my Maya.
I am still master of my Prakriti,
The power that makes me.
When goodness grows weak,
When evil increases,
I make myself a body.

In every age I come back
To deliver the holy,
To destroy the sin of the sinner
To establish righteousness.
He who knows the nature of
Of my task and my holy birth
Is not reborn when he leaves this body:
He comes to me.

It is in full recognition of his Divinity, that we then comprehend the meaning of Janamashtami. So let us begin the tale.  There was a Yadava kingdom in the north of India with its capital located in Mathura.  It had been ruled by King Ugrasena and Queen Padmavati.  It is said that shortly after her marriage, while staying a while at her father’s palace, Queen Padmavati was seduced by a demon who disguised himself as her husband and out of that union, a demonic entity incarnated as her son Kamsa.  

Kamsa grew up as a cruel, narcissistic, and ambitious young man who could not wait for natural succession of the royal throne to take place.  Covetous of the throne and the power that came with it and angry that his father refused to retire and install him as king, Kamsa imprisoned his father and usurped the throne.  He tormented the people of his kingdom, taking special delight in torturing the holy and spiritual beings residing there.  Prayers were offered for deliverance from his evil rule.   

Kamsa had a sister Devaki who was married to a nobleman Vasudeva.  It is said that Kamsa himself was the charioteer of the wedding chariot.  As he drove the wedding chariot, Kamsa heard an “akshavani” – a prophetic voice from the sky telling him that Devaki’s eighth child would kill him. He reacted by grabbing Devaki by the hair and was about to kill her when her husband intervened and begged Kamsa to spare her life, promising to deliver the 8th child to him. To avert the fulfillment of the prophecy, Kamsa imprisoned Devaki and Vasudeva and killed each of Devaki’s children as they were born. Lord Vishnu himself appeared to Devaki in prison to assure her that he himself would incarnate as her eighth child.  The seventh child was miraculously transferred to the womb of Vasudeva’s other wife Rohini, who remained free but childless and pined for a child of her own. (That child was named Balaram and grew up as Krishna’s close companion.) Devaki appeared to have had a miscarriage of the 7th child, confusing Kamsa as to whether the next child would be considered the 7th or 8th child.

When Devaki was due to deliver, at the stroke of midnight, Lord Vishnu appeared in his divine form and revealed a divine plan: Vasudeva was to take the baby to Vrindavan to the home of Nanda and Yashoda and exchange baby Krishna for the baby girl that Yashoda had just delivered.  After instructing Vasudeva,Vishnu  took the form of baby Krishna. A deep sleep overcame all the guards in the jail.  The chains that bound Vasudeva broke open, as did the locks on the prison gates.  Vasudeva walked out of the prison and carried baby Krishna through the town, across the Jamuna river to the town of Vrindavan.  

 Miraculously, the waters of the Jamuna river parted.  A wild storm raged that night and the divine serpent Ananda sheltered baby Krishna from the rain. In Vrindavan, all the cowherds and servants around Nanda’s house were also fast asleep as were Yashoda and Nanda.  Vasudeva placed baby Krishna beside Yashoda, took the little girl sleeping beside Yashoda and returned to the Mathura prison in the same way he had come.

There was a chance Kamsa would spare the child because the omen said it would be the eighth son that would kill him - and here was a little girl. Devaki pleaded with him, but Kamsa pulled the baby girl from her arms and dashed her against a stone. The girl slipped from his hands and rose above his head as the eight-armed form of Goddess Durga, dressed in fine garments and jewels. She said, "The enemy you contemplate is living somewhere else. You are a fool to hurt innocent children. Krishna will kill you."

Kamsa became remorseful and begged Devaki and Vasudeva to forgive him for his sins. He released them from their shackles and fell down to their feet, crying tears of regret. The next day, however, Kamsa's ministers advised him to give up his sentimental attitude and take action to kill all newborn children in the region.  Thus began a reign of terror in the kingdom the like of which had never been seen, which included the torment of the saintly people of the realm.

By connecting to this story, we step outside of our day-to-day material concerns.  We participate in the Divine “lila” or play.  By doing so, we open our consciousness to its greater dimensions.  Within that consciousness, we can reflect more clearly on the meaning of the story, unobstructed by the lower mind that is attuned only to the material realm.  That is after all the real purpose of all religious practices: the stories held within the traditions hold meanings for us in symbolic terms.  How does this story hold meaning for us today?

First, I think we need to reflect on something Lord Krishna tells us in Chapter 9 of the Bhagavad Gita:

Fools pass blindly by the place of my dwelling
Here in the human form, and of my majesty
They know nothing at all,
Who am the Lord, their soul.

Lord Krishna is our very soul.  He is not a God somewhere out there – separate from our innermost being.  From the very beginning of the Gita, in chapter 2, Lord Krishna tells us we are the Atma – not the body.  The Atma is part of the Paramatma – they are in union. 

With this fundamental principle established, we can relate to the birth of Krishna within us.  It is the emergence of our own transcendental consciousness.  And who is Kamsa – the unbridled ego - ahankar – with its endless desire for more, for power, for vain adulation.  It is the false identification with the ego, with materialism, that allow demonic tendencies to take over. From chapter 7:

The evildoers
Turn not toward me:
These are deluded,
Sunk low amongst mortals.
Their judgment is lost
In the maze of Maya,
Until the heart
Is human no longer:
Changed within 
To the heart of a devil.

In chapter 3 of the Gita, Arjuna asks: Krishna, what is it that makes man do evil, even against his own will; under compulsion as it were? Lord Krishna answers:

The rajo guna has two faces,
Rage and lust: the ravenous, the deadly:
Recognize these: they are your enemies.
Smoke hides fire,
Dust hides a mirror.
The womb hides the embryo:
By lust the Atman is hidden.

Lust hides the Atman in its hungry flames,
The wise man’s faithful foe.
Intellect, senses and mind
Are fuel to its fire:
Thus it deludes
The dweller in the body,
Bewildering his judgment.

When Divine wisdom is born in us – in the darkest hour of the night, the chains of darkness that have kept us imprisoned will fall from us, just as the chains fell from Vasudeva; the locks that have kept our minds imprisoned will open, just as the gates of the prison opened for Vasudeva.  When the Divine child is born in us, we will know who we really are, what our true purpose is in life.  When the Divine child is born in us, we awaken to the wisdom that our role is to control our senses, to awaken discrimination, to uphold righteousness.  The particular way that this manifests in each person’s life may be different.  But the awakening, the transformation begins with the birth of the Divine child.  That is the real meaning of Janamasthami.  

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