My First Janmastami

Back in 1972 I was a 17 year-old sea cadet. My ship had docked in Bombay and I stepped onto that exotic shore in search of reasonably priced souvenirs. Under the intense encouragement of a shopkeeper I came close to purchasing a fine ivory chess set costing most of my week’s wages before I spotted a little figurine of Krishna. He exerted a strange attraction over me and after handing over my hard-earned rupees I left with him in my pocket. The god of love, I thought. I could do with a bit of love.
Fast forward to 1979 and a rainy summer’s day in England. My seafaring days were over, and I was hitchhiking in search of more meaningful things, although I had no idea where to find them. When a kindhearted driver picked me up and asked where I was headed, I had to frankly admit that I didn’t know. “No problem,” he said. “You can ride with me for a while.”
It turned out he was a disciple of Srila Prabhupada named Hetu, and as he drove, he pointed to a book on the dashboard. “That’s the Bhagavad Gita. I’d like to hear it. Why don’t you read it aloud?”
I was happy to oblige and soon my mind was reeling under the force of the Gita’s powerful verses. I’d never read anything like it. “Who wrote this?” I asked.
“Lord Krishna,” he replied. “He’s the Supreme Personality of Godhead.”
I sat for a moment or two trying to take that in. Still nestling in my rucksack was the little figurine from Bombay. It seemed he was not just the god of love.
“Godhead?” I asked. “What does that mean?”
“The all-powerful Supreme Lord. My guru used the term to stress that God is a person, like you and me.”
“You mean we’re all God?” I asked. I had long suspected this possibility, but Hetu quickly squashed that notion.
“Not at all. Krishna is the whole and we are the tiny parts. Think about it, if you were God would you be wandering aimlessly in soaking wet clothes, trying to hitch a lift from someone else?”
He had a point. I wanted to know more about this personality who had been with me these last seven years. By now I was quite attached to him and felt he was my lucky charm, even though my luck had reduced me to a near penniless itinerant. “So why is he called Krishna?” I asked.
“Krishna means ‘all-attractive’,” replied Hetu. “A rich or famous person is attractive, right? Well, Krishna has all wealth, all fame, all beauty, knowledge, power, and anything else you can imagine. Everything belongs to him. He’s God, after all.”
I gazed at the rainy road. Krishna’s attractiveness had certainly seemed to work on me. Hetu explained that his spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada, was Krishna’s authorised representative. Perhaps my lucky charm had indeed brought me some good fortune. “Is there somewhere I can find out more?” I asked.
“Sure,” said Hetu. “I’ll take you to Bhaktivedanta Manor where Krishna lives. They’re just about to celebrate his birthday.”
“Where he lives!? Birthday? What do you mean?” I looked wide-eyed at Hetu.
“Let’s go and find out,” he said, pressing the accelerator of his old van as we turned onto the M1. Soon we were pulling into the driveway of a fine old mock Tudor building. Hetu took me into the shrine room and there, standing on a golden altar in all his shining, bejewelled glory was a full-size version of my small figurine. My mouth fell open at the splendid sight. Surely only God himself could look like that. I’d never seen anyone dressed and decorated so beautifully.
“So when is his birthday? Will there be a cake?” I asked, trying to imagine what that might be like.
“In a few days,” said Hetu. “It’s really his anniversary, of course. He was actually born 5000 years ago, and we celebrate that day every year on what is known as Janmashtami.”
I was incredulous. “How can God be born? Isn’t he like, eternal?”
“Certainly, but sometimes he appears in this world so we can get to know him better. The Bhagavad Gita explains that he comes to re-establish righteousness and deliver the faithful from worldly suffering.”
“He must be overdue a visit, then,” I replied. “There’s a bit of a shortage of righteousness these days.”
Hetu laughed. “You’re right, but the wonderful thing about Krishna is that just by hearing about his earthly pastimes we can feel his presence. Also, by chanting his names. God is not limited like us. He is absolute, which means he can incarnate in sound vibration.”
I gazed at Krishna standing serenely on the altar. I had so many questions. The devotees suggested I stay for a few days. “You can join in with the Janmashtami celebrations.” God’s birthday party sounded good to me. No doubt there would be some great munchies. I agreed and a few days later found myself fasting for the day. “We have a big feast at midnight,” the devotees said. “But first we fast to honour the Lord’s appearance.”
I looked at my watch. Nine am. How would I last till midnight? The devotees said there would be food for guests, but I decided to give it a go. I needed to do something for my little Krishna who had brought me so far. The day quickly passed with much joyous chanting and dancing, as well as talks about Krishna’s ‘pastimes’ when he appeared. These proved to be thoroughly fascinating and I hardly noticed my growling stomach. Finally, midnight arrived and Krishna was revealed in his magnificent birthday outfit. We danced away another half hour and at last sat down to a stunning array of vegetarian goodies, which I began to demolish at world record speed. What a day. My life would never be the same again.