Janmashtami: Why do some Hindus go without sleep for two days?

Divine birth

The Krishna Janmashtami festival marks the birth of Krishna, one of the most popular deities worshipped by Hindus. He is thought to have been born in 3228 BC.

His birthday is celebrated eight days after Raksha Bandhan, a festival celebrating the bond between brothers and sisters. It falls in the Hindu month of Sravana, which normally corresponds to August or September. Celebrations are spread over two days and are vibrant and passionate.

At the stroke of midnight

Festivities start at midnight, when Krishna is thought to have been born.

Celebrations are different all over India, where each region has its own way of marking the special occasion. In the UK, one of the biggest celebrations for Janmashtami is held at Bhaktivedanta Manor in Hertfordshire. Thousands of plates of prasadam, a sacred vegetarian food, are given away to visiting pilgrims.

Sleepless at Janmashtami

Some Hindus simply don't go to sleep during the celebrations and instead sing bhajans, traditional Hindu songs. Food is a key ingredient for Janmashtami: Krishna is thought to have favoured milk and curds, so meals are prepared from these ingredients. However, some Hindus choose to fast all day and night for the first day of Krishna Janmashtami, breaking the fast at midnight.

Song, dance and drama are essential to the lively and colourful celebrations. Plays are carried out re-enacting scenes from Krishna's early life. In temples, images of Krishna are bathed and placed in cradles, whilst the shankh (conch shell) is blown and bells are rung. Holy mantras are also chanted to venerate him.

Human pyramid

Another striking tradition is the human pyramid: a young boy, who stands right at the top, is elevated by the crowd to reach a clay pot. The pot, known as a handi, is filled with buttermilk (dahi). When the boy reaches the top of the pyramid, he smashes the pot and the buttermilk spills.

Janmashtami celebrations are so important and extensive because of the huge significance that Krishna has in Hinduism.

A Janmashtami human pyramid
A Janmashtami human pyramid.

Preserver and protector

Most Hindus believe in a supreme god, whose qualities and forms are represented by the multitude of deities which emanate from him.

Krishna is believed to be an incarnate of Vishnu, the second god in the Hindu triumvirate or Trimurti.

The triumvirate consists of three gods who are responsible for the creation, upkeep and destruction of the world. The other two gods are Brahma, the creator of the universe, and Shiva the destroyer.

Vishnu is the preserver and protector of the universe. His role is to return to the earth in troubled times and restore the balance of good and evil. So far, he has been incarnated nine times, but Hindus believe that he will be incarnated one last time close to the end of this age and destroy the evil that has arisen in the world.

Hindu beliefs and traditions can differ depending on where communities are based. This great variety is due to the character of this faith, which is perhaps better described as a family of religions.

On his way to visit a Hindu shrine, Peter Owen Jones meets a Sadhu - a holy man.

A family of religions

Unlike most other religions, Hinduism has no single founder, no single scripture, and no commonly agreed set of teachings.

Throughout its extensive history, there have been many key figures teaching different philosophies and writing numerous holy books.

For these reasons, Hinduism is often referred to as a way of life or a family of religions rather than a single religion.

Although it is not easy to define the belief system, it's believed to be rooted in India.

Most Hindus revere a body of texts as sacred scripture known as the Veda and draw on a common system of values known as dharma.

Hindu concepts have also influenced other traditions and religions.

Krishna  playing the flute, with a sacred cow beside him.
Krishna is often depicted playing the flute, with a sacred cow beside him.

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