(The following article was posted in the "Meditations" column of the Hindustan Times, one of India's largest English language daily newspapers, on 20 August 2003.
JANMASHTAMI IS a magical time, for more reasons than one. The sacred holiday Janmashtami celebrates the birth of Lord Krishna on this earth at midnight, but the ocurrencs leading up to this event are as significant as the birth itself. Prior to Lord Krishna's appearance, Devaki had lost six sons, murdered as infants by King Kamsa, Devaki's brother. From the shastras we learn that these six had been the sons of Marichi, and that Lord Brahma had cursed them to be killed by Kamsa, who in a previous birth had been their father.
These six sons also represent the sad garbasuras, or the human defects of lust, anger, greed, madness, illusion and envy. Devaki's sons' deaths by Kamsa symbolise overcoming these six faults within ourselves. Fortunately, Devaki is later reunited with her sons, as Lord Krishna and His brother Balarama retrieve them from Bali Maharaja, bringing them back to life.
Even so, the sons represent flaws in our character, and their deaths at the hands of Kamsa signify the need for us to purify our consciousness. Their dying stands for eradicating the 'demons' of material association.
Decontamination of human consciousness is necessary to cure the world's ills. Janmashtami is really more than an observance in which joy and gladness reign in the soul for a day. Janmashtami is meant to purify the entire world for a long time by penetrating the remote recesses of consclousness.
Gold is often obtained from smelting ore. Similarly, the essential goodness of human beings can be extracted from this sordid and negative age. Despite being infected through the modes of passion and ignorance, understanding the meaning behind Janmasthami is a failsafe process.
Holidays are in fact holy days, times meant for us to revere and worship God, not only symbolically, but also literally. We understand His nature and birth from timeless writings like the Gita. In that book Krishna says, 'One who knows the transcendental nature of My appearance and activities does not, upon leaving the body, take his birth again in this material world, but attains My eternal abode, 0 Arjuna'. (4.9) Equally, if not more important than never taking birth in this world again, is improving the quality of life for the whole planet - a spiritual revival.
This is the deeper purpose of Janmashtami.
The writer is emeritus member of the ISKCON Governing Body Commission