The Legend of Janmashtami
It says in the Puranas that Mathura, a prominent town of Northern India and the birth city of Sri Krishna was ruled by King Ugrasen, a Yaduvanshi (Belonging to the Community of Yadavs). He was a great king loved by his subjects.
He had two children, a son Kansa and a daughter Devki. Kansa was quite cruel by nature. He jailed his father and forcefully became the king. Though Kansa was hard hearted, he loved his sister immensely and married her off to Vasudev, one the high ranking officers in his army. However on the day of the wedding, as a result of a heavenly prediction that Devki's eighth child will be born to kill him, Kansa decided to kill his sister. On Vasudev's pleading, he put both of them in dungeons and let them live but with a promise that they will handover all their children to Kansa, only to be killed by him.
Birth of Balram
Kansa succeeded in killing all the six new born babies of Devki and Vasudev, however the seventh child was saved by divine intervention as the child was transferred from Devki's womb to that of Rohini's, Vasudev's other wife. Thus Balram, the elder brother of Krishna was born but Kansa thought that Devki had a miscarriage.
Birth of Krishna
The birth of the eighth child of Devki, Lord Krishna was followed by a chain of dramatic events. Soon after the birth of the child, as if by a sheer miracle, all the soldiers guarding the couple fell asleep and the gates of the dungeon flew open themselves. Vasudev decided to smuggle the child safely in a basket to his friend Nand in Gokul. Since it was raining heavily, River Yamuna was all swollen and Vasudev feared that both he as well as his child will drown if he tried to cross it, however, as soon as the feet of the infant touched the river, the flow of water became normal and Vasudev was able to cross it easily. Sheshnag, the five headed serpent of Lord Vishnu protected the child with its fangs. Vasudev knew that his was not an ordinary child but a divine being. After handing his child, to his dear friend, Nand, Vasudev returned back safely with a girl child and no one got to know about it.
On hearing the news of the eighth born child, Kansa rushed to kill the girl. He paid no heed to Devki's plead of sparing the girl. He held the child by her legs and just as he was about to bang her against the wall, the girl vanished into thin air and told Kansa that his slayer had been born and was safe in Gokul. The girl child was none other than Yogmaya (divine illusion). The eighth child grew up as Yashoda and Nand's son in Gokul and later killed his maternal uncle Kansa, freeing all the people of Mathura from his tyranny.
Legend of King Kansa
Kansa was the king of Mathura city and maternal uncle of Sri Krishna. According to legend, Janmashtami is celebrated as the birth of Bhagwan Krishna, an avatar of Lord Vishnu to slay the cruel king . Kansa was a self-proclaimed King of the city of Mathura (A City in Northern India). He overthrew his father, King Ugrasen and forcefully became the king. He was very wicked and evil in thinking. His subjects feared him, the cowherds of not only Mathura but also other neighbouring villages like Gokul, Barsana, Nandgaon were the victims of his wickedness. They had no option but to surrender to his tyrannical ways.
Army of Demons
King Kansa had an army of demons who helped him spread fear and accomplish his evil tasks. Putana, Bakasura, Aghasura were his close aides.
Loving BrotherKansa loved his younger sister Devki and fulfilled all her wishes. He married her to Vasudev, one of his cousins and a high-ranking officer in the army with great pomp and show. However, during the wedding ceremony of his sister, Devki, the love for his sister turned to hatred when a heavenly prediction warned him, that the eighth child of Devki will be the annihilator Of Kansa. On being assured of getting all the new born children of Devki and Vasudev, Kansa decided to imprison them under close supervision and let them live.
Killing of InfantsKansa managed to kill all the new borns of his sister Devki and brother-in-law, Vasudev. His elder brother Balram, seventh child of the couple, was saved by being transferred to Rohini's womb. Similarly Lord Krishna, the eighth child, born to kill evil Kansa was saved after being miraculously shifted to Gokul on the night of his birth and replaced with a female child. However, Kansa got to know that his destroyer had been born and was being brought up by an unknown family in a neighboring village.
Ongoing Efforts to Kill the ChildSoon, after getting to know that the eighth child of his sister was born and safely growing in another village, Kansa ordered his soldiers to kill all the one-day old male infants in and around Mathura. He made quite a few unsuccessful attempts to kill the child.
Episode of Putana-The DemonessKing Kansa, sent one of his reliable servants to kill on the infants in the village by feeding them poisonous milk. She killed many infants but in the end she was killed by baby Krishna who sucked her life while being fed poisonous milk.
Killing of Demon TrinivartaOn hearing the death of Putana, King Kansa, sent his another servant- demon Trinivarta to kill Sri Krishna. Trinivarta took the form of a whirlwind, and carried the young Krishna away with itself, in the hope of throwing him away. Lord Krishna increased his weight which made the demon unable to move any further. After some time, Lord Krishna became too heavy for the demon to handle, so he fell on the ground and died.
End of BakasuraAt the instigation of Kansa, his friend Bakasura, changed his form to that of a crane,and went to kill young Krishna, He hit him with his beak but Lord caught hold of his beak and tore it apart, killing him instantly.
Slaying of King KansaKing Kansa, tired of the killing of all his servants, invited both his nephews, Balram and Krishna for a wrestling match in Mathura. He made use of elephant Kuvalyapeeda to kill Krishna at the entrance of the arena, Krishna killed him followed by killings of Charuna and Toshalaka- chosen atheletes of Kansa. Krishna went to Kansa, took him by hair and threw him on the ground; finally killing him. The slaying Of Kansa ended his tyrannical rule and people rejoiced and celebrated his death.
Rituals of Janmashtami
Janmashtami festival witnesses many interesting customs and rituals wherever there is a Hindu community. While some rituals are common to all, others are unique and restricted to a particular region or city. These customs and rituals are followed religiously by all the Lord Krishna devotees year after year.
Rituals and Customs Observed during JanmashtamiFasting: The most common ritual observed all over during Janmashtami is fasting by devotees on the day of the festival. Devotees fast for the entire day and break it after the birth of Lord Krishna at midnight. People prefer to have only milk and milk products as they were the favorite of Lord Krishna. Some devotees of Lord Krishna go to the extent of keeping 'Nirjal' fast- It involves fasting without having a single drop of water. There are other ardent followers , who keep the fast for two days in the honor of Lord Krishna.
Chanting: Devotees indulge in continuous chanting all day long. They chant mantras and shlokas to please the lord. Religious atmosphere prevails everywhere. Devotees highlight his feats and his divine characteristics. Chanting of 108 names of Lord Krishna is another ritual that takes place in various temples. Chanting of names is accompanied by showering of flowers on the idol of Lord Krishna.
Devotional Songs and DancesAnother popular ritual is singing of songs (bhajans) in the praise of Lord Krishna. Bhajans are an important custom of the midnight celebration during the festival. Dances are also performed by devotees depicting the various events of Lord Krishna.
Staging of Plays or Dramas of Lord KrishnaPlays depicting various events and accomplishments of Lord Krishna during his lifetime is another important custom during the festival. Both professional and amateur stage plays at various places are widely attended by devotees (Daily Star, September 15, 2007).