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Manu Juyal
Young dancers perform traditional dances during Wednesday night's Janmashtami celebration at the Salt Lake City Krishna Center.
This holiday for Hindus compares to Christmas Day. Krishna is worshipped throughout India as 'the Supreme Personality of Godhead.' —Charu Das, Leader of the Salt Lake City Krishna Center

SALT LAKE CITY — They call it kirtan, a word from the ancient Sanskrit that means "praise" or "eulogy." For many Hindus it is a form of religious worship — part chanting, part singing — during which a leader, called a kirtankar, sings a phrase (or mantra) and the congregation repeats it back, all to the accompaniment of drums, cymbals, tambourines, clapping and — sometimes — harmonium. From time to time there is freelance variation in the melody line sung by the kirtankar, and often the pace and intensity of the musical chanting accelerates over time. But always there is power in the kirtan: the power of love, the power of prayer, the power of faith.

That power filled both the Lotus Temple in Spanish Fork and the Salt Lake City Krishna Center this week as hundreds of the faithful and the curious gathered to celebrate Krishna Janmashtami, Krishna's birthday, or as Charu Das calls it, the day "to celebrate the Appearance of Shree Krishna."

"This holiday for Hindus compares to Christmas Day," said Charu, the leader of the Salt Lake City Krishna Center. "Krishna is worshipped throughout India as 'the Supreme Personality of Godhead.' Five thousand years ago he appeared on earth to protect the pious, annihilate the miscreants and re-establish the principles of virtue. In celebration of that we chant his holy names and observe his advent with fasting and feasting, drama and dance and gifts of worship for Lord Krishna."

Many Hindus fast on the day of Janmashtami, and end their fast with a feast at midnight, which is believed to be the precise time that Krishna made his earthly appearance. During the course of the day, gifts of food are brought to be placed before one of the Krishna shrines in the Krishna Center.

"Traditionally, more than 100 different food offerings are given to God, with the food as delectable as possible," Charu said. "This can be challenging for those who are fasting. You see many eyes get big as the food is brought in."

At the Salt Lake Krishna Center Wednesday night, there were more than 125 food offerings placed on tables before the images of Krishna, Lord Rama (another Hindu deity) and his wife Sida.

"We've never had more than 35-40 food offerings before," Charu said, appreciatively. "Tonight, this is above and beyond anything we've ever done before."

And that, he said, is meaningful as it reflects the faithfulness and devotion of those who work so hard to prepare this gift for God.

"God doesn't need our food," Charu said. "But we need to serve him. The devotional path leads to God. By serving Krishna, we express who we are, and we never lack."

As the food offerings were being placed before the images of Krishna, Rama and Sida, the kirtankar and a group of kirtan musicians led the thematic chant of the evening:

Hare Kirshna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare

Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare

According to Krishna.com, the mantra is most often translated to mean: "O Lord, O energy of the Lord, please engage me in your service."

Eventually the Wednesday night kirtan was taken outside, where a group of celebrants re-enacted an episode from Krishna's life. According to tradition, the playful, mischievous young Krishna would climb on the shoulders of friends to reach up to break earthen pots, or handi, filled with yogurt or milkl or curds (dahi) so they could eat it. Today, the Dahi Handi is a fun and lively Janmashtami event, with human pyramids being formed to help a designated pot-breaker reach the suspended pot filled with sweets. In some parts of the world, this can be a dangerous undertaking, with human pyramids extending as many as seven to nine levels high. But the Salt Lake pyramid required only three levels, and was accompanied by laughter, applause and a scattering of children scrambling for candy.

Other events included a performance of traditional dances by Bharat Natyam Dance performer Divya Narayanam and her troupe of students and a musical pageant that portrayed Krishna's miraculous birth. For those who were not feasting there was also a wide assortment of traditional foods.

But for many, the most significant part of the celebration was the Abhishekam, or bathing ceremony, during which two golden images of Krishna are reverently bathed in murthi, a mixture of yogurt, mango, coconut milk and pomegranate juice.

"Obviously, Krishna doesn't need to be bathed," Charu said as celebrants lined up to take their turn pouring the fragrant liquid over the icons while the chanting of the kirtan echoed in the multipurpose room. "But he allows us to perform this service for him as a reminder that as important as it is to love and serve our fellowman, it is not as important as loving and serving God.

"Sometimes I think we get so busy with the things that occupy our lives — our work, our families and even being involved in good causes — that we forget to serve God," he continued. "We allow our involvement in good causes to get in the way of the greatest of all causes: our service to God."

That's why traditional celebrations like Janmashtami are so important.

"It's a time for us to reconnect with God," Charu said. "We come to the temple, we do traditional things, we remember Lord Krishna, we chant his name and our desire to serve him, and it helps us remember that our love of God is not some vague, ambiguous thing. It is very specific, and very personal. And it is eternal."

In the background, the kirtan continued indefatigably, as the last streams of murthi were poured over the likeness of Krishna.

"Hare Kirshna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare.

"Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare."