Are birthday celebrations for devotees authentic from the Vedic perspective?
Transcription By: Rahul Kambhamti P
Edited By: Priyanka Amit Kumar Mataji
Question: Is the celebration of the birthday for devotees authentic from the Vedic perspective?
Answer: The 10th canto of Srimad Bhagavatam portrays Lord Krishna’s birthday being celebrated, Balaram’s birthday celebration is also noticed. Further, we also have the tradition of vyas puja where the spiritual master’s birthday is celebrated. .
The Vedic culture is a culture of affection and reciprocation. However, specific ceremonies say cutting of cake, may not be followed. Once, while talking about Krishna’s birthday celebrations, Srila Prabhupada mentioned that, mother Yashoda told Krishna to give charity, and that there is a tradition of giving charities on days which are important to us.
The principle of expressing our affection for others and thereby reciprocating love is the actual theme, even though celebrations with specific cultural forms like cutting cakes, blowing candles may not be Vedic, however. This is, definitely, a part of bhakti culture and once it’s understood, then, according to time place and circumstances, the affection can be expressed in different ways.
Birthday celebrations stand important in today’s culture. If people who have been habituated to celebrating birthdays before becoming devotees, then after becoming devotees birthday celebration would mean having some genuine reciprocation and appreciation and that is very encouraging for them.
We should be concerned not just about the forms, but also about the substance. Unlike substance, the form itself might not necessarily be Vedic, but that is insignificant.
The substance is that we want to appreciate, express our affection, and encouragement.
In one sense, birthdays are occasions where Guhyam akhyati prayachati, that is, devotees can express their appreciation for others, and can get encouraged, by others expressing the same. . It is very unfortunate that sometimes only non devotee colleagues express appreciation or wishes for the birthday and devotees don’t.
A devotee had once mentioned about a conversation with the temple president, on his joining ISKCON , as a brahmachari, he mentioned that on his birthday, he went to the temple president and told him about it, however, “He was shocked to hear the temple president making the following statement, “So how old is stool bag today!” ”This is body and it’s a stool bag what is so great about it?” Such an attitude is not very devotional. We should not become hard hearted. Although, we should not be attached to the body, but still we use this body, we use it in Krishna’s service. From one perspective, body is a source of misery that is when one is too attached to the body. However, body is also the temple of Krishna, we apply tilak on it, and we use it in Krishna’s service.
This is like moving more towards jnani vayaragi side in one’s attitude; instead one should focus on the devotional essence which involves reciprocation of emotions. In case, birthdays offer an opportunity of sweet reciprocation among devotees, then definitely such opportunities must be utilized, and the cultural forms be adjusted according time, place and circumstances, Srila Prabhupada himself did that many times. He accepted the fact that devotees could participate in kirtans with non traditional instruments, that is devotees could bring instruments other than mridanga and kartal. Of course, other instruments were and are not permitted in the morning program; there the original tradition is maintained. However, the point is there are other forums where these things can be utilized.
Therefore, the theme is, that we preserve the cultural forms, where the central standards of worship are maintained. In addition, there are many other cultural forms which are perfectly acceptable, and if on checking it is found that their essential purpose is in harmony with Vedic scriptures.
Thank U very much pr i myself was confused about this point of birthday celebration.on Birthday i usually Request that devotee to increase japa rounds,thank U Very Much Prji
I appreciate this topic, however, i don’t find much references in this article to justify why to celebrate birthday ceremonies. Did we celebrate this even before British injection? We did celebrate Vyasa puja but what about individual birth day. i didn’t hear much about my parents and their like aged people celebrated this.
Even though the temple president words are harsh, what is wrong in that philosophically? we are not this body (even though we are not realized), why again and again identifying with this body. Yes, i may have hundreds of other bodily activities, but why not we just ignore this one ignorant activity first? Birthday celebration is still making us to identify with the body and the bodily relations. why are you promoting this? Please explain in detail from the scriptures, how to justify this event.
Jaya Krsna Dasa.
I am not promoting it – I am simply saying that devotees who want to do it can do so infusing it with a devotional mood.
Prabhupada built a house big enough to accomodate those who don’t want to celebrate birthdays and those who want to.
If you believe it doesn’t have space for those who want to celebrate birthdays, please give in detail explicit quotes from scripture forbidding birthday celebrations.
Thank you so much prabhu for your kind reply. I heard about you and your lectures. I am not that much sound in philosophy like your grace, I tried to bring my concern quoting scriptures. Please correct me if i am not correct anywhere.
1. I don’t recollect any incidents in the initial days of ISKCON (mentioned in lilamrta), devotees celebrated their birthday after they started learning from Srila Prabhupada seriously. i am not talking about Vyasa Puja.
2. BG 2.20 – For the soul there is neither birth nor death at any time…, then who is celebrating birthday? As per 2.19, Neither he who thinks the living entity the slayer nor he who thinks it slain is in knowledge.., similarly one who thinks that he is getting birth is also in no knowledge.
3. BG 2.22, we are keep on changing this dress (bodies), so why we are celebrating this particular dress? whatever body we had at the time of birth we changed that, then why we are celebrating now? This body also is keep on changing (cells), that means, birth and death is happening every second. if we want to celebrate birthday, then which body birth we have to celebrate. If we start to celebrate birth day for all our dresses, we have to celebrate unlimited times for every nano seconds. then where is Krishna consciousness now?
4. BG 2.26 – If, however, you think that the soul [or the symptoms of life] will always be born and die forever, you still have no reason to lament…
if we don’t have any reason to lament for birth and death, it is same as no reason to celebrate it also.
5. BG 2.29 – Some look on the soul as amazing, some describe him as amazing, and some hear of him as amazing, while others, even after hearing about him, cannot understand him at all.
Even after hearing about soul (about us), still if we give space to this birth day celebration, we might take space in the not understanding group. Then how can we preach birth and death is painful?
6. Jiva is wandering in repeated birth and death, so we have to concentrate as much as in Guru and Krishna’s service. Taking birth is not an easy or pleasurable one. If we forget our all endeavor to come out from the womb, after reading Srimad Bhagavadam [3rd canto], then who will guide us and put back to the actual devotional path?
7. Mode of goodness is good to get knowledge and understand our temporary position [BG 14.6]. For that we cannot suggest to stay in mode of goodness [2.45]. Similarly, this body [field of activity] is used to practice devotional service, but we cannot support to treat body nicely and comfortably. this is what material people are doing, life after life.
8. BG 13.8-12, Srila Prabhupada given purport like this:
One should try to understand the distress of accepting birth, death, old age and disease. There are descriptions in various Vedic literatures of birth. In the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam the world of the unborn, the child’s stay in the womb of the mother, its suffering, etc., are all very graphically described. It should be thoroughly understood that birth is distressful. Because we forget how much distress we have suffered within the womb of the mother, we do not make any solution to the repetition of birth and death….
so actual birth day is distress, are they celebrating this as distressful day?
9. Quote from Srila Prabhupada lecture:
A son is born. Oh, you are very glad, “I have got a son.” But if you study philosophically, no, birth is not. He is not born. Death is born. Because the growing of the child means he is dying. It is dying. The dying process. The very day, the very moment the child is born, the dying process begins. So we do not know that it is not birth. It is death. This is called maya. This is called illusion, that death is born and we are jolly that there is birth of a child.
From Srila Prabhupada’s Lecture, 12 Apr 1966.
10. Apart from this, if you have time, please hear the answer from H.H. Bhakti Vikasa Swami Maharaj:
waiting for your reply to understand more from the scriptures deeply.
Jaya Krsna Dasa.
Thanks for all these quotes – none of them, however, explicitly ban birthday celebrations, as I had requested.
I heard Maharaj’s answer and I fully agree with the principle of commercialization he talks about – and I feel there are other aspects to it that I address in my answer here:
Prabhu, as there is no explicit shastra on this, different devotees will have different stands on it based on their understanding of shastra and this irreducible diversity will never be removed. So I don’t see any point in continuing this discussion. If you strongly feel that those wanting to celebrate birthdays (I am not among them, let me be clear – I am among those who feel that bhakti is magnanimous enough to accomodate them) have no place in ISKCON, then you can get the GBC to pass a resolution to that effect.
Thank you so much prabhu. If you still say Srila Prabhupada’s lecture is not the direct instruction, then i am agreeing that there is no sastric proof available to reject this. I am also agreeing that, this is not that much big issue to discuss for days and days. GBC have other issues to discuss.
However, i am requesting those who can guide other devotees like your grace, express your understanding very clearly. Don’t give them 50:50. I know many devotees who are referring your lectures and read articles regularly.
Even after that, if they want to continue activities like this, we don’t worry about that and we don’t need to stop them.
ISKCON is having space for everyone and i have no qualification to decide who can enter. if i dare to speak like that then my gurumaharaj and Srila Prabhupada kick me out of the society and there will be no hope for me.
Kindly excuse me if my way of expression is hurting you. I just expressed my concern referring from Srila Prabhupada’s books, what i understood.
Jaya Krsna Dasa
Yes, Prabhu, we certainly shouldn’t give people 50:50 – we should give the full picture. And giving that means not just repeating some instruction given in some other context, but giving the context of the instruction and explaining the significance of that instruction within that context and what it does and doesn’t mean in some other context. Those who just quote the instruction without the context actually give 50:50.
Again, I repeat: none of the quotes explicitly ban birthday celebrations – the ban is your subjective inference from the quotes. The inference is mixed with the quotes without proper separating double codes so that readers will think that the inference is also coming from Prabhupada.
Perhaps the audio may address some of your concerns – the issues I have presented there are the result of my consultations with several senior Prabhupada disciples in leading positions. What I spoke reflects the understanding of the mainstream followers of Srila Prabhupada.
If some followers of Prabhupada believe that they have a monopoly on him, that their understanding of him is the only correct understanding, they have the right to that belief, but others too have the right to reject that belief.
Let’s end this discussion here. I am forever grateful to Krishna that he brought me to his feet – and that he did not bring me to him through people who would ask newcomers on their birthdays: “How old is your stool bag?”. I offer my obeisances to those who persevered in bhakti in spite of meeting such insensitivity, but as our movement matures such insensitivity should be removed, not mandated and institutionalized. We are meant to make people’s journey to Krishna easier, not harder.