Raksha Bandhan is a popular, traditionally Hindu annual rite or ceremony, which is central to a festival of the same name, celebrated in South Asia and also among people around the world, influenced by Hindu culture. On this day, sisters of all ages tie a talisman or amulet called ‘Rakhi’ around the wrists of their brothers, symbolically protecting them and praying for their long life. In return, the brothers take a vow to protect their sisters from every untoward happening and obstacle. Brothers also give a gift to their sisters on the occasion of Raksha Bandhan. The sacred thread ‘Rakhi’, tied to the brother’s wrist by affectionate sister, is the ceremonial expression of a sister’s pious hope and wish, that her brother be guided by spiritual wisdom, using common sayings as “May you be holy and may you have protection against evil”. The symbolic thread ‘Rakhi’ is the token of remembrance and inspiration for the brother. On the pious occasion of Raksha Bandhan, brothers and sisters promise eternal love for each other.
The expression of Raksha Bandhan in Sanskrit literally means – ‘the bond of protection, obligation or care’ is now principally applied to this ritual. The term Raksha Bandhan originates from Sanskrit and translates to ‘bond of protection’. Raksha Bandhan is observed on the full-moon day in the holy Hindu-luni-solar month of Shravana. This month corresponds to the Gregorian calendar month of August. Until the mid 20th century, the expression was more commonly applied to a similar ritual, also held on the same day with the precedence in ancient Hindu texts; in which a domestic priest ties amulets, charms or threads on the wrists of his patrons or changes their sacred thread and receives gifts of money in some places. In contrast, the sister-brother festival with origins in folk-culture had names, which varied with location with some rendered as ‘Saluno’, ‘Silono’ and ‘Rakri’. A ritual associated with ‘Saluno’, included the sisters placing shoots of barley behind the ears of their brothers.
Spiritual significance regarding Raksha Bandhan : The physical ‘rakhi’ tied on the wrist is to remind constantly that all souls are the children of the ‘One Supreme Father’, making all of as the brothers and this is the concept of ‘brotherhood’. It is the reminder of ‘vow of purity’. The pledge taken with ‘Satguru Shiva’ is that all our thoughts and actions should always be the embodiment of truth. To tie a spiritual rakhi, one should prepare oneself, physically and mentally and sit in solitude preferably in the very early hours of the morning known as ‘Amrit Vela’. Concentration should be at first given on Lord Shiva, the Supreme soul and churn on Him as ‘Supreme spiritual teacher, protector, companion, support of life and the highest on high Supreme Father’. Then a vow should be made near Lord Shiva to live a life of purity in thoughts, words, actions and relationships. This vow should be of our free-will and it is something one wants to do, being free from fear. It should not be done for the sake to please anyone; or for name, fame, appreciation and recognition. No guru or rituals are necessary, except guidance is needed by one.
The spiritual significance of Raksha Bandhan is when one takes a sacred divine vow of purity with the God, to live a life of purity in thoughts, words and actions. The religious aspect of Raksha Bandhan is a promise by a brother for the protection of his sister- this is done to the extent of defending her honour even at the expense of his life, which is usually practised in the path of devotion and has religious adherence. Here, the sister shows respect to the brother in the form of adoration or worship. The festival is the memorial of protection from the vices and the freedom, from the bondage of this material world. This life of purity and the freedom from the bondage elevates the soul to its original pure stage. Raksha Bandhan, therefore is not an isolated festival but it is an activity in a major event in the world cycle, for the purification of all souls as well as the elements. This event begins with Shivaratri, when God incarnates the earth to destroy the vices, once in every cycle of 5000 years. Raksha Bandhan is not to be taken lightly as a ritual or a mere ceremony, but this festival is to be taken as a ‘deed of covenant’ with God. Actually, Raksha Bandhan is our insurance policy, when one surrender the body, mind and wealth. When you take this vow of purity with God, in return, He gives you the key to the lock of your intellect or the opening of the spiritual eye – this ‘third eye’ is the divine intellect and is the source of intuitive wisdom. ‘Rakhi’ means to protect the self and to protect other souls but it does not mean the protection from other souls. Raksha Bandhan is a confluence age-activity and it is the gateway into the golden age where all souls are pure and civilization is at its highest. There is no room for Darwin’s evolutionary theory in spirituality as it is contrary to the world’s eternal drama and the eternal laws of thermodynamics.
In Mahabharat; Draupadi, the wife of Pandavas, once tore a piece from her saree and tied it around the wounded finger of Lord Krishna. Lord Krishna was touched by her action and declared her to be his sister. During Draupadi’s ‘bastraharan’ by the Kauravas, no one stepped forward to protect her. Even her five warrior husbands (Pandavas) kept quite. When Draupadi cried for help and called upon Lord Krishna, the Lord himself protected Draupadi by taking the form of an extended saree in lieu of the small piece of cloth, tied around his finger. With this tradition, a disciple also ties rakhi on the hand of their guru, imploring Him to protect the ‘Yog’ or connection to God. Satguru, ‘the divine master’, takes care of leading and guiding the devoted disciple to move forward on the path of the spiritual journey.
Raksha Bandhan - the bondage between brothers and sisters : The ‘rakhi’ signifies the bond and support between brothers and sisters. The red coloured rakhi tied on the right wrist of the brother is symbolic to the fire element and as per the Hindu belief; red stands for purity and a sister ties a red thread to ensure that there is strength, security, power and protection in the relationship. Yellow rakhi represents the newness, the freshness of spring and the beginning of a new era. As well as yellow is the colour of Devi Saraswati, the world-mother of purity and wisdom. The bond between brothers and sisters is the strongest bond ever and the chastity of the relationship only solidifies this bond further. The festival of Raksha Bandhan is all about celebrating this bond. This celebration of the bond between siblings is celebrated across the nation. The central ceremony of Rakhi is all about sisters, tying a sacred thread known as ‘Rakhi’, around the wrists of their brothers. Most Indian traditions have a scientific reason or logic for being that way and we decided to dig deeper about Raksha Bandhan. We are all familiar about the mythical and historical stories related to the origin of Rakhi, ranging from Draupadi and Krishna to Rani Karnavati to Humayun. So, we decided to focus on rakhis, the most important item for this festival and its evolution. Traditionally, the colour of the Rakhi was red and even today, it is the most prevalent colour when it comes to rakhis.
The whole idea behind the festival Raksha Bandhan is that the sisters pray for the safety and prosperity of their brothers, while the brothers vow to safeguard and stand for their sisters. With time the design of the rakhis has also undergone various changes and now they come in numerous designs; some of them also come with miniatures of gods and goddesses. According to Vastu experts, rakhis with such figures is actually inauspicious and can strain relations between brothers and sisters. On the other hand, rakhis with sacred symbols like ‘aunkar’ or a ‘swastika’, are actually considered to be auspicious and do not have any harmful effects. Some people also use rakhis, made out of gold and silver but metal is not a good option for rakhis. The best rakhis are the ones made of natural fibres, which brings the brothers and sisters closer.
Voluntary kin relations : Raksha Bandhan is a ritual to strengthen the bond of sibling’s love. On seeing the Indian history, Rani Karnavati, the widowed queen of the king of Chittor, sent a rakhi to Emperor Humayun to protect her against the invasion of the Sultan of Gujrat, Bahadur Shah. Humayun immediately set off with his troops to defend Chittor. Humayun arrived too late and Bahadur Shah managed to take over Rani’s fort. But Humayun conquered over Bahadur Shah and restored the kingdom to Karnavati’s son. Thus, among women and men, who are not relatives by blood, there is also a transformed tradition of voluntary kin relations, achieved through the tying of rakhi amulets, which have cut across the caste and class- lines; and Hindu and Muslim divisions. In some communities or contexts other figures such as matriarch or a person in authority, can be included in the ceremony in ritual acknowledgement of their benefaction. According to author Prem Chowdhury, “The same symbolic protection is also requested from the high caste men by the low caste women in a work-relationship situation. The ritual thread is offered, though not tied and higher caste men customarily give some money in return”.
Village Exogamy on Raksha Bandhan : Of the special significance to married women, Raksha Bandhan is rooted in the practice of territorial or village exogamy, in which a bride marries out of her natal village or town and her parents by custom do not visit her in the in-law’s residence. In rural North India, where village exogamy is strongly prevalent, large numbers of married Hindu women travel back to their parent’s home every year for the ceremony. Their brothers, who typically live with the parents or nearby, sometimes travel to the in-law’s residence of their sisters to escort them back. Many younger married women arrive a few weeks earlier at their natal homes and stay until the ceremony. The brothers serve as lifelong intermediaries between their sisters’ married and parental homes, as well as potential stewards of their security.
In urban India, where families are increasingly nuclear, the festival has become more symbolic but continues to be highly popular. The rituals associated to this festival have spread beyond their traditional regions and have been transformed through technology, migration, the movies, social interaction and promotion by politicized Hinduism as well as by the nation state. Among women and men who are not relatives by blood, there is also a transformed tradition of voluntary kin relations, achieved through the tying of rakhi amulets, which have cut across caste and class-lines and Hindu-Muslim divisions. In some communities or contexts, other figures such as matriarch or a person in authority, can be included in the ceremony in ritual acknowledgement of their benefaction.
Sociologist Yogendra Singh has noted the contribution of American anthropologist McKim Marriot, to an understanding of the origins of the Raksha Bandhan festival. In rural society, according to Marriott, there is steady interplay between two cultural traditions, the ‘elite’ or ‘great’, tradition based in texts such as the Vedas in Indian society and the local or little based on folk-art and literature. Anthropologist Onkar Prasad has further suggested that Marriot was the first to consider the limitations within which each village tradition operates to retain its essence. In his village study, Marriot described two concurrently observed traditions on the full-moon day of Shravana – a little tradition festival called ‘Saluno’ and a great tradition festival Raksha Bandhan, but which Marriot calls ‘Charm Tying’. On this Saluno day, many husbands arrive at their wive’s villages, ready to carry them off again to their villages of marriage. But before going off with their husbands, the wives as well as their unmarried village sisters express their concern for the devotion to their brothers by placing young shoots of barley, the local sacred grains on the heads and ears of their brothers. The brothers reciprocate with small coins. On the same day along with the ceremonies of Saluno and according to the literary precedent of the Bhavisyottara Purana, the ceremonies of Charm tying (Rakhi Bandhan or Raksha Bandhan) are also held. The Brahman domestic priests of ‘Kishan Garhi’ go to each patron and tie upon his wrist a charm in the form of a polychrome thread, bearing tassel plums. Each priest utters a vernacular blessing and is rewarded by his patron with cash. The ceremonies of both, now exist side by side, as if they were two ends of a process of primary transformation. Norwegian anthropologist Oyvind Jaer, who did his field work in eastern Uttar Pradesh in the 1990s, noted that the great traditional festival was in retreat and the little tradition one, involving sisters and brothers, now more important.
Precedence in Hindu texts : Important in the great tradition is the chapter 137 of the ‘Uttara Parva’ of the ‘Bhavishya Purana’, in which Lord Krishna describes to Yudhisthira about the ritual of having a ‘raksha’ (protection) tied to his right wrist by the royal priest (the rajpurohit) on the Purnima (full-moon day) of the Hindu lunar calendar month of Shravana. In the crucial passage, Lord Krishna says, “Partha (applied to any of the three sons of Kunti, in particular Yudishthira) - when the sky is covered with clouds and the earth dark with new, tender grass, in that very Shravana month’s full moon day, at the time of sunrise, according to remembered convention, a Brahmin should take a bath with perfectly pure water. He should also according to his ability, offer libations of water to the gods, to the paternal ancestors, as prescribed by the Vedas for the task required to be accomplished before the study of the Vedas, to the sages, and as directed by the Gods to carry out and bring to a satisfactory conclusion, the ‘shradha’ ceremony to honour the deceased. It is commended that a Shudra should also make a charitable offering and take a bath accompanied by the mantras. That very day, in the early afternoon, it is commended that a small parcel be prepared from a new cotton or silk cloth and adorned with whole grains of rice or barley, small mustard seeds and red ocher powder and made exceedingly wondrous be placed in a suitable dish or receptacle...the purohit should bind this packet on the wrist of the king with the words, ‘I am binding raksha (protection) to you with the same true words with which I bound Mahabali king of the Ashuras. Always stay firm in resolve’. In the same manner as the king after offering prayers to the Brahmins; the Brahmins, the Kshyatriyas, the Vaishyas and the Shudras should conclude their Raksha Bandhan ceremony”.
Regional Variations in ritual : While Raksha Bandhan is celebrated in various parts of South Asia, different religions mark the day in different ways -
In West Bengal, this day is also called ‘Jhulan Purnima’. Prayers and puja of Lord Krishna and Radharani are performed there. Sisters tie rakhi to brothers and wish immortality. Political parties, offices, friends, schools to colleges, street to palace celebrate this day with a new hope for a good relationship.
In Uttar Pradesh, girls who do not have a brother tie rakhi to Lord Krishna.
In Maharashtra, among the Koli community, the festival of Raksha Bandhan/ Rakhi Purnima is celebrated along with ‘Narali Purnima’ (coconut day festival). Kolis are the fishermen community of the coastal state. The fishermen offer prayers to Lord Varuna, the Hindu god of sea, to invoke His blessings. As part of the rituals, coconuts were thrown into the sea as offerings to Lord Varuna. The girls and women tie rakhi on their brother’s wrist, as elsewhere.
In regions of North India, mostly Jammu, it is a common practise to fly kites, on the occasion of Raksha Bandhan. It is not unusual to see the sky filled with kites of all shapes and sizes, on and around Raksha Bandhan. The kites are called ‘gattu door’ in their local language. In Punjab, many sisters who do not have a brother, go to Guru Dwara and tie the holy thread, to Guru Nanak.
In Nepal, Raksha Bandhan is referred to as ‘Janai Purnima’ or ‘Rishitarpani’ and involves a sacred thread ceremony. It is observed by both Hindus and Buddhists of Nepal. The Hindu men change the thread, they wear around their chests (janai), while in some parts of Nepal, girls and women tie rakhi on their brother’s wrists. The Raksha Bandhan like a brother-sister festival is observed by other Hindus of Nepal during one of the days of the Tihar (or Diwali) festival. The festival is observed by the Shaiva Hindus, and is popularly known in Newar community as ‘Gunhu Punhi’.
Message through Raksha Bandhan : The festival Raksha Bandhan is celebrated to replenish the love, care and bonding among the members of the family. It is not necessary to exchange expensive gift-items or money. Our love and care for each other can simply be expressed through the exchange of sweets and a bouquet of flowers. In today’s world, our inner feelings of love, care, sincierity, commitment, faithfulness, devotion, trust and wishing the best for all are much more valuable, important and desirable, rather than the pseudo external pomp and showoff. Today, that which is mostly needed is the loving heart. God is the life-giver, protector and care-taker of all of us. On this occasion we all may pray sincerely to the Lord saying, “Oh Lord! I must not forget you” (‘He Nath! Main Aapko Bhulu Nahin’).