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The ties that bind

Thursday, August 23, 2018

In an age when many women, at least in Mumbai, take empowerment for granted, what does a festival such as Raksha Bandhan mean?

When you are a little girl, one of the most thrilling days of the year is Raksha Bandhan. Imagine tying a simple thread on your brother’s wrist and getting exciting gifts in return! Then there are all those sweets to mark the occasion, and most often, new clothes as well. “It’s great value for money,” as one cynical teen told us, grinning, as soon as she was old enough to understand what was going on. “All you have to do is buy one string and you get so much in return!”

In college, Raksha Bandhan takes on new dimensions. “It’s only in India that you have so many rakhi brothers and sisters,” a professor of psychology remarked. “In our society, it’s the only way girls and boys are allowed to talk to each other!” It’s been 30 years since she said this, but in our country, such things have a way of never changing.

When you start thinking about it, though, what does Raksha Bandhan really mean? Of course, as happens with festivals around the world, it is great for savvy marketers. “You may send rakhi for brother (sic) after selecting from our wide gamut of Kundan Rakhi, Stone Rakhi, Pearl Rakhi, Gold Rakhi, Silver Rakhi, Gemstone Rakhi, Cartoon Rakhi, Lumba Rakhi, Zardosi Rakhi, Mauli Rakhi, Rudraksha Rakhi, etc,” says the Ferns and Petals website, which promises to ship rakhis with dry fruits and chocolates anywhere in the world, at prices that seem quite reasonable for the distance travelled.

WHAT DOES IT SIGNIFY?

As most people understand it, Raksha Bandhan is the festival where sisters tie rakhis in order to pray for the prosperity and health of their brothers. The men, in turn, promise to protect their sisters from harm under every circumstance. In the Sanskrit terminology, Raksha means ‘protection’, and ‘bandhan’ signifies the tie. It’s a tradition that goes way back into mythology (see box), but has taken on modern, material dimensions, including the tying of pure gold and silver rakhis and expensive gifts.

In an age where women, at least in Mumbai, often take empowerment for granted, what does this festival mean? Does she really need protection from the brother in her life? And what if the brother is actually younger and she may have been the one to look after him, instead? At least one woman we know – a scientist by profession – insists on tying rakhis to younger women, such as nieces. “I don’t need my brother’s protection,” she declares. “But it is my duty to protect the younger women in my family.”

The origin of Raksha Bandhan

Raksha Bandhan is celebrated on the full moon day of the Hindu lunar calendar in the month of Shravana, which typically falls in the August month of Gregorian calendar.

Meaning of Raksha Bandhan

"Raksha" is the Sanskrit term for protection and "Bandhan" means a knot or a bond. So quite literally Raksha Bandhan is a bond signifying protection. In most families, this relates not just to the bond between siblings, but also between cousins and sometimes sisters and brothers-in-law.

Mythology

Strangely, for a festival that is so popular, Raksha Bandhan, unlike some other Hindu festivals like Dussehra or Diwali, doesn’t have any established mythology behind it, though there are obscure references in some ancient tracts.

One relates to a fierce and long battle between Lord Indra, the king of Gods and a demon named Bali. Since Indra was unable to get a decisive victory, his consort Sachi sought Lord Vishnu’s help. Vishnu gave Sachi a sacred thread, which she tied around Indra’s wrist, resulting in his victory.

Another account, equally obscure is from the Vishnu Purana. According to this myth, the demon King Bali was defeated by Lord Vishnu, who in turn asked for a boon from the Lord. This boon was that Vishnu would stay with him in his palace. Vishnu’s consort Goddess Laxmi wasn’t keen to stay in the palace and wanted to return to their celestial abode -- Vaikunth. She then tied a rakhi on Bali’s wrist and as a return gift, asked him to free Vishnu from his vow so that the couple could return to their abode.

We asked a few women what Raksha Bandhan means to them today

On Raksha Bandhan I would like to say that as siblings we have been brought up equally so although we love to fight we are also each other's support system. For today's generation it is a fun way to grab a gift from the brother in keeping a tradition alive.

 - Shaunaki Kamat, college-going girl

Raksha Bandhan for me is relevant as it gives me a day to thank and show love to my brother who stays far away. In today's world more than protection, I see my brother as my mentor who prepares me to be self sufficient

 - Priyanka Vaidya, working woman

Apart from its mythological aspect, Raksha Bandhan for me is that time of the year when I get to spend the day with all my siblings. It is more than the colourful rakhis, the mithai and the gift exchange. For me, it is about letting my siblings know I have their back and I will always be there for them.

In my family both my brother and I been brought up with the idea of love, acceptance and respect  between us. So I believe instead of saying why brothers must protect their sisters always and vice-versa, it is essential to acknowledge humanity over gender labels.

 - Shrreaa Khatri, Assistant Manager

It's a good occasion to meet your siblings and cousins and make memories. However, I feel the age old concept of the male sibling promising to protect the female sibling needs to be replaced by a promise that both will be there for each other, come what may! This way, we as a society bridge the gender gap and bring both sexes to equal grounds and neither of the two is made to feel weaker than the other.

 - Archana Thakur, Spanish language professional

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