What Is Raksha Bandhan?
Raksha Bandhan is primarily observed on the Indian subcontinent and is also celebrated by some Jains and Sikhs, and by Hindu communities in other parts of the world. Among the Jains, Jain priests give threads to devotees. Raksha Bandhan has been an important tradition in the history of Sikhism as well, sometimes referred to as Rakhardi or Rakhari. In Nepal, the festival is called Janai Purnima or Rishitarpani, involving a sacred thread ceremony, one observed by Hindus and Newar Buddhist communities.
Raksha bandhan means “bond of protection”. It is observed on the full moon day of the Hindu luni-solar calendar month of Shravana, which typically falls in Gregorian calendar month of August. The festival celebrates the love and duty between brothers and sisters. It is also popularly used to celebrate any brother-sister type of relationship between men and women who may or may not be biologically related. On Raksha Bandhan, a sister ties a rakhi (sacred thread) on her brother’s wrist with a prayer for his prosperity and happiness. This symbolizes the sister’s love. The brother gives her a token gift and a promise to protect her.
Raksha Bandhan is a popular festival with various legends associated with the origin of this festival. In fact, the festival has a rich background and has several stories related to its existence. Some of the popular ones have been mentioned below.
Indra and Indrani: In the Vedic period, on a ‘Shravan Poornima’ day (Full Moon Day of the Hindu month of Shravan), the deities and the demons were fighting a battle against each other. Unfortunately, the demons were in a stronger position then the deities. The king of the deities, Lord Indra, was very much worried about the result of the battle. His wife Indrani (also known as Shashikala) could not see him worried and prayed to the almighty. She prepared a talisman with her religious power and tied it around Indra’s right wrist, to safeguard Indra from the attack made by the demons. The talisman kept her belief and on that particular day, deities won the battle and Lord Indra escaped unhurt.
King Bali and Goddess Laxmi: According to the mythology, Raja Bali was such a great devotee of Lord Vishnu that Lord Indra felt insecure. Indra worshiped Vishnu and asked the Lord to help him save his throne. Vishnu accepted Indra’s prayer and overthrew Bali. Later, Vishnu gave Bali the boon of immortality and also promised to take care of his kingdom. To keep his promise, Vishnu left his residence, ‘Vaikunthdham’, and went to safeguard Bali’s kingdom. Soon, Goddess Laxmi, wife of Lord Vishnu, went to Raja Bali, as a poor Brahmin lady, and requested him for shelter. She regarded Bali as her brother and tied a Rakhi on to his wrist, on the ‘Shravan Poornima’ day. When Bali wished to give her some present, she told him her true identity and the reason for her arrival. She also asked Bali to send Lord Vishnu back to Vaikunthdham. Raja Bali immediately requested Lord Vishnu and Goddess Laxmi to return.
Santoshi Maa: Ganesh had two sons, Shubh and Labh. The two boys become frustrated that they have no sister to celebrate Raksha Bandhan with. They ask their father Ganesh for a sister, but to no avail. Finally, saint Narada appears who persuades Ganesh that a daughter will enrich him as well as his sons. Ganesh agreed, and created a daughter named Santoshi Maa by divine flames that emerged from Ganesh’s wives, Ruddhi (Amazing) and Siddhi (Perfection). Thereafter, Shubh Labh (literally “Holy Profit”) had a sister named Santoshi Maa (literally “Goddess of Satisfaction”), for Raksha Bandhan.
Yama and Yamuna: Yamuna was the sister of Lord Yama, the God of death. On every “Shravan Purnima”, Yamuna used to tie a sacred thread (Rakhi) to Lord Yama. Since then, it has become a tradition for sisters to tie Rakhi to their brothers on this day. In return, the brothers bestow blessings on their sisters and promise to protect them all the problems and difficulties that they might ever face.
Krishna and Draupadi: In the epic Mahabharat, Draupadi tied a rakhi on Krishna, while Kunti tied her rakhi on her grandson Abhimanyu, before the great war.
Maharani Karnawati and Emperor Humayun: In the Medieval Indian history, the tale of Maharani Karnawati and Mughal Emperor Humayun relates to the tradition of Raksha Bandhan. Maharani Karnawati was the queen of the Rajput Kingdom, Chittor, in Rajasthan. When Chittor was threatened by Bahadur Shah of Mewar, the Maharani sent a Rakhi to Humayun, the Mughal Emperor of Delhi, and called him for help. Humayun was aware of the significance of Raksha Bandhan in the Hindu community, so he immediately accepted her request to protect her.
King Porus and Alexander’s Wife: The ancient history of India tells us that when Alexander the great came to India, to make it a part of his kingdom, he was resisted by the brave King Porus. The bravery of Porus led the Alexander’s wife to doubt the safety of her husband. Soon, she sent Porus a rakhi and became his sister. This is the reason why Porus never harmed Alexander.
Rabindranath Tagore and the Bengal partition of 1905: Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian Nobel Laureate for literature, invoked Raksha Bandhan and rakhi as concepts to inspire love, respect and a vow of mutual protection between Hindus and Muslims during India’s colonial era. In 1905, the British Empire divided Bengal, a province of British India on the basis of religion. Rabindra Nath Tagore arranged a ceremony to celebrate Raksha Bandhan to strengthen the bond of love and togetherness between Hindus and Muslims of Bengal, and urge them to together protest the British Empire. He used the idea of Raksha Bandhan to spread the feeling of brotherhood.
In 1911, British colonial empire reversed the partition and unified Bengal, a unification that was opposed by Muslims of Bengal. Ultimately, Tagore’s Raksha Bandhan-based appeals were unsuccessful. Bengal not only was split during the colonial era, one part became modern Bangladesh and predominantly Muslim country, the other a largely Hindu Indian state of West Bengal. Rabindranath Tagore started Rakhi Mahotsavas as a symbol of Bengal unity, and as a larger community festival of harmony. In parts of West Bengal, his tradition continues as people tie rakhis to their neighbors and close friends.
Sikh history: In the 18th century, states Arvind-Pal Singh Mandair, Sikh Khalsa armies introduced the term Rakhi (Raksha Bandhan) as a promise of protection to farmers from Muslim armies such as those of the Mughals and Afghans, in exchange for sharing a small cut of their produce.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh was the founder and ruler of the Sikh Empire, and he observed Raksha Bandhan festival. His wife Maharani Jindan sent a Rakhi to the ruler of Nepal, who accepted her as sister and gave her refuge in the Hindu kingdom of Nepal in 1849 after the collapse of the Sikh Empire and annexation of its territories by the British.
Sikhs have observed Raksha Bandhan festival, and has sometimes been referred to as Rakhardi (literally, wristband) or Rakhari in historic Sikh texts. Like the Hindu tradition, the festival has involved the tying of the rakhi and giving of gifts.
Multi-culturalism and activism: Some Muslims in India view it a secular, multicultural festival. Raksha bandhan has also been adopted by the Christian community in India who view it as a festival of historical and social importance.
In 2015, men tied rakhis on women seeking protection from the ‘misuse’ of section 498A of the Indian Penal Code. “Society has gone through massive changes in the last few decades and men are now considered on the same platform with women. Why should laws show a discrimination against them?” asked Amartya Talukdar, founder member of Hridaya, an NGO working for gender neutrality.