2016-06-30
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Reprinted with permission from indiayogi.com.

Come August and one sees stalls upon stalls in various kinds of shops, big and small, all across India filled up with Rakhis (entwined silken or golden threads generally adorned by beads) of all kinds, some with heavy embellishments and some very simple ones, to be tied on the wrists of men. And women from all age and social brackets throng to these stalls and purchase these Rakhis to be tied on the hand of their brothers and sometimes even fathers on the day of Raksha Bandhan.

The same occasion is also taken due advantage of by young women who tie Rakhis around the guys who have been making unsolicited advances, the thread tying up their passion in the bargain!

The Bond of Protection

So, what exactly is the power of this thread and what does Raksha Bandhan mean? Raksha is the Sanskrit term for protection and Bandhan signifies a tie or relationship, so Raksha Bandhan in effect signifies a bond of protection between the two. It is believed that when a woman ties a Rakhi to the wrist of a man on the festive day of Raksha Bandhan, he becomes obligated to protect and help her throughout his life span. But the bond of protection is not a one way process. The Rakhi is thought to have a dual effect. For the man the Rakhi ensures protection by the heavenly forces. In fact, this is the reason that during times of war, women have tied Rakhis to unknown soldiers so that they are victorious and successful in protecting the nation. These emotive scenes have been caught on camera when during the 1971 Indo-Pak war women had come out in hordes tying Rakhis to all soldiers going towards the battlefront.

When one casts an eye on events around the world, which are of similar notion, the closest that comes is the occasion of Friendship Day, the day that is quite popular in the Western world when friends affirm their friendship and find new ones.

But during Raksha Bandhan it is the involvement of the complete Indian system--right from all members of the family to the environment at work places and the atmosphere of happiness on the streets--that lends a halo to this day of symbolic reverence. When one chances on a man on the street with an armful of these threads with dials of various sizes, one immediately feels the bigness of the heart of the man and the fact that he has responsibilities of looking after so many sisters. Unlike any other similar event, this is a day of purity, of quite contemplation and of reminding oneself of the importance of the roles in society.

The Legends

According to the Hindu legends, Indrani, the wife of Indra, King of the Gods, first initiated this sort of a bond of protection. At the time of a huge battle between the Gods and the demons, the latter seemed to be having the upper hand; this is when Indrani decided to do something about it. She prepared a Rakhi and tied it around her husband's wrist, to ensure that he would not only be protected from attacks by the demons but would also emerge victorious. And true enough, Indra and the Gods won the battle. So on a symbolic note the Rakhi (thread) is also a talisman ensuring protection of the righteous from the forces of evil. It is believed that the tying of Rakhi brings health, wealth, happiness and victories.

Another legend has it that once Yudhishthir, the eldest son of King Pandu and one of the five Pandav brothers, asked Sri Krishna how could he guard himself against impending evils and catastrophes in the coming year. To this Krishna asked him to observe Raksha Bandhan.

The same Sri Krishna was once injured on his hand and blood was oozing out when Draupadi, the wife of the Pandavs, tore a portion of her garment and tied it around his wound. For Krishna this signified Raksha Bandhan and he immediately took Draupadi as his sister. In fact, it was Sri Krishna who Draupadi called out to when she was being derobed by the Kaurav (second cousins of the Pandavas and their sworn enemies) Prince Dushashan in the middle of the court after her husband Yudhishthir gambled and lost her in a game of chess. And ultimately Krishna protected her honour.

Cross-Religion Observance

Raksha Bandhan is one festival that is observed by Hindus and non-Hindus alike. History has it that during the Mughal era (which lasted from the 12th century A.D. till the 19th century A.D.), the Sultan of Gujarat attacked the Hindu kingdom of Mewar. This is when the queen of Mewar Karmavati decided to seek the help of Humanyun, the second Mughal ruler of India and father of the great Mughal King Akbar. She sent a Rakhi to Humanyun asking for his help. Although, in other circumstances, Humanyun would not have helped a Hindu Rajput, he decided otherwise. However, unfortunately, he didn't manage to reach her on time, and by the time he arrived the Queen had already performed Jauhaar (the act stepping into fire) along with other Hindu women to protect their honour.

This probably was the beginning of a cross-religious observance of this festival. And even today a lot of non-Hindus follow the custom of Raksha Bandhan.

According to another story carried from time immemorial, all-conquering Greek King Alexander's wife also sent a Rakhi to the Indian Prince Porus, asking him not to slay her husband in battle. And the great Hindu king responded and refrained from killing Alexander when such an occasion presented itself in the course of the battle.

When and How Is It Celebrated?

The festival of Raksha Bandhan falls on the Rakhi Purnima day (generally in the month of August and sometimes late July). This is the full moon day in the month of Shravan according to the Hindu calendar.

Across the four corners of the nation, the day holds regional specific significance. In the Northern part of the country, this day is observed as the day to sow wheat or barley. On this, which is also called Kajri Purnima or Kajri Navami, people offer a special prayer to Goddess Bhagwati (a form of the Goddess Durga, one of the prominent Goddesses of the Hindu pantheon, who is also revered as the slayer of asurs or demons).

In Western India, Rakhi Purnima is also called Nariyal (coconut) Purnima.

This day is observed as Shravan Purnima in Southern states of India and is especially important for the Brahmins (the priests).

In Bengal, Rabindranath Tagore introduced this tradition in Shantiniketan, an institution set up by the great poet, with the aim of fostering love between people of all sects and religions.

Some of the other names for Raksha Bandhan are Vish Tarak (the destroyer of venom), Pap Nashak (destroyer of all sins) and Punya Pradayak (one that bestows boons).

The Ritual

On this day, women get up early in the morning, take a bath and wear their finest clothes. A thal (plate) is prepared on which they put the Rakhi, a diya (earthen lamp), water, roli (red threads), rice, vermilion or turmeric powder and some sweets. Then the Rakhi is tied around the wrist and the sisters perform aarti (a hymn sung to the Gods to ask for blessings). The process of doing the same is lighting a lamp and chanting the aarti with the lamp in the hand after applying a tilak (application of vermilion or turmeric mixed with 2-3 grains of rice and water on the forehead). The tilak is put at the centre point between the two eyebrows. It is said that the tilak indicates the point at which the spiritual eye opens. After this they offer sweets to their brothers, who in turn give them a gift or money so that the sister can buy something of her choice.

In the modern avatar of this festival, sisters tie Rakhis mainly around their brothers and other male cousins' wrists. Some women also tie Rakhis to men who are not related, but whom they consider to be like a brother(s).

Wider Significance

In a world full of crisis and strife, these kinds of rituals hold the key to peaceful existence. The auspicious day of Raksha Bandhan can be used as a potent tool for social change, which could ultimately envelop everyone in a permanent bond of love and friendship.

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