Rakshābandhan: Festival for whose protection, exactly?

Rakshābandhan, a festival celebrated in North India on the Purnimā of Shrāwan month, has attracted the attention of all sorts of people over the past few centuries. Perhaps, its the uniqueness of this tradition, or the deep love with which its celebrated which attracted everyone from Muslim poets to colonial scholars who began documenting this tradition from late 1700s and, in fact, which continues to attract all kinds of wanted and unwanted attention from modern ideological descendants of erstwhile colonialists and imperialists.


The fact that colonialist interpretations of native traditions have always been deeply colored by, their underlying agenda of “civilizing” the “barbarians” they conquered and their limited imagination that forced them to see everything from their binary world-views, is no longer debatable. Yet, the issue that remains deeply unexplored is how “modern” scholars, despite the “post-colonial” movement have remained deeply entrenched in the very same binary world views. Post-colonial, post-modern, post-whatever scholarship is yet to find its bearings outside the anthropomorphic paradigms that drove the colonialist movements with inhuman fervour, and as such they still continue to struggle in understanding most non-Abrahmic cultures. It is hardly a surprise that most of mainstream academia’s understanding of native traditions and practices is limited to a caricature drawn under the garb of objectivity-that-is-an-exclusive-fiefdom-of-white-people, that I call “white-objectivity” here (Read Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchi’s scholarship to understand the undercurrents here), rather than a true exploration of the tradition itself. This very same “white-objectivity” becomes rather nihilistic when it comes out of “modernized” (read colonized) natives, as they continue to speak the colonizer’s language.

Post-colonial, post-modern, post-whatever scholarship is yet to find its bearings outside the anthropomorphic paradigms that drove the colonialist movements with inhuman fervour, and as such they still continue to struggle in understanding most non-Abrahmic cultures.


Therefore, having been utterly disappointed by literally, all the mainstream material I’ve read on Rakshabandhan, including its clichè de-humanization by brown-feminists-with-white-words, in this essay, I seek to explore the festival, its celebration and its history from a native, indigenous, practicing Hindu woman’s lens. My expositions on the subject will draw from both my lived experience as a Hindu woman as well as from classical texts and discussions with various scholars.

Raksha-bandhan, the name, is a fusion of two Sanskrit words: Rakshā (protection) and bandhana (the knot/the virtue of being tied or attached), therefore the literal translation of the entire word could be “the thread/tie of protection”. It would appear, that Rakshābandhan in its present evolved form as a ritual between brother-sister, is a relatively new festival. Do note here, that for a continuous tradition, such as Hinduism , whose practices date back to 5000 years or more, a tradition that appears even few centuries old, can be characterized as “relatively” new. ( Yes, I am completely disregarding the repeated assertions of colonialist scholars and their descendents that “modern Hinduism is no more than 200 years old because the word didn’t exist then” (:eyeroll:) due to the semantical dishonesty ingrained in this argument ). Exploring its history, we find that the most well-known reference in Hindu scriptures on any festival called Rakshābandhan is in BhavishyaPurāna [1], whereby Shri Krishnā, in a response to a query by King Yuddhisthira, narrates the story of the war between King Bali against Lord Indra, the loss of which was attributed to the fact that Lord Indra’s wife Sachidevi had tied a “Rakshā” thread that made Indra invincible. Shri Krishna then proceeds to explain the process of celebrating Rakshābandhan festival to King Yudhishthira, to be celebrated annually where in the priests must tie a small parcel of auspicious things, such as rice, mustard seeds and kumkum (vermillion) with a thread, after having it blessed by the Gods, on the wrists of the King. It is also clarified that the thread tied with the above mentioned ritual, will only retain its powers for a year, and therefore the ceremony must become an annual affair. This form of Rakshābandhan, where in a priest would tie “Rakshā” thread on the wrists of his patrons and other important people in the society appears to have continued until 18th century, at least, given the evidence of Nazeer Akbarabadi’s urdu poetry where in the poet wishes to dress up as a priest, so he could tie a rakshā-threads (also called as rakhi, the prakrit equivalent) on the the wrists of the “beautiful people” around him.

Rakshābandhan in its modern form, celebrated in most of North India, has a lot of regional variances in practice. However, the common elements across all variations is: a tilak is put on the forehead of the the brother and a rakhi is tied on his wrist, by the sister. These two elements actually find mention in the original Bhavishyapurāna references also. However, what used to be a priest-patron festival, somewhere along the way got transformed into a brother-sister festival. This is a very interesting transition and needless to say, various sociologists have documented and discussed this at length. Sadly for us Hindu, almost all of these discussions emerge from a colonialist worldview that projects their own worldview on native cultures, and have little to no roots in actual Hindu tradition. So, here we are. Having said that, we shall analyze the transition at a later time. For now, lets focus on the ritual itself.

Kalava also known as mouli or kaapu in various parts of India. Image Source:  Wikipedia

Kalava also known as mouli or kaapu in various parts of India.
Image Source: Wikipedia

The two essential elements: tilak and thread-tied-on-the-wrist are actually quite commonly found in different Hindu/Indic practices. The tilak (or tilakam or teeka) has deep significance in the Hindu tradition and is widely practiced. No puja begins without putting tilak on the deity. It is also said that no Hindu should sit in sacred setting without a tilak on his forehead. In Hindu household, whenever a person is heading out for an important task, the lady of the household blesses that person by putting a tilak on the person’s forehead to wish them good luck. It is said that in Hindu kingdoms, whenever warriors left for a battle, the ladies of each household would put the tilak on the foreheads of the warriors.

When they returned home from a victory, a similar process would be followed. In current times, the priests put the tilak on the forehead of devotees, when one visits a temple. This is especially true in North India. In South India, the kumkum is handed over to the devotee or it is kept in a container for the devotee to apply it themselves. The methods of application maybe different, but the purpose is the same. It is a blessing, from the Gods to be applied by the person who is praying for you. Second essential element is: raksha thread-tied-on-the-wrist. The most widespread and popular usage of thread-tied-on-the-wrist is the red-yellow colored thread called kalava (also known as mouli, moui, raksasutra, pratisara in North India, kaapu, kayiruor charandu in South India) which is tied after a yajna (fire-ritual) by the priest on the wrist of the devotee as a blessing from the Gods. Similarly, many Hindu temples give out red, yellow or black threads as blessings to devotees. These threads, are believed to be protective or apotropaic in nature and are found in several cultures, not just Hinduism. In Jainism, apotropaic threads are tied with amulets and are called raksha-potli. Similar amulets have also been known to be used across several ancient cultures. It is important to note here, that the protection thread with apotropaic properties, in all its occurrences, is believed to protect the person whose wrists it is tied on.

If we piece together all of this information, one thing becomes amply clear, the raksha-bandhan marks a ceremony where in the person-who-is-tying-the-thread is blessing the person-on-whose-wrist-the-thread-is-tied with prosperity, longevity and victory but most importantly for their well-being and safety. It should be noted, in the BhavishyaPurāna anecdote about King Bali and Indra, it is Indrani, who ends up protecting Indra by tying the Raksha thread on Indra’s wrist and thus, it it recommended in the Bhavishya Purana, that the priests may also tie similar raksha-thread on the wrists of the king. Similarly, the householders praying for the protection of the warriors heading for war, tie these apotropaic threads on their wrists.

Quite contrary to the weak-woman-being-protected-by-the-strong-male narrative that is repeated ad-nauseam, a more rooted analysis reveals that it is quite the opposite. The recipient of the rakshā (protection) is the brother, on whose wrist the bandhan is tied. The person who ties the thread, ie, the sister, is in fact the person who is blessing the recipient and therefore making a selfless gesture out of sheer love for the brother.

The symbolism of these essential elements of Rakshabandhan remains consistent across rituals and ceremonies and Rakshābandhan is not an exception.. This symbolism also holds if you consider that in many parts of North India (including my own family), the brother also touches the feet of the sister, irrespective of their relative ages. Touching-the-feet is yet another indicator of seeking blessings in Hindu culture. The brother also gives gifts to the sister, as a gesture of mutual respect and as a token to show their appreciation for the selfless act of the sister to pray for her brother’s well-being and tying the raksha-thread for his protection. Another important yet oft-conveniently-ignored aspect of Rakshābandhan is that the rakshā-thread or rakhi is also tied to the brother’s wife. This, too, makes complete sense, since a sister would indeed pray for the well-being and protection of the couple and bless them as such.

Now contrast this, against the standard narrative that mainstream feminists and sociologists, driven by colonialist interpretations have peddled on Rakshābandhan. Quite contrary to the weak-woman-being-protected-by-the-strong-male narrative that is repeated ad-nauseam, a more rooted analysis reveals that it is quite the opposite. The recipient of the rakshā (protection) is the brother, on whose wrist the bandhan is tied. The person who ties the thread, ie, the sister, is in fact the person who is blessing the recipient and therefore making a selfless gesture out of sheer love for the brother. It goes without saying that one remains eternally grateful and deeply emotionally connected to the person who prays for your well-being because of the love, generosity and care such a gesture represents, so the brother’s undying gratitude and love is naturally heightened towards his sister. However, to interpret this festival as a symbol of patriarchy and machismo, is quite frankly, ignorant, colonial and downright wrong. Hindu tradition, has never been beholden to Victorian morays of feeble-women and macho-men, as can be seen by the wide diversity of depictions even within our divinity. Hinduism remains the largest surviving religion that worships and acknowledges feminine divinity, in not just one, but all her forms. Whether it is as a benevolent mother, a renunciate ascetic or a lion-riding-warrior with weapons of war, all aspects of the feminine are nurtured and celebrated. This aspect, is exactly what the various intellectual, colonized social commentators and professional agitators don’t understand which leads to deeply flawed analysis of Hindu customs. Such crude, detached analysis of Hinduism’s living traditions that strips away the sacred only studies the remaining bland, uninteresting, gibberish. It is quite like reading the dried tea leaves to decipher the the joy a potent cup of tea brings.

For someone like me, a practicing Hindu who has practiced this ritual celebrating the love between a brother and a sister fondly for decades now, the beauty of the deep emotional love that this living tradition represents, is unparalleled. This, has always been the beauty of Dharma: celebrating not only the empirical but also the experiential, celebrating the emotions as much as the actions. The depth of this festival can only be understood when one understands the selfless, loving and caring gesture of praying for the well-being of someone one considers a brother and the overwhelming emotion that floods the brother’s being on realizing that there is a sister out there for you, who will always pray for your well-being, longevity and protection, no matter how far she is, how old she is, how much you annoy her or fight with her.


Cited Works:

[1] “Rakshabandhan, a Dharmic Ritual”, Indic Today, http://www.indictoday.com/thoughts/rakshabandhan-a-dharmic-ritual/

[2] Nazeer Akbarabadi’s nazm on Rakhi, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raksha_Bandhan#/media/File:Nazeer_Akbarabadi_nazm_Rakhi.jpg