Indian Festival – Raksha Bandhan
The annual “festival” of Raksha Bandhan, which is meant to commemorate the abiding ties between siblings of opposite sex, usually takes place in late August, and is marked by a very simple ceremony in which a woman ties a rakhi — which may be a colorful thread, a simple bracelet, or a decorative string — around the wrist of her brother(s).
The word “raksha” signifies protection, and “bandhan” is an association signifying an enduring sort of bond; and so, when a woman ties a rakhi around the wrist of her brother, she signifies her loving attachment to him. He, likewise, recognizes the special bonds between them, and by extending his wrist forward, he in fact extends the hand of his protection over her. The thread-tying ceremony is sometimes preceded by the woman conducting aarti before her brother, so that the blessings of God may be showered upon him, and this is to the accompaniment of her enunciation or chanting of a mantra, which may be in Sanskrit or one of the other Indian languages. In Punjabi, for instance, the mantra says: “Suraj shakhan chhodian / Mooli chhodia beej / Behen ne rakhi bandhi / Bhai tu chir jug jee”, which can be roughly translated as follows: “The sun radiates its sunlight / the radish seeds / I (the sister) tied the rakhi / brother, may you live long.” After the conclusion of the ceremony, she places a sweet in her mouth, and he might return the gesture. The brother bestows a small gift upon his sister, generally in the form of a small sum of money, such as Rupees 51, 101, 251, or 501.
It is doubtless possible, from a feminist perspective, to view raksha bandhan as another expression of patriarchal culture, however well-intentioned. It is, after all, the brother who extends his protection to his sister, and the woman who, in a manner of speaking, agrees to place herself under the protection of her brother. Against such a reading, one could well argue that the festival seeks to celebrate simply the affectionate ties between siblings of opposite sex, and that the brother-sister nexus is, comparatively speaking, innocent. This is scarcely to say that the relationship is devoid of power, or that there are not habitual practices and customs which define the relationship. But the real significance of raksha bandhan may lie elsewhere. Though it has been common in most societies for the woman to leave her natal home at marriage for her husband’s home, in India this is firmly entrenched as a social practice, and has often had undesirable consequences. Women who are subjected to harassment or life-threatening behavior on account of dowry by the husband’s family have often been reluctant to return to their natal home, and similarly parents are reluctant to take back their married daughters on account of the immense stigma attached to the return of a married daughter.
There is ample evidence to suggest that the problem of dowry has unquestionably been aggravated by the social sanction placed upon married daughters residing in their natal home. Consequently, raksha bandhan can be viewed as an occasion for reasserting a woman’s ties to her natal home. The brother conveys a message to his sister that she has not been abandoned by her biological kin; similarly, the woman conveys a message to her husband’s family that she can well count upon her natal family to come to her assistance.