Saturday 2 August 2014

The Bond of Love-Raksha Bandhan

Everyone loves a good story, and if the story concerns something which we have been living with, or have been celebrating, or have been cherishing all our lives, it certainly notches up greater interest.
While I strongly believe, adding reasons to certain customs or rituals, trying to understand the rationale behind them adds intent and motive to our acts, some festivals, certain practices, certain celebrations have an innocent and old word charm attached to them, and certainly dont need to add meaning to actually why are they practised.  Most certainly, Raksha Bandhan is one of those festivals which have this innocent and old-world charm to it.
Still remember those innocent days, when your popularity was measured more by having as many Rakhis on your wrist as possible. The girls would bring in Rakhis for the entire class, while the boys would wear them out till the last string. The more flashy the Rakhi, what with all the flowers, superheroes, sponge-based cartoons, the better attention would it grasp among the friends. Though as the boys grew up, the bigger and flashier Rakhis would be a major source of embarrassment and they would always prefer the simpler ones, the charm of Rakhi never really wore out.

Today, in this blog post, I would like to revisit certain stories and legends related to the celebration of Raksha Bandhan. I hope while going through this post you ponder upon some tales, which you havent come across till date, and were not entirely aware about.

The first seeds in Vedic Period: During the Vedic Period, a war was being fought between the devils and the deities on a Shravan Poornima, or the full moon day in the month of Shravan. Unfortunately, the demons were stronger and were winning easily. The leader of the deities, was worried that they may lose the battles to the demons and earth may see dark days forever. His wife Indrani, was worried about the outcome of the war and for her husband's unavoidable loss. She, being a religious lady, prepared an amulet and tied it around her husband's wrist.
Needless to say, the deities won the battle and Indra remained unhurt. Since that day, the amulet came to be known as Raksha Sutra and came to be celebrated on the full moon of Shravan month.
Interestingly, the first ever Raksha Sutra was tied by a wife on her husband's wrist. That, however changed, in Vedic period itself

From Raksha Sutra to Rakha Bandhan: Surya is said to have three children: Manu, Yama and Yamuna, As Surya was much powerful and his radiations very powerful, his wife, Samjna, was not able to bear his radiations and flee to her maternal home, leaving her shadow behind, known as Chhaya, so that Surya would never know.
Later, Surya and Chhaya had a son and she used to mistreat her step-sons and step-daughter. Yama could not bear the ill-treatment of her sister Yamuna, as both of them loved each other a lot, and revolted against Chhaya. He evidently learnt about Chhaya's truth and Chhaya cursed him with death and his body's mutilation thereafter. As during Vedic times, no one would die and they were considered immortals, this terrified Yama and Yamuna a lot.
It was then, that Yamuna tied a Raksha Sutra, or Rakhi on Yama's wrist and they both requested their father to take back the curse. When Surya came to know of the truth of Chhaya, he became very angry and brought her wife back, reducing his radiations.
Because of the curse, Yama had to meet his unfortunate mutilation, but the Rakhi on his wrist saved him from death. As a result, Yama became the first man to die(in the form of mutilation), and thus the God of death .
The sorrowful separation of the brother and sister duo who loved each other a lot, came to be celebrated as Raksha Bandhan between brothers and sisters

Lakshmi and Bali: Once when Raja Bali had gained much ascendancy amongst his subjects and was being considered powerful enough to rule even the heavens, Indra feared he may lose his kingdom forever. He requested Vishnu to help him retain his Kingdom as Bali was a demon king. Vishnu, in his very famous Vamana avatar pushed Bali into the underworld, but made him the emperor of the underworld. Bali being a very pious king, Vishnu asked him for a boon, when Bali asked him to bless and protect his kingdom forever. Vishnu, as a result left his abode of Vaikunth Dham and left for the underworld.
Lakshmi, worried that Vishnu may never come back, disguised herself as a poor lady, and visited Bali on Shravan Poornima. She requested him to tie a Rakhi on his wrist, to which Bali obliged and requested her to ask for a gift. Lakshmi then revealed her true identity and asked for Vishnu back. Bali immediately requested Vishnu to return back to Vaikunth Dham acknowledging the importance of Raksha Bandhan

A step beyond mythology-Porus and Alexander: When Alexander invaded India around 329 BC, his wife was aware of how brave and valiant a warrior Porus was and she sent a Rakhi to Porus and asked for her husband's life in the battlefield. Porus acknowledged the Rakhi and vowed not to kill Alexander on the battlefield.
Legend has it, that once Alexander did fall in front of Porus and he could have made a final blow killing Alexander off, when Porus saw the Rakhi on his wrist and refrained from killing Alexander. Porus lost the battle eventually, but gained much respect in the eyes of Alexander

Maharani Karnvati and Emperor Humayun: During the medieval period, the Rajputs were fighting Mughal invasions. When Rani Karnvati, the widowed queen of the King of Chittor realized she may no longer be able to defend her palace and her subjects from the invasion of the Sultan of Gujarat, Bahadur Shah, she sent a Rakhi to Emperor Humayun requesting him to defend her honour. Humayun, being aware the importance of Rakhi, started off with his troops to save the queen. Unfortunately, he reached Chittor a bit late and the Rani had already committed suicide by then, fearing Humayun may never reach them. This incident proved to be one of the most significant in recent history of the festival and made Rakhi a festival beyond religions and boundaries

Rakhi and Tagore: Interestingly, Rabindranath Tagore linked Raksha Bandhan not merely to brother and sister, but to the entire humankind as such through his poems and works. He invoked Rakhi to inspire love, respect and solidarity amongst Indians under the British rule. Tagore started celebrating Rakhi Mahotsavas in erstwhile Bengal, which came to be identified as a symbol of unity of Bengal.
In certain pockets of Bengal, people still tie Rakhis on the wrists of their neighbours and friends

Raksha Bandhan Mantra: Though many may not be aware about it, there is a certain Raksha Bandhan mantra which sisters chant while tying Rakhi on the wrists of their brothers. The mantra goes as follows:

येन बद्धो वली राजा दानवेन्द्रो महाबलः ।
तेन त्वा प्रतिबध्नामि रक्षे माचल माचल ॥

The mantra means
I am tying on your hand this Raksha, with which the most powerful and generous King Bali himself was bound; O Raksha, don't go away; don’t go away.
Needless to stay, the Mantra is dedicated to the Bali and Lakshmi episode related to Raksha Bandhan.

Is Raksha Bandhan a symbol of male patriarchal system in society? And thus makes women inferior to men? Is it a threat to feminism? Dont get me wrong! I am not putting up these questions, rather consider these questions illogical. These were certain sets of questions I found people asking on Quora under the garbs of misplaced feminism.
If you think about it, the meanings and the rationale of a lot of customs have changed over time, without changing the customs themselves.
The architects of Hinduism were so smart and forward-looking, they created Hindusim in such a way, that the rules could be able to reinterpret, logic redefined with each changing society and times. What would be the rationale of a custom, say, 100 years ago, would not hold true now, but some other rationale would fit in perfectly.

Unfortunately, most of the leaders and Gurus at the top holding the helm of Hinduism, haven't been able to upgrade or translate the rationale as per changing times, and thus, many customs appear outdated or rigid.
Raksha Bandhan was not always meant to be a "tying Rakhi on brother's hands so that he may protect the sister". Atleast the first few stories associated with Rakhi dont talk in such undertones. The story of Yama and Yamuna, which actually brought in the practice of sisters tying Rakhis on the wrists of brothers was more about the love between the siblings, and sister caring for her brother, than the brother committing to protect her.

Let the misplaced sets of rules of modern times not confuse you or berate your belief in these customs. Raksha Bandhan is a festival where selfless love between brothers and sisters is celebrated, and personally, I would any day find much more depth and meaning to it than some random Archies-sponsored Sister's Day or Brother's day.

With that I would like to bring this post to an end
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  1. Your description about rakhi in childhood brought a smile on my lips. The whole post worths reading for everyone. People do not understand the meaning of festivals. And Rakhi is an important festival. Probably the only Indian festival where we celebrate "A day" (Sister's day) for someone special in our life, unlike the West where there is a day for every special relation.
    The first story seemed weird where a wife ties a rakhi on her husband's wrist! I had never heard of it. But it may be true.

  2. Very interesting stories associated with Rakhi ... And we rarely knew them... Thanks for sharing