Raksha Bandhan

Raksha Bandhan, also Rakshabandhan, or simply Rakhi, is an annual rite performed in the Indian subcontinent, or by people originating from the Indian subcontinent, and centred around the tying of a thread, talisman, or amulet on the wrist as a form of ritual protection. The protection is offered principally by sisters to brothers, but also by priests to patrons, and sometimes by individuals to real or potential benefactors. Differing versions of the rite have been traditionally performed by Hindus in northern India, western India, Nepal, and former colonies of the British Empire to which Hindus had emigrated from India in the 19th-century, and have included, in addition, rites with names rendered as Saluno, Silono, and Rakri. The rituals associated with these rites, however, have spread beyond their traditional regions and have been transformed through technology and migration, the movies, social interaction, and promotion by politicized Hinduism, as well as by the nation state.

Raksha Bandhan is observed on the last day of the Hindu lunar calendar month of Shraavana, which typically falls in August. On this day, sisters of all ages tie a talisman, or amulet, called the rakhi, around the wrists of their brothers, ritually protecting their brothers, receiving a gift from them in return, and traditionally investing the brothers with a share of the responsibility of their potential care. The expression “Raksha Bandhan,” Sanskrit, literally, “the bond of protection, obligation, or care,” is now principally applied to this ritual. It has also applied to a similar ritual in which a domestic priest ties amulets, charms, or threads on the wrists of his patrons and receives gifts of money. A ritual associated with Saluno includes the sisters placing shoots of barley behind the ears of their brothers.

Of special significance to married women, Raksha Bandhan is rooted in the practice of territorial exogamy, in which a bride marries outof her natal village or town, and her parents, by custom, do not visit her in her married home. In rural north India, where territorial exogamy is strongly prevalent, large numbers of married Hindu women travel back to their parents’ homes every year for the ceremony. Their brothers, who typically live with the parents or nearby, sometimes travel to their sisters’ married home to escort them back. Many younger married women arrive a few weeks earlier at their natal homes and stay until the ceremony. The brothers serve as lifelong intermediaries between their sisters’ married- and parental homes, as well as potential stewards of their security. In urban India, where families are increasingly nuclear, and marriages not always traditional, the festival has become more symbolic, but continues to be highly popular.

Among women and men who are not blood relatives, there is also a transformed tradition of voluntary kin relations, achieved through the tying of rakhi amulets, which have cut across caste and class lines, and Hindu and Muslim divisions. In some communities or contexts, other figures, such as a matriarch, or a person in authority, can be included in the ceremony in ritual acknowledgement of their benefaction. Raksha Bandhan is also celebrated by Hindu communities in other parts of the world. Although rooted in Hindu culture, the festival has no traditional prayers unambiguously associated with it. The religious myths claimed for it are disputed, and the historical stories associated with it considered apocryphal by some historians. More recently, after enactment of more gender-neutral inheritance laws in India, it has been suggested that in some communities the festival has seen a resurgence of celebration, which is serving to indirectly pressure women to abstain from fully claiming their inheritance.

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