What is Raksha Bandhan?
Raksha Bandhan (‘bond of protection’), also abbreviated to ‘Rakhi’, is a Hindu festival celebrated on the full moon in the month of Sravana (Sravana Purnima) – 21st August 2013, 10th August 2014. For most it signifies the sacred bond of love between a brother and sister, although it can stand for the protection of any loved one. Throughout India, and variously in neighbouring countries, the central ceremony (quite often charmingly informal) involves a sister tying a Rakhi or sacred thread on her brother’s wrist. This act symbolizes the sister’s love and prayers for her brother’s well-being, and the brother’s lifelong vow to protect her. As the Rakhi is tied a prayer is offered, invoking happiness and prosperity, and by accepting the Rakhi thread and reciprocating a modest gift, a brother accepts his loving responsibility to be his sister’s protector.
What is a Rakhi Bracelet?
Unlike most other bracelets and watches that adorn the wrist and are often highly ostentatious displays of wealth, style or tradable currency – gold and silver, the Rakhi bracelet is deliberately of a more humble type. At its unadorned basic it need be only the thinnest woollen or cotton strand, destined to be degraded and discarded in the shortest time. But, since this is a gift, the chances are it will be of attractive colour (traditionally red or gold) and adorned by a stone, bead or other such ornament. Available cheaply and in bewildering and attractive varieties in every marketplace of the subcontinent, it is readily available to all. Even better, and for virtually no cost except imagination and effort, it is possible to make your own. Even a thread from the hem of an old garment would suffice. It’s only meant to provide protection for a year (symbolically) and, although it might easily break for whatever reason in a very much shorter period of time, its loss is not likely to be mourned or bemoaned because it has little or no inherent value and will already have achieved its primary purpose, that of celebrating sisterly love and brotherly affection.
Making Your Own
We prefer to make our own Rakhi bracelets – plaiting two or three strands is simplicity itself. During its construction it affords us the opportunity to hold loved ones or higher purpose in mind – a patient, active meditation. Our personal preference is for the home-made rather than something bought. Its construction, if it involves a younger generation or a curious friend, can even be a teaching practise and the passing on of a mindful and honourable tradition. Plus, it’s fun to do. Does anyone remember the plastic-plaited accessories of a previous era?
Where Do You Tie It?
It is usually tied on the right wrist. I suspect this is mainly because, in older cultures, the left hand is associated with the toilet hand. You wouldn’t want such an important and symbolic gift spoilt or sullied. Also nine out of ten people are naturally left-brained, right-handers. On the favoured hand it is more likely to make regular appearance and act as a reminder of that special bond and come to mind or attention.
Loss or Disposal
In quite a short time the Rakhi bracelet can get a bit wet and frayed (shower, bath, swimming, dirt, etc.) We prefer to let the Rakhi go by casting it into a river. The idea is that the river’s current represents a journey (ultimately to the sea), a continuation of the commitment to a friendship or familial bond of protection. And as you commit your bracelet to a natural process larger than yourself, you remember and re-affirm the loving commitment that accompanied the original gift. A poetic and meaningful continuation perhaps.
If You Don’t Have a Biological Brother?
The term brother, even in India – the home of this tradition, is used loosely. Kinship practices accord cousins a status similar to siblings by the term ‘munh-bola bhai’ or ‘adopted brothers’. The common element is that the individual concerned demonstrates a long-term loving care for the well-being of women. This, today, might include community, religious or spiritual leaders working for the betterment and gender equality of their society. Certainly we have heard reports of imaginative expansions of Rakhi gifting to include politicians, policemen, orphans and even trees.
Our Greater, Spiritual Family
Rakhi, like many other festivals, celebrates togetherness, of being one of the family. However, this needn’t be limited to one’s biological family, but one of all humankind, where everyone is either our brother or sister. We are all part of a greater family – a spiritual one. By that token, one might contend that a Rakhi bracelet, regardless of gender, could as easily be given to a sister as a brother.
It also offers a way of crossing the generational boundary where one might make clear a relationship with one’s ‘little brother’ or ‘little sister’. It might also be a way of offering a visible, physical symbol to a child (young or old) that no longer has living relatives, such as an orphan. It would be a reminder that someone holds them in special regard and is mindful of, or has an on-going care for, their safety and welfare when they feel at their lowest or least loved. They’ve only to look at their wrist to know that someone cares enough to wish to mark that loving bond of commitment. The gifting of a Rakhi band is an opportunity to reach out to someone and show them you care.
Rabindranath Tagore’s Community Initiative
Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel laureate Bengali poet, mindful of the religious divisions that plagued India during the contentious time of Nationalism and Partition, promoted the concept of unity and harmony by encouraging all members of his society (regardless of religion, ethnicity, caste or creed) to make the commitment to protect each other and encourage a harmonious social life. For him the offering of Rakhi bracelets meant that a festival, primarily for siblings, might become a celebration of mankind’s humanity.
The Rajput Queens
In medieval times, Rakhi signified a call for help. At a time when the Rajput kingdoms were under attack from Muslim rulers the royal ladies solicited help from fellow Rajput rulers by sending them Rakhi bracelets as tokens of brotherhood, reminding them of their duty of protection.
Rishis and Disciples
In the earliest of days when rishis (sages) whose transcendental meditations produced the Vedas and other imperishable spiritual works, reputedly tied protective sacred threads on themselves, their disciples, and those who came seeking blessings.
Blessings and Protection for our Yoga Students 2013
This year we have decided to honour the link between ourselves and our students, to reaffirm the loving bond of commitment that exists between those who endeavour to follow a spiritual path. It is both an encouragement and visible reminder of sacred trust, support and protection. At the end of our teaching year (Christmas) we will be offering the token of a Rakhi bracelet. No reciprocal contribution is required other than mindfulness of our unity of spirit. Om shanti, shanti, shanti, Om.