Raksha Bandhan: Brothers and Sisters

Quick Facts

  • Summary: a Hindu festival that celebrates the bond between sisters and brothers
  • 2018 Date: 26th August
  • Celebrated by: Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, the Indian subcontinent.
  • Linked Holidays: Bhai Dooj / Bhai Tika

Background and Theological Significance

Raksha Bandhan, deriving from the Sanskrit for ‘the bond of protection or care’, is a festival celebrated primarily in the Indian subcontinent that honours the bond between brothers and sisters. During Raksha Bandhan, a sister ties a thread or bracelet known as a ‘rakhi’ around the wrist of her brother to symbolise their close familial relationship and to remind the brother of his duty to care for and protect her. The festival originated in northern and western India and in Nepal but has since spread to neighbouring countries and around the world due to travel and emigration. The festival is primarily concerned with honouring the eternal bond between sisters and brothers, both during and after they leave the childhood home. However, variations of the festival include honouring the bonds between other blood relations, as well as the bonds between close platonic friends.

Raksha Bandhan (sometimes called simply ‘Rakhi’) is primarily a Hindu festival, although it is also celebrated by Sikhs and Jains as well. It is observed on the full moon day of Shraavana, the fifth month in the Hindu calendar. There are many legends and traditions within Indian mythology and literature concerning the origins and practice of the tying of the rakhi. However, there are no specific ceremonies associated with Raksha Bandhan, and it is often celebrated nowadays as a festival when Indians pay tribute to the love between a brother and a sister.

History

References to Raksha Bandhan appear in many literary and legendary works of Indian culture. One story concerns Sachi, the wife of the god Indra, tying a rakhi on to her husband’s wrist so that he could defeat the demon Bali. Another story tells of how the goddess Lakshmi made Bali her honorary brother with a rakhi, in order to demand that he allow her husband Vishnu to leave Bali’s palace. In a third story, the river goddess Yamuna received a visit from her brother Yama after many years and she asked him to visit her again soon, a request to which he agreed out of love for his sister. Other stories have a more historical basis. In one account, when Alexander the Great invaded India in the fourth-century BCE, his wife Roxana sent a rakhi to King Porus as a request not to harm her husband in battle, which Porus observed out of respect for the sacred tradition. Raksha Bandhan has been celebrated for many millennia in India, and although its exact origin is unclear, it remains one of the most important and popular annual festivals for people in the Indian subcontinent.

Raksha Bandhan is always celebrated on the day of the full moon (also called a ‘purnima’) in the Hindu month of Shraavana. The Hindu calendar consists of twelve lunar months, with an intercalary month added every few years in order to keep the lunar calendar consistent with the solar year. This means that Shraavana and the festival of Raksha Bandhan usually falls in August according to the Gregorian calculation, although the exact date will change depending on the occurrence of the full moon.

There are similar festivals to Raksha Bandhan that also celebrate the bond between brothers and sisters. For instance, Bhai Dooj (India) or Bhai Tika (Nepal) is a celebration during Diwali when a sister prays for her brother and applies a mark called a ‘tilaka’ to his forehead. This festival tends to focus on the sister’s role towards her brother, whereas Raksha Bandhan focuses on the brother’s role towards his sister. These two festivals celebrate the importance of brother-sister relations.

What Happens?

In preparation for the festival of Raksha Bandhan, women will choose a special coloured ‘rakhi’ for each of her brothers. If a woman is married then her brothers or family will typically arrive to escort her back to her parents’ home in order to take part in the ritual, a practice that is particularly common in rural northern India. When she has gathered together with her family on the day of Raksha Bandhan, the woman will tie the rakhi on to her brother’s right wrist and they will pray together. Often, she will also place a colourful ‘tilaka’ on to the brother’s forehead. The brother will then promise to protect and care for his sister at all times and usually makes her gifts of money or food. This special ritual symbolises the sacred link that exists between brothers and sisters.

Although Raksha Bandhan is primarily concerned with the relationship between brothers and sisters, it has at times been a focus for bonds between other people. For instance, rakhis have been exchanged between distant relatives, between close male and female friends, between priests and their benefactors, and even as a means of healing division between Hindus and Muslims. It is a festival that celebrates bringing people together and as such has been adapted to numerous circumstances as a means of spreading love, respect and harmony.

Threads of Love, Rakhi‘ by Shriyash Jichkar is licensed under CC by 2.0

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