Saturday, August 4, 2001
M A I N   F E A T U R E

The thread which binds

Though commonly known as a festival which strengthens the bond of love between brothers and sisters, Rakhi has many other aspects to it. There are historical instances to show that the practice was not confined to the brother-sister relationship but took on wider dimensions as and when required, says Satish K. Kapoor

ACCORDING to Hindu belief, a thread is not just an inanimate, slender cord composed of two or more filaments, as of flex, cotton or silk, but a symbol of unity. The use of thread both for sacramental and exorcist purposes has been prevalent in India since ancient times. 

Of the various thread ceremonies such as "Pavitropana", "Upanayana" and "Solono" (derived from the Persian word Sal-i-nu, which means New Year) Rakhi or Raksha Bandhan is the most popular. It falls on the Full Moon day of the month of Shravana (July-August) and is observed almost throughout the country.

Though commonly known as a festival which strengthens the bond of love between brothers and sisters, Rakhi has many other aspects to it. There are historical instances to show that the practice was not confined to brother-sister relationship but took on wider dimensions as and when required by the exigencies of time. For example, Kunti, mother of the five Pandavas, tied a rakhi to her grandson, Abhimanyu, and Draupadi tied it to Lord Krishna, who was not even distantly related to her.

There has been considerable speculation about the origin of this festival. Some believe that it was instituted to remind the Kshatriyas about their dharma towards the priestly class. On this occasion the priest tied a wristlet on the right hand of his yajman (host), received dakshina (gifts) in return and recited the following verse:


"Yena baddho Bali raja

danavendro mahabalah,

Tena tvamabhibadhnami,

raksha ma chala ma chala"

(With which was tied King Bali, the Lord of Giants, of great strength, with the same I tie you: be protected: Do not go, do not go).

The custom is still in vogue in some parts of India.

According to the Bhavishya Purana, the practice of tying rakhi began when Maharani Shachi, Lord Indiraís wife, who possessed occult powers, tied a protective knot containing rice and sarson (rape seed) on the right wrist of her husband to help him in his crusade against the demons. Lord Indira succeeded in crushing his foes.

Still another account says that Rakhi is celebrated to commemorate the event of Baliís great sacrifice in surrendering his celestial kingdom to Vamana.

The word rakhi is derived from the sanskrit word rakshika (an amulet or charm worn as a preserver). Words such as raksha, rakshti and rakshit, which mean "to protect, guard or take care of"often appear in Kalidasaís works such as Hitopadesha, and allied literature. Literally, raksha bandhan means the bond of protection.

Rakhi Purnima is noteworthy because of several rituals connected with it. In one such ceremony known as Pavitropana, a few twisted filaments of cotton are soaked in panchagavya (mixture of cowís ghee, milk, curd,urine and excreta) and then fastened around a shivalinga worn on the neck of some deity or laid at the feet of Lord Vishnu.

Another ritual enjoins on the Brahmins renewal of their investiture. On this occasion, they take a pledge to rededicate themselves to the cause of vedic dharma and to rise above mundane pursuits.

Rakhi is known by many names such as Baldev, Naliyeri Purnima or Coconut Day. It is believed that Lord Rama proceeded towards Lanka along the bridge constructed by his vanar sena, on this day. People living on sea shores commemorate this event by worshipping Varuna, the Lord of Water. They throw coconut into the sea or a nearby river to propitiate the deity. Coconut is sacred to the Hindus because its three eyes symbolise the three-eyed god, Shiva. Breaking the nut is considered to be auspicious before beginning any work. Even ships are ceremonially launched by breaking a coconut on the bows.Many people begin their voyage on Naliyeri Purnima. There is sufficient historical evidence to prove that even the English and the Parsi seafarers observed this ritual in the past.

In ancient times, rakhi was more or less a talisman which symbolised the good wishes of a person for the wellbeing of the object of his or her affection. However, in medieval times, its manner and style changed as it got confined to sister-brother relationship. With the onslaught of foreign invaders, the practice of tying a rakhi extended beyond the bounds of family and sometime became an intra-family or even an inter-racial affair. For example, Rani Karmavati of Chittor sent a rakhi to Humayun, soliciting his help against Bahadurshah, the ruler of Gujarat.

It is said that Humayun pledged himself to her service. But as the Mughal Emperor was busy fighting against Sher Shah Suri, he could not help Karmavati in time. The Rani committed jauhar (self-immolation ) along with thousands of women to save her honour. Humayun was much perturbed after learning about this incident.

Lt Col James Tod, the celebrated author of Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan, made some interesting observations on the nature and mode of
Raksha Bandhan, as it was observed in the central and western Rajput states of India. According to him, the festival of the bracelet happened to be "one of the few when an intercourse of gallantry of the most delicate nature is established between the fair sex and the cavaliers of Rajasthan". The bracelet was usually sent by maidens on occasions when they required urgent help.

It would be interesting to note that Colonel Tod received such bracelets from a number of prominent Rajput women, among them the queens of Udaipur, Boondi and Kotah and Chand Bai, the maiden sister of the Rana.

Rakhi became a national festival during the reign of Akbar. From Al Badaoniís account in Muntakhabut-Tawarikh, we learn that rakhi meant an amulet formed out of twisted linen rags and the festival was celebrated by almost everyone in the emperorís court. On the day of the festival, the courtiers and others adorned the Emperorís wrist with beautiful strings of silk, bejewelled with rubies, pearls and gems of great value. Jahangir described the festival as "Nighadasht" and celebrated it like his father. Even Aurangzeb addressed the Queen mother of Udaipur as "dear and virtuous sister" in one of his letters.

The "rakhi" system of misldars is said to have laid the foundations of Sikh political authority in Punjab and it paved the way for the establishment of a national monarchy under Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Under this system, protection was guaranteed to the people from zamindars, government officials and dacoits in return for the payment of one-fifth of their income to the Sikhs twice a year.

The Bengali nationalists regarded rakhi as a symbol of harmony and strength.

They revived the festival along with the Ganapati festival, imparting to it a religio-mystical outlook and used it to neutralise the divisive tendencies in the Indian society. Prominent nationalists like B.G.Tilak, S.N.Bannerji, Aurobindo Ghosh, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and others received innumerable rakhis from the people as a token of their love. To this they reciprocated by way of sweet words, gestures or promises.

The tradition of tying rakhi continues. But the ideals of love and unity which it has symbolised through the ages seem to have been consumed if not fully obscured by the smoke of greed and conceit. The need of the time is to understand the message of Rakhi and calmly recite with vedic seers:

"O ye mankind, let the object of your thought be the same: Let your mind be of one accord and let your hearts be united together." (Rigveda, X, 191)