Rakhi: Of Changing Traditions

In every Hindu family, ‘Rakhi’ has a special significance. It is a ritual that celebrates the love and duty between brothers and their sisters. According to tradition, sisters tie a sacred thread on the wrist of their brothers and pray for their well-being; in return, the brothers pledge to protect and take care of their sisters under all circumstances. The festival also extends beyond the biological family and often becomes an occasion to celebrate brother-sister like family ties between cousins or distant family members and even unrelated men and women.

There are many stories of the origin of the Rakhi or the Raksha Bandhan festival.The oft-heard story that I’ve grown up with, is from Mahabharata, about lord Krishna, who considered Draupadi his friend. When Krishna cut his finger while beheading Shishupal, Draupadi immediately tore off a piece of her sari and bandaged his cut. Krishna believed that with this loving act, she had wrapped him in debt and that he would repay each ‘thread’ when the time arrives. Indeed, we all know the famous story of how Draupadi needed Krishna’s protection, and how her prayers brought him to the rescue and eventually saved her.

As children, my brother and I too looked forward to Rakhi each year. I was particularly keen to buy the brightest ones for my kid brother and it was his day to get thoroughly spoilt by gifts, chocolates and sweets, usually bought a day in advance. No matter how much we fought the day before or after, on Rakhi, it was always special.

In the North-East, as in the North of India, (unlike the South, where I currently live, this day was usually a state holiday, which meant we had no school that day and this guaranteed us unlimited fun throughout the day, often visiting our neighbours or having them drop by, especially if they didn’t have a sister in the family. And, so it was, year after year, until we grew up, finished school and left home to pursue studies elsewhere.

During the years I lived away from home, I made it a point to send Rakhi home, always on time. In a way, I felt good that I was still keeping the tradition alive, something that has continued till the present day.

Like most people, I too had the notion that Rakhi was only about the ‘brother-sister bond’, until, once, during a visit to Bolpur, roughly 145 kms from Kolkata and the seat of  Rabindranath Tagore’s famous institution, Viswa Bharati, I encountered a unique version of this festival.

It was there for the first time, I saw how different Tagore’s vision of celebrating Raksha-Bandhan was! It changed my perspective and I think I definitely loved the idea of his celebration of mankind and humanity that typifies Rakhi in the Shantiniketan tradition.

For those who may not be aware, the tradition dates back to 1905, at a time when the British Empire was keen to split Bengal, on the basis of caste and religion. In response, Tagore had arranged a ceremony to strengthen the bond of love and togetherness between the Hindus and the Muslims of Bengal and fight together, as a stronger force, against the British empire. I’ve often heard about this from my mother but didn’t know the tradition was still kept alive, so many years even after Tagore was gone. ‘

I’ve often heard about this from my mother but didn’t know the tradition was still kept alive, so many years even after Tagore was gone. ‘Rakhi Mahotsav’ is celebrated in the same spirit that Tagore had envisioned and is very popular especially among the student populace who are drawn from diverse background and religions from all over the world.

I think it is a very beautiful tradition as it is inherently more inclusive of everyone in a society and provides us with another opportunity to feel connected to one another, something that is particularly relevant in today’s fragile world, where so many walls divide us on the grounds of colour, class, country, race, sexual orientation and what not.

In such a bitterly fragmented world, my belief is that this bond of friendship that binds one human being to another goes a long way to ensure, that humanity and peace prevail over everything else.

What are your thoughts on this? Do you think such events can dispel fear and hatred amongst the community members and encourage mutual trust and respect, especially when our peaceful co-existence is threatened by a multitude of forces, in so many ways? 


6 thoughts

  1. It’s a beautiful tradition and I had never heard about it. You are right that it’s so wonderful to see it being followed years after Tagore’s demise. Thanks for sharing. Lovely post and I also send rakhis to all my brothers every year 🙂

  2. It’s all about the love and bond you share. Rakhi is a festival to celebrate relationship and bond and that’s how I have always seen it being a South Indian and brought up in North.
    I hope you had a great time during the festival. ☺

  3. That’s the beauty of Rakhi Utsav, I feel and the bard Tagore has contributed so much in terms of culture. After all, what’s the point of celebrating if we cannot showcase a symbol of unity that transgresses caste, gender, color or race? A beautiful message and an educative post. Belatedly Happy Raksha Bandhan.

  4. I didn’t know about the Rakhi Mahotsav but it sure was a revolutionary thing to do. My mother always got rakhi for us and now that I’m married I buy myself for my brother. The festival brings lots of happiness and joy and is a happy time for everyone in the family.


  5. This extension of a tradition sounds like something we in the United States could use right now. We feel so split, with residents hating other residents, and feeling those residents don’t belong and should leave. And not just here, all over the world.

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