The annual festival was made popular by Rabindranath Tagore to promote the feeling of unity in a society, protect each other and encourage a harmonious life.
Raksha Bandhan is a celebration of the bond of affection between a brother and a sister. It is a day when siblings pray for each others’ happiness and well-being. While the exact origin of the festival that is celebrated joyously in India and Nepal is unknown, there are are many interesting stories associated with it. The most common one is from the Mahabharata, which acknowledges the relationship between Lord Krishna and Draupadi. According to the epic, one morning, when Lord Krishna was flying a kite he cut his finger with the thread. Draupadi – who was nearby – saw him bleeding profusely, ran to him, tore a piece from her sari and tied it around his finger. Lord Krishna was so touched that in return he promised to protect her from all evil, forever. And he did all along, especially during her ‘cheerharan’ by the Kauravas.
There are other stories too that are equally interesting. For instance, this one time when Goddess Indrani (wife of Indra) tied a thread given to her by Lord Vishnu around her husband’s wrist to protect him from rakshasas (demons) during a war between the Gods and the demons. Another mythological story goes like this: There was a time when Lord Indra lost a war and was so unhappy about it that he complained to Brihaspati (leader of the Gods). Brihaspati then prepared a raksha sutra and told him to wear it for protection.
But not all tales are associated with the Gods. One of the famous historical stories involve Emperor Humayun and Rani Karnavati of Mewar. When Mewar was attacked twice by Bahadur Shah Zafar in the mid 16th century, she sent a letter with a rakhi to Humayun as a last resort, to help her. The emperor was very touched by the gesture, and immediately left the military campaign that he was then involved in to protect her.
Another such popular story is that of Alexander and King Puru of India’s Kaikeya kingdom in circa 326 BC. Legend has it that Alexander’s wife, Roxana, had heard of the festival of rakhi at the time when the Greek king was trying to invade India. To protect her husband ahead of the battle, Roxana had sent a rakhi to King Puru urging him to “protect” her husband. Thus, at the time of battle, when King Puru had the opportunity to kill Alexander, he refrained from doing so because of the vow he’d made to his ‘rakhi sister’.
Rakhi rituals of the past and present
The annual festival falls on Shravan Purnima of the Hindu lunar calendar, and was made popular by Rabindranath Tagore to promote the feeling of unity in a society, protect each other and encourage a harmonious life. At present, there are many rites and rituals – some that go beyond the more popular one of tying the rakhi – that are followed. For instance, in some parts of India, families draw figures on the walls of their homes and worship them with offerings of vermilion and kheer. Palm imprints are also used to decorate the entrance of a household where rakhis are stuck as part of raksha bandhan rituals. Brahmins too consider this as an important day where young boys from the community discard old Janaeu (holy white thread) for a new one.
According to stories, in ancient India Rishis used to tie rakhis to those who would come seeking their blessings. They also used to tie sacred threads on their own wrist to ward off evil. Not just learned men, even wives, sisters and mothers used to tie rakhi to protect the men from all harm.
Much like other Indian festivals, Raksha Bandhan too has changed over the centuries. Though the sentiment of love and togetherness between siblings is still very much there, a lot of the celebrations now revolve around fancy meals, gifts and vouchers! Well, at least that’s much better than wars and battles, right!