rakhiYesterday was the celebration of an Indian Hindu festival called “Raksha Bandhan”. Like most Hindu festivals, it is based on the Lunar calendar, so the actual day in August varies each year. But, it happens during a Full Moon, which is considered auspicious.

The main ceremony involves sisters tying decorated and colorful rakhis on their brothers’ wrists — actually, a lot more ornate than the ones shown in the image. For the sister, the rakhi is a symbol of her love and her prayers for his well-being. For the brother, it is a reminder of his binding duty to be her lifelong protector and helper. There is, of course, a lot of mithai (Indian sweets) and the brother gives his sister some gift — usually, cash. I have never understood the symbolism of this last part. Perhaps, this began because, in previous times, women were not allowed to own anything of material value and these monetary or similar gifts from her brother gave some material security.

Some of the ceremony’s rituals have fallen away in present times due to commercialization and convenience. Or, at least, they have become less, shall we say, de rigueur. For example, before my parents’ time, rakhis had to be blessed through sacred prayers before being tied. The tying ritual was carried out before brothers and sisters had broken their fasts for the day. Girls and women who did not have brothers would either tie these rakhis to chosen male cousins or close family friends. And, the brothers would wear these rakhis around their wrists for the entire day like badges of honor — the more the better. And, one new ritual was added in recent times that I absolutely rebelled against in my younger days: girls/women making “rakhi brothers” of boys/men to fend off possible advances or overtures. Rather a mockery of the tradition, in my personal opinion, and, one that caused even more tension and misunderstanding for several people I knew, but, let us save those stories for another day.

The history behind the festival is, as with most Indian festivals, steeped in mythology, history, and folklore. The widely-accepted non-mythological narrative is from the sixteenth century and set in what is now present-day Chittorgarh in Rajasthan, India.

When Chittor’s Rajput King, Rana Sanga, died, his kingdom and Queen were left vulnerable to attacks by neighboring Kings. The Queen, Rani Karnavati, was young and beautiful, so had the added misfortune that whoever won her kingdom in war would also win her as his wife (or, indeed, property to do with as he wished). Of course, women were the spoils of war across most ancient cultures, not just Indian.

Besides surrendering her kingdom and her honor, Karnavati’s only other obvious and expected choice was the sacrificial funeral fire for recent widows — the practice known as Sati. Now, with two young sons, she wanted to continue raising them and live to see one of them succeed to their father’s throne — a choice she did not seem to have much say over, sadly, even as the de facto Queen Regent.

One such imminent attacker was the Sultan of Gujarat, Bahadur Shah. He was of a Rajput dynasty that had converted to Islam. With no King in Chittor and an army weakened by battles, Karnavati knew she did not stand a chance against the war-mongering Bahadur Shah. So, she sent a rakhi to another neighboring monarch, Mughal Emperor Humayun, who ruled over present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, and parts of Northern India. At the time, this was the largest Indian kingdom under a single ruler. Karnavati’s rakhi was a cry for help and protection — her final, desperate recourse. Humayun, gallant man that he was, started preparing to come to her rescue.

However, Bahadur Shah got to Chittor before him. As soon as the main fortress fell, Karnavati had to carry out her final act. And, how. It was no ordinary Rajput Queen self-immolation. Thousands of Chittor’s proud Rajput women and men committed what was known as Jauhar. This was form of mass suicide where all the women and young children were led by their Queen in a mass self-immolation on ornately-built burning pyres/platforms. At the same time, the men rode out to honorably fight the war to death, having no family or kingdom left to live for. Chittor, particularly, is famous for these Jauhars — Karnavati’s was the second of at least three well-known ones from medieval times.

Anyway, Humayun did show up finally with his massive armies, got Bahadur Shah off the throne he had just mounted and put Karnavati’s oldest son — she had been smart enough to send both her sons away to a safe place before the Jauhar — on the throne under his protection. As Indian history books assure us, all was well that ended well and Chittor remained under Rajput rulership. Except for those thousands of Jauhar casualties, of course.

As fascinated as I was with this story growing up, there were aspects of it that made me wonder why Indians the world over celebrated a parochial tradition derived from it. Particularly as, thankfully, the other related traditions like Sati and Jauhar had been allowed to fall away. For one, the symbolism is about a woman putting herself under the protection of a man, which is hardly in alignment with the universal social need for gender equality. For another, it really did not end well for the tradition’s founder or most well-known proponent, despite her Queenly status. Nor did it do any good for the thousands of other Chittor women who looked up to her.

My layperson theory is that it is because, through the ages, the lot of women in India continues to a vulnerable one. The recent rapes in India that have been much featured in global news are some examples of the violence and exploitation that women in India continue to be subjected to. Reminding the closest men in their lives, especially those they are directly related to, of this need for protection continues to be necessary across many levels of Indian society. Sad that such reminders are needed. Sadder still that some of these men continue to be violent and exploitative towards women despite, each year, being reminded of this obligation.

I don’t mean to denounce old traditions as not worth celebrating because the stories behind them are not relevant anymore. What matters now is the interpretation that we apply to such traditions.  Scholars and historians have shown us that there is no universally-accepted, unchanging view of historical events because of ongoing historical revisionism. History is always seen through the lens of our present times and will mean different things to different cultures and classes. For example, the two World Wars of the twentieth century continue to be so much grist for historians’ and writers’ mills. Revisionism done right is not a denial of history or tradition. It is the casting of the latter in new or different contexts for them to continue being meaningful and relevant in the present day.

Rabindranath Tagore tried to make Raksha Bandhan symbolize a more universal tie of humanity across religions and castes in pre-Independence India when his much-loved Bengal was being torn apart with much Hindu-Muslim strife. He recommended a simple white thread for people to tie to each others’ wrists, symbolizing a peace-keeping and friendship between them. His attempt at social change through this revisionism did not succeed at the scale he had hoped. And, possibly, such grand gestures today would only meet disdain and apathy. The world is both a more complex place and, possibly, lacking in living national treasures such as Tagore in his time.

Also, in the present day, socio-political activists have occasionally used the tradition to symbolize other kinds of protection. For example, environmentalists in India tie rakhi-like threads around trees. Although, this rarely gets more attention beyond the day’s local news headlines.

Perhaps the best that we can each do, at the individual and personal level, is to create more meaningful narratives for such traditions and their associated festivals, ceremonies, and rituals. And then ensure that our younger generations are understanding and buying into them rather than blindly celebrating for a day and moving on. For me, this is the more satisfying and enjoyable aspect of maintaining ancient traditions: infusing them with present-day relevance and substance.

UPDATE: A few more stories behind the origins of Raksha Bandhan.

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