Raksha Bandhan is a Hindu festival that celebrates the love and duty between brothers and sisters; the festival is also popularly used to celebrate any brother-sister relationship between men and women who are relatives or biologically unrelated. It is called Rakhi Purnima, or simply Rakhi, in many parts of India. The festival is observed by Hindus, Jains, and many Sikhs. Raksha Bandhan is primarily observed in India,Mauritius and parts of Nepal. It is also celebrated by Hindus and Sikhs in parts of Pakistan, and by some people of Indian origin around the world.
Raksha Bandhan is an ancient festival, and has many myths and historic legends linked to it. For example, the Rajput queens practised the custom of sending rakhi threads to neighbouring rulers as token of brotherhood. On Raksha Bandhan, sisters tie a rakhi on her brother’s wrist. This symbolizes the sister’s love and prayers for her brother’s well-being, and the brother’s lifelong vow to protect her. The festival falls on the full moon day of the Shravan month of the Hindu lunisolar calendar.
Raksha Bandhan in Sanskrit literally means “the tie or knot of protection”. It is an ancient Hindu festival that ritually celebrates the love and duty between brothers and their sisters. The sister performs a Rakhi ceremony, then prays to express her love and her wish for the well being of her brother; in return, the brother ritually pledges to protect and take care of his sister under all circumstances. It is one of the several occasions in which family ties are affirmed in India. Raksha Bandhan is essentially a sacred thread of protection embellished with the love and tenderness of a sister for her brother.
The festival is also an occasion to celebrate brother-sister like family ties between cousins or distant family members, sometimes between biologically unrelated men and women. To many, the festival transcends biological family, brings together men and women across religions, diverse ethnic groups and ritually emphasizes harmony and love. It is observed in the Hindu calendar month of Śrāvaṇa, and typically falls in August every year.
Women shopping for Rakhi, the ceremonial thread marking brother-sister love, before the Raksha Bandhan festival.
The festival is marked by the several rituals, which vary regionally within India. Typical rituals include:
Prepare for Raksha Bandhan
Days or weeks before Raksha Bandhan, women shop for Rakhi, the ceremonial thread to tie around her brother’s (or brother-like friend’s) wrist. Some women make their own Rakhi. A Rakhi may be a simple thread, woven and colorful; or a Rakhi may be intricate with amulets and decoration on top of it. Sometimes, a Rakhi may be a fancy wrist watch or men’s wrist accessory in the form of bracelet or jewelry. Rakhi in the form of a colorful woven thread is most common. Typically the brother(s) too shop for gifts for the sister, ahead of Raksha Bandhan. The gift from the brother can be a simple thoughtful token of love, and may be more elaborate.
On the morning of Raksha Bandhan, the brothers and sisters get together, often in nice dress in the presence of surviving parents, grandparents and other family members. If the sister and brother are geographically separated, the sister may mail the Rakhi ahead of the Raksha Bandhan day, along with a greeting card or letter wishing her brother well. The ritual typically begins in front of a lighted lamp (diya) or candle, which signifies fire deity. The sister and brother face each other. The sister ties the Rakhi on her brother’s wrist.
Prayer, aarti, promise and food
The Festival of Raksha Bandhan
1. Tie the Rakhi
2. Wish, do Tilak, promise
3. She feeds him with her hands
4. Hugs and gifts
The key rituals of Raksha Bandhan. In the first image, the ‘Rakhi’ is evident on the brother’s wrist.
Once the Rakhi has been tied, the sister says a prayer for the well being – good health, prosperity and happiness – for her brother. This ritual sometimes involves an aarti, where a tray with lighted lamp or candle is ritually rotated around the brother’s face, along with the prayer and well wishes.
The prayer is a self composed note, or one of many published Rakhi poems and prose. One of the earliest examples of a Rakhi prayer is found in Book V, Chapter V of Vishnu Purana; it is the prayer that Yasoda says while tying a Raksha Bandhan amulet on Krishna’s wrist. An abridged form of the prayer is:
May the lord of all beings protect you,
May the one who creates, preserves and dissolves life protect thee,
May Govinda guard thy head; Kesava, thy neck; Vishnu, thy belly;
the eternal Narayana, thy face, thine arms, thy mind, and faculties of sense;
May all negativity and fears, spirits malignant and unfriendly, flee thee;
May Rishikesa keep you safe in the sky; and Mahidhara, upon earth.
After the prayer, the sister applies a tilak (Tikka), a colorful mark on the forehead of the brother. After the tilak, the brother pledges to protect her and take care of his sister under all circumstances.
The sister then feeds the brother, with her hands, one or more bites of sweets (desserts), dry fruits and other seasonal delicacies.
Gifts and hugs
The brother gives his sister(s) gifts such as cards, clothes, money or something thoughtful. The brother may also feed his sister, with his hands, one or more bites of sweets, dry fruits and other seasonal delicacies. They hug, and the larger family ritually congratulate the festive celebration of brother-sister love and protection.
The brother(s) wear the Rakhi for the entire day, at school or work, as a reminder of their sister(s) and to mark the festival of Raksha Bandhan.
A more formal Aarti plate for Raksha Bandhan.
Myths and parables
The scriptures, epics and ancient fiction of Hinduism is peppered with stories of Rakhi and Raksha Bandhan. Some of these include:
According to Hindu scripture Bhavishya Purana, in the war between Gods and demons, Indra – the deity of sky, rains and thunderbolts – was disgraced by the powerful demon King Bali. Indra’s wife Sachi consulted Vishnu, who gave her a bracelet made of cotton thread, calling it holy. Sachi tied the holy thread around Indra wrist, blessed with her prayers for his well being and success. Indra successfully defeated the evil and recovered Amaravati. This story inspired the protective power of holy thread. The story also suggests that the Raksha Bandhan thread in ancient India were amulets, used by women as prayers and to guard men going to war, and that these threads were not limited to sister-brother like relationships.
King Bali and Goddess Laxmi
According to this legend, credited to Hindu scriptures Bhagavata Purana and Vishnu Purana, after Vishnu won the three worlds from the demon King Bali, he was asked by Bali that Vishnu live in his palace, a request Vishnu granted. Vishnu’s wife, Goddess Lakshmidid not like the palace or his new found friendship with Bali, and preferred that her husband and she return to Vaikuntha. So she went to Bali, tied a Rakhi and made him a brother. Bali asked her what gift she desired. Lakshmi asked that Vishnu be freed from the request that he live in Bali’s palace. Bali consented, as well accepted her as his sister.
Ganesh had two sons, Shubh and Labh. On Raksha Bandhan, Ganesh’s sister visited and tied a Rakhi on Ganesh’s wrist. The two boys become frustrated that they have no sister to celebrate Raksha Bandhan with. They ask their father Ganesh for a sister, but to no avail. Finally, saint Narada appears who persuades Ganesh that a daughter will enrich him as well as his sons. Ganesh agreed, and created a daughter named Santoshi Ma by divine flames that emerged from Ganesh’s wives, Rddhi (Amazing) and Siddhi(Perfection). Thereafter, Shubh Labh (literally “Holy Profit”) had a sister named Santoshi Ma (literally “Goddess of Satisfaction”), who loved and protected each other.
Krishna and Draupadi
Raksha Bandhan is celebrated in some Hindu, Jain and Sikh communities outside India. Above, Rakhi tied to a man’s wrist in Mauritius.
Krishna considered Draupadi his sister. When Krishna cut his finger while beheading Shishupal, Draupadi immediately tore off a piece of her sari and bandaged his cut. Krishna said that with this loving act, she wrapped him in debt and he would repay each “thread” when the time arrives. Indeed, whenever Draupadi needed Krishna’s protection she fervently prayed for his help, he came to the rescue and gave her unlimited cloth. This is one of the stories of the origin of the Raksha Bandhan festival.
In the epic Mahabharat, Draupadi tied a Rakhi to Krishna, while Kunti tied her Rakhi to her grandson Abhimanyu, before the great war.
Yama and the Yamuna
According to another legend, Yama, the god of Death had not visited his sister Yamuna for 12 years. Yamuna, the goddess of Yamuna river, was sad and consulted Ganga, the goddess of Ganga river. Ganga reminded Yama of his sister, upon which Yama visits her. Yamuna was overjoyed to see her brother, and prepared a bounty of food for Yama. The god Yama was delighted, and asked Yamuna what she wanted for gift. She wished that he, her brother should return and see her again soon. Yama was moved by his sister’s love, agreed and to be able to see her again, made river Yamuna immortal. This legend is the basis for a Raksha Bandhan-like festival called Bhai Duj in some parts of India, which also celebrates brother-sister love, but near Diwali.
Alexander the Great and King Puru
According to one legendary narrative, when Alexander the Great invaded India in 326 BCE, Roxana (or Roshanak, his wife) sent a sacred thread to Porus, asking him not to harm her husband in battle. In accordance with tradition, Porus, the king of Kaikeya kingdom, gave full respect to the rakhi. On the battlefield, when Porus was about to deliver a final blow to Alexander, he saw the rakhi on his own wrist and restrained himself from attacking Alexander personally.
Rani Karnavati and Emperor Humayun
Another controversial historical account is that of Rani Karnavati of Chittor and Mughal Emperor Humayun, which dates to 1535 CE. When Rani Karnavati, the widowed queen of the king of Chittor, realised that she could not defend against the invasion by the Sultan of Gujarat, Bahadur Shah, she sent a Rakhi to Emperor Humayun. Touched, the Emperor immediately set off with his troops to defend Chittor. Humayun arrived too late, and Bahadur Shah managed to sack the Rani’s fortress. Although contemporary commentators and memoirs do not mention the Rakhi episode and some historians have expressed skepticism about it, it is mentioned in one mid-seventeenth century Rajasthani account.
Rabindranath Tagore and Rakhi
Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian Nobel Laureate for literature, invoked Raksha Bandhan and Rakhi, as concepts to inspire love, respect and a vow of mutual protection between Hindus and Muslims during India’s colonial era. In 1905, the British empire divided Bengal, a province of British India on the basis of religion. Rabindra Nath Tagore arranged a ceremony to celebrate Raksha Bandhan to strengthen the bond of love and togetherness between Hindus and Muslims of Bengal, and urge them to together protest the British empire. He used the idea of Raksha Bandhan to spread the feeling of brotherhood. In 1911, British colonial empire reversed the partition and unified Bengal, a unification that was opposed by Muslims of Bengal. Ultimately, Tagore’s Raksha Bandhan-based appeals were unsuccessful. Bengal not only was split during the colonial era, one part became modern Bangladesh and predominantly Muslim country, the other a largely Hindu Indian state of West Bengal. Rabindranath Tagore started Rakhi Mahotsavas as a symbol of Bengal unity, and as a larger community festival of harmony. In parts of West Bengal, his tradition continues as people tie Rakhis to their neighbors and close friends.
One of Tagore’s poem invoking Rakhi is:
Rakhi threads on sale in India.
The love in my body and heart
For the earth’s shadow and light
Has stayed over years.
With its cares and its hope it has thrown
A language of its own
Into blue skies.
It lives in my joys and glooms
In the spring night’s buds and blooms
Like a Rakhi-band
On the Future’s hand.
While Raksha Bandhan is celebrated in various parts of South Asia, different regions mark the day in different ways.