Rakhi (Rakhri, Raksha Bandhan) has existed in Indian culture for centuries. This bond between brothers and sisters demonstrates themes of love, care and most importantly protection. Occasionally this ritual is celebrated between parties that aren’t literally siblings, but assume a similar bond; for example, mother and son, father and daughter, cousins and friends etc. Most will be aware that it consists of the sister tying a string around her brother’s wrist – sweets and money are thereafter exchanged in a gesture of good-will.
There are various accounts of the historical legend that inspired the tradition, but because they go back in early Hindu mythology it’s not easily verifiable which is the first or most accurate. However, with a ritual such as this, it’s not necessarily the historical telling which is most important, but the fact that it continues to thrive.
According to my understanding it relates to a sister, who fearing her brother’s loss of life in battle, gave him a piece of string for protection (which she’d previously prayed with). The string kept her brother safe and protected in battle. Eventually his army was defeated by the enemy, but only when he was captured, and the string removed, that he eventually passed. The string clearly carried the strength to keep him alive. It’s quite possible that this is an idealised version of the tale, but it’s probably the clearest understanding of why, over time, the ritual has become so powerful. Of course, it can’t really be dated, particularly as there are various accounts of Gods, Kings and historical figures who claimed to have celebrated the ritual in various ways over time. If anything, all these instances simply add to the ritual’s mystique.
As the recent full moon passed a few days ago, it was time to celebrate Rakhi again. Brothers and sisters around the world prepared to visit each other across cities in various NRI outposts. For those not having the means to be present, the strings are sent via mail. For some reason or other, the ones that come directly from India are always the loudest. I once saw a Spiderman themed Rakhi. That’s when I realised that Rakhi had truly arrived as twenty-first century ritual – to take its place amidst Dr Who Easter eggs and Ben 10 Christmas crackers. Yet despite this delve into commercialism, most sensible Rakhi wearers will opt for something simple in a single colour. Anything more fabulous than that will simply get washed away in the shower.
As a brother, every year this day approaches, I can’t help but develop a sense of apprehension. I begin to feel a little bit like a father who’s just been told that his daughter’s getting married. I wonder if many others feel the same. You begin to think – how much is this going to cost me? Most brothers, will give whatever they can. And when they’ve more time, will even give a considered gift – thus side-stepping the idea of needing to comply with a set a fee. This questions what the principle of Rakhi actually is and what it should be.
Historically, most women will approach men and tie a Rakhi on them in exchange for protection. A group of sisters in an ancient time would do well to bestow their attention on their cousins, who in turn would offer their care and protection. The theme of caring therefore gained a utopian degree of mutuality. But this seems to work better in simpler times, when physical dangers were more prevalent.
As times have changed, women have become more independent – and the need for ‘protection’ has evolved. It’s gone beyond a verbal agreement, or a symbolic idea. Yet, brothers have wanted to still demonstrate care – so gifts, sweets and money have become the tokenistic replacement for these things. But the question remains, how much is a piece of string in today’s world? What will a brother have to do to show that he appreciates it? What if what he offers isn’t the same as other brothers? Does this matter? Has this ritual now become an opportunity for women to invest in shoes?
Of course these questions do carry a little bit of cynicism, but that may be due my personal experiences of it always being uncertain every year. Naturally, some incentive will keep this ritual alive, but it also needs to keep true to its origins; a time when care and protection have been valuable attributes in their own right, standing in place of monetary value. I won’t ask for sisters to sit and pray with a Rakhi for a set period of time, but if it comes at a nominal fee, is this really the wrong thing to expect?
When I’ve been in India during times of Rakhi, I’ve often found that I suddenly have more sisters than I ever realised. It’s this opportunistic trend that creeps into all celebrations and rituals that strongly has the ability to taint them, but, as most brothers and sisters do, we’ll take it with a pinch of salt.
To present a fairer argument, I should try and see things from the female point of view. Rakhi is an opportunity for a ritual that sprang from a dangerous time to be celebrated in a jovial, modern but sincere fashion. It can be the perfect opportunity to demonstrate a bond which is otherwise difficult to categorise for many not born into a conventional brother and sister style nuclear family. Regardless of my regular sceptical concerns about most rituals, I can’t deny that I feel better for having my Rakhi, and that when it withers, I wait anxiously for Rakhi day to come back again.