Saturday, August 05, 2006

Raksha Bandan – A Tradition Worth Rethinking

When I was a kid, around this time every year, my female cousins would send my brother and me little string bracelets called rakhi. Then my parents would send them a little gift on our behalf. I wore my rakhi with pride. When I was very young, I remember the rakhi as a fairly simple piece of string, maybe with a little foil embellishment. As the years went by and Indian stores popped up in the US, the rakhi became these fantastically gaudy, multicolored creations. The point of the tradition, however, is not the beauty of the rakhi itself, but the bond between brothers and sisters that it symbolizes. Since I didn't have any sisters, the rakhi symbolized my bond with my cousin-sisters who lived all over the US, in India, and even Australia. Because my family is diasporized, I think those little pieces of string took on even more importance than in the days of yore.

Now that my brother and I have our own kids, it's time for us to continue this excellent tradition, right? I actually refuse to carry on with Raksha Bandan on the same terms. Treating cousin-sisters thousands of miles away as if they were my sisters was an adaptation. I think it's time for another adaptation, another rethinking of this very old custom. My problem is that the discourse around the rakhi is patriarchal. The sister gives the bracelet to her brother as a sign of appreciation for his protection. For example, this description of the meaning of Raksha Bandan, which I found on raksha-bandhan.com, is typical:
Rakhi or Raksha is a sacred thread embellished with sister's love and affection [sic] for her brother. On the day of Raksha Bandhan sisters tie Rakhi on their brother's wrist and express their love for him. By accepting a Rakhi from a sister a brother gladly takes on the responsibility of protecting her sister. In Indian tradition the frail thread of Rakhi is considered stronger than iron chains as it binds brothers and sisters in an inseparable bond of love and trust.
This narrative of taking on "the responsibility of protecting the sister" reflects a whole worldview where only by virtue of a man's status can a woman have any security or rights. A worldview in which honor is associated with cloistered women who are subservient to men from cradle to grave, where women do all the cooking, housework, childcare, eldercare, and if they do any paid labor it is informal, and where men can move about more freely and have the right (and obligation) to do the paid labor. My family does not live in that world. It hasn't for two generations now. My mother, my wife, and my sister-in-law all have careers. They have rights independent of my relationship with them. I hope that our familial bonds are based on love.

Why should BabyG send her male cousin, Akshay, a rakhi and not get one back from him? Why shouldn't BabyG and her female cousin, Asha, exchange rakhi too? We should expand Raksha Bandan. It should signify all sisterly and brotherly bonds. They can all protect and love one another. If we cut the patriarchy from the tradition, the tradition is not weakened. It can open up and bring more meaning to our lives.

6 comments:

t2 said...

actually that made sense.Imagine the look on the older people's faces if we went around exchanging rakhis among sisters!

GreenDaddy said...

I think many older folks fear that traditions will be abandoned entirely more than they fear seeing the traditions modified. Of course, equal rights for gays stirs emotions when it comes to marriage even though it is an expansion of a conservative institution.

Anonymous said...

FYI ....

RAKSHA BANDHAN By SRI SWAMI SIVANANDA

RAKSHA BANDHAN is called Avani Avittam in South India. This falls on the full moon day of the month of Sravan (August-September). It is an important Hindu festival. Hindus wear a new holy thread and offer libations of water to the ancient Rishis on this day.

Recitation of the Vedas on this great day is highly beneficial. This festival is also known as Upakarmam, and is specially sacred to the Brahmins, who have been invested with the sacred thread.

When a Brahmin boy is invested with this thread, symbolically his third eye, or the eye of wisdom, is opened. The holy festival of Upakarmam reminds one who wears the sacred thread of its glorious spiritual significance. Brahmins also offer libations of water to their ancestors, to whom they owe their birth; to the great Rishis, to whom they are highly indebted for their spiritual knowledge; and to the Vedas themselves. The true Hindu never forgets his benefactors!

The followers of the four different Vedas have their Upakarmam on different days.

On this day, Sachi, the consort of Indra, tied a holy thread or amulet around the wrist of Indra, when he was defeated by the demons. Then Indra, the king of gods, gained victory over the demons by the power of this protection (Raksha means "protection"). He then recovered the lost city of Amaravati.

In North India, on this day, an amulet known as a Raksha or Rakhi, is tied round the wrist of brothers by the sisters as a protection from evil during the coming year. Brahmins and Purohits similarly tie amulets round the wrists of their patrons and receive gifts. A Mantra is recited when the Rakhi or the silken thread is tied. The silken thread is charged with the power of the Mantra, which is as follows:

Yena baddho balee raajaa daanavendro mahaabalah;
Tena twaam anubadhnaami rakshey maa chala maa chala.

"I am tying on your hand this Raksha, with which the most powerful and generous King Bali himself was bound; O Raksha, don’t go away; don’t go away."

The power of this Mantra protects the wearer from evil influences.

GreenDaddy said...

Thank you for sharing explanation of Raksha Bandhan by Swami Sivananda.

I think it's interesting how varied the idea of protection is in the descriptions of the raksha. Some descriptions emphasize that the sister is asking for the brother's protection. But in Sivananda's description, the stories are of consorts tying the thread on the vulnerable god's wrist. It is the woman giving the man protection. Not the sister, either, but the lover.

My point is that the tradition is very old and it is worth maintaining. Any tradition that keeps people connected in meaningful relationships is very important to save. At the same time, we shouldn't invoke the vedas as a way freezing the current practice of the tradition. The tradition and the language associated with Raksha Bandan aren't unitary or frozen. Women and girls should receive the thread, just as they are expected to give them.

dilip vala said...

Rakhi Festival is celebrated both in India. This day is celebrated with sister's tying rakhi on their brother's wrist, performing arti and also praying for their long life and his happiness. This comment on Rakhi from Send Rakhi Gifts to India

Anamika said...

We Indians definitely do have some wonderful Festivals out of which Deepawali and RakshaBandhan are my favorites.