"Each one prays to God according to his own light "
~ Mahatma Gandhi

Festivals of India

Raksha Bandhan

Raksha Bandhan on Shravana Purnima is celebrated throughout India. There are many mythologies connected with it. Eventually, it is a bond of protection that simultaneously ties us to the highest values of Dharma, Romola Butalia writes about this popular and heart-warming festival.

Raksha Bandhan or Rakhi is on 18th August in 2016. It will be on 7th August in 2017. It symbolises the bond of love and protection between brother and sister. Throughout India, we have always cherished this relationship as particularly special. Difficult to define, as all relationships are, why should this be the relationship which is associated with protection? Historically, it is arguably the one which has generated the least human suffering. It is possibly the one which most inspires us to mutually selfless love, demanding little, and is the relationship which inspires love and compassion without attachment.
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It is almost impossible to ascertain how this festival came to be celebrated. Some suggest that the origin of this festival is traced to the mention in the Rig Veda, of the fight between the demonaic asura Vritra who captured all the waters causing an unprecedented drought. Indra, the lord of the heavens who brings rain, engaged in a fierce battle with him. When Vrita defeated Indra, Brihashpati, the guru of the devatas, is supposed to have suggested to Indra's wife, Indrani that a special sacred thread be tied to Indra's wrist that would empower and protect him. Indra, with his weapon, the vajra or thunderbolt, then emerged victorious.

Quite simply, the rakhi represents that invisible strand that connects brother and sister. The rakhi is the symbol of their mutually protective love.

The bond of Raksha Bandhan How this later came to be the inspiration and expression quite specifically of a sister's devoted prayer of protection for her brother and the corresponding promise of protection of a brother, is difficult to interpret.

Another inspiring story is that of Draupadi and Krishna. Theirs was a sacred relationship apparent to anyone familiar with the Mahabharat. When Lord Krishna hurled his celestial weapon, the Sudarshan chakra, at Shishupal, Lord Krishna hurt his hand. Draupadi is said to have tied a cloth torn from her sari to stop the flowing blood.

When the Kauravas attempted to dishonour Draupadi during the shameful cheer haran, where they tried to disrobe her in the presence of the entire assembly of the great warriors of the Mahabharat, including the valiant Pandavas, her prayer to Lord Krishna was answered, and Lord Krishna protected her honour. The war of the Mahabharat was connected with this act. Lord Krishna continued to protect Draupadi always.

According to legend, Daitya Raja Bali, the grandson of Prahlada, was a sincere devotee of Lord Vishnu. When he became invincible in war, he defeated the devas or the gods. When the devatas appealed to Lord Vishnu, he came in his Vamana avatar to Bali. Reputed for his spirit of generosity and sacrifice, when Bali was conducting a yagya, Vamana requested that amount of space that he could cover with three strides. A righteous follower of the Scriptures, Raja Bali granted it. Revealing himself as Lord Vishnu, he compelled Bali to go to Patal or the netherlands.

Simultaneosuly, however, Lord Vishnu decided to protect Bali with his divine protection promising that he would be the next Indra. He also remained with him, disguised as his dwarpal or protector. Since Lord Vishnu had abandoned Vainkuntha, Lakshmi-ji sought to bring him back, and disguised herself as a virtuous Brahmin. Bali welcomed her and protected her as his own sister.

During the Shravan Purnima celebrations, the great goddess Lakshmi tied the sacred thread of raksha on Raja Bali. She revealed who she was and why she was there. Moved, he easily acquiesced to Lord Vishnu accompanying her back to Vaikuntha

Yet another legend is about the offspring of the Sun: Yama, the first mortal and the Lord of Death; and his beloved sister, the sacred river Yamuna. She is said to have bestowed immortality on him by tying a sacred thread around his wrist. In deep gratitude, Yama is said to have vowed to honour this eternal relationship by upholding the faith of any sister who ties a rakhi on her brother's wrist.

On the full moon day of the month of Shravan in July/August, Raksha Bandhan is celebrated to honour the relationship between brother and sister. Tying the sacred thread on a brother's wrist, the sister prays for his protection and long life. The brother in turn vows to protect the honour and well-being of his sister. This frail thread, stronger than any physical shackle, unites brother and sister in an undying relationship of love, caring and protection.

History has given us numerous moving instances of the power of this sacred thread and all it symbolises. During the Mughal era, when Bahadur Shah of Gujrat attacked Chittaur, a stronghold of Rajput valiance, power and pride, Rani Karnavati, widow of Maharana Sangram Singh, appealed to the Mughal emperor, Humayan by sending him a rakhi. Touched by the gesture he immediately left for Chittaur, but arrived too late. Rani Karnavati along with all the ladies and children present had committed jauhar, immolating themselves to maintain their honour.

Read the story of Rani Karnavati in Amar Chitra Katha

Most festivals in India have a varied and manifold significance, and are celebrated for many reasons. Festivals have evolved as part of the celebration of a people, a place, a culture. Celebrated as Rakhi Purnima in the north, it is also known as Kajari Purnima in the northern states, as well as the central states of Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Jharkand and Bihar. As an agrarian festival, wheat is sowed, and Bhagwati - the great goddess is appeased for bountiful crops. Kajari Purnima marks the end of the nine days from Shravana Amavasya till the full moon. Being the last day of the month of Shravan, devoted to Lord Shiva, it is celebrated as Pavitropana in Gujarat. Elsewhere too, Lord Shiva is worshipped by devotees.

In many parts of western India it is celebrated as Nariyal Purnima. An offering of a nariyal or coconut is made in honour of Lord Varuna, the god of the sea. The day marks the beginning of the fishing season.

In the South and elsewhere, it is celebrated as Avani Avittam or Upakarma, when followers of Yajurveda begin their Vedic studies. Narayana took the avatara of Lord Hayagriva, the God of Knowledge and Wisdom on this day. Lord Hayagriva is said to have restored the Vedas to Brahma. 'Prayaschittam' or a prayer of repentance is offered for the many lapses of the past year and a prayer to be freed of Kama, krodha, lobha, moha. The sacred thread or yajnopavita is also changed on this day. Offerings of sacred water are made in the names of the rishis through whom the Vedas have been revealed to mankind. Yagya is performed.

Raksha Bandhan, in its fullest sense is a celebration of higher values: of love, compassion, protection, sacrifice. It is difficult to ascertain a direct link, but it is certainly reminiscent of the raksha sutra that is tied on the wrist after a yagya which is a bond of protection that simultaneously ties us to the highest values of Dharma, of universality, humanity, a bond between man and the divine, between man and man, between man and nature.

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Editor: Romola Butalia       (c) India Travelogue. All rights reserved.