The annual “festival” of Raksha Bandhan, which is meant to commemorate the abiding ties between siblings of opposite sex, usually takes place in late August, and is marked by a very simple ceremony in which a woman ties a rakhi — which may be a colorful thread, a simple bracelet, or a decorative string — around the wrist of her brother(s). The word “raksha” signifies protection, and “bandhan” is an association signifying an enduring sort of bond; and so, when a woman ties a rakhi around the wrist of her brother, she signifies her loving attachment to him. He, likewise, recognizes the special bonds between them, and by extending his wrist forward, he in fact extends the hand of his protection over her. The thread-tying ceremony is sometimes preceded by the woman conducting aarti before her brother, so that the blessings of God may be showered upon him, and this is to the accompaniment of her enunciation or chanting of a mantra, which may be in Sanskrit or one of the other Indian languages. In Punjabi, for instance, the mantra says: “Suraj shakhan chhodian / Mooli chhodia beej / Behen ne rakhi bandhi / Bhai tu chir jug jee”, which can be roughly translated as follows: “The sun radiates its sunlight / the radish seeds / I (the sister) tied the rakhi / brother, may you live long.” After the conclusion of the ceremony, she places a sweet in her mouth, and he might return the gesture. The brother bestows a small gift upon his sister, generally in the form of a small sum of money, such as Rupees 51, 101, 251, or 501.
It is doubtless possible, from a feminist perspective, to view raksha bandhan as another expression of patriarchal culture, however well-intentioned. It is, after all, the brother who extends his protection to his sister, and the woman who, in a manner of speaking, agrees to place herself under the protection of her brother. Against such a reading, one could well argue that the festival seeks to celebrate simply the affectionate ties between siblings of opposite sex, and that the brother-sister nexus is, comparatively speaking, innocent. This is scarcely to say that the relationship is devoid of power, or that there are not habitual practices and customs which define the relationship. But the real significance of raksha bandhan may lie elsewhere. Though it has been common in most societies for the woman to leave her natal home at marriage for her husband’s home, in India this is firmly entrenched as a social practice, and has often had undesirable consequences. Women who are subjected to harassment or life-threatening behavior on account of dowry by the husband’s family have often been reluctant to return to their natal home, and similarly parents are reluctant to take back their married daughters on account of the immense stigma attached to the return of a married daughter. There is ample evidence to suggest that the problem of dowry has unquestionably been aggravated by the social sanction placed upon married daughters residing in their natal home. Consequently, raksha bandhan can be viewed as an occasion for reasserting a woman’s ties to her natal home. The brother conveys a message to his sister that she has not been abandoned by her biological kin; similarly, the woman conveys a message to her husband’s family that she can well count upon her natal family to come to her assistance.
Though in principle raksha bandhan is an observance between biological siblings of the opposite sex, the practice often extends more generally to people of the opposite sex who are not biologically related, or who are not related as siblings. On raksha bandhan day, a number of women may tie the rakhi around the Prime Minister’s wrist (unless the Prime Minister be a woman), and similarly soldiers can expect to have women tie rakhis around their wrists. Thus, from ads placed on the occasion of raksha bandhan in the Times of India (Mumbai, 25 August 1999), col. 3: “Let’s break the traditions of Sisters sending Rakhis to their Brothers this time and approach the widows of Kargil Heroes with Rakhis to tie”, and “Let us all send a Thread to our Brave Soldiers in Kargil so that they shred their Pakistan opponents. Satnam Kaur.” Everywhere, especially in north and western India, females might tie a rakhi around the wrist of boys and men without sisters. A man might acquire a muh boli behen, that is a sister who in every respect is such except in biological fact; or a woman may tie a rakhi around the wrist of her male first cousin who is without sisters. Imagining a person of the opposite sex as a sibling is certainly one way of obscuring the problem of sexual desire, and Indian texts are rife with the observation that men should look upon women as their sisters and mothers.
Raksha bandhan is not entirely a pious affair, though sentimentality doubtless prevails. It has, thankfully, also become an occasion for some jest, humor, and mild ribaldry. Rakhi advertisements from the Times of India, Mumbai (25 August 1999), suggest that some men construe “raksha bandhan” truly as an occasion for taking their responsibilities as a protective brother seriously, as in this advertisement which deploys the familiar metaphor of the sheltering banyan tree: “Your Brother Banyan Tree will protect 5 branches Saroja, Vijaya, Laxmi, Thangam, Lalitha on auspicious Raksha Bandhan Day. A.R. Parshuram” (col. 3). A similar sentiment, with the sacred as its central trope, is expressed by this woman: “Dear Brother. Accept my blessing and affection through this sacred thread which tightens our relationship better” (col. 6). The supposition that a sister stands in place of a mother comes across in some ads: “Dear Sister Ruta, they say mothers couldn’t be everywhere everytime, so God made sisters. Ani” (col. 5), and “My Loving Sister, for me you’re like both mother & father. You’re next to God & your love is next to Divinity. Rays of your love & blessings enlivened me like Rays of the Ultimate. Symbol of love & sacrifice, I adore your feet today. Deeyech” (col. 7). But alongside the expression of these more conventional sentiments, one might consider the humor of the ad from one “Feh”: “Dear Bro. Nirlek. You are the perfect Brother to have — good height, strong built, lots of money, and no brain” (col. 5), or the lampooning of India’s family planning programs: “Adarniya [Respected] Bachelor Padhanmantriji [Prime Minister] no solution for population control? Try popularising Raksha-Bandhan day all throughout India. Love. Joekar” (col. 7).