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Raksha Bandhan is a festival that falls, according to the Hindu Lunar calendar, on the full moon day in the month of Shravan. Celebrated by Hindus, Jains and Sikhs, this beautiful and joyous festival bespeaks of the bonds of love between brothers and sisters. On this day, sisters tie a sacred thread around the wrists of their brothers. The thread signifies progress and prosperity to the brother who in turn promises to protect his sister forever.
One finds many mentions of rakhi pratha in various Hindu scriptures. One of the more popular ones is of the time Devi Lakshmi tied a rakhi to Raja Bali, who was an ardent devotee of Vishnu. Raja Bali had been doing intense tapasya and conducting numerous yagyas.. One day when Bali was at another yagya, Bhagwan Vishnu appeared in front of him as Vaaman (a dwarf Brahman). Bali didn’t recognise him and asked him what he could offer to the Brahman and in the Vaaman avatar, Vishnu asked him for land – enclosing just three of his steps.
When Bali agreed, Vishnu assumed his divine, multifarious, world-embracing form. With one step he covered Swarg. With the second he covered Earth. But a third step remained. Bali, a devotee of Vishnu, now realised he was in the presence of the Lord and to keep his promise, for the third step, he offered his head to him. Bhagwan Vishnu then took the third step, placing his foot on Bali’s head. And in that instant, Bali reached Suthal Lok (one of the Pataal lok).
Then Bali said to Vishnu, “Ishwar now I have offered everything to you, please stay here with me”. Bhagwan Vishnu agreed and also made Bali the King of Suthal Lok where he would rule till the end of Kaliyug. But Devi Lakshmi was not happy. She wanted her husband back in Vaikunthdhaam. Taking the form of a poor woman, she went to Raja Bali and tied a rakshasutra on his wrist and made him her brother. Moved by the protective rakshasutra on his wrist Bali asked his new sister, to seek a boon. “Give me back my husband,” she said. Then Bali realised that he was in the presence of Devi Lakshmi and he folded his hands and bowed to her. Sakshaat Devi Lakshmi was in front of him and had made him her brother. He agreed to his sister’s wish and released Bhagwaan Vishnu from his promise. As Bhagwan Vishnu left, he promised Bali that he would return to him each year.
This is why the mantra chanted by sisters while tying the rakshasutra to their brothers goes thus;
येन बद्धो बलि राजा,दानवेन्द्रो महाबल: तेन त्वाम् प्रतिबद्धनामि रक्षे माचल माचल:।
It means, the rakshasutra with which the powerful demon king Bali was tied, with the same rakshasutra I tie your wrist, it will protect you brother. Oh rakshasutra, you are transient and you will protect him forever. The rakshasutra is symbolic as well. It represents a dictate to follow dharma, even in the most trying of situations.
In the present times, Raksha Bandhan is a festival that is eagerly looked forward to by brothers and sisters. There is great excitement as everyone in the house gets ready for the festival. If the sister is married, the brother goes to her home and when he reaches there, the sister, who has already prepared the ‘aarti thali’ with diya, rakhi, teeka and rice grains and sweets, does the aarti for her brother, puts teeka on his forehead and then ties the rakhi. The brother then bows with folded hands to the sister. They both then partake the prashaad and sweets. Later the sister sets out lunch for her brother and the brother gives gifts to his sister. The festival strengthens the bond of love between brothers and sisters, and revives and rejuvenates the emotional bonds year after year.
Though the festival today is popular as a festival for brothers and sisters, a rakhi can be tied by a wife to a husband, and shishya to a guru and even to a brother who is not related by blood but is considered a brother, muh bola bhai. Many Indian women send rakhis to Indian Army soldiers at the border, as a raksha sutra and also to express gratitude and support to them. Draupadi’s tying a piece of cloth to Krishna’s finger was considered a rakshasutra. During devasur sangram, Indrani tied the rakshasutra to her husband Indra to protect him. Another mention of the festival in our scriptures is when Shubh and Laabh (Ganpati’s sons) saw Lakshmi Mata tying rakhi to her brother Ganpati. They too wanted a sister with whom they could celebrate this festival. So Ganesha with his divine energy brought forth a girl child. Her arrival brought great happiness to the family and hence she was named Santoshi. Since then Shubh and Laabh were also able to celebrate the wonderful festival of rakshabandhan.
During the Mughal era, Hindu women would tie rakhis to men in their community for the promise of their protection. There is also the painful incident of time where Rani Karnavati of Chittor sent a rakhi to Humayun when Bahadur Shah was going to attack her Kingdom. Though Humayun promised he would send his army in her support, he didn’t keep his rakhi promise and Rani Karnavati along with the women in the palace committed Jauhar.
In a world where relationships are weakening, the festival of Rakshabandhan continues to be celebrated with great excitement and the essence of the festival remains the same as it was aeons ago. The sibling bond is celebrated, love is shared, gifts are exchanged and blessings from elders received. A festival that celebrates deep emotions brought about by a simple sacred thread of love also acts as a reminder of the need to uphold Dharma in our daily lives. That is a lesson which we all also need to imbibe.