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Raksha Bandhan: Spread Love Not Patriarchy!

Raksha Bandhan is a festival in which the sister ties Rakhi (or thread) around her brother’s wrist as a sign of love, and the brother promises to protect the sister. That was very clear from the name of the festival. It has Raksha (Protection) in it. Mention of this custom can be found in Hindu texts like Mahabharata and there are many stories surrounding this festival.

Like every other Indian festival, this festival too is celebrated with great enthusiasm among the brothers and sisters of this country. But as much as the festivals are pleasant in this country, they don’t really make sense if analyzed very closely. Or, if they are analyzed by a tool called logic.

If you observe Raksha Bandhan you will find that Raksha Bandhan is a festival that makes brother superior to sister.

Like, if the brother is younger than the sister, she still has to tie the thread and ask for protection from him. The problem you ask?  Well, how will a 7-year-old brother protect his 16-year-old sister from anything? While crossing the road HE has to hold HER hand. And not the other way round!  A brother who is still learning to ride the bicycle from her sister is expected to protect her from danger? And for a 16-year-old the dangers are much greater than just crossing the road. 

So, it means that it doesn’t matter you have a small brother, and as a sister, you take care of him, but on the day of Raksha Bandhan, that small brother becomes superior and say that- hi I know I am 7-year-old and my sister is 16 years old but I will protect my sister. I will do the Raksha (Protection) of my sister. And from there, we put seeds of patriarchy in the minds of small kids.

And there is one more twist in Raksha Bandhan that two sisters celebrating Raksha Bandhan are not common. If there are only sisters in the family they most probably celebrate it by tying the thread around their Father’s wrist, or their cousin (which has to be male).  Or in more unusual cases sisters completely ignore this festival and carry on with their life as if nothing happened. And nothing ever will.

So, no matter how you look at it, this “tradition” of brother protecting her sister sends the message that male member of the family is more superior to the female or he is more powerful than her regardless of the age. It’s no wonder the brother thinks that he is more superior to the sister and can be found saying things like “I know I am younger but the Raksha can only be done by me because I am the brother.” This is where patriarchy comes into play. Yes, the same system that THINKS that men are superior to women.

So, if we want to make Raksha Bandhan a festival of love not of patriarchy then we should change the way we celebrate Raksha Bandhan.

Raksha Bandhan should be a little bit “modified” so that it will become a festival of love between siblings and promote equality, not the patriarchy. It should be celebrated together, and not by demeaning anybody.

In this modified “Raksha Bandhan”, both brother and sister should tie Rakhi to each other. And not only brother and sister, any siblings whether it is two or more brothers or sisters should celebrate Rakhi where they should tie Rakhi on each other’s wrist and promise that they will help each other in every situation and in every possible way. This way of celebrating Raksha Bandha fulfills the real meaning of “Raksha Bandhan”.

And many people celebrate Raksha Bandhan in this modified way. Like the superstar, Aamir Khan celebrates Raksha Bandhan with his sisters Nikhat and Farhat Khan by tying Rakhi on each other’s wrist.

Now the time has come when Indian culture should change according to time because the culture doesn’t make human being; human being makes culture.

Today our culture and religious practices should change according to the Indian constitution which says that every human being in India is equal whatever their sex, religion caste. etc. So, celebrate Raksha Bandhan in a “modified” way that spread love not patriarchy.

Another Point of View

Rakshabandhan's central motif is the Rakshasutra, literally the 'String of Protection'. Common practice entails that a Rakshasutra is tied to the beneficiary's hand during any and every puja. A priest may tie it to the Yajaman's hand, the mother may tie it to the child's hand, the guru may tie it to the shishya's hand, the wife may tie it to the husband's hand and finally, the sister may tie it to the hand of both her brother and her brother's wife (this is the practice in Rajasthan). As such, it is basically about tying a string as the phalaswaroop (result) of the puja.

This tying of the Rakshasutra (even on ordinary occasions) is by no means a unilateral transaction - the Yajamana and the Shishya give back Dakshina, The husband, brother, and sister-in-law give back Shagun. Both of these are primarily gifts of cash or kind, or on some occasions, a service.

The practice of tying a Rakshasutra on Shravana Purnima day is, of course, considered specific to siblings today. How exactly did the generic practice of Shravana Purnima become the specific practice of Rakhi Purnima is not known.

Over time the act of tying the Rakhi between a brother and his sister became more important than the puja itself, and thus garnered slightly different connotations i.e. the Rakhi was no longer the phalaswaroop (result) of any puja, but the symbol of love between the siblings themselves.

Notice how the brother's promise of protecting the sister is conspicuously absent here. Indeed, it can be safely said that such a promise was never a part of the original ritual.

The origin of this promise is said to date back to the Rajput queens sending Rakhis to the neighbouring princes in order to request their military support, using the basis of the love and expectation of mutual protection between siblings. The protection had to be mutual because that's how military alliances work.

Bhratru Dwitiya (aka Bhai Duj, Bhai Beej, Bhai Phonta) is also about siblings, but the central motif here is the tilak, which arguably serves the same function as the Rakshasutra. This particular tilak is considered equivalent to the tilak placed on Yama's head by his sister the Yamuna as a barrier between him and death. So powerful was the tilak, that it caused Yama to be resurrected (he was the first person to die, causing the Yamuna River to turn black and Sun, their father, to 'set' for the first time, thus causing nightfall) and be handed the charge of his own realm - the Yama Loka.

Again, like in the case of Rakhi, the brother making a promise of protection is a recent addition. So, where is the controversy?

Turns out that the basic and additional practices associated with them have some potentially unpleasant connotations.

1. The Question of Spiritual Superiority.

This pertains to the Rakhi - the implicit understanding behind the Rakshasutra is that it can only be tied by someone who is spiritually superior to the beneficiary. Given that the spiritual superior here is in most cases female (the exception being Guru and Priest), it might not look like patriarchy.

Nevertheless, the assumption that an entire gender is spiritually superior is essentially sexist and thus anti-feminist. The women in question aren't essentially doing much. They just happen to be related and happen to be fasting/praying.

It may also be argued that the notion of 'spiritual superiority' was created to appease the womenfolk who lacked any 'practically useful' power.

However, with the Rakhi no longer being considered simply a normal Rakshasutra, this question does not arise. However, it does tie into the next question which is

2. The Question of Agency

A few more things become obvious to us when we see Rakshabandhan and Bhai Duj as a subset of an entire class of festivals which includes but is not limited to festivals like Karak Chaturthi (Karwa Chauth) and Ashok Shasthi (and other Shasthi Vratas in Bengal at least) where the woman prays (and usually fasts) for the welfare of her husband and/or her children. Even considered most liberally, these festivals have the following things in common

  1. The ultimate goal of the practice/festival is a highly specific result viz. longevity of the beneficiary, and the beneficiary alone. e.g. the brother may swear to protect the sister, but the Primary Beneficiary (Yajaman) of the festival is the brother only.

  2. Even if there is no segregation of motivation, i.e. both parties (brothers, husbands, children on one side and sisters, wives and mothers on the other) are participating with the equal intent of protecting each other, there is conspicuous segregation of the practices themselves on the basis of gender. Specifically, women pray, men, do.

And therein lies the rub - a basic question of agency. A man can back his vows with physical action; a woman can only pray. Also, a man only needs spiritual/divine protection; a woman only needs physical/financial/social protection.

We must remember that in the original circumstances prayer may have been considered as an action at par with actual physical defense/monetary assistance. But undoubtedly, this belief has been severely challenged today. Hence the question of agency arises.

3. The Question of the Opposite Sex

Freudian connotations notwithstanding, there seems to be no reason why a festival supposedly dedicated to the love between siblings should only single out the relationship between brother and sister.

That is unless we see some actuarial data.

An actuary is a professional statistician who specifically studies life expectancies of people. Actuaries are mostly hired by insurance companies, for obvious reasons. And all actuarial data point to the higher life expectancy of women.

This works on several levels - both natural and social. On the natural level, female fetuses have a higher success rate of surviving pregnancy and childbirth. Female humans are also genetically stronger - Male humans are naturally more susceptible to X Chromosome - linked genetic diseases such as muscular dystrophy. Girls have higher body fat and slower metabolisms and will outlive boys in equally adverse situations.

On the social level, women don't participate in mortal combat situations and tend to have fewer vices and drug addictions.

The net result is that a woman has a statistically very high chance of outliving her brother. In India, with the high rates of infant mortality, she will also outlive her own children. Also in India, patriarchy ensures that women are typically married to men at least 10 years elder to them, which practically ensures that she will outlive her husband.

Needless to say, no woman actually wants this. Which explains the existence of an entire class of festivals dedicated to the longevity of the male relative.

A brother will only outlive his elder brothers, a sister, her elder sisters. But a sister will almost always outlive her brother regardless of birth order. Hence Rakhi and Bhai Duj.

So is Rakshabandhan/Bhai Duj a product of Patriarchy?

Probably not. It is, however, more a product of fear of losing a loved one than of love itself.

Has Rakshabandhan been used to promote Patriarchy?

Yes. It has been used to subtly propagate sexist notions such as that women are spiritually superior and need only physical/financial/social protection whereas men are physically/financially/socially superior and need only spiritual protection.

What should we do with Rakhi today?

In this modified “Raksha Bandhan”, both brother and sister should tie Rakhi to each other. And not only brother and sister, any siblings whether it is two or more brothers or sisters should celebrate Rakhi where they should tie Rakhi on each other’s wrist and promise that they will help each other in every situation and in every possible way. This way of celebrating Raksha Bandha fulfills the real meaning of “Raksha Bandhan”. (as mentioned earlier)

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