Celebrating Rakhi

by Manish Jain on August 16, 2011

On August 13th, we celebrated the festival of Raksha Bandhan, or Rakhi for short. The official narrative behind rakhi is that it is for sisters to tie a sacred thread, symbolizing love, around their brothers right hand and the brothers give money and gifts to their sisters with a promise to protect them. (Here in India, sisters and brothers also include cousins, but as the nuclear family concept spreads this is also changing.) The practice can be seen as quite patriarchical on one hand, and quite beautiful on the other, as there is a festival which actually honors the sacred bond between brothers and sisters. 

I have found other narratives in villages across India whereby people tie rakhi threads on their animals, tools, books, trees, neighbors, aunts, uncles and even sisters on sister-in-laws, anyone or anything which they honor as something that nurtures and cares for them. So Rakhi is essentially about mutual care and gratitude.

What is also quite inspiring about Rakhi is that it gives a practical mechanism to realizing the ancient Sanskrit phrase of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, which means that the entire world is one family. It is similar to the spirit of the ancient African concept of Ubuntu. In Rakhi, I am excited by the possibility we have the power to transcend our narrow biological relationships and literally add family members every year to slowly make this saying into a reality. I have seen the relationships with these Rakhi brothers or sisters to be as close as those with biological siblings. Every years, I tie threads or send Rakhi greetings to many friends whom I have adopted as my spiritual ‘sisters’ and ‘brothers’.  I am grateful that they are part of my family.

I believe that gift culture festivals like Rakhi have the potential to help us expand our hearts and our consciousness beyond State-Market-imposed narrow definitions and structures of nuclear family, class, caste and national boundaries, narrow notions of ‘home’ and ‘ownership’, even media hyper-sexualisation of women and male-female relationships. It has helped me re-look at my fundamental notions of family, and truly start to see the world as part of my family — not only other human beings but all living creatures.

In Shikshantar, we have been trying to open up a dialogue and deeper understanding about Rakhi over the past ten years. Rakhi, as with many festivals around the world, is being overwhelmed by a culture of consumerism and associated ostentatious behaviours. The feeling behind it is eroding. We have been supporting schools and neighborhoods in Udaipur to make their own handmade Rakhis out of waste materials like paper, wedding cards, cloth scraps, rubber tire tubes, potato chip packets, coconut shells, corn husks, etc.  It is very exciting to see boys crossing the gender divide and making rakhis as well. We have also been encouraging people to expand their meanings of Rakhi to move beyond patriarchical notions and demeaning images of women. Here are some photos of a Rakhi festival we organized a few years back in Udaipur.

I invite you to celebrate Rakhi with us. Add a new brother or sister to your family by tying a sacred thread on their right hand. They will no longer be “like a brother” or “like a sister,” but will actually be a real brother or sister to you. Our larger earth family will slowly be re-imagined.