Rhaksha Bandhan, an Indian festival that celebrates and reinforces the love between brothers and sisters happens today, August 2, with the setting of the full moon. When I lived in New Delhi, I watched a friend use this tradition to cement the bond between her adopted daughter and her two biological sons. I wish we had an equivalent holiday in the West. I love the idea of a ritual that inspires siblings to pledge their loyalty and renew their love every year, both as children and adults.
Our brothers and sisters are powerful forces in our lives. When we are small, our sisters and brothers are the whetstones against which we sharpen our identities. Siblings walk the long road of life together: they can be our playmates, our protectors, our confidants, secondary parents to our children, our partners in grief and joy. Sibling relationships can be stormy, and especially in need of a ritual expression of love.
The tradition on Rhaksha Bandhan is for a sister to tie a bracelet made of colorful thread, called a Rakhi around her brother’s wrist, and to say a prayer for his well being. The brother then pledges to protect and love his sister, and gives her a gift, such as clothing, jewelry, or an envelope full of money. The siblings then feed each other sweets.
Like most Indian holidays, Rhaksha Bandhan is associated with multiple legends. Some trace the ritual binding of the sacred thread back to Indra, the god of thunderstorms and war. In the story, Indra is locked in a losing battle with a demon king until his consort, Indrani , ties a scared thread around his wrist on the lucky full moon day of the Hindu month Shravan. Her blessing rejuvenates him and enables him to defeat the demon.
Another legend associated with the festival’s thread-binding ritual is that of the chaste love between Krishna (hero of the Mahabharata and an incarnation of the god, Vishnu) and Draupadi (the polyandrous wife of five brothers, the Pandavas). When Krishna was wounded in battle, Draupadi knelt at his side, tore her sari, and bound his wounds with it. Krishna proclaimed her his sister, in spirit if not in blood, and promised to protect her for evermore. Later in the epic, Duhshasana drags Draupadi into court to be publicly stripped and humiliated. He attempts to unravel her sari, but Krishna uses his divine powers to extend the thread of her sari infinitely, confounding all attempts to undress her.
Rhaksha Bandhan probably evolved into the a celebration of the love between sisters and brothers because it was a way for Indian wives, who traditionally went to live in their husband’s homes, to maintain contact with their natal home and oblige their brothers to protect them after marriage. Today, the holiday has become a way for siblings spread all over the world to maintain contact with one another and send love in the form of a bracelet.
Whether or not you are Indian, Rhaksha Bandhan is a good excuse to celebrate sibling relationships. My family is not Indian, but I hope our version of the festival will be authentic in intention if not practice. This morning, my son and daughter exchanged Rakhi and composed their own promises to be good to one another in the coming year. We bought our Rakhi at Kalustan’s in New York, but a simple thread or ribbon will suffice. I’ll also bring my brother a simple handmade Rakhi and tell him I love him.
Heck, I’ll call my sister too, and send her a little gift. In the end, the bracelet is just a symbol of your intention. So call your siblings!
Jennifer Dorr is a Montclair mom of two, a poet, marketer of children’s books and literary programming and lifelong student of folklore and mythology. Her blog A Year of Living Mythically explores a myth or traditional story each week for a year.