Raksha Bandhan is an annual festival celebrated by not only Hindus but people from various religions. Its date varies because it is observed according to the lunar calendar, but what remains unchanged is the fervour with which it is celebrated by brothers and sisters in India and the rest of the world.
As the name suggests, "Raksha" is protection, and "Bandhan," beyond the literal meaning of tie or tying, also means a bond or a knot. And that is just one aspect of it all. Although modern-day norms dictate that the holy or ritualistic thread at the centre of this fetival is tied by sisters on brothers' hands, that has not always been the case.
It is believed the ritual initially began as a means of someone wishing that their near and dear one or someone whom they want to see doing well will stay safe, and tying this thread as a symbol of that prayer. And the festival is turning back to this observance, with examples like school students tying Rakhi on politicians' hands, or sending Rakhi to soldiers serving the country on unfriendly terrains. Let's explore the evolution of this festival.
Probably the earliest reference to Raksha Bandhan was when Indra, king of the gods in Hindu mythology, was tied a sacred thread around his wrist by his wife Sachi at Lord Vishnu's advice, and managed to take back Amaravati, the abode of the gods, from a demon king.
Bali, another demon king, is saaid to have befriended Vishnu and asked him to stay at his home. Irked at having to stay away from Vishnu, his wife Lakshmi tied Bali a Rakhi, and asked that Vishnu be given back when the demon king offered to give her a gift.
A third story talks of Ganesha creating the goddess Santoshi Ma so his sons Shubh and Labh could have a sister to celebrate Raksha Bandhan with.
There is also the legend of Yama, the god of death, and his sister Yamuna, but that is mostly associated with Bhai Dooj, another festival for brothers and sisters.
It is said that when Alexander of Macedonia and King Puru were at war, the former's wife sent the latter a Rakhi, whose sight prevented Puru from striking a deadly blow on Alexander.
Rakhi is among the many festivals celebrated by Rajput women, where it was quite prevalent among their royals. In one instance, Humayun rushed to the aid of the widowed queen of Chittor after she sent him a Rakhi and sought his protection from the ruler of Gujarat.
The tradition of Raksha Bandhan spread across Punjab and other parts of northern India, besides within Sikhism, due to Maharaja Ranjit Singh. It is currently celebrated across many more faiths due to the result of this and similar initiatives by influential leaders.
In a more modern context
The Raksha Bandhan we are most familiar with nowadays was started by Rabindranath Tagore as both a nationalist idea as well as a patriotic one against the British rule in the country. He also started it at the Visva Bharati Universty in Shantiniketan, where different-coloured Rakhis had different meanings. It was also meant as an effort to get young boys and girls involved in the freedom movement.
In the current context, when a sister ties her brother a Rakhi, she is wishing him a long life, while he vows to come to her rescue whenever she needs it.
However, this has transcended the sibling aspect of relationships, with girls and women tying politicians as well as soldiers Rakhi in a show of goodwill.