Raksha Bandhan: Celebrating Sisterhood
The time of the year where we celebrate the sacred thread of protection has come and let’s not limit ourselves with the recurring idea of Raksha Bandhan this time!
Scholars often consider Raksha Bandhan in studies of what it means to establish a relationship with someone. For example, they note that brothers are the “givers” in Raksha Bandhan. This reverses the dynamic in traditional Indian society, where the woman herself is symbolically “gifted” to her husband during the wedding ceremony. From this anthropological perspective, relationships are established and maintained through establishing clear roles of “giver” and “receiver” as well as “protector” and “protected.”
But what Raksha Bandhan also shows is that not all forms of ‘bandhan’ are based upon blood descent or even gender specific.
The “rakhi,” a thread or amulet, is an ancient means of protection in Hindu culture. One of the sacred Hindu books, the Bhavishya Purana, tells the story of Indra, who was fighting a losing battle against demons. When his wife, Indrani, tied a special thread to his wrist, he returned to battle and triumphed.
Today in North India, the most widely repeated legend related to Rakshbandhan concerns Rani Karnavati, a 16th-century queen of the city of Chittorgarh in the western Indian state of Rajasthan, and the Muslim Mughal Emperor Humayun.
The legend goes that Chittorgarh was threatened by a neighbouring sultan and Rani Karnavati knew that her troops could not prevail. And so, she sent a rakhi to the even more powerful Mughal emperor. Humayun and Karnavati became brother and sister and he sent troops to defend her.
The historical veracity of this story remains a matter of debate among scholars. But it is still part of popular culture in India, despite the fact that Humayun’s troops did not arrive in time to prevent Karnavati and the rest of Chittorgarh’s female inhabitants from ritually burning themselves alive to avoid capture.
Nonetheless, the festival of Rakshabandhan has been presented as an expression of solidarity between Hindus and Muslims who have a long and tortured history on the subcontinent.
For example, India’s Nobel Laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore advocated that Hindus and Muslims tie a thread on each other during the festival.
In 1905, when the Partition of Bengal divided the nation, Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore started Rakhi Mahotsavas to celebrate Raksha Bandhan and strengthen the bond of love and togetherness between Hindus and Muslims of Bengal. He also urged them to protest against the Britishers. The partition may have divided the state, but his tradition continues in parts of West Bengal, as people tie rakhi to their neighbours and close friends.
Penning the symbolism of Rakhi, Tagore writes:
“The love in my body and heart
For the earth’s shadow and light
Has stayed over years.
With its cares and its hope it has thrown
A language of its own
Into blue skies.
It lives in my joys and glooms
In the spring night’s buds and blooms
Like a Rakhi-band
On the Future’s hand.”
He also used the image of the rakhi in his poems, such as one where he describes the “shadows and lights” of the Earth as lying like “a rakhi-band on future’s hand.”
One of the crucial aspects of the celebration of Raksha Bandhan is that it is not limited to the immediate family or to those who have a similar religious identity.
And Similarly it doesn’t have to be gender specific too!
Celebrating your fellow sisters, tying rakhis to all women dear to you, around you: a best friend, a sister or five, your mother, a mentor at work or a neighbourhood aunty who looks out for you is actually quite empowering. It does feel like we have each other’s backs! Also, who could understand us more than our own kinds?
The circle of life and the circle of sisters represents the innate value of each being. There is no elite, no division, but a warm acceptance of all the colours, shapes and sizes of our sisters. Each is unique and important to the whole. As we appreciate and support each other in our individuality, in beauty, body shape, dreams, life choices, or parenting choices, we create incredible freedom in ourselves and others.
And this is not some new trend that we need to follow, this tradition of sisterhood has been followed through ages all over the world. We just aren’t much acquainted with them.
In some indigenous cultures, this tradition is still alive and increasingly it is being revived by women across the world. Traditions like the Red Tent, honouring rites of passage, healing circles, fertility rituals, and other indigenous women’s business nourished women and kept the whole tribe strong.
The Red Tent provided a place for women to recalibrate, incubate, dream, slow down and reconnect, during their moon time. This monthly cycle is far more than just a physical cycle, it is a cycle of transmutation, offering the potential for rebirth each month. It is a time of renewal and letting go.
Spiritual teacher, Eckhart Tolle has long said that the pain body is more active just before a woman menstruates. According to him your pain body is a kind of reservoir of accumulated pain, a field of negative energy. It can be both personal and collective and is made up of all the energetic residues of your pain from childhood. The pain body can either be dormant or active. When it is active it can take you over and feed on pain, which could explain the blues during or just before your period. If you approach this time with awareness you can stay present to emotions that intensify and see it as a healing opportunity to dissolve the pain body and heal past traumas.
At this moon time women would retreat together, as their cycles would be synchronised and they would sit in the tent together, being nurtured and cared for by the other women as they went through the healing process of shedding their womb. A woman is more psychic and the veil is thin between the worlds for her when she is bleeding. Taking the time to be still she can easily open to higher inspiration and dreaming at this time.
The Red Tent provided a place for women to recalibrate, incubate, dream, slow down and reconnect, during their moon time.
“Sister, open your heart, fling your hopes high and set your dreams aloft. I am here to hold your hand.” – Maya Angelou
In the old spiritual traditions women were the keepers of the ancient wisdom. They maintained harmony and balance in the natural world and their communities. Due to their emotional openness and connection to their instinctual nature, their vision and ability to tap into higher wisdom was revered and used for the advantage of the whole community. Women’s bodies were seen as sacred alchemical vessels of creation and transformation. And in many traditions, women were the personification of the Goddess on earth, channels who could bridge the worlds with sacred rituals.
Traditional ways women kept their bonds strong were through honouring the rites of passage in a woman’s life, which were linked to her sexuality and fertility. In the Native American Tradition and many others, the onset of menstruation in a young girl was celebrated with a ceremony of huge significance that welcomed her into womanhood. These rites of passage were a major event and to celebrate a young girl becoming a woman, or when a woman entered motherhood, as well as the passage of a woman into her crone wisdom at menopause, were shared with their sisters.
In the old spiritual traditions women were the keepers of the ancient wisdom.
In Indigenous cultures many of the activities of daily life were shared. Women gathered the food and cooked together, while singing and sharing. Women, like the ancient Maya, created textiles, clothes, spinning and weaving together, and were also responsible for tending to the spiritual aspects of day to day life. Australian Indigenous women cared for each other’s children, as if they were their own and the children often didn’t know which woman was their birth mother as these bonds were so close. In today’s fragmented society, some women feel alienated and alone, longing for this connection with other women that was such a natural part of everyday life.
Women also gathered in circles on the Full and New Moon for ceremony and rituals to heal and support one another. Many feminine traditions included the honouring of the earth and the Goddess. In Europe before Biblical times and the suppression of women, these traditions celebrated fertility and the power of the Divine Feminine.
In the temples of India, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Sumeria, and ancient Europe, women were taught to develop their powers of perception, intuition, and how to refine the powerful energy of emotion. They learnt how to awaken nurture and enhance their feminine gifts.
Today, women are reclaiming their spiritual power and innate wisdom, creating community and taking up leadership.
Sisterhood is not an exclusive group, or an anti-men symposium. It is a way of being. There is sisterhood between sisters (literally), friends, between a mother and a daughter, a grandmother and her grandchild, a teacher and her student.
Sisterhood is a movement of kindness. It encompasses all women, no matter what their shape, nationality or beliefs. It is an energy that encompasses men too and is healing for the planet.
As Louisa May Alcott said: “Help one another, is part of the religion of sisterhood.”