Many may be surprised to learn that Rakhi or Raksha Bandhan was not originally meant for real brothers and sisters. Rakhis were reserved throughout history for non-related or strategic brothers and sisters.
The oldest story about Rakhi is that of Indra mentioned in the Bhavishya Purana, where after repeated humiliation at the hands of demons, the gods led by Indra were advised by Sage Brihaspati to tell Sachi to tie a divine protective thread around Indra’s wrist on an auspicious date and time This ensured his protection and final victory on Shravan Purnima day, which explains the date.
The Bhagavata Purana and Vishnu Purana further inform us that Vishnu was also victorious over Maha-Bali but it compelled Vishnu to leave his own home and occupy Bali’s palace. Lakshmi was so upset that she went to Bali and made him her brother by firmly tying a Rakhi. Then, she got her new brother to revoke his condition and get her husband back home.
We do not see any real sister in action and even in the Mahabharata, Draupadi tore her sari’s ‘pallu’ to bandage a wounded Krishna, as her adopted brother. Kunti, however, tied a Rakhi around her own grandson, Abhimanyu, before the deadly war began.
In medieval India, we hear that Rani Karnavati the widowed ruler of Chittor pleaded with her Rakhi-brother Humayun to save her kingdom against the invasion by the Sultan of Gujarat. She lost, as Humayun could not send troops in time and though 1535 is mentioned as the exact year, the whole story is doubted by historians.
But Rakhi was quite a legitimate instrument for invoking unpredictable political partnerships, much before “fronts” and “alliances” came on the scene.
This full moon of Shravan has also traditionally been celebrated in western India as Nariyeli Purnima, when coconuts are gifted to the waters to please Varun. In north India, it is however, called Kajri Purnima when farmers sow wheat and barley, after seeking the blessings of mother earth.
The hills have their own version and we find that Kumaonis celebrate it as Jano-Punya and the word janeu stands for the sacred thread. Fairs are held in different parts and the one at Devidhura Bagwal is the most important. The Nepalese also call it Janeu Purnima and tie sacred threads on their relations. while in Jammu, Raksha Bandhan is the day for flying kites, like Bengal has on Biswakarma Puja, about a fortnight later.
Southern Brahmans change their holy thread, upavita, on this day and and Raksha Bandhan is also celebrated as Vish Tarak, the destroyer of venom.
As many know, Rabindranath Tagore distributed Rakhis among Muslims and Hindus in 1905, as his unique poetic protest against Banga-Bhanga, the Partition of Bengal. He thus took it to new heights through his Rakhi Mahotsav as a festival of universal brotherhood.
The point is: when did real, not adopted, brothers enter Raksha Bandhan? One cannot be too sure and there is every likelihood that the custom of real sisters praying for their brothers during this dangerous part of the rainy season (full of snakes) entered the Raksha festival later on. Sisters soon replaced the wives, widows and master strategists of the earlier stories.
After urbanisation had scattered blood relations to distant places, so newer methods had to be devised to get them together — with food and gifts. Custom follows need and human society comes up with solutions.
Nowadays, when meeting is also difficult, sisters have found some solace in sending Rakhis by courier to brothers — just as my sister Sarojoini sends from Mumbai and my cousin Debolina invariably sends from Surat. God bless sisters.