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Freeing Rakshabandhan in Open Road Review

July 2016

Rituals are like little diyas that light up the sides of our journey through life. They remind us to pause and enjoy our milestones and celebrate our relationships. In a country steeped in culture and tradition, we Indians have blessed ourselves with rituals around every corner at almost every waxing and waning of the moon. So much so that very often form takes over substance and we lose sight of the deeper meaning of what we are celebrating.

This year, as I prepare for Rakshabandhan, one of my favourite festivals of the year, I do so with many questions ringing in my mind. To say that I love my brother is an understatement. He is a role model, friend, guide and drinking buddy all rolled into one. Every year, I hunt with a vengeance for the classiest rakhi for him, sometimes tying two, as no single one is good enough. However, blessed as I am with him, and tie a rakhi as I will, I find the underlying premise of the ritual deeply troubling. Rakshabandhan is a festival that represents a sister’s love for her brother, which is alright, and the brother’s vow to protect her, which is not. For it presupposes two things, firstly that a sister needs protection and she is incapable of doing so herself, and secondly, that it is her brother’s duty to do so. Brothers do not need protecting and sisters cannot offer it.

In a post-feminist world where we are talking about equal opportunity for men and women, gender equal pay, women in leadership roles in professions as well as governance, where we are talking about men who have the courage to be stay-at-home dads, men who are decent, who respect women, this aspect of the festival reeks of a regressive mind-set which assumes that women are incapable of looking after themselves, let alone provide for the family or lead. It reinforces what we
have been told for years; that Sita Mata was defenseless against being abducted by Ravan and needed her husband to free her, that all Draupadi could do, while her sari was being unfurled in a royal court, was to close her eyes and pray for divine intervention from her rakhi bother, that Rani Karnavati had to send a rakhi to emperor Humayun to protect her from invasion from Bahadur Shah. Yes, there is Kali Ma, who slayed the evil forces, but isn’t she a rare exception of a strong female in our constellation bursting with gods and goddesses? And isn’t this ritual rendered meaningless in a country  where Nirbhaya is no longer that one girl who was brutally gang-raped and murdered in 2012, but has become a symbol of other such atrocities that still continue to happen in the national capital as well as other parts of the country, to women who must be sisters for men? 

When rituals turn blatantly farcical, it is time for a rethink. As we try to rise above a patriarchal society toward a more balanced one, our rituals need to move on as well.

Imagine then, Rakshabandhan being simply about celebrating love for our brothers and sisters, unencumbered from any need or promise of protection. Imagine girls walking around, their wrists sporting rakhis from their brothers. And if raksha must come into the equation, let both vow to protect each other, brothers and sisters alike, together, as equals.

Photo credit: Shireesh Vasupalli

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