A thread of meaning or just a thread

This Thursday marks the celebration of Raksha Bandhan, a Hindu religious ceremony whereby a sister ties a piece of  thread around her brothers wrist as a symbolic gesture of love and care on her part and protection on his. ImageThere are lots of legends behind the history of this ritual, not just concerning Hindu gods and goddesses but Alexander the Great! I’m not Hindu, in fact I don’t really classify myself as being part of any religion but my family are Jains, a relative of Buddhism and Hinduism, and one of the oldest movements in the world but not generally classified as a religion but more of a faith and way of life. Yet we, along with many second and third generation Jains and non-Hindu Indians in the UK celebrate Raksha Bandhan.

My parents were born and raised in Kenya but their parents and descendents were originally from India where they learnt about this ritual from the Hindus in the villages of Gujarat. They incorporated it into their culture, (unfortunately I do not know their main and initial reasons behind this) and now hundreds of years on, we still perform this ritual for the same reason as the Hindus originally did. Except for these days after the sister ties the thread on the right hand wrist of her brother, the brother usually gives her a gift too. The thread cannot be cut with scissors and must fall off naturally. In fact, as families are becoming smaller and smaller, this ceremony no longer applies to immediate brothers but to cousin brothers too.

I appreciate its significance – being an only child it symbolises and signifies the close relationship that I have with my close male cousins who really are like brothers to me and I’m pretty sure that I will pass on this tradition to my children. But, having discussed this with other British East African-Indians born in Britain (what a mouthful!) it seems like I’m not part of a majority with this viewpoint. They argue that with everyone being a lot more independent and brothers and sisters more often than not moving away from each other and leading different lives and having a different sibling relationship than years ago, something like a piece of thread is meaningless. According to them, maybe just meeting up for a dinner or exchanging gifts shows that symbolic metaphor better in this day and age than a string.

My rebuttal to that is surely the meaning behind the ritual and ceremony then stays the same even though its object changes. Much like Christmas being more commonly (and commercially) symbolised by the Christmas tree than Church Services and the advent candles. So then this raises the question of how should we define rituals and at what point do they change and become different?

I think that even if the thread disappears, but brothers and sisters acknowledge their kin with some kind of custom at any point in the year, that custom and exchange should still be regarded as Raksha Bandhan and a “bond of protection” (but not in the literal sense).

Raksha Bandhan is a great example of the mixing and effects of cultures, and shows that there are no boundaries between those components of different cultures.

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