On Revisionism for Ancient Traditions

Yesterday was the celebration of an Indian Hindu festival called “Raksha Bandhan”. It is based on the Lunar calendar, like most Hindu festivals, so the actual day in August varies each year but it happens during a Full Moon, which is considered auspicious.

Revisionism for Ancient Traditions

The main ceremony involves sisters tying decorated and colorful rakhis, like the ones in the picture (actually, a lot more ornate than these), on their brothers’ wrists. For the sister, the rakhi is a symbol of her love and her prayers for his well-being. For the brother, it is a reminder of his binding duty to be her lifelong protector and helper. There is, of course, a lot of mithai (Indian sweets) and the brother gives his sister some gift – usually, cash. I have never understood this last part.

Some of the ceremony’s rituals have fallen away in present times mostly due to commercialization and convenience, or, at least, become less, shall we say, de rigueur. For example, before my parents’ time, rakhis had to be blessed through sacred prayers before being tied. The tying ritual was carried out before brothers and sisters had broken their fasts for the day. Girls and women who did not have brothers would either tie these rakhis to chosen male cousins or close family friends. And, the brothers would wear these rakhis around their wrists for the entire day – like badges of honor – the more the better. And, there was one new ritual added in recent times that I absolutely rebelled against in my younger days – girls and women making “rakhi brothers” of boys and men to fend off possible advances or overtures. Rather a mockery of the tradition, in my personal opinion, and, one that caused even more tension and misunderstanding for several people I knew, but, we’ll save those stories for another day.

The history behind the festival is steeped in mythology, history and folklore. The most widely-accepted non-mythological narrative is from the 16th century and set in what is now present-day Chittorgarh in Rajasthan, India.

When Chittor’s Rajput King, Rana Sanga, died, his kingdom and Queen were left vulnerable to attacks by neighboring Kings. The Queen, Rani Karnavati, was young and beautiful, so had the added misfortune that whoever won her kingdom in war would also win her as his wife (or, indeed, property to do with as he wished). Besides surrendering her kingdom and her honor, Karnavati’s only other obvious and expected choice was the sacrificial funeral fire for recent widows – the practice known as Sati. Of course, with 2 young sons, she wanted to continue raising them and live to see one of them succeed to their father’s throne – a choice that she did not seem to have much say over, sadly, even as the de facto Queen Regent.

One such imminent attacker was the Sultan of Gujarat, Bahadur Shah, of a Rajput dynasty that had converted to Islam. With no King in Chittor and an army weakened by battles, Karnavati knew she did not stand a chance against the war-mongering Bahadur Shah. So, she sent a rakhi to another neighboring monarch, Mughal Emperor Humayun, who ruled over present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of Northern India – then, the largest Indian kingdom under a single ruler. Karnavati’s rakhi was a cry for help and protection – her final, desperate recourse. Humayun, gallant man that he was, started preparing to come to her rescue.

However, Bahadur Shah got to Chittor before him. As soon as the main fortress fell, Karnavati had to carry out her final act. And, how. It was no ordinary Rajput Queen self-immolation. Thousands of Chittor’s proud Rajput women and men committed what was known as Jauhar – a sort of mass suicide where all the women and young children were led by their Queen in a mass self-immolation while the men rode out to honorably fight the war to death (having no family or kingdom left to live for). Chittor, particularly, is famous for these Jauhars – Karnavati’s was the 2nd of at least 3 well-known ones from medieval times.

Anyway, Humayun did show up finally with his massive armies, got Bahadur Shah off the throne he’d just mounted and put Karnavati’s oldest son (she had been smart enough to send both her sons away to a safe place before the Jauhar) on the throne under his protection. And, as Indian history books assure us, all was well that ended well and Chittor remained under Rajput rulership. Except for those thousands of Jauhar folks, of course.

As fascinated as I was with this story growing up, there were aspects of it that made me wonder why Indians the world over celebrated a parochial tradition derived from it. Particularly as, thankfully, the other related traditions like Sati and Jauhar had been allowed to fall away. For one, the symbolism is about a woman putting herself under the protection of a man. For another, it really did not end well for the founder of the tradition, despite her Queenly status (or the thousands of other Chittor women who looked up to her).

My layperson theory is that it is because, through the ages, the lot of women in India continues to a vulnerable one. The recent rapes in India that have been much featured in the global news are some examples of the violence and exploitation that women in India continue to be subjected to. Reminding the closest men in their lives, especially those they are directly related to, of this need for protection is possibly the main reason that the rakhi tradition has prevailed over some others. Sad that such reminders are needed. Sadder still that some of these men continue to be violent and exploitative towards women despite, each year, being reminded of this obligation.

I don’t mean to denounce old traditions as not worth celebrating because the stories behind them are not relevant anymore. What matters now is the interpretation that we apply to such traditions.  Scholars and historians have shown us that there is no universally-accepted view of unchanging history through their ongoing historical revisionism – for example, the 2 World Wars of the 20th century continue to be so much grist for their mills. Revisionism is not a denial of history or tradition. It is the casting of the latter in new or different contexts for them to continue being meaningful and relevant in the present day.

Rabindranath Tagore tried to make Raksha Bandhan symbolize a more universal tie of humanity across religions and castes in pre-Independence India when his much-loved Bengal was being torn apart with much Hindu-Muslim strife. He recommended a simple white thread for people to tie to each others’ wrists, symbolizing a peace-keeping and friendship between them. His attempt at social change through this revisionism did not succeed at the scale he had hoped. And, possibly, such grand gestures today would only meet disdain and apathy – the world is both a more complex place and lacking in living national treasures such as Tagore in his time.

Also, in the present day, socio-political activists have occasionally used the tradition to symbolize other kinds of protection – for example, environmentalists in India tying rakhi-like threads around trees – but rarely get more attention beyond the day’s local news headlines.

Perhaps the best that we can each do at the individual and personal level is to create more meaningful narratives for such traditions and their associated festivals, ceremonies and rituals. And, then to ensure that our younger generations are buying into them rather than blindly celebrating for a day and moving on. For me, those are the more satisfying and enjoyable aspects of maintaining ancient traditions – infusing them with present-day relevance and substance.

Your thoughts?