Humans need a reference to be. Mythology is just one of the ways to satiate this fundamental human need for reference. Every culture and every tradition love to have a set of stories that make them feel belong. Mostly, these stories are about gods, goddesses and demons. These stories are often parts of epics, scriptures, and other literary pieces that are timeless.
The term mythology may mean two things: the study of myths in general, or a body of myths regarding a particular subject. While there are so many definitions of myth, a Finnish folklorist Lauri Honko’s definition of myth is mostly accepted and cited across the cultures. That definition is:
Myth, a story of the gods, a religious account of the beginning of the world, the creation, fundamental events, the exemplary deeds of the gods as a result of which the world, nature and culture were created together with all parts thereof and given their order, which still obtains. A myth expresses and confirms society’s religious values and norms, it provides a pattern of behavior to be imitated, testifies to the efficacy of ritual with its practical ends and establishes the sanctity of cult.
Indian culture too has myriads of mythological stories that establish “the sanctity” of Indianness. The festival of Raksha Bandhan comes with its set of mythological stories too. The word Raksha Bandhan has two words in it: Raksha meaning protection, and Bandhan meaning bond – a bond of protection.
The mythological stories about Raksha Bandhan essentially celebrate this bond of protection between the humans, irrespective of their gender or the relationship between them.
One of the most fascinating aspects of some these mythological stories that are believed to be the origins of Raksha Bandhan is – some of them do not exactly tell us the day on which actual act of tying rakhi may have happened.
Hence, in some stories, we are not clear if the goddess or the queen had tied rakhi to anyone on the full moon day of the Hindu month of Shravana, which is the day on which the festival of Raksha Bandhan is celebrated across the world.
There are two reasons for this ambiguity in the mythological stories about Raksha Bandhan. First, these stories have been told and heard by trillions of people across the generation and that too in many forms. So, instances of addition and omission are quite obvious.
Second reason for this ambiguity is the very nature of mythology. Mythology is a study of those stories whose central characters are often gods, demigods, and supernatural beings. Though they certainly have humans and animals too in their stories, the background of those stories is often beyond the material world that humans know. Hence, it is difficult to have the exact sense of time and space in the mythological stories.
Mythological stories command us not to remain satisfied with the surface. They compel us to look deeper into the essence of any culture or tradition. Let us explore such mythological stories that surround this festival of Raksha Bandhan, and look deeper into the essence of this bond of protection, Hindu culture, and tradition.
The story of Lord Krishna and Draupadi
This is a very popular story and there are two versions of it. The first version mentions that the Lord hurt his finger while killing the evil King Shishupal. He sent his lightning fast Sudarshana Chakra to kill Shishupal, and while the evil king was beheaded immediately, Lord Krishna’s little finger started bleeding profusely.
In another version of the story, the Lord is believed to have hurt his finger while dealing with sugarcane on the day of Sankranti. Both Lord’s wives, Rukmini and Satyabhama, rushed to arrange the bandage for their husband. But, it was Draupadi, who was present there, immediately tore a small strip of cloth from her sari, and wrapped it around Krishna’s finger.
The lord was so moved by this gesture of Draupadi, whom he used to call his “priya sakhi”, meaning dear friend that he promised to protect her whenever she would be in trouble. The Lord is believed to have blessed Draupadi by uttering the word “Akshayam”, meaning unending or endless.
The Lord kept his promise and repaid his debt by protecting Draupadi when she was being disrobed by the Kauravas in the open assembly of King Dhritarashtra. Her disrobement could not happen as her sari kept getting extended, turning out to be truly “Akshyam”, unending or endless — the boon the Lord had granted earlier to his dear friend.
The only difference between the two versions is in the way in which Lord Krishna got his finger hurt. What remains the same is Draupadi’s act of tearing a small piece of cloth from her sari; her bandaging Krishna’s finger, and Krishna’s promise to protect her – the bond of protection — the very essence of the festival of Raksha Bandhan.
Also, in the sugarcane version, all this is said to have happened on Sankranti day which differs from the full moon day of the month of Shravana on which the festival of Raksha Bandhan is celebrated. But, we have already discussed in this post the reasons for the ambiguity of time and space in the mythological stories.
The story of Lord Krishna and King Yudhishthir
The festival of Raksha Bandhan also finds its roots in one of the incidents mentioned in the 137th chapter of the Uttara Parva of the Bhavishya Purana. The eldest of the five Pandavas, King Yudhishthir got worried about the impending Kurukshetra War.
He approached Lord Krishna and asked for his advice. He asked the Lord how he could protect all his brothers and the kingdom against the impending catastrophes of the war. And, Lord Krishna advised him to observe the ceremony in which a priest or a Rajpurohit should tie a rakhi around his right wrist on full moon day of the month of Shravana.
Lord Krishna then narrates the story of the Lord Indra and his wife Shachi to the King Yudhishthir to explain the sanctity of this sacred thread. The story was about Indra’s win against the King Bali due to a Raksha tied by Indrani Shachi. The story also includes yet another story of the King Bali and Goddess Lakshmi that too is believed to be the origin of the ritual of tying Rakhi to a brother for his protection and well-being.
The story of Queen Kunti and Abhimanyu
This story is as much about the protection as it is about the power of mind. This then gives us insight into more complex and deeper nature of mythological stories per se.
Pandav’s mother Queen Kunti tied rakhi to her grandson, Abhimanyu who was Arjun’s son. She tied rakhi with a solid resolution that until this protective thread remains on the wrist of Abhimanyu, he would be invincible in the battlefield.
But, because of past karmas, Abhimanyu has to die, and therefore, Lord Krishna took the shape of a mouse, and cut this sacred thread off while Abhimanyu was asleep. It is by this mischief that Abhimanyu was killed while exiting the Chakravyuh, the battle strategy adopted by the Kauravas.
Kunti was able to summon all her powers of will to protect her grandson. That rakhi did work until it was bitten off by the Lord himself in the guise of the mouse. The story is both a reflection of power of rakhi, and power of mind.
The spirit of Raksha Bandhan finds its origin in the ideas that this story propagates — inherent human need to love; to make strong resolution for the well-being of the loved ones; to care, and to protect.
The story also rejects the idea to have certain social political conditions to tie rakhi. You don’t have to be someone’s brother or a sister to tie rakhi to the other. The strong wish to protect the other from any harm is enough to form this bond of protection — Raksha Bandhan.
The story of King Bali and Goddess Lakshmi
Goddess Lakshmi had asked for shelter in King Bali’s kingdom on the pretext that her husband had gone for a long-term work. The King had graciously accepted her as his own sister. Goddess Lakshmi in the guise of a Brahmin woman tied rakhi to the evil king Bali in his own kingdom on the full moon day of the month of Shravana.
And, in return of this gesture, the evil King let the Lord Vishnu go back with her to Vaikuntha as the Lord was protecting Bali’s kingdom in the guise of a gatekeeper. The sacrifice that Bali made for the God and the Goddess is the origin of the word Balev which is another name of Raksha Bandhan.
The word Balev for Raksha Bandhan is quite popular in Gujarati culture. We have described the whole story elaborately in our post: Raksha Bandhan Celebration in Gujarati Culture, in its section called Balev.
The story of Lord Indra and Indrani
There are many versions of this story too. But, the main content of all of them remains the same – Lord Indra’s victory over the evil king Bali due to the sacred thread Indra’s wife Shachi tied around his wrist on the advice of Lord Vishnu.
Bhavishya Purana mentions that Lord Indra – God of rains, sky and thunderbolts was losing the battle against the demons who were led by the demon King Bali. Indra’s wife Shachi, who is also called Indrani, got distressed and asked for Lord Vishnu’s guidance.
Lord Vishnu gave her a sacred cotton thread and asked her to tie it around her husband’s wrist. She was also asked to bless the thread with her wishes and prayers for the victory of her husband. It was after wearing this blessed thread that Lord Indra defeated Bali and reclaimed Amaravati.
In another version of this story, Lord Indra himself approached guru Brihaspati for his guidance to win the losing battle against the demons.
The Guru then suggested Indra to get the sacred thread tied around his wrist. And, that the thread should be blessed by the sacred mantras on the full moon day of the Shravana Purnima.
Indra’s wife, queen Shachi, got this thread for her husband and tied it around his wrist which eventually made Indra victorious in the battle against the demons.
In many ancient texts, there are instances of wives tying rakhi to husbands who were going out for the war. These holy threads were believed to have magical powers that ensured their protection and subsequent victory.
The story of Yama and the Yamuna
The God of Death – Yama had not visited his sister Yamuna – the river Goddess for 12 years.
Yamuna asked for Ganga’s help and Ganga asked Yama to visit his sister Yamuna. As Yamuna learnt about her brother’s imminent arrival, she prepared sumptuous feast for her brother.
The Lord of Death was so pleased with his sister’s hospitality that he requested Yamuna to ask any gift from him. Yamuna asked Yama to visit her often.
Yama was so moved by the selflessness of his sister that he granted her immortality so he can visit her as many times as he would wish. The river Yamuna’s endless flowing is attributed to Lord Yama’s boon.
The story of Lord Ganesha and Santoshi Maa
Lord Ganesha had two sons – Shubh and Labh. When they saw Lord Ganesha’s sister tying rakhi to him every year, they yearned to have a sister who too would tie rakhi to them every year. They demanded to have their own sister.
But, their father Lord Ganesha outrightly rejected this demand. However, Narad Muni convinced Lord Ganesha to have his own daughter who would bring much prosperity and auspiciousness with her.
Lord Ganesha then created a daughter from the flames of his two wives – Riddhi and Siddhi. This daughter was named as Santoshi Maa which meant the Goddess of Satisfaction. His sons Shubh and Labh were quite happy with their father gifting them a sister.
None of these stories give us any clarity regarding the first instance of rakhi tying ceremony. Whether it had happened between a husband and wife; brother and a sister or friends is unclear. Many of them don’t even mention the full moon day of the month of Shravana as the most auspicious day for tying rakhi.
The only thing that these stories make it quite clear is the importance of the solid bond between the protector and the protectee. How this bond transcended itself into the festival of Raksha Bandhan that we know today remains a mystery. And, perhaps, a sense of mystery is the beauty of the mythology.
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Frequently Asked Questions about Mythological Significance of Raksha Bandhan
Why did Draupadi tie rakhi to Lord Krishna?
Lord Krishna got his finger hurt and it bled profusely. Draupadi tore a strip of cloth from her sari and wrapped it around his finger. To know more about this incident, read our section: The story of Lord Krishna and Draupadi.
What is the significance of Queen Kunti's tying of rakhi to her grandson Abhimanyu?
Queen Kunti’s act of tying rakhi to Abhimanyu also reflects power of mind besides the power of rakhi. For more on this, read our section: The story of Queen Kunti and Abhimanyu.
Why did Lord Indra's wife tie rakhi to her husband?
Lord Indra was losing the battle against the demons. His wife tied rakhi around his wrist to protect him and make him victorious in the battle. For more on this, read our section: Lord Indra and Indrani.
Did the festival of Raksha Bandhan start as the festival of brothers and sisters?
Not really. The ancient texts have instances of wives tying rakhi to their husbands who went out for the war. For more on this, read our section: Conclusion.
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