Lesson 1: The Thread of Love

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There’s something about the full moon in late summer that always makes the heart leap.  It’s so huge and luminous! No matter what you’re thinking or doing, you find yourself pausing and taking a breath.  Have you had a glimpse of it yet?

Today’s full moon is – like all full moons – very special.  There are many different celebrations that occur at this time, the most widespread of which is a holiday commonly referred to as Rakṣā Bandhan (a modern name that derives from the Sanskrit word for a sacred thread tied around the wrist for protection – a रक्षाबन्धन rakṣābandhana in Sanskrit).

Another important celebration is Onam in Kerala, which is a beautiful and iconic 10-day harvest festival, full of dance, special food, fun games, worship ceremonies, and community events. In the Western coastal communities, such as in Maharashtra, this moon is called the “coconut moon”, and is a time to head to the seashore and honor the ocean, offering coconut rice for prasāda (and of course, it also happens to be a beneficial food at this time as per Ayurveda). You will learn more about these traditions, as well as how to make coconut rice, in Lesson 2 & Lesson 3.

For this lesson, we will take a closer look at Rakṣā Bandhan, which is a celebration of a very special type of intimate and committed relationship. In the modern world, when we hear the words “intimate and committed relationships”, we immediately and almost exclusively think of romance and sexual relationships.  

However, in traditional culture, every relationship is an opportunity to be intimate and committed to each other’s happiness and well-being. We seek to experience love, care, belonging, and safety throughout our network of connection. We strive for greater love and closeness with all of our loved ones.

On Rakṣa Bandhan, we specifically honor the profound and lifelong bond between brothers and sisters.  On this day, brothers and sisters of all ages are meeting to share food and to renew their love and commitment to care for each other.  This is symbolized through a special ceremony of tying a rākhī (rakṣābandhana in Sanskrit) to the wrist, and you can learn all the steps of this ancient and sweet ritual in Lesson 4.

In the ceremony, the sister performs āratī and ties the thread on her brother. Through her devoted and sincere prayers for his health and well-being, she blesses him with energetic and spiritual protection. The brother, in turn, commits to physically and financially protecting his sister from any kind of harm or suffering. Both siblings feed each other, bless each other, and celebrate their love and lifelong bond.

One beautiful aspect to this ritual is it recognizes and makes space for the fact that love has many facets and can be expressed in different ways, and that both the intangible and tangible forms of love are a blessing and have value. For example, energetic and spiritual protection is as important as physical and financial protection.

In some traditions, priests might tie it on temple visitors (with the blessing of spiritual protection), and it is also common for gurus and disciples to exchange rākhīs, always with the sincere prayer for mutual protection and love.

There is even a tradition that women can “adopt” a man as her brother if she does not have a biological brother or male cousin by tying a rākhī on him. If she does so, he is her brother in every sense of the term – to the point that it would be inappropriate to enter into a sexual or romantic relationship with that man in the future. By receiving her rākhī, he is committed to protecting her and caring for as if she were his biological sister (in fact, there’s a phrase “my rākhī brother” to describe this type of “sibling” relationship).

In this way, despite traditionally being a patriarchal society, women could always choose non-sexual protectors who were invested in her happiness and well-being, and who she could turn to for support in times of need. For men, it is a great blessing to be given the opportunity to protect and serve women (and to receive her prayers and blessings). It is also an opportunity to practice viewing all women with the same love and respect you would have for your own biological sister.

In many Vaiṣṇava communities, it is also common to tie a rākhī on the wrist of Śrī Kṛṣṇa as the cosmic protector, and specifically as a protector of women. From Draupadī in the Mahābhārata to the legend of Sakhubaī, countless myths abound of Lord Kṛṣṇā protecting and rescuing women.

Generally speaking, except for the exceptions such as priests and teachers, women generally tie rākhīs. The rākhī is infused with her potent spiritual energy and the power of her devotion. So for example, many grandmothers and aunts also tie it on younger children in their family with blessings for their safety.

The exceptions are that you generally don’t tie one on yourself. And, you don’t tie it on your husband or intimate partner – because then you become like family, that makes a romantic relationship inappropriate! And there is a strong belief that women’s prayers have special power and potency, so rather than tying it themselves, most men will have their wife/mother/daughter tie it on someone if that person needs protection and blessing.

How Does a Rākhī Protect?

Rakṣā Bandhan is a time where we both offer our protection and allow ourselves to be wrapped up in the loving protection of others. Let us take a closer look at how the practice of tying a rākhī protects us, and others.

For one, rākhīs are traditionally red, or otherwise brightly colored, invoking the energies of life and power, which we need in order to stay healthy and safe. And, it is infused with the śakti, the sacred energy, of a person’s heartfelt prayer and clear intention.  Once tied, it transforms from ordinary thread to a tangible way for your body to receive the power of love.

We tie it to the right wrist because in traditional understanding the right side is the solar side, which is active.  Our hands are instruments of action. Take a moment and think of what you do throughout the day. If you notice, almost every action you take (including, for example, speaking or walking) somehow includes the movement of your hands as well.

And, action follows from attention.  When you see the rākhī on your hand, it’s a reminder and an inspiration to take strong, dharmic, loving actions – choices that will protect you, and also all creation.  Choices that will bring about a more just, safe, and beautiful world for all of us. By acting with integrity and wisdom, you end up becoming both the protector and the protected.

The rākhī also protects us because it is, in the words of Maitreya Larios, “a signal that you’re in a network of love and that you are not alone“. Almost all of the suffering we tolerate – and also which we cause for others – is because we forget that we are deeply connected to others and that we are loved.  The fact that someone else tied the thread to you is a physical witness to the fact that others care about you. And, because we live in an interdependent universe, it also calls you forth to share your love with them.

Sometimes people today get stuck on the gender roles in this practice, especially since many women no longer look to men for their physical or financial protection. However, the point of the practice is not about creating or reinforcing dependency. It is an invitation to step into a deeper love and deeper generosity, where we make ourselves open and available to supporting each other, whether it is needed or not. It is an opportunity to let greater love and connection into our lives.

The practice of tying a rākhī also holds great insight on what protection and safety are really about.  For example, it is interesting to note that the spiritual practice for protecting someone isn’t to build a wall around them, or to arm them with sharp swords and heavy armor. Attempting to block, control, or otherwise dominate others is not the the best way to create safety.

Instead, we tie the rākhī so we can stay aware of a greater truth:  that our personal wellbeing doesn’t spring from our capacity to shield ourselves from others, but instead to open ourselves up further to one another, with tenderness and generosity. We understand that being bonded to someone is not the same as being bound by them. These bonds of love hold us safely and securely in a circle of love – a place of nourishment where each of us is empowered to stand steady and free.

Teacher: Shivani Hawkins

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