Bhai Dooj, a symbol of India’s timeless family system


It is rather astonishing that India is the only country in the world that reserves two special celebrations for siblings to pour out their affection. The first is Rakhi or Rakshabandhan while the other is Bhratri Dwitiya which is popularly known as Bhai Dooj in northern India.

In Bengal, the festival is called Bhai Phota and the same day is observed as Bhai Beej or Bhau Beej in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Konkan. In Nepal, this Bhai Tika is almost as important as Dussehra and it is also called Yama Dwitiya in South India. While most parts of India consider Bhai Dooj to be an integral part of the five-day Diwali festival, Bengal simply has to differ.

A photo of Satyajit Ray’s “Pather Panchali” where the friendship of young Apu and his sister Durga is shown with special grace.

He celebrates Deepawali, the glorious night of bright lights, as the darkest night of the year and worships Kali, not Lakshmi. In the same dissenting vein, it treats Bhai Dooj as a separate ritual that comes two days later – and true Hinduism, as we’ll see, has always respected variation and dissent. In Bhai Dooj, whatever name we give it, the sisters have always prayed for the safety of their brothers, performing a small aarti ceremony and the application of a prominent tilak or tika on the forehead of their brothers – like a talisman against any danger or misfortune.

Supposedly, Krishna’s sister, Subhadra, was so thrilled to see him safe and sound after his battle with the evil demon Narakasur that she applied a sacred tilak on his forehead. This is believed to have inspired Bhai Dooj, but frankly this protective tilak may have been more useful before Krishna went into battle.

Although there are not many references to Bhai Dooj in sacred literature, it seems to come from folk traditions. On the other hand, Rakhi or Raksha Bandhan is mentioned quite extensively in Bhavishya Purana, Bhagawat Purana and Vishnu Purana. Hinduism has always found a place for folk festivals and rituals, just like other major world religions.

The true spirit of Hinduism has always been more accommodating and tolerant of all – not strictly standardized as some insist lately. In addition, the Shastras generally do not enter into religious practices where the priest or purohit has no role because the chances of obtaining economic benefits, such as dana Where dakshina in such cases, are distant.

But the supporting sacred tales are inescapable and the most compelling story of Bhai Dooj’s origin is a reminder that on this day Yama, the god of death, meets his sister, Yamuna, which calls for a big celebration. In the British colonial archives there is an interesting account given to the Asiatic Society by the famous orientalist Horace Hayman Wilson over two hundred years ago. He mentioned that the Indian sisters believed “that by this means the life of their brothers will be prolonged and that Yama, the ruler of death, will have no power over them.”

Wilson quotes the favorite lines of the sisters who said then, as they still do today in many parts of India:

“On my brother’s forehead I made this mark
And that’s how I locked Yama’s door!

Indologist Wilson also notes that the sisters go out of their way to “treat their brothers with all kinds of delicacies they can afford and the brothers give them cloth and silver gifts.” A century ago we find another comment from British commentator Muriel Marion Underhill where she said that “the main feature of this festival is to celebrate Yama’s dinner with her sister Yamuna… and since Yama has closed her home that day while visiting his sister. , no one who dies today will have to go to Yama’s home.

It relates the ritual of the gifts and the great meal but it also specifies that “some venerate Yama at noon, making offerings in his image, and those who have the opportunity bathe in the Yamuna river”.

Since Yama and Yamuna were so important, we can also check out some more serious work by Professor Sukumari Bhattacharji, including the famous book Indian Theogony gives a scientific study of our rituals and deities. She says that “in the early days, Yama was conceived primarily as a twin, with Yami as his female counterpart. As he grew complex in stature, assuming malevolent traits, his partner became a malignant goddess, Nirrti, taking over the duties of the non-Aryan dark goddess’ and associated with the evil ones. spirits.

Bhattacharya then traces how this Yami of Taittiriya Brahmana became the Yamuna river in the Puranas, i.e. the dark water river or Kalindi. The first Aryans who settled in the region of Sapta-Sindhu (Indus) managed to cross the Malwa plateau, but feared crossing the Yamuna.

There were dark stories about the Yamuna and it was believed that mysterious and powerful people and many other challenges were to be found on the other side of this river. As we know from later accounts, once they defeated the Yamuna and then the Ganga, the Sanskrit speaking Aryas chose this Ganga-Yamuna Doab as their sacred land, “Arya-varta”.

Photo: Sandeep Kr Yadav / Unsplash, (CC BY-SA)

Some believe that the other brother-in-law festival, Rakshabandhan, probably originated from (or had ties to) Naga Panchami since the two dates are usually very close to each other – at the height of the rainy season. It was then that the sisters prayed earnestly for the protection of the brothers from snakebites. But the fear of snakes was much less in late autumn or early winter and this could not be the reason for the second sibling festival, when many men ventured out for trade, occupation or war – now that the rains had stopped.

With the change of seasons, diseases invariably broke out, as also happens in spring. This could be a provocation for the sisters to pray, in order to ward off death and Yama, before modern medicine often forces Yama to postpone his plans of action. This Bhai Dooj in the month of Kartika (October-November) marks the end of the season of festivals and rituals that began with Navaratri. It’s also when akash pradeepSky lanterns or sky lanterns are placed on the rooftops to guide the spirits, while sisters in South India re-light lamps a few days after Diwali, during Karthikai Deepam, to pray for their brothers.

America has now started to have a “Sisters’ Day” and “Brethren’s Day” in August, but these can hardly compare to our ancient traditions. Another attempt was made in the West through a new “Sibling Day” in May, but it looks like one more opportunity for the billion dollar card industry to make a profit.

So why does India remain unique in this celebration? The brand (tika) applied to the brethren’s forehead during Bhai Dooj originally started out as a charm against sickness and death. Whenever possible, traditional rituals are still observed, with the brothers being forced to sit on the floor – despite the loose knees. Special seats are often made for this in many states, often with rice flour or on wood, even on hand-woven rugs.

The tika the ceremony invariably follows centuries-old rituals and even the most modern sisters apply the same sacred paste and bless them with the same lamp lit during aarti that their great-great-grandmothers had made – with rice, fruit, flowers , betel leaves and nuts, and coins. While in Nepal the sisters put seven colors on their brother’s forehead, different parts of India follow their own customs.

Bengali sisters, for example, place black tilak marks on their brethren’s forehead, to ward off the evil eye, then apply sandalwood paste. This is followed by delicious dishes where India’s “unity in diversity” is highlighted. While special sweets called khajas were compulsory in Bengal, Maharashtrians invariably enjoy a sweet dish ‘poor basundi‘.

The fact that such celebrations continue in India, despite the giant leaps in science and medicine, says a lot about our history and culture. In the past, ancient Indian traditions required women to be married far enough into the desired sub-caste to spread and preserve the vitality of the gene pool.

But if the sisters lived such great distances, there had to be obligatory feasts that brought the siblings together, otherwise India’s strength and her timeless family system would not survive. As for the brothers, what better incentive than a sumptuous meal, served with so much love and care?

Jawhar Sircar is a former Indian administrative service officer.

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