A few years ago I had the privilege to attend a friend’s wedding in India. I was the first of our group to arrive and the bride invited me to a ceremony at her home that was usually only attended by family. All the uncles were there. A Hindu priestess came, lit a fire in the living room, boiled ayurvedic herbs in copper pots and fed the deity milk mixed with floral oils, Ghee, banyan chips and turmeric root. Her Sanskrit prayers for the couple rose with the fragrant smoke.
At the end of the ceremony, the officiant tied a sacred red thread around my wrist. I was told never to take it off, and once it fell, to leave it under a tree where the purification, dedication and protection from evil sown by the prayers would take root and spread.
A sacred red thread appears in many forms in Hinduism. The love between a brother and a sister is marked by tying a holy thread around the wrist. Serving as a bond of protection, this thread pulsates with sisterly love and sublime sentiments and serves as a mark that the strong must protect the weak. This protective tether stretches beyond the bonds of brother and sister. When tied to close friends and neighbors, the thread demands harmony in social life, and calls upon everyone to co-exist as brothers and sisters.
Throughout Indian history the exchange of a thin cotton, wool or silk thread tied kingdoms together and sealed political alliances. In one recount of the Battle of the Hydaspes River, it is said that the King Porus refrained from striking Alexander the Great, because the Alexander’s wife had tied a scared thread to Porus’ hand, urging him not to hurt her husband.
A scarlet or red thread runs through many cultures.
The red string of fate or the thread of destiny appears in both Chinese and Japanese legends. According to myth, the gods tie an invisible red string around the ankles of those that are destined to meet each other or help each other in a certain way. In one myth, two people connected by the red thread are destined to be lovers, regardless of time, place, or circumstance. The cord may stretch or tangle across the years, but it will never break.
In traditional Tibetan Buddhist ceremonies, the tying on of holy cotton threads restores the natural order of things and brings people closer together. The red thread is specifically associated with bravery.
And this sacred tie is not limited to East Asia.
In Greek mythology, Theseus rescued himself out from the labyrinth of the Minotaur by following a red thread that was given to him by Ariadne. Nikos Kazantzakis, in making myths modern again, points to the scarlet tread that runs through and connects all people, friends and strangers, regardless of culture. It is our common humanity.
In Judaism, wearing a thin red string on the left wrist is an old custom thought to ward off misfortune brought about by the “evil eye”. Rahab tied scarlet rope to two scouts so they could enter Jericho unseen. Jabob’s wife Rachel, the mother of Joseph and Benjamin, wrapped a red thread around her son’s wrist to protect him from evil. Still today, we tie a long red string around her burial stone. This sacred symbol recalls Rachel’s selflessness, reminding us to emulate her modest ways of consideration and compassion for others, while giving charity to the poor and needy. More than a way to protect one from evil or harm, the crimson thread is an internal reflection that inspires good deeds and kindness.
When deeply rooted, rituals sustain us and strengthen our hearts as we navigate the various hardships of life. They induce connection, open up channels of communication, and give us an opportunity to rediscover that which is the most human within us. What is common to these myths and rituals is a sense of caring and connection between people. Whether it be love or an obligation to protect, or a call to increase our acts of kindness, there is a thread of humanity that runs through all of us, unrestrained by culture or class, race or religion.
One need not be a priest or mystic or saint to see this link between all of us. You need only set aside self-interest and soften your hearts, and a magical scarlet web will fill the visual plane: stretching between strangers in airports; between students in middle school lunchrooms; between joggers picking up newspapers for old women in pink bath robes. Once we see this thread extending from our own hearts, we cannot help but feel the pulse of compassion that beats within all of us.
After about a year, the thread tied to my wrist had long since faded, and fell off when we were volunteering at an orphanage in Guatemala I placed the muted talisman under a flowering carnation tree in the courtyard so its prayers for purity, dedication and protection would be shared with the children, and would spread and grow.