Most of us have taken to gazing the pink, yellow, grey, and every other hue of the sky during these times of distress and uncertainty. The comfort that this never-ending ray of hope provides shouldn’t be restricted under the garb of Superstitions. With three already done, this year is prepared for four more eclipses. The next one is on 4-5th July and thus the need for understanding it as a naturally occurring, beautiful event that should be savoured instead of feared, becomes essential.
Professor M.N Vahia, Dean of School of Mathematics Science, NMIMS considers it to be a lifetime opportunity for nature enthusiasts as well as others because even though eclipses reoccur after every 18 years the possibility of it being visible to us every time is logically impossible.
An hour-long webinar on eclipses by Mr.Vahia on the Nehru Science Centre’s Facebook page lucidly touched upon various theories regarding the Eclipse from the past to the present day.
Family Whatsapp groups to every other astrology channel are currently dishing several do’s and don’ts during the eclipse but the validity of these rituals needs to be questioned not because we are rebellious and woke but mainly because it will help us understand the root of the problem.
In easy words, an eclipse is nothing more than ‘an obscuring of the light from one celestial body by the passage of another between it and the observer or between it and its source of illumination’.It needs to be stipulated that the moon’s shadow always exists and the only difference is that while in some instances it falls on earth while on other days it doesn’t. The Universe and the Sun are too large and too far away from the moon to be bothered by its shadow and by making a huge event out of it, we are by default giving ourselves too much of importance.
This anthropocentric view has been a part of human history for a long time. The people of Vikings, Korea, and China for the longest time believed that eclipse occurs when a vicious animal attacks the Sun and hence threw stones and tortured other animals to save the Sun from the wrath of the animal kingdom.
The Greeks, Babylonians, and the Romans are credited for building the oldest civilizations but we seldom talk about the superstitious nature of their societies. They regarded eclipses as bad omens and viewed it as a fight between the moon and the sun, to cure which they paid homage to other gods with an earnest request for resolving the conflict.
Even the Americans assumed that the Sun had lost its power and used it to shoot burning arrows in its direction with the confidence that they are providing a helping hand to the Sun to resurrect his lost energy.
While these ignorant narratives anger our scientific temperament, the past also shows us that this fear was used by the leaders to prevent greater injustice. For instance, as per records, Herodotus, Miletus, and Thales predicted an eclipse(at different times) preventing wars. At the same time, Eclipse has unknowingly also punished the weak. Emperor Zhong who ruled China in the 2000 BC is known to have beheaded his astrologists just because they failed to predict an eclipse.
The situation back home, In India was no different. The earliest reference is found in the fifth book of Rig Veda which talks about the Sun being attacked by a demon called Svarbhanu and who is won over by the great sage Atri. A detailed account of this story is found in the Pancavimsa Brahman according to which Rsi Atri recited a few selected mantras to defeat the mighty Svarbhanu. Moreover, the description of what happens to the darkness that covers the Sun every time Atri utters a verse resembles the pictures we have of a receding eclipse.
Rahu and Ketu’s change in the mythological position from being daityas (demons) during the Samudra Manthan to points in the solar system due to Aryabhatta’s invention to being prayed to as a part of the navagraha is a subject worth researching.
Moreover, other than the mainstream narrative, the tribal perception of the eclipse also gives us incredible insight. Koku, an Austro Asian tribe’s culture believes that Sun and Moon are the guardians of human sins and if the collective amount of our sins overflow, then the eclipse takes place. Out of the many rituals they perform during an eclipse one of them involves placing a shaft on a plate full of water and predicting the effect of the eclipse based on the direction it falls towards.
These events if studied carefully portray that a particular change by itself has no intention or connotation; it is our perspective on it that deems it to be faulty or pristine. Concepts like Paap Punya, pure, and impure are subjective and mostly based as per the society and culture we inhabit.
By 750 B.C, people of Babylonia concluded that eclipses repeat every 18 and a half years and in some ways envisaged the Saros cycle. The technological advancements, the amazing work of many scientists, and others have helped us in uplifting the veil of ignorance we have held onto for centuries.
The root of this problem lies in fear. We, as humans are dependent on Sun even for our mundane day to day activities and it’s sudden and uncalled absence in our lives leads to anxiety. These tiresome rituals were created in my humble opinion to cure people’s anxious stream of thoughts and to perpetuate hope for a stable future irrespective of the uncertain present.
We have far more graver situations to hope for today and I hope that you let this eclipse run its course while enjoying it with a warm cup of chai and cookies.
P.S.Eclipses are fantastic to see but it is not worth your eyesight. Watching through a homemade pinhole projector would be the best idea.