Eclipse: An Ancient Indian Perspective

An eclipse occurs when the sun is obscured by the moon or the moon comes under the shadow of the earth.

Lunar Eclipse

A Lunar Eclipse occurs when the moon comes under the shadow of the Earth.

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A Lunar Eclipse – Earth’s shadow falling on the moon

Solar Eclipse

A Solar Eclipse occurs when the sun is obscured by the Moon.

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A Solar Eclipse – Moon hiding the Sun

Around 5 to 6 eclipses happen every year.

Recordings of eclipses are available in texts, temple inscriptions, copper plates and legends of the land.

In the Veda

The Veda are considered to be the oldest literature of mankind available today. One among the 4 Veda is the Rig Veda. In this text, in verses 5.40.5 to 9.

 

A Solar Eclipse- Svarbhanu

 It states that, “Svarbhanu, i.e Solar Eclipse etymologically meaning a powerful phenomenon which takes away the splendour of the heavens, occurs, leaving the world bewildered.”

Rishi Atri, the first observer of Eclipse

Atri, the seer or Dhrishta, who observed this eclipse and understood the phenomenon of eclipse, is explaining it to the world through these Vedic verses.”

This makes Rishi Atri, probably the earliest astronomer to have expounded on eclipses for posterity.

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Vedic Rishi Atri, observing an Eclipse

In Ramayana

Notable amongst the celestial events mentioned in the Ramayana is the description of the solar eclipse that occurred on the day of the fight between Rama, the hero of the epic and the two demons Khar and Dushan.

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Solar eclipse on the day of the Khar – Dushan Episode in Ramayana

Searching for this eclipse using the Planetarium Software and the planetary configuration listed in the text, experts have dated this event to 7th October, 5077 BCE or over 7100 years ago, making this eclipse, perhaps one of the earliest recorded eclipses.

This date is substantiated by the internal consistency seen in the dates of other events arrived at by the Planetarium software using the description of the sky configuration from the Ramayana text, their sequence and elapse time between these dates tallying with the sequence and gap between the events as mentioned in the text as well.

Through the times, we see a continuity in the understanding and recording of eclipses.

Why were our ancients interested in eclipses? Why did they learn to predict eclipses?

Dos and Donts surrounding eclipse

We see, there are many elaborate dos and donts surrounding eclipses which have been a tradition of this civilization. Some interesting ones that have continued to this day are

  • eating food atleast 4 to 6 hours before an eclipse and not carrying forward food cooked prior to an eclipse

  • the use of Dharba grass to protect food items and other perishables

  • protection of pregnant women from the rays of sun during solar eclipses

  • not seeing solar eclipse with the naked eye

Advice for Pregnant Women

Scientists have shown today how during a Solar Eclipse, the amount of Ultra Violet rays and other cosmic rays reaching the earth are higher. These rays are harmful to the foetus. Hence pregnant women were advised to cover themselves and stay indoors during an eclipse to protect the foetus from these rays. Even today pregnant women are advised to stay away from radiation exposure of all kinds for example X Rays.

Contamination of Food

The increased exposure to such rays also contaminates food. Carrying forward of food cooked before an eclipse is therefore not advisable. Further more, there is the need to ensure that all food in one’s stomach is digested before the start of an eclipse.

Using Dharba grass

The antidote for preventing the food from contamination by radiation has been the practice of covering food with Dharba grass. This points to our ancients having used the Dharba grass as a shield to absorb the unwanted radiations in the atmosphere, especially those arising during eclipses.

Dharba grass absorbs X Rays

Nascent, independent research on Dharba grass has revealed its ability to absorb X Rays. These early finds make Dharba grass a very promising field of study.

We see a good grasp of astronomy, physics, biology and mathematics all rolled into the practice of predicting eclipses and the traditions followed during an eclipse. This holds good for a host of other astronomical observations and traditions followed too.

Donations During Eclipses

De Dhaan Chute Grahan – is a slogan one got to hear on the streets about 4 to 5 decades, during the time of eclipses.

 It means Give Alms To Release The Eclipsed.

 It was a common practice in India to give donations during eclipses and other cosmological events such as:

 Ayana, Solstices – Dakshinayana, Summer Solstice and Uttarayana, Winter Solstice

  1. Vishnuvrata Equinoxes – Mesha Vishu, Vernal Equinox and Tula Vishu, Autumnal Equinox

  2. Grahana, Eclipses – Surya Grahana, Solar eclipse and Chandra Grahana, Lunar eclipse

  3. Amavasya, New Moon

  4. Yugadi, New Year

Many explain that such Dhana were given in the superstitious belief that the donor will gain relief from the evil forces that were capable of even devouring the Sun and the Moon.

On the contrary, we find from traditional literature that the people were well aware of the scientific nature of these cosmological events. They could predict their occurrences due to their understanding of the motions of the earth, moon and various planets as well as their proficiency in Mathematics, which is needed to model these motions and calculate dates for their occurrences in advance.

Dhana for noble causes was given on these significant days as these days were considered as markers of time and hence would be easily remembered over time.

Every king, landlord, zamindar, royalty made it a point to give Dhana every year from their accumulated wealth. Various kings like Krishnadevaraya, Harshavardhana and others, repeatedly gave Dhana every year and during such events as eclipses.

Many temple inscriptions speak about such Dhana, endowments made to the temple and thereby to the people at large, on the occasion of eclipses.

Eclipses continue to happen and many just ignore them. Inscriptions continue to remain as evidences of the ones gone by but are hardly known to many.

The request for alms on eclipses are no longer heard on the streets. Neither are there donors, nor are there receivers on this day.

 But misconceptions about the Indian perception of eclipses continue to loom large in everyone’s minds.

Complementary Nature in Nature

One often hears in the English language, the remark, “Behind every successful man is a woman”. This phrase conjures up an image of the woman being lesser than the male gender and playing only a supportive role, while the man is the achiever.

lady and gentleman

In stark contrast to the above statement and view, in India and the Indian languages, the wife is called “Saha Dharmini”, meaning one who is along with the man. This term implies that the wife and the husband are to go along in life together, performing their deeds together, towards leading a righteous life, pursuing the 4 goals of life namely, Dharma – which may be translated in a limited way, as righteousness, Artha – wealth, Kama – desires and pleasures and Moksha – liberation, salvation.

purush stri

Many commonly understand “Saha” to mean equal. But there is a different word for equal, namely “Sama”, meaning same level.

So the term “Saha Dharmini” must have a deeper connotation.

In many languages brothers and sisters are called Sahodara and Sahodari respectively, meaning the ones who along with you, bear and share the joys and burdens of a joint family.

Saha seems to be more than just equal.

Saha denotes a form of parternship, “co-” as in cooperative, togetherness. And for a  partnership, togetherness and a cooperative effort to be successful, it calls for a sense of complementing one another to complete the task on hand effectively. The word Saha therefore denotes complementary, helping.

If the two partners are just equals and have equal of everything, there definitely would be times when their strengths would add up and double the gains. But there would also be times when both would be found lacking and there would be great gaps and falls.

                                                        Equals leave gaps2 Equals leave gaps1

Equals – leave gaps

While in the case of complementing, what one lacks, the other can provide, thus leaving no room for a gap in the collective unit.

 complementary 1 complementary 2

Complementary Units – fit perfectly, no gaps

If every such, complete family unit were to complement each other in a collective living community, then there would be no gaps in the society, civilization as a whole too.

 complementary 3

Amongst equals, each tries to score over the other. Equals lead to competition, infights and separation.

In a complement, since each one is aware of the strengths and weaknesses of each other, they do not see any competition from the other. So complements lead to dependency, togetherness and partnership.

This philosophy formed the basis for the framing of the various family models and the structure of the Indian society, in the days of the past.

By referring to a wife as a Saha Dharmini, Indian thought and ethos, thus stressed on the fact that men and women are complementary in nature to one another and can only collectively perform their righteous duties at 3 levels, namely for their,

  1. home and family

  2. society and community

  3. culture and civilization

We can see such a complementing nature at work in the whole of Nature.

Even the lion, the symbol of masculinity, relents to this driving force of Nature. It is the females in a pride of lions, who typically hunt and bring back food for the pride. However, it is the male, the lion who gets to eat first and the most, before the others get their share. This is in return for his role of keeping the pride together and safe. This is where, the term “lion’s share” originated from.

Amongst the birds, it is the male emperor penguin who takes over the baton from his female partner to hatch the egg and look after the young for months on end in the harsh, freezing Antarctic winter, while the female partner goes back to the sea, to replenish her store of energy and bring back food for the penguin chick.

In the insect kingdom, all the bees, males included, work to the tunes of the Queen Bee.

 complementary 4

In each species, the male and female, evolve roles and responsibilities, suited to their innate, individual capability.

A representation of such a complementing concept is the depiction of Shiva, a popular divinity of the land as ArdhaNaari, meaning half woman, where the figure of half man and half woman sharing every part of the body shows the complementary nature of roles they are supposed to play in all activities of life.

 Ardhanaari

Ardhanaari

This is further exemplified and elaborated in the concept of the three feminine divinities, the wives of the three primary divinities, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, in the Indian pantheon of Gods.

If we pause and observe intently,

  • the wife of Brahma the creator, is Saraswathi, the embodiment of knowledge, for, inorder to create, knowledge is a requisite and Saraswathi brings in this knowledge

  • the wife of Vishnu, the preserver, is Lakshmi, the embodiment of wealth, for, inorder to sustain and operate, wealth is a requisite and Lakshmi brings in this wealth

  • the wife of Shiva, the regenerator, recycler, is Shakthi, the embodiment of energy, for, inorder to recycle i.e. destroy and recreate, energy is a requisite and Shakthi brings in that energy.

The masculine aspect in these concepts, denote a function in the cycle of the Universe, while the feminine aspect denotes the substance or resource required for this functioning.

These feminine divinities were perhaps the earliest “Women of Substance”.

Women of Substance

 This symbolism denotes the higher understanding in the civilization, that the functioning and the resources needed to function, coming together with a purpose, is what ensures successful completion of any activity.

It is the understanding of this complementary nature of Nature, all the way from the divine forces at work throughout the Universe, to the various living forms in this Universe, including man and woman on earth, that formed the ethos of the land of India.

These ethos through the ages has given the due position and respect, in all spheres of life, to men and women.

It is this realization that was put in practice in various facets of life concerning men and women and their roles in society, in India, through the ages. To an extent, these ethos also found reflection in other fields also, namely Astronomy and social customs.

In many marriage customs of India, after the couple is wed, one of the wedding ritual is, the gazing of Arundhati-Vasishta. The husband and wife are taken outside by the priest and asked to gaze at Arundhati-Vasishta in the sky.

Ever wondered what this ritual is all about and who are Arundhati-Vasishta and that too, in the sky?

One of the spectacular constellations in the northern hemisphere, is the Ursa Major constellation, also called the Great Bear, the Big Dipper. This constellation can be identified by seven prominent stars.

Arundhati-Vasishta

The significance of this constellation is that when we join the two stars in the belly of the bear, they always point to the Pole Star in the North.

This constellation is called Sapta Rishi in Indian astronomy and each of the seven prominent stars has been named after some of the prominent Rishi of India.

One such star, at the tail, is called Mizar-Alcor in modern Astronomy. Since thousands of years, in Indian astronomy, this star has been known as Arundhati-Vasishta.

Vasishta was one of the most accomplished Rishi and together with Arundhati, his wife, they were regarded as the most knowledgeable, much respected, ideal couple in Indian legends.

Why a double name for this star?

After the invention of telescope, modern astronomers identified this star to be a double star. They also found that this system of double star is such that, it is not one star going around the other, which is the usual form of double star system. Instead, in Arundhati-Vasishta, the 2 stars go around each other, much as to how 2 people rotate and go around a common fixed spot in Phugadi, a game in India.

Arundhati-Vasishta 2

It is very interesting to note that these stars were given the name of an ideal couple. It is further interesting to note that gazing at this ideal couple in the sky has infiltrated as a marriage custom of the land, where after the couple is wed, the husband and wife are taken out by the priest and shown this Arundhati-Vasishta star system.

Today, neither the priest nor those around are able to explain this ritual. It is even ironic that this ritual is held during midday under the blazing sun, when no stars are seen and with no clue as to even where this star lies.

Our ancients were not only well advanced in Astronomy to have discovered this uncommon system of double stars but were also foresighted enough to include it as a marriage ritual to relate to and reinforce to common man, that in a marriage it is not the wife going around the husband or the other way around.

Their message to society was that, both husband and wife together, as partners, have to complement each other and go around, the central point – the family and society, fulfilling their duties to the best of their innate, individual nature and capability.

It is time for all of us in this world, to focus on Saha, the complementing factor too, rather than on Sama, the equalizing factor alone.

Understanding our ancients’ way of living and picking a leaf or two of wisdom from them, can help us in understanding ourselves better and handling our relationships and business in harmony with each other and with Nature.