An eclipse occurs when the sun is obscured by the moon or the moon comes under the shadow of the earth.
A Lunar Eclipse occurs when the moon comes under the shadow of the Earth.
A Lunar Eclipse – Earth’s shadow falling on the moon
A Solar Eclipse occurs when the sun is obscured by the Moon.
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.
Vedic Rishi Atri, observing an Eclipse
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.
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
- Vishnuvrata Equinoxes – Mesha Vishu, Vernal Equinox and Tula Vishu, Autumnal Equinox
- Grahana, Eclipses – Surya Grahana, Solar eclipse and Chandra Grahana, Lunar eclipse
- Amavasya, New Moon
- 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.
More on Eclipses in our book, Triple Eclipse.