The Sanskrit word for Eclipse is “Grahanam”. Aryabhatta the great Indian astronomer (476 C.E) was the first person in the world who did deep research into this dramatic astronomical event called the eclipse and discovered how it was caused. He gave the perfect scientific explanation for it way back in the fifth century- long before the western scientists even thought about it. So Indians were well aware of the scientific facts behind this phenomenon. In the ancient world people were more superstitious and less scientific than they are now so our sages always clothed the scientific facts behind all natural phenomena in beautiful stories so as to make them more palatable to the ordinary person. Hence we find that our Puranas contain thousands of stories that actually hide deep scientific truths. All the dos and don’ts that have been given to us to be followed during the time of an eclipse are based on some scientific truth and should not be shrugged off as superstitious nonsense. More and more of these so called “superstitious nonsense” are being found to be absolutely scientific by modern scientists!
The Vedic gods or devas were immortal beings who always followed dharma even though sometimes you find that they could also become corrupt. The demons or asuras were their opposite and were always trying to oust them from heaven. This is a symbolic picture of the fight between evil and good which is always going on everywhere in the outside world and within our own minds. Just as darkness cannot withstand light, the asuras could not withstand the power of the devas. However, just as darkness can temporarily overshadow light, the gods also used to suffer temporary defeat at the hands of the demons.
The puranic story of the cause of an eclipse in Hindu mythology dates back to the samudra mathanam, as described in both the Bhagawat and Vishnu Puranas. Once upon a time, the devas lost their youth after having been cursed by the Rishi Durvasa. The asuras defeated them and took over the heavens. The devas sadly went to Vishnu to seek his help. He advised them to churn the milky ocean on which he rested on his serpent bed. They would then get the amrita or the elixir of immortality by drinking which they would regain their lost youth. For this they were forced to ask the help of their arch enemies the asuras who promised to help them if they agreed to give them half of the amrita. After churning for a long time amrita came out of the ocean. Since the devas were very weak, the asuras snatched the pot of amrita and ran off to eat it all by themselves. The devas were frantic and begged Lord Vishnu to help them. Vishnu immediately took on the form of a beautiful woman called Mohini and went to the place where the asuras were busy quarrelling amongst themselves as to who should get the largest share. Mohini offered to portion it for them and made them sit in a line. She insisted that the devas should get their fair share and told them to sit in a line opposite the asuras. Everyone was told to sit with eyes closed till she had finished serving. Since the asuras had tried to cheat the devas out of their share of the elixir, Vishnu, disguised as Mohini, served all the amrita to the devas. Moreover it would have been unwise to give immortality to such cruel beings like the asuras. One of the asuras, called Svarbhanu saw what was going on and disguised himself as a deva, and sat between the Sun and the Moon and got a share of the elixir.
When Mohini came near them, the Sun (Surya) and the Moon (Soma) revealed to her that Svarbhanu was a demon. By this time, however, Svarbhanu had already taken a little of the drink. Vishnu immediately cut off his head, but since the demon had already swallowed a bit of the nectar, the two pieces became immortal. The two demons came to be known as Rahu and Ketu and assumed the body of a snake, one having a head and the other the tail. They have been added to the planetary system as shadow planets and make up the nine planets of Vedic cosmology. Since their plans were thwarted by Surya and Soma (sun and moon), they are always on the look out to take revenge on them. At specific times, Rahu swallows the sun and Ketu, the moon. When this happens Surya and Soma are said to be filled with fear since their brilliance is overshadowed by the darkness of the demons. Just as dark rain clouds temporarily cover the sun and moon and create darkness, so these planets overshadow the light and positive influences of the sun and moon and create temporary darkness. This is the beautiful story behind this amazing phenomenon.
This story is considered to be so important that it is repeated in many of our Puranas so it has to have a deep esoteric meaning. The scientific import of this story can only be understood by the modern mind which has some idea of quantum physics. As we know Einstein blasted the Newtonian theory that matter is made of solid particles called “atoms” and declared that matter is actually “energy in motion”! The quantum physicists went further to say that there is an underlying energy that supports the whole of this material world which is a heaving mass of energy particles called protons, neutrons, electrons and so on. This is like an ocean. Actually they called it a “field” – “the quantum field” which they declared to be the basis of all existing phenomena. In fact it was the “Field of all possibilities”. Einstein even went so far as to say that “The Field is the only Truth.”
Now can we start to imagine the connection between the ocean on which the Lord reclines on his bed made out of a huge snake called “Ananta” or “endless”? This is the ocean of all possibilities described as “the field of all possibilities” by modern physicists. The two factions of devas and asuras who churned this field are the positive and negative thoughts that are always swaying our mind, now here, now there. The Meru Mountain which they used as a churn is “Space”, and the snake they used as a rope is “Time” which is Ananta or “endless”. Thus by using the churn of “space” and the rope of “time”, each one of us churns out for oneself, from this ocean of all possibilities, whatever we desire. All sorts of things came out of this ocean. Some are grabbed by the asuras and some by the devas. What we get out of this ocean depends on the quality of our desires – whether they are negative or positive. Actually this ocean is capable of giving us anything we desire. It is also capable of giving us the highest state of immortality (amrita) if we so desire! Sometimes even when this state seems to be within our grasp some negative desire (asura) comes up and we are left bereft. Again we have to turn to the Lord for help. He will always help us provided our desire is pure. Thus we see that all our great Puranic stories, which are clothed in mysterious language, conceal some deep scientific truth.
Now let us see what the Veda has to say about this phenomenon of the eclipse.
The Rig Veda is the oldest record of humanity known to us. The Taittiriya Upanishad which comes in this Veda mentions a solar eclipse that was witnessed by the great Sage Atri. In the Panchavimsi Brahmana of the Rig Veda, the Rishi Atri is said to have dispelled the darkness caused by the eclipse by chanting 4 mantras. He differentiated the changes that occur during an eclipse into a 4- step process which has been verified by modern science! Research done on sea water during an eclipse reveals the startling truth behind the rishi’s statements. During the eclipse the induced gravity causes a reduction of the ozone layer in the stratosphere. This allows more cosmic radiation of different wavelengths to surface on the earth. This in turn causes changes in the oceanic pH which influences living organisms. This can be noted in the erratic behaviour of animals, birds and marine organisms. Marine organisms are seen to hide from the exposure to the sun during the time of an eclipse. Thus scientific research strongly supports the traditional Hindu view. Vedic astrologers were able to accurately predict the movement of the planets and even the comets and thus they knew exactly when eclipses would occur. It must be stressed that the fact that stories were woven over these natural occurrences did not mean that they did not know the underlying scientific reason.
Mention is also made in other places which point clearly to the fact that our ancients knew all about this phenomenon and could accurately predict the times when they would occur. How they did this without modern instrumentation is anybody’s guess. The overshadowing of one planet by another was always considered an evil omen. In the Mahabharata, sage Vyasa told King Dritarashtra of the number of evil omens that were seen before the start of the Mahabharata war, suggesting impending doom. He advised him to ask his sons to withdraw from the war.
Arjuna had taken an oath to slay Jayadratha before sunset, so the latter went into hiding. Krishna knew that a solar eclipse was going to occur and took Arjuna to the place where Jayadratha was hiding. When the sun disappeared Jayadratha crept out of his lair and was killed by Arjuna.
The Ramayana also mentions an eclipse which happened when Rama was fighting a demon.
As has been said before, Hinduism is filled with symbolism which is only a cover for the scientific facts of which they were well aware. The sun and moon have such a powerful effect on our lives that they realised that when these two orbs were temporarily cut off from us it would create a temporary aberration in the world order. Even though their influence would not last long it would still leave a mark on the celestial map as well as on the lives of all creatures living on this planet.
Eclipses overshadow our karma and destinies and create havoc in our lives, just as bad karma brings darkness into our lives and eclipses our peace of mind.
The sun, which is a major life force in the universe, disappears during the solar eclipse, making it a negative omen. The absence of the sun's rays increases the amount of bacteria and germs in the atmosphere, thereby harming everything. These scientific truths gave rise to the superstitions surrounding the eclipses that state that harmful agents are at play during these periods, and so, all actions should be done with utmost caution. The entire period of an eclipse from the onset, to culmination is extremely important.
There are many health hazards which can affect us during this special period of time. Since micro-organisms multiply fast during an eclipse there is a tendency for food to get spoilt so we are asked not to cook during the time of the eclipse and not to eat food cooked the previous day since it would have become spoilt. Immunity to disease is also lowered so we are told not to wander all over the place but to sit in one spot and practice meditation or do mantra japa.
One should never look directly at the sun during an eclipse. Pregnant women are considered to be especially vulnerable to evil forces during eclipses. They are not allowed to go outside where the rays would be stronger. They are told to abstain from such activities like cutting vegetables and stitching clothes. This is because any cut that causes blood to flow would be dangerous since the ability to clot is reduced during an eclipse.
The mantra that is chanted during Surya Grahan by pregnant women is the Santana Gopala Mantra.
The mind is also affected during an eclipse. According to psychiatrists some individuals develop psychological problems such as depression, anxiety etc. during this period. Hence you find that eclipses were considered to be inauspicious according to Hindu thought. They are associated with suffering and adversity. If the eclipse occurs on one’s raasi or birth star, we are asked to do some special pujas.
In order to minimise the negative effects of this phenomenon we are asked to follow some rules. One should take a bath at the very onset of the eclipse. During the eclipse tarpan (offering water to deceased ancestors), chanting mantras, performing havans (fire sacrifices) and giving charity can be done. We should bathe once again at the culmination of the eclipse. It is said that during an eclipse any water becomes equivalent to the water of the sacred River Ganga. Merit increases progressively by bathing with water drawn from a water body, flowing water, water from a lake, large river, the Ganga and the sea. Special benefit is supposed to be got from bathing in the River Narmada during and after a solar eclipse. If bathing in the Narmada is not possible, one can chant the mantra which is supposed to be chanted over all waters when we take a bath.
Gange cha Yamune chaiva, Godavari, Saraswati, Narmade, Sindhu, Kaveri, jalesmin sannidhim kuru.
“O Gange, Yamune, Godavari, Saraswati, Narmade, Sindhu, Kaveri, do thou enter into this water and (make it pure)”!
This ensures that the waters of all these rivers enter into your bucket of water and purify it. This mantra can be chanted even if you are taking a shower.
The benefit derived from spiritual practices performed during an eclipse is thousands of times greater than at other times. This is precisely why it is important to give priority to spiritual practices during this period. Reading of holy books, meditation, asanas and other types of sadhana are highly beneficial and will give double their benefit when practiced during the time of an eclipse.
For spiritual practices, a solar eclipse is more beneficial than a lunar eclipse. As it is a transitory period the effects of spiritual practices performed during this period are visible at once. During a solar eclipse chanting performed with immense faith and concentration by remembering God or Guru in different ways, overcomes physical, psychological, spiritual and worldly distress. Success is certain for all spiritual tasks. No japamala (prayer beads) is required for chanting during this period.
There are some things that are forbidden during solar eclipses. No pujas should be done since we are not supposed to touch the murtis at this time. Temples are closed during an eclipse to prevent negative energy emitted by the planetary bodies from harming the murtis. After it is over the murtis have to be washed with Ganga water if available or ordinary water.
Sleeping, cooking, eating and sexual intercourse are totally prohibited during an eclipse. No food should be cooked during the eclipse. Leftovers should be eaten before the period of the eclipse. If due to some health problems we are forced to drink water we are told to put a tulsi leaf into it which will remove the negative vibrations.
It is most advisable to take a bath after the eclipse is over and change into fresh clothes. Sprinkling of Ganga water or taking a dip in the Ganga is also supposed to wash away the negativity incurred during the eclipse.
All living organisms appear to be affected by an eclipse. During this period you will find that the whole of nature seems to have withdrawn into itself. Animals and birds seldom come out. No bird sounds will be heard. A hush envelopes the countryside. Plants are all in a state of suspended animation. They seem to withdraw into themselves. Thus it is most advisable to follow the practices which our rishis had given us centuries ago and preserve our health and increase our spiritual wealth!
Let me repeat that all the “so called superstitious practices” of the Hindus always cloak deep scientific truths so even if you don’t know the reasons it would still be advisable to follow them!
Hari Aum Tat Sat.