Eclipses of Reason

Narendra Nayak

Published on February 13, 2007

Every time a perfectly natural occurrence like a solar or lunar eclipse happens people’s reasoning power is the first casualty! Pujas are announced at all temples (for a change not in churches and mosques), purificatory rituals are gone through and the faithful observe fasts. The streets are deserted, pregnant women stay indoors and in short life comes to a standstill.

This brings us to the primary school science question –What causes an eclipse? Though it is a shame that people who read this should be given an answer, let me do it. A solar eclipse happens when the moon intervenes between the sun and the earth and a lunar eclipse when the earth comes between the sun and the moon. These do follow certain rules, so it is not very difficult for even amateur astronomers to predict eclipses.

Solar eclipses can be total, partial or annular ones, depending on the distances at the time of the occurrence. In case the eclipse is a total one there can be few minutes of darkness followed by the diamond ring effect. The annular variation will form what is called the ring of fire. In a country like India, where superstitions abound, a whole group of the priestly class waits with open pockets for the bounty of the eclipse!

The eclipse on the 3rd October, we were told falls on a particularly inauspicious day, the Mahalaya Amavasya. This is the new moon day on which the spirits of the long dead ancestors roam the earth! That combined with an eclipse would prove to be a catastrophe for the gullible and a bumper crop to the priests!

While every solar eclipse have to be on a new moon day only, this particular new moon is a particularly scary one. That too in the very same month we have a lunar eclipse too !

In some temples announcements were put up a month in advance as to what time the meals are to be had. According to some the last meal was to be had before 10 am and the next only on the next day! This entails a fast which even the Ramzan fasters would cringe from! The explanations for this was that rays emanating from the sun during the eclipse would pollute all water and cooked food. This had to be discarded. Some claim that even the clothing would be polluted and had to be put away. AS soon as the eclipse was over, one was advised a change of clothing and a bath. The more enthusiastic would even throw away all stored water in the house and fill their pots afresh. That they would be filling them with water already exposed to these “rays” was another matter !

We celebrated the solar eclipse by watching this phenomenon on the grounds of Cordel Hall, Kulshekhar. From the hill one could get an uninterrupted view of the sun. Dr KV Rao and Dr Jayanth with the members of the Mangalore Amateur Astronomers Club had assembled there with their gadgets. They had two telescopes, screens, welding glasses and x-ray films to watch the event. A good number of people mostly students were assembled there and participated enthusiastically. Sweets were distributed to celebrate the event and after sunset the crowd dispersed with the happy feeling of having witnessed a natural phenomenon and enjoyed it.

Why do people fear eclipses? This comes from a primitive fear of the sun going out! At a time when these things were not understood, the primitive man feared that demons were swallowing the sun. All the rituals were aimed at making the demon spit it out.

While it was ritual fasting, pujas and yagnas in India, in the far east drums would be beaten and crackers fired to scare the demon and make him release the sun. Rahu and Ketu of the Indian astrology do personify these. The rituals do work! So, their efficacy is unquestionable. The sun and the moon do get released within a few hours. Probably, this accounts from the fact that they are followed religiously from ages! That reminds me of an anecdote quoted by Bertrand Russell. In London, at the height of winter, a man was shouting at the top of his voice at midnight in the Hyde Park. When questioned by a policeman, he replied that he was doing that to scare away wild elephants. When the policeman told him that the nearest wild elephant was thousands of miles away in Africa, his reply was –see how well it works!

So, each and every time, the priests who have performed these rituals (of course have lined their pockets too) would claim that they have saved mankind from a fate worse than death! But, nowadays it is pseudoscience which reigns supreme! We are told that during the time of the eclipse, poisonous rays are emitted which pollute the atmosphere and cause the organisms to multiply. Another explanation is that the loss of sunlight causes it. When questioned as to what emits these harmful rays, there is no answer. If the period of absence of sunlight is the cause for organisms to multiply, that should be happening every night when there is an absence of sunlight for nearly 12 hours ! When I posed this question to educated people who quote these, they have no answer and finally point out to the wisdom of the ancients!

Any way we can say a lot about the wisdom of our ancients, particularly Manu who laid down the Smritis which goes by his name. He ‘wisely’ said that woman deserves no independence, she should be subservient to her father till marriage and then to her husband, after his death (of course when she has no business to live after that because every pativrata should burn herself on her husband’s funeral pyre) be at the mercy of her sons! Numerous such gems can be quoted which are bright indicators of the wisdom of our ancients as certified in the Manu Smriti.

So, that prompts my question again – Is it an eclipse of the celestial bodies or man’s reason?


Prof Narendra Nayak is President of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations.