Saturday, 17 May 2008

Eclipse Myths of India

In India eclipses are believed to be caused by a demon named Rahu.

Legend tells us that long ago the Asurases, gigantic demons battled the Vedic gods led by Vishnu for control of the universe and the possession of the Amrita, the food of immortality. Although the Vedic gods triumphed, during the banquet where they celebrated their victory and were to share the Amrita, one of the Asurases, disguised as a woman entered the hall.

This was the demon Rahu. Stealthily, he approached the banquet table, grabbed the Amrita and absconded with it. But his crime did not escape detection. Both Surya and Chandra the gods of the sun and moon respectively witnessed the theft. Becoming the first cosmic crime stoppers, they immediately informed Vishnu. Grabbing the huge stone discus that was his chief weapon in battle, Vishnu immediately went searching for the demon. When he caught up with him, Rahu was preparing to partake of his stolen meal. In a flash Vishnu flung his discus and decapitated the demon. But as the head of Rahu crashed to the ground, a crumb of the Amrita fell upon his tongue. Thus the head of Rahu became immortal. And to take revenge on both Surya and Chandra for ratting on him, Raha hides at one of the points in the heavens that crosses both the paths of the sun and moon (the two points are called the ascending and descending nodes. Rahu hides at the ascending node) Whenever Surya or Chandra venture too close to him, he attempts to devour them.

Devout Indians when an eclipse begins, raise a noise to frighten away Rahu. If they are successful, the eclipse is only partial, and the sun or moon proceed on unharmed. If they fail, however, the demon succeeds in swallowing his solar or lunar prey and the eclipse is total. But no real harm comes to either, for as soon as Rahu swallows, the celestial beings re-emerge through his severed neck. Slight variations to this legend deal with the other half of the demon.

According to most accounts his hind quarter became Ketu and hides at the descending node and also attempts to swallow Surya or Chandra during an eclipse. However, according to some variations to the legend, Ketu became the constellations. Still another account says that the hind quarter became poisonous vapors and mists that fall to earth during an eclipse. Therefore Indians turn all pots and other containers for food or water upside down. Food left uncovered during an eclipse is thought to be spoiled and thrown out. Beggars, driven more by hunger than a fear of cosmic impurity, usually fare very well during eclipses.

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