Narayan C. Rana is presently with the Inter- University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics at Pune. A graduate of the University of Calcutta, he has been with the Theoretical Astrophysics Group of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Bombay, since 1977. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Bombay in 1983. His research interests include the origin of cosmic microwave background radiation, origin of light elements in the Big Bang, origin and distribution of heavy elements in the galaxies, rotation of the earth, positional astronomy, and history of astronomy. He received the INSA Young Scientist Award for the year 1983 and year's best thesis award in the School of Physics, TIFR, the same year. He is actively involved in teaching physics and popularising astronomy. He has published over 50 scientific papers and 100 articles in various journals and magazines, and coauthored a book.
This is one of a set of publications brought out by Vigyan Prasar in connection with the total solar eclipse of October 1995 visible from parts of India. In this small volume, Professor Rana has not only compiled superstitions, myths and legends relating to eclipses from all major cultures, periods and religions, he has also attempted to examine the 'rationale' behind them relevant to the context, the circumstances and the times of their origin. This, however is not to be seen or interpreted as an attempt to eulogise superstitious beliefs. That is definitely not the intention.
Considering the fact that eclipses were among the earliest of natural phenomena to have been understood and taken out of the realm of superstition and brought into the domain of science, it is surprising that some of the mythical and superstitious beliefs continue to persist till this day. Those individuals who actually are able to safely witness an eclipse would in all probability overcome their fears/anxieties if they have any; also for them the 'credibility' of the prevailing myths and superstitious beliefs would diminish greatly if not vanish altogether; and they would also be in a better position to help their near and dear ones to shed and overcome their fears.
Perhaps, if we can understand and unravel the dynamics of their perpetuation, it might lead us into devising more effective strategies to first counter and then demolish some of the prevailing myths and superstitions. It is our hope that this volume would contribute toward such efforts.
For obvious reasons, this compilation lays no claim to being complete or comprehensive. In fact, suggestions on inclusion of additional relevant material in a future edition would certainly receive consideration.
Eclipses have captured the imagination of one and all at sometime or the other in the history of man- kind. In this booklet, an attempt has been made to present the prevailing superstitious practices of different cultures and religious traditions. On the whole, the fables which developed around the theme of eclipses have stood the test of time. Here we have tried to understand the rationale underlying certain beliefs and rituals observed by different communities, in the light of the now available scientific knowledge about the phenomena of eclipses. With the advent of the industrial revolution, there has been a growing need for developing a scientific temper within society at large. The author sincerely believes that the National Council for Science & Technology Communication (NCSTC) has been doing a remarkable service to Indian society by nurturing the spirit of inquiry in a variety of ways. The author feels that unless the reasons behind the continuing eclipse- oriented rituals and practices are made credible to the older as well as the younger generation in India, the age-old, deep-rooted superstitions cannot be dispelled. It is hoped that this booklet will be a valuable addition to NCSTC's armoury in its crusade against institutionalised superstitions. The author is particularly thankful to Dr. VB. Kamble and Dr. Narender K. Sehgal for encouraging him to write this booklet, which turned out to be an educative experience for the author.
The author is thankful to the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA) for extending its facilities to produce this booklet. Thanks are also due to Shri Ajit Ghodke, Shri Dnyaneshwar Kul, Shri Sumeet Gawande, Ms. Harshada Deshpande, Ms. Aparna Athani, Shri Dinesh Apte and Ms. Mridula Chandola for helping out in various ways, from collecting material, translating it into English whenever needed, to drawing figures. Thanks are also due to Ms. Niti Anand who went through the manuscript several times and edited it from the language point of view, making it more agreeable to the lay-readers.
Eclipses are among those few celestial phenomena that cannot go unnoticed even by plants and animals, let alone humans, particularly when it is a total solar eclipse. The partial eclipses of the Sun may go unnoticed, but not so those of the Moon. Eclipses do not last long; they occur all of a sudden, without any warning, and disappear altogether within a few hours leaving the viewer totally bewildered. The disturbance in the regular, clockwork, precise celestial motions of the Moon and the Sun caused by eclipses evoke a feeling of awe-the sense that almighty gods such as the Sun and the Moon can be temporarily overpowered by 'something' akin to celestial 'demons'. It was not the natural occurrences of floods or droughts or earthquakes that were originally thought to be demonic, but the mere evidence of celestial phenomena, such as the unwarranted appearance of a comet, a shower of shooting stars, the retrograde motion of planets and, most dramatic of all, the occurrence of total solar eclipses of the Sun and the Moon. In their desperate attempts to reason out such unusual celestial happenings, it was therefore natural for our primitive ancestors to ascribe anything and everything ominous to irregularities in the heavenly order.
Surely, the human brain is fertile enough to establish what are called statistical correlations between terrestrial disasters and celestial oddities. But statistical correlations are of two kinds: spurious and physical. The physical ones are those that can be explained through a chain of cause and effect relations, and the magnitudes of the claimed effects can be well justified quantitatively. But spurious statistical correlations are those that defy the criterion of quantitative justification, even if they are seemingly connected by a chain of cause and effect relations. This is how a lay person can be fooled-by presenting arguments with very obvious qualitative links between two sets of information or events, without adequate quantitative substantiation.
In the context of eclipses, we shall demonstrate the gross differences between physical and spurious correlations in order to understand not only the phenomenon itself, but also the plausible origin and institutionalisation of certain superstitious practices prevailing over several thousands of years.
We generally tend to opine that with the advent of modern science, many events, otherwise inexplicable, have been successfully explained; the expanding frontiers of our knowledge have pushed all of us into a bewildering world of technological innovations, where the pace of change has accelerated from several decades to years and even months.
Unlike in the previous centuries, the parents today have a tough time dealing with the inquisitiveness of their off springs who are exposed to a wide range of media networks. It is not an easy task to completely break away from the traditions of the older generations; it is equally difficult to assert their validity, particularly when the youngsters are equipped with razor-sharp arguments backed by proper scientific explanations.
Of course, we know that the ordinary high school textbooks give fairly clear cause and effect explanations of eclipses, yet the majority of the people in India still shy away from viewing them. But this is not something that ancient Indians did not know about. Even fifteen hundred years ago, Aryabhata I (499 A.D.), the celebrated Indian astronomer, had clearly stated in the chapter 'Goladhyaya' of his book Aryabhatiya: The shadow of the earth falling on the Moon causes the phenomenon of lunar eclipse (Fig. 1) and the shadow of the Moon falling on the surface of the earth causes a solar eclipse (Fig.2); thereafter, he gives the formula for calculating the time and durations of eclipses. If nothing much has changed in the attitude of the common man towards viewing the eclipses, we had better seek the cause for the perpetuation of this particular irrational tradition in a different perspective, rather than solely blaming the ignorance of the people.
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