Symbolism of Eclipse (Grahanam) in Hinduism

Solar Ecclipse

by Jayaram V

Eclipses were common celestial phenomena in ancient times, which people occasionally witnessed and were puzzled by their happening. Since they were associated with darkness rather than light, people ascribed to them several negative meanings. Find here the archetypal meaning, cultural significance and the symbolism of the eclipse (grahanam) in Hinduism

The gods of the Vedas possess great power. They are pure and immortal beings. Although not incorruptible, they remain on the side of Dharma and God, and follow his orders. As beings of light and delight, and as aspects of Brahman, they partake the nature of the Sun, who symbolizes him. Just as darkness cannot withstand light, the demons cannot withstand the power of gods. However just as darkness can temporarily overshadow light and prevail against it, gods may suffer a temporary defeat in the hands of demons due to fate and the overshadowing effect of the planetary deities.

The Vedas therefore attribute solar and lunar eclipses to the overshadowing effect of certain impure planetary deities. Like the demonic dark clouds that often hold rain in captivity and cover the sun and the moon, certain planets overshadow their light and positive influence and create temporary darkness.

In Sanskrit an eclipse (ecclipse) is called grahanam. The word has a negative connotation meaning planetary possession or adverse planetary influence. Eclipses torment not only gods but also humans. On specific occasions they overshadow their karma and destinies, creating chaos and suffering in their lives. Like the eclipses, sinful karma brings temporary darkness into the lives of people and eclipses their peace and happiness, until the light of good fortune shines upon them again.

Thus, in the Vedic symbolism, eclipses represented the dark and negative influence of planets, and a temporary aberration in the order and regularity of the worlds. Their influence would not last long, but they would leave their mark in the celestial map and upon the lives of individuals. Therefore, it is necessary for people to keep themselves abreast of their happening and safeguard themselves from their destructive influence.

As celestial phenomena, eclipses also represent the conflict between good and evil, light and darkness, or gods and demons. According to the Vedic beliefs, eclipses are caused especially by the actions of two shadowy planets, namely Rahu and Ketu. Since they have a score to settle with the Sun and the Moon, due to their betrayal at the time of the churning of the oceans for the elixir, they keep swallowing them on specific occasions to take revenge.

Due to their recurring and predictable nature, Vedic astrologers were able to calculate the movement of the planets and other celestial objects (including comets) and predict the occurrence of eclipses. It is not clear how they developed the ability, but we know that they took the eclipses seriously due to the fear associated with them.

The Vedas contain references to the eclipses. For example, the Taittiriya Brahmana mentions a solar eclipse, which was witnessed by sage Atri. We find similar references in the Tandya Brahmana and Sankhyayana also. These descriptions suggest that as early as the Rigvedic times, Vedic astronomers were familiar with the eclipses, and were able to predict their occurrence.

People feared as well as revered the dark planets. Both Rahu and Ketu are depicted in the images as having a serpent body and with and without a human head. Interestingly, in some other cultures also eclipses are believed to be caused by demonic beings, serpents, or dragons.

The Puranas trace their conflict to the churning of the oceans, during which the two demons tried to drink the elixir through deception. Fortunately, the Sun and the moon noticed it and informed Vishnu, who then cut off their heads to prevent them from becoming immortal. However, since a few drops of the elixir entered their bodies, they partially survived and became part of the planetary system.

Ever since, the two demons assumed serpent bodies and joined the Hindu pantheon as anti-gods. Since their plans were thwarted by the sun and moon, they take their revenge against them by swallowing them and causing the eclipses. For a short time on specific occasions Rahu swallows the Sun, and Ketu swallows the moon. When it happens, the two celestial beings said to remain in fear, overshadowed by the darkness of the demons, and feel relieved when they finally emerge out of their tails and become free.

Be it a solar eclipse or lunar eclipse, the overshadowing of one planet by another is considered an evil omen. In the Mahabharata, sage Vyasa explains to King Dhritarashtra the number of evil omens that appeared in the sky before the commencement of war, suggesting the impending doom and destruction arising from the war.

The scriptures leave no doubt about their inauspicious nature. Hence, when they happen, people are advised to stay indoors and not to look at them. They also advise people not to initiate any actions, engage in sexual intercourse, cook food or expose the food items to their negative influence. Instead they are advised to pray and give grants and charities to neutralize their ill effects and negative consequences.

Symbolically, eclipses are associated with demonic possession, suffering (pida) and adversity. When a person is going through difficulties or misfortune, people say that the person is possessed or overshadowed by an eclipse. The word is also used symbolically to convey dominance or conquest of one nation over another, or one person by another. A person's fame, wealth, or power may also be eclipsed by misfortune or adverse circumstances.

References to eclipses are found both in the Ramayana and Mahabharata also. The latter mentions a solar eclipse which happened during the great war at the end of the day. Lord Krishna was aware of its happening beforehand, but Arjuna had no idea. However, it miraculously saved him from a certain death and helped him slay Jayadratha, who was responsible for the death of his son Abhimanyu, and keep his pledge. Similarly, in the Ramayana it is mentioned that an eclipse appeared when Lord Rama was fighting a demon.

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