Don't Panic: It's just a lunar eclipse
Superstitions most often come to a head during the times of eclipses in India.
India is a beautiful land, filled with diversity, plurality and infinite imagination. We are a people grown on the yarns of our grandmothers, on stories that have turned into tall tales. Our religions are based in folk tales, our mythology is a richly woven tapestry of cultural nuances. We are blessed in the history that has been handed down to us by the story tellers of yore.
These stories do, however, have a flip side - they come with a set of superstitions. These superstitions most often come to a head during the times of eclipses in India. 2018 brought the country the longest total lunar eclipse viewed from here, in recorded history. This July 16 and 17 will see another lunar eclipse, of a shorter duration, but no less magnificent.
Here are some of the tales that crop up every time we see an eclipse, as we face how infinitesimally small we are compared to the cosmos:
The very first eclipse:
The Vishnu Puranas describe the samudra manthan, and the story of the very first eclipses. According to mythology, the elixir of immortality was first churned out of the ocean. The Devas - the ostensible good guys - enlisted the help of the beautiful Mohini to trick the Asuras - the traditional baddies - out of their share. The Asuras were distraught, but one of them, Svarbhanu, outsmarted the Devas. Donning a disguise, he placed himself between the Sun and the Moon, and prepared himself for a drink of immortality. As Vishnu approached, however, the Sun and the Moon were able to shed light on the Asura’s true identity. Before Vishnu could react, Svarbhanu sipped a drink. In an instant, Vishnu cut off the demon’s head, but the little sip of elixir he had lent immortality to his head. This head of an Asura demon, an entity of its own now, was called Rahu. Rahu saw the Sun and the Moon as his mortal enemies, and swore to forever dog their paths. And thus, Rahu has spent an eternity chasing after the two celestial bodies. When he does manage to catch up to them, he swallows them, and we see an eclipse. However, the story goes, Rahu is just a head after all, and as he cannot hold on to what he swallows, the Sun and the Moon always make an inevitable escape.
The poetic expression of this belief is beautiful, but we trust we don’t have to tell you that this is, at the end of the day, nothing more than a bed time story for kids.
The risk to pregnant women:
As always, women are the easy targets for oppressive superstitions. There is a whole laundry list for things pregnant women aren’t supposed to do on an eclipse day. To begin with, they shouldn’t be touching sharp objects, as this could lead to their children being born with a cleft lip. Perfectly logical, 10/10. This means they should refrain from cooking, cutting vegetables, stitching, or doing any of the other domestic chores they were brought into this world to do.
Secondly, it’s best if they don’t leave the house at all - to prevent toxic radiation from affecting the baby. This makes sense. You wouldn’t want a tiny human, housed inside a perfectly solid adult human, to be affected by invisible rays that don’t seem to affect any of the other adult humans around. And while the expectant mother is inside the house, far away from all that evil vitamin D out there, it’s best if she refrains from sitting with her legs crossed. Yeah. Go figure.
The powers that be dictate that no food should be cooked or consumed during the eclipse. People often fast for the whole day, eating only after the eclipse has been concluded. The logic behind this is that food goes bad during the eclipse period, and may cause indigestion. So it’s ideal not to eat or drink anything, and best if the kitchen is closed completely. One common tradition is to cover any food material with tulsi leaves, to prevent them from being affected by the light from the eclipse.
A Blood Moon:
It’s often said that if you’re cut during an eclipse, it will leave a scar for life. In a biological superstition that leaves us mind-boggled, Indians far and wide believe that during eclipses, blood runs faster and freer, and it’s harder for blood to clot.
A Baptismal Time:
The eclipse in India is often viewed as a bad omen - a sign of the apocalypse to come. However, it’s also a time of rebirth, a time to wash your sins away. A much touted belief is that taking a bath right after an eclipse will wash your sins away. The days after an eclipse often bring record numbers of visitors to the Ganges, where people take a baptismal plunge to purge themselves of previous ill deeds and any negativity.
Netflix and Chill:
Overall, Lunar eclipses are sometimes seen as a time of dangerous rays and celestial interference in India. Many people believe it’s best to just avoid the whole shebang, stay indoors, stay safe, and venture out again only when the Moon has escaped the deathly grasp of the Asura’s maw.
And you know what? If it means another hour in the comfort of our beds? We’re cool with that.