People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


Vol. XXXIII

No. 31

August 02, 200

Total Solar Eclipse at Varanasi

 

Kanishka Prasad

 

JULY 22, 2009, presented the Indian subcontinent, China and large parts of the Pacific Ocean with the spectacle of the total solar eclipse. This eclipse was one of the longest eclipses in terms of the duration for which the sun remained in the moon’s shadow. This ranged between 3.03 minutes in India to 6.47 minutes over the Pacific. It was thus a very significant celestial event in recent time. I had been fortunate enough to have witnessed the previous total solar eclipse, visible from India, in 1995 as well. This we had seen from a hillock above the village of Akbarpur adjacent to Alwar, Rajasthan.

This time, however, the clearest weather was to be found in Varanasi, where we had gone to view this event. The city of Varanasi, on the banks of the river Ganga, is considered one of the most auspicious cities for the Hindu faith. It is said to have been established by Lord Vishnu and then gifted to Lord Shiva, for it was in Varanasi that Shiva is said to have found mental peace. It is also believed that for a Hindu to have their rites of passage performed in Varanasi would guarantee freedom for the soul from the cycle of rebirths, to which it would otherwise be doomed, and instead attain nirvana. Varanasi has subsequently seen fine constructions along the river through the ages by kings and queens of regions from across the Indian subcontinent including Bengal, the Marathas, Indore, Karnataka, Rajasthan and the Jains, to name a few. The Jain community believes that its 11th tirthankar was born in Varanasi. The city’s life is thus dominated by the performance of ritual and the bounds of religious beliefs. In recent years, it has witnessed a large influx of foreign tourists who come searching for some elusive spiritual awakening or just to enjoy the idiosyncrasies of all that is on display along the ghats and in the temples. This has spawned a large industry of guesthouses, hotels, restaurants and temple administrations who are dependant for a livelihood on ‘selling’ this spirituality and ritualistic religion.

In this context, one would have expected to see an interesting juxtaposition of the scientific reading of the celestial phenomena of the eclipse with the playing out of the religious superstitions and fears regarding it. However, much to my surprise, the majority of the people viewing the eclipse in Varanasi were in fact those who had ventured to the ghats in their thousands, to take a holy dip in the Ganga during this inauspicious time. Their hope was that their faith would help assuage or vanquish rahu (Mars) and ketu (Jupiter), forcing them to release the Sun from their clutches. Having succeeded in this task, i.e. having seen out the duration of the eclipse, the faithful would proceed to once again dip in the holy waters and purify themselves. What was noticeable by its absence and starkly in comparison to my experience of the previous eclipse, was any scientific mobilisation or awareness amongst children at the school and college level and the populace at large. Even the foreign tourists who were in Varanasi, either by coincidence or by design, and were aware of the eclipse were unable to access much information and safe viewing through the filter glasses meant for the purpose of watching the eclipse. The loud sighs, chanting and cheering that accompanied eclipse to the time it lifted from the bathing ghats suggested that the large number of people of Varanasi chose to look upon the eclipse, in the 21st century, as a battle to save the Sun from planetary misalignments, to be corrected by devout praying and ritual. There was only a small congregation of the scientific community at the distant Samne Ghat in the vicinity of the Banaras Hindu University.

When seen in the context of similar beliefs and scenes of ritualistic bathing being repeated in large parts of the country and by huge numbers of people, this suggests that we are still a long way from inculcating any kind of rational scientific temper in the country.