Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Traditional Practices During Grahana (Eclipse) - Ignorance or Awareness?

[Original Kannada Article by Vidwan Chayapaty- English Rendering by Smt Padmashree Mohan]

"During a lunar eclipse, the moon enters the shadow of the earth, and during a solar eclipse, the moon comes between the sun and the earth.  With their learning and insight, teachers of yore understood this to be the reason for the eclipses." These are the words of Varaahamihira who lived in the first part of 6th century A.D.  His words provide evidence that Bhaaratiya (Indian) astronomers had an accurate understanding of the reasons for the occurrence of eclipses from a very early time.  Even in that distant past, they had developed mathematical tools to predict the incidence of eclipses.

Along with this precise understanding of eclipses, the teachers of yore have also recommended some best practices to be followed around the time of an eclipse.  These include fasting from eight hours before the onset of an eclipse, a bath during and after the eclipse, and placing a blade of darbha grass on all clothes, milk, curds and other dry ingredients that are used in cooking.  Expecting mothers are asked to stay indoors and hold a piece of iron in their hands.  Iron rings are also placed around the horns of cattle. The time of the eclipse is considered sacred and is recommended to be used for japa (chanting), dhyaana (meditation), tarpana (ritual offering of black sesame seeds with water to ancestors) and daana (charity).  Even today special trains and buses are introduced during eclipses to facilitate the travel of pilgrims to sacred rivers where they get a purificatory bath. 

Similar practices are not to be found in any other culture or country, and have, therefore, raised questions and doubts in the minds of several people.  On the one hand, there are numerous people who place their unquestioning faith in shaastras (scriptures) and traditions and follow the practices recommended by shaastras without probing the rationale behind them.  On the other hand, there are enough people, who in spite of their regard for shaastras, lean towards logic and accept only those conventions that conform to scientific understanding, reason and rationale.  The question, therefore, is about the basis for the numerous procedures surrounding an eclipse.  Are they based on research and scientific knowledge? Or are they just superstitions rooted in ignorance? It is not straightforward to conclude that these customs are based on scientific awareness as they are not found in any other country.  Moreover, science which has succeeded in outer-space missions and is everyday changing the map of the universe with newly discovered galaxies and constellations has not lent any credence to the traditional practices connected with an eclipse. How then can we insist that these practices are the result of sound knowledge and not mere ignorance? 

Amongst us there are also people who cry foul that our country has been declining because some mindless men let age-old superstitions persist instead of condemning them.  This number swells because they encounter practices such as those surrounding an eclipse which appear to have no logical grounding.  

The eclipse is a natural phenomenon. There is no denying the effect of the eclipse on the physical world; still how can we justify these practices?  The astronomical study of eclipses and its effects has already been well-established. And yet, these customs cannot be verified against any known scientific fact. Therefore the notion that it is wise to give up these superstitious practices is becoming more prevalent.

Although it is true that the exacting yardsticks of verification established by science and technology have a far reach, it is also true that science has not evolved to a point where it can claim to have measured everything.  New discoveries of the mysteries of nature coming to light every day clearly show that there still is much to be understood and quantified. Therefore one must be open to newer results, methods and tools to understand the world around us. And if these new techniques were to substantiate some of the practices, it would be wise to accept them in the light of new findings, though they may have been reviled in the past.

What is such a new technique or tool that has not become available to science thus far as we know it?  How is it possible to measure the effects of an eclipse with this tool?  What practices were instituted based on the outcome of the use of this ‘instrument’? Sriranga Mahaaguru researched this matter and used such a ‘devise’ to provide empirical confirmation of the customs connected with an eclipse. The summary of his experiential and experiment-based findings is presented here in brief.

The manner in which Sriranga Mahaaguru considered the body of shaastras, sampradayas (traditions), scientific findings, the remarks of people (who either accept these practices or reject them), the views of native and foreign writers and all the debate around this subject was truly captivating.  While presenting his findings, he asked that people should examine his results without any bias and only then accept them.  "Say yes if it rings true, say no if it doesn't" was his motto.  “Theory, experiments and experience constitute my shaastras" - this was Sriranga Mahaaguru’s firm conviction.  What is the premise to be proven?  Can it be verified with an experiment?  Can it be borne true by experience?  If so, accept it; else reject it.  This was Sriranga Mahaaguru’s fearless and honest dictum; and it is acceptable to every seeker of truth.

On one occasion, during his masterly exposition, Sriranga Mahaguru had presented the views on eclipses according to shaastras, modern science, common sayings and common practices.  Then he had said enigmatically, "We have heard what others say about an eclipse; now let us listen to what an eclipse has to say about itself!" He had then proceeded to conduct experiments during the time of the eclipse itself.  

Naadi-shaastra was Sriranga Mahaaguru’s tool for conducting experiments related to eclipses.  (The term, naadi, literally translates into the English word ‘pulse.’ However the meaning of the word ‘naadi’ is much wider than the scope of the word, ‘pulse.’  Pulse only indicates the heart beats; but a naadi reading by a competent person gathers the vibrations from other sources in our body.) The throbbing of the naadi can be felt within about a square inch area in the wrist of every person (right hand for men and left hand for women).  Ayurveda has indicated that while the pulse can be observed easily by anybody, it takes training to identify the distinct patterns in the naadi brought about by variations in the compositions of vaata, pitta and sleshma, to arrive at the diagnosis of a disease.  Sriranga Mahaaguru’s astute investigations into Naadi-shaastras helped him understand that an in-depth reading of the naadi is capable of yielding insights into the physical, celestial and spiritual realms of an individual's life.  His yogic saadhana combined with his adept use of the naadi-tool helped him research and re-validate the truths discovered by Bhaaratiya rishis (the sages and seers of ancient India) through their tapasya (penance). The articles printed under the title "Sri Guru Vani" in the Mandiram’s monthly publication "Arya Samskrti" give us a glimpse into these investigations in his own words.

It suffices to say here that Sriranga Mahaaguru had discovered that the science of Naadi could be employed to study the various observances related to the eclipse. The confidence arising out of his systematic study of eclipses, its effects and other related customs was such that he welcomed the most challenging questions posed on the topic.  He used to say, in a compelling manner, that a blindfolded person, seated in a dark room during the time of an eclipse, could accurately indicate through the naadi reading, the quadrant of the sky where the eclipse occurs, the time of its onset and its close, and the course of its progress - all without the help of any other external tool.  On one occasion, he had presented himself to such an examination and using naadi as a tool had given complete and accurate details about the eclipse. 

Sriranga Mahaguru had taught the Naadi-shaastra to some people who had approached him as disciples; and with their participation he had conducted experiments related to the effects of the eclipse during the time of an eclipse itself.  He had asked these subjects to note down their naadi readings before the onset of the eclipse.  He then had them note down the changes they observed in their naadi readings, and the order in which these changes occurred during the progress of the eclipse.  Later he had presented them with water, darbha grass, iron and other such materials recommended for use during an eclipse.  He had asked them further to note the changes brought about in their naadi readings while being in physical contact with these materials (one at a time) - so that the effect of these materials could be noted. In the end, he had them all compare their findings.  Even though Sriranga Mahaaguru had not given any prior indication about what to expect or look for, most experiments showed similar trends in the changes to the naadi readings.  Pointing this to the participants, Sriranga Mahaguru said with a knowing smile, "You gleaned this information from the eclipse itself, didn't you?  These are not my words; they are the articulation of the eclipse itself, aren't they?" Thus he revealed the mystery about the eclipses. 

The following is an overview of the readings and the results from the experiments thus conducted.  The reading of the naadi started to slow down as the time of the eclipse drew near.  At the onset of the eclipse, the formerly clear differentiations in the vaata, pitta and sleshma naadis began to become blurred.  A little later, upon taking a closer look, the reading of the pitta naadi started to show distortions.  Such a distorted pattern during non-eclipse times would be symptomatic of indigestion or bone fever (asthi jvara).  Because the naadi showed sub-optimal functioning of the digestive system, the practice of not eating during an eclipse, and even of fasting for few hours before the onset of the eclipse seems meaningful.  A newspaper reported that several animals refused to eat food during the duration of the eclipse.  This is not surprising; their behavior is natural given the circumstance. 

The peculiar rhythms in naadi during an eclipse have a resemblance to rhythms observed in leprosy. In certain populations and cases a prolonged persistence of this rhythm may lead to health complications. Hence the precautionary measure of a bath at the end of an eclipse to restore normal rhythms has been advocated.

Metals are good conductors of electricity; wood and rubber are bad conductors. These insulators remain unaffected by the flow of electricity, and also prevent accidents to others.  Similarly there are a few objects that remain impervious to the effects of an eclipse, and render similar benefits to their users too.  Water, iron, darbha grass and gold are some of these objects.  Mere contact with these objects resets the naadi readings to the pre-eclipse normal state.  An understanding of this subtlety, led to the evolution of practices such as getting a bath (preferably with cold water) and giving an iron bangle to a pregnant woman.

Apart from these physical effects, the occurrence of an eclipse induces in the body, a state that lends itself to spiritual experiences. Even those experiences that are very difficult to achieve during normal prolonged periods may be easily achieved by the spiritual seeker even during a short duration of an eclipse. For this reason, the eclipse has been identified as a sacred time to pursue japa and dhyaana.

Therefore, these experiments conducted by Sriranga Mahaaguru prove that there are a number of practices surrounding the eclipse that stand on a sound basis arising out of the experimental understanding of eclipses and their effects based on Naadi Vijnaana.   While many practices are based on awareness, there may also exist a few other customs that have become a part of the popular observance due to the ignorance of people. Not all of these practices can be endorsed, but the more widespread ones such as bathing, fasting, meditation, tarpana and daana, the use of darbha and iron can all be affirmed as being consistent with the naadi vijnaana of eclipses. 

Salutations to the rishis of yore who understood so well the laws of Nature and advocated customs that are in harmony with the eternal truth.  Salutations too to Sriranga Mahaaguru who once again uncovered the deeper significance of these customs which were lost in the ravages of kaala (time), desha (place) and prakrti (vicissitudes of Nature).  Thoughts of gratitude towards Sriranga Mahaaguru fill the heart, for his are the words of Truth that make this article worthy of being offered at the feet of that entity which is the Absolute Truth.