Millions of Americans recently saw the great American solar eclipse on August 21, 2017. People travelled across the country to various cities where the eclipse was visible in totality. Across millennia, the solar eclipse as a phenomenon has fascinated and terrified people. With accurate scientific information, the solar eclipse as a physical phenomenon is easily understood now. All of us know the basic reasons for the formation of the eclipse, but, I will recount it here. The sun is the center of the solar system, the earth revolves around the sun and the moon revolves around the earth. A solar eclipse happens when the moon comes in between the sun and the earth and blocks the sun momentarily from certain parts of the earth.
Humans are curious by nature and try to explain what they experience. The significance of the sun for the benefit of humanity was recognized early on, and the sun (Ra) was the supreme God in Egyptian, Greek and other pagan traditions. Science has shown that all life forms depend on the sun for their energy and food. The earliest Hindu scripture Rigveda acknowledges the life-giving capacity of the Sun in the Gayatri mantra which states –
Om bhūr bhuvaḥ svaḥ, tát savitúr váreṇ(i)yaṃ
bhárgo devásya dhīmahi, dhíyo yó naḥ prachodayāt
“Let us adore the supremacy of that divine sun, the God-head who illuminates all, who recreates all, from whom all proceed, to whom all must return, whom we invoke to direct our understandings aright in our progress toward his holy seat.”
Before the advent of telescopes, satellites, and space travel, people had no way of understanding the events that led to an eclipse. So people in the ancient world conjured up supernatural tales to explain the eclipse. Without any means to prove or disprove the assertions, the tales became more bizarre, and formed part of religious beliefs.
The most common explanation of the eclipse was that of a demon engulfing the sun. The ancient Chinese thought of an evil dragon living in the sky eating the sun, and they would create a big, noisy commotion during an eclipse to scare the dragon demon away. Other sun-eating demons were thought to be: a giant serpent (Mayans), giant bird (Hungarians), giant bear (Buryats in Siberia), and fire dogs (Koreans).
The most brilliant tale is from ancient Hindu mythology. Fiza Pirani describes it in the Atlanta Journal Constitution thus:, “Seeking immortality, the Hindu demon Rahu, stole a magic potion disguised as a god. As described in ancient Indian mythology, both the sun and moon watch the crime unfold and warn the god Vishnu. Eventually, as the tale goes, Vishnu decapitated Rahu so that his head would live forever, but his body would wither away and die. To get even, a scorned Rahu chases the moon and sun and every now and then he catches them and swallows them. But without a throat, the sun and the moon fall right through his head.” Thus the Sun is rescued by the grace of Hindu god Vishnu, and humanity is saved.
Many Hindu customs also believe that solar eclipses are dangerous to pregnant women and their unborn children. Pregnant women are warned from eating and going outside during the time of eclipse. Another commonly held belief is that food is unsafe during eclipse. Many Indians stay away from food during that time and eat only freshly prepared food after the eclipse is over. One common explanation given is that during the time of eclipse, the temperature drops and the number of germs in the air increases. This makes the food contaminated during eclipse. However, even if the argument is true, then all food consumed at night will also have the same effect as the sun is totally absent at night like a total ellipse. Needless to say, these beliefs are debunked by science.
As far as health risks during an eclipse are concerned, the NASA website had this to say. “There is no evidence that eclipses have any physical effect on humans. However, eclipses have always been capable of producing profound psychological effects. For millennia, solar eclipses have been interpreted as portents of doom by virtually every known civilization. These have stimulated responses that run the gamut from human sacrifices to feelings of awe and bewilderment. Although there are no direct physical effects involving known forces, the consequences of the induced human psychological states have indeed led to physical effects.”
The psychological effects of the eclipse are purely a creation of the human mind. As John Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven…” If you believe that the eclipse is a bad sign for you and that it is going to bring you misery, then the mind will itself create the misery and blame it on the eclipse. The superstition thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. This psychological distress can be removed through education and understanding. Unfortunately, some Indian religious organizations continue to spread superstition in the name of spirituality. My friend who is six months pregnant was advised by a spiritual guru to avoid the eclipse. She was asked to stay in a dark room, close all doors and windows, and close the dark curtains. Then she was asked to sit in a lotus position, and chant the Maha Mritunjaya Mantra and a Shiv Mantra to ward off all the evil spirits associated with the eclipse for the safety of her and her unborn baby. She works in the tech sector and had to go to work that day. Since the eclipse happened around 2:45 p.m. in Atlanta, she could not go to a quiet and dark room, and was not able to chant the mantra as she was talking to a client over the phone. She became anxious, depressed, and fearful for her unborn baby. She will now blame this psychological distress to the ill effects of the eclipse, whereas in reality, this stress was created by her guru’s advice.
A true teacher will take you towards the ultimate truth, enlightenment and peace as codified in the Brhadranyaka Upanishad:
asato ma sadgamaya, tamaso ma jyotirgamaya
mrtyorma amrtam gamaya, om shanti shanti shanti
Lead me from the untruth to the truth; Lead me from darkness to light.
Lead me from death to immortality, Om Peace Peace Peace.
There does remain one significant health hazard during an eclipse. This happens when one looks at the sun directly with the naked eye. This can cause retinal damage, and vision problems can range from temporary to permanent loss of vision. However, special eclipse glasses were bought by many people to view the eclipse in a safe manner. Previous generations viewed the eclipse as being a supernatural event or an act of God. But, with scientific consensus and reasoning, the solar eclipse is a safe phenomenon and poses no health hazards to humans, except for possible eye damage if precautions are not followed while viewing.
Knowing this truth will provide peace of mind for all future solar and lunar eclipses and protect against all myths and superstitions.
Solar Eclipse Picture: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SolarEclipseCorvallis_Aug_21_2017.jpg
Dr. Panchajanya Paul, MD, ABIHM, ABPN, FAPA – is an American Board certified child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist. He is a diplomat of the American Board of Integrative and Holistic Medicine. He is a fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. He holds adjunct faculty positions at Emory University School of Medicine; University of Georgia & Georgia Regents University, and University of Central Florida School of Medicine. He is also a freelance writer who writes and works in Atlanta.