The Eternal Eclipse

India EclipseBy Nitaisundara dasa

Yesterday Asia experienced the longest total solar eclipse of the coming century. Many of the prime sites for viewing the eclipse were in India; one of the best locations was Varanasi, a sacred town on the banks of the Ganges. Thousands of Indians traveled there and elsewhere to observe the event and perform appropriate rituals with the hope of attaining good fortune and driving away sins. A solar eclipse can, however, represent far more than the acquisition of fortune or the absolution of sin.

The typical meaning of dharma is performing pious rituals in accordance with scripture and one’s karmic propensities with the hope of advancing one’s material situation. This is the dharma that most of the thousands of Hindus undoubtedly engaged themselves in yesterday when honoring the rare and exciting eclipse. But looking deep into the Vedic canon, we find a very charming connection between dharma and the solar eclipse.

The Bhagavad-Gita, a primary text for most Hindu sects, takes place on the very “field of dharma,” beginning as it does with Dhrtarastra’s following inquiry:

Assembled on the field of dharma,
O Sanjaya, on the field of the
Kurus, eager to fight, what did
my people and the Pandavas do?1

Dharmaksetra, the field of dharma—also known as Kuruksetra—has been highlighted as sacred in various sruti texts, and the avatara of Visnu, Parasurama, is said to have performed sacrifices there. But the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition has presented a revolutionary explanation of Kuruksetra’s sanctity—one that ties the solar eclipse to the heart of dharma and divinity.

The Bhagavata Purana has defined dharma—rather essentially—as that which pleases God.2 Nine cantos later, during its climax, the Bhagavata narrates how Krishna, the inhabitants of Dvarka, and the villagers of Vrindavana all traveled to Kuruksetra more than fifty years before the Bhagavad-gita was spoken to observe an eclipse and bathe in the sacred lake Rama-hrada. This was the first time Krishna had seen the residents of Gokula, including his beloved milkmaidens, since his departure to Mathura some forty years earlier. After meeting with various members of the cowherd community, as well as Nanda and Yasoda, Krishna met with Radharani and the gopis in a secluded place. It is in this private place that Krishna forever tied the eclipse of the sun by the moon to the eclipse of God’s divinity by his devotees’ love, for it is here that Krishna spoke the following words to Radharani and her handmaidens:

My dear gopis, everyone considers themselves fortunate if they possess devotion for me, and by that they achieve an eternal life of nectar. But I must admit that I consider myself most fortunate because I have come in touch with the wonderful affection found in your hearts.3

Krishna thus revealed the unparalleled love of the gopis, and Radharani in particular, admitting that he has been subjugated by the unfathomable degree of their love.4 The Vrindavana Goswamis have reasoned strongly that this type of love, that has the power to conquer over God, is the most pleasing to God, and therefore it is the most dharmic. It is prema-dharma.

A solar eclipse is more than a spectacular phenomenon or an opportunity to behave righteously and piously. An eclipse takes us to the zenith of dharma, where the majestic, sunlike Godhead, Surya-Narayana, blacks out in the bewilderment of love and becomes Syama, only to emerge brighter than ever as Gaura, illuminating the whole wonderstruck world.

India Asia Eclipse

  1. 1.1 []
  2. 1.2.13 []
  3. SB 10.82.44 []
  4. See Cc. Madhya 8.89 and 13.160, as well as the Bhagavata commentaries of Sanatana Goswami and Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura. []


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19 Responses to The Eternal Eclipse

  1. What a nice article and meditation, I was reading a debate going on in an editorial in the Times of India about “Why the eclipse is wasted on India”, because Indians are for the most part fearful because the eclipse as it is thought of as inauspicious. It turned into a debate of science vs. superstition, and left me feeling both sides missed the mark.
    Thankyou for showing the Vaishnava’s vision of the inner meaning of this awesome event, it’s just what I had been looking for.

    • Yes, this article does a wonderful job of highlighting the GV perspective. The poetry of the last paragraph made me swoon.

  2. Even vaisnavas in our tradition have been fearful of eclipses. Chaitanaya Mahaprabhu was born on eclipse day and people were chanting mantras to counteract the ill effects of the eclipse. I don’t know how to present the vedic take on the eclipse to contemporary people.

  3. I see it as a way to get general population focused on a spiritual activity out of fear. It is not hard to see the eclipse as something inauspicious. The sages of the past used that fear for something positive.

  4. Syamasundara Dasa

    There is a lot of superstition among Hindus, no doubt. However, to reduce the import of an eclipse to just that is a little reductive. The sun is such a prominent presence. For its position and function in our life it stands for light, life, knowledge and consciousness. The Brahma gayatri can be interpreted in many ways just based on that. The Sun stands to the universe as the soul to the body, and ultimately consciousness to matter.
    Even for the less philosophical ones, sun means light (itself, and by extension also knowledge) and life. Just like the opposite of all the above is undesirable even for the most conditioned of souls, it seems obvious that the idea of something eclipsing the Sun (or Moon) is at least inauspicious.

    • I liked your reply, Shyam. There’s a threat for devotees who consider themselves more thoughtful to sometimes go too far with relativizing stuff. Being thoughtful doesn’t automatically equal trusting one’s pratyaksa (sense-perception) and anumana (reasoning) above all. As much as it’s good to have a cool head and be aware of superstitition, I personally don’t want Gaudiya Vaishnavism to turn into some protestant form of Hinduism.

    • Since the idea of an object depriving us of the light from the Sun for a relatively short time invokes the notion of profound inauspiciousness, how much more inauspicious is the night, when we are deprived of sunshine for many hours?

      Yes, both night and the eclipse are considered inauspicious for spiritual and other purposes, but we need to keep our sense of proportions in place.

      • Syamasundara Dasa

        This is really unclear. Since you conclude by advocating a sense of proportion, by logic one should surmise that you actually think that night is many times more inauspicious than an eclipse, but anyone can reason that people experience the passages from day to night and back to day since birth, whereas an eclipse has much more of an impact on a viewer. This from a mere pratyaksa point of view. If we look to sastra, we learn that the night is under the mode of ignorance, ignorance given by sleep and lack of light, but also that the gunas are in a constant universal maypole dance, and one prevails on top of the others at some point or another, only to let the other ones prevail in turn. Night is necessary for sleep, the circadian cycle of animals and plants, and many of the rhythms of this planet are based on the alternating of day and night. Plus, in most nights the moon is there to shed light and influence everything, from our moods to our bodily functions, to the growth of vegetables and the mating of animals, just like the sun.
        There are huge cosmic forces involved in the angulation of the celestial bodies around us, only, we take them for granted because they occur in a cyclic way and without our knowledge, especially nowadays. An eclipse is exceptional in many ways, and so is its influence.

        • One can analyze the inauspicious influence of various astronomical events by looking at crime statistics for that time period. That is what I had in mind as a sense of proportion. It is a pragmatic approach. Has the world been swamped with horrific events due to the solar eclipse? I did not notice that at all.

          • Syamasundara Dasa

            Well, it’s not exactly something one would notice, given how infrequent an eclipse is. It would have to be researched, like I just did, and it appears that triple eclipses have been witnesses to WWI and WWII, as well as Kuruksetra, the fall of Dvaraka and the demise of the Yadu.

            Check out these links:

            http://www.star4cast.com/index.asp?page=eclipse.asp

            http://www.dnaindia.com/scitech/report_does-a-triple-eclipse-foretell-a-disaster_1267452

            In any case, you seem to be referring to the world of things. Earthquakes, tsunamis, wars and famines all affect the bodies that conditioned souls inhabit, but as we know, the body is always dead.
            I was referring to the world of the atma, and I was talking in more archetypal terms.
            Swami Tripurari says that we spend time beautifying ourselves in front of the mirror, because the self is in fact beautiful, and we want that to be expressed in our bodies where we identify our selves at present. Similarly, we are repulsed by death because the jiva is a unit of eternal life, and the concept of death is antithetical to everything the souls stands for.
            In the same way, just like the soul gives life to the body, the sun gives life to our world. In astrology the Sun stands for the self, well, mostly for the ego, or one’s concept of self. So, to see the sun covered by shadow, and all it stands for, leaves a bad impression in the mind (presided over by the Moon, which has quite a significant place in eclipses).
            The world is in the mind, after all. All those events that are considered as good or bad omens in the Vedic outlook refer to the mind and its world of goods and bads. To meet a cow on one’s path is auspicious for example, because a cow means milk, or in other words prosperity, food, (motherly) love, fertility, all concepts related to life, or the soul, and ultimately because they are dear to Krsna, who gives life to the soul.
            Seeing something else on one’s path, like, say, a vulture or a crow, may bring the mind to the exact opposite concepts, and towards a direction that’s different than the soul’s. That’s really all there is to it.

          • Night time does have more crime! But I don’t know about solar eclipse.

  5. Good point. Do you have a similar point for explaining the lunar eclipse as well? It can be helpful.

  6. Everything is contaminated during lunar eclipse according to the hindus.

    • I would be interested in hearing the source of that idea. Contaminated by what?

      I can see how it would be disconcerting for humanity’s source of light and knowledge to be overshadowed for a short time, but “everything is contaminated” seems a bit much.

      • I have taken an excerpt from this website that mentions even SP talking a lot about impurity of eclipses etc. My faith is not deep enough to accept these statements without a grain of salt.
        http://krishnascience.com/Vaisnava%20Library/Astrology/Solar%20and%20lunar%20eclipses.htm

        QUESTION:Dear deity experts,
        Please accept my humble obeisances. All glories to Srila Prabhupada.In a few days (August 11, 1999) there will be a complete and total solar eclipse in South-West England. Here at Bhaktivedanta Manor the eclipse will not be total, but around 90%. It takes place around 10AM and lasts for a few
        hours.
        In India I know temples often close during times of the eclipse.

        ANSWER:

        This is correct.

        There is no cooking done, no eating done.

        Also no-one should try to bring a child into the world at this time.

        Sleeping is to be avoided.

        Even study of shastra is not recommended according to the shastra HBV cited

        by Gopal Bhatta and Sanantan Gos in their Dik Darshani Tika.

        Pregnant women should not look at an eclipse, nor should they sew or thread

        garlands during this time or according to Ayurved the child can be

        physically and mentally impared with hair-lip and internal problems.

        One should not associate with non-believers, atheists, agnostics, etc.

        Rather one should as much as possible follow the example of the devotees

        prior to the appearance of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, by taking shelter of

        the Holy name of the Lord.

        Sometimes confusion is there about doing yajnas etc., at the time of an

        eclipse, but it is recommeded such things are done afterwards – as in the

        case of those in days of yore who would assemble at Kurukshetra for a Lunar

        or Solar eclipse and then perform an Ashwameda yajna etc., and feed

        thousands of people – it was done after the eclipse.

        The time of perumbra on either side of coming and going is about four hours

        in total, although the actual eclipse (full umbra) will only be for two or

        so minutes in each place it passes through. So for your area you will need

        to find the time when the perumbra begins, and when it finishes.

  7. I watched the total solar eclipse that occurred here in Hawaii in 1991 and remember getting quite sick and nauseous for two weeks afterwards. Other than that I’ve never really noticed any effects from viewing solar or lunar eclipses although there may be subtle ones. In any case it wouldn’t keep me away from witnessing major astronomical events of nature, which always remind me of Krsna anyway. I like the idea of remembering Krsna’s meeting with the gopis during the solar eclipse and His appearance as Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu during the lunar. That along with chanting, bathing and fasting should prevent any inauspiciousness reactions. Staying inside, refusing to witness, and closing down the Deity worship seems a little too extreme to me!

  8. Bijaya Kumara Das Brian D Grover

    How nice a discription of the fathomable love of Krsna. Thanks for the commentary Niti

  9. Those guys with the beards and funky glasses look like happy campers.

  10. Dear Nitaisundara,

    In my opinion your wrote an interesting article. The final paragraph was, to me, the best part where you made an interesting interpretation of the Sun with a lot of bhakti.

    Here is my understanding of the eclipses, jotted down quickly…

    A solar eclipse happens when the Sun, Moon and Rahu OR Ketu line up together in one astrological spot. The Sun and Moon are the “luminaries” or the two sources of consciousness and awareness. They bring “light” to darkness thus enabling awareness. I.E. they are “consciousness.”

    It is understood that the pure Sun, without any of the other planets is the pure soul. But when the Sun interacts with the Moon and then with the rest of the planets, the Sun represents AHAMKARA or “false ego.”

    The Moon is the reflection of the Sun’s light into the darkness of night. As such it represents MANAS or “subjective being.”

    The Sun and Moon form an astrological unit, and the vedic calendar (“panchanga”) results. Also, speaking in terms of yoga, the Sun alone is the crown chakra, while the Sun-Moon unit is the aajna chakra (“third eye”).

    Anyway – what is Rahu/Ketu? They are the forces what cause change. Rahu causes change and evolution from the inside towards the outside. And Ketu causes change and evolution from the outside towards the inside.

    Now, interpret the combination of the three and you will see why eclipses are so important!

    They represent a very fragile time, when a fundamental change is being conceived to the most important thing in life: our awareness of the world. They can cause civilization to advance or decay. That is why auspicious activities during an eclipse are essential practices noted throughout scriptural history.

    Yours,
    Vraja

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