Posted on April 2, 2010 in Sci-Tech

Shweta Karwa:

As the old wives’ tales have it, pregnant women shouldn’t go out during an eclipse (no specifications on partial or total). Also they shouldn’t touch their belly during the eclipse else their child would be born with cuts on its body, or without a cleft lip, or the child would be blinded. Well what about the children who are born with cleft lips and their mothers did not go out during eclipses? There are many who do not really believe in these stories, but “just in case” follow them. All I can say is that these pregnant women have missed out on a beautiful and intriguing natural phenomenon.

In India, they say an eclipse is a time to ward off evil (Rahu and Ketu swallow the sun). So people pray for release of the sun and then, for some reason, take a bath or a dip in holy waters. No eating food till the eclipse lasts, no getting out of the house, no looking up in the sky. So what is the justification?They justify not eating food by saying that the atmosphere gets polluted because of no electromagnetic radiation for those 2 minutes. But whatever happened to the 12 hours of night which have none of the electromagnetic radiation either?

Many believe that an eclipse is an omen of some natural disaster or the death or downfall of a ruler. Another pervasive myth involves an invisible dragon or other demon that devours the Sun during an eclipse. Many cultures have also developed superstitions about how to counteract the effects of an eclipse. The Chinese would produce great noise and commotion (drumming, banging on pans, shooting arrows into the sky, and the like) to frighten away the dragon and restore daylight. In India people may immerse themselves in water (cases have been seen with sand too) up to their necks, believing this act of worship will help the Sun and Moon defend themselves against the dragon. In Japan, the custom is to cover wells during an eclipse to prevent poison from dropping into them from the darkened sky. And as recently as the last century, the Chinese Imperial Navy fired its ceremonial guns during an eclipse to scare off the invisible dragon.

Incidentally, temples have been found closed during the eclipses as sadhus chanted mantras to ward off the evil energies of the eclipsed sun or to avoid other catastrophes. Clearly the Gods being out of bounds, business deals have been seen to be put off, and people stay back at home to avoid “the negativity”. A couple of years back, even a State Assembly closed its business well before 4:45 pm, the time when the eclipse was supposed to have started.

How can people be so ignorant in this information age…? What are schools doing? What is the media doing?

So many superstitions are born out of not understanding why something happened and then out of curiosity correlation are created with some significant happening during that period. Science can come to the rescue here if the people permit. Superstitions like the ones around eclipses only rob people of the joy of observing a beautiful phenomenon but there are other superstitions which have a potential to harm. It is a shame to see the power science fail in front of the might of myths.

Shweta Karwa is a thrid year chemical technology student at the Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai.