Eclipsing Modernity With Myth

Sun disappears in South Asia and the air is thick with drums, incense, drama

AS the moon drifted slowly across the sun, turning day into near-night, Parveen Goel sought redemption.

''I came to wash away my sins,'' smiles Mr. Goel, emerging in his underwear from Brahma's Tank, a lake 90 miles north of New Delhi. ''I asked God for success and achievement in life.''

Like Goel, a computer software developer, tens of thousands of pilgrims flocked to this ancient Hindu shrine to purify themselves Oct. 24 during the solar eclipse that cast its shadow over a swath of South and Southeast Asia. Daily life throughout much of Asia was disrupted as millions stayed away from work to dodge the eclipse's mythical ill effects.

With India pursuing economic reforms that have opened the country to new wealth and an onslaught of Western consumerism and TV culture, the gathering seemed to reaffirm the deep roots of India's ancient traditions of faith and mysticism. But it also raised the question of how resilient those traditions can remain amid the Western economic and cultural invasion.

''This type of religious festival is losing strength day by day,'' Goel laments. ''Some people are just more interested in money.''

Others are not as concerned.

''Hinduism has always essentially been a free-enterprise system. It says it is fine to be wealthy as long as you do it in the right way,'' Arvind Sharma, a professor of comparative religion at Canada's McGill University, said in a recent interview.

For the vast majority of those at Brahma's Tank, the day belonged to the eclipse, not lofty philosophical debate. Pilgrims from across northern India began arriving over the weekend at the complex of temples that surround the Tank. It is said to be Asia's largest man-made lake and marks the site of a crucial mythological battle between royal families whose contest for ascendency is told in the Mahabharata, one of Hinduism's greatest epics.

Throughout the day, cacophonies of prayers, hymns, and chants rose from the unbroken rivers of humanity flowing past the temples, prayer services, and astrology sessions. Many stopped to give handfuls of rice or flour to the legions of beggars and holy men who lined the roads leading to the lake. The air was thick with the thumping of drums, blasts of conch shells, and the pungent aromas of countless fires and the burning of incense.

As the moon began its two-and-one-half hour journey across the sun at about 7:30 a.m., politicians, businessmen and shop owners jostled with sari-bedecked mothers and children, impoverished villagers, and wandering holy men to get into the lake's brown waters. The eclipse's brief climax bathed the scene in an icy, crystalline glow and the warm breeze briefly cooled to a bone-chilling draught.

''This is a way for our people to reaffirm their connection with the universe,'' said Prem Kapoor, a film producer. ''When the sun is covered, it no longer sends energy to Earth. To compensate for that, we come to a sacred place to absorb its energy.''

It was India's first solar eclipse since Feb. 10, 1980, and the event took on added significance because it occurred a day after Diwali the Festival of Lights, which marks the start of the Hindu new year.

According to legend, all eclipses occur when the disembodied head of a demon devours the sun or the moon.

''An eclipse is a bad thing for the sun. He [the sun] is in pain,'' says Shiv Kumar, a priest by the lake, as he tried to explain the significance of the event to devout Hindus. Sitting before a small fire, he threw offerings of incense and rice into it and continued: ''The eclipse will lead to floods and violence and sickness. Pregnant women should not go out in it because they can be affected.''

Sandeep Sheran a computer programmer, scoffed at such prognostications.

''I believe in religion, but not such superstitions,'' he said.

For the privileged, the festival provided an opportunity to curry favor with the gods by passing out food and donations to needy pilgrims.

Bhushanji, a shop owner from Haryana state, and several of his neighbors bought $300 worth of sweets that they handed out to the throngs of faithful along the lake.

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