The longest solar eclipse in this century is scheduled to become visible on the west coast of India at dawn on Wednesday (NASA has images and charts showing where the eclipse will be visible and when).
The event is drawing scientists and eclipse enthusiasts from around the world, eager for a truly once in a lifetime experience. But for millions of Indians, the rare astronomical event is a source of dread.
The pending eclipse has become a stage where fact and myth, modern science and Hindu mythology are competing for public acceptance. Take this the headline in a India Today article: Rationalists out to eclipse astrologers.
For outsiders, the extent to which superstition still figures in personal decisions may be a surprise.
For many Indians of all classes, astrology is an active and vital part of everyday life. Couples consult astrologers about auspicious days to marry. The days deemed to be most fortuitous can sometimes seem like citywide holidays, with scores of marriages filling the city with the wail of brass bands and the thump of fireworks – both common features at Indians' routinely elaborate wedding ceremonies.
But astrology also has a darker side.
Indian soothsayers have warned that pregnant women should cover the windows and stay indoors on Wednesday, lest the dark forces associated with the eclipse deform their unborn children. Astrologers in India have warned of impending terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and civil wars too.
Thousands of years of mythology
Hindu mythology blames eclipses on the demon Rahu – who is variously depicted as a snake or a dragon or a disembodied head – who swallows the sun. (The one common thread of depictions of Rahu is that they’re all scary whether here, here or here). But many Indians take their superstition to extremes, with some doctors willing to help expectant parents even delay labor to avoid birth on such a day.
To be sure, India's critics of superstition, locally known has rationalists, have also been out in force in the nation's press in recent days. Amit Bhattacharya, writing in the Times of India, chides his countrymen for turning a glimpse at "the beauty that awaits us in the universe" into a day of fear.
"It’s fear that drives us to fast during an eclipse lest the mal-influence of the sunless period is ingested with the food. It’s fear again that prompts thousands of expectant Indian mothers, and fathers, to make use of medical science techniques to ensure they don’t give birth on the ‘inauspicious’ day of the eclipse,'' he writes.
"Three thousand years of lived tradition. A spiritual heritage that’s the envy of the world. One would have thought such wisdom would enable us to assimilate and imbibe modern knowledge in a more holistic manner... instead, we spread fear. If Shani doesn’t get you, Rahu must."
On Wednesday, Hindu temples will be closed, and won't be open until after they've been "cleansed." The planetariums and observatories will be open.
That sort of says it all.