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Monday, December 3, 2012

A Tale of Two Eclipses

A solar eclipse is one of the coolest spectacles the nature can offer us. I mean, this is not the useless coolness one typically associates with a chihuahua, but serious coolness that reminds you of Karan Kapoor in a Bombay Dyeing commercial.

There were two solar eclipses mentioned in the epics. The first, an early morning one; the second, a late afternoon one. Both eclipses were crucial, instrumental in turning the course of the epics; it is up to the astronomers to find out the exact period of the epics from tracking the solar eclipses in known history.

The Ramayan eclipse:
Epics typically involve gory battles. They are meant to have battles - it adds to their macho effect. They would have become Mills and Boon otherwise.

Ramayan, the older, holier and more classical of the two epics, involves lots and lots of gore; not the Ramanand Sagar-style gore involving two arrows meeting and one disappearing, but the kind that would make Hannibal Lecter cringe in horror.

On one of those blood-infested days there was a major fight between Indrajit and the Ayodhya brethren. Both brothers were great warriors, and fought hard in a well-matched battle, and the crimson that drenched the beach of Lanka was reminiscent of a hard-fought La Tomatina. Indrajit, however, had the advantage of fighting from behind the clouds, and soon brought down the two brothers. They never stood a chance.

The hapless monkeys and bears that assisted Ram and Laksham soon fell to Indrajit as well. Their lack of a long-distance weapon meant that they were no match for Indrajit. One by one they fell, the greatest descendants of simian and ursine origins - to the piercing arrows of the great demon warrior.

Soon, all that was left of Ram's gargantuan army were the two immortals - Hanuman and Vibhishan. They, taking the obvious advantage of their immortality, decided to go on a door-to-door survey to check whether anyone was alive.

Jambaban, despite studded with arrows, was in his senses for some inexplicable reason. The great bear - who went on to become the father-in-law of Krishna in due course of time - hung on to the last moments of his life. Immediately he instructed Hanuman to go to Mount Gandhamadan (which is located somewhere close to Rameshwaram) to fetch the four life-saving medicines - Bishalyakarani (to extract weapons and heal weapon-inflicted wounds), Mritasanjibani (to restore life to the dead), Subarnakarani (to restore the original complexion) and Sandhani (to heal fractures and to find - and join - severed limbs).

Take a moment to ponder on this: you're saving lives, you're restoring severed limbs, you're healing wounds - and amidst all that - you're also concerned about your COMPLEXION? Puts things into their true perspective, that.

I can almost imagine a conversation:
Doctor, will I live?
I think there is a 50-50 chance.
Doctor, will the injuries heal?
I think they may not, but let us still keep our fingers crossed.
Will you need to amputate both my legs?
Sir, that will be the only way you can survive gangrene. 
But I will still retain my baby-pink complexion, correct?

Let us move on, though. Let us venture deep into Hanuman's nocturnal adventures: Jambaban had mentioned that Hanuman was supposed to bring back the herbs before Sun's first rays kissed the shores of Lanka. Hanuman, already immortalised for his record-breaking leap to Lanka, took a leap back in the opposite direction: he crossed the Palk Strait again, and landed on top of the Gandhamadan with an incredible accuracy.

This is when confusion reigned supreme. Hanuman, already crippled by the fact that it was very, very dark  out there (someone had once explained to me that a solar eclipse is always preceded by a new moon night), was also not the greatest expert in the field of botany. Hence, he decided to uproot the entire mountain and carry it back with him.

This is somewhat similar to the following scenario:
O mighty System Admin, can you please, please delete the file My_Threesome_With_Cyborg_and_Giant_Panda.avi from my laptop?
Where exactly is it located?
I'm not sure, but you can find it somewhere.
I could not find it, so I have formatted your laptop instead.

It was a solution that efficient. Anyway, by the time Hanuman lifted the mountain in his left hand (he always carried a mace in his right; he looked more photogenic that way) and took off for Lanka, Indrajit had informed Raavan of his feat: Raavan had summoned Surya, and had asked him to rise early that day, defying all sorts of calendars.

Surya, as mortally afraid as any illuminant God ought to be of a ten-headed force, decided to heat up things. He left the smug warmth of his bed, drifted towards the east sky and threatened to rise. Hanuman, slightly startled by the early rays, pounced on Surya - and encountered him. With both hands occupied, Hanuman accommodated Surya in his armpit (my guess would be the right armpit; the left was held aloft with the mountain on it).

The rest, as they say, is history. Hanuman reached on time (he obviously did, with Surya tucked smugly in a somewhat smelly alcove) and restored the health and COMPLEXIONS of Ram's army; he also replaced the mountain and Surya in their rightful positions, and everyone was happy.

As is probably obvious from the narration, Hanuman had caused the first recorded incident of solar eclipse; his was the armpit that helped create history. If only the astronomers were interested in some research...

The Mahabharat eclipse:
(yes, I'm aware that Premendra Mitra has mentioned this)
The Mahabharat, as we all are aware of, is a tale way, way bloodier than The Ramayan. It's an amazing saga involving lots of curious-minded people, including a lot of non-trivial stuff, as mentioned in the opening paragraph of this blog post.

The Mahabharat had a battle with effects more sinister than the Ramayan. An entire nation's sex ratio took a major dip over a span of eighteen days, and it took a few thousand years and some serious lack of family planning to bring things back on track.

I have written at lengths on the most eventful day of The Great War earlier, and would not indulge in another drone. I seldom indulge on encores (unless it does not involve Fardeen Khan), and this would not be an exception, either.

However, I must insist on repeating the fact that the entire mission was a useless one: when someone kills your son, you kill that person: you do not kill the checkpost guards involved. What's more, you do set yourself targets, however unrealistic, but you do not promise to kill yourself if you cannot fulfill it within the stipulated time.

Even though Arjun cut through the Kaurav forces as a speed as breakneck as Kanti Shah movies typically do through the brains of unsuspecting heathens, he could not break the final barrier. The relatively inferior Karna (read here for a research) held him at bay, and he was well-supported by a phalanx of rathis and maharathis, including big names like Ashwatthama, Kripacharya, Shalya, Duryodhan, Kritabarma and Karna's son Brishasen.

Jayadrath must have felt smug and warm in this amazing protection. To his credit, he had been fighting quite ferociously from behind the protection as well, piercing Arjun with his arrows. Duryodhan had asked his entire army to focus on Jayadrath's protection, and in the dying moments of the day, Krishna realised that it was, well, time.

Fortunately for the Pandavs, Krishna's research stretched far beyond weapons, women and gambling: he had  a profound knowledge of astronomy as well - a subject Arjun and the Kauravs, however, knowledgeable, had been careless enough to flunk.

Krishna knew there was a solar eclipse on the brink; he also knew how to capitalise on it. As soon as the Sun (who was, if you remember, Karna's father) was covered by the Moon, Krishna spread the news that it was, indeed, sunset.

The Kauravs rejoiced, none more than Jayadrath - who actually was moronic enough to peek out to check whether the Sun had indeed set. Arjun took this opportunity to behead Jayadrath. There was a catch in this, though:

Jayadrath had a father. No, that isn't the catch. Jayadrath's father Briddhakshatra had prayed to Shiv and had got a strange boon in return: the person who would be responsible for letting Jayadrath's loose head fall on the ground would not be spared either - his own head would be split into a hundred pieces immediately.

Briddhakshatra, despite emotionally true and committed to his son, did not make a foolproof plan to save him. I guess he was logically challenged to some extent, which might be evident from the following diagram:
The Briddhakshatra grid
The illuminated Krishna, however, was aware of the various cases mentioned above. He had figured out that since X had to be Arjun, and since 3 was not an option, it had to be either 4 or 6. Exactly why Krishna asked Arjun to carry Jayadrath's decapitated head to Briddhakshatra's lap eludes me (I would have possibly have preferred to place it on Karna's shoulder or something), but that was precisely what Arjun did.

Briddhakshatra, not brought up on Brainolia, had forgotten about his illogical boon completely, stood up in shock and the rest, as they say, is history. And a gory one, too. It is rumoured that they could never put the parts of the head together again, which was a tad unfortunate. The old man, being a Sindhi, was possibly rather handsome.

Anyway, amidst all the confusion, the Sun shone again, The Sun, with the stink of Hanuman's sweaty armpits fading with time in its extreme heat, came out again. With Jayadrath fallen and some time still left for sunset, the Kauravs felt tricked. But if they were astronomically challenged, they had only themselves to blame.

The war continued deep into the night; there was more bloodshed, more tension, more drama, more of everything. But that is another story altogether, something I have written once about, and have vowed not to repeat.

Now, where are the astronomers?


  1. When it comes to mythology, you are invincible. I loved it.

  2. The Jayadrath problem has too many solutions. Arjun could have killed him by piercing him to the chariot so that no head fell to the ground. I guess he wanted to rid the world of Briddhakshatra. I suppose death by hanging was not thought of in those days?

    This story has always confused me. How long was the eclipse that Krishna had time to spread news around and all that.

    One epic question. Shalya ... was he not the guy who fought with Bheeshma at the time when Bheesma was abducting the three As? How was he still around fighting this war? Or is Shalya simply the king of some kingdom ?

    1. No, that was Shalwa, a completely different entity from Shalya. If you can read Bangla, Shalya (the one in the war) is শল্য, Shalwa (of Amba fame) is শাল্ব: note the difference.

      Shalya was from Madra (remember Madri?). Shalwa was from Shaubha. Both places were in Punjab, though - rather close to each other.

    2. Aha. Thanks for clearing that up! I can read Bangla on the computer without any trouble.

      "Shalya was from Madra (remember Madri?)."

      and fought for the Kauravas?

      Well, hardly a question to ask since Duryodhan had Bheeshma, Drona, Kripa and company fighting for him in any case.

    3. Yes. Shalya was Madri's brother. So why did he fight for the Kauravs? I promise a post on that soon as well.

  3. My guess is that Maybe you were studying the epics for answers to some existential questions,but not finding any answers,twisted the facts to come up with such a post.
    I did enjoy the post but somehow it all seems allegorical that i can't just comprehend.

    1. Er, what facts did I twist? Thanks for the compliment, though. The eclipses did happen - and we can actually detect the real time of occurrence of the events if our astronomers have a go.

  4. It is an exemplary piece. Toooooo good.

  5. Awfully awfully good. Humour and profound logic abound. :-D

  6. I loved it. When it comes to mythology, you ARE invincible. (Sorry Diptee for lifting your words. But that's EXACTLY how I feel).

  7. Boy! Someone has really read the epics with a fine comb

  8. Aha - so Hanuman caused an eclipse! I didn't know that / think of it in that way.

    Very nice post. And a good point - why did Arjun not send the head off to Karna? A boomerang-arrow if Karna was indeed standing ahead of Jayadratha. And yes, it's ironic that Karna's father played a role in preserving Arjun's life.