Anti-ScienceReligionScience

Eclipses and Omens

We’ve been getting a lot of mail at Skepchick HQ about the response to the solar eclipse in India. Several news outlets have covered the story that many Indians fear the eclipse as a bad omen.

According to the CNN article, pregnant women don’t want to give birth on the day of the eclipse and there are even some critically ill patients who don’t want to be in the hospital on that day.

In Hindu mythology, the two demons Rahu and Ketu are said to “swallow” the sun during eclipses, snuffing out its life-giving light and causing food to become inedible and water undrinkable.

Indian astrologers are going out of their way to make dire predictions about violence and fear that will rise in the wake of the eclipse.

Here’s what’s killing me, guys. The news outlets are covering these things almost like they are fact.  More after the fold.

For example, the CNN article quotes “remedial astrologer,” R.K. Sharma:

A solar eclipse, he says, weakens the sun god temporarily because of an encounter with dragon Rahu and leaves some cascading results everywhere.

“Bathing in holy rivers and ponds during this time thus helps protect health and develop positivism and greater will power,” he explained.

He explained? That’s an explanation?

I get the sense that media tends to focus on the crazy in stories like this because at some level, we *like* to read about how those crazy furriners believe all that ridiculous stuff.

When I checked the Times of India for eclipse stories, I found this article, which said:

For three minutes and four seconds on Wednesday morning, an ethereal blue-grey darkness descended on this eternal city of light. To the east across the Ganga, it was like God’s own eye flashing in the sky above, giving pilgrims, bathers and eclipse-watchers in the jam-packed ghats sights they are unlikely to forget in their lifetimes. While clouds blotted out the view in most other places in India, the century’s most spectacular total eclipse of the Sun was witnessed in full glory in holy Benaras.

And this article which talks about the difficulties with crowd control during the eclipse. It sure doesn’t *sound* like people were hiding from it.

This article too, talks about the various astronomers and stargazers in India who are ‘eclipse chasing’ and using the event to teach astronomy.

“Astronomy is the easiest way to explain science to common people – because they can easily see the moon and the stars,” said Sunita Mukherjee, an amateur astronomer and spokesperson for the Athenaeum. The eclipse flight is a splashy stunt for the group, but most of its work is done in schools, trying to interest kids in science through looking at the sky.

Are there superstitious people in India who are scared of the eclipse? Probably. But as with anything, let’s be skeptical and not assume it’s all of them!

Masala Skeptic

Maria Walters (a.k.a. Masala Skeptic) has spent a lot of time in ‘furrin parts,’ including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Pittsburgh. Although her passport is from India, she’s spent most of her adult life in the United States. She currently lives in Atlanta and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

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20 Comments

  1. I actually got asked by some of my clients, a number of whom are either from or have family in India, what did I think of the eclipse.

    I told them it was a spectacular thing to watch and I envied the view their friends and family were having. They laughed and agreed for the most part, but there was is some concern about panic.

    “People just need to stay rational and aware,” I said nerdily, “There’s nothing about this eclipse that’s supernatural.”

    “Oh, please! You can’t be sure of that!” growled a big Brooklyn-accented voice from a farther cube, “What if you’re wrong, and something happens?”

    I told him that I’d make myself at home in my backyard bunker while waiting for the mutant zombie hordes to take over.

    Nope, fear and irrationality aren’t a purely cultural thing…

    My Mars rocket ship is leaving as soon as I win a few lotteries and kidnap.. I mean, persuade some rocket scientists.

  2. I agree there’s a disturbing “laugh at the weird things these other people believe” undertone to a lot of these articles. Of course, start pointing out some of the ridiculous things those in the Western world hold as truth, and suddenly it doesn’t go over so well.

  3. What I don’t get is, how can an event that is precisely predictable centuries in advance be an omen?

    I you think eclipses cause bad things to happen, and furthermore you know when the eclipses are going to occur and where, why wait for the eclipse? Shouldn’t you be scared all the time?

    Comets, on the other hand. There’s an omen worthy of the name. Bad things have happened after every comet, so put that in your skeptical bong and smoke it.

  4. @Jen I agree there’s a disturbing “laugh at the weird things these other people believe” undertone to a lot of these articles. Of course, start pointing out some of the ridiculous things those in the Western world hold as truth, and suddenly it doesn’t go over so well.

    Isn’t that the truth. I was at church with my wife (it keeps her happy) on Easter this year and they showed this video linked below which basically tells a parable about a “man in a hole” who is offered help by all these various holy men. The intent is clearly to make you laugh that smug little laugh as you go, “Look at what foolish things all those other people believe.” Then they get to the part where “jesus” comes to help the man and suddenly the rules change and they don’t actually point out all the foolish things you have to believe in order to fit in with the most popular religion in the western world.

    http://tinyurl.com/b9eg8u

  5. watching the news here was bloody hilarious, the english channels were reasonably cool, showing images from chartered planes etc, but the local hindi channels etc, my god, dramatic ominous music, strange animations…red tinted videos of people looking at the sky, hehe…also some of our domestic help, the housemaids (all domestic help india are these women/men from nearby rural areas, heavily uneducated) were talking about what their local ‘tantric’ had told them…yeah me and my parents have always had a hard time explaining stuff to them, never ready to listen…

  6. I was in India this December. I got to take a boat ride on the Ganges River… the holiest of rivers.

    What most people don’t mention is the water is visibly polluted, and they throw dead bodies into the river.

    My youtube video shows the people bathing and washing clothes in the river: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QRaXbzU_drM

    If people want to believe silly things and it causes no harm, I’d have less of a problem with it. But when people bath in corpse-water, and consider it safe and clean because some god said so… they’re ignorance is getting into the self-harm area that I’m less OK with it.

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