Sunday, August 20, 2017

Rahu, The Eclipse Demon

In honor of the solar eclipse visible in the U.S. tomorrow (Monday, August 21... also the first day of classes!), I wanted to write up some notes here about Rahu, the eclipse demon of Indian mythology.

Rahu is a head that is rolling through space, but he was once an asura (a supernatural deity) known as Svarbhanu. During the great Churning of the Ocean of Milk to extract the amrita, elixir of immortality, Svarbhanu was pulling on the snake Vasuki with the other asuras, while the gods were pulling in the opposite direction.

(British Museum; illustration circa 1820)

When the amrita finally emerged from the churning, the gods and the asuras began to quarrel, so the god Vishnu took the form of a beautiful woman, Mohini, who said she would distribute the amrita to both the gods and the asuras... but she started with the gods, having no intention of sharing the amrita with the asuras.

The asura Svarbhanu realized what Mohini was up to, so he joined the gods, inserting himself between Surya (Sun) and Chandra (Moon), and that way he got a taste of the amrita.

When Mohini found out from Surya and Chandra what Svarbhanu had done, she manifested as Vishnu and used Vishnu's Sudarshana Chakra to slice off Svarbhanu's head. But because Svarbhanu had tasted the amrita, he did not die. Instead, his head became known as Rahu ("The Grabber"), and his body became known as Ketu, and in both forms he journeys through space.

Rahu is angry at the sun and the moon for having betrayed him to Mohini, so he chases after them. When he catches the sun, he swallows it, but the sun rolls right out his throat. The eclipse happens in the time that it takes for the sun (or moon) to vanish into Rahu's mouth and then come out his throat.

Here is a terra cotta sculpture of Rahu from India (LACMA); it dates to around the year 500:

The story of Rahu is known throughout South Asia; here is a statue of Rahu swallowing the sun from a temple in Thailand, Wat Srisathong: this Rahu has a body instead of being just a disembodied head:

And here is an image from Cambodia that shows Rahu swallowing the moon:

You can find out more about the mythology of eclipses in this National Geographic article: Solar Eclipse Myths From Around the World.

No comments:

Post a Comment