[Disclaimer: This is *MY* explanation of the custom of not taking any food widely adopted by the Hindus during the solar and lunar eclipses. You are free to agree or disagree with my viewpoint. I don't claim this explanation to be perfect. This explanation is totally based on my beliefs and interpretations of events]
Yesterday, we witnessed the longest lunar eclipse of the century. With every eclipse, solar or lunar, the science vs superstition debate comes to the fore. It happens mainly because of the way households across India force an old custom of ‘not taking/preparing food during the eclipse period’. I don’t believe in this tradition simply because the reason cited for following it. The common reason cited is that the food taken during the eclipse period has ill effects on one’s health. It is really unbelievable and absurd as scientific studies have disproved such theories. In fact, many people take food during the occultation and they don’t face any health troubles. One doesn’t need to be a science genius to realise that one celestial body blocking light rays coming from another celestial body can’t cause any effect to the food prepared on the earth. Still people blinded by superstitions follow such rules without even asking for justification. Well, one can’t stop others from believing in (unfounded) traditions, but in the age of science trusting something without asking for valid reasons is stupid. I spent some time thinking about this particular tradition. Why did the religion include this in its to do/not to do list? Is this tradition wrong and based on no legitimate explanation?
I have a very different perspective about the religion. For me, religion is not about Gods but about people. I feel (and believe) that when people started forming societies, some of them assumed the position of the leaders of the society. They framed certain rules for other members so that everyone can lead a peaceful and prosperous life maintaining peace in the society. Those rules are effectively being called as religion. The then leaders framed rules considering the realities of that age. With changing realities of time, religion(which I defined as the set of rules that binds the society) accepts changes. What I define as religion is conceived as culture by many. To me, culture and religion are just two different names describing the same thing.
Now coming to the particular case of this belief followed during the eclipse period: so what explains having this rule in the religion? Is there any explanation at all? I guess, there is. Not one, but 3 reasons why there is nothing wrong in the tradition of not preparing and eating food during the eclipse.
Close interpretation of the case will make it clear that the reason cited by the followers is not the real reason. The tradition exempts the old, patients and children from fasting during the eclipse period. If religion believed that taking food in a particular period actually affects one’s health adversely, then this part of the society(old, children and patients) would have been the first whom the religion would have tried to save from the adverse effects. What is the message then? This tradition is actually an ‘experiment’ by the society which everyone need not follow. So the dubitable reason cited is false and the real reason for having this ‘experiment’ is something else. Following are the 3 reasons which I believe to be the real cause of having this rule:
1. To control diet: It is very well known how fasting helps one’s overall health. Fasting or to put it in better terms ‘not taking food occasionally’ is often prescribed by doctors too. Fasting once in a week/month is often adopted by people as part of their diet plan. Doesn’t the tradition fit into this scheme? If you see the list ‘Upavasas’ (fasting schedule) in Hindu religion, you can notice that there is at least one day every month when the religion expects you to fast (but doesn’t force you to do it). Eclipses are just another occasion the religion identified to promote this way of diet controlling. Many don’t take controlling diet seriously, perhaps that’s why the religion promoted it in the name of fasting during several occasions with eclipses being one of them.
2. To promote savings: This reason sounds more appropriate than the previous one. I’m sure many of you must have some idea about late prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s concept of weekly fasting to promote savings. Why can’t Hinduism’s(for that matter of any religion) idea of fasting be based on promoting the habit of savings among the society members?
3. To give people some time off from the busy life: It is also widely believed that no important work should be done during the eclipse period. Similarly, food is also not made during this period. So all the family members, male and female, actually get some time off from their busy schedule. Those were the times when there was no TV or internet to spend your spare time. So the spare time due to the no work time period might be used by people to interact with each other, to discuss problems of one’s family or of the society. Solar and lunar eclipses happen at least 5-6 times a year. So effectively it means 5-6 days off in a year for everyone to use that time in some good work for one’s family or the society.
I just tried to explain possible reasons fo which the rule is in force. The custom is not a superstition but the reason being shown is one. With the improvement of science, these days no one believes the stories of Rahu or Ketu eating the sun and the moon. People should also do away with the beliefs that are adverse to scientific thinking. There is no place of unjustified beliefs in the society. Not taking food during the solar or lunar eclipse can be followed by the people who want to follow it because it has its justifications. But not because of the beliefs that are unreasonable.
On that note, I leave you with some exciting pictures of yesterday’s lunar eclipse: