Svarbhānu [ स्वरभानु ] (a.k.a. Rahu & Ketu)

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Area(s) Reported: Out in the Solar System
Date(s) Reported: First mentioned around 1500-1200 BCE

In the Hindu mythology of India, tales are told of a being named Svarbhānu who is described as belonging to a group of dieties called 'Asuras'... sometimes translated as "demons," though in many cases it might be more accurate to just say 'troublemakers.' And Svarbhānu was definitely a troublemaker.

The first mention of Svarbhānu is in the Rig Veda, one of the sacred texts for the Hindu religion which is dated back to sometime between 1500 and 1200 BCE... so around 3000 years old(!). In this text we find that Svarbhānu used magic to render the world dark by piercing Surya [the sun] with gloom. Luckily for everyone, a holy man named Atri who was possessed of special abilities bestowed upon him by the god Indra managed to locate Surya and heal him, and to vanquish Svarbhānu's magic as punishment. Other texts expand on the story a bit, making it clear that Svarbhānu also attacked Chandra [the moon]... basically, anything that could light up the world.

You would think that after all that Svarbhānu would probably try to stay out of trouble more... but no. Apparently the Asuras, though powerful, are missing one element that the Devas [essentially, the good gods] possessed, and that Svarbhānu craved: immortality.

Tricking the Tricksters

Svarbhānu's chance came when the Devas, due to a curse, needed to renew their immortality. To do so required Amrita -- the drink of immortality -- made from the foam of the sea. But the Devas, despite their numbers and power, were not enough to churn the sea to get the Amrita alone; so they had to rely on help from the Asuras to get the sea foaming correctly. It was a tense little activity, as the Asuras were just waiting to get their hands on the Amrita; but the Devas had a trick ready for the moment, and whisked away the precious fluid to a safe place, where all the Devas got a drink. Of course, there was one Deva more than there should have been... Svarbhānu had disguised himself as a Deva and had been given a drink of the Amrita along with the others.

This, however, is where Svarbhānu's past behavior caught up to the Asura, for he was recognized by the two Devas with the most experience dealing with him... Surya the Sun, and Chandra the Moon. They told the other Devas and, before Svarbhānu knew there was a problem, one of the Devas had cut off the Asura's head. But Svarbhānu had already had the Amrita, and was therefore immortal; so both the Asura's head and body survived this punishment as separate beings. This was a bit of a mess, as you might imagine.

It was decided the two new immortal troublemakers would be set in the sky as planets, where they were out of the way and so everyone knew where they were. Svarbhānu's head was re-named Rahu... which is the planet we call Neptune; and Svarbhānu's body was re-named Ketu... which is the planet we call Uranus. Rahu has proven to be a vengeful planet; for now the Asura's head chases Surya and Chandra, and swallows them whenever it can... of course they just slip out the neck, so -- gross -- but no harm done. However, it was customary for people in India to make lots of noise when they saw an eclipse starting -- shouting, banging drums, blowing horns -- to try and stop the whole thing from having to happen to start with.

Early Astronomy

Interestingly enough, an article in the Calcutta Review from 1850 raises an odd question. In studying a Hindu treatese that speaks of ways to predict eclipses, the researcher ran across this interesting note:

An eclipse may be expected in those months, when the Sun is in or near to the sign in which Rahu or Kethu is. If in those months, a conjunction of the sun and moon occur in the day-time, there may be a solar eclipse; but if an opposition occur at night, there may be a lunar eclipse.

So there was a known pattern for predicting possible eclipses, based on the movements of the planets Neptune and Uranus... aka 'Rahu' and 'Ketu.'

So, what came first? Did someone notice this pattern for predicting eclipses and then make a legend to explain it? Or did someone make a legend about eclipses that later suggested names for two planets discovered to help predict eclipses? We'll probably never know! But these are definitely some monsters you can actually see... as long as you have a telescope, of course.

P.S.

I'll get the main image inked and a couple of other pics in here soon... but I really wanted to get this posted on Monday, August 21, for the Solar Eclipse!

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Sources

  • "Asura," page in the Wikipedia website, viewed 8-17-2017. Online: Click here!
  • "Svarbhanu," page in the Wikipedia website, viewed 8-17-2017. Online: Click here! 
  • "Rig Veda - The demon Svarbhanu, Rahu and eclipse," post under Hinduism in the Stack exchange website, posted 5-17-2016, viewed 8-18-2017. Online: Click here!
  • "Rig Veda," page in the Wikipedia website, viewed 8-17-2017. Online: Click here! 
  • Original Sanskrit Texts on the Origin and History of the People of India, collected, translated, and illustrated by J. Muir, Vol. I (Second Edition), 1868 London, England. Pgs. 469-470. Online: Click here!
  • Hindu Mythology, Vedic and Purānic, by William Joseph Wilkins, 1882 Calcutta, India. Pgs. 363. Online: Click here!
  • The Mahabharata of Krishna - Dwaipayana Vyasa, Volume 1, 1883 Bharata Press. Pgs. 31-32. Online: Click here!
  • "Oriental Astronomy," article in The Calcutta Review, vol. XIII, January-June 1850, Calcutta, India. Pg. 75. Online: Click here!

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