The telephone lines will soon be abuzz. Mothers will be calling their daughters, mothers in law would be talking to their daughters in law, sisters in law will chat with sisters in law, etc., etc. The talk will mostly be about congratulating the young pregnant lady. Talk full of love, care, compassion but also warning against evil and ‘…eclipse maimed her baby, be careful…’ type of talk. ‘I will be relieved once everything goes well. Take care dear, be cautious and be careful. It’s the eclipse. If you don’t follow all that comes by tradition you are doomed. You may be highly educated but that’s for your career. Back home you must follow the tradition. Don’t try be extra smart with us elders. We wish you well. Just want to help and guide.’
Why risk a deformity when there are simple ways to eliminate the risk? Why should staying home, fasting and sitting at a place; when so much is at stake?
‘Why risk things?’ is a dangerous argument. The fact is that there is no evidence of the eclipse being inimical to the fetus. There was an era when no one knew why babies have deformities, nor why eclipses happen. It was in such times that people associated the two unrelated phenomena. There will always be some babies born with some defects; hare lip, syndactyly (fingers stuck together), spina-bifida and such other. Each is now known to be caused by several different factors. Blaming the eclipse for a congenital defect is laughable. Once you assign a cause it puts a stop on further investigations. A wrongly attributed etiology will only lead to a wrong and misguided preventive strategy.
No one desires an anomalous child. Everyone wants a normal, healthy baby. But birth is a biological process. It does go wrong from time to time. Humans can churn out thousands of cars, one after the other, in a modern factory with zero defects. But nature can’t. All that you sow doesn’t grow. Whatever you harvest isn’t all flawless. Whatever is true of the grasses and the seeds, of the birds and the bees, holds true for humans as well. This is what we learn from biology. Medical science has a list of dos and don’ts for a healthy baby. Rubella vaccination, folic acid supplements, control of diabetes and such other disorders, pre-conceptional and regular antenatal checkups later. Not following these well studied norms and labeling some celestial phenomenon as teratogenic is foolish.
Annually there are at least four eclipses, sometimes even up to seven. It’s obvious that almost every pregnancy is exposed to an eclipse. However, the incidence of anomalies is paltry. Societies without any taboos about the eclipse should have anomalous babies aplenty. This is not the case. The anatomical layout of the fetus is complete by the twelfth week in utero. Defects such as cleft lips, syndactyly, spina bifida have already been cemented by this time. Thus, sticking to eclipse-taboos post the twelfth week is moot. It’s seen that 96% of the term babies are normal, of the rest 2% will have minor defects and 2% will have major ones. So, any ritual aimed at avoiding birth defects is bound to have 96% success rate. That’s one reason why such fallacies continue to rule popular imagination. People see this as a strong proof of efficacy of such practices.
One is not inviting trouble by not following eclipse-taboos. On the other hand, following traditional dos and don’ts is certainly risking trouble. Practices expected of a gravid woman during an eclipse are not harmless goodwill gestures. On the contrary they are harmful. The gravid woman has lots to suffer throughout the eclipse rituals. She is expected to be sitting at one place, awake and starving. This is preposterous. If she cuts some veggies, the child is said to develop hare lip, if she crosses her fingers the child would likely have fused digits. She is subjected to tremendous angst and psychological stress. A woman who believes all this must be having a tough time. She sits at a place, all the time worrying, till the celestial shadows move away. She will blame herself for any untoward outcome. The kin will blame her too. This is nothing short of ragging.
She is expected to starve. The pregnant women can’t tolerate hunger. Moreover, the baby is entirely dependent on the mother for all its nutritional needs. Prolonged fasting causes hypoglycemia, even syncope. The fetus suffers hypoglycemia too. A very low sugar level, followed by a sugar spike after a binge meal, is even more harmful to the fetus. But she is expected to fast regardless of all this. Good intentions aren’t enough of a justification for every act and deed.
She is expected to be immobile. Sitting at a place, especially during pregnancy, causes blood to stagnate and clot and this can sometimes lead to a life-threatening embolus.
She’s not even supposed to have water. Avoiding fluids leads to oliguria (reduced urine). Regular voiding helps to flush out the ever-growing microbial colony in our bladder. Infrequent voiding abets the growth of microbes, precipitates a urinary infection. This can cause preterm births and underweight babies. This is inviting trouble, not warding it off.
Moreover, the gen next is watching. They learn from you. They learn that this is the way to be deeply anxious about a celestial happening. This is how to create a dichotomy between science texts and real life. This is the way to meekly accept, to fall in line with the most irrational of traditions and rituals. This is the way to shut your thinking and blindly follow the masses, wherever the road might lead. When you blindly follow such harmful practices disguised as respecting tradition, you are in fact indoctrinating the gen next with the idea of unquestioned obedience. This is truly risky.
It’s amazing to note the ideas about eclipses nurtured by cultures across the globe. Some have thrown the sun and the moon to the dogs while others have employed bears to do the honors. The bears let go only after a ritual sacrifice. Some have imagined quarrels between the Sun and the Moon while others have tales of curses thrown and wishes granted. Several tribes have stories of demons eating away at the heavenly discs.
A Korean tale tells us of a dog who bites into the Sun, causing the eclipse. The Koreans then beat drums with such zest, that the dog lets go the Sun and scoots, leaving the Sun to rise and set on its own again. An Arab tribal is expected to bathe in the sand and blow some towards the sun. This is supposed to be virtuous and in gratitude of the Sun’s daily toil. The Italians have a different take though. They believe that flowerbeds seeded during the eclipse bear vivid blooms.
Humans are insignificant compared to the sun, moon and the earth. But we ingratiate ourselves with such stories. However, the scientific explanation is equally enthralling, as awe inspiring, as poetic and much more precise and magical. It will wither away your ego. You begin by accepting that the heavenly objects are simply there in the sky, without any support. Just retire from your mindscape, Sheshnaag, Atlas, the tortoise and sundry fulcrums of the globe. Then understand that the Sun which so obviously appears to be going around the earth, is stationary and it’s the earth that’s doing the rounds. Then know that the moon circles the earth as each revolves around its own axes. Then their orbits, their speeds, their angles, their shadows sweeping the space, sometimes engulfing the earth or the moon. This is simply mind blowing. This lets you predict eclipses; this lets you date them way back in the past too. This tells you the start, the finish, the extent and the type of the eclipse. There is no need to beat the drums, no need to appease the imaginary bear, to seek mercy of the gods. The eclipses are certain to begin and certain to end at a predictable time. Eclipses are just shadows playing in space. Why worry about their ominous consequences? Even a schoolboy can explain an eclipse with a torch and two balls.
During a solar eclipse, the moon casts its shadow over our planet. When you carry an umbrella in the bright sun, or stand at a bus stop you are under a shadow. This is just akin to a solar eclipse, isn’t it? The roof casts a shadow over you, at home; the tree casts a shadow when under a tree. Why worry about a shadow? The moon casts its shadow over the earth during a solar eclipse and the earth casts its shadow on the moon during a lunar one. An ox’s shadow might fall over a pregnant sheep standing next to it in the barn or the sheep’s shadow might darken the hen-coop. Do you pray or worry about hare lipped lambs? Or about aborting hens? Do you believe that a human shadow brings bad omen to another human? If not why ascribe such properties to the shadows of the earth and the moon?
I think we have schizoid personas. We have a rational self for school, college, education, career and an irrational one for our daily chores. The irrational one eclipses our home and life. We will have to annihilate the irrational and learn to live as one person, glowing brightly leaving the penumbra and the umbra of the eclipse far, far behind.
– Dr. Shantanu Abhyankar
Dr. Shantanu Abhyankar is a Gynecologist based in Wai, Dist. Satara, Maharashtra. He is a well-known speaker, published writer and translator. He has also contributed chapters to books on rural obstetrics (Management of PIH in rural practice; tips & tricks in rural gynecology and obstetrics) and medical disorders in pregnancy (Management of thyroid disorders in pregnancy)