For something like two minutes, the town of Madras, Oregon, which fell on what scientists call “the path of totality”, descended into complete darkness on the morning of August 21 before being blanketed by the sun’s rays.
It was surreal enough watching a solar eclipse unfold on one’s television screen; those who were present, whether in Madras or at places on “the path of totality”, have described themselves on social media sites as feeling thrilled, awe-struck, and privileged. The usual words and phrases—“historic” or “once in a lifetime’s opportunity”—have been trumpeted by hundreds of thousands, but it will take some more reflection and the imagination of a poet to describe just what it is that generated such elation. Meanwhile, there were some comic moments: on one of the main American network channels, where viewers were constantly being reminded that looking at the eclipse with one’s naked eyes could lead to blindness, one anchor, speaking in great earnestness, assured his television viewers that watching the phenomenon on the screen was perfectly safe. We need not run for the fire extinguisher in our home next time we see a blazing fire on the television screen.
It is said that those brief all too brief moments when the sun is completely blanked out before daylight again resumes throw animals into confusion. “Giraffes and zebras at the Nashville Zoo were freaked out by Monday’s solar eclipse”, according to an article in the New York Post, “and went running wildly around their enclosures after the sky went dark.” Shrieking crowds may have contributed to the animals’ erratic behavior, the article acknowledges, but during previous eclipses stories have been reported about spiders dismantling their webs and birds falling silent.
What came to my mind, however, on watching the solar eclipse was one of the most engaging if morally troubling stories from the Mahabharata, a story that remarkably invokes a false sunset and tells of another sort of confusion in the minds of men. On the thirteenth day of the war, the young Abhimanyu, son of Arjuna, is commanded by Yudhisthira to break the lotus formation into which the army of the composing camp, led by Duryodhana, has been formed. Abhimanyu complies, if hesitatingly: though ably instructed by his father on how to enter the formation, he has not been taught adequately about how to exit the maze. And it is in this maze that the young warrior, more splendrous than the sun itself, meets his death. Jayadratha—the ruler of Sindhu, son-in-law of Dhritarashtra, and a close ally of Duryodhana—moves his forces and seals the breaches, preventing reinforcements from helping Abhimanyu. There are no pure victors or losers in the epic, as its readers know, and the Pandavas are scarcely without their blemishes; nevertheless, the greater cowardice is on the side of Duryodhana and his friends. Thus their greatest and most seasoned warriors—Drona, Kripa, Aswathama, Karna, and others—all pounce on the young Abhimanyu and partake in his death.
Returning to camp that evening, Arjuna is apprised of the circumstances under which his son was killed. He at once takes a vow (and I quote here from R. K. Narayana’s Mahabharata, Chapter 15), “I swear that I shall kill Jayadratha, who trapped him [Abhimanyu], before the sun sets tomorrow.” The following day, Jayadratha does what any man in his position would do: knowing that he is no match for Arjuna, and considering too—what cannot be discussed at this juncture—the imperative to abide by one’s vow, Jayadratha wisely absents himself from the battlefield and “shelters behind a fortress of chariots, elephants, horsemen, and soldiers until late evening.” What transpires next is best relayed in the simple if elegant rendering of the story by Narayana:
Arjuna battled his way through and reached Jayadratha, who was anxiously watching the western sky for the sun to set. The sky darkened and Jayadratha, feeling certain that he had passed Arjuna’s time limit, emerged from his shelter, whereupon Arjuna felled him with a single arrow. Now the skies brightened again. It was still daylight; a false sunset had been created by Krishna, holding up his discus against the sun. He had adopted this strategy as it seemed to him the only way to bring Jayadratha out of hiding, and end that terrible day’s events.
We know, of course, that the Hindu nationalist brigade, led by the Prime Minister himself, will immediately summon the story as an insurmountable piece of evidence in support of the argument that every modern scientific advance is already anticipated in the Vedas and the capacious corpus of Sanskrit scientific knowledge. Aryabhatta certainly knew a thing or two about eclipses and his computations of lunar eclipses were not far off the mark.
But, leaving aside such excursions into “Vedic science”, the story of the false sunset that killed Jayadratha attracts for many more compelling reasons. Krishna’s machinations have long been the subject of discussions in Indian homes, among scholars and students of the Mahabharata, and in Indian folklore. Jayadratha, Karna, Duryodhana: Krishna plays a questionable role in advancing the death of each of these Kaurava heroes. The story of Jayadratha suggests amply why the Mahabharata remains the supreme vehicle for discussing the contours and slippery nature of dharma. Was Jayadratha simply deceived into death? Was his life to be undone so that others could live? Might dharma require an ignoble deed if only to seed something nobler? Why do we frequently mistake something for what it is not?
At least a few commentators have commented on the appositeness of the United States being witness to a complete solar eclipse after several decades at a moment in the country’s history when moral values that are alleged to have guided the country thus far seem to have greatly eroded. Many people are thinking of the “darkness” that has enveloped the country. But perhaps this metaphor is too easily available and should be resisted. Perhaps those who are all too certain that what is presently transpiring in the US does not reflect the “real America” know too little about the history of their country. I think that we would be better served, when reflecting upon the solar eclipse, in asking why it is that stories about the confusion in the minds of animals proliferate when it is the confusion in the minds of men that is far more striking. Is the solar eclipse, the false sunset, yet another allegory about the twisted play of the real and the apparent in human lives?