Rishi Atri rescues Surya from the demon Svarbhanu

Verses 5 to 9 of Hymn 40, Mandala V contain an unmistakeable account of a solar eclipse.

The demon Svarbhanu by his magical powers pierces Surya through and through with darkness. The result is total darkness that leaves all creatures in a bewildered state, and in the words of the composer of the hymn, “knoweth not the place where he is standing”.

RV 5.040.05
O Surya, when the Asura’s descendant Svarbhanu, pierced thee through and through with darkness,
All creatures looked like one who is bewildered, who knoweth not the place where he is standing.

The utterly confused masses must have turned their rishi for help – in this case, Rishi Atri.  Verses 8 and 9 attest that the rishi was able to establish the eye of Surya in heaven once again and caused the magic of Svarbhanu to vanish. That the rishi found the sun again, and that none besides him had the power to do so.

RV 5.040.08 – 09
The Brahman Atri, as he set the press-stones, serving the Gods with praise and adoration,
Established in the heaven the eye of Surya, and caused Svarbhanu’s magic arts to vanish.

The Atris found the Sun again, him whom Svarbhanu of the brood
Of Asuras had pierced with gloom. This none besides had power to do.

So how does the Rishi manage to vanquish Svarbhanu and rescue the sun? The answer may be found in verse 6. The rishi took recourse to prayers (possibly to Indra) and by the time he had reached his fourth prayer, discovered Surya concealed in gloom and unable to perform his routine functions.

RV 5.040.06
What time thou smotest down Svarbhanu’s magic that spread itself beneath the sky, O Indra,
By his fourth sacred prayer Atri discovered Surya concealed in gloom that stayed his function.

For good measure, the composer seems to have included a role for Indra in this rescue act as well. We can infer that the eclipse “lasted” no more than four prayers. Given the average size of most of the hymns in the Rig Veda, that could have lasted several minutes, but then this is pure conjecture.

While these verses clearly reveal an eclipse, they tell us nothing about when it might have occurred or its significance/consequence. The purpose of these verses seem to be an attempt of its composer to glorify his ancestor – Rishi Atri. And since the involvement of Rishi Atri is indicated, we can once again conjecture that the eclipse must have occurred during his lifetime.

%d bloggers like this: