The myth of Rahu


The scriptures utilize many stories and metaphors to coax the mind towards an understanding of Brahman – after all, this is one of the few ways this can be done since Brahman cannot be described. One that is rarely encountered is the myth of rAhu.

According to Monier-Williams (Ref. 179), the word ‘rAhu’ means ‘the Seizer’. It refers to a story in the Hindu purana-s (sacred books of mythology and cosmology), although the myth also occurs in much older Buddhist texts. The fable has the gods ‘churning’ the ocean in order to extract the ‘nectar of immortality’ (amRRita). One of the demons who are watching this, disguises himself, steals a portion and drinks it, thereby becoming immortal too. The sun and moon gods witnessed this and told Vishnu, who subsequently cut off the demon’s head. The head became known as rAhu and the rest of the body (with the tail of a dragon) as ketu. They were then evicted from the earth, from where rAhu continually tries to wreak revenge on the sun and moon by eating (‘seizing’) them. We see these attempts when eclipses take place.

The idea occurs in the upadesha sAhasrI 17.33, where rAhu is spoken of as being invisible but seen in the moon. Shankara addresses how Atman can be known by the intellect:

“32. Because of Its being soundless, etc., It cannot be perceived by the sense-organs. Likewise, as it is different from pleasure. etc., how can [It be perceived] by the intellect?

  1. Just as rAhu, though he is invisible, [is perceived] in the moon [during an eclipse] and just as a reflection [of the moon, etc., is seen] in the water, so Atman, though all-pervading, is perceived there in the intellect.
  2. Just as the reflection and heat of the sun are perceived in the water but do not belong to the water, so knowledge [, though] in the intellect, is not a quality of it, since it differs in nature [from the intellect].” (Ref. 193)

And it occurs in vivekachUDAmaNi 139:

“The veiling power (avRRiti), which preponderates in ignorance, covers the Self, whose glories are infinite and which manifests Itself through the power of knowledge, indivisible, eternal and one without a second – as rAhu does the orb of the sun.” (Ref. 94)

The mechanism is spelled out a bit more in the dakShiNAmUrti stotram (6):

“The Atman, which is the Existence Absolute, is covered by the mAyA, like even the sun or the moon is covered by the rAhu during the eclipse. This puruSha has withdrawn all the senses and went into deep sleep. He wakes up again and remembers: I slept all this while. This puruSha is indeed the same as Lord dakShiNAmUrti who has taken the incarnation of the Teacher. My salutations unto that Lord.” (Ref. 238)

The primary aim of this section of the dakShiNAmUrti text is to negate the vij~nAna vAda and shUnya vAda of the Buddhist philosophers. In the case of the ‘five sheaths’ presented in the Taittiriya Upanishad, for example, it might be concluded that, once each of the sheaths has been negated, there is nothing left with which to identify. This ‘nothing’ is called shUnya by the Buddhists – absolute non-existence. The fact that we experience nothing whatsoever in the deep-sleep state appears to lend support to this contention.

But Shankara points out that, although the sun or moon ceases to shine during an eclipse, they still continue to exist. Similarly, although the Atman effectively ‘ceases to shine’ during deep-sleep, it also continues to exist.

It is in his bhAShya on the taittirIya upaniShad, however, that he uses it specifically to explain ‘knowing Brahman’. In order to use it in this way, he expands upon the mechanism of the eclipse in relation to the rAhu myth.

In Indian astrology, rAhu and ketu become ‘shadow’ planets, denoting the ‘points of intersection’ of the paths of the sun and moon. It is at these points that eclipses occur. The idea is that the planets themselves are invisible. Their existence can only be deduced by the shadows that are cast during the eclipses. And it is in this sense that Shankara makes use of the myth as a metaphor for Brahman becoming ‘known’.

Taittiriya 2.6 is about Brahman as the cause of the universe:

“He desired: ‘May I become many; may I be born’. He deliberated. Having thus deliberated, He created all this, whatever there is. Having created it, He entered into it. Having entered it, He became both sat (the actual according to Shankara) and tyat (the beyond according to Shankara), the defined and undefined, both the founded and the non-founded, the non-inert and the inert, the true and the untrue. The Brahman became all this. Therefore, the wise call it satya or Brahman.” (Ref. 239) [‘sat’ means those with forms and ‘tyat means those without forms in this context.]

The topic is called anupravesha – ‘entrance into’. Brahman ‘desires’ to create the world, creates it, and then ‘enters into’ it. Of course, we are talking about saguNa Brahman or Ishvara here since nirguNa Brahman, the absolute reality, is non-dual. There is nothing other than nirguNa Brahman and can be nothing other, since it is infinite and changeless, as well as desire-less.

Shankara writes a very long bhAShya on this one section (anuvAka) but the aspect that is relevant here is the discussion about the mind ‘recognizing’ Brahman. The Upanishad has just been discussing the metaphor of the five sheaths and has successively negated each of the sheaths as candidates for being Atman. He says that the purpose of the current verse is not to describe the creation of the universe but to convey the knowledge of Brahman and the fact that we are that limitless Brahman.

A mantra from the RRig veda is quoted in Taittiriya 2.1: “Brahman is infinite existence-consciousness. The one who knows (that Brahman which) resides in the intellect within the supreme space (of the heart) fulfils all (his desires), at once as the omniscient Brahman.” (Ref. 9) Shankara comments:

“Brahman indeed is not available for cognition other than in one’s own buddhi, because Brahman does not have any attribute. The connection with the manifesting medium (the mind) is indeed seen as the means for knowing, just as rAhu’s connection with the manifesting medium of moon and sun (are the means for recognizing rAhu). In the same manner, the connection or association of BrahmAtmA to the mind cave is the means for Brahman to be recognized, because of the mind being a closely and directly connected fine reflecting medium.” (Ref. 9)

As pointed out, the Indian astrological explanation was that Rahu was invisible, or positioned such that it was never visible from earth. The only way that we could be aware of its existence at all was during an eclipse. When the moon’s orbit takes it ‘behind’ the earth in alignment with the sun, the earth’s shadow moves across the face of the moon, gradually eclipsing it. This was said to be rAhu ‘seizing’ or ‘eating’ the moon. The point is that the shadow of the earth is effectively there all of the time, accompanying the earth as it orbits the sun. But it is only when the moon happens to be there that we become aware of it.

By analogy, then, Brahman is there all of the time but it is only when it happens to impinge upon the intellect (in the ‘cave of the heart’), that we are able to apprehend it. The mind is unique in being able ‘reflect’ Consciousness (to mix the metaphors).

“Just as the existence of the sunlight gets recognized when associated with pot etc., in the same manner the light of Consciousness when associated with the thought forms helps it to be recognized as brahmAtmA, oneself, the sAkShI-chaitanya.” (Ref. 9)

Sureshvara comments on the idea in his taittirIyopaniShad-bhASya-vArtika 396 and the translator (R. Balusubramanian) explains:

“The self formed of bliss (Anandamaya) is manifested in the intellect. The different forms of bliss such as joy, enjoyment, and so on are the manifestations of the supreme undifferentiated bliss which is Brahman. If the different kinds of happiness are arranged in a hierarchy, the highest bliss which is unsurpassable is Brahman-Atman. The Anandamaya self which is manifested in the intellect is a pointer to the undifferentiated bliss which is Brahman. Brahman which is undifferentiated, which is free from any distinctive attribute, cannot be cognized anywhere else except in the intellect. We are aware of the existence of rAhu only at the time of the eclipse when it is supposed to seize the moon or the sun. Just as the knowledge of rAhu arises from its association with the moon or the sun, so also the knowledge of Brahman arises because of its association with, or manifestation in, the intellect. Why is it, it may be asked, that Brahman is manifested only in the vij~nAnamaya or the intellect and not in any other sheath? The intellect alone which is proximate to the Self and which has the power of illumination can reflect the Self, and not any other sheath.” (Ref. 240)

So, to return to the idea of anupravesha, when Brahman as if creates the universe, there is no actual creation. Nor is there a ‘transformation’ (pariNAma) as the Sankhyas and others would have it. Advaita prefers vivarta vAda – an ‘as though’ manifestation (until this is superseded by ajAti vAda). Brahman is the material (upAdAna) as well as the intelligent (nimitta) cause (kAraNa), so that the universe is (name and form of) Brahman. The ‘entry into’ creation that is spoken of here could not make any literal sense – Brahman already could not be any more ‘in’ creation. What is meant is the effective making available of Brahman in the mind so that we may realize the truth.

[This article will be included in the book ‘Confusions’. Whether in Volume 1, in the section on ‘Knowing Brahman’ or in Volume 2 in the section on ‘Creation’, I haven’t decided!]

[Image: The head of the demon Kala Rahu eats Dewi bulan, the moon (A lunar eclipse) by Dewa Nyoman Leper (Indonesian, born 1917); downloaded from Artnet.]

2 thoughts on “The myth of Rahu

  1. Thank you very much, Dennis, for the well-reasoned out and beautifully explained essay.

    The word “entered” may also be seen to have an additional indicative implication. While there may be a “changeless change” (vivarta) involved in the “as though” creation of a world, brahman “enters” as Itself in Its own original intrinsic nature without undergoing any change.

    For example, “thought” (in the form of intention, planning and execution) may be involved in the construction of my house. However, I “enter” into it as I am after construction. It thus establishes “jIvo brahmaiva nAparaH.”


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