Supermoon, Chandra or Soma- myth and science of the Moon. Part 1

You may have heard about super moon that can be seen in the sky tonight, but what exactly is it?  Is it really all that super? Let’s know more about it.

The distance from Earth to the moon is an average of 384,000 km. However, the moon’s orbit is elliptical — as opposed to circular — and its distance varies by roughly 30,000 km over the course of one month. That means that once a month the moon is at a position known as perigee, its closest to earth, and apogee, its farthest.

this-diagram-exaggerates-the-eccentricity-of-the-moons-orbit-for-clarity-variations-in-the-apparent-size-of-the-lunar-disc-arise-from-changes-in-the-moons-distance-from-earth-court
Variations in the apparent size of the lunar disc arise from changes in the Moon’s distance from Earth. (This diagram exaggerates the eccentricity of the Moon’s orbit for clarity) .by Gary Seronik

On a full moon night perigee becomes the super moon, the perigee-syzygy. It is the night when a full moon and the closest approach occur together. While a super moon can be roughly 14 percent larger and 30 percent brighter, to the casual observer, these differences may not be apparent.  The supermoon is expected to be extraordinary at around 7:22 PM in India. Moon will be closest to the Earth at 8.09 PM at a distance of around 350,000 km.

In Hinduism, Moon or Chandra is both a lunar god and a celestial body. Chandra is third most in importance after Earth and Sun. It is the only celestial body, where man has set his foot. Its light is soothing in the dark night sky and is therefore a subject of poetry for lovers to seek and miss each other. The changing shapes make it an object of curiosity and have massive scientific research, astronomy, astrology, paintings, songs and poetry dedicated to it.

chandrama-on-an-antelope-painting-on-silk-by-peter-velvedre
Chandrama riding an antelope.- painting by Peter Velvedre

Chandra is also identified with the Vedic Lunar deity Soma. The Soma name refers to the rasa or sap in the plants and thus makes the Moon the lord of plants and vegetation. Chandra is described as young, beautiful, fair; two-armed and holding in his hands, a club and a lotus. He rides his chariot across the sky every night, pulled either by ten white horses or an antelope. He is also one of the Gods for female fertility.

In Vedic times the original God was Soma and Moon was indeed his pitcher of nectar. Soma represented the ‘rasa’ or sap, the nutrient bearing fluid. Be it blood, semen, mucous or sap of plants. It was also the honey coloured drink Som-rasa from plant Soma that recharged the power of Gods. When researched it was found that the drink caused rush in adrenalin, unlocking ecstatic power in warriors and limitless creativity in artists.

Rig Veda has 120 hymns in a separate book dedicated to Soma. Moon the round pitcher of Soma was filled to brim with the luminous elixir of life on a full moon night and reduced each night as Gods drank from it. Emptied on new moon and the slowly it rebuilt itself.

At the end of Vedic age, there was a rise of Hindu priests who attributed the power of Gods to fire sacrifices conducted by them. Soma and Chandra merged in to one. Since the moon exercised gravitational on earth to cause tides, it was believed to influence all ‘rasa’ in the living beings also. Moon was associated with the mind of living beings and the reproduction in women. Menstruation, a cyclic event happened in exact 28-30 days involving shedding of a life fluid, the blood. Destruction and regeneration of a new ovum each month, just like the moon.

The Hindu calendar is based on it. According to Indian legend, Chandra is married to 27 Nakshatras (constellations), who are known to be daughters of Daksha. Headless Asur Ketu is his archenemy and causes his eclipse. All these concepts have been built up to explain the motion and behaviour of moon in the sky.

The earth revolves around the sun; the path is divided into twelve sectors called the zodiacs. Similarly moon revolves around the earth; its path is divided in to 27 sectors called the Nakshatras, each represented by a constellation of stars housed in it.

The story to explain waxing and waning goes this way:

Twenty-seven of Daksha’s daughters were married to the moon-god Chandra. One of these wives was named Rohini, Chandra loved Rohini more than he loved the other wives. The other wives felt neglected and they complained to their father. Daksha repeatedly warned his son-in-law to devote himself equally to all twenty-seven wives. But Chandra was in no mood to listen. Daksha thereupon cursed Chandra that he would gradually fade away. He went to Brahma, the creator. Brahma told him that the only solution was to pray to Shiva. Chandra went to Prabhasa tirtha and made a linga on the banks of the river Sarasvati. On Brahma’s advice, Chandra chanted the ‘Mrityunjaya’ mantra.

At the end of the tapasya Shiva appeared before Chandra and offered to grant him a boon. Chandra explained what the problem was. Well, said Shiva, Daksha’s curse cannot be entirely ignored. Let us have a compromise. During krishnapaksha you will wane. And during shuklapaksha (the bright part of the lunar fortnight) you will wax. That should satisfy everybody. Chandra was delighted. So it is said that 13 nights moon moves from the direction of sun to behind the earth, spending one night in each palace, as he goes towards Rohini, his beloved placed behind Earth farthest from sun, his happiness increases his light and with her he shines the brightest on full moon night. As he moves away from her he loses his light slowly again. And then he goes to Kailash and rests on the mated hair of Shiva on the moon night.

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Shiva as Someshwara- the saviour of Moon. He holds the restless antelope in his palm. Symbolic of control over instincts.

In Vedic Sanskrit, the term nákṣatra may refer to any heavenly body or to “the stars” collectively. Nakshatra is the term for lunar mansion in Hindu astrology. A nakshatra is one of 27 sectors along the elliptical path. A division of 27 portions was adopted since that resulted in a clean definition of each segment subtending 13° 20′ a third of each zodiac.

exact-width-of-a-nakshtra-corresponding-to-the-area-of-a-particular-zodiac
Exact width of a Nakshtra corresponding to the area of a particular zodiac.

The starting point for the nakshatras is the point on the ecliptic directly opposite to the star Spica called Chitrā in Sanskrit. It is called Meshādi or the “start of Mesha or Aries”. Beginning from Aries, the sky around is divided into each of the 27 nakshatras eastwards. The number of nakshatras reflects the number of days in a month when moon is clearly visible (modern value: 27.32 days), the width of a nakshatra is the distance traversed by the moon in about one day.

symbolic-chart-of-zodiacs-and-nakshatras-names-in-the-outermost-black-circle-as-arranged-around-the-earth
Symbolic chart of Zodiac and Nakshatras by Hindu astronomy as arranged around the Earth

This way the complex concept of Waxing and waning was simply explained to people, as if moon was a polygamous man moving towards and away from a favourite wife Rohini living in a particular sector.

(To continue go to supermoon-chandra-or-soma-myth-and-science-of-the-moon-part-2)

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