Candimasutta, Suriyasutta

Eclipse, eclipse-god and eclipse worship in Buddhism

Yesterday, I gave a lecture on “Buddhist Astral Science in Asia” to an animated group of post-graduate students at the Chulalongkorn University. No one fell asleep during the three-hours starry presentation in a breezy afternoon. I was asked some interesting questions and learned something new also about the rich astral tradition in Thai Buddhism.

Topics we covered: Buddhism and astral science, Uposatha and Buddhist luni-solar calendar according to the Pāli Canon, astral iconography across Buddhist traditions in Asia, cosmological Buddhist architecture in Bangkok (Wat Pho and Wat Arun), Greco-Egyptian origin of planetary weekday and astral worship in Thai Buddhism.

I read with the students two passages from the Pāli Canon. One from the Mahavagga that talks about the origin of the Uposatha and recitation of Pāṭimokkhā twice a month, that is, at the end of a pakṣa to be precise. One from the Candimasutta in the Saṃyuttanikāya where the lunar eclipse was described in a dramatic and didactic manner. The Candimasutta was followed by a practically identical Suriyasutta where the solar eclipse was described instead. The curious thing about these texts is that they reflect the Buddha’s disinterest in the subject on one hand, and the saṃgha’s growing interest and need to learn about more advanced astral science on the other.

The myth of an eclipse-causing monster is ancient and is found in many ancient cultures. From the Near East sources, there were references to a mythical dragon which caused eclipse by devouring or wrapping around the Moon and it was origin of the constellation Draco. Varāhamihira in his Bṛhatsaṃhitā also mentioned about “someone’s” theory about the eclipse caused by the head and tail of a serpent. These ideas converged with the old Vedic eclipse anti-god Svarbhānu and eventually evolved into the two eclipse-causing pseudoplanets Rāhu and Ketu, which joined the patheon of grahas. The early Buddhist texts Candimasutta and Suriyasutta are curious in the sense that they attested to the very early stage of evolution of the eclipse myth in India, where there was only one eclipse-causing entity, namely Rāhu. The Moon and the Sun, frightened of being devoured, sought refuge in the Buddha, who came to their rescue and commanded Rāhu to release them.

On Saturday, together with the students we may visit a temple in Nakhon Pathom which worships the moon-eating demon Rāhu with “black objects”. The Thai name Nakhon Pathom comes from Pāli Nagarapraṭhama, meaning “the first city” refers to the long history of the region, which was the heart of the ancient Dvāravatī Kingdom (6th – 11th century) . It was believed that Buddhism entered this region at a very early age, possibly before the time of Aśoka in the third century BC. Although Thailand is now a Theravāda country, there was a layer of other forms of Buddhism in its early history. Most notably, there were Śaiva, Vaiṣṇava and also Mahāyāna influences as in the case of the neighboring Khmer Empire, as well as the Śrivijaya Kingdom further south in the Malay archipelago. The Indian astral practices were likely imported into the region through these different forms of Indian religions. The Thai Buddhists eventually absorbed these practices into their own worship.

By sheer coincidence, today morning we have a partial solar eclipse here in Bangkok, right outside my window. Since the eclipse was only 42%, it was really too bright to observe with naked eyes and you can see that the whole city just went on as normal without making a fuss. Luckily a few clouds helped to filter the light, and I managed to take a reasonably good photo when the eclipse was at its maximum.

solar eclipse 20160309 solar eclipse 20160309a

Planetary worship in Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand

This impressive Buddhist temple located at the west bank of Chao Phraya River facing the Royal Palace is unique among other Buddhist temples in Bangkok for its Hindu connections, expressed most remarkably in cosmological and astral terms. The name Arun comes from the Sanskrit aruṇa meaning the reddish glow of the rising Sun. The overall layout is modeled upon the Indian universe, with the mythical Mount Meru in its center, surrounded by realms and continents inhabited by gods, humans and other sentient beings.
Like in many Thai Buddhist temples, planetary deities were installed for believers to gain favors or avert bad luck from their birthday deity. The belief based on the planetary weekday originated in Hellenistic Egypt, developed further in India during the early centuries of the common era, and was transmitted to the rest of East and Southeast Asia by the latter half of the millennium. The planetary deities in Wat Arun retain their Hindu flavors, with Sunday to Saturday represented by the Sun, Moon and so on. The additional pseudoplanets Rāhu and Ketu were represented by a serpent-like figure. As it is common to Southeast Asia, Rāhu represent Wednesday evening; Ketu does not fit into the general scheme and is said to be fit for worship by those who do not remember their birthday weekday.

In this temple, one finds also various Chinese elements which were likely added later. These include Chinese deities, most notably the guardian god and the twelve animals which representing the twelve directions.



The world’s oldest star map from Takamatsuzuka and Kitora burial mounds, Japan (7th century CE)


Although depictions of stars and constellations are found in Egyptian pyramids and Chinese tombs, and that the Chinese and possibly the Greeks had produced star maps centuries before the common era, the oldest extant specimens of a star map are dated to the 7th century, found in two rock tombs discovered 1972 and 1983 in Asuka, Japan (south of Kyoto).

The Kitora star map is remarkably realistic, with c. 350 stars painted in gold, surrounded by 28 lunar mansions and the four mythical cardinal Chinese beasts. The map contains also three circles representing the minimum and maximum stellar visibility, the equatorial and an ellipse representing the ecliptic. What is surprising about these circles is that they represent a sky visible not in Asuka where they are found, but at 38.4 N (or 37.6 N), pointing to Korea.

Prof. Miyajima Kazuhiko of Doshisha University explained his findings in a lecture (Kyoto University, 2015.12.12) and demonstrated the transmission of astronomical knowledge from China to Japan, and in some cases, via the Korea kingdoms as demonstrated by these remarkable star maps found in the Asuka tombs.



Prof. Miyajima’s lecture at Kyoto University (2015.12.12)



Asuka burial mound nowadays

Kitora Orion

Chinese asterism shen 參 = Orion (note equatorial and ecliptic)


宮島一彦. 2010.「万葉人の見た星空ーー高松塚・キトラ古墳 天文図の世界」. 『奈良学・やまとみち』

山本忠尚. 2010.『高松塚・キトラ古墳の謎』.

百橋明穂. 2010. 『古代壁画の世界 : 高松塚・キトラ・法隆寺金堂』.

網干善教. 2006. 『壁画古墳の研究』. 東京: 学生社.

宮島一彦. 2004. 「キトラ古墳の天文図は平壌の空」.『理戦』 78:46-61.