Superstition eclipses science in India

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THE Prime Minister already fears for his future and dozens of other politicians plan to stay at home. India's leaders are not preoccupied with poor opinion poll ratings, however, but with the prospect of a solar eclipse.

The eclipse, due on Tuesday morning in northern India, will attract astronomers from around the planet. But millions of Indians are fearful and many New Delhi politicians will pass the celestial event shuttered in their homes with their private soothsayers.

The rare total eclipse, which will be seen by hundreds of millions of people in a narrow band stretching from Afghanistan across northern India, Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, and Borneo on Tuesday morning, has petrified Indian politicians. The Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, who like many of India's politicians is a firm believer in astrology, will be conducting his own Hindu ceremony to ward off personal calamities.

Indian holy men are also jittery; at the shrine of Kurukshetra, 30 miles from New Delhi, more than 150,000 Hindu sadhus are gathering to wash away the curses brought on the country by the sun's darkening. In Thailand, too, where the superstitious believe that during an eclipse a dragon gulps down the Sun, mass prayer rites will be held.

When a solar eclipse crossed India in February 1980, few people dared to venture out of their homes, even in the big cosmopolitan cities. Nirupama Raghavan, director of the Nehru Planetarium in New Delhi, recalled: "All you saw in the streets were crows and stray dogs." She and other Indian astronomers are trying to convince the public to enjoy the eclipse's dark beauty, but doubts and demons will still dominate most Indians' minds when the darkness comes just before noon.