Understanding Makar Sankranti

Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

On the day of Makar Sankranti, special prayers are devotionally offered to Sun Deity. All the attributes of the Sun identified and glorified by our Vedic rishis or seers are perfectly in accord with what science continues to uncover

Although Makar Sankranti was celebrated two days ago, on Wednesday 15th, I know for a fact that many Hindus would have done so without a basic understanding of the different aspects of the festival. For this reason and for future reference, such an understanding will help them, and non-Hindus too, to appreciate what the festival is all about. I often get asked about Hindu festivals, by both my fellow Hindus and non-Hindu friends and I do my best to answer, basing myself – since I am not an expert in the matter — on inputs derived from various authoritative sources, as well as on my own experience as I progress in my spiritual quest. A good explanation about Makar Sankranti has come my way via Whatsapp, attributed to the Sanatan Holistic Vidhya Academy, Strasbourg which I am happy to share with readers below.

But first of all some preliminary remarks about Hindu festivals.

At some point all of us human beings, even as we are engaged in the mundane activities needed for living our lives in the material world, want to know what life is all about and what is its meaning. It is religion which answers this call, the most refined and deeper aspect of which we refer to as spirituality -, which is a turning inwards to reflect and contemplate and discover for ourselves that inner meaning, that Truth which underlies the multiple phenomena that make up existence.

In practice, for the Hindu this means pursuing a life of fulfilling our biological and emotional needs (kama) and ensuring our material comfort and security (artha) by performing whatever actions (karmas) are required for the purpose. However, and most importantly, this is to be done in a righteous or dharmic manner, and accepting whatever outcome that results as being Ishwara’s kripa or divine grace. Such acceptance in turn gives us the mental purity that allows us to progress on the path (the spiritual quest) towards moksha or freedom from worldly bondage – a journey which may require us to go through more than one birth.

It goes without saying that such a life demands discipline and a certain rigour, and it would be a tough, stifling and monotonous call to follow if that were the only thing life was all about. In this world, we need a change of routine and some entertainment every now and then. Fortunately for us, in the Hindu calendar, there are several occasions throughout the year which answer to this need. They are festivals (‘utsavs’), several of which may be of a religious nature. These differ from other festivals in that they are not of the ‘eat, drink and be merry’ type. As the word festival implies entertainment, it is worthy of note that the Sanskrit word for entertainment is manoranjan, which means entertaining or delighting the mind.

Thus, during a festival, which is usually accompanied by a period of prior fasting, in addition to feasting, singing and dancing and merry-making, one also takes part in prayers and pujas. These are meant to purify the mind, lifting it towards the higher goal of acquiring spiritual knowledge or paravidya and making continued progress on this path: this is the equivalent of ‘entertainment’ for the mind. And as a result, although one may feel physically exhausted on such occasions, they also prepare us to face life with more enthusiasm to live life more happily and fully.

As for the reasons to celebrate festivals, it may be noted that many of them are based on the cycles of nature. They mark the change of seasons, celebrate the harvest, and encourage fertility of the land. Others are dedicated to a particular deity, such as Shiva or Ganesha, or commemorate the jayantis or birth anniversaries of, for example, Rama or Krishna. Makar Sankranti – known by different regional names in India e.g. Pongal, Onam in the South, Lohri in the North, etc., – is one major festival which is based on the movement of the Sun, our life-giver, as is beautifully explained with great clarity in what follows (reproduced with some modifications):

Understanding Makar Sankranti

Most of the time Makar Sankranti is celebrated on 14th of January. Occasionally it may occur on the 15th as it happens to be this year. Sankranti is a Hindi word meaning transition of the Sun. The span of the huge sky is of 360 degrees. The great Seers of Vedic times visualized it as made up of 12 equal parts of 30 degrees each and allotted a name to the divisions namely Aries, Taurus, Gemini, etc., up to Pisces. The Sun transits in each Sign of the zodiac for 30 days at the rate of one degree per day.

After completing its revolution of 360 degrees through the 12th Sign, the Sun enters 0 degree Aries on 14th of April. Our Tamil brothers and sisters celebrate Varusha Pirrapu (New Year), on this particular day which marks a new cycle of the Luni-solar calendar.

In the same way the Sun enters the 10th Sign Capricorn on 14th or 15th of January. Transition of the Sun from one Sign of the zodiac to the next is known as ‘Sankranti’. As there are 12 Signs in the Zodiac, there are eventually 12 Sankrantis as well. In fact the Sun does not move: it is planet Earth which revolves around the Sun with a tilt of 23.45 degrees, because of which it appears that the Sun travels north and south of the equator. What is celebrated on 14/15th January is known as ‘Makar Sankranti’. According to Hindu Scriptures each Sankranti has its own importance and spiritual significance.

Why is Makar Sankranti is given so much importance? First, it marks the start of ‘Uttarayana’, that is, movement of the Sun from tropic of Cancer to tropic of Capricorn. This transition lasts around 6 months. Much importance has been ascribed to Uttarayana and the Scriptures purport it as being a divine ‘day time’ period, therefore considered more auspicious than ‘Dakshinayana’, when the Sun moves from Capricorn to Cancer which is considered as the ‘night time’. In terms of spiritual sacrifice, Uttarayana is for enlightenment, a period of receptivity and of spiritual grace.

On the day of Makar Sankranti, special prayers are devotionally offered to Sun Deity for His goodwill on humanity. The Sun being in the centre of the solar system is the main source of light and energy to the whole universe – bringing warmth and light to the world that allow people, plants and animals to exist and thrive. Without the Sun the whole creation will disappear. The ‘Atharva Vedas’ and the ‘Markandey Purana’ sing the glory of the Sun as the cause of Creation, Sustenance and Dissolution of the universe.

During worship of the Sun as Deity, prayers are addressed to Him as Brilliant, Nourisher, Light of the world, King of Constellations and Sustainer along with hundreds of other names qualifying His goodwill and grace.

All these attributes of the Sun identified and glorified by our Vedic rishis or seers are perfectly in accord with what science (specifically physics, astronomy, cosmology) continues to uncover, such that there is a convergence between the two disciplines of science and spirituality. This only confirms that, at the end of the day, the quest of both disciplines is a search for that Great Truth which is reflected in all that exists, including us human beings. The rishis used the term Brahman for it, for western philosophers it is Ultimate Reality, and for the Abrahamic religions it is God.

All perfectly compatible with the Vedic vision expressed in the saying: Ekam Sat Vipra Bahuda Vadanti – Truth is One, Sages Call It by Various Names.

* Published in print edition on 17 January 2020

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