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The 14th of January is observed in Prashanti Nilayam as Sankaranthi. This is an important festival in India, and on this day, what happens in Prashanti Nilayam is that Bhagavan Baba distributes Prizes to those who participated in the Annual Sports and Cultural Festival that takes place three days earlier on January 11th. If you recall, it was on one such occasion, in 1999 to be precise, that Swami revealed the grievous injury that He took upon Himself to save some students who were attempting dare-devil stunts on sports day. What exactly is Sankaranthi and what is its significance? That is what I shall discuss presently.

 EarthseasonsLet us start with the motion of the Earth around the Sun. The axis of rotation of the Earth is tilted at an angle of about 22 degrees with respect to the plane on which the Earth moves around the Sun. This is the reason why we have the seasons. By the way, Pole star is directly in line with the axis of rotation, in the North of course.

Now when the Earth goes round, there are four important days; these are: 1) Vernal equinox which falls on March 20, 2) Summer solstice which falls on June 21, 3) Autumnal equinox which falls on September 23, and 4) Winter solstice which falls on December 21. In what way are these days special?

Let us start with Summer solstice which falls on June 21. In the northern hemisphere, this is the longest day. And in a place in Norway, on that day the Sun never sets! In fact, lots of tourists go there to celebrate that day. On that day, the Sun is exactly over the Tropic of Cancer, its highest point in the northern hemisphere. From June to August, the Sun starts moving towards the southern hemisphere, and on August 23 which is the Autumnal equinox, the Sun is right over the Equator all set to cross over to the southern hemisphere.

On now to Winter solstice which falls on December 21. This is the longest day in the southern hemisphere for Bheeshmathe Sun is now directly over the Tropic of Capricorn. In the northern hemisphere, however, this is the longest night. From December to March, the Sun starts moving towards the Equator, and for people in the northern hemisphere this means the return of the Sun to the north. On March 20, the Sun is exactly over the equator, poised to travel towards the Tropic of Cancer.

Focus now on December 20th. This is the day when the Sun starts its northward journey. For people in the northern hemisphere this is a moment of joy, because the long dark nights would finally be over. The Sun would be back, and winter would give way to spring. This business of solstice, equinox etc., follows regularly year after year. Enter now a human error.

We all know that the calendar year is 365 ¼ days. Actually we close the year at 365 days and add one more day every four years to correct for the shortfall - that is how we have the leap years. Thousands of years ago, people were not that accurate and took the solar year to be 365 days. This meant that every year they were making an error of ¼ day, and over centuries this added up. Long ago when ancient Hindus formulated the almanac, the Sun actually started its northern trip on Janurary 14th. This was the day of the Winter solstice then. However, people hung on to the notion that the year had 365 days and this is what caused the problem. Over the centuries, the day of return moved away from January 14th; it was now much earlier. For a long time, people did not realise this, and all sorts of errors crept into the calendar. But finally they woke up.

The long and short of all this is that in 1582, Pope Gregory reset the calendar. That is the calendar we now follow and it is called the Gregorian calendar. With this resetting, Winter solstice now falls on December 21, the correct day. But those who have not corrected the calendar follow the old date, January 14th in India. In fact, this has happened even with respect to Christmas. In the State of Kerala, we have Christians who came in the third century A.D. They are known as Syrian Christians and they celebrate Christmas some time in January as, I believe, followers of the Russian Orthodox also do.

In short, Sankaranthi is linked to the return of the Sun to the northern hemisphere from the south. January 14th, the day on which it is celebrated was the correct date thousands of years ago; now, it is not, though the celebrations, in keeping with ancient traditions are still held on that day.

Let us now look at the spiritual implications. Interestingly, deeper significance has been attached to this event by all ancient societies, the pagans of Europe for example. What about India, and what does Swami have to say about it?

The return of the Sun to the north was referred to by ancient Indians as Uttarayana. Swami says:

Ayana means journeying. When the apparent movement of the Sun is northwards, the period is called Uttarayana [Uttara means north]. When the apparent movement is southward, it is called Dakshinayana [Dakshina means south]. The period of Uttarayana is marked by brightness, peace, rejoicing, fearlessness, and purity. Dakshinayana is characterised by darkness, absence of peace, fear, and distress.

In the Gita, Krishna makes a passing reference to these two journeys of the Sun, and based on this people began to assume that if one died or gave up the body in the Uttarayana period then one got liberated while if one died in the Dakshinayana period it meant continued bondage or rebirth. Brightness meant heaven while darkness meant something not desirable. What gave greater credence to this belief was the famous story of Bhishma of Mahabharatha who held on to life and gave up his body only after the onset of Uttarayana. But is all this belief really true? I mean is one really liberated when one dies when the Sun is up north? If it were, then there would be a strange anomaly for people in Australia, South Africa, Latin America and so on, because they too would get liberated even though for them the Sun was not in their hemisphere! Obviously, this cannot be true, and there must be something deeper in all this. What is that and what is the correct way to interpret what Krishna says? Swami has given the answer. He says:

Uttarayana is no doubt the period when there is no dot of cloud or whiff of fog contaminating the vast dome and the Sun shines in all his glory. This is the gross meaning. But there is a subtle meaning too. The Heart is the Inner sky. There the Sun that shines is Buddhi or Intelligence. When the cloud of ignorance, the fog of egoism, and the smoke of attachment hover in the Inner sky, the Sun of Intelligence is hidden and things look murky. The Uttarayana of the Heart is when the Inner sky is clear of all these, and the Sun of Intelligence shines in full splendour.

Those who pass away in the other half of the year, the Dakshinayana, have the opposite destiny; then the Heart is beset with smoke, fog and cloud. The Sun is hidden, and its effulgence has no splendour. The real Uttarayana is when you crave for the thought of the Lord and the company of Glory.

In effect therefore, dying in Uttarayana means drawing the last breath with the thought of the Lord in one's Mind. We pray: From darkness lead us to Light. Indeed, when light fills the Heart, the time of death does not really matter. That is the real message of Sankaranthi.

Jai Sai Ram



Volume - 2 Issue - 2 Radiosai Journal - PSN 2004