Mohini (Visnu) beheads Svarbhanu (Rahu). Artwork by Jadurani Devi Dasi.

Visnu as Mohini beheading Svārbhanu (Rahu). Artwork by Jadurani Devi Dasi.

Svarbhānu (स्वरभानु) is a Hindu Asura (demon) traditionally held responsible for solar eclipses in Vedic mythology. The name, which translates as “Splendour of Radiance,” is also used as an attribute of Rahu, who is also connected to solar eclipses. Svara translates as, “accents.”

Svarbhānu was an assistant of Śūkra (Venus), the teacher of the Asuras, who drank the Amrita offered by Visnu (as Mohini) as Visnu was trying to distract the Asuras by dancing (Mohini Artham). Visnu, who flung his cakra at Svarbhānu’s neck, was too late, as Svarbhānu had already began to ingest the nectar, thereby achieving immortality as two separate, polar opposite beings who represent the north and south nodes of the Moon: Rahu (Svarbhānu’s head) and Ketu (Svarbhānu’s body). Surya is described in the Mahavbharata as an “enemy of Svarbhānu,” as it was due to Surya and Candra’s calling out of his identity and consumption of the Amrita that turned Svarbhānu on the luminaries.

Svarbhānu & Eclipses

Svarbhānu can be found in the Ṛgveda (Rig Veda), the Mahabharata, the Hari-Vaṃśa, the Black Yajurveda, and the Brahmanas.

According to two descriptions in the Family Books of the Rig Veda, Svarbhānu is an Asura. The Ṛgveda describes how he strikes the Sun and overshadows it with darkness. As only another body of proportional influence can overpower the light and power of the Sun, casting a shadow on us, such an act elevates Svarbhānu to a position greater than that of the Sun.1 According to the Brahmanas, Svarbhānu pierced the Sun as Āditya with darkness, while the Mahabharata tells of how Svarbhānu strikes both Surya and Candra with arrows. The gods are said to set Āditya free by means of svara (accents). According to the Ṛgveda, Indra (the king of the heavens) strikes down Svarbhānu. Both the Ṛgveda and the Mahabharata recalls that the sage Atri finds the hidden Sun and replaces it.

Other Identities and Incarnations

According to the text Hari-vaṃśa, Svarbhānu ushered Kalanemi (the son of the asura Virochana, brother of Mahabali, and later incarnation of Kamsa) through the galaxy. In a Purana, Svarbhānu is also described as son of the goddess Siṃhikā (‘Little Lioness’).

According to the Mahabharata, Svarbhānu is incarnated as Ugrasena (the King of Mathura who succeeded King Kamsa) and denotes Rahu.

  1. Stella Kramrisch