Bed of Nails and Ratha Sapthami

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Bhishma Ashtami and the Bed of Nails

In this post I explore the connection between Bed of Nails and Bhishma Ashtami. Did the idea of the bed of nails originate from the time of Mahabharata? Bhishma lay on a bed of arrows. He waited for Ratha Saptami day in the month of Magh to pass. (Ratha refers to the Chariot of the Sun) The following day, namely, Ashtami, is still remembered by his name.

Two popular images defined India as an exotic destination in the sixties. They were the nail of bed and snake charmers. The Nail of bed drew the attention of westerners, once again, a decade back, this time as a therapy. The New York Times ran an article about this trend in 2014. During the colonial era, Britishers living in India experienced thrill upon encountering an ascetic sitting on bed of nails. However, sitting on a nail of bed has never been a common custom among Indians. On the other hand, Indians know a popular story about the nail of bed. This story goes back several millennia in the collective memory of India. The Mahabharata text documents in detail the incidents surrounding the decision of the great Warrior-Yogi Bhishma to lay on a bed of arrows while awaiting his death.

Bhishma, the great warrior had received a boon during his youth to choose the time of his death. In his ripe old age, he fell down from his chariot, mortally injured, in the great war. He chooses a bed of nails and waits for the right time to drop his mortal body. As a great Yogi, he knew the significance of one’s time of death to the nature of their next birth. Bhishma had taken birth because of a curse. He did not want his life on earth to lead him towards a long chain of subsequent births. The Sapthami day, when the moon is in her 7th waxing phase in the month of Magha could guarantee this to him. Such a combination occurs in late February when the moon is in close proximity to Aldebaran.

Ratha Sapthami

The combination described above is revered in India as the Ratha Sapthami day. The following day is called Bhishma Ashtami in the memory of an enlightened warrior and his life of sacrifice. The record of Ratha Sapthami in the Mahabharata is an archeoastronomy marker. Together with a few other such markers in this text, researchers and archeologists are today able to affirm the time of the great War in India.

Bed of nails reminds us of Bhishma
Bed of nails reminds of Ratha Sapthami day
What is special about Ratha Sapthami day?

One of the eighteen major Purana texts, namely, Bhavishya Purana describes the specialty of the Sapthami Thithi (Phase of the Moon). Sapthami is the special Thithi for the Sun. The Bhavishya Purana covers the subject of Sapthami Thithi from Chapters 47 to Chapter 216. Chapter116 describes the importance of Ratha Sapthami rituals.

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