The navagrahas or nine ‘planets’ are an integral part of Indian astrology. Each of these grahas is associated with a specific guna or trait. And their unique attributes are conveyed in the form of little myths and stories in the manuals on astronomy and astrology.
Planets like Jupiter, Moon and Venus are considered naturally benefic. They shower benefits on a person depending upon their placement in his or her horoscope.
Grahas like the Sun, Mars, Rahu, Ketu and Saturn, on the other hand, are considered malefics, which means by nature they are prone to causing harm, and invariably they are believed do so but in varying degrees depending again upon the placement of these planets in a person’s birth chart or horoscope.
Surya (The Sun)
The Sun or Surya is a powerful, hot, fiery graha, malefic by nature, and is associated with the father or father-figure in a person’s horoscope. Of course, consistent with our other scriptures, in Jyotisha too, the Sun is known as the bestower of intellectual brilliance. The sun is the source of all creation and is identified with the soul. In our mythology, the Sun is also the father of yama, shani and the rivers Yamuna and Tapati.
Chandra (The Moon)
As we’ve already seen (What does our Panchanga tell us?) the Moon makes a journey through the 27 Nakshatras in the sky. In our mythology, these 27 nakshatras are considered to be his wives and the moon is believed to spend time with each of them. But according to a story, he didn’t divide his time equally among all his wives. Instead, he spent most of his time with the brightest nakshatra named Rohini, which made his other wives jealous. The story goes on further, but what is interesting here is probably what the myth is trying to tell us about a celestial phenomenon called Occultation.
Occultation is a phenomenon where the moon in the course of its revolution around the earth sometime reaches a particular position in its orbit from where it obstructs the view of a star for an observer on the earth. Modern astronomers point out that the myth about the moon spending too much time in Rohini was born probably because Rohini may have had the most number of occultations.
Mercury or Budha is the planet closest to the Sun in the solar system. According to Jyotisha, Budha is neither malefic nor benefic but a neutral graha. He becomes either malefic or benefic depending upon his position vis-à-vis other planets. Budha rules over speech and is associated with mental dexterity and intelligence. In Indian mythology, he is considered the son of the Moon and Tara, the wife of Jupiter or Guru.
Venus or Shukra is the brightest planet in our solar system. Shukra is a benefic planet and is the lord of all material luxuries and enjoyments in life. In Indian mythology, Shukra, as the guru of the asuras, is believed to possess Sanjivani Vidya or the knowledge to bring back the dead. This myth may again have arisen from the observation of a celestial phenomenon.
As we all know, Venus’s orbit is very close to the Sun. So, it disappears from an observer’s view on earth for long periods of time, but eventually appears at the other end of the horizon when it has moved away from the Sun.
This repeated disappearance and reappearance of the planet in the sky may have reminded man of the ideas of death and rebirth, which may have found a mythical parallel in the story about the planet’s (Shukracharya’s) ability to bring back the dead.
Mars is the planet closest to earth and is often referred to as the Red planet. The iron oxide deposits on its surface gives Mars its red colour. Because he glows like the red-hot coals, he is referred to as Angaraka. And possibly because of the red colour, Mars is identified as a warrior god across cultures.
In Indian mythology, Angaraka is identified closely with Karthikeya, the warrior deity, known for his vigour and virility. According to another story Angaraka’s origin is traced to the story of Daskha’s sacrifice, to which Shiva was not invited.
In anger over Daksha’s insult of her husband, Sati immolated herself. Which infuriated Shiva and he set out to destroy the world. That’s was when the terrible demon Virabhadra was born out of Shiva’s sweat. Virabhadra destroyed the sacrifice of Daksha and the same Virabhadra was later blessed by Shiva to become a planet in the sky known as Angaraka.
This myth is an expression of the cruel, malefic nature of Angaraka or Mangal as he is popularly known. Which also explains why Mars is frequently associated with war and fire accidents.
Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system and in Indian astrology, this graha is referred to as Guru. By virtue of being the biggest planet and the most benefic of all the grahas, he is considered the Guru or the teacher. In our mythology, he is the guru of the devas. Being a powerful graha, Guru’s beneficial placement in a person’s horoscope is believed to allow a person even to get away with crime.
And now for the most interesting planet of all, a planet that everyone is terrified of – Saturn or Shani. Of the five planets counted among the nava grahas, Saturn is the farthest planet in our solar system and is hence the slowest to go around the sun. Hence, he is referred to as ‘shanaishcharaha’ or the slow mover. In Jyotisha, he is considered a malefic whose gaze on a person can completely destroy a person’s fortunes.
Because of its distance from the Sun, Saturn also symbolises isolation. A story from the Indian mythology can best illustrate this idea. And that is the story of Nala in the Nala-Damayanti story from the Mahabharata. The misfortunes that Nala, the king of the Nishadas faced, when he lost his kingdom in a game of dice, his separation from his wife and children, his loss of personality when he turned into a hunchback, all these are attributed to Saturn’s transit through his horoscope. During the period of 7 and a half years, commonly known as sade sati, Nala faced isolation from his kingdom and his family.
But what makes Shani such a scary graha?
That is because Shani is the force of fate, the force that makes one experience his or her karma. He ensures that no one escapes the fruits of his or her action. Shani is associated often with his brother, Yama and lords over time, misfortunes and bereavements. Because of his association with death, and also possibly because of his distance from the Sun, he is associated with the colour black.
Rahu and Ketu
Now for Rahu and Ketu, who are merely shadow planets. As we already know (What does our Horoscope tell us?), Rahu and Ketu are not really planets, but merely represent the nodal points where the orbits of the Sun and the moon intersect. These are the points at which eclipses form.
What is interesting here is that the Rig Veda mentions Svarbhanu, a demon that causes eclipses. The story of Svarabhanu later evolved into a myth where a snake was believed to swallow the moon during the lunar eclipse. Over time, svarbhanu came to be identified with rahu and ketu, which are today counted among the nine grahas. The very word graha means to catch or seize. By this definition Rahu and Ketu were indeed grahas, as they seized the sun and the moon thus creating eclipses.
Because of their demonic qualities and their ability to create illusions in the form of eclipses, these grahas were considered malefic in nature.