Why is Saturn the most feared graha?

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.

Budha (Mercury)

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.

Shukra (Venus)

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.

Angaraka/Mangal (Mars)

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. 

Guru (Jupiter)

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.

Shani (Saturn)

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.

The Indian Calendar System (The Indian Astrology Series)

Unlike the rest of the world, in India, we don’t have just one new year! Different communities from different parts of India celebrate their new years at different times . The new year of Tamils and Malayalees from the south, the Bengalis and Odiyas from the east and that of the Punjabis from up north falls in mid-April. Whereas in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, the start of a new year begins in mid-March. And quite differently, in Gujarat, it is celebrated at the time of Diwali.

So, why do we all have different new year beginnings?

Today, the world follows a standardised system of time keeping based on the Gregorian Calendar system. This calendar is a solar calendar, which is based on the movement of the earth around the sun.

The Gregorian Calendar

According to the Gregorian solar calendar, a year has 365 days and an extra day every fourth year (leap year). A solar year is divided into 12 months with some months having 31 days, some having 30 and February having 28 (0r 29 in a leap year). The year starts on January 1st and ends on December 31st.

Of course, we all know this! We follow this calendar for all practical purposes in India too. This Gregorian calendar system was adopted by India during the colonial era. But, what system of time-keeping did we follow before the Europeans arrived?

The indigenous calendar systems of course! Yes, there was not just one, but many systems of time-keeping in vogue in ancient India.

India has always been home to diverse communities and cultures. Each region, community or clan had evolved its own calendar system, based on its own needs. It is said that according to an assessment by the Government of India in 1952, there were at least 30 full-fledged calendar systems being followed in India.

Some of these were solar calendars, some others were lunar calendars.

So, what is a lunar calendar?

A lunar calendar is a calendar system based on the movement of the moon around the earth. The lunar cycle from new moon to new moon is roughly 29 and a half days. So a lunar month is slightly shorter than a solar month and a lunar year with 354 days is 11 days shorter than a solar year.

Although most Indian calendars follow the lunar cycle, they also try and align the year to the solar cycle that decides the seasons.

In order to reconcile the difference between the two calendar systems, every 3 years, a month is added to the lunar year, and the month is referred to as adhik maas.

Our calendars are luni-solar

So, in reality, most Indian calendars follow a luni-solar system that takes into account both the movement of the moon around the earth and the sun’s position in the sky as seen from the earth. This causes a difference to the start of the year and to the number of days in a year.

This is one of the reasons why the new year in the luni-solar calendars does not fall on the same day every year. For example, Ugadi that marks the start of a new year for the Telugu and Kannada people fell on March 25th in 2020, but was celebrated on April 6th in 2019 and on March 18th in 2018.

Apart from the adjustments made to reconcile the lunar and solar cycles, the new year is also decided by the specific calendar in use in a particular region.

In the Deccan region, particularly in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Telangana and Maharashtra, the the Shaliwahana or Shaka era calendar is followed. According to this calendar, the new year is celebrated on the first day of the waxing or growing moon in the month of Chaitra that stretches from mid-April to mid-May.

The Saka era calendar

In several parts of Western India and northern India, the Vikram era calendar is followed. According to this calendar, the new year begins with the Amavasya or new moon day in the month of Karthika that stretches from mid-October to mid-November.

The Vikram Samvat calendar

Whereas in Tamil Nadu and Kerala that follow the solar calendar, the new year falls on April 14th every year.  Several parts of Eastern India including Odisha and Bengal too follow a similar calendar and their new year too falls around  the same date.

The Tamil luni-solar calendar

On March 22nd, 1957, the Indian government adopted the Shalivahana or Shaka era calendar as the official calendar along with the Gregorian calendar.

The Government of Indian adopted the Saka era Calendar (along with the Gregorian Calendar) as the official calendar in 1957

Is Astrology a pseudo-science? (The Indian Astrology Series)

Today, when we think astrology or any other type of fortune telling, many of us tend to rubbish it off as a pseudo-science that makes a false claim to do the impossible by claiming to predict the future.

But is fortune telling really a pseudo-science that tries to exploit human vulnerability and play on our fear psychosis? Is it all about doomsday prophecies, or making rosy promises?

While the answers to the questions may not be simple or straight, it’d definitely help to know that fortune-telling evolved for a different purpose other than what we know it for, today.

When I say fortune-telling, I’m referring to astrology here. Of course, there are many other methods used to foretell the future, which we shall look at, maybe in one of the following videos. Right now, we’ll stick to astrology.

Let’s now go back a few thousand years to ancient India. The ancient man, who was still trying to figure out the laws of the complex world he lived in, probably found comfort in certain repetitive happenings and interesting patterns that he observed up in the sky.

Looking up at the sky, he noted that the celestial bodies followed a certain fixed path. For example, the sun always rose in a particular direction and set in the opposite direction. The phases of the moon followed a similar repetitive pattern in its journey across the sky from no moon to new moon.

And he observed that nature also followed a set pattern where the sun blazed away in a particular season, the rains fell in another, and the flowers bloomed at a particular time and so on. He soon realised that these patterns were cyclical and were related to the back and forth movement of the sun across the sky, as seen from the earth. He called it the natural cosmic order, Rta.

Similarly, he observed that the phases of the moon followed a 30-day cycle from new moon to new moon. So, he referred to the moon as Masakrit or the maker of months. The movement of the moon and the sun thus enabled Vedic man to arrive at the concept of months and year and create a calendar for time-keeping.

As I have already mentioned in my previous videos, the calendar system followed initially was primarily lunar, based on the movement of the moon across the star constellations called nakshatras. This may have been because the moon’s journey across the sky is far more noticeable in the night than the sun’s path during the day.  So, it’s only around the few centuries before the start of the Christian era that the rashi system based on the movement of the Sun was adopted and our calendars became luni-solar.

The initial development of astrology was based entirely on observation of the luminary bodies which explains why the subject is called Jyotisha, which is derived from the word Jyoti that means light in Sanskrit. The most ancient knowledge on this subject is found in the Vedas, where it’s included as an auxillary subject and is referred to as Vedanga.

But from where did man’s need for astrology arise? Why did he find the need to make predictions?

The need for astrology among Vedic Indians rose from their need to perform sacrificial rituals or Yagnas at appropriate and auspicious times. Yagnas or sacrifices, as you’d know, was Vedic man’s way of communicating with the gods in heavens, to seek their blessings. And these sacrifices were effective only if they were carried out strictly as per specifications laid down in the Vedic texts. 

So the ancient field of Jyotisha only dealt with time-keeping in order to ascertain the auspicious day and time as required for the Vedic rituals. In fact, a Vedic ritual called Gavaamayana was specifically dedicated to observing the daily movement of the Sun during the day and the disappearance of the moon in the night.

So, making prophesies about the future, as done today were not part of the early Jyotisha.

However, over time, man realised that what happened in the sky had a bearing on the life on earth too. For example, a particular hot summer caused by a harsh Sun or the failure of rains created distress for livings beings on the earth. An understanding of this inter-linkage and the cyclicality that he observed in the cosmic events led man to predict happenings on the earth based on certain happenings in the sky.

And this understanding led to the development of predictive astrology although the prophesies were made for the community at large and not for individuals. Our epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, are replete with references to astronomical references and in the context of the Mahabharata war, we find a detailed account of the planetary and stellar configurations that fortell an impending war of epic proportions.

Indian astrology is firmly rooted in the basic philosophy or world view of ancient Indians.

For Indians, cosmic order is cyclical. The time from creation to preservation to eventual destruction follows a cyclical order. This cyclicality forms the basis for the idea of rebirth. A man is born, he lives and then he dies, only to be born again. In such a worldview, events tend to repeat. These repetitive events thus become predictable.

But again, as people lived in small and closed groups and shared  a combined fortune, prophesies were made for societies and communities as a whole. It’s only in more recent years, that the concept of casting an individual’s horoscopes and predicting his or her fortune came into practice. This again is based on yet another philosophical idea integral to Indian culture.

In Indic religions that include Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, man’s life in this world is believed to follow a pattern that is determined by his actions, what is called Karma. So his own actions decide what happens to him either in this birth or the next, thus enabling predictions based on his current conduct or behaviour. The development of this idea led to the evolution of fortune-telling for individuals.

And there is one compelling logic that binds all these ideas, and that idea is called Brahman. Ancient Indians perceived themselves as an integral part of the larger Universe. The ancient man saw himself as the microcosm that was part of the larger macrocosm.

This idea of underlying oneness in the Universe was defined as Brahman. Based on this understanding, what happened in the distant heavens, such as the changes in the movements of distant planets was believed to have a bearing on life on earth.

To use a loose analogy, this idea is a bit like the idea of modern-day chaos theory, where a butterfly flapping its wings in Peking, China is believed to impact the weather systems in distant New York. This inter-connectedness of the Universe is deep and has not yet been fully understood by mankind.

Having said that, we must remember, ancient Vedic seers were among the first men to perceive this oneness and harness this knowledge to bring a little more order to our lives!

Akshaya Tritiya: When Every Second is Gold! (The Indian Astrology series)

Akshaya Tritiya, as you many of you may know, falls in the month of Vaishaka on the third day after amavasya i.e. in the phase of the growing or waxing moon.

Over the last couple of decades, Akshaya Tritiya, has come to be associated with the purchase of gold or some consumer durables for the house or investments in properties.

But was this day always about accumulating wealth and riches? Maybe not!

The name of this auspicious day itself probably holds a clue. Akshaya means perpetual or undiminishing, that which does not become less. And Tritiya refers to the third lunar day that falls either after the new moon or amavasya or after the full moon or the Purnima.

But what significance does the tritiya tithi have?

On pratama tithi of the growing moon, or the day that follows Amavasya, the moon is not visible to us. On Dwitiya tithi or the second day after Amavasya, the moon is visible as a slender sliver for a very short time in the sky, making it difficult to spot it. The tritiya tithi, or the third day after the Amavasya is when the moon can be spotted easily and it remains visible in the sky for a fairly long period of time.

Tritiya Tithi in the Waxing or Growing phase of the Moon

So it is really on the tritiya tithi that the moon starts to display its steady phase of growth. From this day, one can see the moon grow and grow till the Purnima tithi or the day of the full moon. The growing moon phase was always considered auspicious which explains why our festivals fall in this Shukla paksha, the phase of the growing moon and very rarely in Krishna paksha or the phase of the waning moon.

Tritiya tithi is thus believed to have the ability to bestow strength and is hence referred to as ‘bala prada’.

But Tritiya tithi of the Shukla paksha or the growing moon phase occurs once every month. So, what makes Akshaya Tritiya special?

For that we need to look at other astrological aspects of this day.

To get there, first we need to understand the concept of the tropical zodiac.

You may remember what I had shared on Nakshatra in my last blog post. To recapitulate, Nakshatras are basically segments of star constellations that fall in the moon’s orbit around the earth. The constellations through which the moon is seen to transit have been divided into 27 segments, each of which is denoted by a prominent star in that constellation.

The Nakshtatras or the Sidereal Zodiac

Similarly, the sun’s orbit, as seen from the earth, is divided into 12 segments called the tropical Zodiac or the Rashis. The Sun’s transit through each of these 12 segments makes up for a month in the solar calendar.

The Rashis or the Tropical Zodiac

Each of these 12 Rashis is denoted by a name such as Mesha or Aries, Rishabha or Taurus, Mithuna or Gemini, Kataka or Cancer and so on in that order.

Names of the Rashis

Now, what makes Akshaya Tritiya more special is that the positions of the sun and the moon in these zodiacs are the best positions they can ever be in. Let me explain.

We all know there are nine planets or grahas in Indian astrology. All these nine planets or grahas are believed to have heightened powers when they are in a particular zodiac. The zodiac where a celestial body’s powers are heightened is called its position of exaltation.

The Sun is exalted in the zodiac of Mesha or Aries, which marks the onset of summer, the period from which the sun’s intensity is set to continuously increase.  At the same time, the moon is also exalted in the zodiac of the Rishabha or Taurus.   

Both the Sun and the Moon on adjacent zodiacs in exalted positions

And it is this combination of exaltation of both the sun and the moon achieved on the Tritiya tithi of the month of Vaishaka, which makes the day especially auspicious.  For this reason, it is one of those rare days in a year when every second of the day is considered auspicious, which makes it a full ‘muhurat’ day.

Of course, as with many of our festivals, Akshaya Tritiya too is related to the crop cycle. In Odisha for instance, farmers start cultivation of their lands on this day. It is also the day when work starts on the construction of the chariot for Puri Jagannath’s Rath Yatra. In some other regions, this day is considered appropriate to donate money and give away charity. Some people observe fasts on this day. Of course, it was also considered a good day to start new ventures and buy valuables.

And it is this last aspect that the gold vendors in our country have capitalised well and made a fortune for themselves!

But for the astronomers and astrologers of ancient India, this day was considered an astrologically significant event when the first signs of the growing visible moon of Vaiskaha was seen in Taurus, the zodiac of its exhaltation, along with an exalted Sun in Aries.

And this celestial phenomenon is what made Askhaya Tritiya special for them!