We begin to speak of a figure often veiled, an astrological potent who is, by definition, ‘obscure’ – and that, in the archaic Latin sense. The Graha – Rahu.
Now before getting any further, it is necessary to provide a very brief overview of some relevant Hindu astrological understandings. The piece will unlikely make much sense to others without them.
In Jyotisha [‘Astrology’ – the ‘Jyoti’ meaning (Star)Light], there are Nine Graha. Often you will hear these referred to as ‘Nine Planets’ – however that … isn’t quite accurate. And it loses something relative to the true understanding.
Graha does not mean ‘Planet’. Rather, it means ‘Seizer’, ‘Influencer’ – indeed, the ‘Grah’ that ‘Graha’ is from is reasonably cognate with modern English ‘Grab’. You often find ‘Graha’ translated as ‘Planet’ in an astrological context precisely because the influence of the various astronomical bodies in question is held to ‘Seize’, to ‘Influence’ the person. However, as we can see, that is a figurative translation which skips the step – over-conflating the ‘causation’ (i.e. the planet) with the impact (the ‘grabbing’).
There are Nine Grahas in the Hindu reckoning. Seven of these are reasonably conventional and should be instantly familiar to a Western ken. They are: the Sun (Surya), the Moon (Chandra, or Soma), Mars (Mangala), Mercury (Budha, or Soumya – ‘[Son] Of the Moon’, perhaps ‘Little Moon’ as a diminutive), Jupiter (Brihaspati / Guru), Venus (Shukra), and Shaani (Saturn). As can be seen, these also directly correlate to the Days of the Week in our post-Roman reckoning. However, just as there are important distinctions between, say, the Roman ‘Days of the Week’ and the Germanic mythology which some Christian sorts sought to overlay these upon – so too are there important distinctions to be made between certain of the figures aforementioned in Hindu terms and the Roman (or Greek, etc.) mythological equivalents we would otherwise reach towards. But more upon various of those some other time (and I have already penned several pieces of direct relevancy here).
The other two Graha are something different. They are Rahu and Ketu. And as for what these Graha are … well, it is slightly complicated to explain.
A (perhaps overly simplistic) explication would construe Rahu & Ketu as ‘dark bodies’ that are supposed to intersperse between us down here on Earth and the Sun and the Moon. Phrased another way, these Graha effectively represent an Eclipse – but not in the simple manner of one of the conventionally identified celestial bodies interceding in between Earth and another. Rather, these two ‘Eclipses’ are thought of as being celestial bodies in and of themselves. Hence, even when there is not a literal Eclipse occurring, these Eclipses nevertheless continue to exist – Eclipses In Potentia, or Eclipses just waiting to become visible to us via actual conjunction we may say. It’s a fascinating concept, and remarkable in the mathematics that must surely have gone into calculating the movement of these quite literally invisible figures.
As ever, we find that the astrology is correlate to the mythology. In this particular case, a figure by the name of Svarbhanu (often translated as ‘Radiance (Svar) of the Sun (Bhanu)’, ‘Heaven’s (Svar) Radiance (Bhanu)’, or the like – however given events, I would postulate ‘Censure (Svar) the Sun (Bhanu)’ to be more apt) is said to have snuck in at a distribution of Amrit [‘A-‘ (opposite of), ‘Mrit’ (death) being the Elixir of Immortality] and managed to drink a certain portion before being detected – this imbibification meaning that the subsequent sanction of decapitation meted out to Svarbhanu did not kill the being. Instead, the Head of Svarbhanu is reputed to have become Rahu, whilst the tail became another figure by the name of Ketu. A vendetta against the Sun and Moon for leading to Svarbhanu’s discovery and decapitation is purported to underpin the motion of Rahu and Ketu to cause eclipses of these – although as Rahu has been decapitated, this therefore means that the Sun being swallowed can only ever be a decidedly ‘temporary’ phenomenon. It comes out the neck as the result.
The Svarbhanu attestation we find in the RigVeda (V 40) presents a narrative of the Sun (Surya) being darkened via baleful magics wielded by the fiend, afore this situation is reversed by the sage Atri undertaking proper rites which enable the Sun to become ‘found’ again and cast off the gloom which has settled upon it. The noted modern Vedic commentator Manasataramgini has read this as Atri undertaking “astronomical observations” which then confirm the Sun’s eventual return from behind the Eclipse, and it is certainly plausible.
Certainly, we can be fairly confident that ‘astronomical observation’ had been occurring within the Vedic Age – not merely in the sense of being able to chart where and when given planets or stars were to be found within the night’s sky … but consciously and conspicuously incorporating endogenous development which refined the theorizing and consequent mythology involved in same.
How can we tell this? Because we see the movement from RV V 40’s description of an eclipse as being caused by a demon darkening the Sun through supernatural potency, through to later Vedic texts wherein instead the confrontation is effectively re-cast as one of Sun and Moon. That is to say, the Moon fulfilling an ‘adversarial’ role and attempting to ‘conquer’ the Sun – as we see in the Shatapatha Brahmana, which builds upon the involvement of Indra in RV V 40 to cast Indra’s victory over Vritra in similar terms to the later Svarbhanu mythology. In SB I 6 3 17 we find Indra dismembering Vritra, with the head (which had Soma within it) becoming the Moon. In the next Brahmana, I 6 4, we find Indra cast in explicitly Solar terms as the Sun for this confrontation with the oncoming Vritra Moon. An encounter which, of course, Indra wins handily, causing the Moon to disappear for a time, having been devoured by the Sun (Although it must be noted that, as with various other narrative accounts in the Brahmanas, this is the encoding of a ritual process in story form for ease of recollection and preservation – and ought not, perhaps, be taken mytho-literally. After all, obtaining Soma by killing Vritra would make little sense, given that it is only with Soma that Indra is able to kill Vritra in the main Samhita versions of the combat). Manasataramgini has, of course, identified other texts wherein it is clear that such developments have occurred – and resulted in religious or mythically framed perspectives which nevertheless communicate a quite accurate scientific truth. He points toward the Brahmanda Purana’s (correct) ascribing of eclipses to shadows (and in the particular case involved, the shadow of the Earth) as tangible evidence toward that fact – Svarbhanu here being presented as just exactly that: Shadow.
But let us return to concepts of ‘Graha’ and ‘Rahu’.
Rahu is, etymologically, from the same root as Graha and Grab – PIE *Ghrebh. We find a Rahu prominently mentioned in AtharvaVeda XIX 9, which I’ll quote verses of in a slightly altered Whitney translation because I think it sounds cool:
“7 Weal for us be Mitra, weal Varuna, weal Vivasvant, weal the destroyer (ántaka), [weal] the portents from Earth and from Atmosphere, weal for us the planets [Graha] moving in the Sky.
8 Weal for us be the quaking (vip) Earth, and weal what is meteor-smitten; weal be the red-milked kine, weal the Earth when cleaving down.
9 Be the meteor-smitten asterism [constellation] weal for us; weal for us the enchantments and weal be the witchcrafts; weal for us the buried spells (valagá), weal the meteors; and weal be for us the land-plagues.
10 Weal for us be the Planets belonging to the Moon, and weal the Sun (ādityá) with Rāhu; weal for us smoke-bannered death, weal the Rudras of keen brightness.”
And, in case some of that was a little obscurely phrased – here’s Griffith:
“7 Favour us Mitra, Varuna, Vivasvan, and the Finisher,
Portents on Earth and in the Air, and Planets wandering in Heaven!
8 Gracious to us be trembling Earth, gracious the flaming meteor stroke!
Gracious be kine who yield red milk, gracious be Earth when sinking down!
9 Gracious be meteor-stricken constellation, gracious to us be magic spells and witchcraft!
Gracious to us be buried charms, and gracious the meteors and the portents of the region!
10 Kind be the Powers Who seize the Moon, with Rāhu be Ādityas kind!
Favour us Death and Comet, and Rudras with penetrating might!”
Now in terms of what’s actually going on here, the Hymnal in question is a generalized apotropaic one. It therefore invokes quite the array of potential protective (or, alternatively, wrathful against one) figures in order to ask for protection and positive treatment. And, unsurprisingly, we find the Graha identified amidst these.
One particular point of interest concerns what Griffith had rendered as ‘Comet’ and Whitney as ‘Smoke-Bannered’ – as this is ‘Dhumaketu’ in the original Sanskrit. ‘Dhuma’, of course, can mean ‘Smoke’ – however there is some considerable disagreement amidst recent commentators as to which of several possible senses ‘Ketu’ is intended to communicate here. Certainly, we have archaic Hindu usage for ‘Ketu’ in the sense of comets and meteors, and it might contextually fit here. And I would go so far as to suggest that it is an entirely artificial distinction to insist that simply because ‘Ketu’ may also mean ‘Banner’, ‘Sign’ … that this cannot, therefore, also mean ‘Comet’. After all, we are well familiar with the notion of a Comet presenting an Omen or Portent even in the modern day – often as a sign of soon-to-be-impending War and Death. A ‘Smoke-Tail’ would be an interesting figurative way to describe such a visual phenomenon, and it would additionally make sense for us to find first mention of Rahu and then a ‘Ketu’ that is a prominent Tail.
Yet why is this archaic Vedic hymnal relevant for us, here, today?
Well, leaving aside that archaic Vedic hymnals are always relevant for us, here, today …
A gifted Astrologer associate of mine has noted a bit of a tendency when recommending to his clients various Rahu related interventions for their circumstances and their birth-charts for … hesitancy at actually seeking to propitiate such a force.
Now this is, perhaps, understandable. I am a conservative man when it comes to matters of religion, and the idea of what looks like “demon-worship” is something that I have frequently railed against when it comes up from quarters seeking to literally engage in such as part of ‘their side’s’ effort at overthrowing the Gods and the immanency of Cosmic Law here in this universe of ours.
However, the propitiation of Rahu (or, for that matter, in a slightly different way, Ketu) has never seemed like that to me. Partially this is because it is a normal and accepted part of our palette of proper piety – and has been so for, evidently, millennia on end. It is something to be ‘cautious’ in the approach of, of course, as with invoking any such potentially wrathful force. These are not as ‘forgiving’ for wrong conduct in the approach, even if genuinely unintended.
But partially it is because that the reason for Rahu influence – and consequent necessity for propitiation, for some of us – upon human beings and our circumstance is not truly comparable to that of those malefic demonic entities supported by malevolent cults in the dark corners of the world and/or internet. Rahu and Ketu were something, and have become something else. What is that ‘something else’? Divinely mandated. That is how Rahu became placed in the Heavens and granted such influence over the affairs of men. Something that manifests, in part, in a similar manner to a baleful (yet unquestionably Divine) fellow Graha – Shaani (Saturn), wherein the sins and shortcomings of mankind are observed and opportunities for penitence thusly afforded. Which, of course, can look an awful lot like ‘enemy action’ to the sinful. And yet, when looked upon from the appropriate (high) vantage point – in fact demonstrates itself to be a fundamental act of ‘Ordering’ (bringing order) to our quotient of the universe.
Multiple perspectives presented in, for instance, the Skanda Purana, show Rahu as having ‘patched over’ from the side of the Daityas [‘opposite-to-Adityas’, ‘limiters’, ‘demons’] – particularly via the rather direct intervention of Lord Shiva. Which, of course, helps to explain the not-infrequently encountered maxim that Lord Rahu ‘stands within the Heart of Shiva’. Certainly, we have the prominent records of Rahu’s expressions of piety via Lingam obeisance – however while some might point out that Lord Shiva is a noted accepter of Demonic worshippers who nevertheless do not truly give up doing Demonic things (Ravana, for instance, Who failed at His opportunity for true Redemption) … that tends to be the shortcoming of the demons in question rather than a shortcoming of Mahadev in His Discernment. He gives everybody ‘a chance’. And then, we often find that in fact the force which thence lays the unpenitent demons low is, similarly, Lord Shiva’s in ultimate expression and tangible execution. With Lord Rahu ? We have a somewhat different scenario: that of Rahu having been emplaced and empanelled to do a particular job for The Gods, and doing it well.
The saliency of ‘decapitation’ in Hindu iconography – wherein it often represents that a figure has become rather more enlightened, more humble, been corrected (especially by Lord Shiva with the aid of an axe – an adroit mechanism for cutting a troublesome ego ‘down to size’) or otherwise improved in terms of their character and congruence with the Divine Order upon who or what they were before – may likewise be resonant in the situation of Rahu. After all, a Daitya by origination that becomes a Divine Servant via orientation must have entailed quite some ‘self-overcoming’ indeed. And just as we see decapitation in the context of overcoming hubris (ego) as pertaining to the triumphing over illusion via superior realization which unveils the truth … well, so too do we find Rahu’s situation in relation to the burdensome illusions and their abatement.
Now at this point, it may seem even so utter madness to propitiate a force Who is capable of – even if only temporarily – Swallowing the Sun ! Is not the Solar Disc the high expression of light, life, love, and righteousness? Did not the fiend Svarbhanu act malefically in attacking Surya in the RigVeda? Do we not see that aforementioned combat of Indra and Vritra cast in such Solar Eclipse terminology elsewhere? Well, yes – but there is quite a vital distinction to be made between what is going on in those combats and the understanding of Rahu. Whereas Svarbhanu is said in the RV to have actively managed to harm the Sun, piercing the Sun with assailing forces in order to cause genuine injury which must be recovered from with the help of the priestly piety and a very big thunderbolt … with Rahu it is quite different. There is only the appearance of the Sun having been imperilled – it passes through Rahu’s mouth and out the other side. Or, looking at it another way, the ‘illusion’ and ‘shadow’ of Rahu (for Rahu presides over Illusion) intercedes, Veils the Sun, and causes a very great terror – a potent, necessary tribulation which encourages men to penitence. And hence why we also find in the Smritis such mentions for the time of Rahu’s intercession as being an ideal opportunity to engage in proper purifactionary conduct.
Meanwhile, in those AtharvaVeda verses that I had quoted earlier, we find another interesting dimension – namely, that of Rahu being hailed (in the sense of asking that He not be wrathful with us and instead (positively) kind and propitious) alongside The Rudras. The Rudras, of course, being the potent ‘tribe’ and/or collection of emanatory expressions and even ‘family’ of Lord Shiva. Often in the Vedas when Rudra is invoked it is in a similar sense – asking the God not to carry out immense and terrifying acts of destruction, to divert His cataclysmic attentions elsewhere. Although it also must be acknowledged that in other hymnals in the veer-y same Shruti layers of texts, we find the positive attentions and care of Rudra asked for – particularly in the provision of medicine and bountiful results as we have elsewhere proclaimed it. Now I do not seek to suggest Rudra to be the Gana to which Rahu belongs, however the ‘resonancy’ which evidently induced the Seer of this Hymnal to place ‘the Rudras’ in the relevant line is interesting. Particularly as there are other mentions of The Rudras (in plural) and, of course, Antaka (‘The Destroyer’ – also encountered to refer to Yama) elsewhere in the hymnal and so little need to repeat the Rudras invocation unless there were particular reason to do so.
Still, if it makes one feel more comfortable with the concept – it is certainly possible to think of much of what we do for Rahu propitiation in similar terms to what we see in that AV Hymnal. Not so much ‘worship’ in the sense of the active strengthening and service that one carries out for The Gods – but rather, the aforementioned apotropaic endeavour wherein the devastating forces associated with the Graha are instead averted. ‘Negative’ rather than ‘Positive’ engagement we might (respectfully) suggest.
However, to speak further toward that AtharvaVeda Hymnal, it provides additional details for illumination (rather than illusion) of the true understanding for Rahu and Ketu within our cosmos. And ‘Cosmos’ is exactly the right word – especially given its Ancient Greek connotations of a ‘Realm Under Order’, ‘Order’ Itself.
The motion of the Grahas is regular, predictable, Orderly. We can chart these out, mathematically analyze the courses, and confidently assert that Jupiter or Saturn shall be in a given position on any given night with an incredible degree of horological accuracy. Even if these are on entirely the opposite side of the Sun, we know where these planets are. It is no different viz. Rahu and Ketu. They are Grahas precisely because we know where these two are to be. They are regular and predictable in motion, even though upon the surface the consequences of that motion may seem initially somewhat terrifying or disruptive to the perceived immanency of the Cosmic Order.
In short, what we are seeing viz. Rahu (and also Ketu) is not Capital C Chaos in the sense of the active and demoniacal opposition to Rta, Orlog, Cosmic Order – but rather, its active upholding through means and mechanisms that though they may seem anarchic or immoral … are actually precisely the opposite. As the late Terry Pratchett put it – “There are different kinds of rules. From the simple comes the complex, and from the complex comes a different kind of simplicity. Chaos is order in a mask.”
Now an additional form of proof for this is to be found in the considered association of Rahu and Ketu with Comets and Meteors. On the one hand, the famed Hindu astronomical commentator Varahamira (and he is not alone in this) makes a point of stating comets to be, in effect, ‘beyond prediction’. This is a man who put huge effort into the scientific, the mathematical analysis of the Heavens and the motion of the bodies therein (actively disparaging to some extent, more ‘superstitious’ approaches of the past) – and to him, the comet is a body operating outside what framework of ken he could devise. Except if we look at the saliency for comets meteors in the Vedas, another picture emerges – certainly, we have this ‘Ensign of Death’ [DhumaKetu] in the AtharvaVeda, yet we also have mention of meteors wielded as divine weapons … indeed as the Vajra Itself (i.e. the reified instrument of Cosmic Order) by Brihaspati to smite a certain demon-dragon. And utilizing our modern-day analytical methods (including some rather fancy telescopes), we can indeed make reasonable mathematical prediction for the long-arc orbits of comets and their recurrence beyond what would have been viable for astronomers working a thousand, two thousand, three thousand years afore (who nevertheless, it must be stated, could make impressive inductions in this field themselves).
Again, something that looks like it might be anti-order … yet with deeper kinds of eyes may be realized to be something far more active in Order’s ultimate enforcement.
However, there is another element spoken to via these situations – wherein Rahu, as my astrologer associate observed, appears to represent a sort of ‘unpredictability’ … the ‘veil’ beyond which even a very wise man (or, for that matter, astrologer) cannot quite penetrate. The ‘wobble’ in the ‘patterns’ of reality which help to ensure that while the same general ‘cycles’, ‘patterns’ repeat over and over … they’re never quite the same each time around. Something which, as my associate noted, may go with the folk-beliefs around Shiva having placed a ‘curse’ (or ‘condition’) upon astrology that it should prove imperfect in its predictive accuracy (“probabilistic, rather than deterministic”, as he put it) – allowing for the capacity of free will for the persons whose charts have been properly read to nevertheless lead to … unforeseen outcomes. Sometimes, after all, a coin flipped often enough may even land upon its side.
Other folk-variations upon this same theme of a Deity placing such a limitation upon the perspicacity of astrology also occur. A particular iteration has the ‘curse’ as being the result of Devi’s action (whether as Parvati or Saraswati). One unifying commonality of various of these stories is that the Deity involved has close and major association with one of the Rahu aligned Nakshatras – Rudra (Shiva) with Ardra, or Saraswati with Svati, for instance (For more on Ardra, please consult my recent and upcoming works upon this asterism; and for Svati – well, I have not written the commentary yet, but rest assured that it is in train; although it should be noted that the divinity directly presiding over Swati is, in fact, Lord Vayu).
Indeed, we can also theorize that the third Rahu-aligned Nakshatra – Satabhisha (Shatabisha) – has a similar Roudran saliency. Shatabisha, ‘Hundred Healers’, is ostensibly under the aegis of Lord Varuna. There is an occasionally encountered understanding for Varuna as ( a ) Rudra, although the more direct pathway to reason such a Roudran essence to the asterism is to simply note that the presiding over ‘healing’, ‘healers’, and ‘medications’ is an ancient and deservedly prominent Rudra portfolio area found right throughout the Vedas and subsequent Hindu understanding. The situation of Varuna presiding over Shatabisha is likely resultant from the fact that the constellation correlates somewhat with Aquarius – the Water and Water Bearer. In Persian astrology we seem to find what may be the same archaic asterism referred to as Satavaesa (although here taken to mean ‘Having 100 Servants’), and connected to the Vouru Kasa ocean. Therefore, it is only appropriate that we find a deific of the Celestial Ocean (the Sky as Sea) presiding over the sign. And, doubly appropriate, when we consider the noted potency of Lord Varuna with both ‘illusion’ (although this is not quite an apt translation of Maya in its archaic Vedic sense – where (magical) power is perhaps more apt .. ‘mere’ ‘illusion’ becoming its later reductionist re-definition) as well as the provision of healing remedies. Indeed, RV I 24 9 seems quite pointed in this regard – ” A hundred balms are Thine, O King, a thousand; deep and wide-reaching also be Thy favours.” In Sanskrit: ‘Satam te rajan bhisajah’ – and remember that it is ‘Sata-Bhisha’ that we are speaking of here (although it is worth noting that ‘Bhishaj’ is capable of meaning both a ‘Healer’ in the sense of a doctor, as well as in the sense of a medication). This line is uttered in the context of clear astrogative remarks around the Pathway of the Sun, the movement of the Moon, and the placement of the Constellations’ glory during the daylight hours. Although the close association of Water / Ocean and healing elements is, again, elsewhere attested – AV II 3, for instance. But more upon all of this at some other time.
One further point to be made concerning Varuna in relation to this Rahu situation is that we frequently find mention for the similar essential characteristic of beholding the deeds of men, and then acting to dispense appropriate sanctions upon them – as well as providing something of a path back toward untroubled existence via appropriate penances. Good exemplars for the former can be found by simply consulting RV I 25 or AV IV 16 (inter many alia); whilst the latter is to be found in, for instance, AV I 10 … or the general cycle of Sunahsepa hymnals and their accompanying mythic couching.
The particular manner frequently favoured by Varuna for meting out these sanctions – disease – bears quite close coterminity itself to a key action of Rudra; and the magical imprecations employed by Varuna we can likewise link to both the deific complex which Rudra runs upon (think, for instance, of Odin’s utilization of Galdr), as well as the immense potency presented by Saraswati as the Goddess of the High Speech (Vak). In all cases, the relevant Divinities are intimately associated with the upholding of Cosmic Order – and the smiting down of those who would seek to imperil the imanency for same.
There is thus, we may say, once again an essential and unifying underlying order and orderliness to proceedings – even if, upon first glance, the assignment of Rudra, Varuna, and Saraswati in coterminous constellation with Rahu might seem a bit curious. An alignment which helps to elucidate the true character and essence for the Graha; one which speaks toward a potency and a purpose which may indeed seem quite dire (because it is) and baleful (because it most assuredly can be) … yet which is not only ‘necessary’ in a generalized, cosmological sense – but also quite pointedly in the personalized one, as well.
So therefore, whilst it remains eminently understandable that many are affeared of Rahu and concerned about attracting His Attention – in truth, Rahu’s attention is already pervasive. And if one wishes to avoid the potentially calamitous outcomings of same, then it is the eschewment of wrongdoing conduct rather than the avoidance of proper and propitious, apotropaic engagement that represents the surest pathway forward. Or, given the mechanism of the Grahas and Their Influence – likely both, ideally simultaneously.
In closing, I can do little better than what has already been done. Albeit with some slight figurative alterations in translation to more aptly draw out the meaning – and one idiomatic pun on Line Nine:
“7 Be Positive Mitra, Positive Varuna, Positive The Wide-Shining (Sun), Positive The Destroyer
May The Portentous Events Upon This Earth And In ‘Midst The Sea Of Stars Be Allied (With Us)
And So Too The Grahas Active Within Heaven Likewise
8 May The Quake Of Earth Be Healing, May The Striking Of The Fire-Falling-Star’s Target Bring Peace
May The Blood-Milk (Trailing) Cows Be Auspicious, And May The Falling Stone Prove The Same
9 The Meteor-Bombarded Nakshatra Be Auspicious, The Magical Enactments Not Cause Us Fear
The Secret, Hidden Spells Become Revealed And Turn To Our Favour,
The Baleful Portents And Fire From The Heavens Afflicting A Demesne Be (Revealed) Luck’s Noble Lady
10 Beneficent Be The Graspers Of The Moon And Rahu With The Sun (Even In Eclipse)
A Blessing Be Death’s Smoke-Banner (Comet) – And The Rudras’ Flame-Sharp Majestic Might !”
May That Which Seems Terrible
In Fact Become Terrific
Yet Never Lose Its Awe