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The lead-up to the solar eclipse of July 2nd this year saw a lot of people warning about the possible impacts of eclipses all over Twitter, Facebook, and the blogosphere. On the one hand, eclipses — especially solar eclipses — can indeed tip off great difficulties for people, but on the other an eclipse is like any other space weather event: as discussed in my previous article on Mercury Retrograde, it depends a great deal on the individual’s natal chart as to how strongly and how negatively they will experience it. If you want to gain anything from it, take any potentially difficult astrological prediction, especially those made broadly for a general audience, as an excuse to learn more about your own chart and, therefore, about yourself as an individual. Furthermore, these discussions all seem to center around Rahu (the ascending or “northern” lunar node) as either a “benefic” (usually by comparison to Ketu, the descending node, and that misguidedly) or as a “malefic” (because of the difficulties such eclipses can bring). I will leave off discussing the lunar nodes for a future article. For now, I want to focus in on those words “benefic” and “malefic”.

I don’t appreciate the language of benefic or malefic, helpful or harmful, planets. It’s simplistic and not particularly useful, and for those reasons it is not used in Jyotish. You may often see Indian astrological texts translated with those terms being used, but that is a mistranslation incorporating Western assumptions into the Sanskrit terms actually used, or else a translation of convenience for a Western audience. I certainly don’t mean to discount Western astrology; I know and know of some Western astrologers who do great work. However, I do find that a lot of Western cultural assumptions get in the way of astrological interpretation (just as other times, Indian cultural biases can cause similar problems). This concept of good and evil planets is a big obstacle to understanding the nature of a planet properly, and it mostly comes from emphasizing ease and gain as among the highest values.

In terms of growth, each planet — including the lunar nodes — is capable of giving many gifts. Again, the specifics will depend a great deal upon an individual’s birth chart. In general, a healthy planet will benefit the house of its placement and the houses and house lords it aspects. It will bring those benefits differently, however, according to its nature. The terms usually translated as “benefic” and “malefic” are saumya and krura which more appropriately translate as “gentle” and “cruel”. To even summarize the planets’ natures would require a long article for each, but we can quickly divide them into gentle and cruel and gain some insight.

The gentle planets are Venus, Jupiter, the waxing Moon, and Mercury when he is alone or paired with a gentle planet. The cruel planets are Mars, the Sun, the waning Moon, Saturn, Rahu and Ketu (the lunar nodes), and Mercury when he is joined by a cruel planet. You will immediately notice that there are more cruel planets than gentle ones, and isn’t that the way of life on Earth? There is much beauty here, and much to bring us comfort, but there are many more harsh lessons and painful or discomfiting experiences, to the point that we often don’t even notice the minor, everyday ones after a while but relief from them can feel astoundingly good for a time.

Again, though, the cruel planets don’t want to pointlessly torture us any more than the gentle ones wish to shower us in silks and flowers. The cruel planets can give all of the same gifts and bring incredible value to our lives, but they do so harshly. When Mars wants to give money, he will demand courage, conflict, or difficult self-improvement for it. When the Sun does so, he will require that we make a conscious sacrifice of something which stands in our way; it will be painful or difficult, but it will allow us to move into the gift the Sun has in store. When Saturn wants to give us money, it will come through unavoidable loss or disease. If, on the other hand, Jupiter wants to gift us with money, he will do so through the favor of authorities, a need for justice, or the application of insight and wisdom, while Venus will do so out of resonance, choosing wisely between options, vitality, or athleticism. Mercury can bring either through cleverness and skill: gain by know-how and capability, or loss by deception and trickery. And so on.

This is all assuming a healthy planet in one’s chart; a weak or afflicted planet will fail to bring promised gains at all, or will bring it with added difficulty. You can see, then, how the beneficence of a planet is not a matter of its nature so much as its strength and placement. This is not unlike human beings, who can be kindly disposed toward one person but respond to someone else with pettiness or anger, dependent upon the circumstances of their meeting. If we apply the folk-wisdom of first impressions sticking, a person’s natal chart can be thought of as the first impression a planet has of them in this incarnation; while it is possible to change someone’s opinion of us over time, it will not happen in a flash as did their initial observation. (And we can change our relationships with individual planets through remedial measures, as you saw in my aforementioned Mercury Retrograde article.) This is only a metaphor, of course, but it is a helpful one. The planets are conscious entities — gods, demigods, angels, whatever we wish to call them — so while they do not have human concerns we may still profitably search out analogies for relating to them.

If we wish to keep the language of benefic and malefic planets, it is better if we use those terms to describe relationships rather than natures. Mars’s nature is cruel; he will never be anything but harsh, even if cooled down by Venus or sweetened by Jupiter. Mars, however, is not malefic; it is not his goal purely to cause us harm. He may seem malefic in the lives of certain individuals or communities, and so we could describe his actions that way at those times and places. Still, I think it is better to jettison those terms altogether. Our minds tend to reify descriptions — itself the nature of the Moon, who rules the mind — so if we use imprecise or misleading language, our understanding will be thrown off. No planet is benefic or malefic, only gentle or cruel in their activities. Let us learn to relate more effectively with them and better integrate their gifts into our lives. In my next article, I will be discussing how each planet represents an aspect of the individual self. If we reject a planet’s influence as evil, we reject or demonize an essential element in our own makeup.