Comfort With Ambiguity

Remember, you alone in-dwell all things always. When you say you meditate, you meditate on something other than yourself; but then, you divide the indivisible. Can you? ~ Avadhuta Gita I:12

If you know me personally, are connected with me on Facebook, or have been following my writing for a while, you are probably aware that I have changed my name several times over the past 13 years. From my legal birth name, to the pen name under which my first book was published (Nicholas Graham, if you’re curious, and God do I need to get back to writing what ought to be my second book), to my Hindu name, to now my name as an initiated Nath Yogi, I tear through monickers like a comedian through Twitter controversies. Even my girlfriend doesn’t bother keeping up anymore; she just calls me Beard, after my most prominent physical feature. I really do think that Vijnananath will stick, though, as it is not emblematic of where I am at any given moment in time but, so to say, of my spiritual career in toto. As soon as it was given to me — repeated to me five times at my initiation — it was like being struck, not by lightning but by a simple fact, like when you wake up on a Fall morning and realize, “It’s cold in here,” or like the first bite of a dessert you’ve never tried before but which is immediately comforting. Nevertheless, I do not care which of these many names (and even more nicknames which have come and gone over the years) any given person chooses to call me. One friend who knew me as Nicholas up until it was Candra told me that, as with marriage here in the US, you get one free name change, so he’s going to call me Candra until one of us dies or until I pay him to change his mental records. Fair enough. I wear all these names, but I wear them lightly.

I’ve also, like many ardent seekers in the world today who grow up in non-religious or only nominally religious households, been through a number of religious practices. Wicca, Druidry, Hermeticism, magical agnosticism, mystical Christianity, Christian Gnosticism, orthodox Saiva Hinduism, and now what I shudder to call “Nathism” but I don’t have a better word — all of these, and more tangents besides, have been spiritual stopovers on my way to “here”. I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with religion: I love the idea (ideal) of rooted traditions which can serve as home bases for deeper, more dangerous explorations, but authoritarianism and claims of both exclusivity and universality grate upon me like rubbing a cat’s fur against the grain. I’m not opposed to dogma in the classical sense of teachings passed down through time, but these teachings are only useful when they are treated as a frame for experience rather than as a completed structure.

In my practice of Yoga and Tantra, one of the biggest changes I’ve experienced has been a decreasing concern with self-identifiers. Sure, I still have my opinions (some altogether too strong for the triviality of the topic), but when I was younger I lived by the labels I applied to myself. I couldn’t just have an anti-authoritarian outlook; I was an Anarchist. I couldn’t admire the mystical and ethical teachings of Jesus; I was a Christian. And so on. I do not intend to tell anybody else what they should or should not jettison in this way, but there is a core message I think it is well worth keeping in mind — it all has to go one day, so it’s best to wear it like a scarf rather than a manacle.

Let’s be clear, of course, that this is an ongoing introspective process related, once again, to our old friends the Kleshas as well as the social conditioning which grows from and takes advantage of them. I may write more on this one day, but I am very much of the mind that social pressure, whether exerted by one person or by an entire culture, is something like the interaction of the balance of kleshas among all the people involved. The objective needn’t be — in fact, cannot be without a series of psychotic breaks — the dissolution of all self-identifiers, but the routine examination of them. When I tell myself that I am, say, an American, what does that mean? Does it close me off to certain things? Does it open me up to other things? How has any of that benefited me? Does it continue to benefit me, or is it getting in my way? Do I need to toss it entirely, or do I only need to soften the edges a bit? And so on.

The hard part is to realize that this applies to every story we tell about ourselves, no matter how justified we think it is at a glance. If I call myself traumatized, depressed, anxious, poor, weak, wrathful, a victim… These all carry a social cache, often negative but sometimes with a paradoxical “net gain”, depending on the circles in which you travel. Looking deeply into these implications and what we gain and lose by these interactions can be a multilayered lesson, but one which is extremely painful as we have to tear away and drop what does not actually serve us but which brings us some shallow sort of respectability or the sort of armor which in the short term protects us from criticism but in the long term insulates us against learning.

There is not and need not be any particular technique or procedure for navigating this labyrinth. Like any labyrinth, as opposed to maze, all you need to do is keep well in the mind the direction of movement and commit to it. In short, radical self-honesty is tool, process, and product. The technical language of Yoga does a great job of pointing out a lot of blind spots, but in some areas such as this we do better with naked simplicity.

This principle applies well beyond our own individual identities. Just as we reify our own little selves by taking too seriously our various linguistic games, we do the same with all of our experiences. Western philosophy has dead-ended itself time and again by obsessing over divisions of “object” and “subject”, of inner and outer, and so forth. It isn’t that these questions aren’t interesting, but in spite of the scientific method’s straining to the contrary there is at base no division between experiencer and experienced, only a provisional division we draw for utilitarian purposes. But here is why we emphasize the “inner” in Yoga: experience is always filtered through our own self-conception, conscious or not. In order, therefore, to obtain a clean experience, the mirror by which that experience is apprehended must also be clean. This is the real meaning of “purity” in Yoga and Tantra; it is not an abstract idea, nor merely to please a deity, but is instead a recognition of the nature of our own mind. From that place, experience is natural, spontaneous. We stop demanding a logical explanation — without being closed to one if it should prove to exist. Analysis ceases to be “cutting apart”, synthesis is no longer necessary, and pat answers reveal their emptiness. We are left with what is.

“Ferocious: A Folk Tantric Manual on the Sapta Matrika Cult” — A Book Review

Ferocious: A Folk Tantric Manual on the Sapta Matrika Cult
by The Sepulcher Society
2019, Theion Publishing (Germany)

My mentor Sri Vijayanath once advised me when I was divesting of a lot of books with the criteria he uses for that purpose: 1) Will I ever want to repurchase this if I get rid of it? and; 2) Does it inspire my practice? I have also begun to use this as a metric when buying books. You can’t always know in advance, of course, but some books just cry out to be enshrined in a permanent place on my shelves. These days, I rarely spring for $50+ dollar “boutique” occult books, but I knew immediately that this one was for me.

Ferocious: A Folk Tantric Manual on the Sapta Matrika Cult, authored anonymously under the collective name the Sepulcher Society, is as it says on the tin: a practical, hands-on, manual for building a devotional-magical (which is to say, Tantric) relationship with one or all of these peculiar and powerful folk Goddesses. Let’s break that title down a bit.

Folk Tantra is the devotion and the magic of the people. Anyone with the devotion and the will to do it can approach these deities, regardless of religious background, initiations (or lack thereof), caste, class, or nationality. These practices can get as expensive and fancy as you can make them (and, of course, the greater your means, the more the deities will expect of you here), but remain fundamentally “earthy”. Instructions in this and other books of folk Tantra for creating one’s own statues of the deity do not demand a great deal of artistic skill, and remind me of the common practice of setting up any oblong stone to worship Shiva, or else to create a lingam from local clay. And this brings us to manual, for Ferocious is certainly a book meant to be lived rather than merely read. Sure, the academic or the merely curious would get plenty from giving it a read, learning a lot about the Sapta Matrikas and their worship, as well as Tantra broadly speaking, but for all the real scholarship behind it the book is not for scholars alone. It is a book of meat and bone. Even the artwork has blood coursing through it, the soul of having met the Goddesses in the dark woods and the feeling of their claws in one’s life.

The Sapta Matrikas are often worshiped as a group, though each of them has Her own devotees as well; some of them are more individually famous and their cults more widespread than others, but the Matrikas are all well attested in India and increasingly abroad. “Matrika” means something like “small mother”, which indicates both the nature of the Goddesses as well as how their devotees commonly relate to them. They are what scholars might call Shakta Goddesses, which is to say Goddesses commonly worshiped by Tantric devotees of Adi Shakti, the Great Divine Power Whom Shaktas consider to be the Supreme Being. They are therefore often considered to be projections of Her — though this should not be confused with the “soft polytheism” often discussed in Western Neopagan circles. Much as Hinduism does not fit neatly into Western academic ideas of dualist, nondualist, monotheist, or polytheist religion, neither do ideas of “soft” and “hard” polytheism entirely work. A worshiper of, say, Vaishnavi (one of the Matrikas) may simultaneously recognize Her as a member of the Matrikas, as a hypostasis of Adi Shakti, as a distinct individual Goddess with Her own personality, appearance, and agenda, and as the Supreme Being Herself. To a Christian or even a Western Pagan, this may sound like a bundle of contradictions; a theologian (mono- or poly-) insists: Pick one, dammit! But for many a Hindu, there is no contradiction at all. If I, too, am a projection of the Absolute Power yet know myself as an individual, what’s to stop a God or Goddess from having that same experience, albeit more deeply on both counts? This is, as it were, the Tantric approach to consciousness at every level of apparent complexity.

The descriptions of the Goddesses are very thorough. A sensitive reader will know immediately if any of the Matrikas are calling out to them — if not immediately from the art, then from the imagery, myths, and mantras. I was very pleasantly surprised to see the inclusion of astrological associations. As an astrologer myself, it’s good to know that information, but for the devotee or operative magician the Matrikas can be a key to productively working with the powers of the planets in their more difficult aspects. Moreover, this is a true grimoire in that it does not shy away from those methods which might be called “spell casting”: engaging with the Matrikas and their associated powers for bringing about changes both inner and outer, either directly or through the mediation of various physical processes and materials which a reader would very much be forgiven for calling witchcraft.

Several years ago, Sri Vijayanath had given me a mantra for Chamunda — one of the Matrikas — and I have been building a relationship with Her ever since. I therefore already had much of the content specifically for Her found in Ferocious, but it also helped me to place Her within the broader context of Her Sister Goddesses. The Matrikas, whether approached as unique individual deities, as the embodiments of the forces of the more “orthodox” deities to whom They correspond, or as the fierce projections of the Great Shakti, are not deities with a light touch. They do not work through subtlety and they do not leave those who petition them for aid untouched. Chamunda has spent the past couple of years reworking me from the inside out, and She has been clear and obvious about it every step of the way (not to say that I’ve always known what was going on until the dust settled). It was therefore refreshing to find a book which does not try to repaint the Matrikas as gentle mothers. If you choose to work with the Matrikas together or individually, heed the warnings given! They are not “evil” or malicious by default, but if you form a connection with one or more of them, you will experience their presence and power and they will not hold back.

I recommend this book for serious scholars of the occult and of esoteric religion who want to see how Tantra is practiced at street level; most especially, I recommend it for those who feel called to encounter Shakti through bloody Nature and everything that comes along for the ride. You can order your copy directly from the publisher.

Growing Out of Balance

The Neopagan blogosphere tends to place emphasis on notions of “balance” as we near or cross an equinox in the year. Similarly, the spiritual and occult community at large have a tendency to speak in terms of achieving some sort of “balance” between Light and Dark, divine and human, or whatever other dichotomies they happen to acknowledge. Even when speaking about the natural world, we have developed a language of “ecological balance”. This talk all has its place, but we too easily let it mislead us, causing us suffering where it need not.

Here’s the thing: there is no balance in Nature. There is no magic number of grizzly bears and salmon, or ants to aphids to daisies, which will keep everything neat and tidy and allow the whole world to live in peace. If such equilibrium existed, it would have been found by now — not necessarily by us, but by the whole big game of the universe. Earth is one hell of a testing ground, and that balance has almost certainly never existed here. As badly as humans are messing things up in this and the past century or so, other mass extinction events and the like attest to the fact that even without us life would have perpetual challenges of one sort or another. None of this is to justify our failure to learn lessons and find a less destructive place in the world, but even our present trouble makes my major point.

If there is no balance to be found, what are we working toward? Every individual must, of course, work that out for themselves. Your answer will almost certainly not look like mine. Even if we both say something like “spiritual liberation”, we will have to unpack what we mean by that and it may not sound at all alike once the tea is drunk!

When we talk about balance, the real error is falling into a stagnation mindset. The reason why balance doesn’t exist is simply because it can’t for any length of time; as soon as a portion of any system is “balanced”, some other factor will throw it off. Rather than balance, we should be looking for some combination of adaptability and fortitude. The world is dynamic; so should we be. Per the last paragraph, that will have to look different for each of us — and that’s a good thing!

In terms of spiritual or magical practice, the concept of balance does have its place. Franz Bardon, for example, emphasizes a state of “elemental equilibrium” in his first book, Initiation Into Hermetics. This is an excellent pursuit for the beginner, which unfolds into a series of practices collectively expanding and deepening the practitioner’s toolkit and experiences which serve well into later magical exercises. But what Bardon (or perhaps his translators and commentators) do not always make clear enough is just the fact that elemental equilibrium is not a state one achieves but an ongoing dynamic process which we discuss as if it were a state to keep the intention clear in our heads. The elemental equilibrium exercises become part of one’s daily practice, or else merge into other practices which go further. That process of equilibration is not for its own sake; it is only to give oneself as firm a foundation as possible to build higher. But keep in mind that foundations need to be repaired, reinforced, even rebuilt from time to time.

You may at some time need to go to an extreme. Conventional wisdom has it that this could only ever be temporary, seeking to come back to balance in the center after going to one extreme or another to solve a problem. But that may not be the case. It’s entirely possible that instead of going far only to moderate, you will instead force circumstances to meet you at your position and so establish the new “normal” afar off from its original “balance point”. Granted, it is ordinarily desirable to avoid a situation in which one has to throw wide to one side or another; it is painful to go to extremes. But if we are adaptable and resilient, we make a new outpost wherever we must and keep going.

This goes to show that there is no “balanced normal state” from which we depart and to which we aim to return; there is no “original sin” which keeps us from Heaven. That doesn’t mean that equipoise does not exist — but equipoise is of the mind aligning with its own inherent nature. It is, in conventional English, an attitude of choice which becomes more and more natural as we deepen our experience of it. Equipoise is inherently dynamic. It is a way of responding (or not) to the situation as it unfolds, with spontaneity rather than crystallized habits. Our ordinary talk of “nature’s balance” is lazy thinking, leading often to dreams of a time when nothing needs to change anymore. No such time will come in this world. As magicians and Tantrikas, we do not seek such a time and place, but to gradually attain to the insight and power of equipoise within the activity itself, to experience the Divine as the nondual essence of the changing world, and to live the Peace, Freedom, and Happiness which comes of that experience.

As the Autumnal Equinox passes us by and we fall away once again from the lovely balance of light and dark, flowing ever more deeply toward the dark and cold of Winter, let’s enjoy the pivot point and allow it to remind us that change is baked in. Whether we perceive time as linear, cyclical, or helical, it is certainly not stagnant.

Portable Puja: An Adaptable Meditation Practice

As to their spiritual utility, ritual (puja), mantra chanting (japa), and meditation are interchangeable. In terms of Yoga, they are all of one essence and accomplish the same ends: to make deliberate use of prāna (what Franz Bardon calls “vital energy”) within or in relation to our organism to clear out our internal channels and make way for the experience of Sakti; to experience, focus, and integrate Sakti; to purify and concentrate the mind. Whether or not we think of them in these terms, all of these processes require the dissolution of various tensions within the system, both subtle and gross.

When we speak, for instance, of the Kleshas, what we are basically speaking of are certain root-tensions (mūlātati) and the seed from which they sprout (bījātati). Likewise, the “knots” (granthi) of Hatha-Yoga represent tensions in consciousness. In both cases, the trouble begins with mind and spreads to the body. This creates a feedback cycle in which mental tensions cause emotional tensions which cause physiological tensions which exacerbate emotional tensions which deepen mental tensions, and on and on. Tension of any kind is therefore blocked-up prāna which cannot properly move in a healthful or helpful way; whether its task should be constructive or destructive, it will either not be doing its job at all, or will be doing it in a perverse way. And where prāna is blocked, Sakti does not move, either.

In Tibet, the individual ego is often offered to spirits, demons, and protective deities in lieu of blood sacrifice. This serves not only to “feed” the spirits, but also to break down the internal blockages within the practitioner. The practice following is similar. As egotism is recognized in Yoga as one of the Kleshas, but the Kleshas are not limited to the ego, we therefore offer up all tensions and all sources of tension. We thereby include the Kleshas, as well as conditioned behaviors and the fruits of karma.

Simple Internal Puja

Sit in your usual meditation posture, eyes closed. With both hands, touch the tips your forefingers to your thumbs, and rest your hands palm down on your thighs. Breathe easily and slowly with your belly. Follow your breath for a few minutes.

Place your attention as much as possible in your heart center (in the middle of your chest). Visualize there a shrine-like cave, your ishta devatā (your chosen deity, usually the deity at the center of your worship or meditative practice*) enthroned within.

Next, visualize a dhuni (fire pit), as if dug into bare earth, in the space of your navel center (about two finger widths below your belly button and straight back). A steady fire is going in this basin. Maintaining your attention in the cave of your heart, simply watch this fire for a few moments and feel the power emanating from it. (If it helps your concentration, you may imagine the whole scene as a landscape with the fire pit being down a steep slope from the cave entrance, a dense forest surrounding the whole. If this level of visual detail is more distracting for you, leave it out. Experiment to find the best balance for yourself.)

Take a deep breath and hold it (with your belly, not your throat) and mentally say: “I sacrifice all of my tension and all the sources of tension into the dhuni fire.” Release the breath slowly and steadily; as you do, probe your body for any centers of tension, simply bringing a warm attention to them and moving on. Throughout this process, mentally say: “All tension melts like honey mixed with ghee, running into the dhuni.” As you inhale again, mentally say: “As the tension burns away, the pure prāna released rises as an offering to [deity’s name] enthroned in the cave of my heart.” As you exhale again, feel the prāna rising up your central channel from the flame at your navel.

Continue the cycle of breathing for as long as you like: inhale, feeling tension melting into the dhuni and prāna rising from it; exhale, feeling the prāna entering the cave of your heart.

Once you feel sufficiently tension-free, or as if your heart center is as saturated as it can get for now, release all of the visualizations entirely and either focus on the cycle of your breath alone, on the bare attention in your heart center, or else on the fundamental energy of your central channel.

There are many ways to extend this practice. It may be profitably combined with the Double Breath meditation taught by Swami Rudrananda and Swami Khecaranatha, for example, or adapted into a Natha equivalent to tummo with the addition of certain Hatha-Yoga exercises. On its own, however, it already presents a full practice unto itself. Once you have practiced it enough to be able to move through the steps smoothly, this meditation may be done in just a few spare minutes as a relaxation exercise, as well. Any number of other applications may present themselves, and I invite you to comment or get in touch with any you may may come up with.

*Note that if you do not have an ishta devatā, you may certainly approach Lord Siva, Ganapati, or Lord Buddha Sakyamuni. If for any reason you are not comfortable with any of them, a brilliant white light like a tiny sun in the cave of your heart is also suitable.

The Planets as Parts of the Self, part 2

Last time, we covered the overall notion of the planets as aspects of the individual, the specifics of which are readable in the natal chart, as well as how this generally applies with the two luminaries, the Sun and Moon. Let’s move on to the wanderers.

Mars represents sattvam, or what we in the West call character. Mars gives us the courage to to properly express our individuality and to live our values; in addition to the Sun, Moon, and Jupiter, he also helps to determine what those values are. Some assume that a strong Mars person would be a bully or a violent sort, when in fact a person with a strong, well-placed Mars is far less likely to use unnecessary force or want to cause suffering because they possess the courage and discipline to find a more constructive way to handle the situation. A strong Mars has a correspondingly strong desire to express goodness; if a powerful Mars is afflicted, however, this impulse can become twisted by frustration, causing eruptions of temper in the face of a world incapable of abiding by the deepest dharmic values.

Mercury represents “the consciousness spoken”. In broad terms, we can call this a person’s know-how, as Mercury brings skill to a person. But in terms of the individual’s personality, Mercury is specifically their capacity to speak and make themselves understood. Mythologically, Mercury is the son of the Moon. As such, he expresses what is in the mind (manas). How effectively he does this is determined by his strength, while how gentle or cruel he is in his communication style depends on which planets join or aspect him. It may seem strange to think of talking as an aspect of the personality rather than just an action the individual can take, but consider how little we tend to consciously choose when and how we speak. It is a patterned and conditioned element just as is our character or our vitality. While we can, if circumstances and patterns permit, choose to become more aware of how and when we communicate, this is as much a case of having to change who we are as is reexamining our morality. We may think about being firm or gentle with someone, but in practice do we communicate what and how we think we should? Causality as often goes the other direction: what and how we communicate changes the contents of our mind. Psychological tools like affirmations and yogic tools like mantra are ways of deliberately taking advantage of this feedback: control your speech and you control your mind.

Jupiter represents “joy-giving knowledge”, which is to say inner knowledge. This is the root of spiritual knowledge, but even those who are not particularly spiritual can be in possession of it with a healthy Jupiter. All happiness is internal and has an internal source, though people experience it in and through external objects and experiences. Someone with a well-developed inner knowledge will find happiness in a myriad of experiences, while someone with a poor knowing capacity will only find a brief glimmer of joy in attaining even their most treasured of goals. Another way of looking at Jupiter’s joy-giving knowledge is as a sense of meaning. Mars gives purpose, a sense of outward direction, but Jupiter provides the sense that there is something more to life than “stuff”. Someone with a bad Jupiter may still accomplish a lot, but they will not receive any lasting happiness from it or see it as having more than utilitarian function.

Venus provides vīrya. While there are deeper metaphysics to it, at the personal level this is simply vitality: the energy and passion necessary to pursue any goal. Depending on Venus’s placement, a strong and healthy Venus gives one physical strength, the ability to recover from illness, heal injuries, and handle stress. Many astrologers look to Mars for a person’s athleticism, for example, but Venus is by far more important. An athlete must have the ability to recover from injuries quickly and to work through illness. A good Mars can make such a person competitive in a healthy manner, but it requires a good Venus to be successful in it and to be able to bounce back for more.

Saturn provides sorrow. This may not sound like a good thing, but put it in the same family as Venus and Mars: Mars allows one to be disciplined, Venus provides energy, while Saturn allows us to survive loss. Saturn also represents our awareness of lack, an inversion of Jupiter’s role. For as important as it is to find happiness within, Saturn lets us keep going through a loss of that with which we identified our happiness and, just as importantly, makes us aware of the realities of disease, death, and everything else which must inevitably come of life but which we often try to keep at arms’ length. While all of the planets are important in one way or another in our spirituality, Jupiter and Saturn tell us a lot about our motives in spirituality. Jupiter tells of the intuitions which lead us inward for greater things, while Saturn shows us the gaps in our experience which spiritual practice can fill.

I’ve run out of space this time, so next time we’ll look at an astrological method of employing this perspective on the planets in your own efforts at self-knowledge. Having a good reading of your own natal chart will be a significant aid in this process, but the technique I’ll be sharing can be used by anyone willing to put in the work of honest introspection.

The Planets as Parts of the Self, part 1

Bringing together the Kleshas and the astrological observation that there are no evil planets, we have the insight that each planet represents an aspect of the individual self.

The word I am translating with “planet” is actually graha — seizer, grabber, that which catches you and won’t let go. Astrologically speaking, this includes the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Mars, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, and the ascending and descending lunar nodes (where the Moon’s orbit crosses the ecliptic), Rahu and Ketu. We call them grahas because they grab onto us and move us around in the direction of their influence. It’s a mistake, however, to think that they do this externally. The grahas direct events from within. For the individual, this is because they rule different parts of us: various organs and body parts, the foods we take in, but also our emotions, ideas, ideologies, and all of the processes we each tend to think of as “me”.

I’ll save you the deep metaphysics, for now, and jump straight to the pragmatic psychology: if each planet rules over and directly influences a given aspect of the self, then that planet may be engaged with internally by way of its presence in the individual’s life through introspection. One need not be particularly spiritual to benefit from this sort of introspection; it may be thought of as a form of psychological therapy guided by the reality of your own inborn patterns as revealed in your natal chart. With or without a therapist, all effective therapies are rooted in the individual undergoing it and their own willingness and ability to look inward and honestly to report to themselves what they find. Astrology is certainly not the only way to do this, but it is among the most insightful and actionable models.

Let’s carry on to the grahas’ positions in the individual identity. As ever, keep in mind that the particulars will depend on the details of your own chart. In part 2, we will also look at a method of digging into how these actually impact our lives.

The Sun represents the soul, which is to say the essence of the individuality. The soul transcends the particulars of identity, being the simple core of identity itself, the awareness of oneself as an individual distinct from other individuals and the outside world. While deeper metaphysical experiences can and do cut through even this seeming atom of selfhood, it is nevertheless the most fundamental element of what it means to be a conscious being. The placement of the Sun indicates the idea or experience at the core of the soul’s mission for this lifetime. Whatever metaphor we choose for life — a school in which to learn, an illusion to be seen through, or whatever else — the Sun is at the heart of our approach, usually in ways we are not at all conscious of or which might begin as abstractions and only gain substance through the act of living.

The Moon represents the manas or consciousness more broadly. Manas, often translated as “mind”, is specifically the consciousness-as-mirror. Whether by way of thoughts, emotions, intuitions, memories, or simple sensory impressions, manas reflects the experiences of life by the light of the soul. In other words, it takes in all sensory data, conscious or subconscious, and holds it for our use and edification. When we speak about cultivation, a great deal of the purpose of concentration, meditation, and contemplation is, to use a metaphor common to Zen, polishing the mirror. That is to say, we are trying to find the mind’s original purity — the Moon’s natural fullness — wherein it reflects cleanly and without distortion all elements of experience.

These two are the most important of all, not because the faculties of the other planets aren’t important but because they all arise from the Sun and the Moon, the soul and the mind. The planets themselves will how us how we use our faculties and to what degree we are capable of putting them to work, but the luminaries tell us why we use them, what motivates us. Our spiritual practices thus directly engage the Sun and Moon. The Sun allows us both to spread our awareness and to concentrate it; as the Sun is the source of prāna, it is also the core of our spiritual respiration which we consciously engage through our sādhana. The Moon allows us to generate the nectar of immortality at the heart of all experience. These processes are mutually supporting.

Next time, we will explore the other grahas in relation to the self. In the meantime, it can be valuable, if you know them both, to think on what your Sun and Moon signs say about your soul and your manas; if you know their dignities, all the better.

No Such Thing as a Malefic

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.