A brief look at the Puranas
Astrology or Jyotish is an integral part of the Vedas. Though in the Vedas the emphasis is more on Astronomy, there was hardly any distinction between Astrology and Astronomy in the Vedic period. Both were studied to determine the auspicious timings for making offerings to propitiate the Gods. The Vedas, therefore, made detailed studies of the stars and the movement of planets across the sky. Eclipses had to be timed because they signified evil portents. The obliteration of the luminaries, however temporary, could not be good for the mere mortals.
The stories regarding the birth of planets are found in the Puranas, which are of a later vintage. There are 18 Puranas. They deal with the story of creation, the tussle between the Gods and demons, the various forms and reincarnations of Lord Vishnu and sometimes even the genealogy of kings on earth. The same story appears in several Puarnas and predictably, the versions differ from one another.
In the early stages, Puranas were also an oral tradition. While elaborate care was taken to preserve the integrity of the Vedas so that distortions might not creep into them through repeated retelling, no such precaution was thought necessary for the Puranas. The Vedas were sacrosanct. The Puranas were not quite as sacred.
Methods of memorizing the Vedas were very interesting. Let us assume that we have a sentence in the Vedas - "God is good". (Actually, Vedas do not dish out such simple sentences. We have cooked up an example to illustrate a point). One student would memorize it as "God is good". That is normal. We all go through a similar exercise the night before our exams.
But a second one would do it in a strange form:
"Doog si dog" - memorizing it backwards. There would be a third who would do something even more strange:
"Go od di is sg go oo od".
This gobbledygook can be easily unscrambled to find the original message. There were many more ways; all were simultaneously practiced to ensure that if corruption took place in one it would be rectified by comparing it with the others.
In one method two sentences would be mixed up in a manner not entirely unlike sending scrambled digital packets across the broad bandwidth.
But enough of that! Let us go back to the story of the planets as given in some of the Puranas. These were subsequently changed, modified, expanded until they became part of a rich folklore of India with all its sectarian bias and regional garnish.
So the stores we bring to you here originated in the Puranas but got extensively revised through successive retelling!
The Birth of the Planets
As we all know, in the beginning of time, there was the Sun. Sun married Sanjna (consciousness) and while Sun was ecstatic in the marriage, Sanjna was finding it quite trying. The searing heat of the Sun made it physically unbearable for her. Yet, they had two sons and a daughter. The first-born was a son named Vaivaswat Manu and then came the twins, Yama and Yami. (Yama is the Ruler of death. In astrology Saturn, his stepbrother, also represents Death and sorrow while Sun represents life and cheerfulness).
However, there came a day when Sanjna had enough, and she could not take the heat anymore! So, one day she took Chhaya (shadow) who looked exactly like her, made her promise that she would be good to her children and cajoled her to take her place. She herself took the form of a mare and ran off.
Sun did not see through the ruse. Chhaya, being the cool shadow of Sanjna, was able to withstand Sun's fiery ardor without getting flustered or blistered! By and by they also had their own children. And then the problems started!
Chhaya was the ideal mother as long as she did not have any children of her own. However, she gave birth to a son named Saturn and later another son, Sabarni Manu, and Tapati, a daughter. Now that she had her own children, there were subtle differences in her handling of the brood. Yama, the oldest of the children was the first to notice it. It did not take too long before things came to a head, and the stepmother showed her true colors. While serving food, Chhaya was openly partial to her own children and ignored the other three who got only the crumbs from their siblings' table.
Yama was furious. He kicked Chhaya for her partiality. Chhaya cursed him, saying that he would lose his left leg. Yama complained to his father and told him that she could not be their mother.
Sun realized that no mother could do to her children what Chhaya had done. He confronted her. Seeing him angry Chhaya spilled the beans. Furious with anger, Sun went out to look for his wife.
However, before leaving he consoled Yama saying that he would not lose his leg and changed the curse to a gangrenous wound. (There is a much more interesting story about a similar deformity of Saturn which we shall narrate in another story!)
Sun first went to his father-in-law Vishwakarma (the master engineer of the gods) in search of Sanjna. The father-in-law told Sun that Sanjna had come to him for shelter but he refused to take her back, since for better or worse, a wife's place was by her husband. Sun then went into a deep meditation and realized that Sanjna was roaming the meadows in the form of a mare.
Wanting to win her back, Sun took the form of a horse, found her and they were united. From this union were born the twins, called the Ashwins (the equine twins) who became the Medicine men and Surgeons of the Gods.
Sanjna told Sun about her problem with the heat and Sun went back to Vishwakarma and asked for a solution. The Engineer came up with an engineering solution (What else could he do?). He took a circular saw and shaved off some parts of his son-in-law, thus reducing some of his heat.
The pieces, which flew off the main body, became the planets!
Saturn as his child had already found his place as a planet.
The couple lived happily ever after. Chhaya was shown the door.
However, all this made Saturn extremely unhappy. Yama, his stepbrother, was elevated to the position of a God, while he was being ignored and his mother was thrown out. So, he felt that his father had been unjust both to him and his Mother. He moved as far away from his father as he could. (Saturn is the farthest planet from the Sun). He also became the sworn enemy of Sun and went off to do penance and to meditate to acquire the power necessary to confront his father, the greatest luminary of the skies.
In astrology there are friendships and enmities between the planets. The bitterest enmity is between the father and the son - Sun and Saturn. All the other planets belong to one camp or the other.
Mercury and Venus took the side of Saturn while Jupiter and Mars were friendly to Sun and opposed to Saturn. Rahu ganged up with Saturn while Ketu joined the camp of Sun. Moon remained neutral because of personal problems; but then that is another story!
Ganesh Loses his head
Out of his deep-seated anger against his father Saturn started doing penance (see Birth of Planets). His objective was to become more powerful than Sun, his father.
In Indian Puranas it was believed that by doing penance one could gain such powers that one could even topple the seat of Indra (Indian equivalent of Zeus).
During penance, one had to remain celibate, control all his emotions and subject the body to extreme suffering. In summer, one had to stand on one leg within a Ring of Fire or in winter stand neckdeep in cold water through the night. All the while chanting specific mantras, which could energize one's latent powers. Saturn went through this for years and finally success was his. While Sun gave life to all beings, Saturn became the dealer of Death. He had the additional power of bestowing instant wealth and prosperity and also the power of healing (by denying death).
Even after achieving his goal he continued to be a celibate and led the life of a hermit. Chhaya, his mother was alarmed. She literally forced him to marry a girl of her choice believing that the beauty of the bride would ensnare Saturn into domesticity.
No such thing happened. Saturn continued with his daily meditation after going through the marriage rituals with extreme reluctance only to please his mother. He remained a celibate, although technically married. It is not clear why he agreed to marry. While agreeing to his mother's entreaties he remained totally oblivious to the fact that in the process he was ruining the life of normal and healthy girl. Possibly he did not quite understand the responsibilities of marriage! His wife tried her best to win him over. She would bedeck herself with all kinds of finery and try to attract his attention. But Saturn did not even look at her.
One day she had enough of it and cursed Saturn saying "Since you did not even bother to look at me, I curse you that from today whomsoever you look at will perish."
All this while, elsewhere other important things were happening. Mother Uma the consort of Shiva created a child from her mind. The baby was most gorgeous looking and Shiva made him the leader of his guards known as the 'Ganas'. Hence his name became Ganapati or Ganesh.
There is an Indian ceremony when a child receives his first meal of solid food. Family and friends are invited and there are festivities. It is known as Annaprashan.
The time came for Ganesh's Annaprashan. Uma in a joyful mood invited all the gods and demigods. Everybody was too happy to oblige. Everybody except Saturn. Remembering his wife's curse he did not turn up. Uma noticed his absence and sent her emissaries to fetch him. It was difficult to avoid her summons and reluctantly Saturn went. He decided that he would not look at the child and only join the festivities and bless him with his eyes closed.
Alas, that was not to be. Uma brought the child to him and wanted to know what he thought of him. Saturn told her that he did not want to see the child because if he did something terrible might happen.
Uma would hear none of it. She asked Saturn to look at the child and assured him that she herself would remain responsible for the consequences. What could Saturn do? He looked at Ganesh and as he did Ganesh's head dropped off his shoulder.
Uma was hysterical. There was general confusion. Everybody started crying. Only Vishnu kept him cool. He took one of Shiva's attendants aside and asked him go out and find the first living being lying with its head towards the north. He was to cut the head off and bring it as fast as possible to Vishnu.
The attendant found an elephant lying down with its head northwards. He chopped the head off and brought it to Vishnu and he set it on a Ganesh's headless body and Ganesh became whole again. Since then he became known as the elephant god.
Such were the powers of Saturn - made even more potent by his wife's curse.
In Indian astrology it is said that the house which receives Saturn's aspect (i.e., the house to which Saturn looks) is ruined and nothing good can be expected from it.
Enjoy your look into Indian Mythology!
Published with the kind permission of CyberAstro.
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