Astrological Use of the 27 Lunar Mansions

Modern Innovation: A Review

Therese Hamilton

In the astrological literature of India the 27 or 28 divisions of the sky are referred to under diverse terms: nakshatras, stars, constellations, asterisms and most recently, lunar mansions. The correct term today is lunar mansions because the ancient nakshatras once identified as single stars or asterisms no longer align well with today's 27 equal divisions of the ecliptic. Their meanings have changed, sometimes drastically. That contemporary authors recognize the evolution of the nakshatras or lunar zodiac is reflected in such titles as Mansions of the Moon: The Lost Zodiac of the Goddess (Kenneth Johnson, 2002) and The 27 Celestial Portals (Prash Trivedi, 2004).

The ancient 28 nakshatras have evolved into something entirely different from their original form when they were linked to one or more of India's ancient deities. This is why I am undertaking a review of the literature from the time the mansions or nakshatras were first mentioned in relation to astrological use. Principally I'm focusing on recent years because this is when most of the innovation has taken place.

Early Use of the Nakshatras

1. The earliest recorded use of the nakshatras in astrology is in The Yavanajataka of Sphujidhvaja (3rd century C.E.) where they are used in a military way. Beginning a march or expedition in a particular nakshatra was said to bring specific results. In this reference the nakshatras (referred to as constellations) are divided into four sets of seven and related to the four directions beginning with Krittika. This is a system of 28 constellations. (Vol. II, p. 175)

2. According to Valerie Roebuck, the oldest account of the significance of the lunar mansions in natal astrology is found in Minaraja’s Vriddhayavanajaka (4th century C.E.). Here is an example of the text:

Under Swati, a woman will always be virtuous and rich in offspring, wealthy, rich in truth, drinking a little, famous, with many friends, a conqueror of many factions.

A man born under Vayu’s star [Swati] will be prosperous, handsome, greatly liked by women, making great gains, foremost, grateful, attached to learning, always knowing the rules of behavior.
(From "The Lunar Mansions in Natal Astrology" by Valerie Roebuck in Richard Houck’s Hindu Astrology Lessons (pp. 205-212)

3. In chronological order the next reference is Varaha Mihira's Brihat Jataka and Brihat Samhita (5th century C.E.). In Brihat Samhita the nakshatras are used in a number of ways, mainly for elective purposes. In this work the nakshatras are related to parts of the body, and qualities are given to the 28 nakshatras. Example:

The constellations of Mula, Jyestha, and Aslesha are known as (Tiksna) sharp asterisms. Punishment, mesmerism, exorcism, imprisonment of person, acts of torture, of separation or of union shall be commenced when the Moon passes through the sharp asterisms.” (p. 430)

A chapter in this text gives qualities to persons born in each constellation. Example:

Those who are born on the lunar day of Swati will delight in keeping birds, deer, horses; will be grain merchants, dealers in beans; of weak friendship; weak; of abstemious habits and skilled tradesmen. (p. 88)

In another chapter which is similar in Brihat Jataka and Brihat Samhita:

A person born when the Moon passes through the asterism of Swati will be of a mild and quiet nature, will control his passions and desires, will be skilled in trade and merciful, will be unable to bear thirst, will be of sweet speech and will be disposed to do acts of charity. (p. 437) The Brihat Samhita translated by N.C. Iyer, 1987

(There are other translations of Brihat Samhita with slightly different word structure.)

The 19th and 20th Centuries and Beyond

4. Coming closer to the present we find that B. Suryanarain Rao (B.V. Raman’s grandfather) is still listing the 28 nakshatras by specific star longitude of the marking stars. His positions are from Surya Siddhanta. (Burgess, 1860) But he makes use of the navamsas in analyzing horoscopes. (Sarwarthachintamani written in parts between 1899 and 1920) So there was an understanding that there were 27 divisions as the foundation for the navamsas, but also the 28 asterisms designated by specific stars in the sky.

It's obvious in scanning India’s older astrological texts that once the 12 signs were introduced in India, the nakshatras or constellations mainly fell by the wayside in natal astrology. The books are full of material on the signs, houses, aspects and dasas with many texts not even mentioning the nakshatras. Navamsas are commonly mentioned, however, as are the other Indian varga divisions. There is an unfounded belief that the nakshatras continued to play an important part in the delineation of horoscopes throughout India from ancient times. But they seem to have been used mainly for marriage compatibility and for elections. They were not considered in relation to character.

5. The next reference in chronological order is Robert DeLuce’s Constellational Astrology (1963). DeLuce traveled in India and learned a great deal of Hindu astrology during his travels. His book was the first comprehensive book written by a Westerner from Indian sources. The standard Indian astrology books at that time were authored by B.V. Raman, long considered to be the dean of Indian astrology. DeLuce repeats the standard short definitions for the nakshatras:

Swati: Will be modest, clever in trade, compassionate, sweet-spoken and virtuous. (p. 112)

DeLuce also lists for the first time in a western text the ten comparisons for marriage. This list completes his chapter on the nakshatras. It's not until Light on Relationships by Hart DeFouw (who studied in India) and Robert Svoboda that we discover the origin of this matching system:

The ten principles...were developed and preserved over several centuries, primarily in southern India...While there has long been dispute over which principles to include in the list, the generally accepted...are...” (p. 41)

So we learn that these matching principles were developed over time and that there has been some disagreement on which ones are the most important.

6. Now we are up to the 90s. Here we have a radical departure from the past. First in line of publication order: Bepin Behari’s Myths and Symbols of Vedic Astrology (1990). There is a complete chapter on each nakshatra. Behari was an economist by profession and is retired from the Indian service as a diplomat. His astrological writings are strongly influenced by his Theosophical orientation. So we find such new gems as these in his chapter on Swati:

Its primary motivation is Artha, directed activity, while its basic attribute is Tamas, with Sattwa at a tertiary level...The stage of spiritual evolution, described by coral...
[followed by a long dissertation on spiritual evolution that Behari associates with the coral.] Behari and others overlook the possibility that the ancient description of Arcturus as a coral very likely simply refers to the physical appearance of its reddish color. But Behari continues with his metaphor:

...Coral as the symbol for Swati shows the crystallization of the spirit in the physical sheath and inducing it to act for self-gain. This results in its projection and reflection of itself into the world around it...The human being under this asterism has the predominant motivation of self-gratification which is often the root of all his actions. (pp. 214-215)

Quite a metamorphosis from the traditional view as summarized in DeLuce: Swati: Will be modest, clever in trade, compassionate, sweet-spoken and virtuous.

One major problem with Behari's hypothetical thinking is that today’s Swati does not lie in the area of Arcturus, Swati’s ancient 'coral.' Through his entire long treatise on myth and symbol, Behari has spun a theoretical system with no proven foundation and no astrological tradition. This book was published in the United States by Passage Press. This airy approach to the symbolism of the nakshatras obviously struck a chord with newly minted American Jyotish astrologers, for some of Behari’s concepts have in various ways appeared in more recent books by Westerners.

7. In Fundamentals of Vedic Astrology (1992) [Vedic being a new term invented in the west for India’s astrology], Behari lays out a system he calls “Lunar Mansions and Signs in Cosmic Perspective.” Here we have various mansions assigned to classifications:

Tamas, Rajas, Sattvic
Dharma, Artha, Kama, Moksha
And others...

Thus, Behari is attempting to place human beings on his scale of spiritual evolution by linking these classifications to specific mansions. Since he does not give a source for these categories, we don’t know if its his own system or if some of these categories belong to a kind of folk system that developed in India over the centuries, much like the ten marital matching methods. Some or all of these classifications, if traditional, may have been meant for elective astrology, and may not apply to the psychology of human beings at all. [Note: We do see the Tamas-Rajas-Sattvic classification later in DeFouw and Svoboda.)

8. In between Behari’s two texts, another text appeared in India in 1991: K.T. Shubhakaran’s two volume Nakshatra (Constellation Based Predictions). The author states in his Preface:

“This book is based on my several years of research on Nakshatras and their importance on human beings.”

[Several years research...hmmm] Turning to Swati, we find different sections for male and female natives with these categories: Physical features, character and general events, education, sources of earning/profession, family life and health. Then the nakshatra is broken down into quarters with delineations for each planet in each quarter. Here is the delineation for Moon in the 2nd quarter (Capricorn):

He is tall, has long nose, weak organs. He is grateful to he persons who help him. He enjoys respect from his family members. However, he will be ruined by his own family members. A female native, without the aspect of a benefic planet, loses her husband early.(p. 214)

Obviously this is a thoroughly Indian text with none of the Theosophical overlay in Behari’s American published texts. There is apparently no Indian tradition related to Behari’s approach to the 27 mansions.

9. The next text in chronological order is DeFouw and Svoboda’s much respected Light on Life (1996). This is, in my opinion, the best in-depth modern publication on India’s astrology. Both authors studied in India. Each nakshatra is about one page long. Varaha Mihira is quoted for each nakshatra, and the ancient associated deities are discussed. Much of the information in this book seems to ring true. Of Swati the authors write:

...Lagna or Moon here often indicates a person who is philosophical, thoughtful, spiritual or religious. Swati has a special association with Saraswati, the goddess of learning who is invoked particularly for progress in literature or music. It is auspicious to begin worshiping Saraswati when the Moon occupies Swati. (p. 233)

Since prior to this text (as far as I have found), Saraswati was not mentioned in association with Swati, we can assume that she was imported from India and comes from De Fouw’s astrological guru. At any rate, DeFouw and Svoboda’s limited words on Swati (compared to Behari) seem relatively accurate when applied to human beings. In this text we also see that the ascendant is mentioned in relation to the nakshatras, though traditionally only the Moon's mansion was considered. Later writers followed suit and have been noting the Ascendant and Sun's mansions.

Light on Life places the nakshatra classifications in a separate section, but their origin is not discussed. Behari’s Dharma, Artha, Kama, Moksha classification is not included. Behari’s Artha classification for Swati is apparently the basis of its supposed materialistic motivation that has made its way into recent western texts on the lunar mansions. (This is only one example of many innovations that can be traced back to Behari.)

10. Later texts have apparently attempted to incorporate and develop ideas from traditional Indian sources, Behari and DeFouw. These books include:

The Nakshatras by Dennis Harness (1999)
A nicely laid out handbook which includes interesting lists of famous people, but also concepts which are open to question.

Indian Astrology by Komilla Sutton (2000)
Lavishly illustrated, a 'coffee table' book. Originally $25, I found copies for $5 at Barnes&Noble.)

Mansions of the Moon by Kenneth Johnson (2002)
This book is especially interesting, and seems to have a special inspiration behind it. Most classifications used by Behari are not mentioned.

27 Celestial Portals by Prash Trivedi (2004)
This latest book is extremely comprehensive, which does not necessarily make it better or more accurate. Material in this book may include most of the concepts introduced and discussed in earlier texts. The book includes original paintings for each of the nakshatras.

An exception to the newer books is Valerie Roebuck’s The Circle of Stars (2002). Roebuck was not a member of the Vedic/Jyotish group in America since England was her home. As a Sanskrit scholar Roebuck stays faithful to the ancient and traditional Indian sources. Her book is the first book I recommend to new students of Jyotish so they get a view of India’s astrology prior to the grafting of new ideas and theories from the 90s and beyond.

© Therese Hamilton 2008

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