by Jayaram V
Just as many ancient civilizations had their own versions of astronomy, Hindus had
their own version of astronomy from very ancient times. Hindu astronomy is based upon the configuration of the nine planets and their collective influence on the world in general and each individual in particular. Depending upon where these planets are located at the time of a person's birth, Hindus believe that the possibilities and potentialities of his life and energies are determined well in advance.
The nine planets are collectively known as navagrahas. They are found in most of the Hindu temples either grouped together on a panel or in a separate pavilion. The devotees usually offer their respects to the nine planetary gods before offering prayers to the main deity of the temple. Out of the nine gods the names of seven are actually drawn from the names of the planets of the solar system and also correspond to the names of the seven days of the Hindu calendar week.
The remaining two gods are actually demons who managed to gain a place in the pantheon through an act of trickery. Probably they were either comets or rather the dark and somewhat hostile planets of the solar system (Neptune and Pluto), which might have been known intuitively or psychically to ancient Indian astrologers.
While navagrahas are usually found in many temples as subordinate deities, there are some temple where they are exclusively worshipped as the main deities. One that comes to our minds immediately is the navagrahas temple on the banks of the river Kshipra in the outskirts of Ujjain, a famous pilgrim center of Saivism in central India. Some times we also come across temples built exclusively for only one of the navagrahas such as the temples built for Surya and Sani in many parts of India. A brief description of each of the Navagrahas is given below:
1. Surya (Sun): He is the Sun god, also called Ravi. In the company of the other planets, he generally stands in the center facing east, while the other planets stand around him in eight different directions, but none facing each other. He rides a chariot that has one wheel and pulled by seven while horses. The seven horses symbolically represent the seven colors of the white light and the seven days of the week.
2. Chandra (Moon): Also knows as Soma, and probably because of his waxing and waning qualities, in the images he is never depicted in full. We see him with only his upper body from chest upwards, with two hands holding one lotus each, riding upon a chariot drawn by 10 horses.
3. Mangala (Mars): Also called Angaraka, Mangala is a ferocious god with four hands. In two hands he holds weapons, generally a mace and a javelin, while the other two are held in abhaya and varada mudras. He uses ram as his vehicle.
4. Budha (Mercury): We generally see him depicted with four hands, riding upon a chariot or a lion. Three of his hands hold a sword, a shied and a mace respectively, while the fourth one is held in the usual varada mudra (giving gesture).
5. Brihaspathi (Jupiter): Brihaspati also known as Brahmanaspati is the teacher of gods and is praised in many hymns of the Rigveda. He is generally shown with two hands, seated in a chariot driven by eight horses. The eight horses probably represent eight branches of knowledge.
Sukra (Venus): Sukra is the teacher of the demons and the author of Sukraniti. He is generally shown with four hands, riding upon a golden or a silver chariot drawn by eight horses. Three of his hands hold a staff, a rosary, a vessel of gold respectively while the fourth one is held in varada mudra .
Sani (Saturn): Sani is a turbulent and troublesome god who makes and breaks fortunes by his influence and position in the planetary system for which he is invariably feared and especially worshipped by those who believe in Hindu astrology. He is generally shown with four hands riding upon a chariot, or a buffalo or a vulture. In three hands he shown holding an arrow, a bow and a javelin respectively while the fourth one is held in varadamudra.
Rahu: His image resembles that of Budha (Mercury) in some respects but both gods differ fundamentally in their nature and temperament. He is generally shown riding a dark lion, in contrast to the white lion of Budha. But just like the other god, he carries the same weapons, namely a sword, a javelin and a shield in his three hands, while his fourth hand is held in varadamudra.
Ketu: In Sanskrit Ketu (Dhuma ketu) means comet. The scriptures describe him as having the tail of a serpent as his body, a description which very much matches with his connection to the image of a comet. However in the images, he is usually shown with a poke marked body, riding upon a vulture and holding a mace.
Suggested Further Reading