Muhurta serves a purpose similar to that of Western electional astrology in which the astrologer chooses an auspicious time for the commencement of an action. In ancient Vedic times, however, the specific role of muhurta was primarily for the timing of personal and community rites that expressed the spiritual life of the culture.
The central role of such rites is best understood in the context of the philosophy of karma. Although the Western sense of karma is often limited to the results of past action, karma actually means action. In the context of muhurta, karma can be thought of as current actions founded in the will to choose that which can best ameliorate or soften the impact of less evolved past decisions or of simply creating new life trajectories. From this perspective, the wheel of karma is an ongoing cyclical process that encompasses both experiencing the fruits of past action and having the will and responsibility to choose and perform new current actions. In turn, current actions can feed back to patterns created in the past and modify them, carving out new behaviors that are hopefully more beneficial to the individual and to his or her society.
Many Hindus believe that establishing correct patterns of thought and behavior leads to actions (karmas) that will improve life. These patterns (samskaras) are established from birth onward by means of rituals that refine the human being on individual and social levels of life including physical, psychological, intellectual, and spiritual levels. There are usually 16 samskaras, including naming ceremonies, the first feeding of a child, commencement of education, marriage, cremation, and similar rites of passage in human maturation. Because each of these samskaras requires a proper muhurta or commencement time, muhurta is an essential part of the process of evolving towards the state of optimal human maturity known as moksha or liberation, whereby the soul completes the wheel of karma. In much of Indian thought, such an enlightened state is the ultimate goal of right action arising from the influence of the samskaras. This function of muhurta is very different from the typical contemporary situation of a client asking the astrologer for a good time to go on a vacation or start a business. Nevertheless, these latter concerns are the subject of most of the muhurtas that the modern jyotishi (practitioner of Vedic astrology) will encounter, whether in the West or in India.
The essential data for establishing a proper muhurta is found in a panchanga, a yearly sidereal almanac used by priests in ancient times as the central guide for arriving at the timing of personal and community rites. To this day, the panchanga is still the primary resource for determining religious festival days in India. Contemporary astrologers use it to arrive at the best available time to start any action within specific parameters. Panchanga means "five limbs" and is so named because it sets forth tables for five measurements of time vital for selecting a good muhurta. Panchangas are available worldwide, mostly in Indian communities, and in most Vedic astrology software packages.
The panchanga is organized through the mechanism of soli-lunar cycles. Its five limbs are the seven varanas (day of the week), 27 nakshatras (the Moon's daily position in a lunar constellation), 30 tithis (one of the 30 phases or lunar days in a lunar month), 60 karanas (half of a tithi) and 27 soli-lunar yogas (generated by the relative positions of the Sun and Moon with respect to each other). Although all these contribute to setting a muhurta within the context of a large number of additional ornate rules, primacy is given to the day of the week (varana), lunar day (tithi) and the star group that the Moon is in at the time under consideration (nakshatra). If all the many rules to construct a good muhurta for a particular event are followed, the recommendation might be for a time 200 years in the future due to the infrequent occurrence of all ideal primary astrological patterns. Consequently, secondary considerations are used along with the primary considerations from a panchanga, thereby rendering the process practical.
The varana (day of the week) is the first consideration. Each weekday takes its name from one of the seven main planets including the Sun and Moon. The characteristics of the planet indicate what activities are most appropriate under the influence of its day. In this context, dating might be better on a Friday night (Venus) than on Saturday night (Saturn). Embedded in the varana are the twenty four hours of the day (horas). The first hora or hour of each day is ruled by that day's planetary ruler. In Indian astrology, the day starts at sunrise and therefore, for example, the first hour after sunrise on a Monday would be the hora of the Moon. There follows a set sequence as to the rulers of the subsequent hours for the different days of the week. Since the length of day and night vary as one goes north or south of the equator and at different times of the year, there is the complication that the hora may not be precisely one hour long for a given date and locality. It may be necessary to calculate the horas of the night and day separately to be completely accurate. Use of the horas can be very specific. For example, if someone wants to schedule a job interview, it might be desirable to select the hora of Mercury, provided other considerations are favorable at that time and Mercury is favorable in the birth chart.
A tithi represents one lunar day and is calculated by the position of the Moon relative to the Sun. Each tithi is 12° and there are 15 tithis in the waxing cycle culminating in the full Moon and fifteen in the waning cycle ending with the new Moon. Each tithi is classified as to the purposes for which it is auspicious and inauspicious. Some tithis are completely avoided for almost all important activities. In general, the tithis of the bright half of the lunar month are more favorable than the dark half for activities that have a more outward direction.
Nakshatras are utilized in the context of muhurta to indicate what flourishes and what is counter-indicated under their influence. They have certain archetypes and qualities that lend great richness to astrological interpretation. A modern astrologer can be led by these qualities to choose muhurtas for situations not anticipated in ancient times. For example, the nakshatra of Revati is associated with roads and by association, hospitality, shelter, and protection. If the client wanted to open a bed-and-breakfast inn, an astrologer might choose a time when Revati is prominent in the chart. The relationship between the Moon's nakshatra in the birth chart and at the time of the muhurta is also vital. Certain positions are decidedly inauspicious and should ideally be avoided. A complex matrix of other factors relevant to nakshatras is beyond the scope of this discussion.
Other important considerations give a flavor of the intricacy and detail of muhurta. Points of transition such as the Sun's entry into new sidereal constellations, eclipses, and certain transition times during each day are generally considered unfavorable for initiating most activities. In turn, other such junctures are very auspicious. The position of the Moon is extremely important as well. For example, the Moon in the eighth house from its natal position is said to give inauspicious results. Similarly, it is not desirable for the Moon to be too close to the Sun. Although the consideration of the tithi takes such factors into account to some extent, the underlying principle is that the strength and position of the Moon is always to be optimized. Sometimes, however, there is no choice but to commence something under some of these more obstructive combinations. Fortunately, the system is sufficiently diverse and ornate that these obstructions can be offset by other considerations.
Once a time period has been selected according to these criteria, the most important final step for the purposes of this discussion is to select an ascendant that will empower the client to realize the potential of the chosen time. Although this is technically outside the primary considerations of the panchanga, it is universally recognized that if the ascendant and ascendant lord are not strong, the possibility of a good out come is greatly reduced. The same reasoning applies to the houses and lords of the houses for the matter under consideration. For example, if the muhurta is for buying a property, the fourth house, fourth, lord and the primary indicators for property in Indian astrology, Mars and Saturn, should be well disposed in the chart of the selected time. The synthesis of all these factors is the great challenge of the art of muhurta.
Selection of the best time possible for a particular endeavor emphatically does not ensure a brilliant outcome if the matter is counter-indicated in the birth chart. If a person has a very difficult pattern with respect to marriage, selecting a beautiful muhurta for marriage will not ensure a smooth or continuous union in and of itself. Muhurta selection, however, is one of the expressions of free will that may modify the outcome of obstructive chart patterns and is therefore an important component of Vedic astrology.
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