Planets have long been classified as to whether their influence is benefic or malefic. This has often been simplistically rendered as good and bad, according to a moralistic concept of good and evil (often depending upon what religion one follows). Thereby it has given rise to a stereotyped, judgmental or moralistic thinking, as if life were nothing but a school of reward and punishment and that the stars had no higher purpose then to administer justice to deviant mortals. Still there is a truth behind these concepts which remains useful and important. Benefic planets generally increase, promote, further, expand or bring to fruition the affairs of the planets, signs, and houses they influence. Malefic planets, on the contrary, generally decrease, obstruct, harm, limit or destroy the affairs of the planets, signs and houses they influence.
In a very broad sense, one could say that malefic planets cause disease, difficulties, delays, conflicts, separations, poverty and suffering. Benefic planets promote health, ease, comfort, peace, harmony, abundance and happiness. Yet in actual prediction, much greater precision is required than this and planetary influences combine in many ways.
Malefic planets can function in a positive way by negating negative factors in the chart (like disease or poverty). In fact, such instances of negative influences cancelling each other in the chart represent the greatest good fortune. Not only is good fortune gained but potential negative side-effects are also neutralized. In the same way, benefic planets can function negatively. Too many benefic influences can render a person weak and self-indulgent and make their life easy, superficial and without challenges.
In Vedic astrology, the nature of planets as benefic or malefic is not entirely fixed. There are two different ways of judging this. The first is what is called their "natural status"; Jupiter as benefic and Saturn as malefic and so on. This has been the main factor used in Western astrology, particularly in the Middle Ages. There is in Vedic astrology a second factor called the "temporal status". This depends upon which sign governs the ascendant in the particular chart. The nature of planets as positive or negative, benefic or malefic, creative or destructive, varies with each ascendant according to the particular houses they rule.
For example, the ruler of the ascendant, even if it is Saturn, becomes benefic in its temporal status (as for a Capricorn ascendant). Similarly, rulers of negative houses, houses that indicate misfortune, disease, death or other difficulties in life, like the sixth house, will become temporally malefic, even if they happen to be Jupiter, which in natural status is the best benefic. This will be discussed in detail in the section on the houses, as it is one of the most important and unique principles of this system of astrology.
To determine the benefic or malefic nature of a planet both its natural and temporal statuses must be carefully considered. Moreover, planetary nature changes with planetary association. Such influences are aspects between planets and the nature of the signs and houses in which they are located. Friendship and enmity between planets comes into consideration here (see section). A preponderance of malefic influences and aspects can neutralize a benefic and vice versa.
Some astrologers have suggested that the terms benefic and malefic be done away with, like those of good and evil. Such terms as expansive and contractive planets may be preferable in many instances, as these writers suggest, or planets which create or resolve difficulties. Yet the capacity of badly disposed planets to do harm in life should not be underestimated. Nor can the influences of such difficult planets be very easily neutralized. Similarly, the capacity of well-disposed planets to bring unexpected help or benefits should not be overlooked. Planets may not function in a simplistic way but they do function according to cosmic forces beyond our control that can raise us up or bring us down in ways we could never do of our own accord.
Which planets we consider to be benefic or malefic depends to a great extent on what we want in life, according to our goals and values. Life has many domains and what is good for one field of life may not be good for another. For example, what is good for wealth may not be good for spiritual development. For the spiritual life, which depends upon detachment, malefics like Saturn may be very positive in destroying our desire or capacity to accumulate wealth. In this way they can aid in driving our consciousness inward.
Sometimes a planet may be good for one aspect but not for another within the same domain. A planet may give wealth or prestige but weaken one's health, thereby furthering some of the outer goals of life but not all of them. We can observe this in regular human life where overwork may be good for one's business but not for one's vitality. The planets must be as complex as life in their functioning.
While we use the terms malefic and benefic here, it is in a more adaptable sense than a simplistic good and bad. We see in these terms a cosmic sense that can help us understand astrology on a deeper level. It is the ancient sense of life as a battle between light and darkness, the gods and the demons, cosmos and chaos. The planets were seen as the matrix of this battle and regarded as capable of transmitting or even personifying these conflicting forces. Astrology is a dead and sterile thing without this mythos and this cosmic symbolism of light and dark.
The benefic and malefic effects of planets based on their underlying nature, is as given below—
GREATER BENEFIC: JUPITER GREATER MALEFIC: SATURN, RAHU LESSER BENEFIC: VENUS LESSER MALEFIC: MARS, KETU GENERAL BENEFIC: MOON, MERCURY GENERAL MALEFIC: SUN
The Moon is considered generally benefic. It is a strong benefic when away from the Sun and bright in nature. It becomes malefic when close to the Sun or dark in nature. It is more benefic when waxing and more malefic than waning. Specifically, I consider it to be benefic except when within 60 degrees of its conjunction with the Sun, and until it is 30 degrees past the Sun (some books count the Moon as malefic when within 72 degrees of the Sun; others regard the waxing or increasing Moon as benefic, and the waning or decreasing Moon as malefic). Yet even when close to the Sun, in a good sign and with good aspects its benefic nature can still come out.
Mercury, like the Moon, is a general benefic, but is mutable in nature, easily takes upon the nature of the planets with which it is associated, and so is sometimes regarded as neutral (the Moon possesses much of this same mutability or sensitivity).
The lunar nodes, Rahu and Ketu, are generally somewhat more malefic than their planetary counterparts, Saturn and Mars, but as shadowy planets are more likely to take upon the nature of planets with whom they are associated. In this way they can function as benefics.
Uranus and Pluto, to a lesser degree than Rahu and Ketu to which they are similar, are generally malefic but in nature. Pluto seems to be more malefic. Their influence as distant planets is not always strong in itself, though it is often strong in transits. Neptune, likewise, is a weak and mutable benefic, like Mercury, but to a lesser degree. The distant planets, like the lunar nodes, function more to magnify or transmit the influences of other planets.
Natural disposition as benefic as malefic may be overridden by other factors, mainly temporal status. Yet we find that natural benefics always do some good, even when otherwise malefically disposed. Natural malefics, similarly, always do some harm or create some difficulties or delays, even when otherwise benefically disposed.
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