When Saturn’s champion abruptly stopped speaking a stunned silence descended on the audience hall until the eighth pundit found his voice: “Rahu and Ketu, the Two Nodes, are two most terrible planets, born in the race of asuras. Whenever the Sun or Moon enter the Nodes’ space, those shining ones begin to quiver in fear, for an eclipse occurs whenever these demons conjoin the luminaries. Some say that Rahu expressly afflicts the Moon, and Ketu the Sun. Rahu and Ketu likewise eclipse the lives of living beings, and, though they spare no one, you can be happy if you worship them and make appropriate offerings. Since they among the planets are particularly cruel, it is essential to worship them regularly. When propitiated, Rahu fills one with mercy and removes diseases and fear of snakes, while a pleased Ketu gives transcendental wisdom.
“The intelligent Rahu, who has a Vata constitution, is the severed head of the son of the mighty Viprachitti and his wife Simhika, the sister of Prahlada. Prahlada, as you know, was made deathless because of his devotion to Lord Vishnu. Ketu is the dismembered body of which Rahu was the head. Some say that a comet is Ketu’s tail made visible. Rahu’s form is like bluish-black smoke; he lives in forests and is fear-inspiring. The ugly and terrifying Ketu, the chief among the stars and planets, is akin to Rahu but is variegated in color. Rahu’s temple icon wears a half-moon on his head, and Ketu’s image holds in his hands a sword and a lamp.
“Rahu rules lead and agate, while Ketu rules earth and turquoise. Together they rule the southwest. Rahu’s names include Svarbhanu, Minister of Asuras, the Half-Bodied, the Ever-Angry, the Serpent, Persecutor of the Luminaries, the Horrible, King of Seizers, the Black, the Terrifier, the Powerful, the Fanged, Bloody-Eyed, Indolence, and the Big-Bellied, while Ketu is known as the Crested, the Bannered, the Head, the Chief, the Smoky-Headed, and the Appalling.
“Rahu and Ketu were split apart at the time of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, which came about as the result of a curse by Durvasas, the incredibly irritable brother of the Moon. This curse by Durvasas caused the glory, luster, and prosperity of the devas to wane, as the Moon had waned when he was cursed by Daksha. Dejected and forlorn, the celestials consulted Brahma, who consulted Lord Vishnu. Vishnu told them. The present time is propitious for your foes the asuras, but not for you. You will have to bide your time until Time turns in your favor. Meanwhile, make peace with your enemies, and cooperate with them to churn the Ocean of Milk, that you may obtain amrita. (the nectar of immortality) thereby.’
“This they did. Adding all kinds of medicinal grasses, bushes, creepers and other plants into the Ocean, and using Mount Mandara for the churning rod and the Serpent Vasuki for the churning stick, the devas and the asuras industriously churned the Ocean of Milk. The Blessed Vishnu, incarnate as the Primordial Tortoise, helped them by simultaneously holding up the mountain on His back and pressing it down invisibly. The high and low tides that we find in the ocean today derive from the surge of the Divine Turtle’s breath that escaped as He was being lulled to sleep by the scratching of the gyrating Mount Mandara’s rocky bottom on His back during the Churning.
“Lord Vishnu also assisted the process by making Vasuki resistant to pain, and by entering the hearts of both devas and asuras to embolden them. In the words of the Srimad Bhagavata, ‘with the furious abandon of drunkards, they churned the ocean with all their might and main, causing wild consternation among the aquatic creatures.’ The egotistic asuras, proud of their knowledge and glory, had insisted on holding Vasuki s head, and Vishnu had advised the devas to acquiesce. The devas therefore smugly clung to Vasuki’s tail as they churned and watched the asuras being blasted by the fiery poison that the distressed snake exhaled.
“The first substance to emerge from the Ocean of Milk during this churning was the notorious Halahala poison, which seemed ready to destroy the universe. It sent everyone scrambling for Lord Shiva, Who drank but did not swallow it; he kept it in His throat, which it turned blue. The drops of poison that leaked from His hand were appropriated by scorpions, snakes, venomous reptiles, and poisonous herbs.
“The next thing to emerge was Kamadhenu, the wish- fulfilling cow, whom the rishis took for themselves. Next came the celestial horse Ucchaishravas, who was requested by Bali, king of the asuras. The fourth treasure was Aip’vata,,the celestial elephant, who went. to Indra. Fifth was the Kausthubha gem, which Lord Vishnu placed on His own chest. The sixth treasure was the Parijataka (wish-fulfilling tree), which was transplanted to heaven. This was followed by a bevy ofapsarases, who attracted all the celestials. The eighth treasure was the alluring Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity, Who chose Vishnu for Herself. Lakshmi’s gracious glance perfected all virtues in the celestials, and established them in perfect bliss. The asuras, thus abandoned by Lakshmi, lost all their higher qualities, including valor, restraint, and cooperation, and propensities like greed gained ascendancy in their minds. After Lakshmi appeared Varuni, the goddess of liquor, whom the asuras took, since Vishnu had taken Lakshmi.
“Finally Dhanvantari, the god of medicine, arrived, holding in his hand the pot of amrita. The asuras snatched it, and would have devoured it had not Mohini (‘the Enchantress’) arrived on the scene. When Mohini displayed to all the most beautiful female form ever seen in the universe, the asuras were overwhelmed with lust for her. Little did they suspect that She was Lord Vishnu in disguise. She agreed to divide the amrita between the gods and asuras only if they would all abide by her actions, irrespective of whether those actions seemed right or wrong. Blinded by their craving for her, the asuras agreed.
“The next day Mohini moved among the exhausted churners, the cloth slipping suggestively from her jug-like breasts, murmuring sweetly to the still-dazzled asuras while feeding the amrita to the devas all the while. Rahu disguised himself and, seating himself amidst the gods between the Sun and Moon, managed to drink a drop of the amrita. Seeing this deception, those two effulgent orbs speedily snitched to Vishnu, Who severed Rahu’s head with His discus. Since the nectar droplet had by that moment only reached his neck, Rahu’s body fell down dead, but his head lived on, to torture the Sun and Moon for betraying him. Rahu swallows them with gusto, but since he is now only a head, the luminaries pass through him, and again become visible when the eclipse is ended. Rahu’s body was later revived and became Ketu. Garlic sprang up wherever drops of Rahu’s blood fell to Earth; its identical qualities are like those of amrita, but it has a Rahu-like effect on the minds of those who consume it.
“I bow to Rahu and Ketu, the two shadow planets who eclipse the minds of those they afflict.”