Those who travel to Thailand via the Suvarnabhumi Airport would most likely have come across the sculpture depicting a scene from the Puranas. It is the story of the Samudra Manthan, translated into English as the Churning of the Milk Ocean — that is, the story of Rahu and Ketu’s origins.
In this tale, the devas and the asuras are using the body of Vasuki — a king of the nagas and Shiva’s sacred snake — as a rope to be tied around the mountain Mandara. With the devas on one side and the asuras other, the Vasuki’s serpentine body is tugged back and forth in order to churn the Ocean of Milk, all in the attempt to acquire the nectar of immortality known as amrita. Upon retrieval of the nectar from the ocean, the devas did not wish to share such a gift with the asuras, prompting conflict to ignite between the two parties. Vasuki utilized the distraction to stealthily partake of a portion of the nectar, but was soon detected. In rage, the devas became furious and Vishnu hurled his discus at Vasuki. However, as Vasuki had already drunk parts of the nectar, he could not be destroyed. The serpent was thereby divided in two: the lower portion of the naga became Ketu, and the upper Rahu. (1)
In Vedic beliefs, Rahu’s form is like blue-black smoke. The bodiless serpent lives in the forest, and is fear-inspiring in his terrifying visage. Rahu rules the metal of lead and the stone of agate, and wears a half-moon upon his head. His names are many: “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” and so forth. (2) Traditionally, Rahu is viewed to be a malefic similar to Saturn. According to the Vedic astrologer Freedom Cole, as explained in his book The Science of Light: “Rāhu is similar to Saturn in its airy nature of drying things. Saturn represents sorrow while Rāhu represents shock or trauma. Saturn is the natural dark side of life, while Rāhu is the demented dark side. He does not think clearly, the proper mind is obscured and deluded. Rāhu relates to addiction and foreign substances and rules all types of mind-altering drugs … Rāhu is impure and dirty and poisons whatever he associates with.” (3)
In contemporary Thailand, however, Rahu is venerated as an averter of misfortune and a bringer of prosperity and wealth — an interpretation of Rahu that seems at odds with the traditional Vedic understanding of Rahu, at least on the surface. Instead of a malefic, Rahu is worshiped as a symbol of “fertility, abundance, fortune, and life transitions towards prosperity and happiness.” (4) Since Rahu is considered to be the cause of suffering in life, propitiation of Rahu therefore serves as a means of persuading the malefic to bestow happiness and fulfillment, rather than inflict misfortune and woe. In other words, the worshiper appeases Rahu with their faith and veneration. This would explain the abundance of Rahu temples in central and northeastern Thailand, with the most well-known being that of Wat Srisathong, translated into English as the golden-headed temple, named after Rahu’s golden headdress.
Within Thai folk astrological beliefs, it is said that those who are “born on the 8th, 18th, and 28th days of the month are advised to pay their respect to Rahu.” (5) Likewise, the color black and the number eight are the symbols of Rahu. One way to venerate Rahu is to make eight offerings such as black chicken, black jelly, black glutinous rice, black bean, black coffee, or even coca cola, on a Wednesday evening (Wednesday nights are associated with Rahu). Of course, there are local variations on the veneration ritual as well. Some may prefer to make twelve offerings rather than eight, or perform the rite on a Saturday rather than a Wednesday, for example. Another common remedy for combating Rahu’s obfuscating influences is to make donations of light (e.g., donating light bulbs or money to bring light and electricity to temples or underprivileged households, etc.) due to the fact that Rahu is a shadow planet and light is what drives away the shadow and the dark. Furthermore, those who are born on Wednesday nights are said to be born under Rahu, who is represented with the Buddha posture of Phra Lae Lai. Thus, it is claimed that propitiating that specific Buddha is a way to ward off Rahu’s malefic influence.
Runra noted that the popularity of Rahu worship rose after the Asian financial crisis of 1997, a financial crisis which began in Thailand due to the collapse of the Thai baht. Interestingly enough, the crisis also occurred merely two years after the total solar eclipse of 1995. Thus, it is probable that the desire for financial recovery after the Asian financial crisis — the craving for quick money to combat the reversal for fortune — is what led to the popularization of Rahu worship in Thailand. For that reason, those who are desperate for money often propitiate Rahu for assistance, and Rahu does provide them with what they need — at a price, for there is always a price. In the words of Freedom Cole, Rahu “is beneficial for business and politics where lying, cheating and stealing in the most deceptive way are things that get people ahead and make lots of money.” (6) Rahu’s money, therefore, is blood money. It is stolen money. It is the gambler’s jackpot or the swindler’s conniving win.
Rahu’s prosperity is swift and dirty. Hence, it is my belief that the fortune bestowed by Rahu is in actuality a test of character. Rahu teaches the lesson on the hollowness of greed and the dangers of avarice, the line between indulgence and debauchery, the Herculean strength to say no to the insatiable hunger that demands more and more. In many ways, Rahu represents the rot of late-stage capitalism, the house of cards collapsing under the weight of its own lies. Whereas Jupiter may provide wealth with no strings attached, any fortune granted by Rahu comes with a painful punishment, should a man succumb to gluttony over need. This is perhaps why Rahu is associated not only with addiction, but also with the concept of moha. Moha, in Sanskrit and Pāli, translates to “delusion,” “confusion,” and “benightedness.” (7) In Buddhist belief, Moha is one of the three poisons that is the root of Tṛṣṇā — a concept which translates to “thirst” and “craving,” manifesting itself as “the thirst for sensory experience.” (8)
As a result, in my view, Rahu is the futile attempt to find satisfaction via insatiable consumption. It is a state of obfuscation, of being blinded and lost in an illusion of one’s own creation. It is a bottomless pit: the void that gazes back, a self-swallowing stomach that leads to auto-cannibalization as a form of self-destruction. To know Rahu is to have your mind dulled by desire and heart muddled by delusions. To survive Rahu’s tests, consequently, is to have passed under an all-consuming shadow and emerged wiser from the ordeal. The stubborn strength to deny temptations and the endurance to suffer torturous hunger are some of the lessons that Rahu teaches. Rahu is the artist who uses lies to tell the truth. Without him, there is no discernment, for Rahu is the obfuscating darkness that makes one appreciate the light.
(1) B. Behari & D. Frawley, Myths & Symbols of Vedic Astrology, Lotus Press, 2003.
(2) R. Svoboda, The Greatness of Saturn: A Therapeutic Myth, Lotus Press, 2000, p. 94.
(3) F.T. Cole, Science of Light: An Introduction to Vedic Astrology, Science of Light LLC., 2009, p. 65.
(4) P. Runra, “Rahu, the God of Fortune and Wealth: The Resignification of the Rahu Symbol in Thai Society,” Manutsayasat Wichakan, 2019, p. 203.
(5) C. Disayavanish and P. Disayavanish, “Introduction of the Treatment Method of Thai Traditional Medicine: Its Validity and Future Perspectives,” Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 1998, p. 335. (Available at: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1440-1819.1998.tb03261.x.)
(6) Cole, Science of Light, p. 65.
(7) R.E. Buswell and D.S. Lopez, D.S. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, Princeton University Press, 2014, p. 546.
(8) Buswell, ibid., p. 926.
Ivy Senna, born and raised in Thailand, is an astrolater and a practitioner of the occult. Haunted by siren songs and silver-clad serpents, she is an avid lover of fixed stars and eldritch sea monsters. Her pamphlet, “Venus-as-Mother: to Soothe a Grieving Heart,” is purchasable via Hadean Press. She is also a contributor of “The Gorgon’s Guide to Magical Resistance,” available at Revelore Press. Ivy can be found online @ivy.crowned on Instagram and on her blog at uponthealtar.