The Enigma of the House Systems
------ © Dr. Satya Prakash Choudhary
"Which house system should an astrologer follow"? This is a question that most beginners ask. After sometime a majority do not ask anymore, not because they have solved the puzzle, but because they give up in desperation or let their favourite teacher or author decide for them! Years later, as they progress more and have a better comprehension of the fundamentals, they come back one whole circle and again ask the same question. Vedic astrologers face this problem to a lesser extent because the ancient texts use whole house system. But some traditional Vedic astrologers use the Sri Pati system which closely resembles Porphyry, while KP astrologers use Placidus. So sooner or later most research minded astrologers who are not content with blindly following what has been taught or told, start pondering over the question again. "Which house system should an astrologer use"?
There are at least over thirty ways of dividing the diurnal cycle into 12 parts (this is what the houses are about). The dispute is over what Geometry to use in dividing up the mundane sphere, over where the houses begin, and over whether they have any sharply defined boundaries at all. In other words the cusps are what we don't seem to agree upon. What to divide and how? This is where we seem to disagree. In order to assess the merits or demerits of a particular system, it becomes imperative that we first know the basis of at least some of the main systems. So let me first introduce the basis in as simple terms as possible (and it is not a simple job). I will try to stay away from the technicalities unless required, and also try not to introduce unnecessary controversies at this stage. To make it simple, I will broadly classify the house systems into two kinds-
those that are constructed directly on the ECLIPTIC and
those that are constructed by PROJECTION onto one of the great spheres like the celestial sphere, using the horizon, celestial equator, or the polar axis.
If there is someone who does not understand the above terms, blame him for the diversion I am going to take now, because unless you understand at least a little of these things, what I am going to discuss hereafter will just go beyond your minds. So here we go.
The earth as you all know is almost spherical. It rotates from west to east around an axis. The imaginary line along the axis connects the two poles (north and south poles) running through the center. The equator is the imaginary line running across the largest circumference of the earth equidistant from the poles. This is zero degree latitude. Parallel lines drawn on either sides (north and south) of the equator indicate the latitude.
Similarly imaginary lines can be drawn on the surface of the earth connecting the north pole to the south pole to indicate the longitude. These lines are called terrestrial meridians. Like the equator for zero latitude, we need to select a meridian passing for zero longitude. The ancient Indians used Ujjain for this while we use Greenwich in England as corresponding to zero degree of longitude. Now we have co-ordinates by which we can locate any point on the sphere called earth.
So far so good. But we guys are supposed to be star-gazers. So how do we use all these terrestrial lines in our work? EEXXTTEENNDD your imagination. Extend it as far as the space around the earth. At least extend it as far as the zodiac. Now this imaginary projection of the earth in all directions upto infinity is what the CELESTIAL SPHERE is. Believe me the very imagination of the celestial sphere sends me into ecstasy! No wonder it had captured the imagination of most Puranas that wrote endlessly on the Bhu Mandala , describing every minute detail on this grand celestial sphere that makes one feel one with the stars and the cosmos. Resuming the thread, since this is a projection of the earth, even the Celestial sphere has an equator, poles, meridians, etc, of course referred to as the Celestial equator, celestial north pole and so on. The point of the celestial sphere that is directly overhead (for an observer) is called the Zenith and the opposite point is the Nadir. All this becomes relevant if one wants to understand the astronomical/mathematical/mythological basis of astrology. But our immediate purpose is served (kind of) if you now have a fair idea of what I meant by a 'PROJECTION onto one of the great spheres like the celestial sphere, using the horizon, celestial equator, or the polar axis', while classifying the house systems. Now let me repeat my earlier point just in case you are lost in all these imaginary projections!
I will broadly classify the house systems into two kinds -
those that are constructed directly on the ECLIPTIC and
those that are constructed by PROJECTION onto one of the great spheres like the celestial sphere, using the horizon, celestial equator, or the polar axis.
I hope that all of us know what the ECLIPTIC is. From the earth, it appears to us as if the Sun is going around us. And we are interested only in our perspective. Why not? The world exists because we exist! The waves had been dancing towards the shore pounding against the rocks for millions of years. And so have the stars been there. But who was there to witness all this beauty? When 'you' come into existence, then and only then does the world really exist, for without the observer the observed has no value. You exist because I exist! After this short attempt to justify what seems to be an ego-centric view (the geo-centric model of the Universe), let me get back onto the highway. Well the Ecliptic is the Sun's path around the earth, in other words around ME (the 'I' is very important in astrology as evident from the fact that we mostly reckon everything from the first house). The planets are all moving around the Sun and hence they are all in a belt that spans upto 8 degrees on either sides of the Sun. This imaginary belt within which the planets seem to 'wander' is the Zodiac.
As already mentioned, the earth rotates around its axis once in every twenty four hours from west to east. As a result all the heavenly bodies appear to revolve around the earth once every day. The zodiac (with all the nakshatras and signs FIXED upon it ) also appears to revolve around the earth. When you stretch your vision far enough, it looks as though the earth and sky meet somewhere. This imaginary circle where the earth and sky meet is called the 'Horizon'. Thus all the signs and nakshatras too appear to successively rise in the eastern horizon and set in the western horizon once every day. So generally six signs appear at the eastern horizon during the day, while the other six appear during the night.
The sign that rises at the eastern horizon at any given moment, is the ascendant or rising sign. In other words, it is the sign where the ecliptic cuts the eastern horizon. The exact point is the first cusp. The sign seventh from the ascendant is the descendant or the setting sign. This point will be the 7 th cusp.
If you remember I referred to the nadir and zenith earlier. The point of the celestial sphere that is directly overhead (for an observer) is called the Zenith and the opposite point is the Nadir. The great circle that passes through in a north-south direction through the zenith and the nadir, through the celestial poles and the north and south points of the horizon, is called the meridian. In other words the meridian cuts the ecliptic above the earth (zenith, otherwise referred to as MIDHEAVEN ) and below the earth (nadir). The zenith represents the 10 th house, while the nadir represents the 4 th .
Now comes the original question. It is easy to divide the zodiac into equal sections, but are they to be divided equally? Or unequally? Strictly speaking you cannot divide the zodiac into equal sections. Roughly the signs can be divided into three groups depending upon their rising periods (rasimana) at the EQUATOR. A sign belonging to one group takes the same time to rise as the others in the same group at the EQUATOR. As we move away from the equator, certain signs take longer time while others take shorter time to rise. In other words certain signs remain longer than others on the horizon. Again since six signs elapse between sunrise and set and vice-versa, it implies that during winter when the days are shorter, the signs rising during the day have a shorter time duration. Thus there are signs of short ascension and long ascension. Further, near the poles certain signs may not rise at all!
With the above raised points (there are some more which I will not touch upon so that I don't lose all of you by the end!), it is clear that the issue at hand is not very simple. Moreover when we are working along several oblique planes, just what do we divide? The Ecliptic? The Equator? The Horizon? Or some other plane of reference? Equal house and Porphyry go for the Ecliptic, Meridian and Regiomontanus opt for the Equator, while the Horizontal system goes by the Horizon, and Campanus uses division of the prime vertical from the poles of the horizon projected onto the ecliptic.
Since astrology is mostly about symbolism, probably the answer lies in the symbolism of the great circles, and the various planes of reference used. Perhaps there is not a single answer. Particular systems may work better in particular contexts. One thing that deserves mention is that while the purely Ecliptic based divisions don't incorporate the geographic latitude, all the projection systems incorporate the latitude (of course geographic latitude is used in calculating the ascendant by all systems, the reference here is to ALL THE CUSPS). Space and Time are the two variables that we use in astrology. Those who have studied Relocational astrology (for instance ACG) will agree on the potential value of incorporating the latitude for all cusps. Thus the major difference between all these systems is in calculating the cusps. But it is not over yet. Let me introduce the other very interesting problem that the topic is linked to, namely the nature and definition of a cusp.
What is a cusp? There are two opinions here. Some say that a cusp is the beginning of a house while others say that the cusp is only the most sensitive point of the house, where the symbolism of the house is expressed most strongly or intensely. At the very outset, it has to be accepted that there is some truth to the second thought, the reasons being simple enough. Most western astrologers take it for granted that by definition, a cusp is the beginning of the house. But it need not necessarily be so. Why? A cusp simply means a 'point', indicating the most intense point of activity. Where is it said or written that the word 'cusp' means beginning? As a dentist I use this word while referring to teeth as well. When I say 'bicuspid' or 'tricuspid' teeth, I mean teeth with two cusps or three cusps respectively. Like in any other context, it simply means teeth with two or three points. For instance the premolars are bicuspid, meaning that they have two points. Having said this let me say that there is no reason why the word 'cusp' should mean anything other than a point. Now you could argue that it could mean the 'beginning point'. Perhaps. But that makes it an equally strong case to mean the 'middle point' or 'ending point' or any other point. Certain questions arise in the mind regarding the houses. Does the house symbolism stay uniformly intense throughout a house and change abruptly to the next house's symbolism at the cusp? Or do house meanings shade gradually into one another? If the former were true, by now astrologers would probably have agreed on the most effective system of house division. But the fact that dozens of house systems remain in use, is proof that the answer is not as simple.
Most modern western astrologers assume that the cusp of a house is both the beginning of the house and is also where the house manifests strongly. Even both the Greeks and the Hindus hold that cusps are the peaks of the house symbolism. So we seem to have an agreement among most of us that the cusps are the points of intense activity, where the symbolism of the house is more clearly at work. If we accept this simple and straightforward meaning of the word cusp, the cusps could still be used for simple things like looking to the cuspal nakshatra lord or sign lord or even the sub lord, for assessing the matters of a house, without going into a controversy over the cusp indicating the beginning or ending of a sign. But so far as the role of the cusps in determining the span of a house is concerned, the problem still remains unsolved. I will deal with this aspect later. Now let me give a brief run down on some systems of house division.
For reasons of space and time, I will discuss only four main systems here. The choice is based on their popularity with Vedic astrologers as well as their representativeness. Apart from these, I have been trying a few other systems which I might discuss another time (if I feel confident that there are enough people who can follow technical details without losing interest or their confidence in the topic). But only the following systems will probably interest most Vedic astrologers because generally I haven't seen anybody using any other system beyond these.
Whole sign houses
As the name suggests, in this system, the whole sign is treated as the house. The rising sign itself becomes the first house, from its very beginning to its end. The next sign is the second and the next sign from the second becomes the third and so on. In other words, wherever the rising degree falls the entire sign, from 0 degree to 30 degrees, is the first house. The M.C. (culminating degree or Midheaven) may or may not fall in the tenth sign. The ancient Greeks and Vedics used this. Modern Vedic astrologers still use this predominantly. This was a popular, in fact the oldest House system that the ancients used originally. There is no evidence that prior to Ptolemy, any other house system existed other than the whole signs. In this simple system houses and signs are interchangeable. The controversy of the cusps is not relevant at all here.
Equal House System
The cusps are all at an equal interval from each other. In other words, if the first cusp is at 24 degrees, all the other cusps too will be at 24 degrees but in the next houses. In the equal house system, while the houses fall in the same signs as the whole sign houses, the cusps are taken as the beginning of the house, or at least near the beginning. While most astrologers who follow this system, take the Cusp as the beginning, there are variants like the one attributed to Ptolemy. This notion is derived from Ptolemy's description of the computation of the 'aphetic point'(it is a point used to determine longevity) in Book 3. This method places the beginning of the house at 5 degrees before the rising degree and does the same with the remaining houses too. In other words if you want to know the beginning of the first house, subtract 5 degrees from the ascendant degree. Note that the point thus derived is the 'horoskopos' which is nothing but the point that determines the cuspal degree.
It will not be out of place here to refer to the 'System's approach'. In 'System's approach' advocated by V.K.Choudhary, they use something called the 'most effective point' or MEP, in short. The MEP is nothing but the cuspal point, in a whole sign house system. So technically Systems approach is still a Whole house system that uses cusps. It is not an Equal House system. In other words, astrologers who use the whole sign houses, use the same cusps as the equal house advocates, except that the cusps DO NOT mark the beginning of the houses and that the COMPLETE sign is still taken as the house. But most astrologers who use whole signs do not use the cusps at all.
If a traditional vedic astrologer uses anything other than the whole signs, it will most probably be this. The calculation is very simple. Add 180 degrees to the 1 st cusp. This gives the 7 th cusp. Add 180 degrees to the tenth to get the 4 th cusp. Now you have 4 spans or divisions of the zodiac namely 1 st to 4 th , 4 th to 7 th , 7 th to 10 th and finally 10 th to 1 st . Now trisect (divide into three equal parts) each of the 4 segments. Now we have all the 12 cusps. In other words the span of the first, second and third houses is equal and so too with the other segments. This is similar to Porphyry. But the major difference is that in this system the cusp is taken as the middle of the house. The cusp is placed squarely in the middle of the house! To find the beginning of the first house find the midpoint between the 12 th and 1 st cusps. Likewise with the other houses. No doubt it is a neat model. But the equal division of the 4 segments, has no regard for the differences in the cusps based on latitude.
This system is followed mainly by KP adherents. Here too we arrive at the 1 st 4 th 7 th and 10 th cusps just as in Sripati system. But after that it differs. Instead of neatly trisecting the segments equally, they are divided unequally. It is a complicated system involving the declination of the Sun. Suffice it to say that it incorporates the latitude, and thereby computes the cusps differently for different latitudes. The other difference is that the Cusps are treated as the house ***beginning as well as the points of maximum house symbolism.
Some Observations on the Cusps
As I have already mentioned, I have tried all the above systems seriously. Let me place my observations before you. That the cusps are the points of maximum activity or where the house symbolism is at its peak is something that most of us could agree upon. So using the Cuspal sublord, nakshatra lord or signlord to draw some static conclusions as KP does is definitely effective. For instance, the sign lord or sub lord of the 2 nd cusp is in the 5 th house. There could be gains through cinema, fine arts, entertainment, sports, speculation, or through children. Of course KP stresses on the sublord lot more than on the signlord. Or using another example, the 7 th cusp sublord is Mercury in a dual sign in a Mercury's nakshatra suggesting more than one marriage. Or we could take an example from traditional vedic astrology. The ascendant cusp could be in mrityubhaga (a critical degree which literally means the 'division of death') which should alert the astrologer.
Whole signs definitely seem to work. But so do Placidus and Sripati! So how do we reconcile? I use whole signs for all all regular delineations. Jaimini methodology doesn't need the cusps or houses controversy. Simple things often work very well. It seems to have stood the test of time. But for all nakshatra dasha (like the Vimsottari) readings I like to check the cusps and the bhava chart. The whole sign house system seems to make up for the lack of exact house cusps and degree aspects by the extensive use of the harmonic charts. So if you are using the divisional charts along with the rasi chart then you need not worry about the cusps.
A planet that would be placed in the 12 th by Placidus, would be placed in the first by Sripati. And I have seen cases where the planet did influence the first house clearly. But I have seen more cases accounting for Placidus especially when used with KP methodology. I started looking for a CONSISTENT explanation. There are two ways of looking at this.
Some western schools of astrology like the western siderealists use only the angles (most systems agree on the angles). While using the cusps only for the angles, gets rid of half the problem, it does not stop there. The kendras or angles are the cornerstones of the chart. In fact the North Indian style chart as well as the medieval western chart clearly highlight the role of kendras. In fact the greeks use a word like 'pivot' for the kendras. The angles definitely are the pillars of the chart as is evident from a study of the yogas-both benefic and malefic- and the symbolism of the angles. Even relocational astrology places emphasis on the angles mostly.
Without much discussion we could agree on the importance of the angles. But how is it relevant to our current topic? Whether one uses the cusp as the beginning or the middle of the house, any planet conjunct an angle within an orb of 5 degrees will influence it. Sometimes it works with an orb up to 10 degrees for fast moving planets. All important aspects to the 1, 4, 7, 10 cusps can be noted and used confidently. So this explains why sometimes a planet in the 12 th seems to influence the ascendant. The difference between Placidus and Sripati is also that Placidus uses the cusp as the starting of the house, while Sripati uses a cusp as the midpoint of the house. That is the reason for the planet being in the 12 th in Placidus and first in Sripati. After considering the above mentioned aspects to the angles, such cases of inconsistency were greatly reduced.
But the other point still remains. While the angular cusps are similar in both Placidus and Porphyry (we don't need to address Sripati separately since the issue here is not about the cusp being the starting or middle of the house, and that makes both Sripati and Porphyry similar) the intermediate cusps are different. It is only here that the assessment of their relative merits has to be done.
A passing reference should be made to the notion of equal houses attributed to Ptolemy. As stated earlier, in this system the house starts about five degrees prior to the cusp. Some use it as 4 to 7 degrees before the cusp. I thought that this theory when used with Placidus cusps could address the inconsistencies observed. While it is still possible, my observation that this happens mostly around the angles led me to the earlier hypothesis of making room for the aspects to the angles, while still using the cusp as the beginning point. But I had seen this working well when used with full fledged KP methodology and cannot speak for methods that use Placidus cusps in isolation or in conjunction with other techniques. Extending Ptolemy's method (he actually used it for assessing the longevity and not for houses, as far as my understanding goes) to Placidus cusps could have some merit, though I have not tested it enough to draw definite conclusions. I couldn't do this for two reasons. The first method of making room for the angles gave good results. Secondly, before I could test Ptolemy's ideas much, I got involved in the methodology of certain South Indian Nadis which took most of my time.
A word on the Nadis as it relates to this topic. Some Nadis use a fine division of the sign into 150 subdivisions called Nadiamsas, to identify the nadiamsa that the ascendant cusp falls under. These nadiamsas give a general pattern for the individual. While many people are aware of these nadiamsas and are fascinated by them, few know that there are some nadis which don't use the houses (including the ascendant) at all. They use simple methods such as aspects and transits to predict consistently well enough. Using the ideas borrowed from there, I extended the predictive hints to Progressions. They worked much better with the Progressed charts than even the Natal chart. Of course the simple principles work, whether you use them on the natal or progressed or return charts. Moreover the ascendant (and the bhavas based on the ascendant) is only one of the many (though important) factors used in the delineation of a chart. Other factors like Special lagnas and Karakas are also quite helpful in analyzing a chart (see my other article "Light on 'Karaka' " . While it might come as a surprise to some that it is possible to do very good readings without the much debated cusps, it should be pointed out that certain schools of western astrology too, like the Ebertins ( Germany ) have a system that works without the houses. So much for the cusps and houses!
NOTE: I whole heartedly recommend the whole signs in conjunction with the divisional charts as used by the ancient sages. It is a complete and comprehensive system by itself and does not need the controversy of the cusps. Moreover it is a time tested method. I am sharing my observations on other methods in this article for those who are research oriented as well as for those interested in other methods.