Carlos Castaneda and the Myth of Don Juan


Carlos Castaneda leapt to fame in 1968 with the publication of his first book, The Teachings of Don Juan, in which he recounted his tutelage under a Yaqui sorcerer from the Sonoran region of Mexico. Thus was born both a myth and an industry. Castaneda went on to write another nine best-selling books about the practices of Yaqui sorcerers. He also offered an extensive series of workshops for self-development as per shamanic principles, including the Tensegrity program of ‘magical’ exercises intended to give practitioners the energy control of a sorcerer.

However eagerly Don Juan’s teachings were embraced by the New Age movement, Castaneda’s work nonetheless generated serious doubts in the academic world. First and foremost, no one but Castaneda had ever seen Don Juan, so his actual existence was unverified. Secondly, Castaneda had apparently lost all his field notes from his first encounters with Don Juan, so that his material couldn’t be examined by other anthropologists. Finally, the Castaneda work as a whole lacked much Yaqui terminology, further fueling suspicion that the material wasn’t authentic. As a consequence, Castaneda’s work isn’t taken seriously in anthropological academia, and none of it is referenced in university courses or publications.

Academic quibbles aside, Castaneda devotees also have other reasons to doubt the Don Juan myth, thanks in part to a couple of books that have looked at the Castaneda story, one from the outside, and one from the inside. The first is Richard DeMille’s The Don Juan Papers: Further Castaneda Controversies, for which the author thoroughly researched everything factually known about Castaneda’s life. The second is Amy Wallace’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, written from the point of view of someone who was an intimate, in all senses of the word, of Castaneda’s teachings, lifestyle and subsequently cultish following.

In brief, DeMille discovered that the young Castaneda had a reputation for being both a great liar and seducer. After emigrating from Peru to the USA at age 25, he took several university courses in creative writing before embarking on an associate degree in psychology. During the course of his degree he conducted field studies to collect information from Native Americans on psychotropic plants, a year or two before his alleged meeting with Don Juan. During this same period, Castaneda was actively engaged in creating and trying on many different personal histories for himself, a practice he later encouraged among his followers.

One evening, during a discussion on religion, the woman he was living with at the time made an interesting observation. She suggested that, although it would be hard for someone to accept that a person had acquired spiritual knowledge on his own, it was much more plausible to believe that it had been conferred by a secret teacher. Several years later, The Teachings of Don Juan offered exactly this – a secret teacher with the key to living one’s life with awareness, intention and impeccability.

In Wallace’s book, we’re treated to an insider’s view of the Castaneda circle, wherein the teacher inducted and ultimately coerced his acolytes into a bizarre series of behaviors. These included creating new identities and personal histories, sexual submission, cutting ties with family, surrender of valued possessions, subjugation to all manner of negative peer review, and miscellaneous tests of loyalty and devotion. Although some of this is common to other spiritual disciplines, there seems to be little concordance between Don Juan’s teachings and Castaneda’s practices. This occasionally leads one to wonder whether the teacher hadn’t become something like the Kurtz character played by Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, an enigmatic figure whose veneer of authority masked a major psychosis. Indeed, it was suggested in DeMille’s book that Castaneda exhibited signs of schizophrenia.

All of the above begs the critical question, did Castaneda ever have a guru-like teacher in the personage of Don Juan? Or did he just invent it all (a brilliant accomplishment in itself) to make himself, inadvertently or intentionally, the locus of attention for a distinct sub-set of the New Age movement? This article seeks to unravel those two disparate possibilities, as seen through the critical lens of Vedic astrology.

Castaneda’s birth chart: true or false?

Let’s start with a backward look. Given Castaneda’s propensity for fabrication, is his birth data correct? Assuming an immigrant probably wouldn’t risk lying about his birth date and birth place on his application for residency, let’s take it for granted that the birth date (25 December 1925) as given on that document is correct. According to Lois Rodden’s AstroDatabank 3.0, his birth time was 2:00 pm in Cajamarca, Peru. Although probably rounded off to the hour, this gives us the chart shown below in the Vedic system – an Aries ascendant with an Aries Moon and a Sagittarius sun.

For a quick rectification, let’s look at one indisputable fact of Castaneda’s life – his death that occurred on April 27, 1998 – due to liver cancer, which was in turn the end-product of diabetes. In the chart, both lagna (ascendant) and Chandra-lagna (moon = ascendant) are aspected by a powerful Saturn. Lagnesh (ascendant-lord) Mars is in its own sign in the 8th, but in a Saturn nakshatra, with 6th lord Mercury, and hemmed by malefics Sun and Saturn. More pertinently for what he died of, Jupiter as 12th lord is debilitated in a kendra (angle) and tightly aligned to the Rahu/Ketu axis. Indeed, this is one of the signatures for a blood- sugar disorder, anything from hypoglycemia to diabetes. To a lesser degree, Venus in the Rahu-Ketu axis is a confluent indicator.

When he died, Castaneda was running Saturn dasa and Venus bhukti. Saturn is powerful in the 7th where it functions as both prime malefic and a maraka (death-inflicting planet). Venus, as lord of both the 2nd and the 7th, also functions as a maraka. At death, the three malefics Saturn, Mars and the Sun were all transiting the lagna. Meanwhile, transiting Jupiter, Venus and Ketu had once again come together, echoing their original configuration, this time in the 11th, another Saturn-ruled house. From all of the above, the chart stands scrutiny for both his fatal illness and his death, so we’ll assume it holds as well for other events and circumstances in his life.

Carlos Castaneda, 25 December 1925

Major life themes: the driving forces

Now let’s look at what might have been big themes in his life. We can approach this by considering in turn the triads of the dharma, artha, kama and moksha houses. These are, respectively, the 1st-5th-9th for dharma or ethics, 2nd-6th-10th for artha or security, 3rd-7th-11th for kama or pleasure, and 4th-8th-12th for moksha or liberation.

Consider first the dharma houses. The Sun as lord of the 5th house is found in the 9th. A dharma lord in a dharma house invokes ethics. On closer inspection, however, this Sun has little dignity. Although in the sign of a friend, its dispositor Jupiter is debilitated. Further, it’s aspected by a powerful Saturn and hemmed by malefics Mars and Ketu. Therefore, this suggests flawed dharma. And from flawed dharma flows tainted karma, of which more later.

Next, the artha houses. Venus as lord of the 2nd is found in the 10th. An artha lord in an artha house invokes security. Venus has no special dignity in the 10th, but it is in the sign of its friend and Saturn itself is powerful, as discussed below. Furthermore, as we’ll see, Venus is also powerfully linked to Saturn via the Parivartana Yoga of sign exchange.

Now consider the kama houses. Saturn as lord of the 11th is in the 7th. A kama lord in a kama house invokes pleasure. Furthermore, this Saturn is doubly powerful, because it is exalted and achieves dig bala (angular strength) in the 7th. This alone would guarantee it an important role to play in his life, but because it also aspects both lagna and the Moon, we should note it as the source of a primal theme, that of pleasure through relationships.

Finally, we inspect the moksha houses. Mars as lord of the 8th is found in its own sign in the 8th. A moksha lord in a moksha house invokes liberation. Because Mars is the lagna lord, this suggests a deep interest in themes of transformation, including psychology, sexuality, life and death traumas, and ancient wisdom.

In review, we might note that Castaneda’s chart is relatively unusual in that each of the house triads is activated. Among them, those involving Mars (moksha) and Saturn (kama) are the most significant, especially the latter because of its double strength from a kendra influencing both the lagna and the Moon.

Whatever houses Saturn influences, it taints or renders suspect. In Castaneda’s chart, it occupies the 7th, while aspecting the 9th, the 1st and the 4th. With respect to the 7th house, both DeMille’s and Wallace’s books confirm Castaneda as a dedicated womanizer, inspired perhaps by his grandfather’s remark that “you can’t make love to all the women in the world, but you can try.” With respect to the 4th house, Castaneda’s mother died when he was 25 years old, an event that traumatized him and may have precipitated his ultimate departure from home.

Saturn’s aspect on the 9th house makes suspect his relationship with his father, to whom he declared upon leaving Peru that he would probably never hear from him again. Reading between the lines, we might speculate that Castaneda’s desire for a guru was a compensation for a flawed relationship with his father. Finally, Saturn’s aspect on the lagna fundamentally makes him a fabricator, a man who projects untruths about himself.

A psychological portrait: the artist as shaman

If we examine Castaneda’s chart via a psychological paradigm, we start first with the ahamkara (ego) function signified by lagna and lagnesh. The lagna is occupied by a relatively bright Moon in Aries and aspected by a powerful Saturn, while lagnesh Mars is in its own sign in the 8th. This overall suggests a man with a strong need to create a name for himself distinct from others, and to use all the resources of psychology, sexuality and the occult to achieve that end.

We approach manas (instinctual mind) by examining the 4th house, its lord and the Moon. All three are aspected by the powerful Saturn, while Rahu occupies the 4th. Since Saturn and the nodes destabilize the mind, this suggests a consequent distortion of Castaneda’s emotional temperament. Fabrication and shadow-play became major themes in his life, both in his own self-delusion and the disillusionment of his followers after learning they’d been led into what was ultimately a dream world.

Finally, we can study buddhi (intellect) via the 5th house, its lord and Mercury. The 5th is unoccupied and unaspected, while its lord Sun is modestly dignified in the 9th, wherein it is aspected by Saturn and hemmed by malefics Mars and Ketu. Mercury is in a dussthana with its enemy Mars, and hemmed by malefics Saturn and Sun. This gave Castaneda a sharp intellect with a great facility for psychological insight that he used to advantage in his writings, but unfortunately as well, for negative purposes in his personal relationships.

Now let’s consider one of the more important yogas in the chart, that of the Parivartana (exchange) between 7th lord Venus and 10th lord Saturn. It’s important because it occurs in kendras and because Saturn itself is so powerful. Thus we find kama lord Saturn and kama significator Venus intimately intertwined. If we examine Venus and Saturn post-exchange, we note that Venus would now occupy the 7th, where it qualifies for karako bhavo nashto, ie, the relationship karaka in the relationship house, defeating the very prospect for enduring relationship.

In fact, Castaneda was married only once, for less than a year, before seemingly dedicating the rest of his life to following his grandfather’s advice. Interestingly enough, even after Saturn moves to the 10th in the Parivartana post-exchange, it would still taint the 7th by aspect. In this context, relationships become a major theme in Castaneda’s karma. One can’t help but note with a certain irony that the name of his teacher was “Don Juan”, the generic label we apply to anyone with a reputation as a ladies’ man.

The case of the missing guru

So, what about Castaneda’s prospects for actually finding a guru? His chart contains none of the classic spiritual yogas, eg, Pravrajya, Srikanta, Srinatha or Virinchi. As noted above, the 9th house of dharma is occupied by the 5th lord of dharma, but the Sun’s afflictions outweigh its minor dignity. Therefore, even his inclination for spiritual growth is somehow clouded, potentially by a desire for self-aggrandizement. Furthermore, the 9th lord Jupiter is debilitated and afflicted by the Rahu/Ketu axis, which constitutes a Guru-Chandal Yoga. This signifies a failed relationship with a guru – either failing to find a guru, finding one who is flawed, or finding one but having a falling-out with the guru.

Castaneda claims that he met Don Juan the summer of 1960, and then studied with him from the summer of 1961 until the fall of 1965. This period would have commenced in Rahu-Jupiter, run through Rahu-Saturn and ended in Rahu-Mercury. Given that bhukti lord Jupiter is debilitated, the commencement of a teacher-student relationship at this time appears unlikely. Although transiting Jupiter and Saturn are both in the 9th house the summer of 1960 of the alleged meeting, they are both in the 10th house the summer of 1961, when Castaneda’s tuition under Don Juan ostensibly began. Given that the obstructive Saturn would be strong in its own sign, with Jupiter debilitated in the same sign, and both activating the Guru-Chandal Yoga mentioned above, it again appears improbable that a relationship with a guru could have flowered under such circumstances.

Castaneda has other significant yogas in his chart, but they’re inclined more to worldly than spiritual success. The 10th lord Saturn forms a Mahapurusha Yoga in the 7th. The Jupiter-Venus conjunction in the 10th qualifies as both a Raja Yoga and Dhana Yoga. For a man born in the daytime with lagna, Moon and Sun all in male signs, the resultant Mahabhagya Yoga indicates leadership qualities. His Kesari Yoga via Moon/Jupiter in the kendras is also the signature of a people-handler, a networker and a teacher, although Jupiter’s debilitation on the Rahu-Ketu axis likely precluded his becoming a bona fide guru in the true sense of the world.

The bottom line on Castaneda is that, although he did have some guru-like qualities, his dharma appears to have been flawed. Although he was a gifted writer whose myth-making abilities touched the souls of millions of readers, his misguided effort to live up to his own fictional world led him down a path of increasingly negative karmas. Jupiter’s weakness denied him the attainment of a real guru, only a fictional one, while Saturn’s dominance of the chart appears to have made him a brilliant fabricator whose primary agenda was sexual, not spiritual. Ultimately, he became a teacher who preached “do as I say, not as I do” while he slept with his students, manipulated his followers with endless head games, and spent his dying months watching war movies.

There’s no doubt he was a great writer who enjoyed a brilliant career. History, however, will decide whether his was an impeccable life.