The Sun was one of the most important gods of the early Vedic period, influenced by Aryan beliefs. However, in the later Vedic period with growing philosophical sophistication produced by the influence of pre- Vedic indigenous belief systems and the arrival of the Trinity of Creator, Sustainer and Annihilator, the Sun progressively lost his pre-eminence in the Hindu cosmological framework. Yet as a visible and active symbol of godhead he continued to retain his hold on Hindu spiritual inclinations. Vedic hymns are numerous that extol his grandeur in exquisite Sanskrit poetry. There are many Sanskrit words for sun each with a slight difference in the highlighting of some quality of the Sun : Aditya, the giver of light; Ravi, luminous; Savitar, impeller towards light and enlightenment; Divakar, the one who gives us daylight; Mihir the one who waters the earth; Sakshi, the witness; Karmasakshi, the witness of our deeds and the most common, Surya, Lord Sun. These names are very commonly found among men in India.
One of the most beautiful Vedic hymns to Surya is recited universally in India, touching ones heart and soul.:
Asato ma sat gamaya ( Lead us from falsehood to truth)
Tamaso ma jyotir gamaya ( Lead us from darkness to light )
Mrityor ma Amritam gamaya ( Lead us from death to immortality)
It is a motto and morning theme song at schools to inspire young students. I was delighted to find that it has also inspired Hollywood, becoming the concluding incantation of the popular blockbuster Sci-fi film, Matrix Resolutions.
There is also the famous Gayatri Mantra which is the mystical mantra that promotes enlightenment. Lord Krishna in the Hindu bible the Bhagawad Gita tells Arjun his disciple and friend that of all the Mantras he is the Gayatri, the highest. The mantra has profound mystical depths. It suggests the connectivity of the earth ( life on the material plane ), the cosmos ( the created physical universe) and the spiritual realms, the different levels of reality permeated by a divine essence, manifested through the transporting light of the Sun, upon which we meditate, praying that thereby ones mind is enlightened:
Om, bhur buvaha svaha ( earth, sky, and heavens)
Tat savitur varenyam ( the divine essence manifesting through the creative principle of light, the sun, worthy of praise)
Bhargo devasya dhimahi ( that divine light we meditate upon)
Dhiyo yo naha prachodayat ( may our intellect and mind be illuminated by it)
The role of the Sun as a vehicle to facilitate such enlightenment is central to the mantra
According to legend when Lord Rama, earthly manifestation of the supreme godhead, became fatigued and despondent in his battle against the demon king Ravana, his mentor the sage Agastya initiated him into worship of the Sun with the Aditya Hridaya Stotra ( heart of the Sun hymn ) which then reinforced his confidence and strength. The hymn is often prescribed to strengthen resolve and assure success in adversity.
In southern India in the state of Tamil Nadu one of the most celebrated festivals is that of Pongal , while in the North the festival of Makar Sakranti is the most auspicious, both dedicated to the sun when it enters the sign of Capricorn and begins it six month journey of empowerment through summer.
A famous Sun temple in the east is the magnificent tenth century Konarak temple in Orissa state. The stone temple is shaped like a giant chariot drawn by the Sun’s seven solar steeds, representing the days of the week, with giant stone wheels having twelve spokes representing the Signs of the Zodiac. Another famous temple is at Kumbakaran in Tamilnadu. It enshrines the sun as the principle deity surrounded by the other eight ‘planets’ facing him. Pilgrims with planetary afflictions ( Doshas) in their horoscopes visit the temple to appease the deities for mitigation of the afflictions. This is the only temple in India where all nine planets are found together. The Sun is also called Adivar, the first among the planets and is called the king of the planets.
Several royal families claim descent from the Sun – the Suryavanshis – with the legendary avatar Lord Rama being the foremost among them.
According to one legend, the Sun is the son of Indra, lord of the heavens. According to another he is the son of the sage Kashyap and Aditi, the earth. The legend goes that Aditi found one of her sons in the shape of an egg and presuming it to be lifeless called it Martand ( dead egg) and cast him into the sky. However in the sky the egg shone with brilliance and Surya was born.
The sacred sign of the Swastika used often in ritual prayer is also sometimes taken to represent the Sun.
Another interesting legend is about the marriage of Sanjana, daughter of the divine engineer and craftsman Vishvakarma ( the god of all mechanics) , to the Sun. Their first child was Manu, the Indian equivalent of Adam. however, Sanjana could not bear the brilliance of her consort and whenever the Sun approached her, she looked away. angered by this the Sun cursed her with fearsome progeny. She then gave birth to the god of death, Yama, and Yamuna, the river which skirts the capital Delhi and is notorious for overflowing her banks causing annual suffering and havoc. Finally unable to bear his presence she fled to the woods, leaving behind her sister, shadow ( chaya). At first the Sun mistook her for Sanjana and we have learnt of a son emerging from that unlikely union in the shape of Shani ( Saturn). Later on discovering the subterfuge he abandoned Chaya and ventured forth to find his beloved Sanjana, who meanwhile transformed herself into a mare to escape detection. Surya located her and transformed himself into a stallion and mated with her. She kept changing form into that of other female animals while he did likewise as a male animal, each time mating with her, thus populating the world with many species of animals.
Meanwhile Sanjana’s father Visvakarma sought to remedy the problem of too much brilliance with some divine engineering and taking some of the solar fire out of Surya recast it into weapons for the gods. Thus Lord Vishnu acquired the flashing discus which he is depicted as swirling on his finger, Lord Shiva his splendid trident, lord Yama, god of death his staff and lord Kuber, god of wealth, the mace.
Lord Surya also fathered the monkey king Sugriva of the Ramayana. In the other epic the Mahabharata, Kunti the mother of the heroes the Pandavas, nurses the guilt of having borne a child out-of-wedlock from the Sun, without really wanting to. She had steadfastly worshiped the Sun in the hope that he would grant her a vision of himself. He did more than that and left her with an unwanted child, Karna. Karna was allowed to drift in a basket to his fate but was rescued by a childless couple who reared him. When later he learnt of his true identity from his mother he became deeply resentful and swore revenge on his half brothers, joining the ranks of their bitter enemies. Karna becomes one of the most tragic figures of Indian mythology.
Lord Surya sculpture – Sun temple Konarak
These are some of the colourful legends about the Sun in Vedic, Puranic and later Hindu mythology, influencing the imagination and spirituality of worshipers. Worship of the Sun as a deity has however dwindled and is confined only to a few corners of the subcontinent. However, the Vedic god appears to have found permanent sanctuary in Hindu astrology and is prominent in the Hindu calendar as the principal planet with a day of the week, Sunday, Ravivar, dedicated to him. For determination of time and casting of horoscopes the time of sunrise and sunset play a crucial role.
In Hindu astrology he is significator of Atma, the soul and also of the individual ego. He is also the significator of father in the horoscope, health, courage, honour, status, fame and power. He also is significator of eyes and vision, bones and a balanced nature. A strong well placed Sun in the horoscope is an indication of a dynamic extrovert personality. Surya is however in astrological terms considered a somewhat malefic planet, probably in view of the heat he generates resulting in drought.
The Sun is lord of only one Sign in the Zodiac, Leo. He is exalted in Aries and debilitated in Libra. He is friendly towards the Moon, Mars, and Jupiter, inimical to Saturn and Venus and neutral towards Mercury. His gemstone is the red ruby and metal, gold. His day is Sunday. Devotees are advised to do the Surya Namaskar, prayers to the Sun, as it rises each morning, for good health and spiritual evolution. It is a common sight to see them by the river bank or sea-shore at dawn with folded hands.