Surya: The Vedic Sun-God

Introduction

Surya has been the object of Indian devotion since the early Vedic times and is considered to be the soul of the universe (Charak 9). Surya travels along the sky in a massive chariot which moves on a single wheel that is attached to the polar star, or the Dhruva (Charak 59). This chariot is pulled by seven green horses which move at an incredible speed (Charak 59). Surya does not travel alone but is accompanied by several other beings throughout his journey (Charak 59). These beings coincide with the zodiac and change from month to month (Charak 59).

Surya

Surya: The Vedic Sun god (Bharat Kala Bhavan, BHU, Varanasi)

Origin

The origin of the Sun-God Surya is complex. What follows is a brief summary of his mythic origins.

The origin of Surya begins with the creation of the universe through Brahmaa, the creator god (Charak 28). Bhrama begins the creation process by first creating the progenitor Daksa and his wife from the tips of his right and left thumbs respectively (Charak 28). One of the 13 daughters of Daksa and his wife was Aditi, mother of Surya (Charak 28). A succinct version of how Aditi came to be the mother of Surya follows.

Aditi was betrothed to a sage named Kasyapa with whom she gave birth to twelve sons (Charak 31). These sons were known as the twelve Adityas and their names include Indra, Dhata, Tvashta, Bhaga, Varuna, Mitra, Yama, Savita, Vivasvan (the Sun-God), Pusha, Visnu and Ansuman (Charak 31). Kashyapa also had other wives to whom were born many other children including the race of demons and also other species of animals and birds (Charak 31). Conflict arose between the demons and the gods when Bhrama allowed the gods to have a share of what was received from sacrificial offerings or the Yajnas (Charak 31). This did not sit well with the demons and, as a result, a war ensued in which the gods found themselves losing and were forced to give up their place in heaven and their portion of the Yajnas (Charak 31). Seeing her sons tormented this way grieved Aditi greatly and caused her to prostrate herself before the Sun-God, Vivasvan, and beg for his help (Charak 32). After several days of fasting and devotion, the Sun-God was pleased and allowed Aditi to make a request of him (Charak 32). Aditi requested that the Sun-God be born as a son to her and a brother to her children so that he could defeat the powerful demons and restore her children to their rightful place in heaven and also their allotment of the Yajnas (Charak 33). The Sun-God granted Aditi’s request but said that he was far too powerful to be born to her in his fullness and granted her a thousandth part of his essence to be born as a son (Charak 33). So it was that the Sun-God was born to Aditi and Indra then declared war against the demons and it was seen that Martanda (the Sun-God) turned the demons to ashes merely by looking at them (Charak 33). In the end the gods regained their place in heaven and partook of the Yajnas once again (Charak 33).

Myths

Surya’s mythology continues to expand in tales of his many exploits. One such myth involving Surya involves the gods and the demons joining forces in order to churn the great ocean to extract Amrita, or the Elixir of Life, from it (Charak 39). The churning of the great ocean proved very difficult indeed and, as a result, produced many cataclysmic events. It also gave rise to many other gods and demons by releasing them from the waters (Charak 41). Finally, after much churning, Dhanvantari came forth with a pitcher of Amrita (Charak 43). This caused a disturbance among the demons who stole the Amrita and took it back to the underworld with them (Charak 43). In order to get it back, Visnu disguised himself as a beautiful maiden, Mohini, and traveled to the underworld where the rest of the gods were petitioning Bali, the demon king, for the return of the Amrita (Charak 43). Bali was attracted to Mohini and requested that she distribute the Amrita amongst the demons (Charak 43). Mohini accepted but proceeded to give the Amrita to the gods only (Charak 43). In the process, Rahu, a powerful demon disguised himself as a god and partook of the Amrita, but before he could swallow, the Sun and the Moon revealed his identity, Visnu changed back to his original form, and lopped off Rahu’s head with his discus (Charak 43). As a result of the Amrita touching his tongue, Rahu’s head became immortal and he was given a planetary status. He is able to torment Surya to this day, blocking out his brilliance in the form of an eclipse (Charak 44).

There are many other myths associated with Surya, for instance, how he became the scriptural and spiritual teacher of Hanuman, the Monkey-God.

The Sun God Surya holding flowers in each of his hands with the seven horses of his chariot below; Pala Period; Asian Civilizations Museum, Singapore

The Sun God Surya holding flowers in each of his hands with the seven horses of his chariot below; Pala Period; Asian Civilizations Museum, Singapore

Surya in Modern Times

Surya does not receive much attention in this day in age, but did receive a resurgence of devotion during the period known as the classical period if Hindu tradition. We see examples of Surya worship within many temples dedicated to the Sun-God. One such temple is the Chitragupta Temple constructed in the early 11th century (Bradnock 292). This temple features Surya driving his chariot pulled by his seven horses (Bradnock 292). Another example of Surya worship today is found within a modern Orthodox Hindu sect known as the Smartas who worship Surya as one of the five gods who they regard as primary (Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of World Religions 1017).

Although Surya is no longer worshipped much today in Hindu culture, today he will yet remain part of Hindu society in the form of statues and other icons, waiting for the day when his name will once again be praised as it once was.

LITERATURE CITED

Bradnock, Roberta & Roma (2004) Footprint India. 13th Edition: Footprint Handbooks Ltd.

Charak, Dr. K.S. (1991) Surya the Sun God: 72 Delhi:UMA Publication.

Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of World Religions (1999)

Related Readings

Mackenzie, Donald A. and Goble, Warwick (2004) London: The Greshan Publishing Company.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

  • The Celestial Beings of the Hindu Zodiac
  • Bali, the demon king and Surya
  • Hanumana, the Monkey-God and Surya
  • The Twelve Adityas
  • Surya Temples
  • The worship of Surya

Notable Websites

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Article written by Kevin Rasmussen (March 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.

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