A Hindu deity described in the Vedas and Puranas, Surya refers to the Sun as well as a conflation of several solar deities embodying various qualities. These include Savitr (‘stimulator of everything’), Pushan (‘the beneficent’), Bhaga (‘distributor of wealth’), Vivashvat (‘ancestor of the human race’) and Aryaman (‘friend’), which often serve as Surya’s other names. Often depicted as a radiant figure making his way through the sky in a horse-drawn chariot, Surya is associated with cosmic illumination and nurture of the world through warmth, as well as the overcoming of darkness, disease and other obstacles. While some of the earliest descriptions appear in the Rig Veda around the second century BCE, the figure’s iconographic attributes were crystallised and his worship popularised under the Gupta dynasty between the third and sixth centuries CE. The primary deity of the Saura sect, Surya lost his preeminence as an individual deity after the twelfth century CE. He has since been most commonly represented as one of the ‘nine planets’ or navagraha significant in Shaivite worship, and features in the five-deity Panchayatana worship with Ganesha, Vishnu, Shiva and Devi. As a minor deity in Buddhism, Surya is seen represented in a few instances, notably at the Bhaja Caves (in present-day Pune, Maharashtra) where the chariot-borne deity is depicted in a prominent sculpted panel.
Different origins are attributed to Surya across various myths. As an offspring of Aditi, a Vedic entity representing infinity, Surya is one of the twelve Adityas, which also include Indra, Mitra, Varuna and Vishnu. In other accounts Surya is variously considered to be the son of Brahma, Dyaus (Sky) and other figures. As the father of mythological figures such as Manu, Yama, Karna and Sugriva, Surya finds prominent mention in the Mahabharata, Ramayana and several Puranic hymns.
Early textual descriptions in the Rig Veda describe Surya as a flying bird of great beauty, or as a figure riding in a celestial chariot drawn by one or more horses. The latter symbolism in particular has found continuity in imagery formalised during and after the reign of the Gupta dynasty. Iconographic treatises from this period prescribe that Surya be depicted standing on a blooming lotus flower or a chariot, holding two additional lotuses, and with a halo around the head. A smiling figure with a moustache, he is ornamented with flower garlands, necklaces, earrings, anklets, and a crown made of rubies, and dressed in a diaphanous red coat-like garment. North Indian depictions of Surya typically show a red-skinned figure in a long coat or chainmail armour and high boots, revealing Scythian influence and that of Iranian solar cults. A feature largely exclusive to Surya and other solar deities, the covering of the feet and legs is heavily emphasised here. However, in South India he is shown with bare legs and feet, and wearing a girdle or udarabandha. Many South Indian images of Surya show him with hands raised to the shoulder level, holding lotus flowers in half-bloom, in contrast to North Indian imagery in which the flowers are in full bloom and held lower.
While usually depicted as male, the figure of Surya is prescribed by some authorities to be represented with one half as a dark complexioned woman. This metaphor is likely to derive from the inseparability of the light and brightness of the day from the darkness of night, which is also exemplified in a Puranic story. Here, Surya’s wife Samjna, overwhelmed by his luminosity, deserts him, leaving behind her maid Chhaya (‘shadow’) as his companion. Later in the story, Surya’s brilliance is moderated by Samjna’s father, the cosmic architect Vishwakarma, who takes away some of it, using it to forge the weapons of other deities such as Vishnu, Shiva, Kartikeya.
Surya’s chariot, which became part of his iconography relatively late, is typically depicted as one-wheeled, with the charioteer Aruna handling the reigns of seven horses, or at times, one horse with seven-heads. These motifs are seen in images from present-day Odisha, West Bengal and Bihar in India. While Surya iconography from southeastern India excludes any attendant figures, a range of such figures are seen in various combinations across most other representations. He is commonly flanked by the goddesses Usha and Pratyusha and often accompanied by four consorts, Rajni, Suvarna, Suvarchasa, and Chhaya. According to the Matsya Purana, where he is described as four-armed, Surya is attended by sword-wielding guardians Pingala and Danda on either side, with two of his hands placed upon their heads or holding a shield and spear, while the other two hold sunbeams. The figure of Brahma is also placed alongside them, holding a pen. Some representations also include Surya’s sons, while others show him surrounded by the other celestial bodies of the navagraha — Chandra, Mangala, Budha, Shukra, Brihaspati, Shani, Rahu, and Ketu.
The eleventh-century Modhera Sun Temple in Gujarat, India and the thirteenth-century Konark Sun Temple in Odisha, India are among the few significant temples to the solar deity still standing. In an architectural manifestation of Surya’s chariot iconography, the structure of the Konark Sun Temple emulates a chariot, with the original design incorporating seven sculpted horses at the front and twelve pairs of wheels carved along its plinth, the former presumed to correspond to the days of the week and the latter to the months or signs of the zodiac. In temples employing the Panchayatana system, the shrine to Surya often occupies the central space, surrounded by subsidiary shrines dedicated to the four other deities. As part of the navagraha, Surya is often depicted on ceilings of temples and saptamatrika panels.
Based on various iconographic similarities, Surya is associated with solar deities from other traditions, such as the Indo-Iranian Mitra and the Greek Helios, and his form in Indian images shows these influences. Surya images seen in Bodhgaya in present-day Bihar and Bhumara in present-day Madhya Pradesh, for instance, depict him with curled locks of hair and a toga-like garment, much like Helios.
Worship of Surya as a primary deity waned from the twelfth century onwards, except for a small number of Saura devotees spread across central India. However, the figure has remained an important part of Hindu mythology and worship. Besides Surya’s place in the navagraha and Panchayatana, he is invoked in several rituals and hymns, one of the most prominent being the Gayatri mantra, which is addressed to him.
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