Surya is the important ancient Hindu Solar God. There are many hymns found in the Rig Veda which mention or honor Surya. The Rig Veda is a collection of more than a thousand hymns written between 1200 and 900 B.C. by people known as Aryans, who came to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India from the Eurasian steppes to the north. The Rig Veda is one of the earliest known writings written in any Indo-European language. Hymn I.50 speaks to the Sun. (This passage is from The RigVeda; an anthology, a translation by Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, Penguin Press, London, 1981) His brilliant banners draw upward the god who knows all creatures, so that everyone may see the Sun.
The constellations, along with the nights, steal away like thieves, making way for the Sun who gazes on everyone. The rays that are his banners have become visible from the distance, shining over mankind like blazing fires. Crossing space, you are the maker of light, seen by everyone, O Sun.
You illumine the whole, wide realm of space.
You rise up facing all the groups of gods, facing mankind, facing everyone, so that they can see the sunlight. He is the eye with which, O Purifying Varuna, you look upon the busy one among men. You cross heaven and the vast realm of space, O Sun, measuring days by nights, looking upon the generations. Seven bay mares carry you in the chariot, O Sun God with hair of flame, gazing from afar. The Sun has yoked the seven splendid daughters of the chariot; he goes with them, who yoke themselves.
We have come up out of darkness, seeing the higher light around us, going to the Sun, the god among gods, the highest light. As you rise today, O Sun, you who are honored as a friend, climbing to the highest sky, make me free of heartache and yellow pallor. Let us place my yellow pallor among parrots and thrushes, or let us place my yellow pallor among other yellow birds in yellow trees. This Aditya has risen with all his dominating force, hurling my hateful enemy down into my hands. Let me not fall into my enemy’s hands!
This hymn is a mixture of verses about Surya and verses spoken to Surya. By its reference to the rising of the Sun we might guess that it was meant to be recited at sunrise. The “busy one among men” is probably a reference the religious person busy praying and offering sacrifice to the gods. The yellow pallor is probably a reference to jaundice, and thus the verses dealing with yellow are invoking the healing powers of the Sun. The hymn tells of Surya’s chariot being drawn across the sky by seven bay mares. Seven seems to be an important number in many religions. Seven may be significant because there are seven visible celestial bodies that wander across the sky, the Sun, Moon, and the five planets visible to the naked eye, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Because they are all wanders we can call them planets, even though today we normally do not think of the Sun and Moon as planets. “Planets” is a word which comes from the Greek “planet” which means “wander.”
As is found in the Greco-Roman Calendar the days of the week in the modern Hindu calendar are named for the seven visible planets, Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn and they are ordered exactly as they are in the Greco-Roman Calendar, a vestige of the ordering by ancient Babylonians. Before the Gupta period (about 300 A.D.) the Hindu calendar was a lunar calendar. Chariots were developed before 3000 B.C. and offered a warrior a stable platform from which to shot arrows and cast spears at his enemies.
The horse, which was domesticated probably a 1000 years earlier in the western steppes was also of great importance to the people who wrote the Rig Veda because the horse-riding warrior was able to easily maneuver around his foot-soldier enemy. It is not surprizing that the people who wrote the Rig Veda recognized of the more powerful gods, Surya, as having two of their most powerful weapons of war, the horse and chariot. (For more information on the early history of chariots and domestic horses see the work of Hartwick College’s Professor of Anthropology David Anthony and the Institute for Ancient Equestrian Studies.) Today there are a great number of temples in India devoted to Surya.
The 15th century Surya temple at Ranakpur, Rajasthan. Many of the temples are easily recognized because they are often decorated with carved images of Surya, who is shown holding two daisy shaped objects, one in each hand, and accompanied by images of horses. Often there are also one or more carved images of a chariot wheel decorating the Surya temples. (A typical depiction of a chariot wheel is shown in the title of this page.) In some cases there are seven gods, representing the planets, shown in association with chariot wheels.