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Divine Spotlight: Surya

Salutations to the Golden Womb of the Universe, who heats up the dew, who creates the light as the Sun, He the Fiery Womb born of eternal Aditi, who awakens the world with his conch, destroying the nightly dews. Salutations to that Lord of the Sky who parts the darkness, and who is the master of the Rig Yajur and Sama Veda, who causes heavy rains and is the friend of the waters, who crosses daily over the Vindhya Mountains. Salutations to the Great Radiant Orb, whose heat is death and whose reddish rays can burn up the world, who is the Primal Poet who brings forth the Universe, whose fiery red energy is the source from which all life arises!

-- Hymn to Surya from the Ramayana

A black-and-white illustration of the Hindu god Surya, wearing a cloak, crown, and heavy jewelry, surrounded by a corona of flame with his arms folded

Surya, Sam & Steph Braithwaite, 2014 for Hero's Journey

Surya is the brilliant God who moves across the sky every morning, his majesty visible to the world as the sun. The darkness of night recedes with his mere presence and his power drives away the cold and causes all things to bloom and thrive; just for these things people would be eternally in his debt, but he is so much more. As the God who daily maps out space and marks off time by the mere act of his journeying, as the one who observes the world below him with an unblinking gaze, Surya is a Sage par excellence who has taught humanity such varied knowledges as theology, mathematics, and astronomy. As the greatest of lights, Surya illuminates the universe in every sense of the word.

Surya is a radiant figure, his largesse apparent in how two of his hands are always in the 'boon -giving' and 'fear-dispelling' postures; the remaining two often carry a pair of lotuses,

symbolizing the natural world that blooms by his grace, and at other times hold a conch shell with which he wakes the world and a burning discus that is a miniature version of himself, ready to strike out at the foes of the day-maker. Surya is flanked by his two wives, the Radiance of Dawn, Prabha (often also called Sanjana or Saranyu, and equated with the Vedic Ushas) and the Cooling Shadow, Chhaya (sometimes equated with Vedic Ratri, the Night). He rides a mighty chariot across the sky, drawn by seven mares, who are the sacred meters of the Vedic hymns made manifest to light up the world; Aruna (Redness) is his charioteer, preceding him over the horizon, signaling to his partial descendants, the race of birds, that day approaches. A whole retinue of Apsara, the dancers of Heaven, precede his chariot, spreading joy with their steps in time with the hoofbeats, and sixty thousand thumb-sized Sages follow, singing hymns in his honor. Surya is wise, Surya is generous, Surya is magnificent... but Surya is not subtle.

A painting of the Hindu god Surya in his chario, surrounded by the disc of the sun, being pulled by horses and charioteers and attended by a large retinu of other gods flying around him

Get in, losers, we're going to enlighten the world

In the Veda, the Sun is an oft-revered entity, but one with such rich poetic meaning that a single God could not possibly have held power over it; Varuna was its all-seeing eye, as he kept watch over order and sovereignty, Bhaga its generous prosperity, Agni its fiery blaze, and most notably Savitar as the power of the Sun to awaken and inspire bodies and minds alike. Surya, the actual orb of the sun, is but one of many, sometimes more famous because of his daughter, Suryā, and her many marriages.

By the time of the Puranic era, there is now one Sun God, and Surya is (one of his many) name(s). The myriad Vedic deities have now either lost their Sun connections, like Varuna who is now solely lord of the Waters; or been absorbed into Surya, such as Savitar, whose powers of impelling and inspiring are amongst Surya's greatest attributes; or only retain them tangentially, such as Agni, whose son Suchi, as solar fire, still ties him to the luminous daystar.

Surya has been a patron to several Heroes in Hindu myth, as helper, teacher, or father. Krishna's son Samba was healed by him of disease when all other powers had failed, whereas his son/avatar (sources differ) the Vanara King Sugriva in the Ramayana was one of Rama's chief supporters in the quest to rescue Sita. The famous princess Savitri, named after Savitar, used her mighty wisdom to outwit Surya's own son Yama to save her husband's soul from death, but of all of them the two most famous are Hanuman and Karna.

A black-and-white illustration of the god Indra wearing a robe and crown, giving the Hero Karna the Indrashakti weapon to use in war

It's dangerous to go alone! Take this

The mighty Vanara God Hanuman, Avatar of Shiva and son of Vayu, as a child thought the Sun was a fruit and tried to eat him; while the Gods were able to prevent this, they bound Hanuman's powers for the time being to avoid another attempted theophagy. Later in life Hanuman regained his powers and sought to learn from Surya, who was understandably reluctant to take him on as a student given their interesting history, and pleaded his duty to move the sun across the sky; undeterred, Hanuman grew so large as to fill the sky, so that he would never be away from Surya, who was impressed enough by his wit that he took him on as a student.

Karna, meanwhile, was one of the greatest of the warriors of the Mahabharata, the son of Surya by the princess Kunti; he was born out of wedlock and grew up knowing nothing of his royal bloodline, but was gifted by his father with impenetrable armor from birth and an immense sense of generosity that would lead to his eventual downfall when he gave that same armor away to a disguised Indra, father to his half-brother and arch-nemesis Arjuna.

A drawing of the Hindu god Indra on his seven-headed elephant mount, raising his sword as he stops Hanuman the monkey god from trying to eat the sun like a fruit

Sometimes a monkey wants to eat the sun so bad you have to get Indra to chill him out, and this is one of those times

Surya is a force of judgement, life, health, and majesty, and in all these he is ably aided by his children. Yama, God of Truth and Morality, and Shani, God of Consequence, work in tandem to hand out judgements both in the next life and in this one, while his daughters, the mighty rivers Yamuna and Tapti, flow their life-giving waters across the land, honored as mothers by millions. His twins the Ashvins are the greatest of healers, while his sons Vaivasvata Manu and Savarni Manu rule the seventh and eighth Ages of Man respectively.

According to one story, Surya and his wife Sanjana had three children, Yama, Yamuna, and Vaivasvata, but Sanjana could not stand her husband's immense light and heat and one day decided to leave to the house of her father Vishvakarma, the Craftsman god, leaving behind a clone of herself, born of her own shadow, named Chhaya. By Chhaya, Surya had three more children, Shani, Tapti, and Savarni, but Chhaya played favorites and mistreated Sanjana's children, which saddened all six of them, who had no reason to suspect they were not full siblings, until one day Yama kicked her in fury. Chhaya countered by cursing that the flesh of Yama's foot would fall off to the ground, upon which Yama approached his father. Surya heard all this and summoned forth a maggot to take a bite from Yama's foot, before throwing it to the earth, fulfilling the terms of the curse, before confronting Chhaya, who revealed the truth.

A weathered stone statue of Surya crowned with the sun, surrounded by smaller figures representing his wives, children, and followers

A divine family man, ca. 10th or 11th century

Anxious to understand why his wife had left him, Surya proceeded to Saka Dvipa, Vishvakarma's domain, only to be told by his father-in-law that Sanjana had, after some time with her father, retreated to the forests in the guise of a mare to meditate; he also finally tells Surya why she left. Once Surya understands that his immense brilliance is hurting his wife, he immediately asks the Craftsman God to literally shave and pare the light off of him to take it to a level that will not hurt her. Vishvakarma sets Surya upon his potter's wheel and spins him around, cutting and carving the radiance off of him. Fifteen-sixteenths of the Sun's light was sacrificed that day for love... as were several lunches. You see, as Surya is the center of the solar system, as he was being spun around, the planets and the earth all spun around him, no doubt causing some intense vertigo for all involved as described in the Markandeya Purana thusly :

And Viśvakarman, being permitted by the Sun in Śakadvīpa, mounted the Sun on his wheel and set to work to pare down his glory. While the Sun, which was the center of all the worlds, was whirling round, the earth with its oceans, mountains, and forests mounted up to the sky, and the whole heavens with the moon, planets, and stars went downward, and were tossed together and confused.

From the solar glory thus shaved off of Surya, Vishvakarma is said to have crafted many wonders, most notably the stars that grace the world with Surya's presence even at night. Thus transformed, Surya set forth in the form of a horse and found mare-Sanjana. She did not recognize the horse and turned to protect her flanks, and Surya slowly approached her until they were nose to nose. Their combined breaths gave rise to the Ashvin Twins, at which Sanjana recognized her husband, and their equine union gave birth to Revanta, a minor horseman-hunter god; thus, his family re-established, Surya returned to his domain with Sanjana.

A painting of two white horses representing Surya and his wife Sanjana, standing together in the woods over two naked infant boys, the twin Ashvins that were born from their reunion

Horse + Horse = Confused Twin Babies (Not Horses)

Surya is no stranger to being a Patron to Heroes, and offers that expertise to those he chooses by connecting them to the enlightening and vivifying light of the sun. Heroes who serve him can replace Celestial or Sage rolls with successes granted to them by him, giving them some of their great patron's brilliance and wisdom to use however they see fit.

The eponymous Heroes on the Journey will face many challenges, and a God who not only sees and knows all, but also has immense power to aid and empower them can be invaluable; Surya is known also as Mitra, the friend and ally, a role he eagerly takes for the world at large. Whether he will do so for you, however, is something you're going to have to find out in game!

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William Bennett
William Bennett
May 22, 2021

What a cool deity Samudra. Did the people of India in antiquity believe in a heliocentric universe or is the part about the sun being the center more of an addition with a greater understanding of science?

May 23, 2021
Replying to

I'm glad... The Trimurti and figures like Ganesh and Kali eat up so much pop culture real estate (and not always in a good way) that fascinating figures like Surya can get pushed out of the spotlight.

That's a hotly debated question... Indian knowledge of Astronomy was extensive and there is proof of knowledge exchange with Greece (in the Surya Siddhanta, one of the principle texts of Astronomy, Surya reveals the mathematics of the heavenly lights to the author, and actually says that he will be Incarnated as a Greek to spread this knowledge to the World, which some people say was Ptolemy, so there's a free plot hook for you) and things like the rotation of the earth and…

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