THE GLORY AND THE RADIANCE OF
V SUNDARAM I.A.S
Ratha Sapthami in this Vikruti year falls tomorrow (10-2-2011). Ratha Sapthami is the day dedicated to the worship of Sun God and observed throughout India in different names derived from several local traditions — religious, ritualistic and symbolic.
The rituals vary from region to region. Ratha in Sanskrit means chariot. Sapthami in Sanskrit means the seventh thithi. Ratha Sapthami is the seventh thithi after the Amavasya (new moon) thithi in the month of Thai (mid January - mid February) in Tamilnadu and Magh in Northern India. Hoary tradition has it that Surya the Sun God arrives in a regal and majestic manner in a Ceremonial Chariot drawn by seven horses, representing the seven colours of the rainbow and is worshipped on this holy day with fervour and devotion. Ratha Sapthami is the main festival for Lord Suryanarayana.
Surya is an ancient Hindu Solar God. There are many hymns found in the Rig Veda which mention or honor or extol or glorify Surya. All Vedic texts begin with a salutation to the Sun. There is a story of a great sage called Yagnyavalkya who is said to have learnt the Vedas from the Sun for it embodies them. Surya or the Sun God is worshipped as an inexhaustible source of energy. It is the source of primordial power in whose presence all living beings spring to life.
Surya or the Sun is one of the primary deities of Hinduism since the Vedic period. The most supreme of Hindu prayers, the Gayatri is a prayer to the brilliance of Sun. The Vedic scriptures of the Hindu religion refer to the Sun as the storehouse of inexhaustible power and radiance. The Sun God is referred to as Surya or Aditya. The Vedas are full of hymns describing the celestial body as the source and sustainer of all life on earth.
There are innumerable references to sun worship in the Puranas. The Ramayana speaks of Sage Agastya initiating Rama into sun worship through the ADITYA HRIDAYA stotram. The astronomer and astrologer Varahamihira makes references to the intricacies of ceremonies connected with the installation of the icon of the Sun.
According to some scholars, there are deeper and profounder interpretations of what Ratha Sapthami stands for. Saptha means seven. It is indicative of the saptha swaras that underlie all of music. In other words, it is indicative of sound in general. We also know that Sabda means sound too. Thus there is a correlation between sound and Ratha Sapthami. What is the basis of this correlation? The realised Siddhas say that the word Ratha is symbolic of the mind. The mind is the chariot. Many are the thoughts that arise in the human mind. These thoughts are like many different horses which pull the mind in many different directions. But for the mind to make systematic progress towards the Divine, the right set of horses should pull it in the right direction. This, indeed, is the time-honoured Siddha insight on the deeper meaning of Ratha Sapthami. Succinctly stated, reining in the mind and putting it on the path to God, is the essential philosophy behind the celebration of Ratha Sapthami.
The Sun is also represented by a golden wheel or as a circle with radiating rays or even the open flower of a lotus. The most abstract and common representation is in the form of a Swastika. Like the concept of zero in mathematics, the Swastika has also gone from ancient and timeless India to all the other parts of the world. The centerpiece of ancient worship procedure on Ratha Sapthami day is the ritual bath. The leaves of the erukku shrub (Calotropis gigantea) form an important part of the Ratha Sapthami ritual bath. Sage Agasthiar says that these leaves have an innate spiritual force that is similar to the one derived from the sihka knot on the head of scholars and thus they can be used to achieve spiritual effects similar to those obtained from the sikha. The erukku leaves are arranged one on top of the other in seven layers. On Ratha Sapthami day, devotees wake up before sunrise, place a block of wood in the bathroom and seat themselves facing East. Placing the seven layer erukku leaf arrangement on their heads, they have their ritual bath with their minds fixed on Surya the Sun God. After the ritual bath, they perform Soorya Namaskar and recite Agasthiar’s Aditya Hrudayam hymn.
Caltropis gigantea (Erukku Leaves)
The countless mythological stories and legends associated with Ratha Sapthami from ancient times are indeed fascinating. Surya is portrayed as riding a seven horse chariot driven by Aruna. Aruna (a charioteer devoid of legs) is said to be the son of Kasyapa Muni and Vinata. Aruna is the brother of Garuda. Surya is portrayed with two lotuses held in both his hand, and is occasionally shown with the hood of the mythical serpent Adi Sesha spread over his head. At the base of his image are shown his gatekeepers Pingala (Agni) and Danda (Skanda).
The Vedas refer to Sun worship. Vishnu is also described as being seated in the midst of the disc of the Sun; so much so that over time Vishnu worship merged with sun worship leading to Surya being referred to as Suryanarayana. No wonder Ratha Sapthami is celebrated on a grand scale at Tirupati every year.
Surya is also worshipped as an embodiment of the Trinity consisting of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Surya is considered to be Brahma until midday, Shiva in the afternoon and Vishnu in the evening. Usha is the foremost of Surya’s consorts and is referred to in the Rig Veda. Yama and Yami were the children born to Surya and Usha. Unable to bear the heat of the sun, Usha returned to her father’s home. As she left her husband, she created a look alike Chhaya and left her in her place. Usha is the queen of the night, and is described as dressed in gold clothing adorned with numerous stars. The second of Surya’s consorts is Padmini or the lotus. (The lotus blooms when the sun rises in the east). Chhaya bore more of Surya’s children, and meted out step motherly treatment to Yama and Yami. She cursed Yama to become an outcaste, and Yama thus became the God of death; Yami transformed into the river Yamuna.
Surya, suspecting foul play interrogated Chhaya and discovered the whereabouts of Usha. Then reducing his blazing intensity, He led a life of bliss with her again. Born to them were the divine physician twins, the Ashwini twins. Another legend has it that Samba the son of Sri Krishna was cured of leprosy by his worship of the Sun God. Millions and millions of Hindus in India still believe that the offer of dedicated Sun worship at several of the Sun Temples all over India, is a cure for leprosy and other skin ailments, blindness and infertility.
Here is yet another story. Aditi, the primeval power, the endless and boundless heaven who is at times identified with mother earth, Prithvi, and at other times as the wife of Sage Kashyapa, was the beginning. She begot eight children. She retained seven. The eighth child was deceptive. It was in the form of an egg. Aditi called it Martanda or a dead egg, and discarded him. He went into the sky and positioned himself in all glory to be called the Sun. Another variant of this story goes as follows. Aditi asked the first seven sons to create the universe, but they were unable to do so for they knew only of birth, and did not know of death. But for a life cycle to be established, a pattern of interminable life and death was considered necessary for creating an orderly Cosmos and Universe. So Aditi called for Martanda who created day and night, as symbolic of life and death.
Another tradition gives this interesting story. Mayura, who lived in the court of Harshavardhana (1st millennium CE) composed the Surya Satakam in praise of Surya and is believed to have been cured of blindness.
Several temples dedicated to Lord Shiva, usually have a small shrine for Surya the Sun God. Besides there are several important temples enshrining the Sun God as the principal deity. There are seven temples of national importance dedicated primarily to Surya — Dakshinaarka temple in Gaya, Suryanaar Koil in Tanjore District of Tamilnadu and Arasavilli in Andhra and Grand Konark in Orissa, Modhera in Gujarat, Surya Pahar in Assam and Unao in Madhya Pradesh. In this context, it should be stated that remains of an ancient Sun Temple, dating back to the 1st Century AD, are found in Martanda near Srinagar in Kashmir.
The Sun temple at Ranakpur in Rajastan is a magnificient structure in white sandstone. It is located in the vicinity of the grand Jain temple complex in Pali district of Rajasthan. Ranakpur is located at a distance of 98 km from Udaipur in Rajasthan.
Sun Temple at Ranakpur in Rajasthan
Ranakpur Sun Temple with its intricate carvings
Dakshinaarka Temple in Gaya
Suryanaar Koyil is located in the hamlet of Tirumangalakkudi between Kumbhakonam and Mayiladuturai in Tamilnadu State.
Front view of Arasavalli Sun Temple
Arasavalli Sun Temple is located at Srikakulam near Vishakapatnam in Andhra Pradesh.
Front pavilion, Modhera Sun Temple, Gujrat
Grand Konark in Orissa
Finally what is very exciting is to note is that in Multan in Pakistan, we have the ruins of a Sun temple dating back to 7th Century AD which has attracted thousands of visitors during the last 1300 years.
Sir William Jones (1747-1794), founder of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, composed a beautiful hymn to Surya, calling Him ‘The Lord of the Lotus’.
‘Lord of the Lotus, Father, Friend, and King,
Surya, thy Power I sing,
Thy substance Indra, with His heav’nly bands,
Nor sings, nor understands,
Not even the Vedas three to man explain
The mystic orb triform,
though Brahma tuned the strain’
The mystic orb triform alludes to the omnipotent and incomprehensible power represented by the triple divinity of the Hindus. The flower of the lotus is said to expand its leaves on the rising of the sun, and to close them when it sets. Hence the Sun becomes The Lord of the Lotus.