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Under the sun

Arundhuti Dasgupta 

Arundhuti Dasgupta

In a country where faith is not a matter of personal choice but of public posturing and outcry, we often find ourselves in the midst of raging battles over the trivial and the absurd. Witness, for instance, the recent face-off over yoga being a Hindu practice because it involves a prayer to the sun god.

Religious scholars have said myths are not the property of religion but of humanity. The sun, therefore, is more than a religious symbol or a god. It is the subject of myth because people struggled to understand its power and influence. In many cultures it is seen as the eye of the universe and as a key player in creation of the universe. The creator god is a sun archetype: think Vishnu, Krishna or Ra (in Egypt).

The sun is a giver of light and helps us see. Helius, the Greek god of the sun, was also the guardian of oaths and the god of gift of sight. He lived in a golden palace in the River Okeanos at the eastern ends of the earth. He emerged each dawn driving a chariot drawn by four, fiery-winged steeds and crowned with the aureole of the sun. When he reached the land of the Hesperides (evenings) in the West, he descended into a golden cup which carried him around the northern streams of Okeanos back to his rising place in the East.

The aureole of the sun was conceptualised as the discus of Vishnu and also the wheel that the universe runs on. Sun god images found in rock carvings in Kyrgyzstan that date back to the Bronze Age show the sun as a circle with rays emanating from its circumference (the way every child draws a sun even today). Later, the faces of gods replaced the circular sun - for example, the sun god Surya in Vedic myth, Shamash in Sumerian and Asakku in Babylonian myth. The halo too symbolises the sun and it emerged from these early depictions and early Christian artists were reluctant to use it in their paintings because of its pagan origins.

The journey of the sun is the source of many myths. In Egypt, the sun god Ra is born at dawn from the sky goddess. He matures at mid-day and ages by evening. At night he enters the underworld and undertakes a long and perilous journey only to emerge rejuvenated the next morning. In India, Vivasvan or Surya was married to Saranyu. She bore him the twins Yama and Yami. But after a while, unable to bear his lustre she ran away. In her place she appointed a lookalike. This was Chaya. Surya did not catch on to the exchange for a very long time but when he did he was furious. Saranyu had turned into a mare and so Surya became a horse and followed her and they mated and the Asvins (twin gods of healing) were born from this union. In another version of the myth, Saranyu is reluctant to go back until her father (Tvastri) ground the sun on a large stone and reduced his brightness by one-eighth. From this radiance was produced, the discus of Vishnu, the trident of Shiva, the lance of Kartik and weapons of Kuvera.

The sun's ability to travel the skies (every culture believed thus) led to its depiction as a horse and even a goat (because it can climb to the tip of mountains). The Rig Veda describes the sun as being carried across the skies in a chariot driven by seven horses. But here there is a twist: historian and mathematician D D Kosambi says the seven horse imagery may be the result of a lazy linguistic analysis. Sapti in Sanskrit means horse, especially sacred horse. This could have been interpreted as saptan to mean seven. In Japan, where the sun is a goddess, she runs away after a battle with her brother, the storm god, and hides in a cave. She has to be tricked out of hiding and then bound to the skies by all the other gods so that she can never desert her post.

These myths were born from a desire to understand the universe and the solar system. To use them as religious diktat that must not be breached is ludicrous.

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First Published: Sat, June 13 2015. 00:08 IST