Chariots from Hindu mythology: Surya's chariot

Surya (/ˈsuːrjə/; Sanskrit: सूर्य, IAST: Sūrya) is a Sanskrit word that means the Sun. Synonyms of Surya in ancient Indian literature include Aaditya, Arka, Bhanu, Savitr, Pushan, Ravi, Martanda, Mitra, Bhaskara and Vivasvan.

Surya also connotes the solar deity in Hinduism, particularly in the Saura tradition found in states such as Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Odisha. Surya is one of the five deities considered as equivalent aspects and means to realizing Brahman in the Smarta Tradition. Surya’s iconography is often depicted riding a chariot harnessed by horses, often seven in number which represent the seven colours of visible light, and seven days in a week. In medieval Hinduism, Surya is also an epithet for the major Hindu gods Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu. In some ancient texts and arts, Surya is presented syncretically with Indra, Ganesha or others. Surya as a deity is also found in the arts and literature of Buddhism and Jainism.

Surya is depicted with a Chakra which is also interpreted as Dharmachakra. Surya is one of the twelve heavenly houses in the zodiac system of Hindu astrology. Surya or Ravi is the basis of Ravivara, or Sunday, in the Hindu calendar. Major festivals and pilgrimages in reverence of Surya include Makar Sankranti, Pongal, Ratha Sapthami, Chath puja and Kumbh Mela.

Having survived as a primary deity in Hinduism arguably better and longer than any other of the original Vedic deities apart from Vishnu, the worship of Surya declined greatly around the 13th century, perhaps as a result of the Muslim conquest of north India. New Surya temples virtually ceased to be built, and some were later converted to a different dedication, generally Shiva. A number of important Surya temples remain, but many are no longer in worship. In various respects, Surya has tended to be merged into Shiva, or seen as subsidiary to him.


Surya means Sun in Indic literature. Above: Sunrise in Uttarakhand, India
The oldest surviving Vedic hymns, such as the hymn 1.115 of the Rigveda, mention Sūrya with particular reverence for the “rising sun” and its symbolism as dispeller of darkness, one who empowers knowledge, the good and all life. However, the usage is context specific. In some hymns, the word Surya simply means sun as an inanimate object, a stone or a gem in the sky (Rigvedic hymns 5.47, 6.51 and 7.63); while in others it refers to a personified deity.

Surya sculpture

The Vedas assert Sun (Surya) to be the creator of the material universe (Prakriti). In the layers of Vedic texts, Surya is one of the several trinities along with Agni and either Vayu or Indra, which are presented as an equivalent icon and aspect of the Hindu metaphysical concept called the Brahman.

In the Brahmanas layer of Vedic literature, Surya appears with Agni (fire god) in the same hymns. Surya is revered for the day, while Agni for its role during the night. The idea evolves, states Kapila Vatsyayan, where Surya is stated to be Agni as the first principle and the seed of the universe. It is in the Brahmanas layer of the Vedas, and the Upanishads that Surya is explicitly linked to the power of sight, to visual perception and knowledge. He is then interiorized to be the eye as ancient Hindu sages suggested abandonment of external rituals to gods in favor of internal reflections and meditation of gods within, in one’s journey to realize the Atman (soul, self) within, in texts such as the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Chandogya Upanishad, Kaushitaki Upanishad and others.


The Mahabharata epic opens its chapter on Surya that reverentially calls him as the “eye of the universe, soul of all existence, origin of all life, goal of the Samkhyas and Yogis, and symbolism for freedom and spiritual emancipation.

In the Mahabharata, Karna is the son of Surya and unmarried princess Kunti. The epic describes Kunti’s trauma as an unmarried mother, then abandonment of Karna, followed by her lifelong grief. Baby Karna is found and adopted by a charioteer but he grows up to become a great warrior and one of the central characters in the great battle of Kurukshetra where he fights his half brothers.


Surya in the Buddhist Bodh Gaya relief (right, middle).
Surya is celebrated as a deity in Buddhist artwork, such as the ancient works attributed to Ashoka. He appears in a relief at the Mahabodhi temple in Bodhgaya, riding in a chariot pulled by four horses, with Usha and Prattyusha on his sides. Such artwork suggests that the Surya as symbolism for the victory of good over evil is a concept adopted in Buddhism from an earlier Indic tradition.

Greek and Persian influences

Further information: Greco-Bactrian Kingdom and Kushan Empire
Sun is a common deity in ancient and medieval cultures found in South America, Europe, Africa and Asia. The features and mythologies of Surya share resemblances with Hvare-khshaeta of pre-Islam Persia, and the Helios-Sol deity in the Greek-Roman culture. Surya is a Vedic deity, states Elgood, but its deity status was strengthened from the contacts between ancient Persia and India during the Kushan era, as well as after the 8th-century when Sun-worshipping Parsees moved to India. Some Greek features were incorporated into Surya iconography in post-Kushan era, around mid 1st millennium, according to Elgood.


The iconography of Surya in Hinduism varies with its texts. He is typically shown as a resplendent standing person holding lotus flower in both his hands, riding a chariot pulled by one or more horses typically seven. The seven horses are named after the seven meters of Sanskrit prosody: Gayatri, Brihati, Ushnih, Jagati, Trishtubha, Anushtubha and Pankti.

The Brihat Samhita, a Hindu text that describes architecture, iconography and design guidelines, states that Surya should be shown with two hands and wearing a crown. In contrast, the Vishnudharmottara, another Hindu text on architecture, states Surya iconography should show him with four hands, with flowers in two hands, a staff in third, and in fourth he should be shown to be holding writing equipment (Kundi palm leaf and pen symbolizing knowledge). His chariot driver in both books is stated to be Aruṇa who is seated. Two females typically flank him, who represent the dawn goddesses named Usha and Pratyusha. The goddesses are shown to be shooting arrows, a symbolism for their initiative to challenge darkness.

The iconography of Surya has also varied over time. In some ancient arts, particularly from the early centuries of the common era, his iconography is similar to those found in Persia and Greece suggesting likely adoption of Greek, Iranian and Scythian influences. After the Greek and Kushan influences arrived in ancient India, some Surya icons of the period that followed show him wearing a cloak and high boots. In some Buddhist artwork, his chariot is shown as being pulled by four horses. The doors of Buddhist monasteries of Nepal show him, along with the Chandra (moon god), symbolically with Surya depicted as a red circle with rays.

Aniconic symbols of Surya include the Swastika and the ring-stone.

Arka, Mitra and other synonyms

Surya in Indian literature is referred to by various names, which typically represent different aspects or phenomenological characteristics of the Sun. Thus, Savitr refers to one that rises and sets, Aditya means one with splendor, Mitra refers to Sun as “the great luminous friend of all mankind”, while Pushan refers to Sun as illuminator that helped the Devas win over Asuras who use darkness. Arka, Mitra, Aditya, Tapan, Ravi and Surya have different characteristics in early mythologies, but by the time of the epics they are synonymous.

The term “Arka” is found more commonly in temple names of north India and in the eastern parts of India. The 11th century Konark Temple in Odisha is named after a composite word “Kona and Arka”, or “Arka in the corner”. Other Surya temples named after Arka include Uttararka and Lolarka in Uttar Pradesh, and Balarka in Rajasthan. Another 10th-century sun temple ruin is in Bahraich, Uttar Pradesh named Balarka Surya Mandir, which was destroyed in the 14th century during the Turkish invasions.[citation needed]

The Sun and the Earth
The Sun causes day and night on the earth,
because of revolution,
when there is night here, it is day on the other side,
the sun does not really rise or sink.

—Aitareya Brahmana III.44 (Rigveda)
Surya as an important heavenly body appears in various Indian astronomical texts in Sanskrit, such as the 5th century Aryabhatiya by Aryabhata, the 6th century Romaka by Latadeva and Panca Siddhantika by Varahamihira, the 7th century Khandakhadyaka by Brahmagupta and the 8th century Sisyadhivrddida by Lalla. These texts present Surya and various planets and estimate the characteristics of the respective planetary motion. Other texts such as Surya Siddhanta dated to have been complete sometime between the 5th century and 10th century present their chapters on various planets with deity mythologies.

The manuscripts of these texts exist in slightly different versions, present Surya- and planets-based calculation and its relative motion to earth. These vary in their data, suggesting that the text were open and revised over their lives. For example, the 1st millennium CE Hindu scholars had estimated the sidereal length of a year as follows, from their astronomical studies, with slightly different results:

Sanskrit texts: How many days in a year?
Hindu text Estimated length of the sidereal year
Surya Siddhanta 365 days, 6 hours, 12 minutes, 36.56 seconds
Paulica Siddhanta 365 days, 6 hours, 12 minutes, 36 seconds
Paracara Siddhanta 365 days, 6 hours, 12 minutes, 31.50 seconds
Arya Siddhanta 365 days, 6 hours, 12 minutes, 30.84 seconds
Laghu Arya Siddhanta 365 days, 6 hours, 12 minutes, 30 seconds
Siddhanta Shiromani 365 days, 6 hours, 12 minutes, 9 seconds
The oldest of these is likely to be the Surya Siddhanta, while the most accurate is the Siddhanta Shiromani.

Zodiac and astrology

Surya’s synonym Ravi is the root of the word ‘Ravivara’ or Sunday in the Hindu calendar. In both Indian and Greek-Roman nomenclature for days of the week, the Sunday is dedicated to the Sun.

Surya is part of the Navagraha in Hindu zodiac system. The Hindu astrology based on Sun and planets likely developed in the centuries Before the arrival of Greek astrology with Alexander the Great, their zodiac signs being nearly identical. Technical horoscopes and astrology ideas in India came from Greece, states Nicholas Campion, and developed in the early centuries of the 1st millennium CE.

In Buddhism

In the Buddhism of the Far East, Surya is one of the twelve Devas, as guardian deities, who are found in or around Buddhist shrines (Jūni-ten, 十二天). In Japan, he has been called “Nit-ten”. He joins these other eleven Devas of Buddhism, found in Japan and other parts of southeast Asia: Indra (Taishaku-ten), Agni (Ka-ten), Yama (Emma-ten), Nirrti (Rasetsu-ten), Vayu (Fu-ten), Ishana (Ishana-ten), Kubera (Tamon-ten), Varuna (Sui-ten), Brahma (Bon-ten), Prithvi (Chi-ten), Chandra (Gat-ten).

On the Mount Meru buddhist cosmological system, Surya is considered a female deity, contrasting a male lunar god.

Sun Temples

Surya temples are found in many parts of India. More common than Surya temples are artwork related to Surya, which are found in all types of temples of various traditions within Hinduism, such as the Hindu temples related to Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesha and Shakti. Reliefs on temple walls, forts and artwork above doorways of many Hindu monasteries feature Surya.

Many of the temples that contain Surya icons and artwork are dated to the second half of the 1st millennium CE and early centuries of the 2nd millennium. The 11th-century Vaishnava temple at Kadwaha in Madhya Pradesh, for example, features a Surya artwork along with many other gods and goddesses at its doorway. The 8th and 9th century goddess (Shaktism) temples of central India, similarly engrave Surya along with other Hindu gods within the temple. The six century Shiva temple at Gangadhar in Rajasthan includes Surya. Similar mentions are found in stone inscriptions found near Hindu temples, such as the 5th century Mandasor inscription. These temples, states Michael Meister, do not glorify one god or goddess over the other, but present them independently and with equal emphasis in a complex iconography.

Cave temples of India, similarly, dedicated to different gods and goddesses feature Surya. For example, the 6th century carvings in the Ellora Caves in Maharashtra as well as the 8th and 9th century artworks there, such as Cave 25, the Kailasha Temple (Cave 16) and others feature complete iconography of Surya.

Hindu temples predominantly have their primary entrance facing east, and their square principle based architecture is reverentially aligned the direction of the rising Surya. This alignment towards the sunrise is also found in most Buddhist and Jaina temples in and outside of India.

Dedicated temples

India most worshiped Surya temple is the Deo Surya Mandir. Sun Temple of Deo is one of the most remarkable, major crowd-puller and notable temple and religious place in Deo Bihar India for chhath puja. Deo Sun Temple Built in during the 8th century.

The most famous Surya temple is the Konark Sun Temple, a World Heritage Site in Orissa. Constructed in the 13th century by the Eastern Ganga dynasty, on a pre-existing pilgrimage site for Surya god, the temple architecture mimics a grand chariot with twelve wheels pulled by seven horses. The temple features Surya in three representations, with the main large Surya destroyed and the temple damaged over repeated Muslim invasions. Besides Konark, there are two other sun temples in Orissa called Biranchi Narayan Sun Temple.

There are sun temples in many parts of India, such as Modhera, Gujarat. It was sponsored by King Bhimdev of the Chaulukya dynasty. Other major Surya temples are found in Arasavalli, Andhra Pradesh, Kanakaditya Temple in Kasheli (Dist. Sindhudurg) – Maharashtra, near the famous Galtaji’s temple in Jaipur, Rajasthan and in clusters of Navagraha temples in Tamil Nadu and Assam.

Adithyapuram Sun Temple is a Hindu temple located in Iravimangalam near Kaduthuruthy in Kottayam district in the Indian state of Kerala dedicated to Surya. It is noted as the only Surya shrine in the Kerala state.

The Martand Sun Temple in Jammu and Kashmir was destroyed by Islamic armies. A surviving Surya temple in northern India is Kattarmal Surya mandir in Almora District, Uttarakhand created by King Kattarmal in the 12th century.[citation needed]

The Gurjars were essentially sun worshipers and some of the sun temples were erected by them during the medieval period. The sun temple known as Jayaditya was constructed by Gurjar king of Nandipuri, Jayabhatta II. This temple is situated at Kotipura near Kapika in the Bharukachha district. The Surya temple of Bhinmal known as Jagaswami Surya temple was also erected during this period.

Surya temples outside India

The Sun Temple of Multan (in modern-day Pakistan) contained a revered statue of Surya. It was one of the focal points of Hindu-Muslim religious conflicts. After 871 CE, Multan (Panjab) was under the rule by Arab princes, who kept the Surya temple hostage and desecrated it, in order to threaten its destruction if the Hindu Gurjara attacked them. The early Muslim rulers taxed Hindu pilgrims for the privilege to visit the Surya temple, and this provided these rulers an important source of revenue. The Surya temple was destroyed by Ismaili Shia rulers in the late 10th century, who built a mosque atop the site, abandoning the Sunni congregational mosque in Multan. This Ismaili Shia mosque atop the Sun Temple’s ruins was then destroyed by the Sunni ruler Mahmud of Ghazni, the Surya temple was not rebuilt and an empty space left in place, actions that helped re-establish the importance of the Sunni mosque in Multan.

While Shiva and Vishnu are more common in 1st millennium southeast Asian artwork such as those found in Cambodia and Thailand, archaeological evidence suggest god Surya were among the pantheon of ideas adopted early in these regions and retained after Buddhism became the dominant tradition.

In Kabul Khir Khana a large Hindu temple complex of two distinct periods. The first period consisted of a mud-brick temple with possible human sacrifice remains dedicating it. This was then superseded by three distinct sanctuaries built of schist slabs, surrounded by subsidiary buildings of diaper masonry construction and an open-air altar in a semi-circular enclosure. The most important finds were two marble statues of Surya, the first example found during the original excavations (1934, Delegation Archaeologique Française Afghanistan), the second example found by accident in 1980.

In Nepal, many Surya temples and artworks trace to the medieval era, such as the 11th-century Thapahiti and Saugal-tol, and 12th century Naksal stone sculptures.

Artifacts discovered at the Sanxingdui culture founded c 1,600 BCE, about 40 km from present day Chengdu, capital city of Sichuan province China reveal an ancient worship of sun-deity, similar to Surya. The artifacts include a gold sheet with design of four birds flying around the sun deity, and a bronze sculpture of the surya-chakra.


Various festivals mark deity Surya and these vary regionally in India. Pongal or Makara Sankaranti is the most widely celebrated Hindu festival dedicated to the Sun God. These celebrate a good harvest. Other festivals that focus on Surya include Chhath of Bihar, eastern Uttar Pradesh and the neighboring regions, Samba Dashami and Ratha Saptami are also major festivals celebrated in honour of Surya; Chhath is celebrated immediately after Diwali with fasting for three days followed by bathing in river or tank with remembrance of Sun. Similarly Aytar Puja is celebrated in Goa. The latter is known as Aditya Ranubai in Maharashtra.

The second day of the Pongal harvest festival is dedicated to Surya in Tamil Nadu, and is called the “Surya Pongal”.

Another festival named Kartik Puja marks Surya, along with Shiva, Vishnu, Lakshmi, Radha, Krishna and Tulsi. It is observed by Hindu women, typically with visit to rivers such as the Ganges, socialization and group singing.


The repertoire of classical Indian dances such as the Bharatanatyam include poses that signify rays of light beaming towards all of the universe, as a form of homage to Surya.

Surya Namaskar

Sculpture depicting 12 asana’s of Surya Namaskara A in Terminal T3 at IGIA Airport, New Delhi, India, created by Nikhil Bhandari.
Sūrya namaskāra literally means sun salutation. It is a Yoga warm up routine based on a sequence of gracefully linked asanas. The nomenclature refers to the symbolism of Sun as the soul and the source of all life. It is relatively a modern practice that developed in the 20th century. A yogi may develop a personalized yoga warm up routine as surya-namaskar to precede his or her asana practice.

The Gayatri Mantra is associated with Surya (Savitr). The mantra’s earliest appearance is in the hymn 3.62.10 of the Rigveda.

Let us meditate on that excellent glory of the divine vivifying Sun,
May he enlighten our understandings.

—Gayatri mantra, Translated by Monier Monier-Williams00

This artifact is a part of SwordTemple Library

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