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Alternate Names

Vivasvat, Mitra, Savita, Ravi

Appears In

The Ramayana, the Mahabharata


Son of Kasyapa

Character Overview

In Hindu mythology, Surya is recognized as the god of the sun. He rides across the sky each day in a chariot pulled by seven horses, and is worshipped as the most visible of all the gods, seen by followers every single day. He is the son of Kasyapa (pronounced kahsh-YUH-puh), and is sometimes said to be in the form of one of the three principal deities: Brahma (pronounced BRAH-muh), Vishnu (pronounced VISH-noo), or Shiva (pronounced SHEE-vuh).

Major Myths

Some Hindus believe that Surya takes the form of the three gods of the Trimurti (pronounced tri-MOOR-tee), the main gods of the Hindu pantheon, as it travels across the sky. In the morning, the sun is Brahma, the creator god. As it reaches the height of its power, it is Vishnu, the preserver. As it descends and ultimately leaves the world in darkness, it is Shiva, the destroyer.

Surya's most notable appearances in myth are found in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana , two important Hindu epics. In the Mahabharata, Surya is accidentally summoned by princess Kunti (pronounced KOON-tee), who is given the ability to call upon any god and have a child with him. Not believing the power is real, she calls Surya and he appears. He insists on fulfilling his duty, and Kunti immediately gives birth to a son. Ashamed and scared, she abandons the baby in a basket and floats it down the river. The boy grows up to become Kama, one of the central figures in the Mahabharata, where he battles the hero Arjuna (pronounced AHR-juh-nuh) at Kurukshetra (pronounced khuh-rook-SHAY-truh). In the Ramayana, Surya is the father of the monkey king Sugriva (pronounced soo-GREE-vuh), who pledges his armies to help Rama after Rama assists him in reclaiming his throne.

Surya in Context

A symbol commonly associated with Surya, and found frequently in ancient Hindu texts, is the bent-cross design called the swastika. The symbol was originally meant as a sign of good luck or well-being. From India, the symbol spread across Asia and even into Europe, all the while retaining its meaning as a symbol of good fortune (though it was not usually seen as a symbol of the sun, as in Hinduism). Pilots frequently wore the symbol as a good luck charm, or had it painted somewhere on their plane in hopes of safe passage. In the 1920s, however, the Nazi Party of Germany appropriated the symbol as their own in an effort to draw a connection between Germans and the ancient Aryan peoples of India and Iran, who they believed were the most superior race of all humankind. Although in India the symbol is still used in Hindu and other religious decorations, in the West it is now largely associated with the hatred and genocide brought about by the Nazis before and during World War II.

Key Themes and Symbols

As the embodiment of not one but all three of the gods of the Trimurti, Surya symbolizes the entire cycle of the universe, from creation to preservation to destruction, in a single day. Surya himself is represented by the sun. The seven horses of Surya's chariot are meant to represent the seven chakras (pronounced CHUK-ruhz), or centers of spiritual energy within the body.

Surya in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

Surya is often depicted as a golden figure riding through the sky in a chariot pulled by seven horses. He is sometimes shown holding lotus flowers, and is usually depicted with four arms. Many temples have been built throughout India in honor of Surya, including a well-known temple built in the thirteenth century CE in the town of Konark; the entire structure was designed to resemble the sun god's chariot. In yoga, Surya Namaskara, which means “salute to the sun,” is the name given to a popular sequence of yoga positions usually performed at sunrise.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

The swastika was a well-regarded religious symbol for centuries before the Nazis adopted it for their own purposes. For this reason, while some people might be offended by the appearance of a swastika in Hindu religious art, others might see it as an expression of traditional ways and beliefs. Do you think the government should have the right to restrict the display of certain symbols if they are viewed negatively by most citizens? Why or why not? What if the symbol were a Confederate flag— flown by the South during the American Civil War—instead of a swastika?

SEE ALSO Mahabharata, The; Ramayana, The; Shiva; Vishnu

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Sūrya, Savitar, or Savitṛ (nourisher). In Hinduism, the sun. As the source of heat and life, Sūrya is supreme among the Ādityas, and one of the three chief gods of the Vedas. As illumination, he resides within as the source of wisdom (Maitri Upaniṣad 6. 34). Later, he was superseded by Viṣṇu. Sūryā is the daughter of Sūrya, who appears in Ṛg Veda 10. 6 ff. The Konārak, or ‘Black Pagoda’, was built at Orissa, in N. India, in the 13th cent. CE, as a temple to Sūrya. The surviving Great Hall is built as a replica of Sūrya's chariot.

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Surya the sun god of later Hindu mythology, originally one of several solar deities in the Vedic religion. The name comes from Sanskrit sūrya ‘sun’.