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The Legend of the Sun God

From the Markandeya Purana, 250 CE

Today, January 14th 2021, we celebrate the Hindu festival of Makar Sankranti, dedicated to Surya, the Sun god — the giver of all life on earth, ever traveling in his chariot, keeping a vigilant eye on the deeds of mortals and celestials alike.

Worship of the Sun is very ancient: since the dawn of civilisation, both human and animal life have been dependent on the creative and destructive powers of the Sun god. Spiritually, the Sun plays the symbolic role of the male, while Mother Earth is the female receiving the seed, nourishing and nurturing growth.

Legend says that Surya once wed Sanjana, the beautiful daughter of the Cosmic Architect Vishwakarma, and that they had three children: Manu, progenitor of Mankind; Yama, the god of Death; and Yami, goddess of the holy Yamuna river. But after some time, Sanjana could no longer bear the intense light and heat radiating from her fiery husband, which had sapped her energy and burned her skin to a dark, twilight colour.

She asked Chhaya, her shadow — who looked identical to her and was impervious to Surya’s fierce rays — to take her place her while she escaped, and to remain by Surya’s side until her return. She then assumed the form of a horse so as not to be discovered, and left to the forest to practice austerities in the hope of reducing her husband’s glare and heat. Chhaya did not disclose her identity and Surya never realised that Sanjana had left.

In the following years, several children were born to them, including the fearsome Shani — planet Saturn — who was born black as charcoal due to the Sun’s intense heat so close to Chhaya’s womb. When Shani was born and Surya saw his son’s colour, he turned away in disappointment. Angry at this, Shani cursed his father to also turn black, and immediately the sun was driven into an eclipse period.

Shani, god of Karma and Justice, is responsible for distributing rewards and punishments in response to people’s actions. He is as such greatly feared by many.

Chhaya loved her children so much that she neglected Sanjana’s children. A resentful Yama complained to his father that she was not behaving like a mother to Manu, Yami and himself. Surya confronted Chhaya with this and she confessed the truth: that she was only Sanjana’s shadow, and that Sanjana had left long ago.

Surya went in search of his wife, and eventually found her. As she had taken the form of a mare, he transformed into a stallion to seduce his wife once again. From their union were born the handsome Ashwini twins, gods of Health and Medicine.

Surya then assumed his own form again and Vishwakarma, Sanjana’s father, accepted to chip off an eighth of the Sun god’s brilliance, making it easier for his daughter to live with her husband. From these blazing fragments, the Cosmic Architect made various weapons for the gods, including Vishnu’s discus, Shiva’s trident and Karttikeya’s lance.

Surya and Sanjana then went back to their celestial abode and lived there in harmony with Chhaya and all their children.

This story illustrates how accepting all parts of oneself, including one’s shadow, helps us evolve. Metaphysically, the shadow is our unconscious projection of what we consider to be our flaws. We see the projection of others’ shadows, but our own conveniently falls behind us…

It takes a lot of courage to acknowledge our own darkness, and yet meeting and accepting it is to become whole. Its purpose is to provide opposition and tension that help develop inner resolve, determination, and clarity of mind. Sanjana does not ignore her shadow, but uses it to her own benefit: this is progression on the spiritual path, which ultimately culminates in self-realisation.

Surya, the Sun, is the Dispeller of Darkness who helps us in this task. The Gayatri mantra, found in the Rig Veda, is dedicated to him :

Om Bhur Bhuvah Svaha

Tat Savitur Varenyam

Bhargo Devaysa Dhimahi

Dhiyo Yo Nah Prachodayat

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti

Om, O Thou existence Absolute

Creator of the three dimensions

We contemplate upon thy divine light

Stimulate our intellect and bestow upon us true knowledge

Om Peace, Peace, Peace

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