The Sun. Topic of many a conversation.
We complain when the Sun unleashes its glory – a scorching summer day. But we endure knowing it is shortlived at the approach of cold weather. We also complain that the Sun is not warm enough – a dark, freezing winter day. When a ray of sunlight cuts through the curtain of darkness it is a mood altering moment. It has a potential to transform a frown to a smile, letheragy to action and sadness to joy. It’s no wonder yogis all over the world raise their hands up in gratitude when the clouds part for the sun.
As we step on the yoga mat to begin our salutations to this wonderous cosmic light, a feeling of reverence is essential to invoke its grace. To avoid making sun salutations just another form of exercise, here are a few thoughts on the origin and history of this ancient tradition to help evoke reverence in your personal practice.
The Samskritham (Sanskrit) name for Sun Salutations is Surya Namaskar, सूर्यनमस्कार.
Surya, the Sun is revered as a form of God, in Hindu philosophy. The word Surya is derived from the root ‘sur’ to shine or ‘svir’ to promote wellness.
The ancient texts – the Vedas and Upanishads consider the elements of the universe –the sun, moon, earth, air, water – sacred. Surya has been represented by various names (nama) and forms (roopa). Among other names, Surya is called Savitar, Vivasvat, Aryaman and is adored for health, strength, courage and most importantly for igniting the light of spiritual consciousness.
Rig Veda, oldest of the four Vedas, salutes Surya as Shipivishta, the one who enters everywhere with the nutrient power, an energy source; yogis refer to the same as Prana.
In Vedic rituals, Surya was denoted as a wheel (on coins), gold plate and a lotus flower. In 200-100BC, Surya was represented as a globe with radiating rays on coins. Surya in human form, represented on coins goes back to Greek and Persian origins.
Svastika, स्वस्तिक, symbolizing the Sun, has been found in the prehistoric remains of Spain, Portugal, and Greece and in Native American tribes.
The science behind the lines of the Svastika:
The four arms of the Svastika indicate the position of the Sun at midnight, sunrise, noon and sunset. The four short lines of directions and the four points of cosmic cross indicate the apparent movement of the Sun from East to West. This figure symbolizes the reproductive aspect of the Sun, was taken as the symbol of fertility, luck and auspiciousness.
There are many mantras, hymns in the name of Surya. A few are mentioned below.
The most famous among them is the Gayathri Mantra, revealed to Sage Vishvamitra. Daily prayers included chanting of the Gayathri Mantra, Arghya (offering of water) at dawn, noon and dusk.
Surya Gita, Song of the Sun, is a portion of the text called Tattvasarayana, composed by Sage Vashishtha. The first translation was printed in 1904. It is a dialogue between Surya and his charioteer Aruna on the cause and effect of one’s actions in the process of the evolution of the soul.
Surya Dvadasha Naman, is another text that includes verses for the Sun in twelve different forms relating to the monthly Zodiac signs.
Adithya Hrudhayam, the One shining in the heart, is a prayer given to Lord Rama by Sage Agastya during his battle against the demon king Ravana to save his consort, Sita. The names praising the Sun are in verses 10 – 13. The last sentence in the verse 15 states “Salutations to Thee who is the One being manifest in the twelve forms”.
This is a popular hymn and is used as a therapeutic and spiritual antidote. Astrologers and priests advise those with various problems to chant this hymn with the right intention each day for 12, 24, 48 or 108 days.
The festival called Makara Sankrathi or Pongal in the name of Surya, is observed all over India since seventh century A.D. On this day, the first harvest is offered to Surya in gratitude for showering His energy and light for health, fertility and sustenance of all beings.
Although any day of the week can be used for worship of Surya, Sunday is considered auspicious. Sages and yogis rose before sunrise to complete their ablutions and to catch a glimpse of dawn’s first rays by prostrating to the cosmic light.
The traditional Surya Namaskar consists of twelve asanas, poses arranged in a specific vinyasa, sequence. Although other vinyasas have been created, the bija (seed) mantras are twelve in number and not generally used in longer sequences.
Why twelve? Here is probably a clue to the origin of twelve asanas and mantras in the current practice of traditonal Surya Namaskar.
The pre-Vedic period refers to six major solar deities called Surya, Savitar, Vishnu, Pushan, Mitra and Ushas. However, throughout the Rig Veda twelve solar deities collectively referred to as Aditya, sons of Aditi, the Vedic Goddess of space/ether were popularly used in worship.
In addition, the Yajur Veda, contains a complex set of verses called Surya Namaskar Prashnam. The number of individual mantras is 130. The person who recited these verses had to prostrate before the Sun after each individual mantra, thus prostrating 130 times.
This practice of prostrations was later adapted as twelve prostrations in the Hata Yoga version of Surya Namaskar. The twelve solar deities, Adityas were then used to create the coresponding bija (seed) mantras to accompany the prostrations.
This is an energizing and reverential way to begin your day.
Sit outside in your yard or on a bench in a nearby park. Face the sun and close your eyes. Wrap your whole body with sunlight. Allow the golden rays of the sun circle around you, starting near you and then spreading in concentric circles to encircle your loved ones far and near, and finally the whole world.
If you are not able to go outside because of winter, seat yourself near a window facing the east sun. Align yourself with its energy and meditate on its golden rays. Visualize the sun’s light entering your physical body for healing and renewal.
Feel the light and warmth on your skin. Let your heart be open with gratitude. Let your negative thoughts be transformed into loving, generous thoughts. Stay with the rhythm of your breath and sit for as long as your heart wants. You can chant the Divine Light Prayer printed below if you like.
Divine Light Prayer by Swami Sivananda Radha
Fill your entire being with the Light. Breathe deeply and affirm:
I am created by Divine Light
I am sustained by Divine Light
I am protected by Divine Light
I am surrounded by Divine Light
I am ever growing into Divine Light
Slowly exhale and relax. Feel the warm glow of Divine Light suffuse your entire body, outside as well as inside. Acknowledge silently to yourself:
“Every cell of this my physical body is filled with Divine Light;
Every level of my consciousness is illumined with Divine Light.
The Divine Light penetrates every single cell of my being,
Every level of consciousness.
I have become a channel of pure Light.
I am One with the Light.”
When you are done, take a deep breath and slowly open your eyes. Starting with a downward gaze allow the eyes to slowly roam. See the world around you that has been lit up by the sun – as if you are discovering it for the very first time. Try to hold on to the effects of the meditation as you go about your day.
The idea of introducing the history of ancient practices is to add reverence to a very physically-oriented practice of Surya Namaskar. Setting aside the idea of a perfect body image and replacing it with gratitude can deepen the practice of yogasana.
In yoga philosophy the Sun represents health and vitality – mental and physical. By practicing Surya Namaskar with all its components, we bring health to our body, peace to the mind and joy to the heart. When practiced with a meditative mind and a devotional heart, sun salutes aide in developing santosha, contentment, vairagya, detachment and prepares the mind for Dharana, yogic concertration.
Ancient yogis taught that each of us are replicates of the universe at large, with rivers, seas, mountains, stars, planets, sun and the moon – within us. (Shiva Samhita 11.1-3) The ‘outer sun’ they asserted is in reality an extention of our own ‘inner sun’ – the subtle spiritual heart. On this ‘the inner teacher’ our wisdom guide – we place our deep faith and begin our daily practice.
Next Post: Surya Namaskar Asanas
Saraswati, Satyananda Swami.1930. Asana, Pranayama, Mudra Bandha. Bihar School of Yoga. Munger, India.