Indian festivals are wondrous and joyous series of events. These moments are defined by the changing luminosity of the sun. Ratha Saptami is symbolic of the change of season to spring and the start of the harvesting season. For most Indian farmers, it is an auspicious beginning of the New Year. â€œRathaâ€ means chariot and â€œSapthamiâ€ means the 7th day, it is the day when the Surya/Sun god is believed to ride on the chariot drawn by 7 horses to gift the beautiful season â€œSpringâ€ to India.Â It is during this time that Surya/Sun moves from the southeast to the northeast.Â This festival falls on the 7th day of the Hindu month Magha, February in the Gregorian calendar.Â The days become warmer and bring relief and cheer to life after the bitter winter months.
According to some scholars, there are deeper and profounder interpretations of what Ratha Sapthami stands for. Saptha means seven. It is indicative of the saptha swaras that underlie all of music. In other words, it is indicative of sound in general. Thus there is a correlation between sound and Ratha Sapthami. What is the basis of this correlation ??Â The word Ratha is symbolic of the mind. The mind is the chariot. Many are the thoughts that arise in the human mind. These thoughts are like many different horses which pull the mind in many different directions. But for the mind to make systematic progress towards the Divine, the right set of horses should pull it in the right direction. This, indeed, is the time-honored insight on the deeper meaning of Ratha Sapthami. Succinctly stated, reining in the mind and putting it on the path to God, is the essential philosophy behind the celebration of Ratha Sapthami.
God Vishnu in his form as Surya (the Sun-God) is usually worshipped on this day. Usually, Rathasapthami begins in households with a purification bath (bathing is also done in a river or sea) by holding several Ekka (Calotropis Gigantea) leaves on their head while bathing and chanting a verse which is supposed to invoke the benevolence of the Lord in all that one indulges in during the rest of the year.Â The following mantra on Sun god is chanted while taking the bath â€œSaptha Saptha Maha Saptha, Saptha Dweepa Vasundara, Sapth Arka Parna Madaya, Sapthamyam Snana Macharethâ€.Â Argyam or Tharpanam (water held in the palms) is offered to the Sun God on this day while chanting hymn. It also involves doing a puja with the ritual Naivedhya (food offering to God), and offering of flowers and fruits. Important prayers offered to the Sun god on this occasion are the Aditya Hradayam, Gayathri, Suryashtakam, Surya Sahasram namam.
Since ages the Hindus have worshiped Surya/Sun god.Â Surya is considered to be Lord Vishnu and hence referred to as Suryanarayana.Â The other names for Surya are Ravi, Aditya, Bhaskar, Arka, Grahapati, Diwakar etc.Â There are many hymns found in the Rig Veda which mention or honor Surya.Â All Vedic texts begin with a salutation to the Sun. There is a story of a great sage called Yagnyavalkya who is said to have learnt the Vedas from the Sun for it embodies them. Surya or the Sun God is worshipped as an inexhaustible source of energy. It is the source of primordial power in whose presence all living beings spring to life. The most supreme of Hindu prayers, the Gayatri is a prayer to the brilliance of Sun.Â The ritual of sandhyavandanam, performed by some Hindus, is an elaborate set of hand gestures and body movements, designed to greet and revere the Sun. The Vedic scriptures of the Hindu religion refer to the Sun as the storehouse of inexhaustible power and radiance. The Sun is referred to in Sanskrit as “Mitra” or “Friend” down to the invariable warmth, life-giving nature and optimism its light brings to mankind. He is called “Prati-Aksh Devta” meaning “The Seen Divinity” and worthy of much worship and reverence.Â The Vedas are full of hymns describing the celestial body as the source and sustainer of all life on earth.
The Sun is also represented by a golden wheel or as a circle with radiating rays or even the open flower of a lotus. The most abstract and common representation is in the form of a Swastika. Like the concept of zero in mathematics, the Swastika has also gone from ancient and timeless India to all the other parts of the world.
Surya is also worshipped as an embodiment of the Trinity of Bhrahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Surya is considered to be Bhrahma until midday, Shiva in the afternoon and Vishnu in the evening.Â The Sun God is said to married to the beautiful goddess Ranaadeh, also known as Sanjnya. She is depicted in dual form (“jor”), being both sunlight and shadow, personified. The goddess is revered heavily in Gujarat and Rajasthan.
The charioteer of Surya is Arun, who is also personified as the redness that accompanies the sunlight in dawn and dusk.
The Mahabharata describes one of its warrior heroes Karna as being the son of the righteous queen Kunti and the Sun. The Ramayana has its protagonist Rama as being descended from the Surya Vansh or the clan of kings as bright as the Sun.
The countless mythological stories and legends associated with surya/sun god from ancient times are indeed fascinating.
Surya is portrayed as riding a seven horse chariot driven by Aruna. Aruna (a charioteer devoid of legs) is said to be the son of Kasyapa muni and Vinata.Â Aruna is the brother of Garuda. Surya is portrayed with two lotuses held in both his hand, and is occasionally shown with the hood of the mythical serpent Adi Sesha spread over his head. At the base of his image are shown his gatekeepers Pingala (Agni) and Danda (Skanda).
Vishnu is also described as being seated in the midst of the disc of the Sun; so much so that over time Vishnu worship merged with sun worship leading to Surya being referred to as Suryanarayana. No wonder Ratha Sapthami is celebrated on a grand scale at Tirupati every year.
Another legend is that Samba the son of Krishna was cured of leprosy by his worship of the Sun God. Millions and millions of Hindus in India still believe that the offer of dedicated Sun worship at several of the Sun Temples all over India, is a cure for leprosy and other skin ailments, blindness and infertility.
Here is yet another story.Â Aditi, the primeval power, the endless and boundless heaven who is at times identified with mother earth, Prithvi, and at other times as the wife of sage Kashyapa, was the beginning. She begot eight children. She retained seven. The eighth child was deceptive. It was in the form of an egg.Â Aditi called it Martanda (son of a dead egg) and discarded him. He went into the sky and positioned himself in all glory to be called the Sun. Another variant of this story goes as follows.Â Aditi asked the first seven sons to create the universe, but they were unable to do so for they knew only of birth, and did not know of death. But for a life cycle to be established, a pattern of interminable life and death was considered necessary for creating an orderly Cosmos and Universe. So Aditi called for Martanda who created day and night, as symbolic of life and death.
Another tradition gives this interesting story. Mayura, who lived in the court of Harshavardhana (1st millennium CE) composed the Surya Satakam in praise of Surya and is believed to have been cured of blindness.