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The Global Tradition of Sun Worship: Beyond India

Chhath is a local festival dedicated to Sun worship, predominantly celebrated in eastern India. However, the diaspora of people from Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh has led to the spread of this festival across different parts of the country.

Manoj Kumar Pathak

Grand festivities of Chhath Puja, although traditionally observed in eastern India, especially Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh, have started to make their presence felt across the country after Diwali. The ritual bathing and fasting mark the entry of purity into homes, officially initiating the formal celebrations of Chhath Puja.

Chhath is a local festival dedicated to Sun worship, predominantly celebrated in eastern India. However, the diaspora of people from Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh has led to the spread of this festival across different parts of the country.

But is the worship of the Sun exclusive to India? Not at all. Sun worship has been historically practiced in various parts of the world, embedded in different cultures and religions.

Throughout history, various cultures and religions have had their unique ways of worshipping the Sun, including offerings and the construction of structures like temples. In many belief systems, the Sun deity holds a central place. Cultures and civilizations such as the Incas in Peru, the ancient Nabateans in Jordan, and Shintoism in Japan all include Sun worship in their practices. The city of Petra in Jordan, established by the Nabateans, even had a city named after the Sun in honor of their solar reverence.

In South America, the Inca civilization considered the Sun deity among the most significant. Much of Inca architecture was designed and built for the worship of the Sun, with pillars erected at various locations to mark the position of the Sun during solstices.

Solstice, or the point in the year when the Sun reaches its highest or lowest point in the sky at noon, is a crucial concept in Sun worship. The summer solstice, for instance, is the longest day of the year and is celebrated in various cultures. The Inti Raymi festival of the Inca civilization, held during the summer solstice, is still celebrated today with drinking, singing, and dancing.

The Nabateans in ancient Jordan also centered their worship around the Sun. One of their deities, Dushara, represented the Sun, the daytime, and the mountains. Worship of Dushara took place on the rooftops of temples. Even after the Roman conquest of Nabatea, evidence suggests that this deity continued to be present on local coins.

In Shintoism, the indigenous spirituality of Japan, there is a Sun goddess named Amaterasu, considered the most important deity in the pantheon. According to Japanese folklore, Amaterasu withdrew into a cave after a disagreement with another deity. The world was plunged into darkness until she emerged from the cave, bringing back the Sun’s light. It is believed that the current emperor of Japan is a descendant of Amaterasu.

While historians may not fully understand the religious beliefs of ancient people from the Neolithic era, their megalithic structures, such as Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland, indicate the significance of the Sun in their societies. For example, Newgrange in Ireland was constructed in a way that sunlight enters the passage and chamber during the winter solstice, suggesting that these cultures may have considered the solstices symbolically linked to the triumph of light.

Sun worship, or heliolatry, had its roots in ancient Egyptian religious practices around the 14th century BCE during the period of Atenism. Although often labeled as ‘pagan’ by Christian historians, Sun worship was a prevalent theme in nearly every culture. However, only a few cultures, such as those in Egypt, the Indo-European regions, and Mesoamerica, actively developed solar religions.

A commonality among these diverse cultures is the elevation of the ruling power, considering the Sun as a deity governing both the celestial and earthly realms. In ancient Egypt, the Sun god Ra was a principal deity, maintaining his position from the early days of the civilization. In a myth associated with the journey of the Sun across the celestial ocean, the youthful god Kheper emerges in the morning, the fully developed Sun god Ra appears at noon, and the aging Sun god Atum retires to the mountain in the evening.

During the medieval era in Iran, the celebration of Sun festivals persisted as part of the pre-Islamic legacy. The character of solar deities can also be observed in Indo-European traditions, with gods like Mithra in Persian mythology and the sun-chariot-riding deities in Norse mythology.

The Roman Empire witnessed a surge in the importance of Sun worship, eventually leading to the term ‘solar henotheism.’ Virtually all deities during this time were associated with solar qualities, and both Christ and Mithra were depicted with solar attributes.

The festival of Sol Invictus, celebrated on December 25th as the ‘Unconquered Sun,’ became a significant event marked by jubilation. Eventually, this date was adopted by Christians as Christmas, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ.

The worship of the Sun has been a universal phenomenon, transcending geographical and cultural boundaries. From the grandeur of Chhath Puja in India to the ancient civilizations of Peru, Jordan, and Japan, and the sun-drenched festivities of Sol Invictus in Rome, the reverence for the Sun has been an enduring aspect of human spirituality. Across the ages, diverse cultures have found in the Sun a symbol of vitality, enlightenment, and the cycle of life itself.

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