The Pantheon of the Indian Saura Tradition
The Indian Saura-mata (or the Hindu sect of the Sun) is an amalgam of two distinct layers [ 1]:
1) The endogenous layer of solar deities going back to the Veda and
2) The neo-morphic layer of Iranic origin which was transferred to India as a result of contact with Zoroastrians and to an extent, non-Zoroastrian Iranians from a period spanning the beginning of the common era to the around the 6th -7th centuries of the common era.
While primarily an āstika tradition, the later period of the nāstika traditions of the Bauddha-s and to some degree, the Jaina-s also developed reflexes of the Saura system.
Among Bauddha-s, the earlier manifestation crystallized around the goddess Marīcī whose roots as a warrior goddess lay in the Saura pantheon. In the later phase, the high-point of the Vajrayāna tradition, in the form of Kālacakra also incorporated several Saura elements.
Vedic Sun Worship Tradition
The Veda, like other Indo-European traditions, preserves a strong element of worship of solar deities. It should be stressed that the solar deities are not necessarily the sun: they are associated with solar characteristics. This means they are inspired by the experience of the sun but go beyond the sun and are more general in their manifestations encompassing the stars, the laws of cyclicity and invariance, and light and darkness. While one could say that all Vedic deities simultaneously have a solar character, the most prominent among them are the Ādityas who were to play a major role in the Indian Saura-mata:
In the most ancient layers of the Veda six (or perhaps seven) of them are named together as a group:
imā gira ādityebhyo ghṛtasnūḥ sanād rājabhyo juhvā juhomi |
śṛṇotu mitro aryamā bhago nas tuvijāto varuṇo dakṣo aṃśaḥ ||RV 2.27.01
imās= these [feminine accusative plural]; gira= invocations [feminine accusative plural]; ādityebhyo= for the Āditya-s; ghṛtasnūḥ= dripping with ghee [feminine accusative plural]; sanāt= always; rājabhyo= for the royal; juhvā= with the juhū ladle; juhomi= I offer; śṛṇotu = each one hears; mitraḥ; aryaman; bhagaḥ; nas= us; tuvijātaḥ= widely manifest favor; varuṇaḥ; aṃśaḥ.
Before we render a translation we should note three points:
1) juhū ladle: The scholar Sāyaṇa explains that as the invocations are said to be dripping with ghee, it should be understood metaphorically, with the juhū standing for the tongue that composes the said invocation.
2) While a plurality of Āditya-s are named, the imperative class-5 verb śṛṇotu is in the singular. Sāyaṇa explains that it implies that each one of the Āditya-s starting from Mitra are called to hear the invocation [as per Sāyaṇa: naḥ śṛṇotu -> asmadīyāstā giro mitrādayaḥ pratyekaṃ śṛṇotu] – it should be noted in this context that they are not named as a compound or with an enclitic ‘ca’ but simply as a list.
3) While the names of the 6 Āditya-s are plain in this mantra, the word tuvijātaḥ is traditionally taken as an adjective for Varuṇa. Indeed, it is a fairly common adjective in the Ṛgveda for Mitra and Varuṇa, and more generally the Āditya-s as also for Indra, Bṛhaspati and Agni. Sāyaṇa explains the word as one who widely manifests his favor to many nations. Going against the grain, we suggest that it is possible that tuvijātaḥ here is another Āditya, i.e. Vivasvān.
Hence we have:
With the juhū ladle [which is my tongue], I perpetually offer to the royal Āditya-s these ghee-dripping invocations. May each one of them, Mitra, Aryaman, Bhaga, the one with widely manifesting favor [or Vivasvān], Varuṇa, Dakṣa and Aṃśa, hear us!
The reason why the list of seven is a possibility is because elsewhere in the Ṛgveda, the number of Āditya-s is stated as eight (RV 10.72), with seven being the immortal gods and the eighth being the dead-egg Mārtāṇḍa from which the rest of the universe was fashioned.
A similar tale is elaborated in the brāhmaṇa sections of Taittirīya Saṃhitā 6.5.6 and Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa 1.1.9 in the context of the Brahmaudana ritual (rice offering to the goddess Aditi). The still-born Āditya Mārtāṇḍa might have had old Indo-European antecedents as suggested by the dead solar deity Baldr in the northern Germanic tradition. Moreover, the Āditya-s are recorded as numbering eight even in the Taittirīya Āraṇyaka 2.10.7. However, there, Mārtāṇḍa is replaced by Indra and Dakṣa by his ectype Dhātṛ. Thus the list runs as: Mitra, Varuṇa, Aryaman, Bhaga, Vivasvān, Dhātṛ, Aṃśu and Indra.
In the late Vedic period, we also have statements that give the number of Āditya-s as 12:
sa manasaiva vācam mithunaṃ samabhavat | sa dvādaśa drapsān garbhy abhavat | te dvādaśādityā asṛjyanta | tān divy upādadhāt || Śatapatha Brāḥmaṇa 126.96.36.199
By his mind he [god Prajāpati] came into copulation with speech; he became pregnant with twelve drops; they were emitted as 12 Āditya-s; he placed them in the sky.
Adityas in the Epic Period
By the epic period the 12 Āditya-s are specifically named as Mitra, Varuṇa, Aryaman, Bhaga, Vivasvān, Dhātṛ[or Dakṣa], Aṃśa, Puṣan, Savitṛ, Tvaṣṭṛ, Indra and Viṣṇu. For example, this Mahābhārata verse:
adityāṃ dvādaśādityāḥ saṃbhūtā bhuvaneśvarāḥ |
ye rājan nāmatas tāṃs te kīrtayiṣyāmi bhārata ||
dhātā mitro ‘ryamā śakro varuṇaś cāṃśa eva ca |
bhago vivasvān pūṣā ca savitā daśamas tathā ||
ekādaśas tathā tvaṣṭā viṣṇur dvādaśa ucyate | 1.59.14-16a (“Critical”)
From Aditi were generated 12 Āditya-s, the lords of the universe, whose names, O king, I shall narrate: Dhātṛ, Mitra, Aryaman, Śakra (i.e. Indra), Varuṇa, Aṃśa, Bhaga, Vivasvān, Puṣan, Savitṛ, Tvaṣṭṛ, and Viṣṇu.
In this regard we may point out a sūkta from the Atharvaveda where the above 12 are all named, albeit along with other gods (AV 11.6). Taking the number of Āditya-s as 12 also allows us to explain the traditional short count of male deities, i.e. 33 [ 2], which is seen in both the Veda and the Itihāsa-s, in a straightforward way. For example, this Rāmāyaṇa verse:
adityāṃ jajñire devās trayastriṃśad ariṃdama |
ādityā vasavo rudrā aśvinau ca paraṃtapa || 3.13.14c-15a (“critical edition”)
From Aditi were born the 33 deva-s, O foe-crusher (i.e. Rāma): the Āditya-s (12), the Vasu-s (8), the Rudrā-s (11) and the twin Aśvin-s (2), O foe-scorcher. [Traditional numbers in brackets]
One may note that the same counts as above for the Āditya, Vasu-s and Rudrā categories are given in the Śatapatha Brāḥmaṇa 188.8.131.52-8. Regarding these categories and the total count, in the Ṛgveda we have:
tvam agne vasūṃr iha rudrāṃ ādityāṃ uta |
yajā svadhvaraṃ janam manujātaṃ ghṛtapruṣam ||
śruṣṭīvāno hi dāśuṣe devā agne vicetasaḥ |
tān rohidaśva girvaṇas trayastriṃśatam ā vaha || RV 1.45.1-2
You O Agni offer ritual here to the Vasu-s, the Rudra-s and also the Āditya-s [on behalf] of the people who are Manu’s descendants, who perform proper rituals and pour the offering of ghee. O Agni and the gods, wise ones, do hear the worshiper: O you with a red-horse, delighting in Vedic chants, bring those 33 gods!
Thus, we find both the categories (Ādityas, Rudra-s, Vasu-s, and also Aśvin-s), and the total number 33 to be an ancient one. Indeed this count 33 likely goes back to the Indo-Iranian period as the Zoroastrians also enumerate 33 yazata-s. Hence, it is possible that there was a system of counting even from the earlier Vedic period that already had 12 Āditya-s, 11 Rudra-s, 8 Vasu-s, 2 Aśvin-s, and it would suggest that the count of eight or lower for the Āditya-s seen in the Ṛgveda is a parallel tradition.
Accepting this proposal allows us to account for most major Vedic deities within those 3 categories plus the Aśvin-s: The 12 Āditya-s as listed above already includes a big fraction of the chief Vedic deities going back to the Indo-Iranian period. Indeed, such a number 12 for the chief gods might have ancient Indo-European antecedents for among the Hittites, Greeks and the northern Germanic people we either see pantheons with 12 chief gods or a category of deities with 12 gods [ 3].
The Rudra category originally also included the Marut-s who constitute a second block of major Vedic deities. The Vasu category includes Agni, Vāyu, Soma and Dyaus, among others, who make another key set of Vedic deities.
This way, one can see why the Vedic pantheon is often described as triad of Vasu-s, Rudra-s and Āditya-s. Finally, we have the twin Aśvin-s and Bṛhaspati, who are usually in the Viśvedeva category. Finally, we may note that the functional principle of the triad of Vasu-s, Rudra-s and Āditya-s also lurks behind the classical Hindu trinity: Dyaus, who is the old Indo-European father figure in the Vasu category, reemerges as the father-deity Brahman; Śiva is the exemplar of the Rudra category; Viṣṇu the epitome of the Āditya category.
In this regard, the Mahābhārata holds: “jaghanyajaḥ sa sarveṣām ādityānāṃ guṇādhikaḥ ||” 1.59.16cd (“Critical”) i.e. He [Viṣṇu], who is the last-born (of the Āditya-s) is the most endowed of all of them. This marks the rise of Viṣṇu to the preeminent status in that category.
Aditya-s in Iconography
This position of Viṣṇu among the Āditya-s, while a hallmark of Vaiṣṇava ascendancy [Note that elsewhere in the Mahābhārata, Indra or Varuṇa are mentioned as the foremost of the Āditya-s], was also interiorized in part by the Saura-mata.
We see this in an iconographic representation (below), which was stolen from a Saura shrine in Madhya Pradesh, and auctioned in 2002. (Likely made during the Chandela dynasty based on stylistic grounds). Here we can see that the central image of the Āditya is accompanied by both a distinctive Saura pantheon (see below) and also Brahman and Śiva on either side of his head. This implies that the central Āditya is being implicitly identified with Viṣṇu.
Despite the above-noted parallelism with the Vaiṣṇava-mata, the 12 Āditya-s as a group were central deities of the Saura-mata, especially, in their solar aspect embodied by Vivasvān.
They were combined with the Iranic elements to give rise to a distinctive Saura pantheon. In iconographic terms, this is represented by several images showing the 12 Āditya-s as a group.
We shall consider one of those, which was first described by the historian A L Shrivastava [A Rare Representation of Dvādaśāditya; East and West, Vol 52], to illustrate the peculiarly Saura pantheon (below).
On stylistic grounds, this image can be considered a production of the Rājpūt dynasty of the Pratihāra-s, who were known to be major votaries of the Saura-mata.
We have king Mihira Bhoja who was said to have been born upon the invocation of Mitra by his father, and the kings Rāmabhadra and Mahīpāla whose inscriptions described them as Saura-s.
The image shows stylistic and material similarity to a toraṇa with 12 Āditya-s from Hinglajgarh, Madhya Pradesh, which was noted by AL Shrivastava as being housed in the Central Museum, Indore.
The image was auctioned by the Sotheby’s auction house and has been since lost to the public. Hence, it is possible that the image was stolen from the Hinglajgarh ruins or a temple renovated by the Chandela-s or Paramāra-s by one of the image thieves who have been operating at these sites for several years.
Here the central Āditya may be identified with his primary solar aspect, i.e. Vivasvān. Forming a right triangle around his head are the triad of Āditya-s who come as a group from the Ṛgveda: Mitra, Varuṇa and Aryaman who are also associated with the rising, setting and meridian solar aspects. The remain tetrads on either side of the “top-center” Aryaman account for the remaining 8 Āditya-s of the dodecad.
In addition to the 12 Āditya-s, the image also depicts the distinctive Saura pantheon which includes:
The twin Aśvin-s: These are horse-headed deities depicted at extreme lower corners of both images. The twins are ancient deities going back to the Proto-Indo-European period and are attested in most branches of the Indo-European tree. They may even go back to an earlier phase of human history being related to twin deities seen elsewhere in Eurasiatic cultures and their New World descendants. In the Hindu tradition, they are said to be born of Vivasvān and his wife Saṃjñā when they assumed the form of horses. They are the physicians of the gods who are supposed to have transmitted the science of medicine to the Bhṛgus.
Saṃjñā: On the right of the god is his wife Saṃjñā also known as Rājṅī. She is said to have assumed the form of a mare in the realm of the Uttarakuru where Vivasvān is a said to have mated with her in the form of horse to sire the Aśvin-s.
Chāyā or Nikṣubhā: The left of the god is his wife Chāyā, the personification of the shadow or darkness. She is specifically known as Nikṣubhā in the Iranized flavors of the Saura-mata and is central to the origin mythology of the Iranic Saura ritualists. The Bhaviṣyata purāṇa narrates the following tale in her regard:
Kṛṣṇa, the hero of the Yadu-s married Jāṃbavatī, the daughter of the great bear Jāmbavān. Their son was the valiant Sāmba. As Sāmba grew up he secretly dallied with some of numerous wives of Kṛṣṇa. Hence, Kṛṣṇa cursed him with an incurable disease that disfigured his skin.
To relieve himself of this curse, Sāmba went to the banks of the river Candrabhāgā, worshiped Vivasvān, and honored the god by constructing a temple at Mūlasthāna (what is today Multan, where the temple was destroyed by the Mohammedans). No local brāhmaṇa knew of the mysteries of his worship; hence, they could not take up priesthood at the temple. So Sāmba sought help of Gauramukha, the adviser of the Yadu chief, Ugrasena.
Gauramukha asked him to go to Śakadvīpa and obtain a special class of ritualists called magācārya-s to worship Sūrya. Sāmba then asked regarding the antecedents of these worshipers of the sun. Gauramukha told him that the first of the brāhmaṇa-s amidst the śakha-s was called Sujihva. He had a daughter of the name Nikṣubhā. Sūrya was enamored by her took her as his wife.
Thus, she gave birth to Jaraśabda [the Indianized Zarathushtra of the old Zoroastrians], who was the founding father of all the Magacārya-s [Indianized Magi]. The gotra he founded was hence termed the Mihira gotra. They are distinguished by the sacred girdle called the avyaṅga [Avestan: Aiwyanghana, i.e. Parsi kusti] that they wear around their waist. Sāmba there upon requested Kṛṣṇa to send him Garuḍa and flying on the latter’s back he landed in Śakadvīpa. He collected the magācārya-s, brought them back to Bhārata and installed them as priests of his Sūrya temple.
Piṅgala: On the proper right of the god is a deity with a pen and inkpot. He is the attendant of Vivasvān known as Piṅgala. He is the deity of writing. Thus, he becomes the patron deity of the kāyastha-s or the old Indian scribal guild. Sometimes, he is identified with Citragupta who records all the deeds of beings. In the later Saura tradition he came to be identified with Agni.
Daṇḍin: On the proper left of the god is the attendant deity Daṇḍin. He is depicted typically with a scepter of law. He is said to be the enforcer of law among the beings even as Piṅgala records their deeds. In the later Saura tradition, he came to be identified with Yama.
Srauṣa and Rājña: Like Piṅgala and Daṇḍin, another pair of attendants of Vivasvān, Srauṣa and Rājña, are mentioned in the Saura tantra literature, like the tantra sections of the Sāmba purāṇa. Their origins from the Mithraic branch of the Iranic tradition are transparent: in the Avesta, Mithra (cognate of Indic Mitra) is said to be flanked on either side by the deities Rašnu and Sraoša. They were Indianized as Rājña and Srauṣa even as Mithra (Mihira) was identified with primary solar deity in the Saura-mata. In later tradition, Rājña is further identified with Indic Rudra and Srauṣa with Skanda. The latter’s identification is unsurprising as Indic Skanda and Iranic Sraoša are deities sharing an ancient common origin, as supported by two diagnostic iconographic features. The first is found in the Sraoša yasht of the Avesta:
sraoshahe ashyehe taxmahe tanu-mãthrahe darshi-draosh âhûiryehe
xshnaothra ýasnâica vahmâica xshnaothrâica frasastayaêca ||
To the embodiment of universal law, the mighty Sraoša,
whose body is made of mantra-s, the mighty-speared and lordly god, be propitiating ýasna offering, recitation, propitiation, and praise. [Translation from Avestan modified by me based on Darmesteter]
Here we note that Sraoša’s primary weapon like that of Skanda is the spear, a epithet repeated for Sraoša in the Iranian holy book the Fargard 18.
In Fargard 18.23 we have:
âat hô sraoshô ashyô aom merekhem frakhrârayeiti parô-darsh nãma spitama zarathushtra ýim mashyâka avi duzhvacanghô kahrkatâs nãma aojaite, âat hô merekhô vâcim baraiti upa ushånghem ýãm sûrãm |
And then the universal-law embodied Sraoša awakens his rooster named Parodarsh, O Zarathushtra of the Spitama clan, which ill-speaking people call Kahrkatas, and the rooster lifts up his voice against the mighty Ushah [demonized cognate of Indic dawn goddess the Uṣas; Translation from Avestan modified by me based on Darmesteter].
Here were see that Sraoša’s bird is the rooster, which is the same as the bird of Skanda.
This identification of Sraoša and Skanda might relate to the fact there is some evidence for the worship of Skanda by Iranians in the Indosphere in first few centuries of the common era [ 4].
In this later period, where Skanda is explicitly identified with Srauṣa we observe Daṇḍin being replaced by Skanda or iconographically converging to Skanda. We can see that in the above image.
Mahāśvetā: Below the solar deity rising from the pedestal is seen the image of a goddess named Mahāśvetā, a key deity of the Saura-mata. She is identified sometimes with the white light emitted by the sun or more commonly with the deity of the earth i.e. Pṛthivī.
The Marīcī-s: Above the two wives are shown two archer-goddesses in the above image. Sometimes there might four such archer goddesses. They are known as the Marīcī-s or the light goddess and sometimes explicitly named as Uṣas and Pratyuṣas when present as a pair. They represent the darkness-dispelling function of the sun with the arrow they shoot representing the rays of light. Their warrior nature was combined with elements drawn from another āstika warrior goddess, Vārāhī and essentialized in the bauddha tradition in the form of the solo goddess Marīcī.
Aruṇa: The lame charioteer of the sun, the brother of the celestial eagle Garuḍa, is sometimes shown managing the seven horses of the solar chariot. He can be seen the first of the images shown above.
The Saura pantheon also includes other deities like Revanta and Yama, the god of death and the netherworld, both of whom are the sons of Vivasvān. They are rarely depicted in classic Saura images as those shown above. However, Revanta along with deities of his maṇḍala, including Piṅgala and Daṇḍin, were depicted in images specifically dedicated to him.
1: Picture showing reconstructed evolution of Saura-mata
2: The short count is 33; the long count given in the Veda as 3339 (A lunar eclipse cycle number, as noted by R. Shamasastry) and subsequently, later day Hindus hold that number to be 33 x 107.
3: The significance of this number was also transmitted to Japan, where the Indo-Aryan deities inherited via the Bauddha was developed into a Nipponic pantheon of 12 gods drawn from different original categories (dvādaśadevāḥ). The Nipponic dvādaśadevāḥ are (left to right each row): Pṛthivī [Vasu], Soma [Vasu], Kubera [Yakṣa], Vāyu [Vasu], Varuṇa [Āditya], Nairṛta [Rākṣasa], Brahman, Vivasvān [Āditya], Rudra [Rudra], Indra [Āditya], Agni [Vasu], Yama.
4: For example: we have Skanda depicted on the early Iranic ruler Ayalisha (Azilises) in India. We also have an inscription of an Iranian general in the Kadamba army who records worshiping Skanda in South India and then building a temple for Skanda in Gandhara upon his return.