SAURA HINDUISM is the branch of Hinduism in which the sun is worshiped as the principal deity. The first clear evidence of sun worship in India comes from the Vedas, the collections of ritual hymns produced by the Aryans who entered India around 1500 bce. Several deva s ("powers" or "deities") praised in the Vedas had solar qualities, and the sun was also a deva in his own right as Sūrya or Ᾱditya, the visible sun, and as Savitṛ, the stimulator of life. Vedic ritual practice honored the sun with daily recital of the Gayātrī mantra to Savitṛ and sacrifices to Sūrya. Despite this recognition, however, the sun was never considered the most important deva during the Vedic period.
Vedic sacrificial religion was basically aniconic. The only visible solar deva, Sūrya was represented in some Vedic rituals by symbols such as a twelve-petaled lotus, a wheel, or a golden disc, but the first anthropomorphic images of the sun god were stone reliefs of Sūrya in a one-wheeled chariot from Buddhist sites at Bodh Gayā and Bhaja in the first century bce. These images indicate the emergence of Sūrya as a popular, but subsidiary, deity, a status that he maintained throughout southern India. In the North, however, Sūrya worship was transformed by foreign influence into Saura Hinduism.
The context of this transformation was the conquest of northern India late in the first century ce by the Indo-Scythian empire of the Kushans, which extended from Central Asia through Bactria to its capital at Mathura. Contact with the neighboring Parthian empire opened the way for Iranian as well as Scythian influences during the century and a half of Kushan rule. Together, these influences changed the earlier solar religion into a popular theistic sect with distinctive foreign features.
The first change was the iconographic remodeling of Sūrya to look like a Kushan ruler with a close-fitting Scythian tunic and boots, an iconography that was preserved in all subsequent images of Sūrya in northern India. The second development, as described in the main text of Saura Hinduism, the Sāmba Purāṇa, was the creation of a major center of Sūrya worship at Multan in the Punjab by Sāmba, a son of Vāsudeva Kṛṣṇa, who also brought magi from Iran to serve as priests. A major concern of the Sāmba was thus not only to exalt the worship of Sūrya as savior but to justify the use of magi as brahmans in the cultic ritual.
There was already a major temple at Multan by the time the oldest portion of the Sāmba was written early in the sixth century; the text mentions further centers of Sūrya worship in Mathura and Orissa. Expansion continued throughout northern India for many centuries, but the sect went into rapid decline after the fifteenth century. The temple at Multan has not survived, and most Sūrya temples show the effects of long neglect. The eighth-century Sūrya temple at Martand in Kashmir and the eleventh century temple at Modhera in Gujarat, however, show the range of Saura influence, and the great thirteenth-century Sun Temple at Konarak in Orissa proves the grandeur of its vision.
The qualities of all of the solar deva s that appear in the Vedic hymns are described in detail in A. A. Macdonell's Vedic Mythology (Strassburg, 1897; reprint, New York, 1974). The evolution of Sūrya images is comprehensively traced and explained in Jitendra Nath Banerjea's The Developement of Hindu Iconography, 2d ed., rev. & enl. (Calcutta, 1956). The historical and cultural context of the early Sūrya sect is provided in John M. Rosenfield's The Dynastic Arts of the Kushans (Berkeley, Calif., 1967). The history, contents, and significance of the Sāmba Purāṇa are given careful scholarly treatment in R. C. Hazra's Studies in the Upapurāṇas, vol. 1, Saura and Vaisnava Upapurāṇas (Calcutta, 1958). Descriptions and illustrations of the extant Sūrya temples are provided in Percy Brown's Indian Architecture, vol. 1, Buddhist and Hindu Periods, 5th ed. (Bombay, 1965). A brief but interesting description of the Sūrya temple at Multan in 641 ce is given in the accounts of the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang in Samuel Beal's Si-yu-ki, Buddhist Records of the Western World (London, 1884; reprint, Delhi, 1981).
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Thomas J. Hopkins (1987)