A Light That Shines through Time and Cultures

By Singh, Madanjeet; Tadjadod, Mahin | UNESCO Courier, January 1995 | Go to article overview
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A Light That Shines through Time and Cultures

Singh, Madanjeet, Tadjadod, Mahin, UNESCO Courier

After their emergence as tool-making hominids about one-and-a-half million years ago during the Old Stone Age, our prehistoric ancestors instinctively related the sun to all-embracing nature--stones, mountains, trees, plants, flowers, birds, beasts, water and fire. Living in caves or beneath overhanging rocks, they used wooden sticks and unpolished chipped stones for hunting wild beasts, and depicted hunting scenes and solar symbols in rock carvings. Such petroglyphs have been discovered in central Asia, Africa, Europe and in other parts of the world as far distant as Indonesia and southwest America. They show the sun in a variety of forms, either as rays emanating from a circle or anthropomorphically, as a nimbus surrounding a head.

These rudimentary circular and spiral patterns are thought to have led to the earliest forms of hieroglyphic writing, the invention of the wheel, and the universally popular spiral design, as well as to the image of the halo as a sign of spiritual luminosity. In time almost all elements of nature became deities and totems of sun cults and were represented in human or animal forms, forming the basis of organized religions that invoked the sun as the divine light of virtue. "Surya is the ultimate truth," states Aditya-Hrydya Sutra, and this is beautifully depicted in an Indian miniature painting, Heart of Surya, in which Vishnu and his consort Lakshmi are seated in the sun, much like the beautiful figure of Mani (216-274 A.D.), the founder of Manichaeism, in the still-used temple of Cao'an on the eastern coast of China near Quanzhou in Fujian province. In the Samyutta Nikaya, the Buddha calls the sun "the fiery heart, my kith and kin", and this concept is also incorporated in Christian art, as can be seen in Fra Angelico's painting Coronation of the Virgin, now in the Uffizi (Florence).

People have always venerated the sun as an emblem of life, truth, justice and wisdom


Prophets such as Zoroaster (late seventh and early sixth centuries B.C.) and Mani invoked the sun's divine light of virtue to conquer the darkness of evil. The sun god Mithra became the charioteer of Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian Creator Cod of Light, who is opposed by the evil darkness of Angra Mainyu or Ahriman. Ahura Mazda is "like the sun tO behold-for the sun is the greatest of all visible, earthly fires", stated Zoroaster (c. 628-551 B.C.). Even today in several eastern Iranian languages the word for the sun is simply "of Ahura Mazda". Manichaeism was truly an ecumenical faith embracing all people, as Mani, its founder, tried to integrate diverse religions such as Gnostic Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Buddhism, in a strongly dualistic philosophy based on the eternal struggle between good and evil, light and darkness. It was once professed by many peoples, from Spain in the west to the eastern coast of China.

A symbol of power

Great conquerors and rulers employed the spirit of solar universality in order to ensure the loyalty of their subjects. Confronted with antagonistic sects which engendered social tension, ethnic hatred and religious animosity, they tried to create stable government based on norms of unity symbolized by the sun.

Akhenaton (c. 1353 B.C.) sought to unite his people under the all-embracing light emanating from the sun-disc, the Aton. Alexander the Great (556-323 B.C.) aspired to rule the world "like the sun", especially after his conquest of Egypt, when he chose to become the "son of the Sun-God Amon". The Mauryan emperors in India were inspired to emulate the example set by Alexander's brief incursion into India in 326 B.C., which helped to revive the ancient sun-related Vedic concepts. Chandragupta Maurya (c. 321-297 B.C.) cast himself in the "sunguardian" image of Universal Emperor, and Ashoka (d. 238 B.C.?), the last major emperor of the Mauryan Dynasty, erected numerous pillars inscribed with sun motifs. The Roman emperor Aurelian (215-275 A.

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