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The worship of the sun, or heliolatry (Gr. ‘helios’: Sun and ‘latry’: worship or excessive devotion), is known to have been prevalent since the beginning of recorded history of man. Sun worship was very important among many cultures; particularly the Egyptian, Indo-European (Greek, Roman, Babylonian, Persian, Sumerian, Vedic Aryan etc), and Meso-American (Aztec, Mixtec, Maya etc) cultures. The influence of the sun was also important or formed an integral part of religious beliefs of, among others, the Druids of England, the Incas of Peru and many Native North American tribes. Among Eastern religions, Japanese mythology refers to ‘Amaterasu’ the Sun Goddess, while there are distinct influences of sun worship in certain forms of Buddhism. Sun worship has been a very important element of ancient and modern Hinduism. 

Hinduism, as we know it today, is believed to have evolved over thousands of years, from a blend of the religious beliefs of the ancient indigenous ‘Indus Valley’ culture and the Vedic beliefs of invading (circa 2000–1500 BCE)  Indo-European ‘Aryan’ tribes from central Asia. The Vedas (the Rig-Veda, the Yajur-Veda, the Sama-Veda and the Atharva-Veda) and related texts (Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Upanishads and Puranas) are the sacred literature of Hinduism and are the oldest surviving scriptures still in use.

The Aryans were nature-worshipers who visualized the elements as warrior-like Gods; such as Indra (the god of thunder and of war); Surya (the sun god); Agni (the fire god); Vayu (the god of wind); and Varuna (the god of the oceans). These were important gods (Devas) of the Vedic pantheon and Indra was the ruler of the gods.  Over time, as the Vedic religion assimilated local influences and evolved into Hinduism, the importance of some of the minor early Vedic gods, such as Vishnu (one of the three main gods of Hinduism today, along with Brahma and Shiva) increased manifold. On the other hand, the importance of the original main gods waned to very minor levels – except for Surya, who maintained an important position throughout the process of transformation of Hinduism over millennia. Even today, devout Hindus start their day at sunrise, with the ritualistic Surya Namaskar (Sun salutation). The Surya Namaskar is explained in detail in the Vedas; specifically, the first chapter of the Tattritiya Aranyaka of the Krishna Yajur-Veda). The Gayatri Mantra, one of the most sacred of Hindu hymns, is also dedicated to the Sun.

In the Vedas, the Sun-god is described as a handsome golden youth triumphantly riding across the heavens in a chariot drawn by seven horses, each representing a day of the week. The Swastika (a holy symbol of Hinduism) is the sign of Surya and symbolizes his generosity without which there would be no life. There are a number of important Sun temples across the Indian subcontinent and additionally, many Shiva temples have a small shrine dedicated to Surya. Hinduism comprises diverse sects or denominations practicing different rituals and worshiping different gods of the Hindu pantheon. The Vaishnavites (followers of Vishnu); the Shaivites (followers of Shiva); the Shaktas (followers of Devi or Shakti); and the Smartas (followers of a combination of five main deities including Surya) being the main. There is, incidentally, a small sect called the Sauras whose main deity is Surya himself. However, the veneration of Surya is common across all denominations of Hinduism.

In Buddhism, another of the great oriental religions, there are distinct indications from various temple and cave iconography, of the influence of the Sun-god and the venerable position held by Him. An example is the series of relatively well preserved images in the Central Asian (now Xingjian Province, China) Kizil caves, where a Sun-god (paired with a Moon-god) is shown along with the Buddha. There are also carvings of the Sun-god on pillars and lintels of many ancient Buddhist temples in India.

The notion of the influence of the sun is further reinforced by references in Buddhist texts, to the Buddha as ‘Aditya Bandhu’ (Sanskrit: ‘Bandhu’ – ‘friend’ or ‘kinsman’ and ‘Aditya’- another name for the sun). Buddhism as a religion does not propagate sun worship (in fact it prohibits it) and references to the Sun god do not form a part of any important doctrine. However, the influence of the sun, as a building block of the Buddhist cosmos, cannot be denied. Further, the early Buddhists believed that Gautama Buddha was the only Buddha.  Subsequently, however, the Mahayana version of Buddhism, propagated that the Buddha was but one in a series, and introduced the concept of ‘Bodhisattvas’ (beings of wisdom) as already enlightened persons who could take on ‘Buddhahood’. It is interesting to note that in Mahayana Buddhist texts, many of these Bodhisattvas were endowed with sun-like qualities.

The Japanese religion, prior to the dominance of Buddhism, was a spirit based religion in which the Sun-god was the supreme spirit among a host of lesser spirits. In the Shinto religion, however, the Sun-goddess, Amaterasu, was the central figure. Later, when Buddhism was in ascendancy in Japan, Shinto priests employed a clever mechanism to reconcile the Shinto and Buddhist faiths by claiming that Amaterasu was an incarnation of the Buddha.

Sun worship (and also moon worship), world wide, can be traced with reasonable certainty to the fact that these were the two brightest celestial bodies seen to be traversing the firmament, by early man. However, the deification and worship of the sun was institutionalized mainly in agrarian societies, where man was dependant on the weather for his livelihood and well being. Based on this reasoning, it would be realistic to assume that sun worship would be a common phenomenon across all early societies.  Research has, however, shown that this has not been the case. It appears that sun worship was limited to only relatively advanced early societies such as the Mexican and Peruvian Indians, the Egyptians and, of course, the pre-Vedic and Vedic societies in India. This was probably due to the fact that such societies had developed the knowledge and intelligence to appreciate the fact of natural laws governing the movements of these celestial bodies.


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