Tales from the Mahabharata: Lord Surya

November 4, 2014    BY Linda Johnsen

What if you were married to the best-looking, most loving, wealthiest, and most powerful person in the world? Wouldn’t you be happy? Well, Sanjña was, and she was miserable.

Sanjña’s story is told in the Mahabharata, the great epic poem of India. Her husband was Lord Surya, the king of our solar system. He’s not just some historical figure who died thousands of years ago. You can go outside any time during the day and see him riding slowly across the sky in the blazing ball of light we Westerners call the Sun. His Sanskrit name, Surya, comes from the root sur, which means “to shine.”

Surya was a faithful and devoted husband, but Sanjña couldn’t bear to be near him. The problem was that he shone so brightly she couldn’t look at him. So one day she asked her maid Chhaya (whose name means “shadow” and who looked quite a bit like Sanjña) to secretly take her place, and she slipped away to Earth to live anonymously in our world.

Surya was a faithful and devoted husband, but Sanjña couldn’t bear to be near him.

Chhaya enjoyed posing as the queen. She even had a son with Lord Surya: the planet Saturn, who was slow-moving, rather glum, and not very bright at all. Still Chhaya doted on him and neglected Sanjña’s children. They finally reported her to their father. “Mom just isn’t herself,” they told him. “She ignores us completely. She only plays with Saturn!”

Surya’s suspicions were aroused. So when he got home at the end of the day he would watch her closely, and sure enough, she was only a shadow of her old self. Eventually he realized, to his shock, that this wasn’t his wife at all! “Who are you?” he demanded. “What have you done with Sanjña?”

Chhaya was terrified—Surya usually glowed with magnanimity, but at times like this he could be formidable. So she told him the painful truth—that his wife had found his presence unbearable and deserted him.

Surya rushed to the Earth to seek out his beloved. He found her trotting in a pasture in the form of a mare, so he took the shape of a stallion and went galloping after her. When he caught up he nuzzled her muzzle, breathing into her nostrils. Sanjña thereby got pregnant, and soon two sons, the Ashvins, were born. You can see them on a clear night: they’re the two bright stars in the head of the constellation Aries.

But Sanjña wasn’t eager to return to heaven. “You hurt my eyes!” she complained to Surya. “You’re just too bright!”

In hopes of persuading Sanjña to take him back, Surya enlisted the help of his father-in-law, Vishvakarman, the great architect whose masterwork is our universe. “It’s not proper for a wife to abandon her husband and children,” he scolded. But Sanjña was adamant: she was staying on Earth, where she was more comfortable.

Finally Vishvakarman came up with the perfect compromise—he invited the Sun to lie down on his lathe, and carefully sawed off much of Lord Surya’s light. Then he sent his pared-down son-in-law to Sanjña. When she caught sight of her husband she could scarcely believe her eyes. “You’re the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen!” she exclaimed. The dazzling couple returned to heaven and lived happily ever after.

The Inner Sun

What is the Mahabharata really saying when it tells this odd story? The most important clue comes when we understand who Sanjña really is. Sanjña is the Sanskrit word for “the one who knows.” It means the mind. Sanjña is the thinking self, the one who is running away from the divine light in order to live here on planet Earth. In other words, Sanjña is you and me.

The myth says that the soul’s true lover is the divine spirit within, and many yoga texts describe this inner spirit as “shining like a thousand suns.” For most people, its light is too overwhelming to bear. There’s a famous story in the Bhagavad Gita in which the enlightened master Krishna reveals this inner experience to his friend Arjuna. But Arjuna isn’t prepared for the grandeur of the divine vision. He panics and cries out, “Please stop it, Krishna! It’s too much!”

The purpose of our spiritual practice is to expand our awareness till we can live consciously in the divine light. But most people, like Sanjña, aren’t working to increase their awareness. On the contrary, most of us are running away from the light. We’re preoccupied with the objects of the outer world and we lose sight of the illumination within. And we lose out on the many blessings that come with illumined awareness, just as Sanjña lost her children.

The purpose of our spiritual practice is to expand our awareness till we can live consciously in the divine light.

But the higher reality doesn’t leave us to wander in the shadows forever. Divine grace seeks us out. In the yoga tradition, horses stand for prana, vital energy. Prana makes physical life possible; its correct management is the source of healing power. In the myth the inner Sun “impregnates” Sanjña through the force of its breath. The twin gods called the Ashvins to whom Sanjña gives birth represent the right and left nostrils. In Indian culture, these two deities are known as the divine healers. They are present whenever a baby is born because prana, or life energy, provides the link between the physical body and the inner spirit. (And the Book of Genesis in the Bible says, “When God breathed into man’s nostrils the breath of life, he became a living soul.”) Here the myth is reminding us that breathing exercises, called pranayama in the yoga tradition, can help us reconnect with our inner light.

Seeing God

When asked why they meditate, some yoga students frankly admit, “I want to see God.” That’s a little like an ant wanting to see the Empire State Building. In fact, some mystics have reported that the divine being shines so brightly that the mind recoils. A yogi I once interviewed told me that after practicing Surya Vidya (the science of the inner sun) his mental field was flooded with so much light that he was practically blinded. And the Book of Revelation in the Christian tradition, speaking of the vision of divine being, states that “his face was like the sun shining in full strength.”

Mortal beings simply can’t grasp eternity. The limitless power and beauty of the supreme reality is utterly beyond the ability of our minds to comprehend. Yet the myth of Sanjña and Surya says that out of its intense desire to reunite with the human soul, divine spirit sheds some of its energy and brilliance. Crucified on the lathe of the material universe, it assumes a form we can actually glimpse.

In the Vedantic tradition we focus not so much on Brahman, the all-pervading reality, but on Atman, the inner self. Then transcendent being is personalized and becomes accessible to us in meditation. And by focusing on our own inner light we gain admittance to a universe of unlimited illumination. Enlightened souls live continuously in the light of spirit. They directly experience the fact that Atman, our own higher self, is wholly “at one” with the universal spirit, just as a drop of rain falling into the ocean reunites with it completely.

After her self-imposed exile on Earth, Sanjña was reunited with Lord Surya, the heavenly light. Perhaps someday we’ll stop running too, and return home.

Linda Johnsen
Linda Johnsen, MS, is the author of numerous books including Lost Masters: Sages of Ancient Greece and Meditation Is Boring? Her most recent book is Kirtan! Chanting as a Spiritual Practice. Visit her at ThousandSuns.org.