The sun has been worshipped as a deity in many of the major religious traditions in history, dating at least from the ancient Egyptian religion which worshipped the sun god 𒊑𒀀 (a.k.a. Re or Ra). As Wikipedia explains –
“By the Fifth Dynasty in the 25th and 24th centuries BC, he had become one of the most important gods in ancient Egyptian religion, identified primarily with the noon sun … He was the god of the sun, order, kings, and the sky. Ra was portrayed as a falcon and shared characteristics with the sky god Horus.”
The sun is also a prominent deity in the Rig Veda, where it is worshipped as Sūrya or Savitṛ. Interestingly, the sun deity Sūrya in the Rig Veda shares many of the same features as his Egyptian counterpart, including portrayal as a falcon and being associated with order. Specifically, Sūrya is associated with moral order, and is the ‘eye’ of the Ᾱdityas, the gods of moral order, and especailly of Mitra, observing the activities of human beings. Sūrya is also frequently depicted as travelling through the sky on a chariot, in a motif which seems to go back to the original proto-Indo-European religion. This chariot is sometimes said to be puled by seven horses, or sometimes by a single horse. We find all of these features of Sūrya in the following verse –
The majestic, all-seeing sun, alike for all humanity, rises up[Rig Veda Maṇḍala 7 Sūkta 63 of Ṛṣi Vasiṣṭha Maitrāvaruṇi; my own translation]
The eye of Mitra and of Varuṇa, the god who rolls away darkness like a hide.
The massive, streaming torch of the sun, the impeller of humanity, rises up,
Rolling forward the single wheel which is led by a dappled horse, yoked to it with a pole
Shining forth from the lap of the dawns, whilst his worshippers rejoice, he rises up.
This god, who does not transgress the single established order, gratifies me.
Golden ornament of the sky, seeing widely, shining as he moves forward towards his distant goal, rises up.
Now the people, set into motion by the sun, pursue their goals, and do their jobs.
Like a falcon, he goes along, soaring up into the place where the immortals made space for him
Mitra and Varuṇa, we will worship you with salutations and oblations when the sun has risen up.
Now, Mitra, Varuṇa and Aryaman, make space for us and for our children.
May all good roads be good for us to go on; may you always guard us with good fortune.
[Notes: I also consulted the translations by Professors Stephanie Jamison and Joel Brereton, and by Prof. Ralph Griffith; śyena is “a hawk , falcon , eagle , any bird of prey” (Monier-Williams) – I follow both these translations in using ‘falcon’]
Indeed, the sun and its light have always been pervasive metaphors related to religion and spirituality. In the Book of Genesis, too, as soon as God has created the world, we read –
“And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.”[Genesis 1.3; KJV]
In the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upanishad, Janaka, the king of Videha, asks Yajnavalkya a series of questions about the human spirit. Janaka begins by asking –
“Yajnavalkya, what light is this spirit?”
Yajnavalkya answers – “The light of the sun, your majesty. Just by the sun, this light sits, goes about, does work and returns.”[BU 4.3.2-6; my translation]
Yajnavalkya successively describes the human spirit as the sun, the moon, the light of a fire and the light within the soul, starting with the concrete entity and then progressing in the direction of abstraction through metaphor. The seventh century Indian Vedānta philosopher Śankara elaborated on this by explaining that, like light, consciousness illuminates both itself (as self-consciousness) and the non-conscious objects within its ambit. In this way, light has also come to serve as a metahpor for consciousness and for self-consciousness too.
Indeed, it seems to me that the sun and its light provided humankind with our original idea of the transcendent, being something that we cannot observe directly, yet something without which we cannot see anything else. All other ideas about deities and the divine probably flowed from this. We may end with the Gāyatrī mantra that is chanted today by Hindus in worship of Savitṛ, the sun deity –
Om bhūr bhuvaḥ svaḥ|
May we focus our minds on the amazing brilliance of the god Savitṛ
May it inspire our minds[Gāyatrī Mantra, from RV 3.62.10 of Ṛṣi Gopavana Ᾱtreyaḥ; my own translation]