Surya was a primary deity of the Aryans at the time of the earliest hymns of the Rigveda. The solar cult saw the sun as the most obvious symbol of life, consciousness, and divinity. For some time within each of the first three periods of Hindu mythology, Surya was acknowledged as the creator, the principle of life, the Supreme, or supreme ruler of all. Afterwards Surya underwent the process so familiar in Hindu mythology—appropriation of his powers and attributes by other deities, subordination to other deities, and finally attacks on his very character.
In the Chandogya Upanishad Surya was at the threshold between the unmanifest spheres above that were self-born (svayambhu) and those below that were manifest. Elsewhere Surya was praised as creator, self-born, and both manifest and unmanifest. As late as the Mahabharata Surya was the gateway to the way of the gods (devayana). Some Puranas said that Surya was the cause of all, worthy of praise, and the supreme light, and that Surya dwells in humans and humans in Surya.
All this praise was not just poetic license. The worship of Surya as the Supreme had some support until the middle ages, and even then a small reawakening took place in the attempted building of the Sun Temple at Konarak—a temple that was not completed or consecrated because of the Muslim conquest of one of the last kingdoms in north India.
Despite this worship, stories that show Surya in a subordinate position or his qualities assimilated by other deities better reflect mainstream Hindu mythology. Surya was also known by names such as Aditya (and when he became one of twelve sons of Kashyapa and Aditi, Surya was an aditya), Vivasvan, Savitri, and Savitur. He joined solar deities who were now personified as demigods of the Puranic pantheon. He acquired a golden chariot with one wheel (making the chariot orbit the sky) drawn by seven horses. (The Konarak temple must have showed his chariot with twelve wheels for the twelve months before it was destroyed.) His charioteer was Aruna, whose brother Garuda, the sun eagle, was most often his vehicle (vahana). (For more details, see the entries on Aruna and Garuda.) The Puranas gave him two, four, or at the most seven wives.
His principle (Puranic) wife was Samjna (knowledge); the others were Chaya (shade), Prabha (light), Rajni (queen), Savarna (colors), Svati (self-being), and Mahavirya (great courage). His children suggest his complete fall from supremacy and loss of divine character: three from Samjna (Manu, Yama, and Yamuna or Yami) plus the Asvins when he and his wife mated as horses, three from Chaya, three from his other divine wives—and, if Ushas is taken as his daughter, incest with her—and liaisons with mortal women and animals, fathering at least Karna, dark warrior of the Mahabharata, and Sugriva, the monkey king. The 108 names of Surya had long been forgotten by the time of the Puranas the ones that, if remembered, brought entrance through his gate to heaven. Surya was henceforth seen in Buddhist, Jain, Shaiva, and Vaishnava iconography bowing with upraised hands in praise of some being truly wise or supreme, who was depicted as his superior, from whom he needed knowledge or grace.
His last roles in the Puranic myths were as the food of Rahu (swallowed with each solar eclipse), the one too busy to fight Ravana, and the giver of a boon here and there. The Gayatri mantra that is still chanted to the rising sun remains as an artifact of Surya’s once great place in Hindu mythology.