The essence of Chhath festival is purity and discipline. What more could signify the deity, Surya, who we wish to propitiate during this four-day festival? Few Gods in the divine pantheon match Sun in its discipline and sense of duty. The Sun never fails to rise and never forgets to set. A parallel to such punishing discipline is impossible to find. And what could be purer than fire, the very core of Sun. Chhath, therefore, is a festival to celebrate these two manifestations of a divine energy that by any account is the life -giver for all of us.
There are at least three distinct features of this divine celebration that makes it unique and places it in a class of its own. The first one is the salience of a setting Sun. Everyone bows to a rising sun. In this festival, the first obeisance, Arghya is offered to a setting sun, followed by another Arghya offered to the rising Sun the following morning. The esoteric and spiritual implications of this clear reversal, no doubt, must have excited and ignited enquiring minds; but it certainly is unusual.
There are few festivals that celebrate female power in as significant a manner as does Chhath. The festival does commemorate Lord Sun, but it also celebrates the existence of the two wives of Sun, Sandhya and Usha; and His sister Chhathi Maiya. The importance attached to the female manifestation of energy has rarely seen such express demonstration of salience of female energy as an essential and inevitable compliment of male energy, the eternal interplay of Purush and Prakriti, the very basis of creation.
In yet another respect this festival is unique. It does intend to propitiate the Sun God, but it also pays obeisance to rivers, the source of water and in that sense bestower of life to humankind. The two represent the fire and water elements of nature. And beneath their propitiation is the underlying salience that is attached to keeping these elements as unsullied and unpolluted. The message for environmental protection and enrichment is both subtle and strong.
"सूर्य आत्मा जगतस्तस्थुषश्च” Sun, undoubtedly is not only the source of all physical energy but is also the soul of the world and the cause of its existence. It, thus, rightfully deserves our grateful oblation entirely as a just and well-deserved requital. Chhath becomes an eloquent and joyous expression of this gratitude.
And yet, the Sun didn't enjoy this supremacy it does today, if one peruses the scriptures. Our oldest scripture, the Rigved, comprising of hundreds of Suktas, speak of over 50 Gods - Indra, Agni, Som, Ashwin, Marut, Varun, Mitra, Usha and more. The maximum number of Suktas are dedicated to Indra and Agni. Evidently, Indra and Agni appear to be the most important gods in the time the earlier parts of the Rigveda came into existence. Interestingly, Sun’s consort Usha, seems to be earliest representation of Sun in those times.
But Rigveda is a scripture that evolved over a long period of time. In fact, its suktas represent the evolving thinking over time. It culminates into the concept of Brahma, the ever existing, omnipresent, unchanging, indescribable, non-manifest reality that finds further refinement and elaboration in Aranyak and Upnishads (Vedant). During this evolutionary journey of thoughts also evolved the concept of: ekaṁ sad viprā bahudhā vadanti (There is one (ekam) Reality (sat) about which vibrant persons (viprā) in various ways (bahudhā) speak (vadanti).(Rig Veda, 1.164.46.), the precursor of the concept of Brahma. One verse in the 10th Mandal of the Rigveda says that all these Indra, Mitra, Varun, Agni, are the same. This evolutionary and challenging feature of Sanatan, therefore, becomes very fascinating and at times mystical, almost inscrutable.
The essence, thus, of purity and discipline, that defines Chhath is also as relevant and as needed to nourish and strengthen our social lives. A nation that is disciplined, upright in her conduct; and free from aberrations of poverty, ignorance, injustice, and inequities-the impurities that sully and debilitate our national character, shall in real sense celebrate Chhath, and imbibe its true significance.
Each Chhatth Day as the glowing red disc of Surya Dev begins its descent into the simmering orange surface of the flowing river, only to re-emerge a few hours later on the other side with greater brilliance and energy, it conveys a very meaningful message,
‘उदये सविता रक्तो रक्तश्चास्तमये तथा ।
सम्पत्तौ च विपत्तौ च महतामेकरूपता ॥’
(The sun looks alike while rising and setting. Great men too remain alike in both the good and bad times.)
(Uday Kumar Varma is an IAS officer. Retired as Secretary, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting)