Great and living Aten, ordaining life, vigorously alive, our father. Our wall of millions of cubits, our reminder of eternity, our witness of what is eternal. Who fashions himself with his own hands, whom no craftsman has devised. Who is established in rising and setting each day ceaselessly. Whether he is in heaven, or on earth, every eye beholds him without hindrance, whilst he fills the land with his rays and enables everyone to live. With seeing whom, our eyes are satisfied daily in this Temple of the Aten and fills it with his own self by means of his rays, beauteous with love, and embraces us with them in life and power forever. -- Ancient Egyptian Prayer
This prayer to the sun was written thousands of years ago by the Pharaoh Akhenaten, who saw the sun as more than just the source of all physical light, heat, and life, but also as the spiritual consciousness-center of the universe. Akhenaten attempted to create a religion based on his spiritual understanding of the sun, and his astronomers pursued research as far as was possible at the time. From the desert observatories of Akhenaten's Egypt to today's spacecraft technology, what can science teach us about our glorious daystar and what can we learn of its role as father/mother/elder brother?
In astronomical terms the sun is an ordinary medium-sized star, one of possibly 100 billion stars in our home galaxy, the Milky Way. It is by far the largest object in our solar system, containing more than 99.8% of the total mass (the giant planet Jupiter contains most of the rest). It is 150 million km (93 million miles) from the earth and yet shines with such brilliance that it sustains all life on our planet. To give some indication of the immense distances and its huge size, consider that if the sun were the size of a tennis ball, the earth would be a grain of sand more than 7 meters away. The nearest star in the immensity of our galaxy, Alpha Centauri, would be another tennis ball 2,000 km further on.
Science describes the sun as a gigantic ball of super-heated, primarily hydrogen gas 1.4 million km (864,000 miles) in diameter. Its surface temperature is about 6,000 degrees Kelvin and its core a colossal 16 million degrees K. Under these extreme conditions, individual hydrogen atoms are pushed together, undergoing nuclear fusion into helium and causing the release of energy equivalent to 100 billion one-megaton hydrogen bombs per second. The sun is thought to be about 4.5 billion years old, and since its fiery birth has used about half of the hydrogen at its core. It will continue to radiate peacefully for another 5 billion years or so until it eventually runs out of hydrogen fuel. Recent research suggests that, due to this burning process, the sun's luminosity will increase at such a rate that life on earth will be unsustainable in approximately 500 million to 1 billion years (T. Hayden, "Curtain Call," Astronomy (28:1), Jan. 2000, pp. 44-9).
About 25% of the sun is involved in this "burning" process, with energy being carried to the surface by huge convection currents, causing a great convulsive mixing and turbulence of gas at the surface. The picture presented has been enormously enhanced in the last ten years by spacecraft and earth-based observatory projects which have found that
the sun rings like a huge bell: the gases on the sun rise and sink like water boiling in a kettle. Sound waves are generated by these convection currents becoming trapped within the sun and setting up a checkerboard pattern of vibrations ringing out celestial melodies like a huge bell. GONG [Global Oscillation Network Group] and SOHO [Solar and Heliospheric Observatory] observations can assist scientists in measuring the speeds of different sound waves so astronomers can tell the temperature of different layers and internal motions of gases "boiling" in huge convection currents or "cells," deep within the sun. By monitoring the sun's vibrating surface, helioseismologists can probe the stellar interior in much the same way that geologists use seismic waves from earthquakes to probe the inside of our own planet.
In early times the sun was thought to be a perfect unblemished sphere, but in 1611, using the recently invented telescope, Galileo discovered dark spots on its surface (Chinese astronomers, however, had observed sunspots as early as 200 BC). In November 2001, with techniques similar to medical ultrasound diagnostics, the SOHO spacecraft peered inside sunspots and discovered their structure. These planet-sized dark spots, occurring in pairs of opposite charge, are huge magnetic "plugs," cool in relation to the surrounding gas, atop swirling hurricanes of electrified gas. Observations show material flows out of these spots at the surface, but deeper down material rushes inward towards them like gigantic whirlpools.
The number of sunspots varies over a cycle of 11 years. Currently we are entering a period of low solar activity after the solar maximum in 2000/2001. The full cycle extends over a 22 year period, indicating deep-seated magnetic processes in the sun which are just starting to be understood. These interactions are affected by the rotation of the sun which, because it is not a solid body, rotates every 27 days near the equator and 31 days near the poles. Gigantic flares of super-heated gas spiral up to 300,000 miles into space above the cooler sunspots. For reasons not yet understood, the most powerful solar flares erupt most often during the waning phase of sunspot cycles. When sunspots face the earth, such ejections can cause the beautiful northern lights sparkling in the arctic skies. When the earth absorbs a massive "broadside" from the sun, it can lead to mass electricity blackouts and disruption of radio waves and satellite communications.
The fiery halo surrounding the solar disc is called the corona. Strangely, at one million degrees K this outer region is much hotter than the solar surface temperature. In early 2000 the TRACE (Transition Region and Coronal Explorer) satellite found that the sun transfers heat from its surface to the corona along strange spongelike features that resemble moss plants. This "solar moss" is actually areas roughly 6,000 to 12,000 miles across of hot gas floating 1,000 to 2,000 miles above active regions on the surface, arcing magnetic flames up into the corona so that the sun's sustaining warmth radiates throughout the solar system. In The Mahatma Letters KH speaks of the magnetic nature of the sun's corona and the great flames and prominences in and above it. He remarks on their correspondences with the aura which may appear around the heads of spiritually advanced people. This aura is immortalized in the halos depicted around the heads of Christian saints and other holy figures.
Solar and Heliospheric Observatory
Using SOHO, scientists have observed "jetstreams" or rivers of hot, electrically-charged particles flowing beneath the surface of the sun. They have also found features analogous to terrestrial trade winds that transport gas from beneath the sun's fiery surface. These currents or zonal belts may be likened to the stripes on a barber's pole, starting at mid-latitudes and gradually moving towards the equator during the 11 year solar cycle. In March 2001 NASA scientists announced that
like blood pulsing in an artery, newly discovered currents of gas beat deep inside the sun, speeding and slacking every 16 months. The solar heartbeat throbs in the same region of the sun suspected of driving the 11 year cycle of solar eruptions, during which the sun goes from stormy to quiet and back again. Scientists are hopeful that this pulse can help them unravel the origin and operation of the solar cycle.
Because the earth revolves around the equatorial plane of the sun, humanity has only seen it side-on -- until now. In 1994 and 1999 the tiny Ulysses spacecraft passed over first the south and then north pole of the sun, producing some unexpected data. Solar magnetism is much more complex than that of the classic iron magnet from school experiments. "One surprise led to another," reports Mike Lockwood of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory near Oxford, England (ESA Science News, June 3, 1999). "Ulysses found that the radial component of the magnetic field far out from the Sun is equally strong at all solar latitudes. Nobody expected that, but it means we can use historical data from just one place, the Earth, to deduce a surprising change for the whole Sun. The Ulysses result was absolutely crucial." The spacecraft also provided an excellent vantage point for observing the reversal of the sun's magnetic field polarity, which takes place at each solar maximum. This change affects the entire solar system, taking about a year to extend its influence to the regions beyond Pluto.
"Great and living Aten (sun), ordaining life, vigorously alive, our father" -- Akhenaten's prayer reverences a living being that goes beyond this scientific view of the sun as solar powerhouse. To understand the inner being reverenced in prayer and poetry through the visible processes of the sun is a bit like trying to understand men and women by examining how their digestion converts food into energy. Why have so many religious systems throughout the ages called the sun our father, mother, or even elder brother? Writing in the 1930s, G. de Purucker explained that
As the heart and brain of its entire system, the sun sends a twelve-faceted life into every atom of its own solar universe of which we form an integral part. The sun is pre-eminently a giver of life. Cosmogonically, it is our elder brother, and not at all our physical parent as scientific speculations would have it; yet it is also in a vital sense our father-mother, because through the sun come down the invigorating life streams from systems and worlds above ours. . . . The sun is a storehouse of vital-electric energies and, as the great pulsating heart of its system, vitalizes and informs the endless hosts of beings under its systemic sway. -- Fountain-Source of Occultism, pp. 300-1
If the universe is an organism composed of living beings in all stages of growth, stars like our sun are the visible raiments of bright celestial entities whom we may properly call gods. Far ahead of us in their spiritual evolution, they represent a certain class of beings whose inner aspects are invisible, just as the aspects that make and drive a human being are. The bright disk we see in the sky is not the true sun, but merely the visible effect of its energies on our physical plane. Similarly, electricity per se is invisible, yet we can see an electric spark because the passage of electricity through the resistance of the air makes its effects visible. The Master KH says:
The fact is, that what you call the sun is simply the reflection of the huge "store-house" of our System wherein ALL its forces are generated and preserved; the sun being the heart and brain of our pigmy Universe, we might compare its faculae -- those millions of small, intensely brilliant bodies of which the sun's surface away from the spots is made up -- with the blood corpuscles of that luminary . . . -- The Mahatma Letters, p. 164
What scientists today call "granulation" or solar convection currents, the Master speaks of as "blood corpuscles" on the surface of the sun. The mighty heart of the solar system beats once every 10 earth years, with another year for the vital currents to pass through the hidden chambers of the sun, making the 11-year cycle observed by science. With each beat the sun expels its accumulated store of vitality through the mysterious sunspots to the remotest corners of the solar system. Ulysses spacecraft observations of high-speed solar wind ejected through a large hole in the outer atmosphere of the south pole are highly suggestive. Purucker says of this mystery: "the sun feeds its family: just as the heart feeds the body. It sends out its blood through the south pole, as it were, and after the circulation around the body has taken place, it receives it in again at the north pole." It is through the sunspots that the solar blood -- solar energy, electricity, or psychomagnetism -- returns to be purified in the heart that sent it forth. There are so many wonderful teachings of the ancient wisdom in relation to our inexhaustible life-giver, the sun. Eclipses, for example, are of great significance because of the effects of the sun and moon pulling on the earth, and alternatively of the sun and earth pulling on the moon -- not only gravitational pull, but psychomagnetic pull producing great surges of vital energy between the sun, moon, and earth at these times. But amongst the grandest teachings is the sun's role in the initiations of highly evolved human beings at special times of the year and at certain cycles when the earth stands in propitious alignments with it. (See G. de Purucker's The Four Sacred Seasons and Grace F. Knoche's The Mystery Schools for further information on this complex subject celebrated in the myths and sacred ceremonies of the world's peoples.) This is not only something far away. We should remember that, in the initiation of daily experience, a portion of our spiritual heart is solar substance to which we shall return self-consciously one day. In our lives here and now, we can strive to identify with the solar essence of ourselves, keeping in mind that in the distant future, if we run the evolutionary race aright, we shall assume the tremendous responsibilities of our father/mother/elder brother -- and become a star ourselves!
Long ago the ancient Egyptians started their day with a prayer to the rising sun:
Homage to thee, O Ra (the sun), at thy tremendous rising!
Thou risest! Thou shinest! The heavens are rolled aside!
Thou art the King of the Gods, thou art the All-comprising,
From thee we come, in thee we are deified.
Today in India, millions of Hindus repeat a prayer to the hidden sun known as the Gayatri which similarly reminds us of our sacred relationship with this living being. Let us carry its warmth with us as we encounter our own initiations of daily life experience:
Oh thou golden sun of most excellent splendor, illumine our hearts and fill our minds, so that we, recognizing our oneness with the Divinity which is the heart of the universe, may see the pathway before our feet, and tread it to those distant goals of perfection, stimulated by thine own radiant light.
(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 2002; copyright © 2002 Theosophical University Press)