Varuna is one of the elder gods, sovereign of the water. He is the first god of the Hindu pantheon accredited with the creation of the world. He was the first king and law giver. The prime mover of the universe, he was mostly concerned with moral and societal affairs than being a deification of nature.
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Varuna – the creator
Relatively few Vedic hymns are addressed to Varuna directly, though he is designated at the guardian of the cosmic law and the universal monarch. As his first action – he exercised his creative will and formed or separated out of his waters, the sky and the earth. His creative energies continue beyond this – by his will he causes rain to fall and rivers to flow (attribution to tides) – thus sustaining his creation. His breath is the wind. In a sense he is embodied in his creation, he is omnipresent in it. The Sun and the stars are his eyes with which he keeps a watch on his creation.
The guardian of the cosmic law
Varuna is mentioned in the Rig Veda as the first creator of and the upholder of the cosmic law. He is the principle of truth and justice and in that function he is fierce. Varuna evaluates the actions of people against his laws. Laws which are unknowable to men. Varuna bears a noose or a rope with which to bind those he choses to punish – symbolic perhaps of the sins with which men fetter themselves.
The very first individual hymn to Varuna in the Rig Ved (Hymn 25) establishes the omnipresent and ever watchful nature of Varuna and his breadth of his knowledge. Specifically the hymn mentions – the path of the birds, the depth of the sea and the ships which ride the waves, the positions of the moon and the planets, the path of the winds, the gods above and below. In prayers he is declared the king of the earth and heavens.
He knows the path of birds that fly through heaven, and, Sovereign of the sea,
He knows the ships that are thereon.
True to his holy law, he knows the twelve moons with their progeny:
He knows the moon of later birth.
He knows the pathway of the wind, the spreading, high, and mighty wind:
He knows the Gods who dwell above.
Rig Veda, Hymn 25
This very hymn also establishes the severity of Varuna’s law. Having established that they are not to know the laws, and the laws themselves are inscrutable, worshipers to Varuna fall back on their fear and the hope of forgiveness in their dealings with the god.
Whatever law of thine, O God, O Varuṇa, as we are men,
Day after day we violate.
Give us not as a prey to death, to be destroyed by thee in wrath,
To thy fierce anger when displeased.
Rig Veda, Hymn 25
In hymn 28 – the reciter again calls out to Varuna to free him from his sins, and begs that they are not punished, and absolution. Interestingly, the reciter is not asking for a place in heaven, but for permission to live out his life and completing the tasks which he must do.
The elder ones
Varuna was called the first of the Adityas (essentially : Lights). The Rig Veda also makes mentions of two more gods who are named with Varuna, and in fact many hymns in the Veda are address to these gods together with Varuna. These are the gods Mitra and Aryaman.
The portfolio assigned to Mitra (literally: friend) as a god is one which defines the basis of civics. Mitra is the patron deity of honesty, friendship, contracts and meetings. In the Rig Veda, Mitra and Aryaman are rarely mentioned independently, but mostly with Varuna.
As the patron of meetings and contracts, friendship and honest, Mitra shared some of the law keeper attribute of Varuna. Aryaman supports them in his role as the guardian of friendships amongst guests and the bridal exchange. Together the three of them can be regarded as the first trinity. As Mitra-Varuna, the two gods form the basis of the most terrible and firm oaths. Swearing a oath over water was one of the ultimate promises a man could make. Breaking the oath meant death – by the laws of Varun.
The worship of Varuna, Mitra, and Aryaman as first gods, with a principle responsibility over the rules of behaviour of men, in their personal and group lives, can probably be attributed to the fact that when people started migrating from central Asia, a lot of importance would be paid to the fact as to how people behaved in a caravan, just setting out. With this regard, Mitra and Varun can be called the counsellor and the King.
This world’s imperial Kings, O Mitra-Varuṇa, ye rule together looking on the light.
We pray for rain, your boon, and immortality. Through heaven and over earth the thunderers take their way.
Imperial Kings, strong, Heroes, Lords of earth and heaven, Mitra and Varuṇa, ye ever active Ones.Rig Veda, Hymn 63
Unlike most other Vedic gods, Varuna’s decline was at the hands of his Vedic counterparts. His role as cosmic king, was taken over by Indra (the God of thunder). Considering the importance given to Varun, in those hymns of the Rig Veda which are dedicated to him, it is quite astonishing that the number of hymns themselves are significantly less than those attributed to Indra or Agni. This could also denote, the lesser position attributed to Varuna, when the Rig Veda was codified between the periods of 1700-1500 BCE.
In post-Vedic texts Varuna became the god of oceans and rivers and keeper of the souls of the drowned. As such, Varuna is also a god of the dead, and can grant immortality. He is attended by the nagas or serpents. He is also one of the Guardians of the directions, representing the west. Varuna’s decline however did not result in as great a fall as it did for some of the other Vedic gods. Mitra and Aryaman, for example, all but disappeared.
As Varuna remained the lord of water, he remained respected due to the importance of water itself. Generally represented as an old man, he remained an elder, even when he was demoted to demigod from god. He continued to maintain his responsibility as a guardian of the laws of nature.
In the Ramayana, when Ram needed to have a bridge constructed across the ocean to reach Lanka to rescue his wife; he first prayed to Varuna, to allow him to cross the ocean and to provide him a way.
After 3 days of prayer, and seeing no reaction from Varuna; on the 4th day Ram mounts an arrow on his bow and threatens to dry the ocean. At this Varuna appears. He cannot bear the destruction of the life giving waters, and the creatures within them.
Varuna explains that his delay is due to his inability to answer the dilemma. A ford across the ocean could have been achieved in either one of two ways – Either the ocean splits to allow the army to go through, or the ocean should suffer rocks to float on it to afford Ram and his Vanara army to cross. Both of these actions were in violation of the laws of nature. The ocean cannot separate, and it cannot allow stones to float.
With a bid to save his domain, Varuna agrees to modify the laws of nature, he will still the waters, allowing those stones which bear the inscription of Ram’s name to float on his surface. In a way he establishes a loophole wherein it is Ram (an avatar of the God Vishnu) who bends the laws of nature and not Varuna.
Similarities to other pantheons
In Greece and Rome
Like most Vedic gods, Varuna has a counterpart in Greece and Rome. Whether due to growing trade drawing parallels or due to the central asian migration actually populating the greek islands and the river basins of North India.
Varuna’s later nature (Water God) has commonality with Poseidon. They are both rulers of the water and both elder gods. Both were said to have gifted horses to men. Beyond these two things however – no further commonalities in behaviour or attitude can be seen.
In the Roman history and tradition – Neptune is accorded more than the greek’s accorded Poseidon. Neptune is accorded the ability to control all waters – including rain clouds, similar to the first nature of Varuna.
All three traditions however accord all three gods the ability to inflict crippling punishments for real or supposed transgressions.
In the Zend Avesta
Apart from the Greek and Roman traditions, Varuna and his companions – Mitra and Aryaman, find mention in the Zoroastrian traditions and mythology.
In the Zend Avesta Varun is one of the names of Ahura Mazda, translated as the deliverer from evil. However more importantly placed in this tradition was Mitra.
The similarities between Zoroastrian and the Vedic traditions points back to a unified Indo-Iranian commonality. The Vedic Mitra and the Zendic Mithra derive from the sanskrit root mitra – denoting friendship, covenant and treaty and are almost identical in behaviour and responsibility.
In the Zend Avesta, Mithra is one of the trinity which defends the truth or that which is right. He is a protector of friendships and partnerships, and is also a judge. He prevents the unworthy or sinners from reaching paradise.
Notes on sources and further reading
- Rig Veda;Translations and original source text on Sacred-texts.org
- Ions, Veronica (1967);Indian Mythology; Hamlyn
- Ramayana; Multiple translations and editions
- Vishnu Purana; Multiple translations and editions
- Werner, Karel (1994); A Popular Dictionary of Hinduism; Curzon Press
- Bulfinch, Thomas; Bulfinch’s Mythology; Project Gutenberg Edition
- Bulfinch, Thomas; Myth and Legend
- The Zend Avesta; avesta.org