Varuna’s association with waters
Varuna’s associations with waters are explained at two levels. The two are extremes; so extreme that one is far removed from the other like the rarified deep space from the dark underground. The one is pure metaphysics and high symbolism, while the other is mundane and vulgar. The differences between the two levels cannot be bridged. There is no common ground for reconciliation. The two sets of associations cannot also be rationalized and bound into one. It is best that each is viewed separately, each in its own context–for whatever.
The philosophical explanations and suggestions on the nature of Varuna’s association with waters have bred numerous debates, theories and speculations. Scholars have come up with varied interesting and intricate explanations which at times sound too abstract; hard to grasp. It is not easy to present them either. We shall briefly see a couple of such explanations and theories.
N. Creation- the process
Apah – Dark, deep and unfathomable waters
47.1. The terms Salilam and Apah which denote waters in the Rig Veda are said to be highly significant. Dr. Usha Choudhuri (in her scholarly thesis Indra and Varuna) explains these terms as implying more than just the water-element. In the most celebrated hymn of creation – Nasadiya Sutktha which occurs in the Tenth Book of Rig Veda, as also in the Vak Suktha (RV.10.8.125) and in the Hiranya-garbha Suktha (RV. 10.121 ) the terms Salila and Apah represent Great Waters or the primeval waters or the primeval matter of creation. They stand for the manifest as also for the un-manifest primeval matter: Prakrti or Vak or Aditi or Viraj.
47.2. Apah or Salilam is conceived as the threshold prior to which there was no distinction between existence and non-existence; between form and formlessness. Whatever that was there prior to it was neither sat nor a-sat; neither being nor non-being. That is; Apah or Salilam represents the crosses-over stage at which the unformed primordial universe transforms into existence. It could be regarded as the first stage of creation. Thus, Apah is Prakrti as in Samkhya; and it is the primary source of all possibilities of manifestation in the world.
47.3. Apah is twofold: as the undifferentiated, un-manifest and formless (a-vyakta or apraketa or a-murta); and as the manifest with forms (vyakta or praketa or murta). It is said; Apah and Salilam denote Prakrti or the creative power (Shakthi) of the Purusha the Absolute principle. It also suggests movement (gati) and action (karma). Thus, Apah or Salilam signifies the state of Becoming; while Purusha signifies the state of Being.
47.4. To explain it in another way; these dark, deep and unfathomable waters (gahanam ghabhiram – RV. 10.129.1) hold in their womb the un-manifest universe. And, it is from these dark waters the manifest world springs forth. Nasadiya Suktha mentions “the un-manifest conceals within itself the formless manifestation. The universe was then undifferentiated in the primeval waters” (RV agre ‘praketaṃ salilaṃ sarvam ā idam– RV.10.129.3). That is; these Great waters (mahat-salilam) represent the immense potential of Prakrti in its un-manifest (a-vyakta) state. It has that potential to give expression to infinite possibilities as forms (vyakta).
RV_10,129.01a nāsad āsīn no sad āsīt tadānīṃ nāsīd rajo no vyomā paro yat |
RV_10,129.01c kim āvarīvaḥ kuha kasya śarmann ambhaḥ kim āsīd gahanaṃ gabhīram
RV_10,129.02a na mṛtyur āsīd amṛtaṃ na tarhi na rātryā ahna āsīt praketaḥ |
RV_10,129.02c ānīd avātaṃ svadhayā tad ekaṃ tasmād dhānyan na paraḥ kiṃ canāsa ||
RV_10,129.03a tama āsīt tamasā gūḷham agre ‘praketaṃ salilaṃ sarvam ā idam |
RV_10,129.03c tucchyenābhv apihitaṃ yad āsīt tapasas tan mahinājāyataikam ||
RV_10,129.04a kāmas tad agre sam avartatādhi manaso retaḥ prathamaṃ yad āsīt |
RV_10,129.04c sato bandhum asati nir avindan hṛdi pratīṣyā kavayo manīṣā ||
RV_10,129.05a tiraścīno vitato raśmir eṣām adhaḥ svid āsī3d upari svid āsī3t |
RV_10,129.05c retodhā āsan mahimāna āsan svadhā avastāt prayatiḥ parastāt ||
RV_10,129.06a ko addhā veda ka iha pra vocat kuta ājātā kuta iyaṃ visṛṣṭiḥ |
RV_10,129.06c arvāg devā asya visarjanenāthā ko veda yata ābabhūva ||
RV_10,129.07a iyaṃ visṛṣṭir yata ābabhūva yadi vā dadhe yadi vā na |
RV_10,129.07c yo asyādhyakṣaḥ parame vyoman so aṅga veda yadi vā na veda ||
Varuna symbolizes Prakrti
48.1. The essential character of these primeval waters is Avarana – to cover or to encompass (var). Varuna is the encompasser; he pervades (var) everything; he presides over the visible and the invisible worlds. Varuna is the mythical symbol of primeval matter. And, he is the presiding deity of Apah and salilam. Varuna the lord of these waters, the primeval matter, thus symbolizes Prakrti.
48.2. It is by the will or the desire of Varuna, and through his wisdom-extraordinary (Maya) the forms of the visible world (Murtha) emerge from out of the formless (a-Murtha). Varuna in this sense is the creator; the world is born out of his mind (manas); and thus, he symbolizes kaarana –Brahman, the Brahman with a desire to create.
48.3. Shri Ananda Coomaraswamy too (in his Yakshas) explains Varuna as denoting Prakrti. He states that the term Samudra originally meant the sky; and the sky did not merely signify the physical sky but the all encompassing desire of the Purusha. Varuna is that will of Purusha. Varuna who is described as Rta-Samudra or Rta-sadana is indeed the Prakrti.
Aditi is Apah and Prakrti
49.1. Aditi, the Mother – principle, Deva matri the mother of all gods and of all existence is described as the mighty mother,’ lofty like a mountain, swelling with sweet milk’, the celestial light (jyothihmati –RV .1.115.5), the queen or the guardian of Rta (rtavari), ever expanding and never decaying, gracious guide and great protector (YV. 21.5). She denotes freedom from bondage. She gives birth to manifest world. She is the Mother of all creation. Because the nourishing Mother Aditi is the source of all manifested reality – the past, the present and the future; of “all that has been and will be born” she is regarded as Prakrti the creative principle, the desire of the Supreme to create (YV.10.7).
49.2. As mentioned earlier, Apah or Maha-salilam the great waters denote primeval matter or the primal cause of creation from which the manifest is born. Thus, Apah, the waters too are mothers (apah asmin matarah) – ‘The waters are our mother (ambayah), womb of the universe’ (RV.1.23.10). Aditi the great mother (mahi mata) who gives give birth to the manifest world is thus equated with Apah, among other things.
49.3. As Apah, Aditi is the creative energy which is active and moving (gati). Since Apah suggested movement (gati), it is said, the life-giving(jiva-nadi) , flowing rivers and streams are deemed feminine (Prakrti) ; while the stagnant Samudra the ocean into which all beings go and from which all beings emerge acquired a masculine identity (Purusha).
49.4. Aditi (Apah and Prakrti) is the forerunner of the Mother –Goddesses of the later texts and lore who symbolize the power (shakthi) of Prakrti in all its aspects.
Vak is Apah and Prakrti
50.1. In the Vak Suktha or Devi Suktha of Rig Veda (RV.10. 10.125), Apah is conceived as the birth place of Vak or Vac who is the creator, sustainer and destroyer. In an intense and highly charged superb piece of inspired poetry She declares “I sprang from waters there from I permeate the infinite expanse. It is I who blows like the wind creating all the worlds “.
Vak the primal energy the Great Goddess Mother is described in various ways : Vak is the eternal being; the first-born of the eternal waters. Vak is the Mother who gives form to the formless; gives birth to existence and lends identity to things by naming them. Vak is the faculty which gives expression to ideas. She is the mysterious presence that enables one to hear, see, grasp and express in words or otherwise the true nature of things. She is the navel of energy
50.2. Vak who springs forth from waters, touches all the worlds with her flowering body and gives birth to all existence is indeed the Prakrti. Vac is also Apah and an attribute of Varuna.
I sprang from the waters,
And from there I spread throughout the universe,
I touch that heaven with a flowering body.
I move with Rudras and Vasus,
I walk with the Sun and other Gods,
I esteem Mitra, Varuna
And Indra, Agni and the Asvins.
50.3. Eventually; Apah, Aditi, Vak and Varuna all represent the same principle: Prakrti the creative principle.
O. Lotus and the inverted tree
Lotus symbolizes waters and life
51.1. The Lotus symbolizes waters; and earth is a leaf thereof. The lotus-leaf is called the back of the waters (Tai.sam.184.108.40.206). The earth lies spread on water just as the lotus-leaf does. The noted scholar Ananada K Coomaraswamy (in his Yakshas) too relates lotus to waters. He explains the concept of earth resting on waters in the context of the full-blown lotus flower that supports a divinity in the Indian iconography: ”where it seems to be implied that the figure is supported by a widely extended lotus flower rising out of the waters; and in the last analysis the deity is supported by the waters”.
51.2. He also mentions that lotus symbolizes life. The imagery of creation springing forth from the all-encompassing creator was initially related to Varuna. That is because Varuna in the early phases of Rig Veda was the Creator who brought forth all existence. But, since the virtues and powers of Varuna merged into Vishnu, in the later mythologies lotus came to be depicted as rising from the navel of Narayana resting on celestial waters bearing Brahma the abjaja –born of water or born of lotuses.
51.3. In any case, that imagery pictures the principle that all life and existence is born out of the waters.
Inverted tree of life – Varuna
52.1. Dr. Ananada K Coomaraswamy referring to the concept of “The roots of the inverted tree are in the sky and its branches are spread downwards “, says : Varuna called the unborn in Rig Veda symbolizes the root of that tree of life; the source of all creation. That cosmic tree is originally said to have sprung from the navel of Varuna the sky- god blue like the waters reflecting the sky.” – abudhne rājā varuṇo vanasyordhvaṃ stūpaṃ dadate pūtadakṣaḥ – RV.1.24.7)
52.2. Tracing the myth of the world tree from Varuna to Narayana, Ananada K Coomaraswamy refers to the remarkable resemblances in the ethical character of Varuna and Vishnu. According to him, ’the cosmic-tree myths of various forms and their relation to the lotus symbol verily owe their origin to Varuna. He says the concept of the cosmic functioning originally represented Varuna. That concept did not undergo any change; but it only acquired new names and new symbols.
Thus, Varuna is Kaarana Brahman by whose desire the manifest world materializes.
nīcīnā sthur upari budhna eṣām asme antar nihitāḥ ketavaḥ syuḥ |
apade pādā pratidhātave ‘kar utāpavaktā hṛdayāvidhaś cit ||
Varuna the king of pure intelligence / Sits atop the tree with its roots/ in his un-supported and absolute realm; Its branches spread downwards.
Varuņa of hallowed understanding,/ Holds aloft a mass of life-giving radiance, which streams down; May these rays sink deep and set within us. (RV. 1.24.7- 8)
P. Some other explanations for Varuna’s association with waters
Waters, Darkness and Varuna -Prakrti
53.1. Varuna’s association with darkness (tama) metaphorically called night (rathri), as also with waters (Apah) has given rise to number of other highly interesting philosophical speculations.
Nasadiya Suktha says, “In the beginning, darkness was hidden by darkness. All this was unmarked formless waters. ..”. That image of primordial waters was perhaps meant to convey the absence or the sense of absence of all sorts of distinctions in the pre-creation universe. And, similarly, darkness implied a state where day or night was not marked. Here, darkness and waters both seem to mean the same principle -– the all enveloping unformed state before the world of things (sat) arose out of its matrix.
“All this was produced from the dark waters (Tai Aranyaka 1.23)”.
53.2 As said earlier, Varuna symbolizes un-manifest (a-vyakta or a-praketa or a-sat) as well as manifest (vyakta or praketa or sat) state of existence.
53.3. It is also explained; Rathri the darkness is Varuna (Ait Brh. 4.10); Rathri the starlit night belongs to Varuna (Tai .B 1.7.10); and, Varuna is waters (Apah) as it pervades (var) everything. Thus, both – darkness and waters- become associated with Varuna.
53.4. For these reasons, it is said that Varuna, Rathri and Apah all represent Prakrti.
Water- purifier – joy of life
54.1. Water is glorified as the nectar or honey (madhu) and the joy of life; and it is also the elixir of immortality. Water is the symbol of creation, life (jeevanam), strength and energy. Water is thus the nourishing mother of all life and existence. Water is as essential to life as is the vital-air (prana) – aphomaya pranah. Water is the source of all existence; it sustains, heals and purifies life.
Water is regarded as an extraordinary and omnipresent element in Rig Veda. It is the support of all lives; and, the savior of everything living or dead on earth. The world moves along with the pure and simple movement of the water. It washes away the impurities and also cleans the inconsistencies of human behavior. Water is a great medicine. It does away with the diseases and is the benefactor of health, strength, long-life, wealth and immortality.
Yasam Raja Varuno Yati Madhyai Satyanrite Avapashyanje yajnanam| Madhushchutah Shuchaye yah pavakah ta Apao devirih mamvantu|| VII.49.3
The water dwells where gods dwell. The water in which the king of waters Varuna dwells, the water in which Soma lives, in whom all gods drink exhilarating strength, the waters in which the leader of all–Agni enters, who are full of divine values, help me in the world.
He, whose destination is the ocean, who purifies the world, is always flowing, such water lives in the middle of the Universe. Indra, who possesses ‘Vajra‘ and rains the desires, broke opened a path for these divine waters. May these waters help me and be received by me.
Samudrajyestha Salilasya Madhyapunana Yantyanivishmanah | Indrah ya vajri vrishabho rarad TaApoa devirih mamvantu ||
54.2. Shatapatha Brahmana (SB.220.127.116.11) makes an interesting remark: when Agni burns brightly, he then indeed becomes Varuna the purifier (paavaka). There is therefore a belief that the purifying waters cleanses sins, betrayals (abhidudroha) and falsehood (anŗtam duritam) – (RV. 1.23.22). The one that has been purified shouts in ecstasy: “I have become one with the essence of the celestial energy, rasena”. Water represents that faith (shraddha) in life.
54.3. Though the waters are celebrated by various metaphors, the physical aspect of water is not lost sight. The Chandogya Upanishad describes Waters as the source of all plants and herbs Oshadhis; the giver of good health and destroyer of diseases. It is the source of joy of healthy living. The mountains, the earth, the atmosphere and the heavenly bodies too derive their form through water (Chandogya Upanishad – 7.10.10) .It is said; even the gods are waters – as they are the foundation and source of the universe and everything is contained in them.(SB. 10.5) .
And again , it is said; the water which is created in the universe; which is pure and full of light; which is full of divine characteristics; the water which flows in the form of river; the water which comes from the digging of the wells, canals; the water which is self-created in the form of waterfalls; and, that which enters into the ocean, help me in this world and thereafter.
Ya Apaodivya Ut Va Sravanti Khanitrima ut va yah swayamjah | Samudrartha Yah Shuchayah pavakasta Apao Devirih Mamvantu || VII.49.2
Varuna too is water.
“Verily all this is water. All the created beings are water. The vital breaths (prana) in the body are water. Quadrupeds are water. Herbs and crops are water. Madhu the nectar is water. Samrat[perpetually shining] is water. Virat [shining] is water. Svarat [self-luminous] is water. The metres (pankti) are water. The Devas are water. Vedic formulas are water. Truth is water. All deities are water. The three worlds denoted by Bhuh, Bhuvah and Suvah are water. The source of all these is the Supreme denoted by the syllable ‘Om”. (Mahanarayana Upanishad- 29.1)
54.4. Since Varuna is waters, Apah, all its virtues and attributes are imbibed in him.
Apah and Sathya
55.1. Varuna who is the lord of waters (Apah) is also related with the order in world and to the laws in nature (Rta), and the Truth (satya). It is said ‘waters are the Truth…where waters flow there the Truth resides …. It is the waters indeed that were made first of this universe, hence when waters flow then everything whatever that exists in the universe is brought forth’ (Sathapatha Brahmana).Water is thus the universal mother –principle in the Rig Veda. Waters are Prakrti.
55.2. Thus Waters, Truth and Varuna symbolize Prakrti.
The child of waters
56.1. Varuna the son of Aditi resides among primal waters. He is described also as Apam-shishuh ‘the child of waters, in the best of the mothers – Aditi’
56.2. It is also said; since Varuna dwells in waters he is Apam Napat, “Son of the Waters’ (RV.1.2.35). Apam Napat is also referred to as the embryo (garbha) of the waters (RV.7.9.3). It is said; the sun when he sinks into waters – to quench his thirst- becomes Varuna the fire in the waters (Apam Napat).
[But, Varuna soon lost this ancient title; and it came to be applied more and more to Agni born of a spark from water and to other solar deities such as Savitr.]
Varuna and the moon
56.7. Another explanation offered to reason Varuna’s association with waters seems to me rather flat. It is said; as the god of the night sky Varuna is related with the celestial bodies that shine in the night sky: the stars and the moon. And, the moon who is related to Varuna influences the tides of the ocean and movement of terrestrial waters. Therefore, Varuna is connected with water and the aquatic realm.
Q. Varuna the water-god
This is the other-side of Varuna’s association with waters.
57.1. The status and the attributes of Varuna changed drastically, for worse, in the Puranas and the epics. Varuna lost the authority of kingship and the moral superiority that he once enjoyed in the Rig Veda and in the other Samhitas. He is relegated as the regent of the west and demigod of waters; and practically nothing more. It was as if the once mighty Varuna had been pensioned off and assigned a minor rank.
57.2. The waters that Varuna is now made in – charge are just waters on earth – plain and simple; they have no symbolic interpretations or philosophical connotations. Varuna is Salilesvara the king of terrestrial waters like lakes, rivers and oceans. Samudra the vast urukşhaya (1.2.9) is his abode. There he resides in his magnificent underwater palace (saagaro varunalayah) a den of sensual delights, surrounded by nymphs, snakes and all types of aquatic creatures.
57.3. His underworld too has gone radical reimaging; it is no longer the sedate and welcoming abode of the Pitris, but it is now tainted by the fearful pollution of death. Varuna has now turned sensuous and cruel; and developed dark and sinister associations. He has also lost his good looks. Varuna in this phase does not command much respect. He is often chastened by other gods. Stories are told of his misadventures and humiliations. It appears he abducted and seduced Urvasi a nymph of Indra’s court and fathered a son from her. On another occasion, it is said, Varuna kidnapped Bhadra, daughter of Soma and wife of Uthahya.
57.4. Varuna who once was: the nearest approximation to the Supreme Being, the sovereign of all earth and heavens, the creator and sustainer of life in all three regions, the lord who presided over order in the physical and moral realms, the judge who dispensed justice and handed down punishments, is now turned into the regent of the west and god of seas; and eventually a demigod of local water- bodies; a god of not much consequence… a god of small things….what a fall….!!
In the next section let’s look at the explanations offered for Varuna’s decline and fall.
58.1. His association with waters however earned Varuna number of descriptive epithets, such as: Prachetas, apam-pathi , ambu-raja, jaleshwara, jalaadhipa, vaaripa, udakapathi, salileshwara, Jala-pati, Kesa ( lord of water) ; Sindhu pathi , Nadi-pathi ( lord of the seas or rivers ); sarit-pathi (lord of all that flows); VIloma, Vari-loma ( watery hair) ; Yudh pathi ( king of aquatic animals) ; Uddama ( the surrounder) ; bharti (the nourisher); and, Pashi , Pasha bhrit, (bearer of the noose) .
Continued in Part Five
References and Sources
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10. Sri Brahmiya Chitra Karma sastram by Dr. G. Gnanananda
11. Zarathustra Chapters 1-6 by Ardeshir Mehta; February 1999
All images are by courtesy of Internet