Abstract and Intro
(1) The saga of Varuna is truly amazing. Though his story started with a bang; it sadly ended in a whimper. Perhaps very few other gods – Vedic or otherwise – witnessed such vicissitudes in the turn of their fortunes.
The Varuna story covers a very large canvass – in content, space and time. The story of his preeminence has its roots in the pre-Vedic era; it flourishes in the early Rig Veda inspiring awe and reverence; and as it flows into other Vedas, Brahmanas and Upanishads, Varuna’s associations with the sky, the water and the order in the universe as also in the ethical conduct of men, all these, acquire new dimensions with mystical connotations. Till then, he is the highest lord in the Vedic pantheon, the most virtuous and the most powerful all-pervading god.
Varuna, up to a point, is the nearest equivalent to the Supreme; as he is projected as the creator and sustainer of all existence; the lord of Space; the maker of Heaven and Earth. His glory spreads far and wide into the Gathas and into the Bhrigu lore. The treaties entered by the Mitanni kings of the distant Sumerian region (in about 1500 BCE) are sworn in the name of Varuna and his peer-Vedic –gods.
However, with the parting of ways of the ancient sages Bhrigu and Angirasa, Varuna becomes exclusively the Great God of the Aryans to the west of the Sindhu River; while Indra takes over as the King of the Devas. Varuna is eclipsed in the Vedic pantheon.
(2) Commencing with the Taittiriya Samhita (18.104.22.168) which identifies Varuna, mainly, with night and darkness; his career takes a steep nosedive. Initially, he loses his sole kingship over the sky ; and, then he has to share his authority with another god who is younger and more energetic – Mitra. Varuna gets disassociated with the day sky ; which symbolizes clarity, brightness and brilliance; and , he is made the god of only the night sky. His ethical role too diminishes.
With that, Varuna draws nearer to night, darkness and death. Varuṇa’s dark associations bring him close to gods of negative traits such as Yama, Nirṛti, Soma, and Rudra. His character and disposition too undergo a marked change, for the worse. From a benevolent and graceful god, he turns into a spiteful, malevolent and stern judge cum punisher.
His physical appearance too turns ugly: he is now pictured as a fat, bald ugly looking cruel man with yellow or brownish red eyes, protruding teeth; and, wielding a noose.
One after another, his powers and authority steadily depart from him. Varuna eventually ends up in the Puranas as a demigod in charge of local water bodies; and, as the guardian of the west where the sun sinks into darkness and from where the night takes over.
(3) The story of his pre-eminence in the pre-Vedic and in the early Rig Veda era; the modifications that came about in his profile during the later ages; his fall from elevated position; and his eventual eclipse, is truly astounding.
In a manner of speaking, the course of Varuna’s career epitomizes the dynamic character of the Indian mythological lore. And, it also traces graphically the evolution, the development and the vicissitudes that came about in the corkscrew course of Indian theological history in response to the needs , changes and challenges it encountered at each stage of its unfolding over the millennia.
(4) Varuna saga should not be viewed in isolation. It is better appreciated when it is placed against the background of the scheme, the process or the phenomenon that swept across the world of Vedic mythology in the distant past. That process, spread over long centuries, totally convulsed the sedate world of Vedic gods. It was akin to churning the ocean. It disturbed the old order; threw out the old set of gods; created and magnified a set of new gods; and, restructured the entire Indian pantheon.
Under this process of reorganizing the world of Indian mythology… those Vedic gods who had been ‘minor’ in the Rig Veda but who held great potential and offered rich scope for enlargement and glorification were re-modeled into much greater gods.
Later, those gods came to represent larger segments of life and experiences; and to mobilize greater strength and significance. The virtues and powers of numerous other gods merged into those select gods. They are today the Super Gods in the Indian pantheon.
At the same time, those gods whose characters, functions and achievements had been too vividly described in Rig Veda; and, those who held out little scope for further enlargement were steadily reduced in their status and rank And those gods whose profile was too dim ; and, had very little potential for growth were allowed to fade out quietly.
In this scheme or the process of restructure, the gods that adopted best to the changing needs of times survived and thrived. One way that was done was by underplaying their Vedic characteristics which were rather sketchy and unsuitable. And, another was by aligning them along with tutelary gods that were already being worshiped. …..In this period of transition, popular sectarian gods were gradually replacing the older Vedic gods. This new approach to the gods redefined the status, character and attributes of the older gods.
This was also a process of absorption of several gods into One; and, it culminated in the emergence of the triad, of which the two: Vishnu and Shiva inherited all the rich, adorable and living traits of all the other gods that preceded them. They were also endowed with infinite potential and capacity to imbibe the traits of all the gods yet to come.
(5) The sequence of gods changing – growing or diminishing in significance – indicates the continual influx of new ideas and a creative conflict within the existing system of thoughts. This complex and dynamic interplay of light and shadow is a distinctive feature of the Indian pantheon.
The growth and development of Indian mythology and thought resembles the imagery of the inverted tree – of which our ancients were very fond – with its roots in the sky and its branches spreading down towards the earth. Its roots are ancient but its growing shoots, leaves, buds, flowers and fruits are ever green, tender and fresh. The roots of our philosophy, religion and culture are in the very distant Vedic past. Though those roots are no longer visible to us, the branches and extensions of those roots in vivid forms that have come down to us are very alive; and, its fruits are within our experience.
The idioms of Indian thought are thus dynamic, living and vibrant. They are linked to the spiritual urges and the changing needs, desires and aspirations of its people. The gods, the faiths and the worship practices too keep evolving, changing, without parting with the essence of its fundamentals. Therefore, growth, change and adaptation are essential aspects of the Indian thought and living. It is distinguished by continuity with change; as also by its resilience and diversity. That is the genius of the Indian traditions.
The Varuna saga, albeit a painful one, has to be appreciated in that context.
(6) Varuna of Rig Veda had a rather disappointing end; but, he did leave behind a rich legacy of wonderful concepts and norms of behavior in personal and social life (Rta) that have endured even to this day. Those laws are universal; applicable at all times and therefore eternal.
The concept of Rta asserts that the order in nature is self regulated and operates by its own laws (svabhava); and, not necessarily by the will of gods. Ensuring the perpetuation of the order and harmony in nature is as sacred and as important as it is in conduct of one’s life. That is because; Rta emphasizes the integrity of all forms of life and ecological systems. The principle of Rta recognizes our oneness with our environment and our unity with all life on earth. It is the framework that binds together man, nature and god. Rta is thus the Dharma – the order – that pervades and protects all life. It asserts the principle that the physical order of the universe is also the moral order of the universe; Rta is both.
When that order and harmony is ruptured, the disruptive elements of disorder, chaos and falsehood (an-rta) step in, bringing in their wake ugliness, dishonesty, falsehood and, decay into life.
It is explained; a sin is any inharmonious action done with avarice to gain some immediate and temporary gain. Thus, injuring the harmony that exists in nature and among men is indeed the sin; and, it attracts punishment. The sin arises because of frailties and human weaknesses; and not because of demons. The evil in the hearts and minds of men are the real demons.
Sin is compared to unpaid debt (rna); it is a burden and an act of bad faith. The best way to cleanse the sin is to come face to face with it; own it; confess to it; and seek forgiveness with a promise not to err again. Cleansing is in the heart, mind and deed; not in the rituals. That is the Varuna’s way.
Paschat-tapa – ‘after the burning heat’ – signifies the purifying fire of repentance. The life-giving waters over which Varuna presides also signifies purity. Varuna is intimately associated with the both. Thus the Varuna-principle stands for purity in life.
(7) Let’s in the following five articles trace the journey of Varuna from the Rig Veda through the other Vedas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Upanishads as also Mahabharata and the Puranas. Let’s also later see his connection with Ahur Mazda of the Gathas.
A. Varuna in the Rig Veda
1.1. Varuna of Rig Veda, the one who encompasses (var) the whole world, is one of the oldest Vedic deities. He belongs to the older generation of gods than that of Indra; and, his origins go back to the pre-Vedic era. It is said, Varuna was un-created or unborn; he existed before the very dawn of creation; and, he manifested himself along with the wake of the world. That perhaps is a poetic way of suggesting that Varuna had been recognized as a sovereign ruler even before the dawn of Rig Vedic age.
1.2. He is the mightiest of the early Rig Vedic gods. He is celebrated in the Rig Veda variously as: the universal monarch; the king of all gods, the sovereign who dwells in all the realms ; the best among the Adityas the solar deities ; the lord of the sky; the god of heavenly light; the overlord who established and governed the cosmic order Rta; the guardian and upholder of righteousness – Dharma , Dharmanaam pathi; the stern but merciful judge who judges all men and punishes the wrongdoers; the healer with thousand remedies; the omnipresent and omniscient, possessing limitless knowledge; kavi, the seer par excellence ; there is none wiser than he; the wielder of divine power and wisdom Maya; the controller of the destinies of mankind; one who forges the magical and speculative relationship between god and man; the lord of water element , clouds, seas and rivers Sindhu-pathi; and as the king of waters Ambu -raja.
Everything is subject to Varuna’s authority and control; nothing happens without his knowledge; and he takes everything.
1.3. No other Vedic deity is invested with such grand attributes and authority . Together with Mitra, Varuna more than any other god is in charge of the established order of the universe, the fixed rules of conduct – both physical and moral- ‘dhtavrata’. Varuna inspired awe and reverence.
Lord of Ethics
2.1. The attributes and functions ascribed to Varuna impart to his character a moral elevation and sanctity far surpassing that attributed to any other Vedic deity. His extreme concern is the morality of human beings.
2.2. While the hymns addressed to other gods seek long life, wealth, and power; the prayers submitted to Varuna seek purity of heart, forgiveness, and release from sins; and, for moral strength not to err again. They are replete with humble confessions of guilt and repentance. The hymns in praise of Varuna ‘the most impressive deity among all the Vedic gods’ are lofty, devout and ethical in tone. The hymns rise to a pitch of exaltation when they sing the splendor of Varuna.
In these hymns Varuna, more than any other Vedic god, appears mighty and merciful. He is feared as a severe judge. He terrifies the guilty; but is most compassionate to the virtuous.
The resplendent god
3.1. Rig Veda describes Varuna’s appearance in glowing terms: as the most resplendent god of radiant- sky-blue complexion, with Agni in his face and Surya in his eye. He is far sighted (uru-chaksasa). He is the eye of all the worlds (jagath-chakshu- RV.1.25.5). He has soft and beautiful hands (supani) in which he holds lotuses and an auspicious noose. He is splendidly adorned in golden mantel (drapi) and a shining robe.
His chariot dazzles brilliantly like sunrays (ghabasti suro nadyauth – RV.1.122.15).Varuna and Mitra ride the golden chariot like floating clouds in the blue sky, drawn by well yoked steeds. (Rv.5.62.7). in the midst of vast heavens urukşhaya (RV 1.2.9) he is seated on a splendid throne placed in his golden palace of thousand pavilions, thousand columns (RV 2.41.5) and thousand doors (RV 7.88.5). From his glittering throne, the monarch (samrajnya) watches over the deeds of all men and gods (pastyasu)- (RV 1.22.11-12).
Verily all of you are very great
4.1. The Mandalas of Rig Veda do not attempt stacking up its gods in a graded order; but strive to discover the Great One (Mahat) that is the source of all. There are no inferiors or superiors among the Vedic gods.”There is no one among you Oh Devas..! who is an infant or a boy .Verily all of you are very great” (na hi vo astyarbhako devaa so na kumaraha, visve sato mahanta iti – RV 8.30.1).
No one god in particular was regarded as the superior deity guiding and controlling the rest. But, all gods of Rig Veda were of co-ordinate power; and no one among them was recognized as supreme God per se, even though some gods were more imposing than others. Such gods included, particularly, Indra, Agni and Varuna, the gods of the warriors, of the yajna and of the pious devotees, respectively.
4.2. You come across in the Vedas, the hymns where a particular deity is lauded in glowing terms and celebrated as the highest among the gods. There is also a tendency to elevate now this god and later another to the highest pedestal ;and, to look upon him as the greatest power. It is explained; in all such instances the high praise and tributes paid are truly addressed to the Absolute, the Supreme principle; and, not to the god in question who merely is a manifestation of That One. Thus, all gods of Rig Veda are of equal status.
The Mighty King
5.1. The equitable status accorded to all gods, as explained above, was generally in the context of the younger gods, the Devas. But, Varuna belonged to the older generation wherein he was honoured with a very special status and hailed as the greatest god, Asura Mahat. Varuna continued to occupy that elevated pedestal until his demise or until the rise of Indra. Therefore in the early hymns of the Rig Veda, Varuna occupies a special and an exalted position. He alone is hailed as the king (Raja) (RV 7.87.6), kshatra (secular power, sovereignty and kingship) and Kshatriya; the king of gods (MS 2.21); the king of the territories (raja-raastranam) (RV 7.34.11); an independent ruler (svaraja) (RV 1.28.1); the self-dependant ruler (svaraat), and samraja the universal monarch (RV 1.36.1; 8.42.1).
5.2. As the emperor, Varuna is mighty and awe-inspiring. He is Risadas the destroyer of enemies (RV 1.2.7), tuvijata and uruksaya mighty (RV 1.02.9). His might and speed are unequalled (RV 1.24.8) . He rules over both men and gods; and presides over the relationship between man and the gods. His sovereignty pervades both the physical and moral domains, where his laws are equally eternal and inviolable.”Indra protects from external foe; Varuna protects and upholds the moral order rta – RV 7.83.9”. Even a god does not dare transgress his immutable ordinances (vrataani).He restricts and fetters the wrong doers with his bonds that he has at his command.
mitraṁ huve pūtadakṣaṁ varuṇaṁ ca riśādasam |dhiyaṁ ghṛtācīṁ sādhantā || 1. 2.07
kavī no mitrāvaruṇā tuvijātā urukṣayā |1,002.09
ṛtena mitrā-varuṇā-vṛtāvṛdhāvṛtaspṛśā |kratuṁ bṛhantamāśāthe || 1. 2.08
vṛtrāṇy anyaḥ samitheṣu jighnate vratāny anyo abhi rakṣate sadā |7,083.09
5.3. He is not only the supreme kshatra, supreme Asura, the wise king, the best of the Adityas but he is also the abode of life (visvayu). The term Asura (one who controls asu = breath or life) meaning the Lord of Life is particularly applied to Varuna (RV 2.8.27). Prayers are submitted to him to grant an enjoyable life-span of hundred Shrad-ritus, better than the life lived by their forefathers – śataṃ no rāsva śarado vicakṣe, acyāmāyūṃṣi sudhitāni pūrvā (2.27.10).|He is celebrated as the all knowing Asura (asuro visvavedaha –RV 8.42.1), and as the wise and attentive king (asurah prachetah –RV 1.124.14). In some passages the scope of the term is extended by adding the title ‘the king’ (RV 1.24.14; 10.132.4) or even stronger ‘the universal king ‘(RV 8.42.1).
His dominant position is declared by stating Varuna is the Asura and the king of all gods (RV 2.27.10). “I am king Varuna; these powers (Asurya) were first given to me”- (ahaṃ rājā varuṇo mahyaṃ tāny asuryāṇi prathamā dhārayanta – RV 4.42.2). Mitra and Varuna are described as the two noble (Arya) Asuras (or lords) of the Devas – Devanaam asurah – (tā hi devānām asurā tāv aryā tā naḥ kṣitīḥ karatam ūrjayantīḥ – RV 7.65.2)
tvaṁ viśveṣāṁ varuṇāsi rājā ye ca devā asura ye ca martāḥ | śataṁ no rāsva śarado vicakṣe’śyāmāyūṁṣi sudhitāni pūrvā || 2.27.10 ||
5.4. In the Rig Veda, the totality of godly powers is called asuratvam; and it is called Mahat the great one. Varuna is Asura- mahat (Mahat devaanaam asuratvam ekam – RV 3.55.1-2). He is also regarded as the sovereign who created the Universe: “The All-Wise Varuna – asuro visvavedaha-Rig Veda 8.42.1”. He also put in place the cosmic order and governed the physical as also the moral aspects of existence. He is also the punisher and a fearsome destroyer.
5.5. Thus, Varuna of Rig Veda, heralded as the most exalted god (though only for a brief period) is endowed with these powers and authority. And, with his omniscience and omnipotence he is the nearest approximation to the structure of a Supreme Being, the Almighty God – the creator, preserver and destroyer. But, the text stops short of declaring him or any other deity as the Supreme God. The powers and virtues attributed to Varuna were later crystallized and appropriated among the Trinity of the mythologies which came up later.
6.1. Rig Veda celebrates the glory of Varuna in myriad ways ; and describes him as : the Great One (Mahat); the vast (brahat); the mighty (bhuri);the immense (prabhuti); the abode of life (visvayu); the knower (vidvas); the wise (medha);the intelligent (dhira); the discriminating (pracetas); the clever (grtsa); the adept , dexterous (sukratu); the inspired (vipra); the seer (kavi); the great-poet (kavitara); the greatest of poets (kavitama).
Amarakosa has five synonyms for Varuna : (1.1.142) pracetā varuṇaḥ pāśī yādasāṃpatir-appatiḥ
Besides these, Varuna has other sets of titles as being the lord of waters, the lord of Rta; and as the king and judge. We shall see more of those in the next sections. He has too many epithets. I admit, it is rather confusing.
[Before going further, a short explanation of the term Asura in the early Rig Veda:
7.1. The term Asura was used in the Rig Veda to indicate the powerful or the mighty one. Its application was more as an adjective than as a noun. This term was applied not only to gods but also to other powerful individuals. In the early Books of Rig Veda, Asura as a designation appears only in the singular or in dual form (as in Mitra-Varuna). Asura in that context did not refer to a cult or to a group or to a class of gods, just in the manner it referred to group of Devas , as in the case of visve devah. In other words, Asura was a title of highest lordship or honor assigned to certain gods who were regarded mighty, powerful and worship- worthy. These gods in general were also addressed as Devas. The older deities celebrated as Devas were often addressed as Asura, just to emphasize their power and might.
For instance; in Rig Veda, Indra the king of Devas is addressed in about sixteen hymns as Asura, possessing Asurya or Asuratya. His deeds are described as Asurani– the powerful, as those of Asuras . Similarly, the three other mighty deities of Rig Veda: Agni, Varuna and Mitra (in company of Varuna) are called Asura. Rudra is described in accusative form as devam asuram (RV. 42.11), the Asura possessing Asurya or bestowing it. Dayus the ancient sky-god too was called Asura. Some other Vedic deities too were at times called Asura, as in the case of : Savitar, Surya, Vayu, Maruts, the Adityas and Apam Napat. Ushas the goddess of dawn was said to possess Asuratva.
7.2. There are no cases in Rig Veda where a god is called Asura in respectful sense in one instance and then called an Asura in the demonic sense in another instance. Hence the change that came about was truly in the usage of the term and the meaning assigned to it at different times; and, it did not signify a change in the nature or the character of the god to whom the term was applied.
As said earlier, Asura meant highest lordship. Dayus the old sky-god was the earliest Asura. But, since Dayus , more and more , came to mean the physical sky and not the Great God, the epithet then was applied to Varuna the new sky-god; and later to Indra and other gods. But, the term Asura was applied particularly to Varuna to signify his supreme lordship over men and gods (viśveṣāṃ varuṇāsi rājā ye ca devā asura ye ca martāḥ–RV 2. 27.10).
Aditi, the mother of gods, it is said, produced Mitra and Varuna for Asurya – Might or mightiness. “This Asura rules over the gods”: mahad devānām asuratvam ekam – RV_3,055.01 to 22
[Sage Kapila , said to be the founder of the Samkhya system of Philosophy, is often addressed as Asura. And, his son or disciple is Asuri , another great Samkhya philosopher.]
No other Vedic god is described in this manner (anyad-anyad asuryaṃ vasānā ni māyino mamire rūpam asmin – RV_3,038.07 ) . It is explained; the Asurya and the dignity connected with being Asura in the case of Varuna is his original characteristic. That suggests; Varuna was a sovereign ruler even at the dawn of Rig Vedic age. However, in the case of Indra, it is said, his Asurya was inherited from Varuna; it was not Indra’s own. When Indra is called Asura or invested with Asurya , it is done merely because Indra happened to succeed Varuna as the king of gods.
7.3. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (3.1), Mahabharata (shanthi parva: 33.25) and Amarakosha all describe Asuras , the sons of Diti, as the elder brothers or the older gods, while the Devas are the younger ones.
7.4. The sea-change that came about in the meaning assigned to the term Asura can also be explained in the context of the religious history of the Vedic people.
When the Aryan community was undivided, the terms Asura and Deva both denoted gods of high respect. The gods were referred to Asura as also Deva. But at a certain phase of their history, the Vedic people became divided along the lines of affiliation to two great and ancient sages Apam Napat and Angirasa. These sages belonged to the pre –Vedic period. The parting of their ways came about mainly because of the stand each took on issues such as: monotheism; worship of God through formless medium; use of icons in worship; and above all, on the question of the status to be accorded to the old god Varuna.
The Bhrigu clan who generally were to the west of the mighty Sindhu River continued: to regard Varuna as the Greatest and the only God – Asura Mahat; to favor worship through the formless medium of fire and honor the principle of Rta the moral order governed by Varuna as the highest good of all .
The Angirasas who were the preceptors of the dominant Aryans on the east of the Sindhu, on the other hand, elevated the more energetic and vibrant younger gods the Devas (Indra and others) to exalted positions and treated all Devas as equally great .These Devas were personified and described as having forms. Besides, the Angirasas relegated the passive old gods such as Varuna to very low positions in the Vedic pantheon, and also soft peddled Rta principle the moral order governed by Varuna.
( We shall talk a bit more on these issues in the last part of this article.)
7.5. The parting of their ways was hardly a sweet-sorrow; it was laced with rancor and hate. The Bhrigu and the Angirasa clans each ascribed its own chosen words of abuse to the terms Asura or Deva, depending on to which side of the Sindhu they belonged. In the later Vedic texts Asuras came to mean demons.
Towards the later books of the Rig Veda (6, 7, 8 and 10) the term Asura underwent extraordinary semantic change. It not only became a noun from an adjective; but also acquired a totally different meaning of demon or demonic. And in the sixth Book of Rig Veda (RV 6.022.09), Indra for the first time came to known as janasya divyasya rājā, the king of gods. And the idea, of course, became more popular and crystallized later in the Puranas.
In the Brahmanas of Krishna Yajur Veda , the term Asura was used in the sense of anti-god. It then was usually expressed in plural to suggest a group of beings opposed to gods. And, when it was used in singular (in the same sense) it was expressed as aasura. In the Shatapatha Brahmana the terms Asura and Rakshasa came close to each other.]
The Varuna – hymns
8.1. Varuna is indeed one of the mighty gods of Rig-Veda, though he is celebrated exclusively in just about ten hymns (RV 1.24. 25; 2.28; 5.85; 7.86 to 89 and 8.41 to 42).Besides, he is praised along with Mitra (Maitra –varuna) in twenty-three hymns; and with Indra (Indra-Varuna) in nine hymns. These numbers are rather small as compared to the numbers of hymns addressed to Indra and Agni, which are about six-fold greater.
For instance; in Book Three no hymn is addressed to Varuna while twenty-two are devoted to Indra. Similarly, in Book eleven there is only one hymn to Varuna while twenty-three are addressed to Indra .
For some reason, Varuna is less frequently mentioned in the last book than in the earlier books of Rig Veda.
That does not in any manner diminish the importance, might, glory and power of Varuna as depicted in Rig Veda.
8.2. If Varuna is so great and important why is it that only a handful of hymns are dedicated to him in the Samhitas?
That might be because of the dark traits associated with him. Varuna was not wholly benevolent like Indra in the early Rig-Veda. Varuna is rather an ambivalent character – now favourable; and now unfavourable. He was a judgmental god who inspired awe and fear. Yet, Varuna was essentially a god of placid nature. And the Vedic poets were decidedly in favor of uncompromisingly good gods who protected people from enemies, diseases and draught. That process perhaps eventually led to Indra replacing the old god Varuna and taking charge as the chief of the Devas.
8.3. The Varuna – hymns are remarkably varied in their content and scope. They portray range of Varuna’s attributes; but, they project, mainly, four of his functions: as the universal monarch and lord of the sky; as the upholder of the cosmic order Rta; as related to water element (apah); and, as omniscient deity with unique magical knowledge (Maya) who oversees men’s’ actions.
We shall discuss each of his main attributes and functions in the next part of in this article.
Continued in Part Two
References and Sources
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All images are by courtesy of Internet