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Varuna and his decline – Part Two

Continued from Part One

Varuna by S Rajam

(Varuna by Shri S Rajam)

(In this section we shall look at Varuna’s aspects: Sovereignty, Rta, judgmental god and  his  association  with waters )

The Main attributes of Varuna in the Rig Veda

As mentioned earlier, The Varuna- hymns are remarkably varied in their content and scope. They portray range of Varuna’s attributes; but, 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 briefly discuss each of his functions in this article.

B. The sovereign and the Lord of the sky


9.1. Varuna derived his sovereignty (kshatra) and the supreme status among the gods by virtue of his being the sole sky-god. In most mythologies the concept of a god begins with sky-god. And, the sky-gods are regarded the greatest, for the sky encompasses the earth and all existence. Accordingly, Varuna as the all-compassing sky-god was the supreme among the gods of the early Rig Veda. As the embodiment of the very sky, the whole universe is spread beneath his vision. In Rig Veda,   he is the creator and sustainer of the world. He established and maintained the natural as also the moral laws, and he gave expression to the cosmic order. He is the all-seeing (uruchaksasa) and all-knowing Lord (Asura –visvavedasa). His laws are unassailable; resting like a mountain.

Dayus the Old god of the sky


10.1. Varuna inherited his sovereignty over the sky from his predecessor the pre-historic (pre Vedic) deity Dayus. The ancient Dayus representing the bright blue sky and the starry dark night sky was the oldest among the Vedic gods. By the time of the Rig Veda he was already ‘a faded and vanishing deity’. In the dim and distant past, Dayus was the supreme sky-god, sometimes described as Asura or the first Asura. He is portrayed as the powerful king, mighty as a ruddy bull and bellowing like thunder. And at night he glowed like a black steed studded with pearls. The ancient King sat in his lofty abode like a grand- old bull, holding a thunderbolt and smiling through the clouds.

10.2. He was the first sky-god; and was regarded as the Great Father (Dayus-pitar), while Prithvi , the great Earth was the Mother principle (mātā pṛthivī-mahīyam – RV_1,164.3) – mātā pṛthivī tatpitā dyauḥ (RV_1,089.04) .  Dayus is described as the sire who showers true blessing (viśve amṛtā akṛṇvan dyauṣ pitā janitā satyam ukṣanRV_4,001) .The imagery of the Father- sky fertilizing the Mother-earth through rains abounds in most traditions. The association of Dayus and Prithvi encompassed   the entire visible world as if by two great bowls (dhishane) facing each other (uttana) – (RV. 1.164.33). Dayus and Prithvi together symbolized heaven – earth – couple,  the universal parents, Dyava-Prithvi. Dyau and Pritihvi are said to provide for all creatures in the worlds, they are a mighty pair, who never fail and keep everyone safe (RV. 1.159, 1.160)

pra dyāvā yajñai pthivī tāvdhā mahī stue vidatheu pracetasā |
devebhirye devaputre suda
sasetthā dhiyā vāryāi prabhūata ||

Even today, young couples take their marriage-vows in the name of Dayus and Prithvi   “I am Dayus the sky and you are Prithvi the earth” (Dyaur aham Prithvi tvam – Brhadaranyaka-Upanisad-6.4.20); and promise one another to live as harmoniously as Dayus and Prithvi do.

Dyaur aham prithvi tvam, Retoham retabhru tvam, Manoham asmi vak-tvam, Samaham asmi rikri-tvam, Sa maam anuvruta bhava

I am the sky and you are the earth; I am the  energy , you are  its form; If I am the thought , you are the word that expresses it ; If I am Saman (music) , then you are the Rik (verse)  that embodies it ; You and I, in essence, complete and complement each other; and, follow each other forever.

10.3. The Rig Vedic mythology speaks very little about the exploits or the grandeur of the older deity Dayus. There is very little of a tangible god in Dayus. The reason is not far to seek. Much of his pre-Rig Veda life events perhaps went unnoticed. Further, Dayus had always been an abstract deity. With the passage of time he was associated more and more with the physical sky; and, less and less with kingship. He was a rather passive god; and he also lacked omniscience, authority and creativity. His image of fatherhood too faded into a myth. In contrast, Prithvi the kind and gracious Mother -Earth grew increasingly resplendent; and came to be revered in all cultures as the embodiment of life-giving and life supporting loftiest Mother- Principle (matushpade parame) —  (differentiated from Bhumi the physical earth).Because of her dual nature the manifold beauty Prithvi is celebrated as ‘dvi-rupa prithvi’.

The new Sky-god King


11.1. Varuna of Rig Veda replaced the older god Dayus and became the new sky-god in the Vedic pantheon. Unlike Dayus, Varuna was not a mere sky-god. He was much more than that. He was the king of gods. He symbolized the sky in all its aspects. As compared to Dayus, Varuna was more tangible and vivid in his personality, with positive characteristics, definite relationships with gods and men; and with concrete achievements to show. He was also charged with specific cosmic functions.

11.2. Varuna the devānām asurā tāv aryā  (RV 7.65.2) the noble lord among the gods is the king of all (Asura Mahat); ruler of all , be they  gods or men – tvaṃ viśveṣāṃ varuṇāsi rājā ye ca devā asura ye ca martāḥ – (RV 2.27.19); king of the whole world (RV 5.85.3); and, of all that exists (RV 7.87.6). As an ethical governor he stands above other gods. He is the independent ruler –svaraj (RV 2.28.1); and the universal monarch (samrat). Varuna declares “I, Varuna, am king…I, Varuna, am Indra   too (aham indro varuṇas te mahitvorvī gabhīre rajasī sumeke- RV 1.4.42)

11.3. He declares, “I am king Varuna; these powers (Asurya) were first given to me “(ahaṃ rājā varuṇo mahyaṃ tāny asuryāṇi prathamā dhārayanta – RV 4.42.2). Varuna’s sovereignty (kshatra) over all visible existence is characterized by his omnipresence and omniscience.  His eye is in the sky svadrsa (RV 5.63.2); the golden sun roaming throughout the firmament from dawn to dusk is his eye; and just as the sun that observes everything upon earth he sees all without any hindrance. He is far sighted-uruchaksasa (RV 1.25.16); he is thousand eyed sahasraksha (RV 7.34.10) as the stars in the night sky; he sees all; and he watches all through his ever vigilant spies (spasa). And, he knows all (visvadrastara) through his superior knowledge (asura-maya). He is everywhere in the universe and around it; pervading all things as the inner law and order of creation.

Raja Varunah is the fountainhead of discrimination, and omnipotent wisdom (nemā āpo animiṣaṃ carantīr na ye vātasya praminanty abhvam  – RV. 1.24. 6). Varuna is the king who ensures order and harmony in all his realms.

11.4. Varuna was also armed with the royal authority to judge men, to dispense justice and to impose punishments. Those powers and authority elevated Varuna to the lofty position of a true sovereign lord (samraaj) of the sky, of the earth and of all visible existence. And, he became the uncontested ruler (Kshatriya, Raja) of the sky, of the Adityas the solar deities and of all the realms (raja rastraanam). Dayus the old-god was not endowed with any such power or authority.



12.1. In the early verses of the Rig Veda, the horse (asva) a symbol of kingship and solar associations is the emblem of King Varuna the sun eyed sky-god. Varuna is Asva the horse. Varuno va asvaha (TB. Rajasuya is the Yaga (dedication) that establishes a king’s unquestioned authority over all lands; and, it is associated with Varuna. He is the presiding deity of Rajasuya. Whenever an unconquered king performs Rajasuya, Varuna is invoked in that king. He becomes Varuna.  That is because every  Rajasuya is conceived as the re-enactment of the Yaga performed by Varuna , the first universal monarch in the Vedic tradition.


13.1. As the emperor (samraj), Varuna is mighty and awe-inspiring, he is Risadas the destroyer of enemies (tuvijātā urukṣayā RV 1.2.9), tuvijata and uruksaya mighty (ahaṃ samrājor ava ā vṛṇe – RV 1.17.1). His might and speed are unequalled (RV 1.24.8). He is at once terrible and merciful.

Raja Varunah the king is a fountainhead of discrimination and wisdom. He is the discriminating (pracetas) wise lord; the clever (grtsa); the adept (sukratu); the skilful in discriminating between  the good and the evil, true and untrue ; and deciding upon the truth of things (daksham or putadaksham) – (RV. (1.2.7-.9; and   1.24.7). Varuna is the knower (vidvas); the wise (medha); the intelligent (dhira). He is the seer (kavi); the inspired (vipra) great-poet (kavitara); the greatest of poets (kavitama).

Varuna is the Great One (Mahat); the vast (brahat); the mighty (bhuri); and the immense (prabhuti).Varuna is rtvan upholding the eternal law – Rta. Varuna is the abode of life (visvayu).

The setback

14.1. Although Varuna remains supreme and the symbol of kingship in Rig Veda, his status declines with time. As a successor to Dayus, Varuna flourished as the sole and undisputed king of the celestial arch only for a short time. It was rather a short-lived glory .Varuna soon had to share his power and authority with Mitra. That marked the beginning of his decline. Just as Varuna succeeded where Dayus had failed; the other gods stepped in and took over from Varuna as he fell short of the demands that new challenges made.”The gods progressively lose their importance and are replaced by other divine figures nearer to man, more concrete and more dynamic- solar gods, Great Gods and Goddesses”.

We shall talk of Varuna’s decline, separately, later in part four of the article.

 C. The Upholder of Rta


It is said; Varuna the Mayin through his power of Maya ordained Rta, Vrata and Dharma.


15.1. The term Maaya in the context of Rig Veda and Varuna, signifies a sort of peculiar power or wisdom. It does not mean Maya the delusion that Vedanta speaks about; it is also not the magic conjured by a magician or a demon; nor does it connote fraud, illusion, unreality, deception, sorcery, magical skill or exhibition of tricks. It is not even one of Indra’s transforming skills – of changing forms and appearances. 

The Maya of Varuna does not have negative connotations. Varuna’s Maya is not avidya; but it is prajna the revealing vidya.  It suggests his all-comprising knowledge, the wisdom extraordinary. It is through the power of that wisdom (mayaya), the mighty Asura Varuna (asurasya) encompasses all existence, binds together, brings order and harmony into the physical and moral realms; and it is through that power he presides over the relationship between man and man, man and nature , and man and  god (RV. 6. 48, 14; 7. 28. 4; 10. 99. 10; 10. 147. 5). By virtue of that special faculty Varuna comes to represent the inner reality of all things; he is the abode of all life (visvayu).


16.1.  Rta by far is a most wonderful concept envisioned by the seers of the Rig Veda. Scholars have described it variously in different contexts. I prefer to view Rta as a concept that asserts: world is an order, not chaos, the events and phenomena in nature occur neither by chance nor by random; each being or substance exists in certain established relationship , with itself and with others, according to its own laws (svabhava) in harmony within itself and with the world around it. Rta for me , signifies the natural order and 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.

16.2. Rta (derived from the root ri – to move) signifies the dynamic principle which is inherent in the Universe. It is the laws of Rta that govern the dynamics of the Universe, which constantly is changing and evolving. And, it is by Rta that stars and planets move; the seasons change; the waters flow down from hills to plains; one is born,  grows up, gets old and dies, perhaps to be born again. Thus, Rta is the reality that defines the framework of natural order as it moves and changes.

The concept of Rta is complex and inclusive. It not only represents the order in the Universe but also defines the relationships between god and the world; man and god; between human beings and all living and non-living beings. The human concepts of morality, virtues as well as the mutual relations among all beings,  are derived from Rta , the Universal order.

When the order in the relationship between man and nature, between man and god and  between man and man,  is disturbed or ruptured, the disruptive elements of disorder, chaos and falsehood (an-rta) step in,  bringing in their wake ugliness , dishonesty , decay and ruin into life. Rta therefore has protective as also moral dimensions to it.

16.3. Looking at it in another manner, Rta reduces chaos, secures order and integration to matter. It also ensures symmetry and harmony in the environment; and, a sense of balance in Mans’ life. Hence the conception of Rta has an aesthetic attribute too; it implies not merely order but also beauty in nature and in life.

17.1.  Rta is viewed in the Rig Veda as the most potent force or as a system that has already been in place. It was not created by gods. In that sense Rta is deemed unborn, eternal or natural. It is even said that gods owe their existence to Rta as they are born of Rta. The gods are described as governors who uphold (gopa rtasya), practice (rtayu) and oversee the physical order and also the moral order of the universe – Rta. The gods reward the virtuous and punish those who infringe Rta. Even the gods are subject to its laws; and they have to abide by it. It seems, the notion of Rta is akin to a constitution or a set of laws of a nation. Even the executive and legislative wings of its government that are charged with the responsibility of   safeguarding, interpreting and implementing the laws have to abide by it ; they are not above the law.(This is a brittle analogy ; not to be pressed too hard.)

17.2. That sounds wonderful and rational. But, an interesting fallout of that concept is: the order that exists on the earth or in the universe is not by the will of gods; but it is due to the larger principle of Rta- the laws of nature which have physical and moral dimensions. That in a way sidelines the importance or even the need for a god.

But, men sinking in the mire of the world desperately need a peg to hang on. They yearn for a god they can trust implicitly, to place their faith, to look for guidance and hope, to love, to pray, to submit, and above all to fear.  Therefore , any religion in the world is based upon two basic assumptions: the ways of nature are governed by the will of god; and that god can be won over by faith, rituals and prayers. 

That critical human need for a god, I reckon, was the undoing of the Rta principle. It’s rational and impersonal aspect was soon given up; and, its laws were personalized as gods of nature such as the sun, moon, the winds, the earth etc; and they were given forms and attributes.  Varuna the governor was portrayed as a stern judge who instilled fear in the hearts and minds of men. Yama the first mortal was later assigned some of those functions.

[According to some scholars, the attempt to give a form (murti) to the formless (a-murta) marked the point of departure between the clans of two great sages Bhrigu and Angirasa. And it gave rise to a cult which retained the worship of the formless through Agni (fire); discarded idols and rejected the personalized gods; and it laid enormous emphasis on monotheism as also on the sharp distinction between the good and the evil. We shall talk a bit more on these issues in the last part of the article.]

Rta in nature

18.1. In the world of natural phenomena, Rta is described as the firm, fundamental and inherent law of nature (RV. 4.24.8-9). It is the controlling and the sustaining power in nature. Rta ordains the laws of the physical world; regulates the laws of birth, growth and decay in nature (RV 2.28.4); controls and balances all natural forces in environment. Through Rta the nature moves in an orderly manner. In short, whole of the manifested world is working by the laws of Rta. 

For instance, it is said;” By the law of Varuna heaven and earth are held apart; the planets rotate in their fixed orbits (ṛtena ṛtam apihitaṃ dhruvaṃ vāṃ sūryasya yatra vimucanty aśvān– RV 5.62.1). By Rta, the sun shines in heaven; the paths are set out for the sun; the seasons (Ritu) change (RV 1.25.8); the hours are bound together; day and night alternate regularly. By the laws of Rta, the moon shining brightly moves at night, and the stars placed up on high are seen at night but disappear by day. Rta causes the rivers to flow into the ocean without over-filling it. Varuna the lord of Rta is the binder. He binds together the deep- space, the space between the earth and yonder, the winds, the clouds and the rays of light.”

Rta in social context

19.1. But its domain is not restricted to the world of phenomena; Rta extends beyond to the sphere of moral order; and into the hearts of men. It is said; ensuring order and harmony in nature is as sacred as it is in the conduct of one’s life. Rta has relevance in all spheres of life and existence.

19.2. Theoretically, Rta might mean the order in the universe and in nature. But the common person on earth views Rta as a set of social, ethical, moral and religious laws and vows. He strives to abide by these laws. Rta thus represents the moral consciousness in the world of men; and provides a framework for all duties and obligations among men as also for the relationship between man and god (RV 7.63.3).

Thus Rta which also means the established path is the order that governs not only the conduct of man, but also the totality of nature.

Sathya, Vrata and Rta

20.1. Prof PV Kane in his monumental “History of Dharmashatras ‘(vol.5, part 1) explains ‘speaking generally, Rta is the order in nature that has been there; and Vrata is the set of laws laid down by gods; and Dharman is the duties and obligations of an individual’.

20.2. It is also explained by others that Sathya, the Truth, is paramount, it is eternal and changeless; and it is beyond all contradictions. It alone exists – in the beginning and forever. It is the subtle essence of all existence. Sathya is the Supreme principle; while Rta is the operational aspect or the projection of that principle in the manifest world. Rta manifests as phenomena of that principle; and, it is shifting and changing. Fresh phenomena are continually reproduced. But, the principle regulating the orderly recurrence of such phenomena is eternal and stays unchanged . Rta is described as the boundary of creation within the limitless universe (na śrāmyanti na vi mucanty ete vayo na paptū raghuyā parijman – RV. 2.28.4). For instance, the notions of changing seasons (Ritu), the notions of sun set or rise, the movement of stars and planets, the flow of winds; and the notion of directions are all relative; while the Absolute governing principle is beyond all limitations.

In other words, Sathya is the principle of integration in the cosmic order; Rta is its operating rule. And, Sathya is the Absolute Truth, while Rta is the relative truth. Rta is subject to limitations of space, time and circumstances (context). It could vary with times; and at times could even be violated, though its violation (an-rta)   leads to chaos and falsehood. To put it in another manner, Sathya is the Truth of Being; and Rta is the truth of Becoming.

20.3. The term Vrata has several meanings, such as: religious or moral practices; religious worship or observances; sacred or solemn vow of undertaking; any vow or pattern of conduct; ordinance or duty. It also means the will or the command of the lord, which has to be obeyed. And, all of that imposes a sense of duty. Thus the term Vrata has extensive scope.

Rta and Dharma

21.1. The term Dharman seems to mean almost the same as Vrata; and it is the code of right conduct in personal, social and religious life of human beings.

Atharva Veda prefers to call Rta as Dharma (AV 6.132); and, says ‘thou art Varuna the guardian of Dharma Dharmanaam pathi – taṃ te tapāmi varuṇasya dharmaṇā  

Prof. Hiriyannaiah points out that the concept of Rta as a cosmic order , as in the Rigveda, was later , in the Brahmana texts,  transformed into the concept of Rna , the sense of indebtedness, at the human level . Further , the Smrti manuals combined the Rta and Rna ideals to define ones Dharma, the sense of ones obligation to conform to the natural, social and moral order . 

21.2. Varuna the upholder of the dynamic Rta, is also connected with Vrata and Dharman (RV: 3.59.1; 5.81.4; 8.52.3; 10.8.4).  In context of Varuna, Vrata and Dharma signify the code of conduct governing the ethical order, the dignity in life and in nature.

21.3. Robert Pirsig in his ‘Lila: an inquiry into morals explains:

Rta, which etymologically stands for “course”, originally meant cosmic order, the maintenance of which was the purpose of all the gods, and later it also came to mean right so that the gods were conceived as preserving the world not merely from physical disorder but also from moral chaos . The one idea is implicit in the other and there is order in the universe because its control is in righteous hands…

The physical order of the universe is also the moral order of the universe; Rta is both .This was exactly what the Metaphysics of Quality was claiming. It was not a new idea. It was the oldest idea known to man. (Lila, 444)

Dharma, like Rta, means ‘what holds together.’ It is the basis of all order. It equals righteousness. It is the ethical code. It is the stable condition which gives man perfect satisfaction.

Dharma is Quality itself, the principle of ‘rightness’ which gives structure and purpose to the evolution of life and to the evolving understanding of the universe which life has created. (Lila, 446)’

Prayers to Rtvan

22.1. Varuna who governs Rta is closer to men than any other god (ṛtasya gopāv adhi tiṣṭhathoRV 5.63.01). Varuna evokes awe and reverence in the hearts of men because of his Asura-Maya and his control over Rta. It inspires a faith that the world is sustained by a just and an eternal law decreed by Rta for the well-being of all. Rig Veda advocates conformity with the aim and purpose of these processes. It is the greatest good. The devote firmly believe that compliance with this law tends to material and spiritual progress and advancement paving way to higher forms of integration in life; while its violation is punished with banishment to andha-tamas and to the house of clay (mrn-maya –graha).

22.2. There is also a haunting fear that violation of ordained laws would bring punishment from the noose wielding severe judge Varuna. Prayers are submitted to Varuna seeking his mercy, forgiveness and release from bonds of sin.

22.3. The devote aspire for the abode of truth (sadanam-rtasya) that is not haunted by fear of death (Amruta-loka). They pray to Varuna to guide them along the path of truth (Rtasya-panthah), to lead them from mortality (mruthah) to immortality (Amruthah); and from untruth (Anrtahah) to truth (rtahah) — (Sampraptam Rtam Amrutam).


23.1. Varuna of pure will (putadakasha) along with Mitra is described as Rtvan the governor and the promoter (tayu, tavat) of Rta. The law of Varuna (Rta) extended in heavens as on earth. He is also called dhta-vrata (one who supports Vrata), niti-dhara (one who supports moral laws) and putadakasha (of pure will). He is Dharmanaam pathi, the Lord of Dharma. Varuna safeguards Rta (gopa rtasya) and separates Rta from an-Rta; the true from the false (ṛtena rājann anṛtaṃ viviñcan mama rāṣṭrasyā adhipatyam ehi – RV 10.124.5). Rta thus symbolically represents triumph of good over evil.

Varuna is ritasya-didivim– the illuminators of truth. As a moral governor (gopa-rtasya) Varuna stands far above any other deity. It is said; it was by the law of Varuna that Indra was ordained as Prajapathi, the progenitor.

The fall

24.1. In the later texts, with the rise of Indra and Prajapathi, Varuna loses his superior position. Prajapathi in turn loses his power and authority over creation, sustenance and ordered existence to Vishnu.

Even in the Rig Veda there appears a fear that Rta is losing its importance and it needs to be re-born. The poet Kutsa makes a plea “We ask of Varuna, the knower of the path –I utter this from my heart; let the rta be born anew (navyah jayatam rtam). Know this of me, Oh Heaven and Earth (vy ūrṇoti hṛdā matiṃ navyo jāyatām ṛtaṃ vittam me asya rodasīRV 1.105.15)” .Varuna’s fall eventually brings about the decline in the importance of the Rta principle. The term Asura with which Varuna was specially associated also acquires negative connotations. The later Vedic texts too lament the demise of Rta and the fall of Varuna; as for instance in the legend of the boy Sunahsepa in the Aitareya Brahmana.

[We shall talk about Varuna’s decline separately later in these articles.]

D. Varuna the judge

varuna judge

The all-seeing and all-knowing

25.1. Varuna’s superiority was derived not through his physical power or prowess but through his authority as the ethical overlord; and through his wonderful all-compassing vision and knowledge – Maya. As mentioned earlier, in the context of Rig Veda, Maya signifies wisdom and power. Varuna is described as the celestial god who sees everything and therefore knows everything. He is the seer Kavi and the best among the Kavis (RV 1.2.9).He sees with many eyes uruchaksasa (RV 1.25.5), with as many as thousand eyes (sahasraksha); and nothing escapes his attention. He is vishva – darsata, all seeing (RV 1.25.18); and therefore he is the all-knowing (visva-vedasa).

He controls the destinies of men. Everything is subject to Varuna’s authority and control; nothing happens without his knowledge; and he takes everything.

“Varuna’s power is so great that neither the birds as they fly nor the rivers as they flow, can reach the limit of his dominion, his might, and his wrath(RV 1.24.9)…He embraces the All and the abodes of all beings (RV 8.41.1-2). He is found even in the smallest drop of water. Varuna is omniscient. He knows the flight of all birds in the sky, the path of ships in the ocean, the course of the far travelling wind, and beholds all the secret things that have been or shall be done(RV 1.25.7-11)… None can escape from the sight of Varuna, for his spies ever at work have thousand eyes and look all over the three regions…..He witnesses men’s’ truth and falsehood (RV 7.49.3). He knows all the secret movements of men…If a man walks, sits, sleeps, dreams; if two persons counsel together Varuna is always present there as the third person ….No creature can even wink without him (RV 2.28.6) . The winking of men’s eyes are all numbered by Varuna, and whatever man does, thinks, or devises, Varuna knows.(AV 4.16.4-5) . His snares extend threefold (body, mind and vital energy –prana) seven times.”

uta yo dyām atisarpāt parastān na sa mucyātai varuṇasya rājñaḥ | diva spaśaḥ pra carantīdam asya sahasrākṣā ati paśyanti bhūmim ||4||sarvaṃ tad rājā varuṇo vi caṣṭe yad antarā rodasī yat parastāt |saṃkhyātā asya nimiṣo janānām akṣān iva śvaghnī ni minoti tāni ||5||

The judgmental god

26.1. Of all the Vedic gods, Varuna is the judgmental god. As the King, Varuna judges the morality of men; and dispenses justice. He is the seer of men (nrchaksa – RV 7.60.2); and the seer of their truth and falsehood (RV 7.49.3).  He watches over men’s thoughts, speech and actions; judges them accordingly. Varuna protects the good; he is most compassionate to the virtuous; and extends the lives of the good. He punishes the wrongdoer severely (RV 7.86.3-4) and shortens the lives of the sinners.

 pṛcche tad eno varuṇa didṛkṣūpo emi cikituṣo vipṛccham |
 samānam in me kavayaś cid āhur ayaṃ ha tubhyaṃ varuṇo hṛṇīte ||RV_7,086.03||
 kim āga āsa varuṇa jyeṣṭhaṃ yat stotāraṃ jighāṃsasi sakhāyam |
 pra tan me voco dūḷabha svadhāvo ‘va tvānenā namasā tura iyām ||RV_7,086.04||

He is feared as a severe judge. His wrath is roused by sin which, in fact, is the infringement of his ordinance. He terrifies the guilty; but when gratified with heartfelt repentance and sincere prayers he forgives the penitent wrongdoer and frees him from the bonds of sins.

[In the later texts, some of these functions of Varuna were assigned to Yama the Dharma – raja.]

The roots of Sin

27 .1. Sin is viewed as an external accretion; it is not man’s essential nature; and, it can be removed. It meant that man by nature is divine and is not always a sinner. He strays  into sin either through lack of self-control or of ignorance or greed.”It was not our own will, Varuna,” says the seer, “but some seduction which led us astray, wine, anger, dice or thoughtlessness. The stronger perverts the weaker even sleep occasions sin.” (na sa svo dakṣo varuṇa dhrutiḥ sā surā manyur vibhīdako acittiḥ | asti jyāyān kanīyasa upāre svapnaś caned anṛtasya prayotā || RV. 7. 86. 6)

27.2. There is a belief that a person does not commit sins wantonly or of his own will ‘svadaksa’. He strays into the zone of sin because of human frailties, driven by selfishness, by ignorance; by lack of right understanding; by infirmity of will; or by uncontrolled anger, lust or greed; or by wicked company; or by following bad-examples; or because of being frightened by evil dreams (suggesting that even a dream could be provocative); or under influence of liquor.

27.3. The weaknesses in human nature and malevolent influences cause a person to commit sins against his/her fellow beings.   Such sins could include, for instance, murder; extreme indulgence in gambling, liquor; rage; cheating in game of dice; adultery, sexual misconduct etc. It also includes deception, not repaying ones debts; cursing, telling the untruth (an-rta) and to actively carry it out (druh). Such sins are infringement of Varuna’s commands, whether it was deliberate or otherwise.

A person is responsible not merely for his own wrongdoing but also for those of his ancestors. He carries the burden of their sins too.

Sins against nature

28.1. As said earlier, disturbing the harmony in nature or violating the laws of nature is a departure from the established path (Rta) and a departure from what is true and real. it leads to falsehood and chaos. Since such infringement negates Rta the established moral order, it is called an-rta; it also is anti –nature or unnatural. It amounts to disobedience of Varuna’s commands. Varuna is vigilant against an- rta. It   is said; the gods are friendly to the good and are inimical to the evil-minded.

28.2. It is explained, injuring the harmony that exists in nature and among men is in fact a Sin. A sin (paapa) against nature, the truth and the gods attracts punishment from king Varuna rtvan the custodian of Rta.

Varuna’s commands

29.1. Varuna the ethical ruler sets the norms for right thinking, right speech and right conduct. In the hymns of Varuna Suktha (in the seventh mandala of Rig Veda) we have a fairly well developed scheme of right conduct, wrongdoing (the sin), admission of guilt and plea for forgiveness. Varuna asks men not to kill, not to deceive, not to gamble, not to cheat in gambling; not to curse; not to utter lies; not to be overtaken by wine, anger and lust. None can afford to fool him since he   knows the thoughts of all; as also all deeds done and not done ( ato viśvāny adbhutā cikitvāṃ abhi paśyati |kṛtāni yā ca kartvāRV 1.25.11); he sees all and hears all; he sees the truth and falsehood of men. (yāsāṃ rājā varuṇo yāti madhye satyānṛte avapaśyañ janānāmRV 7.49.3) . He notices all malice (AV 1.10.2); and when two people sit and converse there Varuna is present as the third (śaṃsāty uktham uśaneva vedhāś cikituṣe asuryāya manma ||RV 4.16.2). Varuna confronts the evil-doers and binds them with his noose (pasa),which is almost exclusively a weapon of Varuna.

 namas te rajan varuṇāstu manyave viśvaṃ hy ugra nicikeṣi drugdham |
 sahasram anyān pra suvāmi sākaṃ śataṃ jīvāti śaradas tavāyam ||AV. 1.10.2||

[Please click here for an audio rendering of Varuna Suktha]

The punishment

30.1. The punishment that Varuna hands down to sinners are twofold: One is the fall from Lord Varuna’s grace; and, the other is physical punishment by way of disease or untimely death. The fall from Varuna’s favor was more dreaded than the latter; all believers (bhakthas) were desperate to keep their fellowship with Varuna un-impaired. Among the diseases brought by wrath of Varuna the ‘arpayit‘ (one who inflicts diseases) the more commonly mentioned are harimana (jaundice) and jalodara (dropsy) – a condition of abnormal accumulation of fluid in the body tissues or cavities. The sinners pray Varuna to lessen the severity of punishment; and to save from banishment, after death, to mrn-maya –graha the house of clay which perhaps referred to the gloomy underworld in contrast to the bright and cheerful world of pitris (fathers) heaven.

Sin as an unpaid debt –Rna

31.1. Rig Veda has an interesting concept of sin. The sin was the most terrifying aspect of their lives. The Vedic people were therefore vigilant and attentive to the core. Sin, in the Vedic context is that which disturbs the order in nature placed in position by the gods. It is said; Sin is any inharmonious action done with avarice to gain some immediate and temporary gain.  It includes the infringement of the ethical and social laws.

Man’s transgression or sin is considered rna or a debt that he has to repay in full. Sin is akin to an unpaid debt; it is a burden and an act of bad faith.   He has to repay that debt in order to re-establish the order, restore the balance he disturbed. It is like repairing the rupture one caused in the fabric of Rta.

The release

32.1. How does one repay such a terrible debt? Just as a pecuniary debt (rna) is paid-up to get release from bonds of indebtedness, similarly, the burden of sin (papa) could be got rid by realizing and owning one’s weaknesses and wrongdoings; by regretting ones sins;  by repenting sincerely with heartfelt prayers and humble submissions to Varuna seeking his forgiveness; and, by  promising never to commit such sins again.

“O virtuous Lord, it is not our own choice, but our hard environments that betray us”…. “Whatever offence we men commit against divine beings, and whichever your laws we violate through ignorance, may you not, O Lord, be harsh to us on account of that iniquity.”.. ”Opulent and pure Varuna, if through ignorance and infirmity I acted contrary to your laws, yet grant me forgiveness, happiness and peace” (kratvaḥ samaha dīnatā pratīpaṃ jagamā śuce |mṛḷā sukṣatra mṛḷaya ||RV 7.89.3)… “We have broken your laws through thoughtlessness; for those transgressions do not injure us; forgive us O God” (yat kiṃ cedaṃ varuṇa daivye jane ‘bhidroham manuṣyāś carāmasi |acittī yat tava dharmā yuyopima mā nas tasmād enaso deva rīriṣaḥ ||RV 7.89.5)…” Free us from sins committed by our fathers, and from those we have ourselves offended. (ava drugdhāni pitryā sṛjā no ‘va yā vayaṃ cakṛmā tanūbhiḥ | ava rājan paśutṛpaṃ na tāyuṃ sṛjā vatsaṃ na dāmno vasiṣṭham ||RV. 7: 86.5)”.

32.2. Varuna, usually a stern and a severe judge would become merciful; dispel fear and falsehood; grant protection and forgiveness when one truly repents and submits to his will   absolutely (RV 2.28.3; 7.88.6; 7.42.2).

Varuna who inflicts diseases can also relieve the sick. Varuna the great physician maha- bheshaja (RV 1.24.9) has hundreds of remedies (shtam te rajan bheshajam sahasram). Varuna drives away death and disease, cleanses sins and restores good-health, in every sense, of those who repent sincerely and submit to him in faith and devotion.

He is also merciful to those who transgressed his laws in ignorance or thoughtlessness. Varuna is gracious to the penitent who swears he would not again yield to malevolent forces and he would not sin again.

He loosens and unties the rope (pasa) (just as releasing a calf); and frees men from bonds of sins when they plead for forgiveness and mercy. He also sets them free from the sins committed by their forefathers.

The purification is through Paschastapa, ‘after the burning heat’, which signifies the purifying fire of repentance. Thus, purification or release from sins is not through rituals but by getting rid of mental and moral impurities or ill-health in ones heart and mind. 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 way of Varuna the purifier. That is how one repays the debts of sin.

Hymns of Varuna

33.1. Varuna inspired awe and reverence. While the hymns addressed to other gods seek long life, wealth, power and happiness; the hymns submitted to Varuna pray for purity, forgiveness, and release from sins, and for moral strength against sinning further.  The hymns in praise of Varuna ‘the most impressive deity among all the Vedic gods’ are lofty, more devout and ethical in tone. The hymns rise to a pitch of exaltation when they sing the splendour of Varuna. In these hymns Varuna, more than any other Vedic god, appears as a mighty and merciful.

Such attributes and functions ascribed to Varuna impart to his character a moral elevation. “Indra protects from external foe; Varuna protects through upholding moral order (vratāny anyo abhi rakṣate sadā – RV. 7. 83.9) “. Varuna symbolizes   the notion of purity. As a moral governor he stands above other gods.

 vṛtrāṇy anyaḥ samitheṣu jighnate vratāny anyo abhi rakṣate sadā |  havāmahe  vāṃ vṛṣaṇā suvṛktibhir asme indrāvaruṇā śarma yacchatam ||RV_7,083.09||

33.2. It is also said; the notions of surrender, prapatti or sharanagati (absolute submission to the will of god) which form the essential element of the Vaishnava and other Bhakthi traditions have their origins in the hymns dedicated to Varuna in the Varuna –Suktha of Rig Veda.

To sum up

34.1. 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 or of a supernatural being. Ensuring order and harmony in nature is as sacred 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 that pervades and protects all life.

Injuring the harmony that exists in nature and among men is in fact the Sin; and it attracts punishment.

34.2. A sin is an infringement of the natural order (Rta);  it is a burden on the individual and on the society. It is like a debt that one has failed to repay; it is essentially an act of bad faith against fellow beings and nature. It is not the demons that drive a man into arms of sin. But it is ignorance, greed and other human weaknesses that are at  the root of sins. The evil is in the hearts and minds of men; and these are metaphorically described demons. The best way to cleanse the sins or to drive away the demons is to come face to face with them; to own your mistakes; to   confess to it; to sincerely repent your bad acts and to 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.

34.3. The notions of acknowledging ones sins, confessing to ones sins, praying for forgiveness with a pledge never to sin again were prevalent in the Vedic times much before they became popular in other religions.

E. Varuna – waters

35.1. In the Rig Veda, Varuna is essentially connected with ‘celestial’ waters; the waters in the atmosphere, the seed of life in the universe. These waters symbolize   the manifest as well as the un-manifest primeval matter- Prakrti or Vak or Aditi or Viraj.   It is the primary source of all possibilities of manifestation in the universe. Varuna is described as the ’hidden ocean’ (samudro apicyah) – sa samudro apīcyas turo dyām iva rohati ni yad āsu yajur dadhe | RV.8.41.8; he is also said to dwell in waters as Soma does in the wood.

35.2. However, there are also passages that suggest Varuna’s control over waters on earth. In these passages Varuna is neither regarded as the god of the ocean, nor is he mentioned as the god of water-element. The references that connect him to waters are mainly in the context of Varuna’s supremacy over all realms and bringing order (Rta) into the physical world. As the creator and as the sustainer of all existence he is said to have conjured up , among other things,    rains in the atmosphere (citrebhir abhrair upa tiṣṭhatho ravaṃ dyāṃ varṣayatho asurasya māyayā ||RV 5.63.3); sent down rains to the earth (tato vi tiṣṭhe bhuvanānu viśvotāmūṃ dyāṃ varṣmaṇopa spṛśāmi – RV.10.125.7); determined the course of the rivers (RV. 7.89.1); and   ensured that the ocean into which the rivers empty themselves does not over flow..’I made to flow the moisture-shedding waters, and set the heaven firm in the seat of Order (Rta)’ – (yāsu rājā varuṇo yāsu somo viśve devā yāsūrjam madanti |vaiśvānaro yāsv agniḥ praviṣṭas tā āpo devīr iha mām avantu || RV 7.49.4)

There are also prayers submitted to Varuna seeking his protection “”May the waters which are celestial, and those which flow; those for which channels are dug, and those which are self-produced; those which are proceeding to the ocean, and are bright and purifying, preserve me! May those (waters) in the midst of which King Varuna goes . . . preserve me!”(yā āpo divyā uta vā sravanti khanitrimā uta vā yāḥ svayañjāḥ –  RV. 7.49.2-4)

35.3. In the later Vedic texts Varuna’s nature and attributes undergo a major shift. Varuna who once was the god of the blue-sky later becomes the god of the sea and eventually of the water element on earth. He is reduced to a mere chief of terrestrial waters, rivers, streams, and lakes, but primarily of the ocean. He then is promptly dispatched undersea.

We shall talk about some other interesting aspects of Varuna’s association with waters, separately and in fair detail, in the fourth part of this article.


Continued in part Three

 – Varuna in Samhitas , Brahmanas and other texts

References and Sources

1. Indra and Varuna in Indian Mythology by Dr. UshChoudhuri; Nag Publishers, Delhi, 1981

2. The Indian Theogony by Dr.Sukumari Bhattarcharji, Cambridge University Press, 1970

3. Asura in early Vedic religion by WE Hale; Motilal Banarsidass; Delhi, 1986

4. Goddesses in ancient India by PK Agrawala,; Abhinav Publications, New Delhi,1984

5. The Hymns of Atharvan Zarathustra by JM Chatterji; the Parsi Zoroastrian Association, Calcutta, 1967;

6. Outlines of Indian Philosophy –Prof M Hiriyanna; Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 2005

7.Original Sanskrit texts on the 0rigin and history of the people of India, their region and institution By J. Muir;Trubner & co., London, 1870.

8. A classical dictionary of Hindu mythology and religion, geography, history, and literature byJohn Dowson; Turner & co, Ludgate hill. 1879.

9. Vaidika Sahitya Charitre by Dr. NS Anantharangachar; DVK Murthy, Mysore, 1968

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


Posted by on October 4, 2012 in Varuna


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Concept of rna in Indian tradition

Concept of rna in Indian tradition

The concept of rna, the human indebtedness or the primary obligation, is unique to Indian tradition. It is in fact the source of dharma, because it weans one away from desire-gratification and leads towards duty-fulfillment.

Rna, according to Panini the great grammarian, signifies a want or a deficiency.

Taittiriya Samhita (TS) speaks about three kinds of basic indebtedness every human being carries with him or her. They are the debt one owes – (a) to his ancestors (pitr), (b) to the sages/seers (rishi) and(c) to the Gods (deva).

The Shathapatha Brahmana (SB) adds one more .The fourth one is the debt one owes to his fellow beings.

These texts suggest the ways of liquidating the debts or fulfilling the obligations one is born with. These are briefly, as under.

Pitr :   by bringing up a family, by getting and raising children in a proper manner.

Rishi : by study and by understanding the cultural context into which one is born.

Deva : by honoring , worshipping the elemental and natural (environmental) forces like sky,air,water,earth,rivers, mountains , plants etc.(Rig Veda refers to these Devas as “luminous ones”.) and

Fellow beings: by cultivating compassion, fellow- feeling (saha bhava) and by showing hospitality.

 SB further says that the fulfilment of these obligations should be the preliminary aim of human beings and it would add value to their life. The Atharva remarks, pursuit of the four purusharthas would be meaningful when one fulfils ones primary obligations or is in the process of doing so.

 Chandogya Upanishad (2.23) describes the duties in three stages of life as “off shoots or branches of Dharma” (trayo dharma_skandha). This mentions the obligations and privileges of a householder, hermit and a student. Rna is at the core of this trayo dharma

The Emperor Ashoka (272 to 132 BC) in his edicts highlights a person’s indebtedness (rna) to parents and elders and calls upon the people to live in accordance with the dharma and not interfere with the natural order (rta). In one of the edicts, he points out that practice of dharma is not possible for a person devoid of good conduct. In another edict he proclaims that if a person practices great liberty but does not possess self-control (sayama_bhava), purity of thought (sudhi) gratitude (kitaranta) and firm devotion (dridhabhatita), it is of no avail.

In Indian tradition, the practice of art, be it music, dance, literature or other forms art, is an act of worship. The traditional artist through his creation pays homage to his ancestors (pitrs) and rishis (his teachers). He views the public services he creates (temples, dams, tanks, buildings etc.) as fulfillment of his obligation to his fellow beings. Even poets, philosophers and writers conclude their work with a prayer seeking welfare of all beings.

The fulfilment of three purposes of life (dharma, artha and Kama) acquires meaning only in the context of felt obligations. Rig Veda (8.1.6) gives a call, “Man, you must reach upward, not go down below”.

In the present context, the concept of Rna could perhaps be better appreciated as commitment to certain obligations, causes and ideals including those discussed above.


 Note: In the Edict of Ashoka referred to above there is a brief mention of rta. This rta is again a concept in the Indian tradition. It signifies natural order or cosmic order or an orderly occurrence of things.

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Posted by on September 1, 2012 in Indian Philosophy


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The concept of rna

The concept of rna

(Inspired by Giridhar Gopal’s blog My wishes on Friendship Day and his responses)


You know that living this life to the fullest, is its own secret.
You be assured that if you do so, your life would be worth living.
You do so, without doubts, without fears and without regretting.

–      Giridhar Gopal –

The concept of rna, the human indebtedness or the primary obligation that every being carries with him or her, is rather unique to Indian tradition. They are the debt one owes – to his ancestors (pitr); to the sages/teachers (rishi); and to the Gods (deva).  The Shathapatha Brahmana adds one more; the debt one owes to his fellow beings.
The Shathapatha Brahmana further says that the fulfillment of these obligations, which add value to ones life, should be the preliminary aim of a human being.
The Atharva remarks, pursuit of the four purusharthas would be meaningful only when one fulfils one’s primary obligations or is in the process of doing so.
Chandogya Upanishad (2.23) describes the duties in three stages of life- student, householder and retired – as “off shoots or branches of Dharma” (trayo dharma_skandha). Rna is at the core of this trayo dharma.
Rna is, thus, the sense of commitment to your family, your teachers, your fellow beings and your environment. The concept emphasizes that whatever be your goals and priorities in your life, you cannot overlook your basic commitments.
Sri Shankara, though a sanyasin, came back to be with his mother in her last days/moments. It was an expression of natural love and affection; and also fulfillment of his basic commitment (pitr rna), whatever might have been the other calls in his life.
The Rishis of the ancient times were householders who enjoyed and celebrated life amidst their family and disciples. The rigors of asceticism came at a much later age. The Buddha too did not find merit in such heartless living.
The Vaikhanasa which claims to be the more orthodox of the two Agamas hails the life of the householder as the best among the four stages of life. Because, it is the householder that supports, sustains and carries forward the life and existence of the society. It does not pay much prominence to a Yati or a Sanyasi. It deprecates a person seeking salvation for himself without discharging his duties, responsibilities and debts to his family, to his guru and to his society.
The Emperor Asoka (272 to 132 BC) in his edicts highlights a person’s indebtedness (rna) to parents and elders and calls upon the people to live in accordance with the dharma and not interfere with the natural order (rta).
The rna , the sense of commitment , was emphasized in the larger interests of the society. Without such commitments a society would cease to be a healthily place.

There is, therefore, a certain glorification of what we call the ordinary life, in the ancient texts.

For some reason, it seems easier to brave the elements or starve for weeks or force the body to endure pain. It might be possible; but, it is pointless.
It is far more difficult to pay attention to your spouse and kids; to be generous with one’s friends; be patient with a child when you least feel like it; and go about your daily chores, with equanimity, even while placed in dire circumstances. The ability to work silently, without malice, for years, for a lifetime; with no demands or expectations for reward or recognition, is truly heroic.
It is said, the real heroism is not under the limelight, but is where the less noticeable tasks had to be done. It is in the corners, in the shadows the true results of your efforts appear. One’s true test is in one’s daily life; and in one’s reliability and integrity as a human being.
God does not dwell in some day-glow heaven realm of seeker’s fantasy; but, right here, right now, in the day-to-day challenges and tasks of our everyday life.
Therefore , any sort of experience, no matter how ecstatic, if it does not transform you in to someone who knows how to be with children, how to be with your family, how to be with your mates in a loving, deeply caring way and how to be with all of life – is not worth hankering after. 
The divine is not meant to be discovered in heaven; if it were to be so, we would all be there and not here. The natural and honest living is the crucible of life. That is what all the texts try to say.
What seems to grow fairer to me as life goes by is the love and the grace and tenderness of it; not its wit and cleverness and grandeur of knowledge – grand as knowledge is – but just the laughter of children, and the friendship of friends, and sight of flowers, and the sound of music



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