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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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Varuna and his decline – Part One


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 ( 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.

inverted treeThe 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.

maze negetive

(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

The encompasser

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.

Varuna on makara

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 rtaRV 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 dhārayantaRV 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 ūrjayantīḥRV 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 martāḥRV 2. 27.10).

Aditi mother of gods

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 asminRV_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

1. Indra and Varuna in Indian Mythology by Dr. Usha Choudhuri; 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.

Indebted to


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Posted by on September 1, 2012 in Indian Philosophy


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