Varuna is one of the oldest gods in Hindu history and is noted as a “universal monarch” (Choudhuri 33). In the past, Varuna was said to be king of the gods holding utmost power in Vedic India. Scholars say that Varuna is a “majestic Jehovah, preserver of eternal order and redresser of wrongs” (Hakin 105). Varuna himself is related to the skies and water controlling the cosmic order. However, though there are only roughly twelve hymns dedicated to him in the Rg Veda, Varuna is still in charge of many things, and has many obligations as a Vedic god. Varuna’s main obligations involve both creating and preserving the heaven and earth, and protecting the waters, including all oceans and rivers, celestial and terrestrial. He is to stay strong to the rta (keeping cosmic order); his duties include commanding the darkness of the night, and keeping a separation between night and day. The sky blankets Varuna. “He knows not sleep, and nothing escapes his vigilance, for the stars, his eyes, are without number” (Hakin 105). He created the rivers, and maintains the volume of water so they do not overflow, continuing to watch over the water’s entirety. The duties of this majestic deity make the stars come out at night and magically Varuna’s powers cause the stars to disappear during the day (Choudhuri 56). Along with these duties, he holds the task of keeping earth in its full form, and being an omniscient Vedic god, Varuna “knows the path of the birds flying through the air. He, abiding into the ocean, knows also the course of the ships” (Choudhuri 34).
Though Varuna is rarely depicted, if one is to look hard enough, images are profuse. Varuna is depicted as a fierce white god, with perfect posture, riding upon a marine monster known as a Makara. The Makara is still not fully understood. Some believe it to have originally been a dolphin-like creature, depicted as an aquatic being, seeming to be half-crocodile. Others believe it to have the legs of an antelope and the tail of a fish. According to the Vedas, Varuna is said to have four faces, one closely resembling the features of Agni, the god of Fire. He has many arms of grace, and a noose. Varuna’s noose is made from a snake, and is grasped in his right hand, accompanied by a shining gold foot. He wears a short, floating, sleeveless cloak of gold coloring, and complete golden armour. Varuna lives in a house of one thousand doors, thus being constantly attainable to man and humankind (Wilkins 38). Choudhuri also believes that Varuna’s palace is one of a thousand gates; inside resides Varuna upon his golden throne (34). Varuna’s palace has multiple doors to symbolize and represent his “uninterrupted movement and knowledge” (Choudhuri 34).
Vedic history explores the idea that Varuna is not solely affiliated with just water itself, but “to the water elements of ether and earth” (Nakamura 44). Many profound scholars like Georges Dumezil believe Varuna to be connected to many different ideas and concepts. Dumezil believes there to be a link between Mitra (god of Oath) and Varuna. In his essay of Mirta-Varuna, Dumezil interprets “Mitra as friend” and links Varuna’s name to “the root Var- (to bind)” (67). Wilkins states that Mitra and Varuna come together as one in many hymns and are written about quite often, though Varuna is occasionally solo in other hymns (37). Each time Mitra is mentioned in a Vedic hymns, Varuna is also elevated (Dumezil 66). Both Mitra and Varuna are considered to be great gods, and in control of the seas and rivers, and are associated closely with each other in the Atharvaveda (Choudhuri 154). Thus being said, Varuna is closely associated with Mitra, accompanying Mitra as a divine king. Choudhuri states Varuna to be “the ruler of gods, along with all men” expressing both “physical and moral demands” (38).
Myths support that Varuna became a powerful Vedic god through Indra (god of War and Weather). The myth states that a demon stole the entirety of the universe’s water, creating a large conflict with the heavens and the earth (Wilkins 42), and it was not Varuna alone who fought off the demon, but fought alongside Indra. It was stated that it is “because of this that Indra was able to supplant the lordship of Varuna and become lord of the gods himself” (Nakamura 44) taking the ultimate power from Varuna. Yet Varuna still remains a part of the Hindu culture. Though Varuna still holds power, he is not nearly as an important god that he once was. Even such as it is said, Varuna is not widely worshipped by many but still plays an important role in the lives of some. In particular, Varuna is strongly worshipped by people about to go out on long sea voyages, and fishermen as they set out to sea. He is worshipped by farmers during the long, hot, dry seasons of drought. Varuna is also worshipped by those who fear him, mostly in an attempt to free themselves of their sins and wrong doings (Hackin 105). Varuna liberates us of all sin; “keep far from us the evil (Nirrti) with unfriendly looks, and liberate us from whatever sins we may have committed” (Choudhuri 34).
Said to be the Vedic god of punishment, Varuna holds the order of the skies and waters. Of all Hindu deities, Varuna is the judgemental god, providing justice and punishment to everyone. In the book Indra and Varuna in Indian Mythology, Choudhuri states that “Varuna removes the bad elements of yajna and protects its virtuous elements. Varuna is vigilant over satya (truth) and Anrta (falsehood)” (82-3). Thus being true, he does not allow people to disobey Hindu law, and is extremely vigilant of people’s sins. When a sin is committed Varuna sees all and hears all, and those people are punished rigorously. Many human beings fear Varuna as he is in charge of the moral actions and the thoughts of all people. “Varuna is the sovereign under his attacking aspect, dark, inspired, violent, terrible, warlike” (Dumezil 72). Varuna is a protector of the good, and punishes the evil, as he cannot be fooled by anybody. Varuna is said to be able to extend the lives of the good and shorten the lives of the sinners. Here the use of Varuna’s noose is interpreted, as it is “characterized with the power of seizing and trying foes, the demons, and the sinners” (Choudhuri 159). When Varuna confronts a sinner, bargains are made, contracts are enforced; he lassoes them with his noose, as they plead for forgiveness and mercy. Although Varuna is only a judgemental deity, if he chooses, Varuna is able to share the obligations of Yama (god of Death). Of all Vedic gods, Varuna has the highest of moral character, and is called upon for in the notion of purity (Wilkins 40).
Like many other Vedic gods, Varuna is accompanied by a wife, Varuni. Though little is written by scholars about Varuni, westerners believe her to be the goddess of wine. Varuni co-existing through Varuna, sits among a throne scattered with diamonds, and among them sit other gods and goddesses such as Samudra (the seas), Ganga (the Ganges) along with other gods and goddesses of springs, rivers, and lakes in Varuna’s courts (Wilkins 44). To this day, even though Varuna is not as powerful as he once was, he still plays an important role in Hindu lives. Being an omniscient god, Varuna has unlimited control over the Hindu people, and every action is judged by Varuna himself. Perhaps the most unruly reasoning behind Varuna’s popularity is judgement. Varuna appears to play a powerful role in the lives of sinners, and under strict duties, rids Hindu society of such sins and wrong doings. Though Varuna is not widely worshipped, he nevertheless is a powerful and important deity in Hindu culture and tradition. It is Varuna who expresses his power through his actions and though his obligations as a Vedic deity.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READINGS
Choudhuri, Usha (1981) Indra and Varuna in Indian Mythology. New Delhi: Nag Publishers
Dumezil, Georges (1988) Mitra-Varuna: An Essay of Two Indo-European Representations of Sovereignty. New York: Zone Books.
Gatwood, Lynn E. (1895) Devi and the Spouse Goddess. New York: The Riverdale Company Inc.
Hackin J. et al. (1834) Asiatic Mythology: A Detailed Description and Explanation of the Mythologies of All the Great Nations of Asia. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company
Kinsley, David (1986) Hindu Goddesses. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Nakamura, Hajime (1992), A Comparative History of Ideas. Delhi: Mortilal Banarsidass.
Wilkins, W.J (1882) Hindu Mythology. New Delhi: Rupa & Co.
Related Topics for Further Investigation
Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic
“Varuna.” Encyclopedia Mythica from Encyclopedia Mythica Online.
Article written by Erica Goy (April 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.