VARUṆA A powerful deity, Varuṇa is known in the Rig Veda as the universal ruler in charge of rita, cosmic law and order, and the personification of moral authority. He is an all-seeing, omniscient, celestial controller and exacting punisher of those who transgress his commandments (vrata). In hymns he is frequently invoked in the compound Mitravaruṇa along with his brother, Mitra, also one of the Ādityas, the sons of the goddess Aditi, "the Unbounded." Mitra, a name cognate to ancient Iranian Mithra, meaning "friend," shares the major features of Varuṇa, including kingship, but appears as a benign, restoring, and contractual side of divine sovereignty. Varuṇa, on the other hand, is the wielder of occult power (māyā) and the severe binder of sinners, capturing with nooses (pāsha) those who infringe upon rita, often inflicting diseases upon them. Hymns to Varuṇa invariably include pleas for forgiveness and release from his wrath, judgment, and bondage for any moral offense (āga). Like Mitra, Varuṇa may extend grace to the penitent. Release from one or another of his hundred nooses means not only cessation of disease or physical pain but also removal of the sin that brought on punishment. He is the dominant side of the pair, Mitra being addressed alone in a single Rig Vedic hymn, whereas a dozen are directed solely to Varuṇa.
Satya, or truth and exactitude in sacrifice, are within Varuṇa's guardianship, and several Vedic sacrifices feature him, including rājasūya (consecration of a king), ashvamedha (horse sacrifice), and varuṇapraghāsa (second of three seasonal sacrifices, a rite in which the sacrificer's wife must confess sins). One of the priests essential to the Vedic soma cult is named Maitrāvaruṇa; he takes the also one of the A pressed juice offered to Mitravaruṇa, the pair, as devine unity.
Sūrya, the sun, serves as eye of the all-observant Varuṇa, who as divine overseer also has spies (spasha); the same word occurs for Mithra's spies in the Avesta, indicating an Indo-Iranian antiquity for this feature of cosmic control. Since Varuṇa is associated with both the day and night sky, his spies are possibly stars. Cosmic waters above and below the earth, rivers, and rain are all within his domain.
During the Vedic period, Varuṇa as samrāj (king by his nature) gradually lost his position as all-powerful sovereign and greatest of deities to Indra, who is king by force, by self-rule (svarāj). In the Sanskrit epics and Purāṇas, Varuṇa appears as a lokapāla, assigned to the west as one of the eight guardian deities. Still lord of the waters, now featuring the ocean, he is king of nāgas, or serpents. He may be seen in temple sculptures on his mount (vāhana), the makara, a crocodile-like composite creature. In addition to Varuṇānī, named in the Rig Veda, his legitimate wives in various Purāṇas include Gaurī and Jyeshth.ā, while Bhadrā, daughter of Soma and wife of Utathya, he captured by force. Among his sons were the rishi Vasishtḥa (fathered jointly with Mitra), Pushkara, and the great poet of the Rāmāyaṇ a, Vālmīki, born according to one version when Varuṇa's semen fell on a termite mound (valmīka).
Today, Varuṇa's aide is sought when digging wells or in times of drought. If monsoon rains are late and crops are endangered, Vaidika Brahmans may be summoned to recite Rig Veda hymns in a Varuṇa pūjā. Although Varuṇa is now seldom credited, both dharma as cosmic law and vrata as human vow to observe dharma continue to be the focus of modern Hinduism, as they were for the development of the classical Dharma Sūtras and Dharma Shāstras.
David M. Knipe
Brereton, Joel P. The Ṛgvedic Ādityas. New Haven, Conn.: American Oriental Society, 1981. Discusses Varuṇa as well Ādityas in the Rig Veda.
Gonda, Jan. Dual Deities in the Religion of the Veda. Amsterdam: N. V. Noord-Hollandsche Uitgevers Maatschappij, 1974. Ch. 5 details Mitra and Varuṇa separately and as the as Mitra, Aryaman, and other A compound Mitravaruṇa.
Parpola, Asko. "The Religious Background of the Sāvitrī Legend." In Harānandalaharī, edited by Ryutaro Tsuchida and Albrecht Wezler. Reinbek: Verlag für Orientalistische Fachpublikationen, 2000. Suggests Proto-Dravidian and Vedic connections regarding Varuṇa's noose, spies, heavenly banyan tree.
Rodhe, Sten. Deliver Us from Evil: Studies on the Vedic Ideas ofSalvation. Lund: C. W. K. Gleerup, 1946. Ch. 2 illuminates passages on Varuṇa's noose (pāsha) in Rig Veda, Atharva Veda, Brāhmaṇas.