VARUṆA replaced the earlier god Dyaus as the sky god in the Vedic pantheon, but early in his mythological career he became the god of the night sky; the myriad stars were his eyes and, still later, his spies. The importance of such a sky god seems to belong to the pastoral history of the nomadic Aryans. The Bogazköy inscription of the fourteenth century bce mentions a Mitanni god, Uru-van-nas-sil, Varuṇa's prototype. Ouranos, Varuṇa's Greek parallel, was also a sky god.
With his thousand eyes, Varuṇa watched over human conduct, judging good and evil deeds and punishing evildoers. Varuṇa is the only god in the Vedic pantheon with such strong ethical bearings. The word used in the Vedas to refer to his eyes, spaśa, derived originally from the verbal root spac ("see"), later came to mean "spy." Still later, in the epics and the Purāṇas, the word underwent further linguistic evolution and became pāśa ("noose"); Varuṇa then ensnared the wicked in his noose.
Scholars have traced Varuṇa's name to various Indo-European roots such as uer ("bind"), ver ("speak"), vṛ ("cover"), vār ("shower"), as well as to noun stems like Lithuanian weru ("thread"). It is possible that these all contributed to the many layers of his mythological attributes.
Ahura Mazdā, the supreme god of the Avesta, is another parallel of the Vedic Varuṇa. In Vedic the Avestan name would be rendered Asura Medhya ("holy spirit"), and indeed the Vedas frequently refer to Varuṇa as an asura. In the Avesta, Mithra is closely related to Ahura Mazdā, just as the Vedic Mitra is related to Varuṇa. Mitra is the god of the daytime sky whose eye is the sun. Together Mitra and Varuṇa constitute the sky god and replace the earlier Dyaus. In the Ṛgveda, Varuṇa enjoyed sovereignty and supremacy for a brief period; he was frequently called samrāj ("emperor"), an epithet used only occasionally for Indra. The Rājasūya sacrifice, offered for attaining imperial grandeur, belongs to Varuṇa and Mitra; in the Ṛgveda Varuṇa is said to have performed this sacrifice, presumably with the intention of becoming the supreme god in the pantheon.
Because of his innumerable star-eyes, Varuṇa was regarded as omniscient. His knowledge and his function as a moral judge were the chief sources of his power, as he had no remarkable achievements to his credit. He watched over human beings: When two persons conversed, he was the invisible third; when anyone sinned, Varuṇa afflicted the transgressor with disease, and until the god relented, the victim would not be restored to health. In the solemn Varuṇapraghāsa rite, a seasonal sacrifice, the sacrificer's wife was required to confess her sin (i.e., conjugal infidelity) before the officiating priest. This is a unique instance of confession of sin in the early Vedic literature, and Varuṇa was the god associated with this sacrifice. The punishment he meted out in such cases was called a "seizure," hence the elaborate prayers to Varuṇa for forgiveness of sins.
In later literature Varuṇa's ethical role diminishes, but early texts frequently associate his majesty or supremacy with his function as upholder of the moral order referred to in the Ṛgveda as ṛta or, sometimes, dharma (i.e., "that which upholds") or satya ("truth"). In the Avesta this all-pervasive moral order that controls and regularly maintains the cosmic forces is arata, aša, urta, or arta; a cardinal concept in Zoroastrianism, it is first mentioned in the Tel-el-Amarna Tablet (c. fourteenth century bce). Ṛta is Varuṇa's special domain, and it is often mentioned in connection with him.
Another concept associated with Varuṇa is the magical power known as māyā; for example, Asura's (i.e., Varuṇa's) māyā. In the Vedic context māyā meant both wisdom and power. With his māyā Varuṇa envelops the night and creates the dawn. Māyā predominantly links him with demons, for in later literature asura meant "demon," and demons wielded māyā.
Varuṇa's dark associations bring him close to the primarily chthonic gods such as Yama, Nirṛti, Soma, and Rudra. As a chthonic god, Varuṇa is associated with snakes (indeed, in Buddhist literature he is sometimes called the "king of snakes"), with barren black cows, or with deformed and ugly creatures. His ritual symbols are dark, depraved, and deformed things or creatures. His son Bhṛgu is said to have descended into hell. His connection with Vasistha, however, goes back to Indo-Iranian times: In the Avesta, Asha Vahishta (Vedic, Ṛta Vaśiṣṭha) is one of the Amesha Spentas who were Ahura Mazdā's active assistants. Varuṇa is Soma's brother. Of his wife, Varuṇani, nothing more than her name is known.
The dynamic character of Varuṇa's mythological career subsided in the later Vedic literature, where he is associated with the celestial waters. In the epics and Puranas, however, his domain shifted from the firmament toward the earth, and he became the overlord of the terrestrial waters, rivers, streams, and lakes, but primarily of the ocean. He dwelt in royal splendor in an underwater palace. Like Poseidon, Greek god of the ocean, he is often associated with horses. Finally, he is relegated to the position of "lord of the West," another dark and chthonic association. Here the circle of his mythological career closes, because as a dikpāla ("lord of a quarter [of the sky]") he is no more than a wholly passive god.
Apte, V. M. "Varuṇa in the Ṛgveda." New Indian Antiquary (Bombay) 8 (1946):136–156. Deals with Varuṇa's Vedic background.
Bhattacharji, Sukumari. Indian Theogony: A Comparative Study of Indian Mythology from the Vedas to the Puranas. Cambridge and New York, 1970. See especially pages 22–47.
Dandekar, R. N. "Varuṇa, Vaśiṣṭha and Bhakti." In Añjali: Papers on Indology and Buddhism, a Felicitation Volume Presented to Oliver Hector de Alwis Wijesekera on His Sixtieth Birthday, edited by J. Tilakasiri, pp. 77–82. Peradeniya, Ceylon, 1970.
Dumézil, Georges. Ouranos-Varuna. Paris, 1934. A comprehensive treatise on Varuṇa and his Greek counterpart, Ouranos, and the traits they share.
Hiersche, Rolf, "Zur Etymologie des Götternamens Varuṇa." Mitteilungen des Instituts für Orientforschung (Berlin) 4 (1956): 359–363. Explores Varuṇa's identity from the various derivations of his name.
Kuiper, F. B. J. "The Bliss of Asa." Indo-Iranian Journal 8, no. 2 (1964): 96–129.
Lüders, Heinrich. Varuṇa. 2 vols: Vol. 1, Varuṇa und die Wasser. Vol. 2, Varuṇa und das Rta. Göttingen, 1951–1959.
Renou, Louis. "Varuna dans l'Atharvaveda." Paideuma 7 (1960): 300–306 (Festgabe für Herman Lommel ).
Thieme, Paul. "Patañjali über Varuṇa und die sieben Ströme." In Mélanges présentés à Georg Morgenstierne à l'occasion de son soixante-dixième anniversaire, pp. 168–173. Wiesbaden, 1964.
Thieme, Paul. "Varuṇa in the Mahābhārata." In Proceedings of the Twenty-Sixth Congress of Orientalists, edited by R. N. Dandekar, vol. 3, p. 329. Poona, 1969.
Sukumari Bhattacharji (1987)
One of the oldest gods in Hindu mythology, Varuna was originally a creator and the ruler of the sky. In the Vedas—the sacred texts of ancient India—he was a supreme, all-knowing deity who enforced the laws of the universe and human morality. He ruled the gods known as the Adityas. In later Hindu belief, Varuna became the god of water and was associated with oceans and rivers.
According to the Vedas, Varuna created the heavens, the earth, and the air. He was responsible for causing rain to fall, rivers to flow, and winds to blow. The god watched over his creations from a golden palace in the sky.
Varuna was the source of all truth and justice. He judged the actions of humans and punished those who broke the laws of the gods by tying them up in a rope that he carried with him at all times. This all-knowing deity also controlled the fate of humans and had the power to grant or deny immortality to some beings. In addition, Varuna guarded the kingdom of the dead, along with Yama, the god of the dead.
deity god or goddess
morality ideas about what is right and wrong in human conduct
immortality ability to live forever
In later Hindu belief, Varuna lost his supreme authority to the god Indra. Other gods took over many of Varuna's roles. Considered guardian of the west and ruler of the oceans and rivers, he became a minor deity. In Hindu art, Varuna is usually shown riding the Makara, a fantastic sea monster with the head of a deer and the legs of an antelope.
See also Hinduism and Mythology; Indra; Vedas.