Varuna, Guardian of Cosmic Justice, Lord of the Sky, was once the most revered and
powerful deity known to Vedic India. Indra may have been stronger, and the greater
hero, with more panache and derring-do, but when it came to ultimate principles,
there was no doubt as to who was the great god who sustained the universe. Varuna
was a dual god known as Mitra-Varuna, the former ruling the day and the latter the
night, but slowly the names became synonyms. Scholars are agreed that Varuna was
a sky god like Ouranos; indeed the two names are derived from the same linguistic
root. From this elevated position of observation, it was natural for Varuna
to become the great Observer of Deeds and punish those that were transgressions
of, not the Law, but Ritha, Cosmic Order.
The hymns in praise of Varuna
are some of the most exalted known to man in any culture. So it is a great surprise
that Varuna-worship declined in the catastrophic manner that it finally did. Most
Hindus today know him as a minor godling with some power over the waters, not as
the great arbiter of justice and order in the cosmos.
His initial myths are all archetypal in nature. They also link up with the mythology
of other cultures in a manner that would not be true of later stories. Varuna is
credited with finding the sun, hidden in the cosmic waters and setting it in the
sky. He also parts the earth and the sky, a creation myth most famous in Egyptian
myth as the story of Geb and Nut. He is praised as the king of kings, the first
emperor concept in the mind of the Aryans, the one responsible for making it rain.
This aspect of kingship would become an inseparable part of Indian culture, the
acid test for good rule was if the rains came in time and plentifully. If they did
not, then ergo, the king had failed to rule well. He is praised as the great magician
too, who strides through space and measures apart the earth with the sun as with
a measuring stick. Which also tells something about the technological level of the
society that worshipped him.
The hymns rise to a pitch of exaltation when they contemplate the splendor of Varuna,
for he is a god who never does a mean or dubious action, unlike Indra, who was always
in the grip of his Hero's Destiny and couldn't care less how he attained it. He
is "the victory in swift horses, milk in the dawn cows (meaning the essence of light
= wisdom, as the word 'go' meant both cow and light) intelligence in the hearts
of men and fire in the waters." He is the great friend of man, as the word Mitra
literally means 'friend', and he severely punishes all transgressions against friendship.
It is a unique note in Indian culture, obsessed as it is with family and deeply
suspicious of friends. The loss of the Vedic Weltanschauung really lessened the
minds in many ways.
But most of all is Varuna feared as a just judge. For Varuna was entirely without
sentiment when it came to transgressions against Ritha. Even his best friend, the
sage Vashistha, felt the anger of Varuna flare against him for his wrongdoing. Like
generations of mankind to come after him, Vasistha offered remarkably familiar mea
culpa. "The mischief was not done of my own free will, O Varuna; wine anger, dice
or carelessness led me astray. Even sleep does not avert evil. I would serve the
generous god and be free from sin." It is clearly understood that repentance and
service to Varuna washes away the sins attracted. It is also clearly understood
that there is no use trying to fool Varuna about what you have been up to. "Wherever
two together plot, and deem they are alone, King Varuna is there, a third, and all
their schemes are known."
For liars are especially reserved the dread
punishment of the Varuna Pasha, the noose of Varuna. He is the god who is able to
prolong life, so it seems only logical to assume that he can cut it short too.
One of his other abilities must have ensured him a long run of popularity, the
granting of sons. In later myths this takes a nasty turn and nothing could signify
better the dwindled stature of the great god.
Harishchandra, King of
the Ikshavakus, wishes a son and heir and foolishly promises Varuna that if a boy
were granted him, he would sacrifice it to the god. The son was born, and Harishchandra
began to suffer from lapses of memory. The angry god afflicted him with dropsy.
A compromise was reached with the aid of Vashistha who was the king's guru. A substitute
would be acceptable, provided he was consciously willing to be so slaughtered for
reasons of state. A middle son of a brahmana, named Shunashepa was found who did
so agree. He was disgusted with his parents who were partial to his siblings and
wanted to end it all while at the same time securing his family's fortunes, thus
doing his duty and leaving them with a burden of guilt that must have been very
soothing to his harrowed nerves. Vashistha's great rival, Vishwamitra, 'the friend
of the world', and a strangled memory of the original Mitra-Varuna compassion, chances
upon this ghastly situation and he teaches the boy some hymns in praise of Varuna
to be recited on the chopping block. They so delight the god that he forgoes his
dues and exalts Shunashepa above all men. This story is such an outrage upon the
Vedic Varuna that I was almost tempted to let it be, but it says a lot as to what
men do to gods they no longer worship. Varuna should have reached for his noose
and dragged the creators of this disgusting tale off to perdition.
In later myths Varuna is described as the Lord of the Waters.
is a focus on his powers of inducing dropsy, as well as the Vedic description of
him as the god who satisfies the thirst of his followers. He is described as being
in the midst of the celestial waters as well as being a sky god, a juxtaposition
possible only in one spot. Varuna's power over the water as well as the geographical
conjunction of ocean waters with the sky at the horizon made sure that his watery
aspect would remain, even when his people cast him down from the sky. His names
like Jalapati, 'Ruler of Waters' and Yadapti, 'Lord of Aquatic Animals' reflect
this changed reality. In an almost forgotten throwback to this Vedic statue he is
also called, Prachetas, 'the wise'. Varuna is rarely depicted in images or paintings,
but when it is done he is always in the erect posture of perfection, the atibhanga
posture, with a noose in his hand. He rides a makara, a fabulous animal with the
head and front legs of an antelope and the body and tail of a fish. Best of all,
he is supposed to live in a house with a thousand doors, as he is always accessible
to man. The cosmic friend still has a little place in the imagination of his people.