As Mercury begins his retrograde, I find that words lose their precision. Communication that was once cuttingly clear now feels like voices echoing in the mists. It is in times like these in which I abandon my attempt at academic rigor and turn towards storytelling. Additionally, the pressure of studying for a Master’s degree is starting to weigh on me— if I have to think about Harvard citation one more time I might just throw my laptop down the hill. So, for this article, I would like to simply tell the story of Lord Varuna: a Vedic god with iterations throughout various cultures and religions.
In present day Thailand, Varuna or Varun is called by the name of Phra Pirun (or occasionally, Virun). As a god dressed in kingly garbs, wielding a sword-staff in one hand and riding upon a naga, Lord Pirun is revered as a local god of rain and agriculture. For this reason, it is him who is the symbol of the nation’s Ministry of Agriculture. In Japan, he is conflated with Suiten, the Shinto god of water. In India, and among the Vedas and the Puranas and a myriad of other holy texts, Varuna is too vast of a being to be reduced to a mere set of epithets or domains. Even I, in my desire to wear the mantle of some bard or holy poet, know better than to hope to capture an ocean in a teacup.
I do not claim to be a scholar of Vedic religion. The stories I am about to tell are but mere snatches of a song, a broken melody reconstructed.
Varuna is known for being the Lord of the Waters, and water is nothing less than the universe itself. It is said that before the universe became the universe as we know it, the primordial hill rose from the bottom of the primeval waters. The night sky was an ocean whilst the stars were its islands. It was Varuna who ruled over this water. It was Varuna who ruled over the Asuras, the beings of this primitive universe. Islands floated and water flowed until a force of resistance arose, embodied in the form of a serpent called Vrtra. From beyond the hill, Indra — the Lord of Lightning and Leader of the Devas — emerged. Indra threw his vajra at the once floating hill, thereby fixing it in place and, at the same time, splitting it open. By conquering the hill, Indra had thereby conquered the Asura. He pushed heaven and earth asunder, forming the dual cosmos. The cosmic tree then grew from what remained of the dissected hill, becoming the pillar of the universe, the tree that supports the sky.
Some say that, after the restructuring of the cosmos and the defeat of Vrtra by the hands of Indra, Varuna ascended to the title of Deva. Some argue otherwise, claiming that the Lord of the Asuras was already a Deva. How could he not be, for was he not an Aditya, son of the goddess Aditi? Others, in a contradictory contrast, believe that he is both. Holy texts and tales refer to Varuna as both a Deva and an Asura. Others still have theorized that the bragging contest between Indra and Varuna is an act that has to be re-enacted every year, as the cosmos is restructured anew annually. Every year, the powers of Chaos and the Asuras (who have fled from the cosmos after their subjugation and defeat) would return into the world temporarily, triggering the conflict between the Asuras and Devas once again. In this critical period when forces are at war and reality is in flux, Varuna must have re-assumed his Asura-character, becoming as he once was in the primeval world prior to the arrival of Indra. Thus, during this brief time of the year, Varuna was not a Deva-asura but a supposedly dangerous Asura.
In the cosmic drama, we all have roles to play.
Yet, even during the times when Varuna is a Deva, there are hints that speak of his secret ties to the Asuras. In sources such as the Mahabharata, there are indications that Varuna — although a god of the newly organized world — continued to maintain secret relations with the suppressed demons along with the night side of this world. Varuna is said to be an object of worship for various bhutas, a term which potentially includes spirits and devils. His abode and watery realm, likewise, appears to be the refuge for demons after they have been slain or expelled from the earth. The abode is openly depicted to be a source of evil, for it is Varuna who protects the evil-doers and the beings of chaos who attack the world of order when night falls.
It is unsurprising then, that Varuna rules also over the secretive night as well. As the god of the night and the moon, day and night are the white and black garments that he wears. Golden-horned Varuna’s eye is also that of the sun, the golden all-seeing sun that observes all which occurs upon the earth. As the Lord of the West, the direction at which the sun sets, Varuna too rules over the sun that sits at the root of the world’s tree. With the setting sun comes the realm of the dead: it is said that upon passing, the souls shall see two kings, Yama and the deva Varuna. Drowned souls, especially, belonged to Varuna. Even after his demotion to ruling no longer the primordial ocean but the earthly waters, the subterranean sea is still his abode and so are all sea animals his to command. Even the nagas, mighty and noble serpents, bow down to Varuna for he too is their lord. His kingdom among the underworld is Patala, including that of the glittering, underwater realm of the nagas.
As for his character: how would one judge someone who is willing to endure agony for the sake of necessity? During the churning of the ocean of milk — an event in which the Devas and the Asuras are churning the milky ocean in order to retrieve amrita, the nectar of immortality — the Asuras are positioned on one side whilst the Devas are on the other. Brahma, the Creator-God, stood above both parties. Varuna, notably absent from the conflict, is argued to have been the ocean itself. When the Devas went to the ocean and announced that they will churn its water in order to obtain amrita, the lord of the waters demanded that he shall too receive a part of the nectar of immortality on the condition that he is willing to endure the violent crushing by Mount Mandara. There is no clear distinction between the element and its god; the divine element is propitiated, like a victim before its immolation. As the ocean is churned by means of Mount Mandara, the churning produced a terrible sound akin to the noise of thunder from titanic rain clouds. All manners of aquatic animals, struck by the mountain, died by the hundreds in the water.
In other words, the emergence of the ordered world was a cosmic necessity to which even Varuna had to resign himself— a hanged man upon the noose.
Fitting, as Varuna too wields the noose.
The noose, along with a pitcher of water, is one of the objects wielded by the Lord of Truth. The noose is a bind; an oath, a promise of truth. Indo-Iranians swore their oaths addressed to Varuna before the waters and to Mitra before the fires, and witnesses in the court of law likewise swore to tell the truth, standing before the kindled fire and the vessel of water. It is said that a false-testifying witness who lies will be bound by Varuna with one hundred ties, each one to be released once every thousand years. An old Northern Indian rite of swearing an oath also requires the oath-maker to enter a circle made of calf manure with the vessel of water placed in the center. The Mahabharata mentions that to keep one’s oath, the person should release that which tempts to break the oath into the waters, into the ocean— Varuna’s domain. In the Ramayana, also there exists a form of an oath sworn upon the water, in which water gets poured on the palm of the person’s hand to seal the promise.
With oath, comes order. Everything that is ordered in the universe has Rta as its principle. Rta is the cosmic law: a spoked wheel revolving round the sky, the path of which dawn — the daughter of heaven — follows. The rivers too follow the Rta of Varuna, for he is its guardian, the Lord of the Cosmic Order who controls the flow of water. Although order, in its saturnine nature, is strict, Varuna is not unforgiving. Sin — paapa, a perversion of the natural order — is mentioned chiefly in connection with Varuna. It is a disease which sticks to man and stains him. It can therefore be fought against like disease: spells can banish it, fire can burn it and water wash it away. Varuna is repeatedly begged to forgive sins. In the Rigveda, Vasistha reminds Varuna of their former companionship when he and the god once sailed on a ship together in Varuna’s heaven. For old friendship’ s sake, Vasistha prays for forgiveness that should he have violated Varuna’s law, may he be shown mercy. Prayer, despite transgression through thoughtlessness and human frailty, is often enough to secure Varuna’s forgiveness. Binder and releaser, Varuna releases mankind from sin.
In the same way that Saturn — the star of time and order — is feared throughout history, Varuna is also feared and later demonized after his demotion, falling from a position of a God-King to being a mere lord of the earthly waters. With time, his dark and malevolent traits begin to overshadow his impartiality, for it is said that the merciful Mitra now pacifies the cruel and spiteful Varuna. Later texts such as the Taittereya Brahmana and Shatapatha Brahmana likewise depict Varuna as ugly and deformed, bald with protruding teeth and red-brown eyes, much different to his earlier sublime appearances. Perhaps this is simply the consequence of his already ambiguous nature, and the fact that Vedic poets were decidedly in favor of uncompromisingly good gods rather than passive god-kings whose character was less than perfect. In many ways, it could be viewed that Varuna’s decline was expected. Varuna met the same fate as that befell the other passive sky-gods: they all yielded their position to more active and warlike solar deities.
To claim that Varuna lost his elevated position to Indra as he declined and Indra ascended, however, may not be wholly accurate. The scholar Heesterman spoke of an alternation between Varuna and Indra in more definite terms: when Varuna loses his power, Indra takes over and vice versa. The historian Kuiper, similarly, argues that the fight between Varuna and Indra is a seasonal act to be performed annually. In the Varunapraghasa, Varuna is identified with winter while Indra is quite generally the god of summer. Is this perhaps a case of the Summer Lord slaying the Winter King, only for the cycle to repeat? In a translation of Hymn 10.124 of the Rigveda, it can be seen that it is Indra who offered Varuna to rule alongside him, saying to Varuna that: “Without magic resources will those Asuras become, if you, Varuna, bestow your love on me. Separating the false from the true, O King, come rule my kingdom.” Based upon the aforementioned interpretation, it therefore cannot be claimed that Varuna is subordinated to Indra. One is a ruler, a keeper of order and divine law, whilst the other is a hero and a conqueror-king.
Regardless, it should be noted that what we know is largely incomplete. Varuna is associated with many things most people may find repulsive. It is said that when practicing witchcraft or black magic (‘abhicara’), one should sacrifice a black ram which belongs to Varuna, for Varuna is death. Likewise, the color black is generally associated with Varuna, for what is black belongs to Varuna as well. He is additionally prayed to in conjunction with Nirriti, the cremation-ground goddess personifying death, destruction and decay. All of these associations with what is generally feared have placed an element of taboo regarding mentions of Varuna.
To quote Kuiper:
“The basic difficulty in studying Varuna is this element of taboo. An intentional reticence can seldom be proved. In his case, it is true, there are sufficient indications pointing to feelings of fear and awe with regard to him. We have some reason, therefore, to expect restraint, dictated by taboo, in what Vedic and post-Vedic authors tell us about Varuna. Although it is argued again and again that the only sound and scholarly method of studying a god is to confine oneself to what the texts explicitly say, this is only fully true for the study of gods of a less complex character, such as Indra. It is seldom realized that the same principle, when applied to the study of Varuna, is tantamount to condemning oneself to an imperfect understanding, if not a complete misunderstanding, of the god. In this case it would be an unsound method to ignore the aspect of taboo and a possible reticence, and to proceed as if the direct data of the evidence are the only reliable basis for an interpretation of his character.”
As for me, I believe that to understand Varuna is to understand the ocean itself. Many see the light dappling across the water’s surface and forget how deep and cold and dark the sea is below. Many fear the frozen, stygian depths that may drown them and forget how euphoric drowning can feel. Water is life: it is creation and phantasmagoria and inspiration. Water is also death: it is the river that separates the living from the dead, a boundary and a bridge. Water is a messenger, a psychopomp of sorts: it is said that praying into water allows the prayer to evaporate into the clouds, letting your words reach the heavens or wherever they need to go. There is an incomprehensible unknown to the ocean, a surreality to water. Like a trickster, water distorts, bending and warping the truth. Like a prophet, water reveals, washing away lies to unveil veracity.
Water betrays a multifaceted nature, much like its god.
- Brown, W.N., 1919. Proselyting the asuras (A Note on Rig Veda 10. 124). Journal of the American Oriental Society, 39, pp.100–103.
- Elizarenkova, T., 1987. F. B. J. Kuiper: Fundamental Directions of His Scholarly Work. Numen, 34(2), pp.145–178.
- Jamison, S. W., 1981. A Vedic-Avestan Correspondence: RV ánadant-: Gathic nadəṇt-. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 101(3), 351–354. https://doi.org/10.2307/602597
- Kuiper, F.B.J., 1960. The ancient Aryan verbal contest. Indo-Iranian journal, 4(4), pp.217–281.
- Kuiper, F.B.J., 1975. The Basic Concept of Vedic Religion. History of religions, 15(2), pp.107–120.
- Kuiper, F.B.J., 1979. Varuṇa and vidūṣaka: On the origin of the Sanskrit drama, Amsterdam: North-Holland Publ.
- Premnath, D.N., 1994. The Concepts of Rta and Maat: a Study in Comparison. Biblical interpretation, 2(3), pp.325–339.
- Sielicki, S., 2017. Indo-Iranian Parallels of the Slavic Water Rites of the Oath and Guilt Confirmation Attested in Medieval Latin Accounts and Slavic Law Codices. Studia mythologica Slavica, 20, p. 33-54
- Siqueira, T.N., 1933. Sin and Salvation in the Early Rig-Veda. Anthropos, 28(1/2), pp.179–188.
- Sreenivasarao, 2022. Varuna and his decline. Available at: https://sreenivasaraos.com/2012/10/05/varuna-and-his-decline-part-six/
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