Mitra and Varuna
These deities are most frequently named together in the hymns; Varuna is often addressed alone, but Mitra very seldom. The idea of the older commentators was that Mitra represented and ruled over the day, whilst Varuna was ruler of the night. “Varuna is sometimes visible to the gaze of his worshippers; he dwells in a house having a thousand doors, so that he is ever accessible to men. He is said to have good eyesight, for he knows what goes on in the hearts of men. He is king of gods and men; is mighty and terrible; none can resist his authority. He is sovereign ruler of the universe.” “It is he who makes the sun to shine in heaven; the winds that blow are but his breath; he has hollowed out the channels of the rivers which flow at his command, and he has made the depths of the sea. VARUNA. His ordinances are fixed and unassailable; through their operation the moon walks in brightness, and the stars, which appear in the nightly sky, vanish in daylight. The birds flying in the air, the rivers in their sleepless flow, cannot attain a knowledge of his power and wrath. But he knows the flight of the birds in the sky, the course of the far travelling wind, the paths of ships on the ocean, and beholds all the secret things that have been or shall be done. He witnesses men’s truth and falsehood.
The following is a metrical version of one of the hymns of the Rig-Veda as given by Dr. Muir:— “The mighty lord on high our deeds as if at hand espies; The gods know all men do, though men would fain their deeds disguise: Whoe’er stands, whoe’er moves, or steals from place to place, Or hides him in his secret cell, the gods his movements trace. Wherever two together plot, and deem they are alone, King Varuna is there, a third, and all their schemes are known. This earth is his, to him belong those vast and boundless skies, Both seas within him rest, and yet in that small pool he lies. Whoever far beyond the sky should think his way to win, He could not there elude the grasp of Varuna the king. His spies descending from the skies glide all this world around; Their thousand eyes, all scanning, sweep to earth’s remotest bound. Whate’er exists in heaven and earth, whate’er beyond the skies, Before the eye of Varuna the king unfolded lies. The secret winkings all he counts of every mortal’s eyes; He wields this universal frame as gamester throws his dice. Those knotted nooses which thou flingst, O god! the bad to snare, All liars let them overtake, but all the truthful spare.” Professor Roth says of this hymn, “There is no hymn in the whole Vedic literature which expresses the divine omniscience in such forcible terms;” and it would not be easy to find in any literature many passages to surpass it in this respect. In other hymns we learn that the affairs of men are under his control; he is asked to prolong life, to punish transgressors; and a hope is held out that the righteous shall see him reigning in the spirit world in conjunction with Yama, the ruler of that region. Varuna in fact has attributes and functions ascribed to him in the Vedas, of a higher moral character than any other of the gods, and therefore men call upon him for pardon and purity. “Release us,” they say, “from the sins of our fathers, and from those which we have committed in our own persons.” And again, “Be gracious, O mighty god, be gracious. I have sinned through want of power; be gracious.” In the hymns addressed to Mitra and Varuna together, almost the same terms are employed as when Varuna is addressed alone. Both are spoken of as righteous, and as the promoters of religion. They are said to avenge sin and falsehood. In the Vedic literature, though Varuna is not regarded chiefly as the god of the ocean, as he is in the later writings, but rather, as the above hymns show, as one of the gods of light, yet there are passages which describe him as being connected with the waters of the atmosphere and on the earth, which afford some foundation for the later conceptions of his kingdom. Thus, for instance, we read, “May the waters which are celestial, and those which flow; those for which channels are dug, and those which are self-produced; those which are proceeding to the ocean, and are bright and purifying, preserve me! May those (waters) in the midst of which King Varuna goes . . . preserve me!” In other places he is said to dwell in the waters as Soma does in the woods. Professor Roth gives a probable explanation as to the manner in which Varuna, who was originally the god of the heavens, came to be regarded as the god of the ocean. He says:— “When, on the one hand, the conception of Varuna as the all-embracing heaven had been established, and, on the other hand, the observation of the rivers flowing towards the ends of the earth and to the sea had led to the conjecture that there existed an ocean enclosing the earth in its bosom, then the way was thoroughly prepared for connecting Varuna with the ocean.” In the Brāhmana of the Rig-Veda is an interesting legend showing that probably human sacrifices were at one time offered to Varuna. A certain king named Harischandra had no son. Being greatly distressed on this account, as a son was necessary to the due performance of his funeral ceremonies, the king, acting upon the advice of Nārada the sage, went to Varuna, saying— “Let but a son be born, O king! to me, And I will sacrifice that son to thee.” Varuna heard the prayer, and granted a son. When the boy grew up, his father told him of the vow he had made; but unfortunately the son was not willing to be sacrificed, and left his home. Varuna, not being at all pleased at the non-fulfilment of the king’s vow, afflicted him with dropsy. For six years the boy wandered in the forest; at length, happening to meet with a poor Brāhman with his three sons, the prince proposed to purchase one of them to offer to the god as a substitute for himself. The father could not give up his firstborn, the mother would not yield her youngest; the middle one was therefore taken. The prince then returned home, taking with him the Brāhman’s son. At first the king was delighted at the prospect of being able to keep his promise to the deity; but a difficulty now arose as to who would slay the boy. After some time, on the consideration of a large present being made to him, the boy’s father consented to do this The boy was bound, the father ready to strike, when the boy asked permission to recite some texts in praise of the gods. Of course this was granted; and as a result the deities thus lauded were so pleased with the boy’s piety, that they interceded with Varuna to spare him. Varuna granted their request, suffered the boy to live, and Harischandra recovered from his sickness.
In the Purānas, as mentioned before, Varuna is described as the god of the ocean. After a great conflict between the powers of heaven and earth, when order was again restored, the “Vishnu Purāna” records the position assigned to the various deities. In that account Varuna is said to rule over the waters. In the same Purāna we read that an old Brāhman named Richika was most anxious to obtain in marriage a daughter of King Gādhi, who was really an incarnation of Indra. Gādhi refused to give his daughter to Richika except on one condition: that he would present him with a thousand fleet horses, each having one white ear. Horses of this colour were special favourites of Indra; hence those sacrificed to him usually had this peculiarity. The Brāhman is said to have propitiated Varuna, the god of the ocean, who gave him the thousand steeds, by means of which he was able to obtain the princess in marriage. Varuna is represented in pictures as a white man sitting upon a fabulous marine monster called a makara. This animal has the head and front legs of an antelope, and the body and tail of a fish. In his right hand he carries a noose. He is occasionally worshipped in seasons of drought, and by fishermen as they cast their nets, but nowadays no images of him are made. The following legend is found in the “Padma Purāna.” On one occasion Rāvana, the demon king of the island, was travelling home to Ceylon, carrying with him a stone linga, the emblem of Siva. He was desirous of setting up the worship of the great god there, and was taking the image from the Himalayas for this purpose. But the gods, fearing he would grow too powerful through his devotion to Siva, wished to frustrate his purpose. Siva, in giving the stone, made Rāvana promise that wherever it first touched the ground, after leaving Siva’s abode, it should remain. Aware of this fact, the gods tried to induce him to let it rest on the earth before he reached Ceylon. At last it was agreed that Varuna should enter Rāvana’s body, so that, in attempting to free himself, he might be compelled to loose his hold of the linga. Accordingly Varuna entered Rāvana, and caused him such intense pain that he could scarcely bear it. When thus suffering, Indra, in the form of an old Brāhman, passed by, and offered to take hold of the stone. No sooner did Rāvana entrust it to hire, than he let it fall to the ground. It is said that it sank into the earth, the top of it being visible at Vaidyanāth in Birbhum to this day. The river Khursu is said to have taken its rise from Varuna when he left Rāvana at this place; and, as a result, the Hindus will not drink of its waters.
Although Varuna is described in the Vedas as a holy being, according to the teaching of the Purānas his heaven is a place of sensual delights. He sits with his queen Varunī on a throne of diamonds; Samudrā (the sea), Gangā (the Ganges), and the gods and goddesses of different rivers, lakes, springs, etc., form his court. And stories are told of conduct the very opposite to what would be expected in one who once was addressed in such language as is found in the Vedic hymns. He is said, conjointly with Surya, to have been enamoured of Urvasi, a nymph of Indra’s heaven, by whom they had a son named Agastya, one of the most eminent of Hindu ascetics. Varuna is also known as Prachetas, the wise; Jalapati, the lord of water; Yādapati, the lord of aquatic animals; Amburāja, the king of waters; Pasī, the noose-carrier.