Varuna: Hindu God of Sky and Water

| | March 11, 2024

A part of the ancient and complicated Hindu religion, Varuna was the god of the sky, oceans, and water.

There are millions and millions of Hindu gods and goddesses. Most Hindus cannot even agree on how many there might be. Varuna is not as important in present-day Hinduism but he is one of the oldest deities in the Hindu pantheon.

In the days when Hinduism was more pantheistic in nature, Varuna was one of the most powerful gods. The people prayed to him for good weather and rain, which was very important for a pastoral and agricultural society.

Who is Varuna?

varuna
Varuna holding a snake and riding Makara

In early Hinduism, Varuna was one of the most important gods. He presided over various domains and had many jurisdictions. He was the god of the sky and a water god, which meant that he also ruled over the celestial ocean that the Hindus believed surrounded the Earth. Lord Varuna was also considered the lord of justice (rta) and truth (satya).

READ MORE: Who Invented Water? History of the Water Molecule

Varuna was considered to be one of the Asuras in early Vedic times. In the earliest Hindu scriptures, there were two kinds of celestial beings – the Asuras and the Vedas. Among the Asuras, the Adityas or the Sons of Aditi were the benevolent deities while the Danavas or the Sons of Danu were the malevolent deities. Varuna was the leader of the Adityas.

In the later years of Vedic mythology, the influence and power of the Asuras waned as Devas like Indra and Rudra became more important. The Asuras gradually came to be viewed as malevolent beings as a whole. However, Lord Varuna is viewed as an ambivalent deity at best. It may be that he became classified as a Deva in later years when the Deva Indra became king and the primordial cosmos was properly structured. While not as important as in the early Vedic times, he is still prayed to by Hindus all over the world.

Associations with Other Sky Gods

Many scholars believe that Varuna shares some characteristics with the ancient sky god Uranus of Greek mythology. Not only are their names very similar, but Uranus is also the god of the night sky. Varuna is the god of the sky as well as the celestial ocean that surrounds the Earth which scholars interpret as the Milky Way. Thus, they may both have descended from an earlier common Indo-European deity, as suggested by famous sociologist Emile Durkheim. 

Varuna may also have been worshiped by the ancient civilizations of Iran as their Supreme God Ahura Mazda. In Slavic mythology, Perun is the god of the sky, storms, and rain. There are ancient Turkish inscriptions about a god of the sky called Urvana. This seems to point to an overarching Proto-Indo-European sky god that was adapted to different cultures.

perun-slavic-god
Slavic god Perun – An illustration by Andrey Shishkin

READ MORE: 9 Important Slavic Gods and Goddesses

Origins of Varuna

According to Indian mythology, Varuna was the son of the goddess Aditi, the goddess of infinity, and the Sage Kashyapa. He was the most prominent of the Adityas, the Sons of Aditi, and is considered a Sun god of sorts (since ‘Aditya’ means ‘sun’ in Sanskrit). Varuna was associated with the dark side of the sun, however, and gradually developed into the god of the night sky.

Hinduism, and the Vedic religion before it, believed that there were several realms overlapping the mortal realm we live in. Lord Varuna lived in the realm of sukha, meaning happiness, which was the highest world. He lived in a golden mansion with a thousand columns and dispensed justice on humankind from high above.

Lord Varuna was the keeper of moral law. It was his duty to punish those who committed crimes without any remorse and to forgive those who made mistakes but repented for them. The Vedic religion and texts also mention his special connection to rivers and oceans.

Etymology of Varuna

The name ‘Varuna’ may have been derived from the Sanskrit root ‘vr’ which means ‘to cover’ or ‘to surround’ or even ‘to bind.’ The suffix ‘una’ added to ‘vr’ means ‘he who surrounds’ or ‘he who binds.’ This is an obvious reference to the celestial river or ocean that surrounds the world and is ruled over by Varuna. But even apart from that, ‘he who binds’ might also mean Lord Varuna binding humankind to the universal and moral laws.

The second gives rise to further theories about the connection between Varuna and Uranus, whose ancient name was Ouranos. Both names are probably derived from the Proto-Indo-European root word ‘uer’ meaning ‘binding.’ According to Indian and Greek mythology, Varuna binds human beings and especially the wicked to law while Ouranos binds the Cyclopes inside Gaia or the earth. However, most modern scholars reject this theory and this particular root for the name Ouranos.

Iconography, Symbolism, and Powers

In Vedic religion, Varuna comes in various forms, not always anthropomorphic. He is usually shown as a fiery white figure, seated on a mythical creature called Makara. There has been great speculation about what the Makara might actually be. Some say that it is a crocodile or a dolphin-like creature. Others speculate that it is a beast with the legs of an antelope and the tail of a fish.

The Vedic texts state that Varuna has four faces, as many of the other Hindu gods and goddesses do. Each face is positioned looking in different directions. Varuna also has several arms. He is usually depicted with a snake in one hand and a noose, his weapon of choice and a symbol of justice, in the other. Other objects he is depicted with are the conch, the lotus, a container of jewels, or an umbrella over his head. He wears a short golden cloak and golden armor, perhaps to depict his position as a solar deity.

Varuna sometimes travels in a chariot drawn by seven swans. Hiranyapaksha, the great golden-winged bird, is his messenger. Some theories say that this mythical bird may have been inspired by the flamingo because of its bright wings and exotic appearance.

Varuna is also at times shown seated on a jeweled throne with his wife Varuni at his side. They are usually surrounded by various gods and goddesses of the rivers and seas that make up Varuna’s court. Most of the symbolism thus connects Varuna to water bodies and voyages by sea.

varuna-and-his-wife-varuni
Varuna and his wife Varuni

Varuna and Maya

Lord Varuna also has certain powers that make him seem more mysterious and obscure than the other Vedic gods. Varuna has dominion over various kinds of natural phenomena as the god of the sky and water. Thus, he can bring rain, control the weather, provide clean water, and direct and redirect rivers. Human beings prayed to him for millennia for precisely this reason.

However, Varuna’s control over these elements is not as straightforward as it may be with Indra and the other Devas. Varuna is said to rely heavily on maya, meaning ‘illusion’ or ‘trickery.’ Does this mean that Varuna is a trickster god or evil? Not really. It simply means that he is heavily involved in magic and mysticism, which makes him a figure of mystery and fascination. This is why Varuna in later Hinduism has gained a reputation of ambiguity. He is classed with beings such as Yama, the god of death, or Rudra, the god of disease and wild animals. These are neither wholly good nor evil deities and they are both mysterious and intimidating to the average human. 

Varuna in Hindu Mythology and Literature

Varuna, as a part of the early Vedic pantheon, had a number of hymns dedicated to him in the Rig Veda, the oldest of the four Vedas. As far as old Hinduism is concerned, it is difficult to separate the Vedic religion from mythology. The lives of the gods and their deeds are very entwined with how they are worshiped. Along with that, there is also history to consider, since real deeds and legends were often presented as one and the same.

Varuna makes appearances or is mentioned in both of the great Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Much like the Iliad and Odyssey, scholars are still not sure how much of the epics is truth and how much is simply a myth.

Another ancient piece of Hindu literature that Varuna is mentioned in is the Tamil grammar book Tolkappiyam. This work divided the ancient Tamils into five landscape divisions and each landscape had a god associated with it. The outermost landscape, along the shores of the Indian peninsula, is called neithal. It is the seashore landscape and is occupied by traders and fishermen. The god designated to neithal was Varunan, the god of sea and rain. In the Tamil language, ‘varuna’ means water and denotes the ocean.

Varuna in the Ramayana

The Ramayana is a very old Sanskrit epic. It is about the life of Prince Rama of Ayodhya and his battle against the demon Ravana in a mission to rescue his beloved wife Sita. Rama had the help of an army of monkeys and they had to build an enormous bridge across the sea to reach Ravana’s homeland, Lanka.

Lord Varuna appeared in the epic and had an encounter with Prince Rama. When Rama had to cross the ocean to reach Lanka in order to rescue Sita, he was faced with a dilemma on how to manage this feat. So he prayed to the god of water, Varuna, for three days and three nights. Varuna did not answer.

Rama was enraged. He rose up on the fourth day and declared that Varuna did not respect his peaceful attempts to cross the ocean. He said that he would have to resort to violence instead since it seemed even the gods only understood that. Rama drew his bow and decided to dry up the entire sea with his arrow. The sandy seabed would then allow his army of monkeys to walk across.

As Rama summoned the Brahmastra, a weapon of mass destruction that could obliterate even a god, Varuna rose out of the waters and bowed to Rama. He begged him not to be angry. Varuna himself could not change the nature of the ocean and dry it up. It was too deep and vast for that. Instead, he said that Rama and his army could build a bridge to cross the ocean. No god would disturb them while they built the bridge and marched across it.

In most retellings of the Ramayana, it is actually Samudra, the god of the sea, to who Rama prayed. But in certain retellings, including a more modern take on the Ramayana by author Ramesh Menon, it is Varuna who plays this role.

varuna-and-rama
Varuna and Rama, illustrated by Balasaheb Pandit Pant Pratinidhi

Varuna in the Mahabharata

The Mahabharata is the story of an immense war between two sets of cousins, the Pandavas and the Kauravas. Most of the kings of the region and even some of the gods take a hand in this great war. It is the longest surviving epic poem in the world, much longer than the Bible or even the Iliad and Odyssey put together.

In the Mahabharata, Varuna has been mentioned a few times, although he does not appear in it himself. He is said to be an admirer of Krishna, an incarnation of the great Hindu god Vishnu. Krishna once defeated Varuna in battle which gave rise to his respect for him.

Before the battle began, Varuna is said to have gifted weapons to Krishna and the third Pandava brother Arjuna. Varuna gave Krishna the Sudarshan Chakra, a round-throwing ancient weapon that Krishna is always depicted with. He also gifted Arjuna the Gandiva, a divine bow, as well as two quivers filled with arrows that would never run out. The bow came to great use in the great Kurukshetra war.

Varuna and Mitra

Lord Varuna is often mentioned in close association with another member of the Vedic pantheon, Mitra. They are often called Varuna-Mitra as a conjoined deity and are thought to be in charge of societal affairs and human conventions. Mitra, who like Varuna was an Asura originally, was thought to be the personification of oath. Together, Varuna-Mitra were the gods of oath.

Mitra was a representation of the more human side of religion, like rituals and sacrifices. Varuna, on the other hand, was the omnipresent, omniscient representation of the whole cosmos. He was the keeper of moral law and worked with Mitra to ensure that humans adhered to the laws and rules of the universe.

Together, Varuna-Mitra is also called the lord of light.

Worship and Festivals

Hinduism has hundreds of festivals, each celebrating different gods and goddesses. A particular festival is even celebrated in honor of different deities in different regions. Lord Varuna has several festivals dedicated to him around the year. These festivals are celebrated by different communities and regions all over India.

Cheti Chand

Cheti Chand is a festival that takes place during the Hindu month of Chaitra, from mid-March to mid-April. The purpose of the Cheti Chand festival is to mark the beginning of spring and a new harvest. It is a major festival for the Sindhi Hindus especially since it also marks the birth of Uderolal.

The Sindhi Hindus were said to have prayed to Varuna or Varun Dev, as they called him, to save them from the Muslim ruler Mirkhshah who was persecuting them. Varun Dev then took the form of an old man and warrior who preached to Mirkhshah. He said that Hindus and Muslims should all have religious freedom and the right to practice their religions in their own ways. Known as Jhulelal, Varun Dev became the champion of the people of Sindh, whether Muslim or Hindu.

Cheti Chand is celebrated on his birthday, as per Sindhi legend, and it is considered the first day of the new year in the Sindhi Hindu calendar. Uderolal was his birth name and it is still not clear how he came to be known as Jhulelal. The Hindus consider him to be an incarnation of Varuna. The muslims call him Khwaja Khizr.

Khwaja-Khizr
Khwaja Khizr

Chaliya Sahib

Another important festival of the Sindhi Hindus is Chaliya Sahib. It is also known as Chalio or Chaliho. It is a 40-day-long festival celebrated during the months of July and August. The dates may vary according to the Hindu calendar, which is a lunar calendar unlike the Gregorian one.

Chaliya Sahib is mainly a festival to give thanks to Varun Dev or Jhulelal. The story goes that when Mirkhshah gave the Hindus of Sindh an ultimatum to convert to Islam or be persecuted, they asked for a period of 40 days before making the conversion. During those 40 days, they prayed to Varuna by the banks of the Indus river and did penance. They fasted and sang songs. Finally, Lord Varuna is said to have replied to them and informed them that he would be born to a particular couple as a mortal to save them.

The Sindhi Hindus still celebrate Varuna during these 40 days. They observe a fast, offer prayers, and lead a very simple and ascetic life for those days. They also offer thanks to the lord for saving them from forced conversion.

Nārali Poornima

Nārali Poornima is celebrated in the state of Maharashtra by the Hindu fishing communities of the area. It is a ceremonial day that is observed especially around Mumbai and the Konkan coast in western India. The festival is celebrated during the Hindu month of Shravan, from mid-July to mid-August, on the full moon day (‘poornima’ being the Sanskrit word for ‘full moon’).

The fishing communities pray to Lord Varuna, the deity of water and seas. They offer ceremonial gifts such as coconuts, rice, and flowers to the deity.

Raksha Bandhan

Raksha Bandhan is a festival celebrated all over India. It celebrated the Hindu tradition of sisters tying amulets around the wrists of their brothers. It is meant to be a talisman for their protection. The celebration falls during the Hindu month of Shravan.

Raksha Bandhan usually has no religious associations and is more about kinship bonds and social rites. However, in some parts of western India, Raksha Bandhan has become linked with Nārali Poornima. Thus, on Raksha Bandhan people offer coconuts and prayers to the god Varuna to ask for his blessings and protection.

Raksha-Bandhan
Raksha Bandhan

Varuna and Sri Lankan Tamils

Lord Varuna is not only worshiped by Hindus in India but also by Hindus in other countries. Apart from the Sindhi Hindus of western India and parts of Pakistan, one of the largest communities that pray to Varuna is the Sri Lankan Tamils.

There is a Sri Lankan Tamil caste called Karaiyar, who live on the northern and eastern coastlines of Sri Lanka and more widely among the Tamil diaspora. Traditionally, they were a seafaring community. They were involved in fishing, sea trade, and shipments. They were a wealthy community of maritime traders and fishermen who shipped goods like pearls and tobacco to countries like Myanmar, Indonesia, and India. They were a warrior caste and well-known army generals to Tamil kings. They were also heavily involved in the Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism movement in the 1980s.

The Karaiyar had several clans, some of which they claimed could be traced back to the kingdoms of the Mahabharata era. One of the clans was also named after Varuna, due to his significance as the god of water and oceans. Varuna is not only the clan deity of the seafaring Karaiyar people but their emblem is also the Makara, the mount of Varuna. This symbol can be commonly found on their flags.

Varuna in Other Religions

Apart from his significance in Vedic texts and the Hindu religion, evidence of Varuna can be found in other religions and schools of thought as well. Mentions of Varuna or some deity close to Varuna have been found in Buddhism, Japanese Shintoism, Jainism, and Zoroastrianism.

Buddhism

Varuna is recognized as a deity in both the Mahayana and Theravada schools of Buddhism. As the oldest existing school of Buddhism, Theravada has a large number of written works that survive to this day. These are in the Pali language and are known as the Pali Canon. According to this, Varuna was a king of the devas, along with figures like Sakra, Prajapati, and Ishana.

The texts state that there was a war between the devas and the asuras. The devas looked upon the banner of Varuna and gained the courage needed to fight the war. All their fears were immediately dispelled. The philosopher Buddhaghosa said that Varuna was equal in glory and might to Sakra, the ruler of the Buddhist heavens. He took the third seat in the assembly of the devas.

In the Mahayana Buddhism of East Asia, Varuna is considered a dharmapala (defender of justice, guardian of the law). He was also called one of the Twelve Devas and was said to preside over the western direction. In Buddhist Japanese mythology, he is known as Suiten or ‘water deva.’ He is classified alongside eleven other devas also found in Hindu mythology, like Yama, Agni, Brahma, Prithvi, and Surya.

Suiten
Suiten

Shintoism

The Japanese Shinto religion also reveres Varuna. One of the Shinto shrines at which he is worshiped is called Suitengu or ‘the palace of Suiten.’ It is located in Tokyo. In 1868, the Japanese emperor and government implemented a policy called shinbutsu bunri. This separated Shintoism and Buddhism in Japan.

Shinto kami were separated from buddhas and Shinto shrines from Buddhist temples. This was a part of the Meiji Restoration. When this happened, Varuna or Suiten came to be identified with Ame-no-Minakanushi, the supreme one among all the Japanese gods.

Zoroastrianism

One last religion that is very important when we talk about Varuna is Zoroastrianism, the religion of the ancient Iranians. In a fascinating inversion to Indian mythology, the asuras are the higher deities in Zoroastrianism while the devas are relegated to the position of lower demons. The Avesta, the Zoroastrian holy book, talks about Ahura Mazda, a supreme omnipotent deity who encompasses all the asuras into one being.

Varuna is not mentioned by name in their mythology. However, Ahura Mazda in his role as deity charged with keeping cosmic order is very similar to the role Varuna played in Vedic mythology.

Ahura Mazda is linked to the Avestan Mithra, the deity of covenant, oath, justice, and light, just as Varuna is so often linked to the Vedic Mitra. The similar names and roles of these gods leave no doubt as to their being the same deity.

Finally, Ahura Mazda is linked to Asha Vahishta, the equivalent of the Hindu Sage Vasishtha. In Hindu mythology, Vasishtha was the son of Varuna-Mitra and the nymph Urvashi. In Iranian mythology, Asha Vahishta was a divine being who aided Ahura Mazda in carrying out his will in the world.

Given all these similarities and links, it seems very likely that Ahura Mazda and Varuna had similar origins. Thus, Varuna was most probably an Indo-European god from the earliest periods of civilization who was adapted by various different cultures in different ways.

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