Monthly Archives: March 2021

Varuna, the pre-eminent God during the formative Vedic religion

The adherents of Vedic religion had classified their gods under three spheres namely aerial, celestial and terrestrial. Judging the popularity of the gods on the basis of the number of hymns addressed to them, Indra, the god belonging to aerial sphere comes first followed by Agni and Soma. But during the early phase of the Vedic religion, Varuna though celebrated only in ten hymns reigned supreme among the gods worshipped by the Vedic people. The reason for this was because Varuna, a god belonging to the celestial sphere symbolised the sky. The sky pours water and bring life in the vegetation. The sky holds the sun, the moon and the stars and brings the day by bringing the sun out from beneath the sea. So, the Varuna or the sky was adored as a great deity. In the next stage of evolution, we find the pantheon comprises of two gods, the Varuna and the Mithra. The Mithra is the sun and the usherer of the day and giver of light and life. From this time onwards the dual deity Mithra-Varuna came to be the favourite god of the Vedic people and there are about 23 hymns in the Rigveda addressed to Mithra-Varuna together. Both Mithra and Varuna are spoken of as righteous and promoters of religion.

A Universal Monarch

In the Rigveda, Varuna is called king of both gods and men. He is a universal monarch (samraj) with several epithets like ‘asura’, ‘mayin’, ‘rtavan’, ‘dhrtavrata’, etc. As an upholder of the physical and moral order, Varuna has attributes of a higher moral character than any other gods and hence men call upon him for pardon and purity. He is the upholder of ordinances which are fixed and unassailable. The Varuna hymns which are predominantly ethical and devout in tone give us the most exalted poetry in the Rigveda. In the Mahabharata and the Puranas, Varuna is referred as the son of Aditi and called lokapala. His father sage Kashyapa installed him in the west as the ruler of all directions, aquatic animals and waters. Varuna is also called Pracetas, Amburaja, Jalapati, Uddhama, Yadahpati, Viloma and his vahana (vehicle) is Makara (crocodile). Varuna is also worshipped for the sake of rain. There are two special reasons for Varuna’s connection with water- the first one is his characteristic punishment for the wrongdoer is dropsy- which is formation of water in the cavities inside the middle region of the body and second reason is the setting sun whose presiding deity is Varuna, appears to go down into the sea.

Identified with Serpent God

According to Manomohan Ghosh, Varuna originally was a serpent god and Varuna panchami described in Nilamata Purana is in reality identified with the festival of Nagas, Nagapanchami. Varuna has been mentioned as Nagaraja in Buddhist works like Mahavyutpatti and the Jatakas. In a Napalese legend also Varuna appears as a great Naga.

Varuna cult superseded by Indra cult

The Varuna cult in the Vedic religion is more ancient than the Indra cult. With regards to the evolution of the Indra cult R.N.Dandekar opines that Indra was a human hero who attained godhood by virtue of his miraculous exploits of defeating the sworn enemies of Devas (Manavas) that is the Asuras. A critical study of the Rigveda shows that there are three distinct phases of relation between the ancient Varuna religion and the new Indra religion. Some passages in Rigveda glorify Varuna as the world sovereign which represent the first phase. In the second phase we find hymns in the Rigveda which clearly indicate that Varuna religion was being pushed into the background and the Indra religion was aggressively coming to the forefront. We find hymns which refer to Agni abandoning Varuna and going over to Indra. In the third phase the followers of Varuna tried to bring about an honourable compromise between the two religions. They argued that after victory is won by the war god Indra, Varuna is needed to establish law and order and thier slogan was Indra conquers and Varuna rules. This attempt to compromise was made particularly by the Vasishtas. Though superseded by Indra, Varuna continued to be the deity for whom rituals were held for the expiation of faults. In Atharvaveda, Varuna is conceived of as a God who chastises the sinners as well as pardons those who ask for forgiveness.

Mazdaism inspired by Varunaism

Manmohan Ghosh opines that the cult of Varuna was carried to Iran sometimes in the Vedic age or before and Zarathustra’s conception of Ahura Mazdah was inspired by Varuna’s cult minus some of its unacceptable features like human sacrifice. As we know the Shunashepa legend recorded in the Aitareya Brahmana points to human sacrifice offered to Varuna. Zarathustra suppressed the name of Varuna as it was associated with bloody rites like human sacrifice and applied to his Supreme deity the generic name of Asura (Ahura), the title of Varuna with Mazdah (the wise).

Varuna identified with Supreme Reality

There are about eleven hymns in Rigveda in which Indra and Varuna have been invoked together. In these hymns Indra and Varuna are called the two monarchs of the universe who are called upon to render assistance in battle and grant victory. According to Usha Choudhuri, in the Vedic vision as well as in the entire subsequent thought, the bright aspect (Sathvika) of the Reality is considered to be the Supreme. As Indra represented the bright aspect, the Purusha, in comparison to Prakriti represented by Varuna, the former gained supremacy over the latter. From the philosophical point of view, Indra and Varuna when explained on microcosmic lines represent the Jivatman and the Kundalini Shakti respectively; that is, one is consciousness (soul) and the other is the gross form of consciousness (body). Thus, Indra and Varuna represent the positive and negative aspects of the cosmic reality. This positive and negative aspect are complementary to each other and at the same time identical with the Supreme Reality.


  • Swami Sankaranand- RGVedic Culture of the Pre-historic India, Vol-II, Ramakrishna Vedanta Math, Calcutta, 1944
  • Usha Choudhuri- Indra and Varuna in Indian Mythology, Nag Publishers, Delhi, 1981
  • W.J.Wilkins- Hindu Mythology, Vedic and Puranic, 1913
  • Ksetreshacandra Chattopadhyaya – Vedic Religion, Centre of Advanced Study in Philosophy, Banaras Hindu University, 1975
  • R.N.Dandekar- Vedic Mythological Tracts, Ajanta Publications, Delhi, 1979
  • R.C.Majumdar Edited- History and Culture of the Indian People,The Vedic Age, 1951
  • Manomohan Ghosh – Varuna : His Identification, The Indian Historical Quarterly, vol -xxxv, December 1959, no-4