by Stephen T. Naylor
Though he only has about a dozen hymns addressed to him in the Rig Veda, Varuna seems to be one of the most important of the Vedic gods. In pre-Vedic times, he was the supreme lord of the cosmos, the keeper of divine order, the bringer of rain, the enforcer of contracts. He is called omnipotent and omniscient; he is responsible for the sun to move in the sky, for day and night to stay separate, and for the earth to keep its form; he watches the flight of every bird, is present at every gathering, and knows every thought.
His name means "he who covers", and this probably refers to the sky. Varuna is the keeper of the cosmic order, a force called rta. It is rta which keeps everything working as it should, and Varuna's role as the one who governs rta makes him very important indeed. He is very closely linked to the god Mitra. Varuna is one of the Adityas and considered to be an asura, when those beings were still god-like and had not yet degenerated into demons. He is also associated with the moon and Soma, in Soma's incarnation as the drink of the gods. Varuna is seen as a white man in golden armor riding a Makara (a sea monster), holding a noose or lasso made from a snake.
Varuna is the keeper of the celestial waters, those which flow from the openings in the sky in the form of rain. He was worshiped with veneration and a healthy amount of fear, for as an asura Varuna did have his sinister aspects and was known to punish mortals who did not keep their word. He was the cosmic hangman and his usual method of punishment was to capture the offender with his noose. He was also a lord of the dead, a position he shared with Yama, and could confer immortality if he so chose.
In Vedic times, the worship of Varuna fell off as he was supplanted by Indra as king of the gods. One possible reason for this may go back to Indra's most famous exploit. When Vritra stole all the waters of the universe, the waters which Varuna was in charge of, it was Indra who had to fight the demon and get them back. It may have been because of this that Indra was able to supplant the overlordship of Varuna and become lord of the gods himself. Varuna then became god of the oceans and rivers; still important, but with hardly the grandeur he once had. The souls of those who drowned went to him, and he was attended by the nagas. Varuna faded away with the ascendancy of Shiva and Vishnu. His lofty position may have lived on, however, for he may be the same as the Zoroastrian supreme god Ahura Mazda.
When life is purified, when mind is purified, the aspirant will be established in that vast and luminous Heaven. Varuna is the presiding Deity of vastness. The harmony and the union that came into existence from the infinite expanse of Varuna are the gifts of Mitra. Lord Varuna removes the limitation, isolation and disunion of our ordinary knowledge. He tears away the hostile force that compels us to remain narrow and small. Hence he is called Risadasam. And Mitra is our divine Guide. With his clear vision he unites all the objects together in perfect harmony. When an aspirant attains to the level of indivisible harmony in the infinite, in the limitless, he arrives at the fundamental Truth and his action then becomes the infallible manifestation of that Truth. Indra possesses pure intelligence. Behind him stand the two powers of the Infinite, Varuna and Mitra. Volume 8: "Vedic Hymns."