From a distance the sea appears serene and peaceful, but sailors know that the mighty ocean at times shows no generosity. Before embarking on a sea voyage, Hindus pray to Varuna, the ruler of the ocean, a practice that continues today, although not many people realize that Varuna, whose powers eroded through the centuries, was once the supreme ruler of the universe, including the oceans.
One of the oldest gods of the Hindu pantheon, Varuna was the highest ranking deity at the peak of his powers. He was the king of the gods and the guardian of Rta, or the sacred laws. The name Varuna is derived from var, which in Sanskrit means "to cover."As the god of the universe, he oversees everything. Varuna makes the sun shine in the heavens.His breath is the wind. Using his supernatural power, or maya, he causes the rain to fall and rivers to flow, thereby sustaining his creatures. Varuna has many qualities, but his omniscience makes him exceptional. He sits majestically in his thousand-columned, thousand-gated golden palace in the sky, where he is accompanied by his vigilant spies, including the sun and the stars. He is said to know the flight of birds in the sky, the course of the far-traveling wind, the paths of ships on the ocean, and much more.
Varuna - Rider of Makra
Varuna is depicted as a white god with four arms who rides a crocodile called Makara. On his right hand he carries a noose with which he performs his role as the cosmic hangman. His usual technique is to lasso the offender with the noose, although Varuna can be forgiving at times.He is known to extend the lives of the good and shorten the lives of those who violate the Rta. That is why Varuna is known as the judgmental god, providing justice as well as meting out punishment.
Occasionally he is called the lord of the dead, a position he shares with Yama, and Varuna is able to confer immortality to those who seek his pardon. Varuna has an ethical side, and among the Vedic deities he has higher moral standing than any other god. He is often called the ethical god, and people call upon him for fairness and forgiveness.
You will be surprised to learn that Varuna was originally an asura (demon) in the Rigveda, the holy book of Hindus. The Rigveda, for that matter, was originally transmitted and only later compiled and written down. Varuna's reign at the top, however, was short-lived. A demon called Vritra kept the cosmic waters captive, and the lack of rain brought drought and widespread famine. Varuna, as the protector of the universe, fought alongside Indra to retrieve the waters, but it was Indra who slayed the demon, destroying Vritra's ninety-nine fortresses and releasing the waters. After this heroic act Indra gained recognition as the top god. Varuna was sidelined as the guardian of the waters. His palace was relocated to a mountain called Pushpagiri, which lies beneath the waters. Varuna still carries the noose but also totes an umbrella formed by the hood of a cobra.
Varuna in Mahabharata
Varuna's moral standing also took a turn for the worse. The Mahabharata relates that Varuna fell deeply in love with the beautiful Bhadra, who also happened to be the wife of the sage Uthathya. The love-struck Varuna abducted Bhadra and hid her under the sea. When the infuriated sage learned what had happened, he drank the entire ocean dry. Varuna's hideout was exposed, and he was forced to return Bhadra. His troubles did not end there.Once Varuna became infatuated with an apsara called Urvashi.
The apsaras are celestial nymphs and the Vedic equivalents of the Kardashian clan. Varuna is said to have lost control of himself when he saw the enchanting Urvashi and involuntarily discharged his seeds into the heavenly pot-perhaps one of the earliest cases of sexual dysfunction in gods.The result of this mishap was the birth of a son called Agastya. Agastya's birth certificate, however, lists two fathers.It appears that the god Mitra also was distracted by Urvashi and had simultaneously released his seeds. As a result Agastya has two fathers..§. You would think Agastya, who did not know the identity of his true biological father, would lead a sad life, struggling with identity crisis and suffering from damaged self-esteem. Nothing was further from the truth. Agastya grew up to be one of the eminent sages of India and became the father of Tamil literature.He is also considered the father of traditional Indian medicine.
Although most hymns in the Rigveda are addressed to Indra, a handful are dedicated to Varuna. He is often connected with Uranus,the god of the sky in Greek mythology, and sometimes with Ahura Mazda, the god of the Zoroastrians.
In the Vedic era Indra was unquestionably the greatest of the gods,but he never instilled the awe and fear that Varuna commanded at the time of his glory.But today you will not find any images of Varuna, for no one worships him in temples or home shrines. Seafarers have abandoned him, for they rely on Dhruva for navigational guidance. But Varuna is not a forgotten god. In the story of Krishna you will learn that he turned to Varuna for help in securing some prime real estate to build his city of Dwarka. Hindus routinely invoke Varuna during Vedic rituals even today.A small pot containing water, which signifies auspiciousness, is an important part of every Hindu ceremony.
Water is also sprinkled and drunk at the beginning of each prayer. Varuna and its variations are popular names in India, and many ships in the Indian navy bear his name.