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The meaning of Varuna


From "Secret of the Veda",  Sri Aurobindo

We have the word Varuna from a root which means to surround, cover or pervade. From these significances of the name there emerged before the poetic eye of the ancient mystics the images that are our nearest concrete representation of the Infinite. They saw God as a highest covering Heaven, felt divine existence like an encompassing ocean, lived in its boundless presence as in a pure and pervading ether. Varuna is this highest heaven, this soul-surrounding ocean, this ethereal possession and infinite pervasion.

The same root had given them an appellation for the dark Coverer, the adversary Vritra; for to obstruct and resist, screen or hedge, besiege and hem in are also some of its many kindred senses. But dark Vritra is the thick cloud and the enveloping shadow. His knowledge—for he too has a knowledge, a Maya, —is the sense of limited being and the hiding away in subconscient Night all the rest of the rich and vast existence that should be ours, and for this negation and contrary power of creative knowledge he stands up stiffly against the Gods,—his undivine right against the divine right of God and man. Varuna by his wide being and ample vision rolls back these limits; surrounding us with light his possession reveals what dark Vritra’s obsession had withheld and obscured. His godhead is the form or spiritual image of an embracing and illuminating Infinity.

For this reason the physical figure of Varuna is much less definite than the burning Fire or the radiant Sun or the luminous Dawn. The old commentators thought strangely enough that he was the God ofNight. In the Puranas he is the deity of the waters and his noose, which in the Veda never pretends to be anything more than a psychological metaphor, has become the violent lasso of the ocean-god. European scholars have identified him with the Greek Uranus and perceiving something of his original ethereal nature have supposed a conceptual transference, a sort of fall or even a deposition from azure above to azure below. Indra, perhaps, becoming master of the skies and king of the gods, Varuna the original King had to be satisfied with the dominion of the waters. If we understand the symbolic method of the mystics, we shall see that these suppositions are unnecessary. Their method is to combine various ideas and images contained together in a general conception which gives all the links. So, Varuna of the Veda is at once King—not of the heavens as such, for that is Dyaushpita, nor of the heavens of light, for that is Indra,—but of the highest covering ether and all oceans. All expanses are Varuna’s; every infinity is his property and estate.

Ether and ocean meet together and become one in themystic conception; and the origin of this unity is not far to seek. The ancient concept of creation, held all over the world from the Himalayas to the Andes, conceived of the stuff of things as a formless expanse of waters covered over in the beginning by darkness out of which day and night and heaven and earth and all worlds have emerged. “Darkness,” says the Hebrew Genesis, “was upon the face of the deep, and the spirit of God moved on the waters.” By the word he divided the waters with Heaven, the firmament; so that now there are two waters, one earthly below the firmament, the other heavenly above. The mystics seized on this universal belief or this universal image and crowded into it their opulent psychological values. Instead of one firmament they saw two, the earthly and the celestial; instead of two oceans, three spread out before their unsealed vision.

What they saw, was whatman will ever see when he changes the physical for the psychical vision of Nature and the world. Below them they looked down on an unfathomable night and surging obscurity, darkness hidden within darkness, the inconscient waters from which by the mighty energy of the One their existence had arisen. Above them they beheld a remote ocean of light and sweetness, a highest ether, the supreme step of allblissful Vishnu, to which their attracted being must ascend. One of these was the dense dark ether, an unformed material inconscient Non-existence; the other a luminous ethereal All-conscient and the absolute of existence. These two were the dark and the shining extension of the One.

Between these two unknown infinities, infinite potential zero and infinite plenary x, they saw around them, before their eyes, below, above, a third sea of ever-developing conscious being, a sort of boundless wave, which they spoke of by a hardy metaphor as climbing up or flowing up beyond heaven to the supreme seas. It is this perilous ocean which we have to navigate. There Bhujyu, the seeker of enjoyment, son of King Tugra the Forceful-Hastening, was about to sink, cast in by his false companions, souls of an evil movement; but the marvellous chariot-ship of the Ashwins came hastening to his succour. Varuna must teach with his vast Right and Truth our limited will and judgment, if we would escape such perils: we must embark in no human galley, but “ascend the divine ship, the blameless and well-oared vessel that sinketh not, by which may we voyage safe beyond sin and evil.” Into this intermediate ocean, above our earth, we have seen the sun of Knowledge rise out of the inconscient cave and voyage led by the seers. For this too is an ocean-ether. Or, let us say, it is a tier of ethers. To follow the Vedic imagery we must suppose ocean superimposed upon ocean. This world is a series of heights that are depths and a mutual involution and evolution of vastnesses that have no ending: ether below rises to ever more luminous ether above, every stratum of consciousness rests upon many inferior and aspires to many higher strata.

But beyond our farthest skies in the supreme ocean of light and expanse of the highest superconscient ether our haven awaits us in a Truth hidden by lesser truth, even as in the inconscient Night darkness is enwrapped and protected by an ever greater darkness. That is the truth of King Varuna. Thither the Dawns shining arise, the rivers travel and the Sun unyokes there the  horses of his chariot. And Varuna contains, sees, governs all this in his vast being and by his illimitable knowledge. All these oceans are his, even to the Inconscient and its nights so opposite in their seeming to his nature which is that of the extended radiance of one eternal, vast sun of happy light and truth. Day and Night, light and darkness are symbols in his infinity. “Luminous Varuna has embraced the nights; he holds the Dawns within him by his creative knowledge; visioned, he is around every object.”

From this idea of the oceans arose naturally the psychological concept of the Vedic rivers. These rivers are everywhere. They are the waters which flow down from the mountain and ascend the mind ranging through and illuminating with their flow the dark subconscient secrets of Vritra; they are the mighty ones of Heaven whom Indra brings down on the Earth; they are the streams of the Truth; they are the rain from its luminous heavens; they are the seven eternal sisters and companions; they are the divine waters who have knowledge. They descend upon the earth, they rise from the ocean, they flow to the ocean, they break out from the doors of the Panis, they ascend to the supreme seas.

Oceanic Varuna is king of all these waters. “In the uprising of the rivers” it is said “he is a brother of seven sisters, he is in their middle.” And another Rishi has sung, “In the rivers Varuna is seated upholding the law of his works, perfect in will for empire.” Vasishtha speaks with a more explicit crowding of psychological suggestions, of “the divine, pure and purifying waters, honey-pouring, in the midst of whom King Varuna marches looking down on the truth and the falsehood in creatures.” Varuna too, like Indra with whom he is often associated, releases the waters; sped from his mighty hands they too, like him, become all-pervading and flow to a limitless goal. “The son of Infinity, the wide upholder, has loosed them forth everywhere; the rivers journey to the truth of Varuna.”

Not only the goal, the march too is his. “Varuna of the puissance and the thousandfold vision beholds the goal of these rivers; he is the king of the kingdoms, he is the form of the rivers, for him is a strength supreme and universal.” His oceanic movement envelops all the kingdoms of being and ascends to the Paradise of the heaven of heavens. “He is the hidden ocean” it is said “and he climbs passing beyond heaven; when he has set the sacrificial word in these dawns, then with his luminous foot he tramples asunder illusions and ascends to Paradise.” Varuna, we see, is the oceanic surge of the hidden Divine as he rises, progressively manifested, to his own infinite wideness and ecstasy in the soul of the god-liberated seer.

The illusions which he shatters with his tread are the false formations of the Lords of Evil. Varuna, because he is this ether of divine Truth and ocean of divine being, is what no personified physical sea or sky could ever become, the pure and majestic King who strikes down evil and delivers from sin. Sin is a violation of the purity of the divine Right and Truth; its reaction is the wrath of the Pure and Puissant. Against those who like the Sons of Darkness serve self-will and ignorance, the king of the divine Law hurls his weapons; the cord descends upon them; they fall into the snare of Varuna. But those who seek after the Truth with sacrifice are delivered from bondage to sin like a calf released from the rope or a victim set free from the slayingpost. The Rishis deprecate frequently the retributive violence of Varuna and pray to him to deliver them from sin and its wages, death. “Repel the Destruction away from us,” they cry, “loose from us even the sin that we have done”; or, always with the same sense of a chain and a bondage, “Cleave away sin from me like a cord.”

The crude conception of sin as a result of natural wickedness found no place in the thought of these deep thinkers and subtle psychologists. What they perceived, was a great insistent force of Ignorance; either a non-perception of right and truth in the mind or a non-seizing of it in the will, or an inability of the life instincts and desires to follow after it, or the sheer inefficiency of the physical being to rise to the greatness of the divine law. Vasishtha cries to mighty Varuna in a passionate litany, “It is from poverty of the will that we have gone contrary to thee, O pure and puissant One: be gracious to us, have grace. Thirst found thy adorer though he stood in the middle of the waters;  be gracious, O puissant Lord, have grace. Whatever this be, O Varuna, that we human beings act, a treason against the Divine Birth, wheresoever by the Ignorance we have put away thy laws, smite us not for that sin, O God.”

Ignorance, this matrix of sin, has in its substantial effect the appearance of a triple cord of limited mind, inefficient life, obscure physical animality, the three ropes with which the Rishi Shunahshepa in the parable was bound as a victim to the sacrificial post. The whole result is a struggling or inert poverty of being; it is the meagreness of a mortal undelight and the insufficiency of a being that collapses at every moment towards death. When Varuna the Mighty comes and sunders this threefold restraint, we are freed towards riches and immortality. Uplifted, the real man arises to his true kingship in the undivided being. The upper cord flies upward releasing the wings of the Soul into superconscient heights; the middle cord parts both ways and all ways, the constrained life breaking out into a happy breadth of existence; the lower cord collapses downward taking with it the alloy of our physical being to disappear and be dissolved in the stuff of the Inconscient. This liberation is the purport of the parable of Shunahshepa and his two great hymns to Varuna.

As ignorance or falsehood in the being—the Veda prefers usually the less abstract phrase—is the cause of wrong and suffering, so Knowledge or Truth is the agent which purifies and liberates. It is because of the eye with which he sees,— the luminous symbolic Sun,—that Varuna is the purifier. And unless he governs the will and teaches the judgment while the divine Thought is being learned, we cannot ascend on to the ship of the gods to be borne by it over the life-ocean beyond all this stumbling and evil. Dwelling in us as the thinker with knowledge Varuna cleaves away the sin that we have committed; he abolishes by his royal power our debts of the Ignorance. Or, using a different image, the Veda tells us that this King has in his service a thousand physicians; it is by their healing of our mental and moral infirmities that we get a secure foundation in Varuna’s wide and deep right-mindedness.

The Kingship of great Varuna is an unbounded empire over all being. He is a mighty world-ruler, an emperor, samr¯ at.. His epithets and descriptions are those which a mind at once religious and philosophic could apply with little or no change to the supreme and universal Godhead. He is the vastness and the multiplicity; among his usual epithets are vast Varuna, abundant Varuna, Varuna of whom wideness is the habitation, Varuna of many births. But his puissant being is not only a universal wideness; it is a universal force and might. The Veda says of him in words that have both an outward and an inward significance: “Thy force and might and passion neither these Birds in their travelling can attain, nor these Waters ranging sleeplessly, nor they who hedge in the hugeness of the wind.” It is a force of universal existence which is active around and in all that lives.8 Behind this vast universality of force and being there watches and acts a vast universality of knowledge. The epithet of kinghood is constantly coupled with the epithet of seerhood, not otiosely but in the strong, pregnant antique style. Varuna has a manifold energy,—the hero’s,—and wide expression,—the thinker’s; he comes to us as a godhead of the glory of force and in the same movement we find in him a soul of wide vision.

The full significance of this constant coupling of epithets appears in the double character of his sovereignty; he is svar ¯ at. and samr¯ at., self-ruler and emperor. They are the two faces of Aryan kingship. Inman they are a royalty of thought and action and the plenitude of wisdom and will; the King-Sage, the Hero-Thinker. In the Godhead, in Varuna “almighty, omniscient, thousandvisioned, whose form is the Truth”, they lift us up to supreme and universal principles; we see revealed a divine and eternal majesty, the plenitude of consciousness and the plenitude of Force, Wisdom omnipotent, Power omniscient, Law justified, Truth fulfilled.

Varuna, the Vedic symbol of this grandiose conception, is described finely as a vast thinker and guardian of the Truth. In him, it is said, all wisdoms are lodged and gathered up into their nodus; he is the divine Seer who nurtures the seer-knowings of man as if heaven were increasing its form. We find here the key to the symbol of the luminous cows. For it is said of him that, upholder of the worlds, he knows the hidden names of these shining ones and the thoughts of the seers go beyond like cows to the pastures desiring the wide-visioned. It is said of him too that he guards for the Maruts, greatened in knowledge, the thoughts of men like the cows of a herd.

That is the side of thought; there are parallel descriptions for the side of action. Great Varuna is the continent and nodus of the world’s uplifted puissances no less than of its arising thoughts. The unconquered workings that fall not from the Truth are established in him as upon a mountain. Because he thus knows the things that are transcendent, he is able to cast his majestic eye of sovereignty upon our existence and see there “the things that are done and those that remain to be done”. The things that remain to be done—and also to be known. The wisdom of Varuna shapes in us the divine word which, inspired, intuitive, opens the doors to new knowledge. “We desire him” cries the Rishi “as the finder of the Path because he unveils the thought by the heart; let new truth be born.” For this King is no whirler of a brute and stupid wheel; his are not the unfruitful cycles of a meaningless Law. There is a Path; there is a constant progress; there is a goal.

Varuna is the leader on this path. “Perfect in will” cries Shunahshepa “let the son of Infinity make us by the good path and carry our life forward. Varuna puts on his golden robe of light and his scouts are all around.” These detect the ambushed foes of the Light, the piercers of our hearts—who would prevent, it is to be supposed, the unveiling of the Truth-thought by the heart. For this journey which we saw as a march of the waters, we see also as a journey of the sun with the all-wise and all-powerful King for its Guide. In the vast where there is no foundation Varuna has built a high pyramid of the fuel of sacrifice for the fire that must be the blazing material of a divine Sun. “Its rays are directed downward, their foundation is above; let their perceptions of knowledge be established in us within. King Varuna has made a wide path for the Sun to follow; where there is no footing he has made places for him to set his feet. He shall make manifest too those who pierce the heart.” His purity is a great devourer of the hurters of the soul.

The Path is a constant making and building of new truth, new powers, higher realisations, new worlds. All heights to which we can climb from the basis of our physical existence are described in symbolic figure as mountain summits upon the earth and Varuna of the vision holds them all in himself. World after world is reached as level and ever higher level of a great mountain; the voyager in the forward march of Varuna is said to lay his grasp on all things that are born in all the statuses. But his final goal must be the highest triple world of the Deva. “Three delightful Dawns increase according to the law of his workings. He of the all-seeing wisdom dwells in three whiteshining earths; three are the higher worlds of Varuna whence he rules over the harmonies of seven and seven. He is the builder of the original seat, ‘That Truth’ of Varuna; and he is the guardian and the mover.”

In sum, then, Varuna is the ethereal, oceanic, infinite King of wide being, wide knowledge and wide might, a manifestation of the one God’s active omniscience and omnipotence, a mighty guardian of the Truth, punisher and healer, Lord of the noose and Releaser from the cords, who leads thought and action towards the vast light and power of a remote and high-uplifted Truth. Varuna is the King of all kingdoms and of all divine and mortal beings; earth and heaven and every world are only his provinces.

 Sri Aurobindo.