The moral concern of the gods

Varuna, the God of Waters (1675–1700) — LACMA

The Ᾱdityas in Indian history

Do the gods care about the moral development of humanity? Do they encourage morally good behaviour and oppose those who act unethically? Many of the poets of the Rig Veda seem to have believed so, as did their Avestan compatriots. This article will present some verses of the Rig Veda that position the Ᾱditya gods as having a genuine concern and willingness to promote high moral standards amongst humans.

The gods Mitra, Varuna and Aryaman are called upon to establish peace in the daily prayers of Hindus when reciting the Śānti Mantra of the Taittirīya Upanishad –

शं नो मित्रः शं वरुणः। शं नो भवत्वर्यमा।

The importance of these daily prayers almost cannot be overstated. Indeed, this invocation of these gods for peace goes back not only to the Upanishads but back to the Rig Veda and thence to the Indo-Iranian period, thereby connecting the Vedic people with their Iranian cousins and in some way with the Indo-European peoples more generally.

These three gods are the most prominent of Ᾱdityas, but their total number is unclear, sometimes said to be six, seven or eight. As Prof. Michael Witzel describes, for the Indo-Aryans of the early Vedic period “the moral gods of ‘law and order’ [are] the Ᾱditya such as Varuṇa, Mitra, Aryaman, Bhaga, and sometimes even Indra, the prototypical IA warrior …”.

Mitra is a friend to us. This is evident in the very name of Mitra which already in Vedic times was a common word for ‘friend’. However, there is also an equally important second meaning. As Prof. Paul Thieme explains, “The Avestic appelative noun miθra- means ‘contract, treaty,’ so does the Rigvedic mitra-, e.g., in 10.34.14a, 10.108.3c, 10.89.9a …” Thus Prof. Thieme describes Mitra as “the god of compacts and the personification of friendship” and explains that in fact “it must be considered as firmly established that already in Proto-Aryan times there existed a god *Mitra ‘Contract, Treaty,’ a personified and divinized abstraction.”

The combination of these two meanings would perhaps suggest a figure who has a friendly moral concern for the moral development of humanity and who makes sincere efforts to promote harmonious relationships between peoples. And in fact Prof. Thieme surmises that “the couple Mitra and Varuṇa together induce people to make agreements and preserve peace” based on verses such as the following –

“You two, Mitra [and Varuṇa] keep in agreement these people (host and poets, in this case) and lead them together.”

[RV 5.65.6ab of Ṛṣi Rātrahavya Ᾱtreyaḥ; translation by Prof. Paul Thieme]

“You two, Mitra (and Varuṇa) are of firm peace through vow (you secure peace by seeing to it that vows are kept); you cause people to make mutual agreements through [your] establishment of [truth].”

[RV 5.72.2ab of Ṛṣi Bāhuvṛkta Ᾱtreyaḥ; translation by Prof. Paul Thieme]

“Mitra (God Contract), when named, causes people to make mutual arrangements (which establish peace).”

[RV 3.59.1a of Ṛṣi Gopavana Saptavadhriḥ; translation by Prof. Paul Thieme]

As for Varuṇa, Prof. Parpola speculates that the term’s “primary meaning [is] probably ‘oath, true speech’”. Further, as Prof. Norman Brown explains, “The Ᾱdityas … are creatures of unbinding, freedom, liberation.” This frequently means freedom through moral redemption and Varuṇa in particular is frequently called upon in the Rig Veda for moral redemption in verses that use the analogy of a bond of sin –

Loosen from me sin [aghaḥ] [that is] like a rope; may we partake of the well [khā] of truth [ṛta] from you, Varuṇa

[RV 2.28.5ab Ṛṣi Kūrmo Gārtsamadaḥ; my own translation]

Varuṇa, loosen the bond from us, from above, from below and from the middle

So that we may be without sin [āgas], Ᾱditya, for Aditi (???) according to your will

[RV 1.24.15 of Ṛṣi Śūnaḥśepaḥ Ᾱjīgartiḥ; my own attempted translation]

Such verses also seem to demonstrate a well-developed moral conscience of the Vedic poet who acknowledges his own moral culpability in the eyes of Varuṇa, and even more so in verses such as the following –

Varuṇa, if ever we made a transgression against any person, whether a dear one, or a friend, or a companion, or a brother, or a dependent, or a stranger, please pardon that.

If [we] gamblers cheated while playing a dice-game or if [we] committed sin [āgas] knowingly or unknowingly, remove all those as if [they are] loose as well, god! Let us be dear to you, Varuṇa!

[Rig Veda 5.85.7–8 of Ṛṣi Atriḥ; my own translation]

However, the Ᾱdityas can also have a more fearsome aspect to their exercise of moral supervision. As Prof. Thieme explains, “Already Dumézil … saw that it is one of Indra’s functions in the RV to avenge the faithless breach of covenants.” The verse quoted by both professors is RV 10.89.9, which Prof. Thieme translates as follows –

“Sharpen thy strong weapon, Indra, against those without contract (‘who do not recognize the sacredness of contracts/ treaties’), who deceive/ betray a contract (concluded between former or potential enemies) [and thereby: God Mitra], a hospitality (the contract existing between guest and host) [and thereby: God Aryaman], agreements (agreed upon by mutual friends), and true speech (in general, or in particular: ‘a solemn oath’) [and thereby: God Varuṇa].”

[RV 10.89.9 of Ṛṣi Reṇuḥ; translation by Prof. Paul Thieme]

As Prof. Thieme describes, supported by a list and discussion of many references in the Rig Veda –

“The Vedic poet insists on Indra slaying the amítra ‘him who does not recognize the sacredness of contracts/ treaties’ … More generally: Indra punishes untruth … The essential affinity of Indra and Varuṇa, which leads to the formation of the dvandva Indrā-Varuṇa, consists in the fact that both of them punish those who sin against truth and in particular break their contractual word”

Prof. Thieme explains that “The Avestan God who protect treaties by punishing those who break them is … Miθra … himself … He wields as his weapon the club (vazra), as the Vedic Indra his vajra.”

This is well-illustrated in Vedic passages such as the following –

“I think of you, Mitra and Varuṇa, who are strong through truth, of one mind, who drive away the liars, who help the truthful one in the battles, … [you] whose chariot, of which the course is true, of which the reins are straight, attacks him who behaves with falsehood, destroying [him].”

[Atharva Veda 4.29.1 and 7; translation by Prof. Paul Thieme]

indrā yuvaṃ varuṇā didyum asminn ojiṣṭham ugrā ni vadhiṣṭaṃ vajram |

yo no durevo vṛkatir dabhītis tasmin mimāthām abhibhūty ojaḥ ||

Powerful Indra and Varuṇa, strike down [your] most powerful arrow, your vajra [or lightning] at this one who is malignant, a robber, an enemy to us; towards that one mete out overwhelming strength.

[Rig Veda 4.41.4 of Ṛṣi Vāmadevo Gautamaḥ; my own translation]

As already indicated above, the Ᾱdityas are in fact gods common to both the Vedic poets and the poets of the Avesta. As Prof. Albert Carnoy explains –

“As is well known, the people of Iran are closely related to the Indo-Europeans of India … There is no point, however, in which the similitude of ideas between the two peoples is more striking than in the beliefs concerning the gods protecting morality and the group of conceptions connected with them … Instead of Mazdâh, Mithra, Anâhita, however, we find Varuna, Mitra, Aryaman”.

Similarly, Prof. Witzel explains –

“Of the major Asura (or, Ᾱditya) Varuṇa … appears in the Avesta as Ahura mazdā … Mitra as Miθra, Aryaman as Airiiaman, Bhaga as Baγa, Vivasvant (Mārtāṇda) as Vīvaŋhuuant, and Mārtāṇda’s brother Indra as the demon Indara.”

Prof. Witzel also connects the names of the gods with social morals. Regarding the Indo-Iranians, a group existing “a few hundred years before the RV and the Old Avestan texts”, Prof. Michael Witzel writes —

“Their society was governed by set of strict moral principles, including adherence to truth (satya : haiθiia), oaths (touching or drinking water, kośam pā) and other oral agreements between individuals (arya-man : airiia-man, especially for marriage and guest friendship) and between tribes (mitra : miθra) which regulated water rights and pasture.”

Prof. Thieme also explains –

“The Avesta, especially the Mihr Yašt (Yt.10) is even more explicit and eloquent in depicting Miθra as the protector of those who are faithful to their contract and as the enemy of those who ‘belie’ their ‘contract’ or ‘contractual world’ (miθra.druj) … Miθra’s role as ‘the guarantor of orderly international relations,’ as ‘the god of the international treaty,’ is rightly stressed …”

Prof. Parpola also suggests that Mitra and Varuṇa are in some sense the doubles of the Nāsatyas or Aśvins discussed in my earlier article here, which would indicate a remarkable combination of continuity with innovation in the Vedic tradition. Indeed the Nāsatyas are also oath deities just like their counterpart twins in the Greek tradition, Castor and Pollux. Thus Prof. Parpola writes, “The Dioskouroi, too, were oath deities”.

Curiously, Varuṇa seems to have two other characteristics as well. Firstly, according to Atharva Veda 3.27, entitled ‘A charm consigning an enemy to the serpents for punishment’, Varuṇa is one of six gods who are associated with six different directions, in Varuṇa’s case the Western direction. I am not convinced that this schema has any real intellectual significance in the context of the grand thought-stream of Indian theological and philosophical speculation, but I would be interested to know otherwise.

Secondly, the term ‘well’ in one of the verses above may also have some connection with Varuṇa’s association with rivers in the immediately preceding verse –

The rivers flow according to the truth [ṛta] of Varuṇa

[RV 2.28.4b Ṛṣi Kūrmo Gārtsamadaḥ; my own translation]

This seems to be how Varuṇa has become more closely associated with water and oceans over the course of time, as illustrated in the picture at top, and such that the motto of the Indian Navy is “shaṃ no varuṇaḥ” and the recent joint French-Indian naval exercises were named ‘Project Varuna’.

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