Water Deities of Hindus
(Compiled for a discourse by N.R.Srinivasan, Nashville, TN, USA, January 2014)
Satapata Brahmana mentions twelve Aadityas as Vedic deities. These are Mitra (the friend), Varuna (one who encompasses and binds), Aryaman (the destroyer of foes), Daksha (the skilful), Bhaga (the giver), Amsa (the liberal) Tvastru (the shaper), Savitar (the vivifier), Poosan(the nourisher), Sakra (the mighty), Vivasvat (the resplendent) and Vishnu (one who pervades). All the deities mentioned in samhitas of the Vedas—Mitra, Varuna, Indra and so on—are different names of the same Truth. So it is said in the Vedas: “Ekam sat vipraah bahudaa vadnti” (the One Truth the pundits call by many names). Rigvedic mantra says Agni is Brahman. Agni in his birth is called Varuna and when he is fully nourished and strong he is called Mitra justifying the statement that One Supreme is called by many names (tvamagne varunoe jaayase yatvam mitro bhavaci)—Rigveda V-3-1.
Varuna, the one who encompasses the whole world is one of the oldest Vedic deities. He is associated with clouds and water, rivers and ocean. He is sometimes clubbed with Mitra and praised as Mitraavaruna. In mythological literature Varuna is described as the presiding deity of the Western quarter and as the lord of ocean, water and aquatic animals. He is considered one among the eight deities ruling over the eight quarters of the universe (Ashta dikpalakas). Though invoked in all prayers in temple worship Varuna is rarely worshiped directly. He is represented on the ceiling in the chief pavilion (mahaamandapa ) of the temples of today. In some of the temples in his iconic description he is depicted as riding on a crocodile. In two of his four arms he holds the serpent and noose. Sometimes he is pictured as riding in a chariot drawn by seven swans and holding lotus, the noose, the conch and a vessel of gem in the four hands. There is an umbrella over his head.
But why we have to worship Varuna, who is considered as a separate deity today and also the guardian of Western quarters and not directly Supreme Being, one may ask. In other religions the one God is worshiped directly by all. Among us the highly enlightened Sanyaasins (holy people) worship the Paramaatman directly. Others have to please and propitiate the various deities and obtain well-being through their blessings. It is to please the deities we perform a variety of sacrifices. Paramaatman is the Supreme king-emperor. We, human beings, are his subjects. Varuna, Agni, Vayu and such celestials are his officials. We have to obtain a number of benefits through them and so we perform sacrifices with a view to enhancing their power to do us good. We say “na mama’’ (not mine), making the prayere universal, when we offer any material in the sacred fire. Such an oblation is consumed by Agni and conveyed to the celestial like Varuna (mythological deity), who is thus invoked. It is thus they obtain their sustenance. Vedas contain directions and mantras about how to propitiate celestials as Vyaahritis (identitieas)of Brahman.
This earliest and most ancient worship of Varuna as Brahman has now deeply penetrated into the religious minds and hearts of Hindus as a separate deity. This can be seen in the worship of the seven holy rivers where a male deity Varuna is replaced by a female deity. It is all water worship.The rivers are country’s life-line. Hindus look upon rivers as divinities, goddesses of prosperity. Of all the rivers in India no river has captivated the minds of the people more than river Gangaa. A bath in Gangaa is a life-time’s ambition of a Hindu. No religious act can be ceremoniously complete without its being used in some form or the other. If it is not readily available she is invoked by prayers to enter into the water and make her presence. A few drops of its water poured into the mouth of a dying person will remove all the sins; Immersion of the ashes of a dead person’s body in it is believed to give him liberation. So, people even carry a sealed copper pot of Ganges water and keep it safe for several years, to administer the dyeing person the holy water and to pray for the departing soul to reach heaven, wherever he is settled. anywhere on the globe. The credit goes to Bhagiratha who by his prayers brought her down to earth from heaven to redeem the sins of 60000 sons of Sagara who were reduced to ashes, according to Puranas. Thus Gangaa is considered to be heavenly abode on earth or ladder to heaven. Goddess Ganga is ceremoniously and gorgeously worshipped every day during twilight period in Hardwar and Varanasi by Hindus where the river flows.
Physical and spiritual cleanliness and well-being... a striving to attain purity and avoid pollution is important to all Hindus. This widespread aspiration lends itself to a reverence for water as well as the integration of water into most Hindu rituals, as it is believed that water has spiritually cleansing powers. Water represents the "non-manifested substratum from which all manifestations derive and is considered by Hindus to be a purifier, life-giver, and destroyer of evil. Every spring, the Ganges River swells with water as snow melts in the Himalayas. The water brings life as trees and flowers bloom and crops grow. This cycle of life is seen as a metaphor for Hinduism. Milk and water are symbols of fertility, absence of which can cause barrenness, sterility leading to death.
Water is very important for all the rituals in Hinduism. Water is essential for rituals --cleaning the vessels used for the poojas (rituals), and for Abhishekas or bathing of Deities. Water offered to the Deity and the water collected after bathing the Deities are considered very sacred. This water is offered as “Theertha” or blessed offering to the devotees. Poorna Kumbha is an object symbolizing God and it is regularly used during different religious rites. The water in the jar is said to be divine essence. Varuna japa, mantras invoking the God Varuna are chanted to produce rains. Many of the poojas in Hinduism start with keeping a Kalasa which is a brass, silver or gold pot filled with water adorned with a coconut amid mango or other sacred leaves. Kalasa symbolizes the universe and becomes an integral part of the Mandalic-liturgy as it still forms an indispensable element of certain poojas in Hinduism. The pot is the first mandala into which the Deities descend and raise themselves.
REFERENCES AND ACKNOWLEDGEMENT:
1. Swami Harshananda, Hindu Gods and Goddesses, Ramakrishna Math, Chennai, India
2. Swami Harshananda, Hindu Pilgrim centers, Ramakrishna Math, Chennai, India
3. Jagadguru Chandrasekharananda Sarswati, Dharma, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai, India
4. Ananta Rangachar, Rigvedaratna Samputa, D.V.K. Murthy Publishers, Mysore, India
[This discourse material is a compilation from the reference materials above as well as other sources for a prepared lecture for delivering at Vedanta Class of Sri Ganeha Temple which is gratefully acknowledged. These lectures are posted on the blog for the benefit of those who are not able to attend my lectures due to personal reasons or due to not living in Nashville or able to go through the various sources as I have done. They are free to circulate the contents partly or wholly for wider circulation to spread the wisdom of Vedas and scriptural values with or without any reference to my name.]