Varuna is one of the mightiest of the gods in early Hinduism, later becoming a god of water. He was viewed as having dominion over the ocean of the gods, ruling the sky, bringing the rains, overseeing the underworld, and laying down the universal law.
Varuna is seen as the most omniscient of the early Hindu gods, and is often looked at as being omnipotent as well. His role was to make sure order was kept throughout the universe. He was looked at as the sacred keeper of the force of rta, which is the force that keeps the universe exactly as it should be. It was Varuna who made sure the sun made its way across the sky, separating day and night, and who kept the earth fixed.
Varuna is usually depicted as a tall white man, wearing a shining suit of golden armor. He made his way on his mount, Makana or Makara, a strange sea monster. Makara was sometimes seen as being a sort of crocodile-dolphin mix, or occasionally as a huge fish with the head of an elephant. He often carried around a noose formed of a snake, and was known as the cosmic hangman in his more vengeful role.
Varuna ensured that the laws were always kept. Not only the laws of nature, which he presided over, but also the laws and oaths of man. When a man broke an oath, it was Varuna who punished him. He was depicted as all-knowing, and the nearly infinite stars were said to be his eyes, watching everything that happened on earth and in the minds of men. He was also associated with the underworld, and along with Yama he shepherded people there and oversaw them in the afterlife, and could choose to give them the gift of immortality if he wished it.
Varuna also was charged with overlooking the celestial ocean of the gods. It was from this ocean that all rain came to earth, and so he was responsible for the rains that nourished the crops and made life possible. In the later Hindu traditions this role gradually became more and more important for Varuna, as his omniscience and omnipotence was overshadowed by the gods of Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva.
One of the most famous myths involving Varuna comes from the Ramayana. In it, an avatar of the great god Vishnu, Rama, wishes to cross the mighty ocean of Lanka. He prays and offers up sacrifice to Varuna, beseeching him to assist him. When Varuna does not reply, Rama begins to attack the waters of the ocean itself, killing the creatures within and setting fire to the water. Varuna eventually appears, as Rama is on the verge of using a weapon capable of destroying all creation, and apologizes to Rama. He stills the waters, which allows a bridge to be built across the ocean. The tale demonstrates Rama’s righteousness, and also acts as a parable to say that violence may be justified after the proper holy acts have been taken and have received no response from the gods.