|oath, friendship, (eye of, light of) the morning sun|
Mitra (Sanskrit Mitrá) is a divinity of Indic culture, whose function changed with time. In the Mitanni inscription, Mitra is invoked as one of the protectors of treaties. In the Rigveda, Mitra appears primarily in the dvandva compound Mitra-Varuna, which has essentially the same attributes as Varuna alone, e.g. as the principal guardian of ṛtá "Truth, Order", breaches of which are punished. In the late Vedic texts and the Brahmanas, Mitra is increasingly associated with the light of dawn and the morning sun (while Varuna becomes associated with the evening, and ultimately the night). In the post-Vedic texts – in which Mitra practically disappears – Mitra evolved into the patron divinity of friendship, and because he is "friend", abhors all violence, even when sacred.
Indic Mitra should not be confused with the Zoroastrian divinity Mithra (Miθra). Although their names both derive from the Proto-Indo-Iranian noun *mitra, "(that which) causes binding", a shared etymology through which the two also share some properties, Indic Mitra and Iranian Mithra developed differently, and the two figures are not identical. Indic Mitra should also not be confused with Roman Mithras.[note 1]
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The Indo-Iranian common noun *mitra means "(that which) causes [-tra] to bind [mi-]", hence Sanskrit mitram, "covenant, contract, oath", the protection of which is Mitra's role in both the Rigveda and in the Mitanni treaty. In post-Vedic India, the noun mitra came to be understood as "friend", one of the aspects of bonding and alliance. Accordingly, in post-Vedic India, Mitra became the guardian of friendships.
In the Vedas
In the Rigveda, the oldest of the Vedic texts, Mitra is mostly indistinguishable from Varuna, together with whom Mitra forms a dvandva pair Mitra-Varuna,[note 2] and in which Mitra-Varuna has essentially the same characteristics as Varuna alone. Varuna is not only the greater of the two, but also — according to RV 2.12 — the second-greatest of the RigVedic gods after Indra.:134 Rigvedic hymns to Mitra-Varuna include RV 1.136, 137, 151-153, RV 5.62-72, RV 6.67, RV 7.60-66, RV 8.25 and RV 10.132. Mitra is addressed independently in one hymn only RV 3.59, where he has hardly any traits that distinguish him from Varuna, and owing to the scantiness of the information supplied in that hymn his separate character appears somewhat indefinite. "Mitra as an independent personage is insignificant. [...] One theory holds that the dvandvic union possibly represents an apotropaic application [of "friend"] to the otherwise frightening and dangerous Varuna."
Mitra-Varuna are conceived as young, they wear glistening garments, are monarchs and guardians of the whole world and their palace is golden, with a thousand pillars and a thousand doors. They support (and are frequently invoked next to) heaven and earth, and the air between heaven and earth. They are lords of rivers and seas, and they send rain and refreshment from the sky. They wet the pastures with dew of clarified butter (ghee), and rain abounding in heavenly water comes from them. Their domain has streams that flow with honey, and their pastures have cattle that yield refreshment. They afflict those that disregard them with disease. They are asuras, and (like all asuras) wield their power through secret knowledge (māyā́), which empowers them to make the sun traverse the sky, and to obscure it with clouds. Their eye is the sun, and they mount their chariot in the highest heavens, which they drive with the rays of the sun as with arms. They have spies that are wise and undecievable. They are maintainers of order (ṛtá, "truth"), they are barriers against falsehood, which they punish. They are leaders of the seven Ādityas, the celestial sons of Āditi.
Although they are Asuras, Rigvedic Mitra-Varuna are also addressed as devas (e.g., RV 7.60.12). Mitra is also a deva (mitrasya...devasya, RV 3.59.6) in RV 3.59, which is the only Rigvedic hymn dedicated to Mitra independently from Mitra-Varuna. Despite the independent dedication, Mitra still retains much the same characteristics as Varuna in that hymn. Like Varuna, Mitra is lauded as a god following ṛta, order and stability and of observances (3.59.2b, vrata). Again like Varuna, Mitra is the sustainer of mankind (3.59.6a, said also of Indra in 3.37.4c) and of all gods (3.59.8c, devān vishvān). Elsewhere, when Mitra appears not paired with Varuna, it is often for the purpose of comparison, where other gods are lauded as being "like Mitra", without the hymn being addressed to Mitra himself (Indra 1.129.10, 10.22.1-2 etc.; Agni 1.38.13 etc.; Soma 1.91.3; Vishnu 1.156.1). A characteristic unique to Mitra is his ability to marshal the people (yātayati, yātayáj-jana), an attribute that appears to be peculiarly his.
In some of their aspects, Varuna is lord of the cosmic rhythm of the sun and other celestial spheres, while Mitra brings forth the light at dawn, which was covered by Varuna. Mitra is also independently identified as being force by which the course of the sun is regulated; Savitr (RV 1.35) is identified with Mitra because of those regulations, and Vishnu (RV 1.154) takes his three steps by those regulations. Agni is kindled before dawn to produce Mitra, and when kindled is Mitra. In the Atharvaveda, Mitra is again associated with sunrise, and is contrasted with Varuna's association with the evening. In the Brahmanas, the exegetical commentaries on the Vedas, the associations with morning and evening lead Mitra to be connected with the day, and Varuna with night. Also in Shatapatha Brahmana, Mitra-varuna is analyzed as "the Counsel and the Power" — Mitra being the priesthood (Purohita), Varuna the royal power (Rājān).
Indic Mitra is first attested in a 14th century BCE Mitanni inscription in which a Indo-Aryan king of Mitanni invokes the gods Mitra, Indra, Varuna, and the Nasatyas as guarantors of his sworn obligations.
In living tradition
In the Atharvaveda, Mitra is associated with sunrise, and accordingly, Mitra is worshipped in the sunrise prayers of the Hindus. The morning upasthaana prayer, recited to the risen sun after contemplation on the sacred Gayatri mantra, is a collection of Vedic verses addressing Mitra.
- Until the 1970s, Roman Mithras was widely assumed to be a continuation of Zoroastrianism's Mithra, and thus also of Indo-Iranian *mitra. Due to the lack of evidence of continuity (and a great deal of evidence to the contrary), such theories are no longer followed today in serious scholarship. While the name of Roman Mithras is universally acknowledged to have been borrowed (via Greek and some indeterminate Hellenistic/Anatolian intermediate) from Zoroastrianism's Mithra, this does not imply that the Roman figure (or his cult) also derives from the Iranian one. For a discussion of the issue, consult the authorities (Roger Beck, Manfred Clauss, Richard Gordon) on the Roman cult, e.g. Beck, Roger (2012), "Mithraism", Encyclopedia Iranica, New York: iranicaonline.org (Columbia University).
- In Sanskrit dvandva compounds, the shorter name always appears first, regardless of seniority, hence 'Mitra-Varuna' even though Varuna is the more important of the two.
- MacDonell, Arthur Anthony (1917), A Vedic Reader, Oxford UP, pp. 78–83, 118–119, 134.
- Visuvalingam, Elizabeth-Chalier (1989), "Bhairava's Royal Brahmanicide", Criminal Gods and Demon Devotees: Essays on the Guardians of Popular Hinduism, New York: State University Press, p. 200.
- Dumézil, Georges (1990), Mitra-Varuna: An Essay on Two Indo-European Representations of Sovereignty, Cambridge: Zone Books, ISBN 0-942299-13-2.
- Mayrhofer, Manfred (1996), Etymologisches Wörterbuch des Altindoarischen, vol. II, Heidelberg: Winter, pp. 354–355.
- Lüders, Heinrich (1951), Alsdorf, Ludwig, ed., Varuna I: Varuna und das Wasser, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.
- Lüders, Heinrich (1959), Alsdorf, Ludwig, ed., Varuna II: Varuna und das Rta, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.
- York, Michael (2005), "Mitra", Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Routledge, p. 503.
- Læssøe, Jørgen (1963), People of Ancient Assyria: Their Inscriptions and Correspondence, Routledge, p. 86.