|morning sun, the oath, loyalty and friendship|
Mitra (Sanskrit Mitrá) is an important divinity of Indic culture, and the patron divinity of honesty, friendship, contracts and meetings. He is a figure of the Rigveda, distinguished by a relationship to Varuna, the protector of ṛtá.
Together with the Zoroastrian divinity Mithra (Miθra), Mitra descends from a Proto-Indo-Iranian *mitra, "contract". While Mitra and Mithra share many characteristics, they developed independently following the prehistorical split of the Indo-Iranians, and should not be equated with one another. Mitra and Mithra should also not be confused with Roman Mithras, who – although nominally inheriting his name from Iranian Mithra – is a product of Roman thought.
The Indo-Iranian word *mitra-m means "covenant, contract, oath, or treaty", and only later on, "friend" (retaining the original neuter gender, mitram). The second sense tends to be emphasized in later sources, the first sense in the Veda and in Iranian. The word is derived from a root mi- "to fix, to bind" (Indo-European *Hmei), with the "tool suffix" -tra- (compare man-tra-), a contract is thus described as a "means of binding."
In the Vedas
Vedic Mitra is the patron divinity of contracts and meetings. He is a prominent deity of the Rigveda distinguished by a relationship to Varuna, the protector of ṛtá. Together with Varuna, he counted among the chief Adityas, a group of deities with social functions. They are the supreme keepers of order and gods of the law. The next two in importance are Aryaman (who guards guest friendship and bridal exchange) and Bhaga (share in bounty, good luck).
Varuna and Mitra are the gods of the oath and tribal contracts, often twinned as Mitra-Varuna (a dvandva compound). In the Vedic hymns, Mitra is often invoked together with Varuna, as Mitra-Varuna. In some of their aspects, Varuna is lord of the cosmic rhythm of the celestial spheres, while Mitra brings forth the light at dawn, which was covered by Varuna. Mitra together with Varuna is the most prominent deity and the chief of the Adityas in the Rigveda. Though being Asuras, Mitra and Varuna are also addressed as devas in Rigveda (e.g., RV 7.60.12), and in the only hymn dedicated to Mitra, he is referred to as a deva (mitrasya...devasya) in RV 3.59.6.
The pairing with Varuna, a god unknown in Iranian religion, is very strong already in the Rigveda, which has few hymns where Mitra is mentioned without Varuna. RV 3.59 is the only hymn dedicated to Mitra exclusively, where he is lauded as a god following ṛta, order and stability and of observances (2b, vrata), the sustainer of mankind (6a), said also of Indra in 3.37.4c) and of all gods (8c, devān vishvān).
- 3.59.1 Mitra, when speaking, stirreth men to labour: Mitra sustaineth both the earth and heaven.
- Mitra beholdeth men with eyes that close not. To Mitra bring, with holy oil, oblation. (trans. Griffith)
Rigvedic hymns to Mitra-Varuna are RV 1.136, 137, 151-153, RV 5.62-72, RV 6.67, RV 7.60-66, RV 8.25 and RV 10.132.
Where 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).
In the late Vedic Shatapatha Brahmana, Mitra-varuna is analyzed as "the Counsel and the Power" — Mitra being the priesthood (Purohita), Varuna the royal power (Rājān). As Joseph Campbell remarked, "Both are said to have a thousand eyes. Both are active foreground aspects of the light or solar force at play in time. Both renew the world by their deed."
Role in Daily Worship of the Hindus
Reflecting his status as a solar deity, Mitra has long been 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 Rig Veda verses addressing Mitra.
- M. Mayrhofer, Etymologisches Wörterbuch des Altindoarischen, Heidelberg 1986-2000, Vol. II, 354 sq).
- Dumézil, Georges (1990). Mitra-Varuna: An Essay on Two Indo-European Representations of Sovereignty. Cambridge: Zone Books. ISBN 0-942299-13-2.
- Campbell, Joseph (1964). Occidental Mythology: The Masks of God. New York: Penguin Group. ISBN 0-14-004306-3.
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