Mitra (मित्र) is an important divinity of Indic culture and the patron divinity of honesty and friendship, contracts and agreements, as is obvious from his name.
Mitra is a figure of the Rigveda, distinguished by a relationship to Varuna, the protector of ‘rta’ (ऋत)- the natural order which regulates the operation of the ‘universe’.
In the Rig Veda there are two major groups of gods: the Devas and the Asuras. The Rig Vedic Asuras were revered (just as the Suras), Mitra and Varuna being their most prominent members. Aditi is the mother of Asuras, led by Mitra and Varuna.
In Persia Mitra was worshipped as Mithira. But his fame went beyond what is present day Iran.
In his book, ‘The Cult of Mithira in Ancient Colchis”, Gocha R. Tsetskhladze observes, “The cult of Mithira was particularly widespread in the Roman Empire and its provinces: in the cities of the Black Sea, on the lower reaches of the Danube, in the lower reaches of the danube, in the lower Moesia and Thrace and also in Central Asia. Many shrines to Mithira existed..”
The principal agent of Mitharism diffusion was undoubtedly the army. With the movement of the soldiers of the Roman Empire the Mithraic religion spread. It is said that it was not without good reason that the name of milites was given to a certain rank of soldiers – milites derived from ‘mithira’ – also the precursor of the word ‘military’ – though some scholars observe that the origin of ‘military’ is more likely from the Sanskrit ‘milate’ (मिलते) ‘meeting’ or ‘encounter’.
In his book, ‘The Mysteries of Mithira’, author Franz Cumont states, “From the banks of the Black Sea to the mountains of Scotland and to the borders of the great Sahara Desert, along the entire length of the Roman frontier, Mithraic monuments abound”.
One of the largest and most ancient cities of the Black Sea is named ‘Varna‘ where artifacts dating to 4750 BC have been found. Though the city itself was founded around 6th-7th century AD, the name is older than that. Many etymologies for the name ‘Varna’ have emerged, the most convincing of which is the one that traces Varna to the Proto-Indo-European ‘we-r’ or ‘water’, which is the same as the Sanskrit ‘vari’ (वारी) also meaning ‘water’.
The other etymological link is the name of the Vedic Sea God ‘Varuna’ who in any case also derives his name from ‘vari’ (वारी) or ‘water’.
And there is a link between Mithira of the Persians and Romans and the Vedic Varuna. Once again Franz Cumont states, “In that unknown epoch when the ancestors of the Persians were still united with those of the Hindus, they were already worshippers of Mithra. The hymns of the Vedas celebrated his name, as did those of the Avesta, and despite the differences obtaining between the two theological systems of which these books were the expression, the Vedic Mitra and the Iranian Mithra have preserved so many traits of resemblance that it is impossible to entertain any doubt concerning their common origin. Both religions saw in him a god of light, invoked together with Heaven, bearing in the one case the name of Varuna and in the other that of Ahura….”. He adds, ” …. the domain of Mithra extended from the Indus to the Pontus Euxinus (Black Sea)…”.
Burgas, the second largest city of the Bulgarian Black Sea gets its name from from Latin ‘burgos’ or ‘fortress’ which can be ultimately traced to the Sanskrit ‘durg’ (दुर्ग) also ‘fortress’.
For more on the Sanskrit connection to the name ‘Danube‘, click here.
1. The Mysteries of Mithira by Franz Cumont
2. A History of Zoroastrianism: Vol II Under the Achaemians by Mary Boyce