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Hindu Mythology, Vedic and Puranic, by W.J. Wilkins, [1900], at

p. 134




The earliest account of what was afterwards regarded as an incarnation of Vishnu is found in the "Satapatha Brāhmana." It will be noticed that though in this passage a wonderful fish is described, it is not said to have been an incarnation of any of the gods. The Mahābhārata says that Brahmā assumed this form; whilst the Purānas teach that the fish here spoken of was Vishnu. This transfer of work from one deity to another is not a matter of much surprise, when we remember how frequently it is declared that all the various gods are but forms of one supreme being. "It should be noticed that the Manu here referred to is regarded as a progenitor of the human race, and is represented as conciliating the Supreme Being by his piety in an age of universal depravity." Here is the passage: *

"There lived in ancient time a holy man
 Called Manu, who, by penances and prayers,
 Had won the favour of the lord of heaven.
 One day they brought him water for ablution;

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 Then, as he washed his hands,. a little fish
 Appeared, and spoke in human accents thus:
 'Take care of me, and I will be thy saviour.'
 'From what wilt thou preserve me?' Manu asked.
 The fish replied, 'A flood will sweep away

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 All creatures; I will rescue thee from that.'
 'But how shall I preserve thee?' Manu said.
 The fish rejoined, 'So long as we are small,
 We are in constant danger of destruction,
 For fish eat fish; so keep me in a jar.

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[paragraph continues]  When I outgrow the, jar, then dig a trench,
 And place me there; when I outgrow the trench,
 Then take me to the ocean—I shall then
 Be out of reach of danger.' Having thus
 Instructed Manu, straightway rapidly
 The fish grew larger; then he spake again:
 'In such and such a year the flood will come;
 Therefore construct a ship, and pay me homage.
 When the flood rises, enter thou the ship,
 And I will rescue thee.' So Manu did
 As he was ordered, and preserved the fish,
 Then carried it in safety to the ocean;
 And in the very year the fish enjoined
 He built a ship, and paid the fish respect,
 And there took refuge when the flood arose.
 Soon near him swam the fish, and to its horn
 Manu made fast the cable of his vessel.
 Thus drawn along the waters, Manu passed
 Beyond the northern mountain. Then the fish,
 Addressing Manu, said, 'I have preserved thee,
 Quickly attach the ship to yonder tree;
 But, lest the waters sink from under thee,
 As fast as they subside, so fast shalt thou
 Descend the mountain gently after them.'
 Thus he descended front the northern mountain.
 The flood had swept away all living creatures;
 Manu alone was left."

The account from the Mahābhārata which now follows has also been put into verse by Professor Monier Williams:— *

"Along the ocean in that stately ship was borne the lord of men, and through
 Its dancing, tumbling billows, and its roaring waters; and the bark,
 Tossed to and fro by violent winds, reeled on the surface of the deep,
 Staggering and trembling like a drunken woman. Land was seen no more,

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[paragraph continues]  Nor far horizon, nor the space between; for everywhere around
 Spread the wild waste of waters, reeking atmosphere, and boundless sky.
 And now when all the world was deluged, nought appeared above the waves
 But Manu and the seven sages, and the fish that drew the bark.
 Unwearied, thus for years on years the fish propelled the ship across
 The heaped-up waters, till at length it bore the vessel to the peak
 Of Himavān; then softly smiling, thus the fish addressed the sage:
 'Haste, now, to bind thy ship to this high crag. Know me, the lord of all,
 The great Creator Brahmā, mightier than all might, omnipotent.
 BBy me, in fishlike shape, hast thou been saved in dire emergency.
 From Manu all creation, gods, asuras, men, must be produced;
 By him all the world must be created—that which moves and moveth not.'"

The typical Purānic account of this Avatāra is that of the "Bhāgavata Purāna" which is given by Sir William Jones in the "Asiatic Soc. Res." * With this the accounts in the other Purānas agree in the main: some are more condensed, others, as the "Matsya Purāna," are considerably extended; for it was as the fish was guiding the vessel in which Manu was saved that Vishnu, in this form, is said to have dictated the whole of that Purāna. All the Purānas agree in regarding the fish as an incarnation of Vishnu, and not of Brahmā. Now follows the account from the Bhāgavata:—

"Desiring the preservation of herds, Brāhmans, genii, and virtuous men—of the Vedas, of law, and of precious things—the Lord of the Universe assumes many bodily shapes; but though he pervades, like the air, a variety of beings, yet he is himself unvaried, since he has no qualities subject to change. At the close of the last Kalpa there was a general destruction, occasioned by the sleeping Brahmā, whence his creatures in different worlds

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were drowned in a vast ocean. Brahmā being inclined to slumber, desiring repose after a lapse of ages, the strong demon Hayagriva came near him, and stole the Vedas, which had flowed from his lips.

"When Hari, the preserver of the universe, discovered this deed of the prince of the Dānavas, he took the shape of a minute fish, called Sāphari. A holy king named Satyavrāta then reigned—a servant of the spirit which moved on the waves; and so devout, that water was his only sustenance. He was the child of the Sun, and in the present Kalpa * is invested by Nārāyana with the office of Manu (i.e. the progenitor and lord of men), by the name of Srāddhadevā, or the god of obsequies. One day as he was making a libation in the river Kritamāla, and held water in the palm of his hand, he perceived a small fish moving in it. The King of Dravira immediately dropped the fish into the river, together with the water which he had taken from it; when the Sāphari thus addressed the benevolent monarch: 'How canst thou, O king, who showiest affection to the oppressed, leave me in this river water, where I am too weak to resist the monsters of the stream, who fill me with dread?' He, not knowing who had assumed the form of a fish, applied his mind to the preservation of the Sāphari, both from good-nature and from regard to his own soul; and, having heard his very suppliant address, he kindly placed it under his protection in a small vase full of water; but in a single night its bulk was so increased that it could not be contained in the jar, and thus again addressed the illustrious prince: I am not pleased with living miserably in this little vase; make me a large mansion, where I may dwell in comfort.' The king, removing it thence, placed it in the water of

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a cistern; but it grew three cubits in less than fifty minutes, and said, 'O king! it pleases me not to stay vainly in this narrow cistern; since thou hast granted me an asylum, give me a spacious habitation.' He then removed it and placed it in a pool, where, having ample space around its body, it became a fish of considerable size. 'This abode, O king, is not convenient for me, who must swim at large in the waters; exert thyself for my safety, and remove me to a deep lake!' Thus addressed, the pious monarch threw the suppliant into a lake, and, when it grew of equal bulk with that piece of water, he cast the vast fish into the sea. When the fish was thrown into the waves, he thus again spoke to Satyavrāta: 'Here the horned sharks and other monsters of great strength will devour me; thou shouldest not, O valiant man, leave me in this ocean.'

"Thus repeatedly deluded by the fish, who had addressed him with gentle words, the king said, 'Who art thou that beguilest me in that assumed shape? Never before have I seen or heard of so prodigious an inhabitant of the waters, who, like thee, has filled up in a single day a lake a hundred leagues in circumference. Surely thou art Bhāgavat who appears before me; the great Hari, whose dwelling was on the waves; and who now, in compassion to thy servants, bears the form of the natives of the deep. Salutation and praise to thee, O first male, the lord of creation, of preservation, of destruction! Thou art the highest object, the supreme ruler, of us thy adorers, who piously seek thee. All thy delusive descents in this world give existence to various beings; yet I am anxious to know for what cause that shape has been assumed by thee. Let me not, O lotus-eyed, approach in vain the feet of a deity whose perfect benevolence has been extended to all; when thou hast

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shown us to our amazement the appearance of other bodies, not in reality existing, but successively exhibited.'

"The lord of the universe, loving the pious man who thus implored him, and intending to preserve him from the sea of destruction caused by the depravity of the age, thus told him how he was to act: 'In seven days from the present time, O thou tamer of enemies! the three worlds will be plunged in an ocean of death; but, in the midst of the destroying waves, a large vessel sent by me for thy use shall stand before thee. Then thou shalt take all medicinal herbs, all the varieties of seeds, and accompanied by seven saints, encircled by pairs of brute animals, thou shalt enter the spacious ark, and continue in it secure from the flood, on one immense ocean without light, except the radiance of thy holy companions. When the ship shall be agitated with an impetuous wind, thou shalt fasten it with a large sea serpent on my horn; for I will be near thee, drawing the vessel, with thee and thy attendants. I will remain. on the ocean, O chief of men, until a night of Brahmā * shall be completely ended. Thou shalt then know my true greatness, rightly named the Supreme Godhead; by my favour all thy questions shall be answered, and thy mind abundantly instructed.'

"Hari, having thus directed the monarch, disappeared; and Satyavrāta humbly waited for the time which the ruler of our senses had appointed. The pious king having scattered toward the east the pointed blades of the grass darbha, and turning his face towards the north, sat meditating on the feet of the god who had borne the form of a fish. The sea, overwhelming its shores, deluged the whole earth, and it was soon perceived to be augmented by showers from immense clouds. He,

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still meditating on the command of Bhāgavat, saw the vessel advancing, and entered it with the chiefs of Brāhmans, having carried into it the medicinal plants, and conformed to the directions of Hari. The saints thus addressed him: 'O king, meditate on Kesava; who will surely deliver us from this danger, and grant us prosperity.' The god being invoked by the monarch, appeared again distinctly on the vast ocean in the form. of a fish, blazing like gold, extending a million of leagues, with one stupendous horn; on which the king, as he had been before commanded by Hari, tied the ship with a cable made of a vast serpent, and, happy in his preservation, stood praising the destroyer of Madhu. When the monarch had finished his hymn, the primeval male, Bhāgavat, who watched for his safety on the greater expanse of water, spake aloud to his own divine essence, pronouncing a sacred Purāna [the 'Matsya Purāna'], which contained the rules of the Sankhya philosophy; but it was an infinite mystery to be concealed within the breast of Satyavrāta; who, sitting in the vessel with the saints, heard the principle of soul, the Eternal Being, proclaimed by the preserving power. Then Hari, rising together with Brahmā from the destructive deluge, which was now abated, slew the demon Hayagriva, and recovered the sacred books."


134:* "Indian Wisdom," p. 32.

136:* "Indian Wisdom," p. 394.

137:* Vol. i. 230 ff.

138:* See part ii. chap. x.

140:* See part ii. chap. x.

Next: 2. The Kūrma or Tortoise Avatāra