Vishnu is the protector and preserver of the universe. He is the upholder of the moral order and hence known as the most prevalent god of the Hindu Trinity. Vishnu stands for the cohesive force representing consistency of existence. He incarnates himself to destroy evil forces and restore dharm i.e. law and order.
Different texts mention varied numbers of incarnations or ‘avataras’ of Vishnu. According to the common belief, there are normally ten manifestations of Vishnu. They are: Matsya (fish), Kurma (turtle), Varah (boar), Narsimha (Half man-half lion), Vaman (dwarf), Parshuram, Ram, Krushn, Buddha and the last is Kalki who it is believed will incarnate in the future. Together they are known as ‘Dashavtara’. Mainly these avataras are taken by Vishnu to protect dharma against the injustice, evil, etc.
मत्स्य: कुर्मो वराहश्च नरसिंहोऽथ वामन:।
रामो रामश्च कृष्णश्च बुद्ध: कल्कि च ते दश॥
मत्स्य पुराण ४.२
Matysh Kurmo Varahsch Narsimhoth Vamanh |
Ramo Ramsch Krushnsch Buddh Kalki ch te dash ||
– Matsya Puran 4.2
Matsyavatara – The Fish Incarnation
Matsya is the first ‘Lilavatar’ of Vishnu. He took the form of fish to save Manu’s boat from the great storm. The concept of fish incarnation first occurs in Vedic texts and later it is elaborated by the Puranas.
Legends of Matsyavatara
The Shatpatha Brahmhan mentions the concept of Matsyavatara. It says that once Manu was practicing austerities in a river, a small fish appeared in his hands. The fish requested Manu to protect and feed it. It besieged Manu to save him. When Manu asked the reason, the fish predicted that there would be a deluge within a few days and the whole earth will be submerged under water. The fish advised Manu to build a huge boat, preserve all the seeds and living creatures in the boat and meditate. Following its advice, Manu kept the fish in an earthen pot, soon it grew in size, then Manu put it in a pond. But the fish got bigger than the pond. Then it was shifted to a river and finally transferred to the sea where it took up a gigantic shape.
As predicted by the fish, the deluge occurred and true to its word, the fish was there to save the vessel and its inhabitants. Manu tied the boat to the horns of the fish with a ‘pash’ (rope). The Fish took the boat to a safe hillock and tied it to a tree. As the water started reducing, Manu propelled back to the plains. This journey is known as the ‘Avsarpan of Manu’.
After the great flood, Manu performed a yadnya and started procreation of all living beings.
Matsya Puran gives a similar story with a detailed account. It says that Manu was a kind and righteous king who, after ruling peacefully for many years handed over his kingdom to his son and went to the Malay mountain to perform penance. He obtained a boon from Brahma that he should be able to protect all the creatures on earth at the time of dissolution. The boon was granted.
One day, while offering oblations to the Pitrs (forefathers), he found a small fish in his palm. To save the fish, Manu put it in an earthen pot. The fish grew in size and occupied the pot during a day. Manu kept it in a jar and the same thing happened. Then it was shifted to a well, pond, river Ganga respectively and finally thrown to the sea where it filled the whole ocean with its colossal size. The king became perplexed and asked him his real identity, saying “Are you the lord of Asuras or God Narayan himself? No one else can behave like this.” The fish replied, “Verily, O king, you have known the truth. Soon the earth will be submerged under water. Look at this boat which all the gods have arranged for the protection of living beings; place all living beings on the boat accompanied by the seven Rushis. When the ship will be quivered by the furious winds of deluge, fasten it to my horn. After the storm you will procreate the living world and then be crowned as ‘Prajapati’ of this earth.” Having thus spoken, the fish disappeared.
On the foretold day, as the sea started exceeding its bounds, Manu entered the boat. At the same time, Vishnu incarnated himself as a horned fish and came closer to Manu’s ship. Manu followed his directions and placed all the living beings in it, fastened the ship to the horn of fish by using Vasuki, the divine serpent as a rope and saved the world.
The Bhagvat Purana mentions that the demon Hayagriv had stolen the Vedas from Brahma when he was asleep during the deluge. Discovering this deed of Hayagriva, Narayana took the form of a Matsya, killed him and recovered the Vedas.
Skanda Puran blames Shankhasura – the demon of Shankha, for the theft of Vedas instead of Hayagriva.
Iconography of Matsyavatara
The image of Matsya can be seen either like an ordinary fish or sometimes, it is in the form of half fish and half man where the upper portion is human and the lower part that of the fish. The image is generally of four hands, two of which hold shankh and chakra, and the other two being held in the varada and abhaya poses. The human half is decorated with all the ornaments of Vishnu and there is a kirit-mukuta on his head.
There are few temples dedicated to Matsya. They are Shankhodhar temple at Bet Dvarka and Vednarayan temple at Nagalpuram.
Sri Vednarayanswami temple is located in Nagalpuram, 70 km south-east of Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh. This temple was constructed by Krushnadeva Raya, the ruler of Vijaynagara dynasty which is a good example of Vijayanagara style of architecture. The Dashavtara images have been carved on the Gopuras. Vishnu is worshipped here in the form of Matsya with Sridevi and Bhudevi on either side.
The main temple is west-facing and it has been constructed in such a way that the sun rays pass through the gopuras and fall on the deity on three consecutive days. This occasion occurs on Phalgun Shukl Dwadashi, Trayodashi and Chaturdashi respectively. It is considered very auspicious when the rays of setting sun fall on the feet of Vishnu on dwadashi. On trayodashi, the rays reach to his navel and on the last day, his forehead. This event is known as ‘Surya’s Puja’, where Sun tries to warm Vishnu as he has been under water for long time.
It is believed that Vishnu appeared as a fish on Chaitra Shuddha Trutiya. Thus a festival is celebrated on this auspicious occasion called ‘Matsya Jayanti’ Utsava (festival).
Matsyajayanti Vrata is performed on Chaitra Shuddha Panchami. Idol of Matsyavatara Vishnu is worshipped mainly on this day. It is also known as ‘Haypanchmi’
Matsyadvadshi is another vrata performed on Margshirsha Shuddha Dwadshi when 4 pots of water are kept along with the image of Matsyavatari Vishnu and worshipped. It is believed that these 4 pots are 4 oceans.
Symbolism of the Fish
The story of great deluge can be found in many civilisations. It is often related to the story of Noah’s Ark in Bible. Similar flood tale also exists in the mythology of Sumer, Babylonia and Greece.
The tale can be interpreted as a creation myth where Manu creates the living world after the flood though the creation is never the focus of the legend. The class Pisces is the largest of all the vertebrate classes. They live under a variety of conditions, surface of the sea, mid-water, or buried in the sand. Fish is the most dominant symbol of an oviparous (andaj) vertebrate. Most of the food-fishes produce great number of eggs float on the sea. Moreover, there is resemblance between the developing baby in the womb called foetus which is suspended in the amniotic fluid and the fish in water.
Matsya here is symbol of the cosmic egg which is floating in the great ocean.