Matsya
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Matsya

Matsya
Matsya avatar.jpg
Half-human and Half-Fish depiction of Vishnu
AffiliationVishnu (first avatar)
AbodeKuru Kingdom, Patala
Mantra'I shall invoke god Matsya moving in the sea. O Matsya Deva, the sustainer of the lives of the world, O infallible, kindly come' (Vishnudharmottara Purana, Adhyaya 106)
WeaponNone
SymbolsThree dots (e.g. on a long, crystalline-coloured salagrama)
FestivalsMatsya Jayanti: Pancami (fifth day) in the bright half of the month of Chaitra
Personal information
ConsortNone
ChildrenNone

Matsya (Sanskrit: , lit. fish) is an avatar of the RigVedic god Vishnu. Originating in the White YajurVeda (Shatapatha Brahmana), Matsya is most commonly associated in post-Vedic literature such as the Puranas with the legends of rescuing Vaivasvata Manu from the deluge, and rescuing the Vedas stolen by various Asuras. Matsya is listed as the first incarnation of the Dashavatara, the ten principal avatars of Vishnu.

Matsya iconography sometimes is zoomorphic as a giant fish with a horn, or anthropomorphic in the form of a human torso connected to the rear half of a fish.[1][2]

Etymology

'Mastya' is derived from 'matsa' (?) meaning 'Fish',[3] itself derived from the root 'mad' (or 'mat', ), meaning 'religion', 'counsel', 'knowledge', and 'religious doctrine'.[4] The term 'Matsya' also appears in the Rigveda.[5] It is related to maccha, which also means fish.[5] R. Franco states that etymologically, 'Matsa' means 'gay [joyous] one' or 'Fish', and is derived from (square brackets '[ ]' as per the original author):

  • 'Mad', meaning 'to be excited by joy', 'to savor food and drink [ad] to the absolute limit of their flavour [m]', and 'to get drunk', and
  • 'sa', meaning 'effect of the action [a] of binding to [s]', 'union', 'with', 'similar', or 'together'..[6]

The Monier-Williams Sanskrit Dictionary agrees with Franco.[7][8] According to the Nirukta, an ancient ancillary text to the Vedas:

O Adityas. run to us while we are still alive, i.e. before we are slain; where are you, the hearers of our invocations? It is known to be the composition of the fish caught in a net. The fish are (so called because) they float in water, or they revel in eating each other. Net is (so called) because it moves in water, or it is set in water, or it lies in water.

-- The Nirukta, translated by Lakshman Sarup (1967), Chapter 6, Section 27 (pp.108; English section)[9]

Sarup, the translator, elaborates for the above section (6.27; footnote 3), stating 'Matsyah (fish) is derived from [the root word] ?syand (to float) and madhu (water)'. The Monier-Williams Sanskrit Dictionary does not seem to agree however, as although 'madhu' does mean 'water' (and 'soma', 'milk', and 'honey'),[10] 'syand' means 'to trickle or flow'.[11] The four etymological definitions of 'Matsya' are therefore:

  • Sanskrit Dictionary: 'religion, or religious doctrine'
  • Franco: 'Union or binding in joy or intoxication'
  • The Nirukta: 'Floating in water'
  • Monier-Williams (Sarup's breakdown): 'the trickle or flow of water, Soma, milk, or honey'

Horn

Matsya is depicted as possessing a horn (e.g. which the ship of Manu is tied to), and according to the Nirukta:

Srnga (horn) is derived from (the root) Sri (to rest on), or from sr (to slay), or from sam (to destroy); or (it is so called because) it grows up to protect, or it comes out of the head.

-- The Nirukta, translated by  Lakshman Sarup (1967), Chapter 2, Section 7 (pp. 26, English section)[9]

Symbolism

Cosmogonic creation and dissolution: J. Roy states in the RigVeda, water represents 'the first principle of creation [purusha]... Thus, the story of deluge and the fish-god, even though of foreign [e.g. Babylonian or Egyptian] origin, finds a parallel in the Vedic and Puranic cosmogonic myth, representing the universe emerging out of waters'. In regards to dissolution, Roy adds that in 'the epic and Puranic versions of the legend of deluge, the great flood allegorizes dissolution of the world. The Fish incarnation is thus rightly enumerated as the first incarnation, allegorizing Brahma or Narayana, who creates the world anew after dissolution'.[12]

Astronomy: Roy also states that it 'has been suggested that the boat of Manu and the Fish in the epico-puranic legend allegorically represent the constellation of Ursa Major and Urda Minor respectively. The legend is construed as pointing to a remote period of antiquity when Alpha Draconis was the Pole Star'.[12]

Sacrifice: N. Aiyangar states that in 'the Rig-veda the idea that Sacrifice is [a] Ship is expressed in many places... As thus Sacrifice is metaphorically called Ship and as Manu means man, the thinker, the story [of Matsya] seems to be a parable of the Ship of Sacrifice being the means for man's crossing the sea of his duritas, [i.e. his] sins, and troubles'. In regards to Matsya, Auyangar states that the 'Supreme self [Atman] is found as a small fish... thus cultivated and realised [to a big fish, it] is able to conduct the Ship of Sacrifice across the sea of the Duritas of the selfish world of strife'. Ida is also stated to 'represent here the blessedness of mind-born ?raddh?, Faith'.[13][14][15]

Deluge / Historical Fact: T.W. Munro states that the 'deluge, in this land [Dravida country, South India] is both astronomically and geologically an accomplished fact'. Munro adds that although the accounts of the deluge were considered 'a merely fanciful tissue of imagination from the brains of fanciful men', one of those incorrectly believing the deluge to be 'fanciful', Sir William Jones, 'very properly corrected his former error' after travelling to India.[16]

The Vedas

J. Roy states that the 'earliest reference to the legend of the fish [Matsya] occurs in the Satapatha Brahmana [White YajurVeda] though not as an incarnation of any particular deity... [and is] believed to be of Babylonian origin by many scholars'.[12]

Rig Veda

Rig References Notes
Samhita Manu: 1.76.5,[17] 7.100.4,[18] 10.63.7,[19] 10.164.2;[20]Ship: 10.44.6,[21] 10.63.10;[19]Ida/Ila: 1.13.9,[22] (teacher of men) 1.31.11,[23] 1.142.8-9,[24] 3.4.8,[25] 7.2.8,[26] (foot drops oil) 10.70.8,[27] 10.95.18[28], 10.110.8[29] Ida/Ila: Most verses are about being invoked at sacrifice by two Hotars. Ship: 10.63.10 is quoted by the Taittiriya Samhita.
Aitareya Brahmana Manu: 8.2.7 Ship: 6.4.21[30]

yebhyo hotr pratham?m?yeje manu? samiddh?ghnirmanas?sapta hot?bhi? |
ta ?dity? abhaya? ?arma yachata sugh? na?karta supath? svastaye ||...


sutr?ma? p?thiv dy?manehasa? su?armamaditi?supratim |
daiv n?va? svaritr?man?ghasamasravant?m? ruhem? svastaye ||

Ye to whom Manu, by seven priests, with kindled fire, offered the first oblation with his heart and soul,
Vouchsafe us, ye ?dityas, shelter free from fear, and make us good and easy paths to happiness...

Mightily-saving Earth, incomparable Heaven the good guide Aditi who gives secure defence
The well-oared heavenly Ship that lets no waters in, free from defect, will we ascend for happiness.

--RigVeda transliteration of Book 10, Hymn 63, Verses 7 and 10[31] --RigVeda translation by Ralph T.H. Griffith (1896) of Book 10, Hymn 63, Verses 7 and 10[32]

V. Mani states that the Manu ()[33] is Vaivasvata (also known as Satyavrata or Shraddhadeva), son of the sun-god Vivasvan (Surya), grandson of Kasyapa and Aditi, and the seventh of fourteen total Manus of the current (Varaha) Kalpa.[34] M. Dhavamony states that in the RigVeda, the most important hero 'is Manu ('man') the first man, the ancestor of the human race and the first sacrificer... He it was who, having kindled the fire, presented the first offering with seven priests [Saptarishi] to the gods [RigVeda 10.3.67]... Thus manu's sacrifice becomes the prototype and exemplary model of all other sacrifices [RigVeda 1.76.5]'.[35]

Notably, the account of Manu's first offering with the Saptarishi - seven sages - also mentions ascending in a 'well-oared heavenly ship'. The belief of Aiyangar (as above, see Symbolism section) in the metaphorical 'ship of sacrifice'[13] is further supported by the Aitareya Brahmana, an exposition of sacrificial rites attached to the RigVeda (Book 6, Chapter 4, Section 21):

(The repetition of these Tristubhs by the minor Hotri-priests is, however, necessary). He ought to know, "these Tristubhs are the helm (pratipad) of my hymns," just as (one requires a helm) if crossing the sea. For those who perform a session lasting for a year or the Dvadasaha, are floating like those who cross the sea. Just as those who wish to land on the shore enter a ship having plenty of provisions, in the same manner the sacrificers should enter (i.e., begin with) these Tristubhs.'

-- Aitareya Brahmana translated by B.D. Basu (1899), Sixth Book, Chapter 4 ('The Sampata hymns. The Valakhilyas. TheDurohanam'.)

It is also stated that 'Over this earth with mighty step strode Viu, ready to give it for a home to Manu' (RigVeda 7.100.4). D.M. Knipe states Ida ()[36] is 'a personification of sacrificial remnants'.[37] J. Dowson elaborates that in 'the RigVeda, Ida is primarily food, refreshment, or a libation of milk; thence a stream of praise, personified as the goddess of speech'.[38] G.M. Williams agrees, stating 'ida was a word for food or refreshment, especially milk... [and] worked metaphorically as the refreshment given to the devas (gods) as praise'.[39]

According to the Monier-Williams Sanskrit Dictionary, Ida is also synonymous with Ila, as the daughter of Manu, as the Earth, the cow, praise (to the gods, i.e. prayer), the goddess of speech, and as the sacrificial offering/libation 'consisting of four preparations of milk, poured into a vessel containing water, and then partially drunk by the priest and sacrificers; [Ida/Ila is also] personified in the cow, the symbol of feeding, and nourishment'.[40][41] Notably, Ida/Ila is also stated in the RigVeda to be the mother of King Pururavas (10.95.18),[28] from whom the Pandavas (Arjuna and his brothers are cousins of Krishna) and Kauravas descend. In the following verse, Ida/Ila is associated with sacrifice:

mandrajihv? jughurva hot?r? daivy? kav? |
yajña? no yak?at?mima? sidhramadya divispam ||

?ucirdeve?varpit? hotr? marutsu bh?rat? |
i sarasvat? mah? barhi? s?dantu yajñiy ||

May the two Priests Divine, the sage, the sweet-voiced lovers of the hymn,
Complete this sacrifice of ours, effectual, reaching heaven to-day.

Let Hotr? pure, set among Gods, amid the Maruts Bh?rat?,
I, Sarasvat?, Mah?, rest on the grass, adorable.

--RigVeda transliteration of Book 1, Hymn 142, Verses 8-9[42] --RigVeda translation by Ralph T.H. Griffith (1896) of Book 1, Hymn 142, Verses 8-9[43]

Sama Veda

Sama References Notes
Manu: Part 1: 1.1.5.10, 1.2.4.10; Part 2: 2.2.18.2, 6.1.1.4[44] 1.1.5.10 means Book 1, Capter 1, Decade 5, Verse 10.

Yajur Veda

Yajur References Notes
?ukla (White) Shakha Vajasaneyi Samhita 24.21,[45] 24.21, 24.34[46]
Shatapatha Brahmana Matsya: 1.8.1;[47]Ida: 1.7.4.19,[48] 1.8.1.16,[47]Domestic Offering: 2.3.1.21;[49]King Matsya Sammada: 13.4.3.12,[50] (Dhvasan Dvaitavana) 13.5.4.9[51] Citations other than 1.8.1 refer to King Matsya.
Taittiriya (Black) Shakha Taittiriya Samhita Ship: 1.5.11.5,[52]Ida: 1.7.1,[53] 2.6.7;[54]Fish: 2.6.6,[54] 5.5.13[55] 1.5.11.5 quotes RigVeda 10.63.10

Shukla (White) Yajurveda

In the morning they brought to Manu water for washing, just as now also they (are wont to) bring (water) for washing the hands. When he was washing himself, a fish came into his hands.

It spake to him the word, 'Rear me, I will save thee!' 'Wherefrom wilt thou save me?' 'A flood will carry away all these creatures: from that I will save thee!' 'How am I to rear thee?'

It said, 'As long as we are small, there is great destruction for us: fish devours fish. Thou wilt first keep me in a jar. When I outgrow that, thou wilt dig a pit and keep me in it. When I outgrow that, thou wilt take me down to the sea, for then I shall be beyond destruction.'

It soon became a ghasha (a large fish); for that grows largest (of all fish). Thereupon it said, 'In such and such a year that flood will come. Thou shalt then attend to me (i.e. to my advice) by preparing a ship; and when the flood has risen thou shalt enter into the ship, and I will save thee from it.'...

Being desirous of offspring, he engaged in worshipping and austerities. During this time he also performed a pâka-sacrifice: he offered up in the waters clarified butter, sour milk, whey, and curds. Thence a woman was produced in a year: becoming quite solid she rose; clarified butter gathered in her footprint.

-- Shatapatha Brahmana, translated by Julius Eggeling (1900), Kanda I, Adhyaya 8, Brahmana 1 ('The Ida'), Verses 1-4 and 7
Matsya pulling Manu's boat

In this original account, Manu is approached by a small fish requesting his protection, and having reared it to become a ghasha, is warned of an impending flood and instructed to build a ship. After the Earth is flooded, the ship is tied with rope to the horn of Matsya, and 'by that means he passed swiftly up to yonder northern mountain'. As the water subsides, Manu performs the pâka-sacrifice, from which "Ida" emerges. "Ida" identifies herself as 'Manu's daughter' when approached by Mitra and Varuna, and explains to Manu that 'Those offerings (of) clarified butter, sour milk, whey, and curds, which thou madest in the waters, with them thou hast begotten me. I am the blessing (benediction): make use of me at the sacrifice'. Manu does so to regenerate the human race through sacrifice.

The legend of Matsya rescuing Manu from the flood, taking the ship to the summit of a mountain, and the birth of "Ida" from the pâka-sacrifice - consisting of only the first 10 of 44 verses in this Brahmana - is a prelude to explain the symbolic importance of the ida, the domestic offering in the form of a sacrificial cake (including butter). In the practice of the ritual described in the remaining verses, the daughter of Manu is explicitly stated to be 'essentially the same as the Ida' to attain prosperity from a successful sacrifice in the form of cattle and offspring. Linking to academics' claims of Ida representing libations such as milk in the RigVeda, the domestic offering is stated to be milk in the Shatapatha Brahmana (e.g. SB 2.3.1.21).[56] Notably, this first account of the Matsya legend also seems to link directly with the RigVeda (RV):

  • SB 1.8.1.7 'clarified butter gathered in her [Ida's] footprint' and RV 10.70.8 'May I, she whose foot drops oil...'
  • SB 1.8.1.21 'Hither is called (Idâ) by that (sacrifice) which is performed by the seven Hotris [priests]' and RV 10.63.7: 'Ye to whom Manu, by seven priests, with kindled fire, offered the first oblation with his heart and soul...The well-oared heavenly Ship that lets no waters in, free from defect, will we ascend for happiness'.

Y. Bonnefoy states that 'classical India indeed speaks of the "law of the fishes" to designate what we could call the "law of the jungle." The law of the fishes is set against the order imposed by a good king, an order in which the weak are protected from the strong and in which dharma rather than individual force is the organizing principle. Manu, who is in essence the legislator [e.g. the laws of Manu] and the father of the traditional royal dynasties, had an obvious connection with royal power'.[57] These claims are supported in texts such as the Ramayana, as illustrated below.

As stated by W.J. Wilkins, Matsya in this account is not ascribed to any particular deity.[58] Aiyangar supposes that the 'Fish that conducts the Ship seems to me to be Agni, the symbol of the all-knowing and all-embracing God... The reason why this Fish is horned may be due to Agni being described as having four horns in [RigVeda 4.58.3],[59] a verse which is repeated daily in Agni-worship.'[13] Eggeling supposes (note 216:3 in the linked version), that in the Taittiriya Samhita (1.7.1 and 2.6.7)[53][54] 'idâ is represented as a cow, produced by Mitra and Varuna. Perhaps it was this version and the symbolical representation of the idâ as meaning cattle, which suggested the notion of a horned fish, in adapting an older legend'.[47]

Krishna (Black) Yajurveda

Manuh prthivya yajniyam aichat
sa ghrtam nisiktam avindat
so 'bravit
ko 'syesvaro yajne 'pi kartor iti
tav abrutam mitravarunau
gor evavam isvarau kartoh sva iti
tau tato gam sam airayatam |
sa yatrayatra nyakramat tato ghrtam apidyata
tasmad ghrtapady ucyate
tad asyai janma |

Manu desired what of earth was sacrificial. He found the poured out ghee. He said, 'Who is able to produce this also at the sacrifice?' Mitra and Varuna said, 'We are able to produce the cow.' Then they set the cow in motion. Wherever she stepped, there ghee was pressed out; therefore she is called ghee-footed; that is her origin.

--Taittiriya Samhita transliteration of Kanda I, Prapathaka VI, Chapter VII, Verse 1[60] --Taittiriya Samhita translation by Arthur Berriedale Keith (1914) of Kanda I, Prapathaka VI, Chapter VII, Verse 1[61]

This above-quoted verse links directly with the Shatapatha Brahmana (1.8.1.7; 'clarified butter gathered in her [Ida's] footprint') and the RigVeda (10.70.8; 'May I, she whose foot drops oil...'). Macdonell adds that in the Taittiriya Samhita, 'Ida, or personified libation, is [also] represented as a cow' (i.e. representing prosperity and producing milk).[62]

imam su navam aruham sataritram satasphyam |
achidram parayisnum ||

Happily have I mounted this ship With a hundred oars and a hundred spars [satasphyam],
Without leak, able to convey across.

--Taittiriya Samhita transliteration of Kanda I, Prapathaka V, Chapter XI, Verse 5[63] --Taittiriya Samhita translation by Arthur Berriedale Keith (1914) of Kanda I, Prapathaka V, Chapter XI, Verse 5[64]

Although 'satasphyam' from the above-quoted verse was translated by Keith as 'a hundred spars', Aiyangar translates it as a hundred sphyas, and explains that a 'Sphya [()] is a wooden sword used as a sacrificial instrument'.[13] Both interpretations are correct.[65] Eggeling adds that the 'sphya is a straight sword (khadga) or knife, a cubit long, carved out of khadira wood... It is used for various purposes calculated to symbolically insure the safe and undisturbed performance of the sacrifice'.[66]

Atharva Veda

Arharva References Notes
39.7-8[67] The Bloomfield translation (39.7-8) is part of an anthology and is not in numeric order.

A golden ship with golden tackle moved upon the heavens. There came to sight the amrita, there the kushtha-plant was born.

On the spot where the ship glided down, on the peak of the Himavant, there came to sight the ambrosia, there the kushtha-plant was born. This kushtha, a universal remedy, stands together with soma. Destroy thou every takman, and all female spooks!

-- Hymns Of The Atharva-veda, translated by Maurice Bloomfield (1897), XIX, 39. ('Prayer to the kushtha-plant to destroy takman (fever), and other ailments'), Verses 7-8

In this commentary to the eighth verse (or stanza) of hymn XIX, where a ship rests at the peak of a mountain, Bloomfield states it 'seems difficult to abstain from comparing with this passage certain features of the well-known legend of Manu and the flood' in the account of the Shatapatha Brahmana (as above) and the Mahabharata.[68] In regards to the Kushtha-plant mentioned, Bloomfield adds that combined with the RigVeda (2.33.13) which 'speaks of pure, most wholesome, and strengthening remedies which 'Father Manu' chose... it seems altogether likely that the two independent legends [i.e. the flood and discovery of the medicinal Kustha-plant] should blend here [in the AtharvaVeda] in the mind of the poet'.[68]

Upanishads

Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

As a large fish [maha-matsya] glides between both banks, the right and the left one, so glides the Purusha between both boundaries, the boundary of dream and the boundary of the waking state.

-- Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, translated by Eduard Roer (1856), Chapter 4, Verse 18[69]

Itih?sa (Epics)

Mahabharata

Mahabharata References Notes
Matsya: Book 3: Markandeya-Samasya Parva - CLXXXVI (186);[70]Ida: Book 2: Rajasuyika Parva - XXXIV (34);[71]

Ship: Book 3: Arjunabhigamana Parva - XXXI (31),[72] Markandeya-Samasya Parva: CCX (210)[73]

Translation is by K.M. Ganguli.

...[When] the world was thus flooded, none but Manu, the seven Rishis and the fish could be seen. And, O king, the fish diligently dragged the boat through the flood for many a long year and then, O descendant of Kuru and ornament of Bharata's race, it towed the vessel towards the highest peak of the Himavat. And, O Bharata, the fish then told those on the vessel to tie it to the peak of the Himavat. And hearing the words of the fish they immediately tied the boat on that peak of the mountain and, O son of Kunti and ornament of Bharata's race, know that that high peak of the Himavat is still called by the name of Naubandhana (the harbour). Then the fish addressing the associated Rishis told them these words, 'I am Brahma, the Lord of all creatures; there is none greater than myself. Assuming the shape of a fish, I have saved you from this cataclysm. Manu will create (again) all beings--gods, Asuras and men, all those divisions of creation which have the power of locomotion and which have it not. By practicing severe austerities he will acquire this power, and with my blessing, illusion will have no power over him.'

"So saying the fish vanished instantly. And Vaivaswata Manu himself became desirous of creating the world. In this work of creation illusion overtook him and he, therefore, practised great asceticism. And endowed with ascetic merit, Manu, O ornament of Bharata's race, again set about his work of creating all beings in proper and exact order.

-- The Mahabharata, translated by Kisari Mohan Ganguli (1883-1896), Book 3, Markandeya-Samasya Parva - CLXXXVI (186)
Matsya, Central India, 9th - 10th century. British Museum.[74]

Although the Matsya Kingdom of the Vedic Period features throughout the Mahabharata, the legend of Matsya the fish occupies a single chapter, narrated by the sage Markandeya to Yudhishthira (as narrated by Vaisampayana). In this account, Vaivaswata Manu performs austerities for 10,000 years in the 'jujube forest called Visala' before a small-fish, i.e. Matsya, approaches him on the banks of the Chirini river. Outgrowing a tank 'two yojanas in length and one yojana in width', Matsya is deposited in the Ganges river before outgrowing that and being deposited in the sea, where Manu is warned 'the dissolution of all this mobile and immobile world is nigh at hand' and is instructed to 'build a strong massive ark and have it furnished with a long rope. On that must thou ascend, O great Muni, with the seven Rishis and take with thee all the different seeds which were enumerated by regenerate Brahmanas in days of yore'. As noted by Aiyanger,[13]RigVeda Hymn 10.63 (as above) states 'Manu, by seven priests, with kindled fire, offered the first oblation with his heart and soul'; in the same hymn, mention is also made of the 'well-oared heavenly Ship that lets no waters in'.

After the flood, a rope is used to tie the ark to the horns of Matsya (plural, not singular, as per the original account of the Shatapatha Brahmana) where it is taken to safety at the peak of the Himavat. Matsya then identifies itself as Brahma and states 'Manu will create (again) all beings--gods, Asuras and men' before disappearing. Notably, this account does not mention Ida/Ila. Other details include:

  • A description of a sacrifice performed states 'The gods also were gratified at the sacrifice by the Ida, clarified butter, Homa and libations poured by the great Rishis versed in mantras and pronunciation' (Book 2: Rajasuyika Parva - XXXIV)
  • Yudhishthira describes religion as 'the only raft for those desirous of going to heaven, like a ship to merchants desirous of crossing the ocean' (Book 3: Arjunabhigamana Parva - XXXI)
  • Markandeya states that 'a man's mind is overpowered by any one of these senses running wild, he loses his reason, and becomes like a ship tossed by storms upon the high ocean' (Book 3: Markandeya-Samasya Parva: CCX)

Ramayana

Ramayana References Notes
Valmiki version 1 (S. Ayyangar translation) Fish: Ayodhya Kanda - LXVII (67)[75] Great fish eat small fish in a King-less land.
Valmiki version 2 (H. P. Shastri and R.T.H. Griffith translations) Manu: Book 2: Ayodhya Kanda - 110[76][77] Father of Ikshv'aku
Adhyatma Ramayana (R.B.L.B Nath translation) Matsya: Ayodhya Kanda - V (5.41); Yuddha Kanda - X (10.46), XV (15.58)[78] Stated to be an avatar of Rama
There are multiple versions of the Ramayana. Many are attributed to Valmiki.

As evidenced below, the assertion of Bonnefoy (see YajurVeda section, above) that Matsya refers to the "law of the fishes" - equivalent to the "law of the jungle" - in respect to an absence of a monarchy (specifically a kingship) to rule a given land,[57] is fully supported by various versions of the Ramayana. Notably, Manu in the account of Matsya is the father of Ikshvaku, the first king of the Solar Dynasty, of which Prithu and Rama are descendants.

Valmiki version 1

In a kingless land none dares to call anything his own. Like a fish in the ocean, the great feed upon the small and they upon the smaller and so on ad infinitum. Those that were severely punished by the king for falling away from their duties of their rank and order, those who proclaim and live a godless life, this is their day of power and glory. They wreak their hoarded vengeance upon the good and the innocent; and the world will laud them to the skies as great men and holy.

-- Ramayana, translated by S. Ayyangar (1910), Ayodhya Kanda - LXVII (67)

Valmiki version 2

And Ka'syap was Mar'ichi's child.
From him Vivasvat sprang: from him
Manu, whose fame shall ne'er be dim.
Manu, who life to mortals gave,
Begot Ikshv'aku good and brave:
First of Ayodhya's kings was he,
Pride of her famous dynasty.

-- The Ramayana of Valmiki, translated by R.T.H. Griffith (1870-1874), Book 2, Ayodhya Kanda - 110

Adhyatma Ramayana

Thou [Rama] alone art know in Srutis and the Puranas as appearing in the form of the fish [Matsya] and the like. In the same way all this differentiation of sat and asat (existence and non-existence) art thou. None that appears is without thee.

-- The Adhyatma Ramayana, translated by R.B.L.B. Nath (1979), Yuddha Kanda, Chapters V.17 and X.48

Maha-Puranas

Roy states that a 'comparison of the Mahabharata account with those of the Matsya and Bhagavata Puranas... [makes it] clear that new elements were gradually brought into the legend and slight changes occasioned so as to allegorize the Brahmanical ideas', adding that all these versions agree in ascribing a horn to Matsya, which adds a 'religious sacredness'.[12]

Agni Purana

Agni References Notes
2, 46.8, 49.1, 63.7-9, 108.29-30, 167.24, 272.20b-21a, 273.7 (Ila), 370.4, 374.29-32a[79]

"Who are you, but Visnu? O Narayana (Visnu) I salute you. Why do you stupefy me with your illusory power, O Janardana (Visnu)".

Having hear the words of Manu, the Fish replied [to] Manu who had been engaged in the protection (of the world), "I have manifested for the protection of this universe and for the destruction of the wicked".

"On the seventh day, the ocean would flood the earth. Having put the seeds (of creation) etc. in the boat that would approach you, you would spend the night... of Brahma on it being encircled by the seven sages, (you) bind this boat to my horn with the big serpent".

-- Agni Purana (unabridged), translated by J.L. Shastri, G.P. Bhatt, and N. Gangadharan (1998), Chapter 2, Verses 10-13
Matsya.

R. Dalal describes the Agni Purana as an 'encyclopedic work, which is classified as a SHAIVITE Purana, through is begins with a section on VISHNU, and has several other topics'.[80] As narrated by Agni to the sage Vasistha (one of the Saptarishis), in this account, as Manu 'was offering waters of libation in the (river) Krtamala, a small fish came in the waters in his folded palms', seeking protection from crocodiles and others. Growing and being transferred first to a vessel, then to a tank, and then the ocean when finally 'in size extending to a lakh of yojanas', Manu identifies the fish as Vishnu, who warns of the impending flood and instructs him to board a ship with seeds, etc. Notably, this includes being told that he will spend the 'night of Brahma' on the ship (i.e. the time of universal dissolution lasting 1000 yugas or 'celestial years' where all creation begins again anew) while 'being encircled by the seven sages', i.e. the Saptarishi.

After the flood occurs and Manu is on the ship, a serpent (Naga) - in place of a rope - is used to tie the ship to the horn of Matsya, described as 'one million yojanas in length'. The final verses, rather than narrate the arrival of Manu at the safety at the peak of a mountain or his subsequent sacrificial ritual to produce Ila, instead briefly narrate that Manu 'heard from the fish the Purana known as the Matsya Purana, and that 'Kesava (Vishnu) killed the demon Hayagriva, the destroyer of the Vedas of Brahman and thus protected the Vedic mantras'. Other details include:

  • Matsya is listed as the first of the Dashavatara, or ten primary incarnations of Vishnu (49.1)
  • The Matsya salagrama is described as 'long and has three dots. It is crystalline-coloured... The Sridhara (stone) has a garland of wild flowers and five lines and is circular' (49.1)
  • Images of Vishnu as Matsya 'should be installed in waters' (63.7-9)
  • Vishnu resides in 'Kurus in the form of Matsya' (108.29-30)
  • Ila is mentioned as the daughter of Manu, mother of Pururavas with Budha, and becoming a male called Sudyumna 'after delivering Pururavas' (273.7)
  • It is stated the Purusha is 'just like the fish in the water attached and detached' (370.4; similar to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, above)
  • Contemplation of Vishnu should include 'with ear-ring[s] (in the shape of a fish' (374.29-32a)

Bhagavata Purana

Bhagavata References Notes
1.3.15,[81] 1.15.35,[82] 2.7.12,[83] 6.8.13,[84] 8.24,[85] 9.1.16,[86] 10.2.40[87]

 O King Par?k?it, at the end of the past millennium, at the end of Brahm?'s day, because Lord Brahm? sleeps during the night, annihilation took place, and the three worlds were covered by the water of the ocean.

At the end of Brahm?'s day, when Brahm? felt sleepy and desired to lie down, the Vedas were emanating from his mouth, and the great demon named Hayagr?va stole the Vedic knowledge.

Understanding the acts of the great demon Hayagr?va, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Hari, who is full of all opulences, assumed the form of a fish and saved the Vedas by killing the demon.

-- Bhagavata Purana, translated by Swami Prabhupada, Canto 8, Chapter 24, Verses 7-9

The legend of Matsya in the Bhagavata Purana consists of two separate accounts. In the first, as quoted above in its entirety, after the Vedas are stolen by an Asura called Hayagriva (not to be confused with the horse-headed avatar also called 'Hayagriva'), Krishna assumes the form of Matsya to destroy the demon and retrieve the stolen Vedas. This account is very similar to those of the Narada and Garuda Puranas; similar stories involving other demons are also mentioned in the Padma and Skanda Puranas (see below). From the second account, following directly from the first:

The Supreme Personality of Godhead [Matsya] said: O King, who can subdue your enemies, on the seventh day from today the three worlds -- Bh, Bhuva? and Sva? -- will all merge into the water of inundation. When all the three worlds merge into the water, a large boat sent by Me will appear before you.

Thereafter, O King, you shall collect all types of herbs and seeds and load them on that great boat. Then, accompanied by the seven is and surrounded by all kinds of living entities, you shall get aboard that boat, and without moroseness you shall easily travel with your companions on the ocean of inundation, the only illumination being the effulgence of the great is.

Then, as the boat is tossed about by the powerful winds, attach the vessel to My horn by means of the great serpent V?suki, for I shall be present by your side. Pulling the boat, with you and all the is in it, O King, I shall travel in the water of devastation until the night of Lord Brahm?'s slumber is over.

-- Bhagavata Purana, translated by Swami Prabhupada, Canto 8, Chapter 24, Verses 32-37
Matsya.

The second account occurs at the end of the C?k?u?a-manvantara with King Satyavrata, stated to 'later became the son of Vivasv?n... and was [to be] known as ?r?ddhadeva. By the mercy of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, he was given the post of Manu'. While performing austerities, a small fish jumps into the King's hands, which he throws back into the river, prompting to fish to request his protection. Doing so, the fish grows as it is first deposited in a water jug, then a well, a lake, and then finally the sea where it expands for 'hundreds of miles'. Recognising the fish as Krishna, Satyavrata is warned of the impending dissolution of the three worlds and instructed to board a boat built for him, taking 'herbs and seeds... the seven is and... all kinds of living entities'.

Satyavrata meditates on Krishna until the 'gigantic clouds pouring incessant water swelled the ocean more and more', boards the boat, and 'while the King constantly meditated upon the Supreme Personality of Godhead, a large golden fish appeared in the ocean of inundation. The fish had one horn and was eight million miles long'. Vasuki is used as a rope. During the journey, Satyavrata praises Krishna, and Krishna - as Matsya - 'explained to King Satyavrata the spiritual science known as skhya-yoga, the science by which one distinguishes between matter and spirit, along with the instructions contained in the Puras and the sa?hit?s' (8.24).

The second account is similar to that given in the Matsya Purana, particularly as both Puranas omit the remainder of the original legend from the Shatapatha Brahmana (White YajurVeda, see above), where Manu is taken to safety by Matsya to a mountain where he consequently performs a sacrifice to produce his "daughter" Ila. Instead, this sacrifice is described in a separate legend, similar to that of the Vishnu Purana (see below), where 'Manu had begun that sacrifice for the sake of getting a son, but because the priest was diverted by the request of Manu's wife, a daughter named Il? was born' (9.1.16).

Brahma Purana

Brahma References Notes
Matsya: 38.1-63, 56.3, 57.1-3, 68.73; Flood: 24.19-21; Manu: 3.4-7; Ship: 38.85-86; Ila: 5.3-7, Gautami-Mahaymya: 3.9-12[88] The legend of Matsya is not narrated in this Purana.

By visiting Svetamadhava and Matsyamadhava by his side and by bowing to the first incarnation of Madhava in the form of a fish [i.e. Matsya-Madhava], one is liberated from all miseries. Lord Matsya Madhava had at the outset assumed the form of [a] Rohita fish. He had been thinking of the earth stationed at the bottom of the nether worlds. He established himself there in order to redeem the Vedas.

-- Brahma Purana, unknown translator (1955), Chapter 57, Verses 1-3

The legend of Matsya is only briefly mentioned in the Brahma Purana, as quoted above. O.M. Starza states that Svetamadhava 'to the south of the Blue Mountain... On its banks are the two shrines, those of Matsya Avatara [Matsyamadhava] and King Sveta [Svetamadhava]'. He adds that in the Skanda Purana (Purusottama Mahatmya: 37.55-6), Vishnu granted Sveta a crystalline image seated in front of Matsya (at Puri, between the blue hill and the sea) as a reward for asceticism.[89]

Otherwise, it is stated that this 'ocean of worldly existence is painful and utterly full of misery... with passions acting like crocodiles' (24.19-21), reminiscent of the account in the Agni Purana where Matsya seeks protection from crocodiles and others.

The Brahma Purana also states that a 'son is the exceedingly splendid ship for those who are about to sink in the ocean of misery' (38.85-86). Ila/Ida is also mentioned as emerging after Manu 'desirous of begetting sons, so performed the sacrifice with Mitra and Varuna as deities... It is said in the Vedas that Ila was born therefrom' (5.3-7). This is consistent of the account of Matsya in the Shatapatha Brahmana (1.8.1). Notably, Ila is also stated to be synonymous with the Earth, carrying out the function of productivity (Gautami-Mahaymya: 3.9-12).

Brahmanda Purana

Brahmanda References Notes
Part 1: --;[90]Part 2: --;[91]Part 3: Manu: 59, Ida/Illa: 60;[92]Part 4: Lalita-mahatmya: 29.134-136;[93]Part 5: Lalita-mahatmya: 33.64-66[94] The legend of Matsya is not mentioned.

Desirous of getting a son, the Prajapati [Shraddhadeva Manu] performed a sacrifice. He dropped Ahuti (ghee-offering) in the fire at the spot allotted to Mitra and Varuna. It is mentioned in the Sruti [i.e. Vedas, including the Brahmanas] that Ila [Ida] was born at that spot wearing divine robes, bedecked in divine ornaments and having [a] divine physical body.

-- Brahmanda Purana Part 3, translated by G.V. Tagare (1958), Chapter 60, Verses 5-6

The legend of Matsya does not seem to be mentioned in the Brahmanda Purana. However, a detailed genealogy is provided for Vaivasvata Manu (chapter 59), as well as an account of producing Ila/Ida through performance of a sacrifice, which is almost identical to the account given in the legend of Matsya in the Shatapatha Brahmana (chapter 60). Notably, although the name of the "daughter" of Manu in the Brahmana was 'Ida', in the Brahmanda it is "Ila", thus evidencing claims that Ida and Ila are the same (i.e. synonymous) are indeed correct.[41]

Brahmavaivarta Purana

Brahmavaivarta References Notes
Nath Translation: -- ;[95]Nager translation: Volume 2: 9 (p74)[96] Roman numerals indicate the Nath translation; numerical digits indicate the Nager translation (two parts), which does not provide verse numbers (some pages of the Nath translation are also missing verse numbers).

The legend of Matsya does not seem to be mentioned in the Brahmavaivarta Purana. A reference to Matsya found states that this avatar - along with Varaha, Vamana, Kalki, Buddha, and Kapila - is 'the amsa [portion or part] of the lord [Vishnu]' (Nager Translation, Volume 2, Chapter 9).

Garuda Purana

Gaurda References Notes
Part 1: 1.23, 2.42, 13.3-10, 15.3-160, 86.10-11, 87.12, 138.4 (Ila), 142.2-3;[97]Part 2: 194.13, 196.6;[98]Part 3: 25.38 (Ila), 30.37[99] The legend of Matsya is not mentioned. Part 3 (Brahma Moska Kanda) 1.51-52 classifies Puranas.

Svasanti was elected Indra during this regime and his enemy was the demon Pralamba. Lord Visnu in his incarnation as [a] fish killed him.

-- Garuda Purana, translated by 'a board of scholars' (1957), Part 1, Chapter 87, Verse 12

The legend of Matsya does not seem to be mentioned in the Garuda Purana. In addition to the demon Pralamba as quoted above, it is also mentioned that Matsya 'fought with the demon Hayagriva in battle, killed him, redeemed the Vedas, and saved Manu and others' (Part 1: 142.2-3). Notably, Hayagriva is also the name of the horse-headed avatar of Vishnu that recovered the stolen Vedas and returned them to Brahma. Stated to be the tenth overall incarnation of Vishnu at the end of the Cakusa Manvantara (i.e. the end of the reign of the sixth Manu) that saved Vaivasvata Manu, the seventh and current Manu associated with the legend of Matsya (Part 1: 1.23), other details include:

  • Matsya is stated as the first in the Dhashavatara, the ten primary incarnations of Vishnu (Part 1: 86.10-11 and Part 3: 30.37)
  • 'Matsya' is also one of the 1,000 names of Vishnu (Vishnu Sahasranama; Part 1: 15.3-160)
  • Ila is mentioned, albeit without reference to the sacrifice of Manu: 'Manu had a daughter Ila of whom Budha (Mercury) begot three sons: Rajas, Rudra and Pururavas. Ila was transformed into a man named Sudyumna. Sudyumna begot three sons - Utkala, Vinata, and Gaya' (Part 1: 138.4). The word 'Ila' also signifies the soul (Part 3: 25.38)

Kurma Purana

Kurma References Notes
6.18, 19.6-9 (Ila), 21 (Puruvas)[100] The legend of Matsya is not mentioned.

Although the legend of Matsya does not seem to be mentioned in the Kurma Purana, Ila/Ida from the original legend is, albeit without reference to Manu or the performance of a sacrifice to produce her. Ila is stated to have bared sons with Budha, the son of Soma, and having 'transformed as a stainless man' called Sudyumna, also had another three sons called Utkala, Gaya, and Vinatasya (19.6-9). One of the sons of the female Ila with Budha, King Puruavas, is also mentioned (21).

Linga Purana

Linga References Notes
Part 1: 2.38-41, 65.19b-22 (Ila);[101]Part 2: 48.30-32, 96.17-22[102] Part 2 continues up to chapter 108 and then starts at chapter 1 again.

Multitudes of creatures have been saved by you in the form of a fish. You moved about in the vast ocean-like sheet of water formerly, after tying up the boat to your tail.

--  Linga Purana, translated by J.L.Shastri (1951), Part 2, Chapter 96, Verses 17-22

The legend of Matsya is only briefly mentioned in the Linga Purana, as quoted above, and as stated by Virabhadra to Nrismha, the man-lion avatar of Vishnu. Matsya is also mentioned as one of the 10 primary avatars of Vishnu (Dashavatara) for the good of the world; other avatars are due to the curse of Bhrgu (Part 2: 48.30-32). Ila is also mentioned as becoming a 'Kimpurusa' called Sudyumna, alternating between being a man and a woman from one month to another; as a woman she bore children with Budha, the son of Soma, including King Pururavas. No mention is made of being produced by the sacrifice of Manu (Part 1: 65.19b-22).

Markandeya Purana

Markandeya References Notes
XLVII.7, LIV.31, LVIII.75-78 (star constellations), LIX.22-26[103] The legend of Matsya is not mentioned.

Matsya Purana

Matsya References Notes
Matsya: 1-2; Ila: 11[104] The legend of Matsya forms the frame in which this Purana was narrated to Vaivasvata Manu.

May the words of Lord Visnu, embodied in the Vedas and uttered by his Matsya-avatara, in which incarnation, at the time of His sallying forth from the region of the patala, the blow of His tail caused the seven seas to intermingle with the high heavens and then to fall down, splattering the sphere of the earth, steal away all your evil.

-- Matsya Purana, translated by A. Taluqdar (1916), Chapter I, Verse 2
Matsya and Manu.

As stated by the Agni Purana (see above), V. R. R. Dikshitar notes that after the flood, when 'the boat was floating in the dark waters, Vasudeva, in the form of a fish, addressed the Matsya Purana to Manu'.[105]H.H. Wilson adds that the legend of Matsya 'is told in the Mahabharata, with reference to the Matsya [Purana] as its authority; from which it might be inferred, that the Purana was prior to the poem'.[106] Dalal also states about the Matsya Purana that it 'is one of the older Puranas, and was narrated by LOMAHARSHANA [Suta] to the rishis in the NAIMISHA forest. It begins with the story of MANU'.[80]

In this account, which consists of the first two chapters, King Vaivasvata, 'after making over his kingdom to his son [Ikshvaku], devoted himself to rigid asceticism [on] the summit of the Malnya mountain'. After a million years, granted a boon by Brahma, the King requested 'power sufficient for the protection of the whole creation, movable and immovable, when the hour of Pralaya [dissolution] will come'.

Afterwards, while performing Tarpana (libation of water to deceased ancestors) at his hermitage, a small carp jumps into his hands which as it grows, is first deposited in a jar, then a large pitcher, a well, a tank, the Ganges, and then the ocean where 'it very nearly filled the vast expanse of the great ocean'. Identifying the gigantic fish as Krishna, Manu is warned by Matsya that in 'a few days time, O King, the Universe shall be deluged with water, along with the mountains and forests', adding that the Devas had created a boat to rescue creation which Manu is to take charge of to 'help the distressed' and to tie to His horn if in danger from strong gusts of wind (Chapter 1).

Budha, husband of Ila.

The dissolution of the Earth is described to Vaivasvata by Matsya, beginning with no rain for a hundred years, famine as the rays of the sun 'shall become seven times more powerful', and subterranean fire from the thousand mouths of Sesa which will destroy creation, reducing the three worlds to ash. Then 'the seven destructive [pralaya] clouds, viz - Samvarta,[107] Bhimanada,[108] Drona,[109] Chanda, Balahaka,[110] Vidyut Pataka,[111] and Sona,[112] would spring up from the vapours arising out of such a head, and would rain in torrents till all the seas become united in one great mass'. Matsya, before disappearing, also states that at the beginning of re-creation, He will bring back Vedic knowledge. Finally, after performing Yoga, Vaivasvata boards the boat at the time of dissolution, Sesa appears in the shape of a rope, and the horned Matsya reappears to narrate the Matsya Purana (Chapter 2).

Ila

Notably, the remainder of the legend from the Shatapatha Brahmana (White YajurVeda), where Manu is taken to safety by Matsya to a mountain where he consequently performs a sacrifice to produce his "daughter" Ila is not mentioned. Instead it is stated in a separate legend that Vaivasvata had ten sons, 'the eldest of whom was Ila who was born by the performance of [a] putresti sacrifice'. It was Ila - not Iskwaku - who was made King, who then 'started on an expedition of conquest and visited several countries'. Happening to enter Saravana, the pleasure gardens of Shiva who was enjoying conjugal love with His consort Parvati, Ila 'was instantly transformed into a woman, and his horse was transformed into a mare'. Ila - as a woman again - later marries Budha, the son of the Moon (Chapter 11).

Narada Purana

Narada References Notes
Part 1: 11.52;[113]Part 2: 62.52;[114]Part 3: 65.59, 71.152.153, 71.161;[115]Part 4: 114.2, 119.14-19, 125.62-64;[116]Part 5: Uttarabhaga - 55.47-48 (flood), 56.14-18, 57.30, 67.45-47[117] The Narada Purana focuses on worship and rituals.

O Mohini, listen to another great holy pool here itself. By taking a holy dip here with devotion, the man becomes master of the Vedas. The Asura named Hayasiras, a terror to Devas and others, snatched away Vedas coming out of the mouth of god Brahma. Thereupon, prayed to by Brahma, Visnu manifested himself in the form of a divine Fish [Matsya]. The lord killed the demon and handed over the Vedas to Brahma.

-- Narada Purana, unknown translator (1952), Part 5, Chapter 67, Verses 45-47
Matsya with the Vedas depicted as infants.

It seems the legend of Matsya rescuing Manu from the flood is not narrated in the Narada Purana. Instead, a brief account of Matsya destroying the demon Hayasiras (i.e. Hayagriva) to return the Vedas to Brahma is given, similar to the accounts of the Agni and Garuda Puranas (see above). Notably, worldly existence is described as a 'terrible ocean... Miseries constitute its foams; it is turbulent with furious temperament constituting its sharks and crocodiles. The mundane affairs are its flood of waters; the different kinds of ailments are its waves; it is impassable due to the whirlpool of delusion' (Part 5: Uttarabhaga - 55.47-48). Also notably - especially as virtually identical to the account given in the Brahma Purana (see above) - mention is made of visiting the shrines of Matsya (Matsyamadhava; 'who had at the outset assumed the form of a fish of the Rohita type') and King Sveta (Svetamadhava; Part 5: Uttarabhaga - 56.14-16). Other details include:

  • It is stated that the legend of Matsya is narrated in the eighth Skandha (or canto) of the Srimad Bhagavatam (Part 4 96.14-15a),
  • It is stated that the 'Pancami (fifth day) in the bright half of the month of Caitra is called Matsya Jayanti. On this day, the worship of the incarnation of the Lord as (Divine) fish is to be formed with great festivities, by devotees' (Part 4: 114.2)
  • In ritual worship, 'a beautiful square-shaped put fourteen Angulas deep should be made and sprinkled with sandal water. After filling it with the milk of cows, the devotee should put in it an image of a fish made of gold and exquisite in every limb, and with eyes constituted of pearls. Uttering the Mantra, 'Obeisance to the great fish' the devotee should worship it with scents and other things and offer it to a Brahmana' (Part 4: 125.62-64)
  • Kama (Cupid) has a fish for a banner (Part 4: Uttarabhaga - 2.44b-46 and 19.14)
  • Matsya is listed as the first of the Dashavatara, or ten primary incarnations of Vishnu (Part 4: 119.14-19)

Padma Purana

Padma References Notes
Part 1: 1.44b-50, 3.25b-29, 8.75-77, 8.118-119;[118]Part 2: --;[119]Part 3: 19.60-71, 75.1-6;[120]Part 4: --;[121]Part 5: 22.28-36;[122]Part 6: 77.48b-51;[123]Part 7: 30.11-15, 66.44-54, 71.23-29, 71.169-188, 80.137-146a;[124]Part 8: 91.1-11, 95.10-24, 98.2-4, 120.51b-73;[125]Part 9: 197.57b-70a, 229.40-44, 230;[126]Part 10: 253.71-81, Kritayogasara Khanda - 6.175-190, 11.92b-101, 17.1-3-117[127]

...Visnu taking up the form resembling a small glittering fish fell into the hollow of the hands of Kasyapa at his residence on the Vindhya (mountain). The sage kindly and quickly put him into (his) water-pot. When it could not contain itself there, he put it into a well. When it could not contain itself there, he put it into a lake. In this way it was (in the end) put into the sea. It grew there also. Then Vishnu, having the form of a fish, killed Sankha. Then taking him in his hand he came to the Badari-forest. Calling all the sages there, he ordered them (like) this.

Remove the Vedas dropped into the water. Quickly bring them with the Upanishads from the interior of the water. Till then I, with the group of deities, shall live and Prayaga. Then all the sages, endowed with the power of penance, lifted the Vedas with the six Vedangas and with sacrifices... Then all the sages together went to Prayaga. They presented the Vedas obtained by them to Vishnu with the Creator. Brahma, obtained the Vedas with the sacrifices was delighted; and with the group of deities and sages he performed the horse-sacrifice.

-- Padma Purana, translated by N.A. Deshpande (1988), Part 8, Chapter 91, Verses 1-11
Matsya preparing to slay the demon.

There are two accounts of the Matsya legend in Padma Purana. In the first, it is Kasyapa - a Saptarishi synonymous with Kurma - who rears Matsya, not the Manu Vaivasvata. The story itself is in regards to rescuing the Vedas from the demon Sankha (Hayasiras or Hayagriva in other accounts), not in regards to protection from the deluge or dissolution of the Earth. It is also the sages that return the Vedas to Brahma, not Vishnu (i.e. in other accounts, such as that below, it is usually the horse-headed avatar also called 'Hayagriva', or the fish avatar, that returns the Vedas to Brahma; Part 8: 91.1-11).

In the second account, Kasyapa is stated to have had four (i.e. not thirteen) wives: Aditi, Diti, Kadru and Vinata. As well as Hiranyaksa and Hiranyakashipu (Asuras relating to the legends of the Varaha and Narasimha avatars, respectively), Diti also gives birth to other demons including Hayagriva and Makara.

It is Makara, through performance of severe penances, who enters into the realm of Brahma, steals the Vedas, and enters 'into the great ocean' with them, causing ruin to the world. Reminiscent of the legend of Kurma, Brahma, 'surrounded by the hosts of all gods, went to the Milky Ocean, and seeking refuge of god (Vishu)' informs Him of what has happened. Vishnu 'thus addressed by Brahma, resorted to the Fish-form [Matsya] and entered the great ocean' before then adopting the form of a crocodile to kill Makara and return the Vedas, Vedangas, and Upangas to Brahma. Other details include:


  • Ila was created from a sacrifice by Manu to produce a son (Part 1: 8.75-77) and alternated between being man for one month (called Sudyumna) and woman in another; made pregnant by Budha (Part 1: 8.118-119)
  • Matsya is listed as first in the Dashavatara, the ten primary incarnations of Vishnu (Part 7: 66.44-54 and 71.23-29 and Part 9: 229.40-44)
  • 'That [salagrama] stone which is long, has a golden complexion, and adorned with three lines, is known as 'Matsya', and gives the fruit like enjoyments and salvation' (Part 8: 120.51b-73)
  • It is stated about Vishnu that 'You are the Fish holding the Vedas' (Part 9: 197.57b-70a) and that 'taking the form of a Fish, extracted the Vedas' (Part 10: Kritayogasara khanda - 6.175-190)
  • It is stated 'The third auspicious covering [of Vaikuntha] consists of the worlds of Matsya, Kurma, etc.' (Part 9: 228.59-65)

Shiva Purana

Shiva References Notes
Part 1: Rudra-Samhita II - 2.24-29 (Kama fish banner and vehicle);[128]Part 2: 17.16, Yuddha Khanda - 16.16;[129]Part 3: Satarudra Samhita - 11.18;[130]Part 4: Uma Samhita - 36; Vayaviya Samhita - 30.56-58, 31.134-136[131]

The legend of Matsya does not seem to be narrated in the Shiva Purana. Matsya is however listed as first in the Dashavatara, the ten principle avatars of Vishnu (Part 4: Vayaviya Samhita: Chapter 30.56-58 and 31.134-136). it is also mentioned that Vaivasvata had nine sons, plus a daughter Ila from performance of a sacrifice. Born 'of the parts of Mitra and Varuna', these deities inform Ila that she 'alone will become the son establishing the family of Manu. You will be famous in the three worlds as Sudyumna' (Part 4: Uma Samhita - 36).

Skanda Purana

Skanda References Notes
Part 1: --;[132]Part 2: Kaumarkika Khanda - 13.194, 36.25;[133]Part 3: Uttarardha - 8.20, 9.16, 16.18;[134]Part 4: --;[135]Part 5: Purusottama-Ksetra-Mahatmya - 15.30, 22.32.43, 38.113-117;[136]Part 6: Karttikamsa-Mahatmya - 13, 14.1, 16.2, 34.27-28, Margasirsa-Mahatmya - 3.23-25, 14.25-28, Bhagavata-Mahatmyha - 3.29-32;[137]Part 7: Ayidhya-Mahatmya 1.64-67, 18.12-20, 27.32-33;[138]Part 8: Setu-Mahaymya - 3.81-82, 37.15-20, 46.37-43, 48.47-52;[139]Part 9: Dharmaranya Khanda - 8.53-59;[140]Part 10: Purvardha - 21.7;[141]Part 11: Uttarardha - 69.141;[142]Part 12: Avantiksetra-Mahatmya - 8.20-26, 63.81;[143]Part 13: --;[144]Part 14: Reva Khanda - 3.23-32, 9;[145]Part 15: Reva Khanda - 151.8-17, 151.1-7;[146]Part 16: --;[147]Part 17: --;[148]Part 18: Nagara Khanda - 254.92;[149]Part 19: Prabhasa-Ksetra Mahatmya - 2.20-23;[150]Part 20: Prabhasa Khanda: 152.4 ('The earth is called Ila')[151]

Formerly there was a Daitya called Damanaka. He had become very powerful due to Maya. He harassed people. He could move through the waters of [the] ocean. The Lord too could wield Maya. At the request of Brahma the Lord took up the incarnation of [a] Fish and entered the ocean. He searched for and found (the demon). He dragged him to the shore and thrashed him on the surface of the earth. The excellent Danava fell on the fourteenth day in the bright half of the month of Madhu (i.e Caitra).

By contact of the hands of the Lord he became a fragrant gross of the same name, i.e. Damanaka (Artemisia indica). The Lord accepted it with a surprised mind. He made a garland of it and wore it on his chest along with the garland of sylvan flowers. He thought that its fragrance should stay as long as the object exists.

-- Skanda Purana, Unknown translator (1951), Part 5: Purusottama-Ksetra-Mahatmya, Chapter 38, Verses 113-117

There are several accounts of Matsya in the Skanda Purana. In the first, as quoted above, Vishnu in the form of Matsya destroys the Asura called Damanaka in the ocean, who turns into fragrant Damanaka grass. This story is in relation to the Matsya Jayanti which takes place in Caitra, as related by the Narada Purana (Part 5: Purusottama-Ksetra-Mahatmya: 38.113-117). From the second account:

Formerly there was an Asura named Sankha. He was the son of Sagara (Ocean). He usurped the powers of Indra and other Guardians of the Quarters... on seeing Vishnu asleep, he took away the Vedas [to weaken the gods] from the primordial self-born Lord Brahma from Satyaloka. While they were being carried away by him, the Vedas, out of fear of him, escaped and entered the waters along with the seeds of the Yajnamantras. In search of them, Sankha too entered the ocean. Wandering here and there the Daitya did not find them together anywhere...

[Vishnu said:] All the Vedas carried away by Sankha now lie submerged in the waters. O Devas, I shall bring them all after killing the son of the Ocean... After saying this, Lord Visnu assumed the form of a Saphari fish and plunged into the water from the sky even as Brahma staying on Vindhya was watching. After killing [the] Asura Sankha, Visnu went to the forest of Badari. There the Lord called together all the sages and commanded thus: O you all, do search for the Vedas scattered within the waters. Bring them quickly from the midst of the waters of the sea. Till then I shall remain at Prayaga accompanied by the groups of Devas.

-- Skanda Purana, Unknown translator (1951), Part 6, Karttikamsa-Mahatmya, Chapter 13
The deaths of Madhu and Kaitabha.

Notably, the second account, as quoted above, is in many respects almost identical to the account in the Padma Purana (see above), with the exception of being nurtured by Kasyapa (or, in the original account of the Shatapatha Brahmana, Vaivasvata Manu; Part 6: Karttikamsa-Mahatmya: 13). In the third account, the Asuras Madhu and Kaitabha steal the Vedas from Brahma and enter 'the great ocean'. Mahadeva - i.e. Shiva, not Vishnu in this account - assumes the form of a Fish, stirs up the ocean, and finds the Vedas in Patala before destroying the Daityas and returning the Vedas to Brahma (Part 14: Reva Khanda: 9). Notably, in the Bhagavata Purana, it is Vishnu in the form of Hayagriva (also the name of another Veda-stealing demon as described above) who retrieves the Vedas from Madhu and Kaitabha.

The fourth and fifth accounts are brief mentions of Matsya in relation to the legend of the flood and of Manu. In the fourth account Vishnu states ''When you day ends, I shall become a fish and shall support (floating) like a boat, the earth along with its medicinal plants, Manus and others' (Part 7: Ayidhya-Mahatmya: 18.12-20). In the fifth account it is stated 'In order to please Brahma in a former Kalpa, the Lord became a Fish, recovered the Vedas that were immersed in the great sea and handed them over to Brahma' (Part 15: Reva Khanda - 151.8-17). Elsewhere, it is also stated that at the beginning of a new Kalpa, Vishnu in the form of Matsya taught the Vedas to Brahma (Part 19: Prabhasa-Ksetra Mahatmya - 2.20-23). The accounts of Matsya in this Purana are thus primarily concerned with the retrieval or restoration of the Vedas after being stolen by various demons. Other details include:

  • It is stated 'in the morning on Dvadasi day, in the bright half of the month of Margasirsa, the Matsya festival is to be celebrated by the wise' (Part 6: Karttikamsa-Mahatmya: 14.1)
  • Matsya is stated to be the protector of the Vedas (Part 8: Setu-Mahaymya: 46.37-43)
  • Matsya is listed in the Dashavatara, or ten primary incarnations of Vishnu (Part 15: Reva-Khanda, 151.1-7)
  • King Pururavas was the son of Ila (Part 12: Avantiksetra-Mahatmya - 8.20-26); it is also stated that 'The earth is called Ila' (Part 20: Prabhasa Khanda: 152.4)
  • 'Matsya' is one of the thousand names (Vishnu Sahasranama) of Vishnu (Part 12: Avantiksetra-Mahatmya: 63.81)
  • It is stated that the Matsyavahana is the emblem of Parvati (Part 18: Nagara Khanda - 254.92)

Vamana Purana

Vamana References Notes
--[152] No notable mentions.

Varaha Purana

Varaha References Notes
Part 1: 1.6, 4.2-3, 7.40, 9, 12.8-9, 15.10, 15.18-19, 40.46-48, 48.17-22, 113.20, 113.42;[153]Part 2: 211.69[154]

Night being over, the lotus-eyed God [Narayana] got up and thought about the four Vedas and in them the Goddess of the Vedas. Despite this thinking, he did not get the Vedas because he was illusioned by the sense of sleep. He was in utter confusion. Then seeing them hidden in his own form called water, he thought of entering into it taking the form of a fish. So after meditating for sometime He took the form of a great fish and entered into the water agitating it all around. When the excellent God in the form of a huge fish resembling a big mountain, suddenly entered the ocean, He who uplifted the earth before was extolled...

Extolled thus, the God caught the Vedas with Upanishads and Sastras out of the water and then took his own form.

-- Varaha Purana, Unknown translator (1960), Part 1, Chapter 9

As quoted above, the account of Matsya in the Varaha Purana concerns the retrieval of the Vedas at the beginning of a new Kalpa, where creation begins anew. This occurs after the dissolution (i.e. annihilation) of creation at the end of the previous Kalpa, followed by the 'night' of Vishnu / Narayana, which lasts 1,000 Yugas. With the exceptions of verses listing Matsya as first in the Dashavatara, the ten primary incarnations of Vishnu (Part 1: 4.2-3, 48.17-22 and Part 2: 211.69), almost all references to this avatar are in respect to retrieving the lost or stolen Vedas from the ocean.

Vayu Purana

Vayu References Notes
Part 1: --[155]; Part 2: 23;[156] No notable mentions.

Know that formerly Manu, on being urged by Brahma, began to create willingly, but he was unsuccessful. Then Prajapati [Manu], desirous of sons, performed a great Isti (Yajna). Manu offered the oblation (Ahuti) in the share of Mitra and Varuna. It is heard, that Ida was born thereof. She wore heavenly garments and was bedecked in celestial ornaments. Her body too was divine. It is remembered that Manu, the bearer of the staff of justice, addressed her as 'Ila' and said, "Welfare unto you, I shall follow you".

-- Vayu Purana, Unknown translator, (1960), Part 2, Chapter 23, Verses 5-7

Although there are no notable mentions of Matsya in the Vayu Purana, the account of the birth of Ida at sacrifice of Manu clearly originates from the Shatapatha Brahmana (Part 2: 23.5-7). The account itself is very similar to that of the Brahmanda Purana (see above). Part 2 also contains detailed information on the Manus and Saptarishi.

Vishnu Purana

VIshnu References Notes
Book 1: 4;[157]Book 2: 2;[158]Book 3: --; Book 4: 1;[159]Book 5: --; Book 6: --;[160] No notable mentions.

From the right thumb of Brahmá was born the patriarch Daksha; his daughter was Aditi, who was the mother of the sun. The Manu Vaivaswata was the son of the celestial luminary [Surya]; and his sons were Ikshwáku, Nriga, Dhrisht?a, ?aryáti, Narishyanta, Prán?u, Nábhága, Nedisht?a, Karúsha, and Prishadhra. Before their birth, the Manu being desirous of sons, offered a sacrifice for that purpose to Mitra and Varu?a; but the rite being deranged, through an irregularity of the ministering priest, a daughter, Ilá, was produced. Through the favour of the two divinities, however, her sex was changed, and she became a man, named Sudyumna.

At a subsequent period, in consequence of becoming subject to the effects of a malediction once pronounced by ?iva, Sudyumna was again transformed to a woman in the vicinity of the hermitage of Budha, the son of the deity of the moon. Budha saw and espoused her, and had by her a son named Purúravas. After his birth, the illustrious Rishis, desirous of restoring Sudyumna to his sex, prayed to the mighty Vish?u, who is the essence of the four Vedas, of mind, of every thing, and of nothing; and who is in the form of the sacrificial male; and through his favour Ilá once more became Sudyumna, in which character he had three sons, Utkala, Gaya, and Vinata.

-- Vishnu Purana, translated by Horace Hayman Wilson (1840), Book IV, Chapter 1

It seems the legend of Matsya is not narrated in the Vishnu Purana. As quoted above, the aspect of Vaivasvata performing a sacrifice and producing a "daughter" called Ida/Ila from the original legend in the Shatapatha Brahmana is mentioned, albeit as a separate legend and in a modified form; it seems to contain elements also found in the Matsya, Padma, and Skanda Puranas, although Ila being produced due to a mistake by the ministering priest at the sacrifice seems to be shared only with the Bhagavata Purana.

Upa-Puranas

Vishnudharmottara

Vishnudharmottara References Notes
Adhyaya 32, 85.58-59, 106, 118.6;[161] This is Upapurana is a supplement to the Vishnu Purana.
  • The Ardhacandra Mudra [symbolic hand gesture; palm open, fingers extended together, and thumb up like a fish-fin] signifies Matsya (Adhyaya 32)
  • Images of Matsya should depict Him with a horn (Adhyaya 85.58-59)
  • The Mantra of Matsya is 'I shall invoke god Matsya moving in the sea. O Matsya deva, the sustainer of the lives of the world, O infallible, kindly come' (Adhyaya 106)
  • Men 'desirous of grains' should worship Matsya (Adhyaya 118.6)

Iconography

Matsya pulls Manu's boat after having defeated the demon (circa 1870)

Matsya is depicted in two forms: as a zoomorphic fish or in an anthropomorphic form. In the latter form, the upper half is that of the four-armed man and the lower half is a fish. The upper half resembles Vishnu and wears the traditional ornaments and the kirita-makuta (tall conical crown) as worn by Vishnu. He holds in two of his hands the Sudarshana chakra (discus) and a shankha (conch), the usual weapons of Vishnu. The other two hands make the gestures of varadamudra, which grants boons to the devotee, and abhayamudra, which reassures the devotee of protection.[162] In another configuration, he might have all four attributes of Vishnu, namely the Sudarshana chakra, a shankha, a gada (mace) and a lotus.[163]

In some representations, Matsya is shown with four hands like Vishnu, one holding the chakra, another the shankha, while the front two hands hold a sword and a book signifying the Vedas he recovered from the demon. Over his elbows is an angavastra draped, while a dhoti like draping covers his hips.[164]

In rare representations, his lower half is human while the upper body (or just the face) is of a fish. The fish-face version is found in a relief at the Chennakesava Temple, Somanathapura.[165]

Matsya may be depicted alone or in a scene depicting his combat with a demon. A demon called Shankhasura emerging from a conch is sometimes depicted attacking Matsya with a sword as Matsya combats or kills him. Both of them may be depicted in the ocean, while the god Brahma and/or manuscripts or four men, symbolizing the Vedas, may be depicted in the background.[164]

Comparative mythology

Matsya temples are relatively rare, but the iconography is found in Hindu temple reliefs. Above: Matsya on a mandapa pillar in Hampi.

The story of a great Deluge is found in many civilizations across the earth. It is often related to the Genesis narrative of the flood and Noah's Ark.[163] The fish motif reminds readers of the Biblical 'Jonah and the Whale' narrative as well; this fish narrative, as well as the saving of the scriptures from a demon, are specifically Hindu traditions of this style of the flood narrative.[166] Similar flood myths also exist in tales from ancient Sumer and Babylonia, Greece, the Maya of Americas and the Yoruba of Africa.[163]

Matsya is believed to symbolise the aquatic life as the first beings on earth.[167] Another symbolic interpretation of the Matsya mythology is, states Bonnefoy, to consider Manu's boat to represent moksha (salvation), which helps one to cross over. The Himalayas are treated as a boundary between the earthly existence and land of salvation beyond. The protection of the fish and its horn represent the sacrifices that help guide Manu to salvation. Treated as a parable, the tale advises a good king should protect the weak from the mighty, reversing the "law of fishes" and uphold dharma, like Manu, who defines an ideal king.[2] In the tales where the demon hides the Vedas, dharma is threatened and Vishnu as the divine Saviour rescues dharma, aided by his earthly counterpart, Manu - the king.[168]

Worship and significance

India

There are very few temples dedicated to Matsya. Prominent ones include the Shankhodara temple in Bet Dwarka and Vedanarayana Temple in Nagalapuram.[167] The Koneswaram Matsyakeswaram temple in Trincomalee is now destroyed. Matsya Narayana Temple, Bangalore also exists.

Some kingdoms have used sacred matsya as their state emblem. There was a Matsya Kingdom during vedic era, which was one of the sixteen Mahajanapadas (great kingdoms) during as described in the hindu epic Mahabharta and 6th BCE Buddhist text Anguttara Nikaya. After the Indian independence in 1947, the princely states of Bharatpur, Dholpur, Alwar and Karauli were temporarily put together from 1947 to 1949 as the "United State of Matsya", and later in March 1949 after these princely states signed the Instrument of Accession they were merged with the present state of Rajasthan.[169]Matsya Festival is held in Alwar every year in the last week of November to celebrate culture and adventure.[170]

Korea

Jogyesa Buddhist Temple has colorful matsya relics.[171]

See also

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