An avatara is an incarnation and means that a god adopts a human form to be born on earth. Why do gods do this? This purpose is to destroy evil on earth and establish righteousness. Vishnu is regarded as the preserver of the universe and it is therefore Vishnu’s incarnations that one encounters most often. Vishnu has already had nine such incarnations and the tenth and final incarnation is due in the future. The first avatar, Matsya, was taken by Lord Vishnu at the end of the Satyuga (last age), when a flood destroyed the world. Through this avatar, he saved humanity and the sacred Veda text from the flood.
The Matsya Avatara is the first incarnation of Mahavishnu. Many years ago, the whole world was destroyed. The destruction in fact extended to all the three lokas (worlds) of bhuloka, bhuvarloka and svarloka. Bhuloka is the earth, svarloka or svarga is heaven and bhuvarloka is a region between the earth and heaven. All three worlds were flooded with water. Vaivasvata Manu was the son of the sun-god. He had spent ten thousand years in prayers and tapasya (meditation) in the hermitage vadrika. This hermitage was on the banks of the river Kritamala.
In Hindu puranas there are four eras [yuga] – Satya yuga, Treta yuga, Dwapara yuga and Kali yuga. Each Yuga is supposed to be a day for Lord Brahma. One day of Lord Brahma is 4320 million human years. After the end of every yuga Lord Brahma goes to sleep. The power of Lord Brahma’s creation comes from the Vedas. When Lord Brahma sleeps there is no creation and the universe comes to an end.
Lord Vishnu is the God of Preservation. Whenever the earth was in danger and when evil threatens to overpower good, Lord Vishnu descends from the heaven to incarnate on the earth. There are ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu. [Dasavatar – Das meaning ‘ten’ and avatar is ‘incarnation’, the last avatar – Kalki avatar is yet to come] The first avatar of Lord Vishnu is called as Matsya Avatar [Matsya means ‘fish’].
In the Satya Yuga there was a king by name Manu. He was a staunch devotee of Lord Vishnu. His greatest desire was to see Lord Vishnu with his own eyes. For this he performed severe penances for thousands of years.
The Satya Yuga was about to end and a great flood was to come and destroy all the life on earth to start afresh for the next Yuga. Lord Brahma after a day full of creation, was tired. He wanted to go to sleep and was soon snoring loudly.
While Lord Brahma was sleeping an asura Hayagriva emerged from Brahma’s nose. With Brahma asleep, Hayagriva realized that it was the right time to take in all the knowledge of the Vedas. Hayagriva concentrated and soon absorbed the knowledge in the Vedas. He then hid deep inside the ocean, thinking that nobody would find him there.
Lord Vishnu saw this and was worried. If the Vedas were stolen by the asura, the knowledge of the Vedas could not be passed on to the Next Yuga. As a Preserver, it was his job to make sure the knowledge survived to the next Yuga.
Wondering what to do, Lord Vishnu looked at Manu performing penance. Lord Vishnu smiled, realizing that he could complete quiet a lot than just save the Vedas…
The next morning, Manu went to the river to begin his prayers. He took the water in his hands and held it high above his head and offered it to the Lord Vishnu to mark the beginning of his prayer. He was about to pour the water into the river, when he heard a tiny voice from his hands. ‘O great king! Please do not put me back in the river…’
Surprised Manu stared at his hands. In the palms of his hands was a tiny fish, squirming. The fish looked at Manu, pleading, ‘Please do not put me back in the water. There are so many bigger fishes in the water, they will eat me. Please, O great king…’
Manu looked at the tiny fish with pity. As a King it was his duty to protect anybody who came to him for help. The king readily agreed and put the fish inside his ‘kamandalam’. [Kamandalam is a small jug carried by sages in those days to carry water]
Manu finished his penance and went to his Palace for the night. He had left the fish inside the kamandalam, knowing that the fish would be safe inside. He woke up next morning hearing a strong voice, ‘O King…Help me…Your kamandalam is stifling me. I cannot breath in here…’ Surprised Manu looked at his kamandalam, only to find a big fish staring at him from the top of the kamandalam. The fish was pushing the sides of the jug as the jug was too small for it.
Overcoming his surprise, Manu ran inside his palace to get a bigger vessel. The fish gulped few breaths and said softly, ‘Thank you, kind king.’
Manu smiled and was about to walk out the Palace to begin his morning prayers, when he heard an even more powerful voice, ‘King, this vessel is too small for me. Please get me another one.’
Manu blankly stared at the fish started to grow out of the vessel he had got just minutes back. The fish was again struggling for breath. Manu brought the biggest vessel from his Palace and threw the fish inside it. The fish thanked him and after checking that the vessel was big enough for the fish, still puzzled, was about to walk out of the house, when he heard a strong voice, ‘I am sorry this vessel is also not sufficient for me, the King’
Manu stared in disbelief as he saw the huge fish stare out of the big vessel. However, realizing that this was not the time for questions, he carried the fish and ran to the river, where he had found the fish and threw the fish inside.
The fish gulped a few breaths inside water, ‘Thank you…king. You have protected me. But please don’t leave me here. I am afraid the other bigger fishes may eat me…’
Manu began to get suspicious, but he was a king. He could not just stop protecting someone who had come to him for help. He stared at the fish for long and before his very eyes saw the fish getting larger and larger, till it had covered up the entire river.
The same routine followed again. Manu carried the fish from one river to another river, but the fish kept getting bigger.
Finally, he dropped the fish inside the ocean, only to find that the fish grown to full one side of the ocean. Looking at gigantic fish, a sudden flash came to Manu. He bowed before the fish, ‘Narayana, you are Narayana..my Lord.’
The fish smiled, ‘You wanted to see me and here I have come.’ Manu stared with tears in his eyes, as a huge horn grew on the head of the fish.
‘My Lord, you have granted me my only desire. I want nothing more. What do you want me to do now?’ Manu said prostrating before the fish.
‘Manu, the Yuga is about to end in seven days. There will be a great flood and all living things on the earth would perish. I want you to build a big ship. Take the seeds of all plants, the male and female of every animal, and the seven sages along with their families. Take them all on the ship’
Manu nodded. The fish continued. ‘Don’t forget to bring Vasuki, the snake God also.’ Manu nodded again as he watched the fish tear through the ocean to the other side.
One half of the fish’s work completed, the fish went to the other side to complete the other reason for the incarnation. On the other end of the ocean, the fish saw Hayagriva guarding the Vedas. Seeing the huge fish, Hayagriva was terrified. What a huge fish…However, no sooner than he had thought this, the fish attacked him. The fish was so huge, that a single push sent the asura reeling. Still dazed Hayagriva tried fighting the fish, but the fish was huge and powerful.
After a brief and futile struggle, the asura was dead. Once the asura was dead, the Vedas imbibed by him went back to Lord Brahma, who was still asleep.
On the other side of the ocean Manu was building his ship. He had also brought the seven sages, with their families.
Soon there were torrential rains which washed away everything. The water level kept increasing and very soon there was a flood. The ship wobbled and many times were about to capsize, but Manu and that others were steadfast in their belief that Lord Vishnu would protect them.
Soon the fish came as promised, ‘Manu, use Vasuki as a rope to tie my horn to the ship’ It bellowed loudly, above the roar of the rain.
Once the fish was tied to the ship, the fish, guided the ship at sea and kept the ship safe while the storm raged outside.
While the boat was being dragged around by the fish, Manu asked Vishnu several questions. The answers that Vishnu provided forms the text of the Matsya Purana.