“In myth, marvellous creatures are often deities in theriomorphic form (animal form with a combination of human and animal characteristics). Scholars believe that therianthropism or theriomorphy may be an approximation of ancient tribal systems of iconography, such as totemism, in which a group of people identified with a plant, animal, or bird.”— From the Introduction to 'Adbhut'.
In the beginning, Matsya was so small, it could be kept in a jar; then it grew so large, even the Ganga could not contain it. Glistening like moonbeams in the water, Matsya pulled Manu’s ship out of the cosmic flood of dissolution so that he could help recreate the world. From fish to Brahma to Vishnu’s first avatar, Matsya has been a saviour in every aeon.
The Shatapatha Brahmana describes an encounter that Manu, the progenitor, had with a tiny fish one morning when he was washing his hands in a tank. The fish leapt into his hands and said, “Rear me, I will save you.”
“From what will you save me?” Manu asked.
“There will be a great flood, and it will carry away all the creatures. I will save you from this flood.”
“How should I rear you?” Manu then asked.
“You should keep me in a jar. When I outgrow that, dig a pit to make a pond and keep me in it. When I outgrow that, take me down to the sea, because then I will be beyond destruction. Big fish eat little ones; as long as they are little, they are always in danger of being devoured.”
From a little fish, it soon became a ghasha (a large fish); and then it grew to be the largest of all fish. Once, it said to Manu, “In such and such a year, that flood will come. Build a boat, and when the water has risen, climb into it, and I will save you.”
When the fish became immense, Manu took it to the sea. Then, the time which the fish had predicted, arrived and a flood occurred. Manu built a boat, and when the waters rose, he climbed into it. The fish swam up to the bow so that Manu could tie the boat’s rope to its massive horn, and it pulled the vessel to the northern mountain. “I have saved you,” it said. “Fasten the boat to a tree and watch the water. When it subsides, slowly descend the mountain.”
All creatures were swept away in the rising waters; Manu alone survived. And when the cosmic flood receded, he came down from the northern mountain. Then, desiring offspring, he engaged in austerities and performed sacrifices, offering clarified butter, sour milk, whey, and curds in the water. After a year, a woman, Ida, was born from these offerings. She was Manu’s daughter, because he had birthed her from his consecration, and with her as sacrifice, Manu generated his own race.
In the Mahabharata, the cosmic fish is not just a fish; it is Brahma the Creator, and Manu is Manu Vaivasvata, the father of Ila and Ikshvaku, from whom both the lunar and solar dynasties came to be. Thus, he is the progenitor of manavas (human beings).
Here is the tale from the Mahabharata:
Once Manu, wearing nothing but bark, sat in meditation on the bank of River Vaitarani, which flows between the mortal world and Yamaloka, the region of death. After Manu had meditated for ten thousand years, a fish came swimming up to him and begged him to save it from the big fish, promising in return to do a good deed for Manu.
Feeling compassion, Manu gathered the fish in his hands and put it in a jar. As in the earlier tale, the fish grew so much that Manu had to move it from the jar to a pond, and from there to the river Ganga. And, when the Ganga became too cramped for it, Manu took it to the ocean.
“You have given me protection, now listen to what I have to tell you,” the fish said to Manu. “When the time to cleanse the world comes and everything mobile and immobile on earth is destroyed, build a sturdy boat and, taking the seven Great Rishis with you, climb into it. Also carry with you the seeds of all the creatures.”
As soon as the flood came, Manu gathered the seven seers in the boat and brought with him the seeds of all the creatures. When the ocean began to billow and all signs of earth disappeared, the fish swam up to the boat, its horn raised above the water like a mountain. Manu looped a rope around that horn, and the fish pulled the boat to the highest point of the Himalaya.
Then the fish declared to Manu, “I am Brahma the Lord of Creatures. In the form of a fish, I have set you free from danger. You should now create all creatures from the seeds you have brought with you – gods, asuras, men, and others that stir and do not stir.”
In the Matsya Purana, Manu himself asks Brahma for a boon to make him the protector of all creatures at the time of dissolution. Here, the fish becomes Vishnu’s first avatar, Matsya:
Once when Manu was performing a water ritual in his hermitage, a restless little saphari fish with beautiful eyes came into his hands. He put it in a vessel, and when it became sixteen fingers long and begged him to save it, Manu put it in a jar. It grew three hands in one night, and Manu transferred it to a lake. After that, he took it to the Ganga, and from there to the ocean.
When it kept growing and filled the whole ocean, Manu became frightened. “Who are you?” he asked the fish. “Are you an asura full of maya? Or are you Vasudeva? You have become twenty thousands leagues from a small saphari. Who else is capable of this, except Keshava?”
“Yes, it is I,” Vishnu said. “You have recognised me.” Then, Matsya, the fish avatar of Vishnu, told Manu about the impending destruction of the world and instructed him that when the great flood comes, he should put all creatures in a boat. “I will then pull your boat to safety,” Vishnu said. “You will be the progenitor at the beginning of Krita Yuga, the overlord of the period of Manu.”
(In this variant of the tale, Manu is curious to know how long the period of destruction will last, and by what means will he protect all creatures.)
“There will be a drought on earth that will last a hundred years, and people will die; those remaining will be burnt by seven ordinary rays of the sun that will become seven times more powerful and will fall like hot coals. Then the submarine mare that emitted from Shiva’s third eye will open her mouth, spewing flames. A poisonous fire will also shoot out from the mouth of Shesha Naag, on whose head the world rests. Then, from Shiva’s third eye, the fire of dissolution will emanate, and the three worlds will be burnt to ashes. When everything is annihilated, seven clouds will form from the sweat of Agni and pour down rain, flooding the earth. Ultimately, all the waters will unite and flow as one, and the earth will be submerged. At that time, you should get a boat and put the Vedas in it. Also place in it the seeds of creation. Fasten the boat to my horn, and I will take you to safety.”
When the time came, Vishnu, in the form of the horned fish, Matsya, came to Manu, bringing with him a serpent that Manu used as rope to tie the boat to the fish.
In time, Manu, the great progenitor and the protector of all mankind, rebirthed the world with the help of the cosmic fish. At the beginning of this new creation, Vishnu once again propagated the Vedas, and a new age began.
Excerpted with permission from Adbhut: Marvellous Creatures of Indian Myth and Folklore, Meena Arora Nayak, Aleph Book Company.