Matsya (Sanskrit: मत्स्य, lit. fish), is the fish avatar
in the ten primary avatars of
Hindu god Vishnu.
Matsya is described to
have rescued Manu and earthly existence from a great deluge.
The earliest accounts of
Matsya as a fish-saviour equates him with the
Vedic deity Prajapati. The fish-savior later merges with the identity
Brahma in post-Vedic era, and still later as an avatar of
Vishnu. The legends associated with
Matsya expand, evolve and
vary in Hindu texts. These legends have embedded symbolism, where a
small fish with Manu's protection grows to become a big fish, and the
fish saves earthly existence.
Matsya iconography sometimes is zoomorphic as a giant fish with horn,
or anthropomorphic in the form of a human torso connected to the rear
half of a fish.
2 Textual history
2.3.2 Bhagavata Purana
5 Comparative mythology
7 See also
10 Further reading
11 External links
Matsya is a Sanskrit word and means "fish". The term appears in the
Rigveda. It is related to maccha, which also means fish.
Matsya, Central India, 9th - 10th century. British Museum.
The section 1.8.1 of the
Shatapatha Brahmana (Yajur veda) is the
earliest extant text to mention
Matsya and the flood myth in Hinduism.
It makes no mention of Vishnu, instead identifies the fish with
Prajapati-Brahma. The central characters of this legend are
the fish (Matsya) and Manu. The character Manu is presented as the
legislator and the ancestor king. One day, water is brought to Manu
for his ablutions. In the water is a tiny fish. The fish states it
fears being swallowed by a larger fish and appeals to Manu to protect
him. In return, the fish promises to rescue Manu from an impending
flood. Manu accepts the request. He puts the fish in a pot of water
where it grows. Then he prepares a ditch filled with water, and
transfers him there where it can grow freely. Once the fish grows
further to be big enough to be free from danger, Manu transfers him
into ocean. The fish thanks him, tells him the date of the
great flood, and asks Manu to build a boat by that day, one he can
attach to its horn. On the predicted day, Manu visits the fish with
his boat. The devastating floods come, Manu ties the boat to the horn.
The fish carries the boat with Manu to the high grounds of the
northern mountains (interpreted as Himalayas). Manu then
re-establishes life by performing austerities and by performing yajna
According to Bonnefoy, the Vedic story is symbolic. The little fish
alludes to the Indian "law of the fishes", an equivalent to the "law
of the jungle". The small and weak would be devoured by the big and
strong, and needs the dharmic protection of the legislator and king
Manu to enable it to attain its potential and help later. Manu
provides the protection, the little fish grows to become big and
ultimately saves all existence. The boat that Manu builds to get help
from the savior fish, states Bonnefoy, is symbolism of the means to
avert complete destruction and for human salvation. The mountains are
symbolism for the doorway for ultimate refuge and liberation.
Matsya pulling Manu's boat
The tale of
Matsya appears in chapter 12.187 of the Book 3, the Vana
Parva, in the epic Mahabharata. The legend begins with Manu
performing religious rituals on the banks of the Cherivi River. A
little fish called Matsyaka comes to him and asks for his
protection, promising to save him from a deluge in the future. The
legend moves in the same vein as the Vedic version. Manu places him in
the jar. Once it outgrows it, the fish asks to be put into tank which
Manu helps with. Then the fish outgrows the tank, and with Manu's help
reaches the Ganges River, finally to the ocean. Manu is asked by the
fish, in the
Mahabharata version, to build a ship and be in it with
Rishis (sages) and all sorts of grains, on the day of the expected
deluge. Manu accepts the fish's advice. The deluge begins, the
fish arrives to Manu's aid. He ties the ship to the fish, who then
steers the ship to the Himalayas, carrying Manu through a turbulent
storm. The danger passes. The fish then reveals himself as Brahma, and
gives the power of creation to Manu.
The key difference between the Vedic version and the Mahabharata
version of the allegorical legend is the latter's identification of
Matsya with Brahma, more explicit discussion of the "law of the
fishes" where the weak needs the protection from the strong, and the
fish asking Manu to bring along sages and grains.
Part of a series on
Brahma (Dvaita, Acintyabhedabheda)
According to George Williams, there are many versions of the Matsya
mythology in the Puranas. The names of the characters, the details,
the plot and the message diverge in this genre of texts.
Matsya Purana evolves the legend further, by identifying the
fish-savior (Matsya) with
Vishnu instead of Brahma. The Purana
derives its name from Matsya.
The legend as it appears in section 1.12 states that when a little
fish appears to Manu,[note 1] he recognizes
Vishnu Vasudeva in the
fish. The fish tells him about the impending fiery end of kalpa
accompanied with a deluge. The fish once again has a horn, but Manu
does not need to build a boat or ship in this Purana. The gods build
it. They build it big enough to carry and save all life forms, and
Manu needs to just carry all types of grain seeds to produce food for
everyone after the deluge is over. When the great flood begins, Manu
ties the Ananta Sesha (cosmic serpent) to the fish's horn. The fish
carries everyone to safety. According to Bonnefoy, the Matsya
Puranic story is also symbolic though quite different. The fish is
divine to begin with, and needs no protection, only recognition and
devotion. It also ties the story to its cosmology, connecting two
kalpas through the cosmic symbolic residue in the form of Sesha.
In another version of the
Matsya Purana, the story is closer to the
Mahabharata version. At the end of Kalpa,
Brahma is resting and a
Hayagriva steals the Vedas.
Vishnu discovers the theft. He
descends to earth in the form of a little fish, or the
One day, the king of Dravida desha (South India) named Satyavrata cups
water in his hand to offer it to his ancestors. There he finds a
little fish. The fish asks him to save him from predators and let
him grow. Satyavrata is filled with compassion for the little fish. He
puts the fish in a pot, from there to a well, then a tank, and when it
outgrows the tank, he transfers the fish finally to sea. The fish
rapidly outgrows the sea. Satyavrata realizes this is no
ordinary fish, and asks the fish, "who are you?" The fish identifies
itself as Vishnu, and informs the king of the impending deluge. The
king is asked to save one member of every species of animal, plant and
seeds in a boat and along with all this, a copy of the Vedas. The fish
asks the king to tie the boat to its fins with the help of Sesha
serpent. The deluge comes. The fish avatar saves existence. A new
cycle of life restarts after the great deluge ends.[note 2]
Matsya preparing to slay the demon.
Bhagavata Purana presents a modified version for the Matsya
mythology. The story is presented through a character named
Badarayani. At the end of a kalpa, as the world dissolved and was
overwhelmed by a flooding ocean, the demon
asura) steals the
Vedas from sleepy Brahma.
Vishnu takes the
avatar of saphari fish, dives down to locate the
Vedas and the demon,
Vedas from the ocean.
In another version of the
Bhagavata Purana text, the man-fish avatar
Vishnu not only recovers the
Vedas from the demon
stole and tried to destroy it, but the avatar also saves the sage
Satyavrata, the Saptarishis (seven sages), animals, seeds of all plant
species. In this version of the legend, while swimming and carrying
them all to safety, the fish avatar teaches the highest knowledge to
the rishis and Satyavrata to prepare them for the next cycle of
Agni Purana version presents the legend through
Agni (fire deity)
describing the story to sage Vasishtha.
Agni describes how god
Hari (Vishnu) saved the good from the evil through his fish avatar. As
Brahma starts to sleep, an asura steals the Vedas. Meanwhile,
Vaivasvata Manu was making his religious offering in Kritamala River,
when a small fish appeared in his hand. The fish asked Manu to
protect him from larger fishes. Manu accepts the request, puts the
fish in a jar. When the fish outgrows it, Manu puts it in a pond, then
a lake, finally into the sea. Once there, the fish instantly expands
to a gigantic size. Manu then realizes that the fish is Vishnu
Narayana, and accepts he was deluded previously. The fish then informs
the king that a flood is coming in seven days, to go collect all kinds
of seeds and the seven sages, then board the boat that has been made
for him. Manu does so. The fish with horn appears. They tie the
boat to the horn and the fish saves them. The fish then finds the
asura Hayagriva, slays him, recovers the
Vedas and gives it to seven
sages and Manu.
Matsya with the
Vedas as infants
Matsya is generally enlisted as the first avatar of Vishnu, especially
Dashavatara (ten major avatars of Vishnu) lists. However, that was
not always the case. Some lists do not list
Matsya as first, only
later texts start the trend of
Matsya as the first avatar.
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
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. In another configuration, he
might have all four attributes of Vishnu, namely the Sudarshana
chakra, a shankha, a gada (mace) and a lotus.
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.
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.
Main article: Flood myth
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. 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. Similar flood
myths also exist in tales from ancient Sumer and Babylonia, Greece,
the Maya of Americas and the Yoruba of Africa.
Matsya temples are relatively rare, but the iconography is found in
Hindu temple reliefs. Above:
Matsya on a mandapa pillar in Hampi.
Matsya is believed to symbolise the aquatic life as the first beings
on earth. Another symbolic interpretation of the
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, defines an
ideal king. In the tales where the demon hides the Vedas, dharma is
Vishnu as the divine Saviour, rescues dharma, aided by
his earthly counterpart, Manu - the king.
There are very few temples dedicated to Matsya. Prominent ones include
the Shankhodara temple in
Bet Dwarka (Gujarat), Vedanarayana Temple in
Nagalapuram (Andhra Pradesh) and Kuppuchipudur ( Near Anaimalai)
in Tamilnadu.
^ Manu is presented as the ancestor of two mythical royal dynasties
(solar or son-based, lunar or daughter-based
^ The list of things that Manu carries in the boat varies with the
^ a b c d e
Krishna 2009, p. 33.
^ a b c d Rao pp. 124-125
^ "Matsya". Encyclopædia Britannica.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc.
2012. Retrieved May 20, 2012.
^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Bonnefoy 1993, pp. 79-80.
^ George M. Williams 2008, pp. 212-213.
^ Rao p. 127
^ a b c Monier Monier-Williams, Sanskrit-English Dictionary and
Etymology, Oxford University Press, pages 776-777
^ A. L. Dallapiccola (2003). Hindu Myths. University of Texas Press.
pp. 19–20. ISBN 978-0-292-70233-2.
^ a b Surabhi Sheth (1979). Religion and Society in the
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^ a b
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^ Alf Hiltebeitel (1991). The cult of Draupadī: Mythologies. Motilal
Banarsidass. pp. 177–178, 202–203 with footnotes.
^ George M. Williams 2008, p. 212.
^ a b c Ariel Glucklich (2008). The Strides of Vishnu: Hindu Culture
in Historical Perspective. Oxford University Press.
pp. 155–165. ISBN 978-0-19-971825-2.
^ a b c d e Bonnefoy 1993, p. 80.
^ Ronald Inden; Jonathan Walters; Daud Ali (2000). Querying the
Medieval: Texts and the History of Practices in South Asia. Oxford
University Press. pp. 180–181.
^ Bibek Debroy; Dipavali Debroy (2005). The history of Puranas.
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^ a b c d e Roshen Dalal (2011). Hinduism: An Alphabetical Guide.
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^ a b c d e
Krishna 2009, p. 35.
^ George M. Williams 2008, p. 213.
^ a b c d Rao pp. 125-6
^ Rao p. 127
^ British Museum; Anna Libera Dallapiccola (2010). South Indian
Paintings: A Catalogue of the
British Museum Collection. Mapin
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ISBN 978-0-7141-2424-7. Retrieved 13 January 2013.
^ Hindu Temple, Somnathpur
^ a b
Krishna p. 36
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Wikimedia Commons has media related to Matsya.
Avatars of Vishnu
1 The list of ten avatars varies regionally. The two
substitutions involve Balarama,
Krishna and Buddha is considered the
avatar of Vishnu.
Krishna is almost always included; in exceptions, he
is considered the source of all avatars.
Hindu deities and texts
Yoga Sutras of Patanjali