Matsya and Manu ... There are two great and separate traditions of this story of Vishnu's avatar Matsya and a great flood: one in the classic Mahabharata and another, more elaborate version entitled the Matsya Purana. The details of each version of the story of Matsya and Manu are slightly different, in some instances. In many cases, I have preferred the simplicity of the older tale from the Mahabharata, but have played freely with the dialogue.
Only One Righteous Man
A long time ago, the world was very, very wicked. People were murdering and lying and violating the purity of their bodies. They were selfish and cruel and thieving. They trampled upon the poor and treated each other very badly.
There was one man, and one only, who lived a good life pleasing to the gods. His name was Vaivaswata Manu, who came to be called Satyavat, the truthful one. How he came to be so holy, no one can say, for even his parents and his wife and children were vile and hateful, and they laughed at him without mercy for his righteous ways.
It seemed there was no place for him in such a wicked world, and he constantly cried out to the gods for mercy — that they would lift him out of such a life and place him in a paradise of goodness and light where he could serve them without such evil and mockery surrounding him. When he looked at the people around him, he was almost embarrassed to be human.
He was a hardworking man. One day as he prepared to eat his breakfast and then begin his work, he went to the river to cleanse himself. As he poured the water over his hands and arms, he heard a voice, high and tiny, calling to him: "Manu ... Manu-ji! Please, will you help me?"
He looked all around the place, but he saw nothing. So he began to wash again. But as he poured water over his face and hair, he heard the voice once more: "Manu ... do not forget me. I need you."
Manu looked around some more but saw no one. "Can someone be playing a prank on me?" he wondered. Then, as he lowered a small pot into the water and lifted it up, he saw lying there in the pot itself a tiny horned fish. Well, he gently gathered more water into the pot for the fish’s comfort and raised it back up.
Matsya and Manu
As Manu held the pot in his hands and gazed upon the glistening fish, Matsya, it spoke to him again. "The fish in the river are very big; they will eat me. Take me to your home. Protect me and I will protect you."
He heard Matsya and Manu almost wanted to laugh, but not wanting to hurt the fish’s feelings, he said only, "Gladly will I protect you. It is the right burden of the strong for the weak. But you are very small, brother. How is it that you can hope to protect me?"
The fish circled slowly around the inside of the pot. "Only trust me, Manu. I cannot share knowledge of the future with you, but there will come a time when you no longer anguish over your righteousness. If you will do this one good thing, a time will certainly come in which I will be your savior as well."
“Very well then. But I must hide you, little brother, or my children will be cruel to you." So Matsya and Manu were joined in this vow. Manu hid the pot away in a safe place and cared for the fish.
Under his faithful care, the fish soon outgrew the pot. So Manu moved him into a tank behind a little waterfall at the bottom of his garden, then later into the Ganges, where the horned fish was already twice as big as any other fish swimming there. Matsya and Manu felt the cool waters of the holy river flow around them once more and were at peace.
Finally, the river became as a mere pot to the fish, who by this time was so large that only the endless depths of the ocean could hold him. But the ocean was so far. How would Manu get him there without exciting attention?
But Matsya and Manu had a promise together. So Manu found a way and carried the fish to the ocean. "Visit me here every day at sunrise, and I will speak to you. The time will soon come when I fulfill my purpose to you."
So Manu did as the fish requested. Every evening, he would leave his wife, who was often already heavy with wine and dishonor, and walk down jungle paths to where the waves sounded huge and timeless against the forgiving sands, sinking through the spaces between and pulling back out into the mass of water, pulling his feet with them into the shallows.
He would wade in and spread a gift of puffed rice on the surface of the waves, and the fish would come and comfort him. But one day as he walked toward the sea, with the sunset shining gold and pink against the ocean swells, the fish was waiting for him. "The time has come," it said. "This wickedness is too much, and the stench of it pollutes even the stars. You must build yourself a ship large enough to hold the seed of every living thing and attach a rope to it. Once it is ready, you must go into it and stay until I have led you to the place of your preservation. Do you understand?"
By this time, Matsya and Manu had built great trust, so he did not question this strange instruction. Instead he laid aside his customary work and, day after day, he built this ship. He hired workers to help him; sometimes they showed up, sometimes they didn’t. His wife mocked him. "Where do you think you’ll sail this thing, you ridiculous man? You’ll make me the laughing-stock of the town." His children rolled their eyes and laughed at him. The neighbors huffed away, going on about the madman.
Sometimes, they would build a bonfire and carouse next to the place where he labored on with his building or knock down the frame he used to hold the skeleton ship in place. They stole the joy that would have come to him from the clean lines and smoothly polished surface of the wood as he joined it together piece by piece with excellence. But he no longer implored the gods to take him, because he knew the time was soon. And he stopped telling them, because already he had tried to prepare them many times, and they would only beat him and mock him and not believe him.
Finally, after long months of work, the ship was finished. No more did he go home to the wife who despised him or the children who had no respect for their father. "Oy! What is this fool about?" they would say. "He’s living in this ship that’s going nowhere — that’s not even on the water!"
So he was not surprised that they refused to come aboard when he begged them to follow them for their own good and safety. His heart was grieved that they had so completely rejected him and seemingly had no love for the father who had raised them, but they had chosen.
He visited the fish the next evening and rowed out in a little boat and spread the puffed rice upon the waters. By this time, Matsya was so enormous he could not come close to shore. The fish lifted its head covered in hard, red scales like armor above the surface and told Manu, "The time has come. Go into the ship tonight and close it up tight. A great storm will come that will battle against all living things and destroy them entirely. But do not fear — I will come to you."
Sooner than Manu could have believed, the ship began to rock from its place on the ground, then lifting to float above the platform surrounding it. With a crack, it pulled away from the steps he’d built up to the doorway and floated free. Day after day, the rains came down. Soon the ship was alone in a world swiftly covered by water, until even the tallest treetops could not reach a leaf above it into the air.
Above the crash of water on water and the pounding of the storm against the wooden room, he heard the voice of the fish roaring to him. "Manu, come out here." He feared being swept away by the waves that rushed across the deck, yet he honored the fish that was his sole light in this darkness of destruction and came out, holding hard to the rail.
Stronger than the Waves
“You must fasten the rope to my horn. I’ll take you to a safer place if you’ll continue to trust me." He had listened to Matsya and Manu , thus, was ready for what was to come.
Again, Manu did as he was told and fastened this line to the huge horn of the fish, who then began pulling them along, stronger than the waves, stronger than the storm, swifter than the winds that blew. Day after day, the fish pulled him without stopping. Everything inside the ship was damp with the moisture of the storm. Even his bedding could not dry properly.
And finally, one day, Matsya and Manu drifted along on a quiet spot. The fish backed its horn out of the loop from the line. "You’ll be safe here," it said to Manu. "Soon the waters will go down, and a mountain will show as an island in the midst of all this, and you will have been preserved. I have fulfilled my purpose to you now."
Matsya and Manu Begin a New Age
“Little brother," Manu said smiling. "My thanks to you cannot be expressed in words. But am I to go on alone? Will humankind end with me?" You see, he was grateful, but he was very lonely. He’d been so long without seeing another human face, and he ached for a woman and family of his own to share the warmth of a hearth fire with, to finally love and be loved by.
Matsya understood this and did not think poorly of Manu for being human, for that was as he’d been made to be, and a family is a good thing to have.
So Matsya and Manu agreed, and so Matsya gave to Manu Satyavat a beautiful, kind wife named Shraddhaniharika, called the Satyavati, who later gave him 10 children of great honor and strength — Vena, Dhrishnu, Narishyan, Nabhaga, Ikshvaku, Karusha, and Saryati were the sons, and daughters named Ila, Prishadru, and Nabhagarishta. There were 50 other sons, but they were wicked and violent and died fighting one another.
Manu looked upon the fish with much gratitude, thanking him with great humility.
And as Matsya's body rose up above the water, he transformed, until Manu saw a shape like a great, shining man, powerful as all the suns of the universe. This part of the story of Matsya and Manu was done. Yet he knew then that he had held in his hands the life of a god, whose true name is Vishnu, the one who comes to preserve us, who will come yet again.
Other Ark Stories
Stories of a great flood survived by a chosen one in an ark are found around the world. Are these simply stories that have randomly popped up in far-flung corners of the world, based on different floods or mythologies? Or are they the remnants of a single, original story that changed as it traveled, or as those who knew it migrated from one place to another?
There are many versions, but some of the most popular include: Noah's ark, found in Genesis Chapter 6 in the Christian Bible; the Matsya Purana, involving Matsya and Manu; and the tale of Utnapishtim, found in the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh.
At least between the Utnapishtim and Noah accounts, there are vast differences in the specifications for the ark built. For instance, Utnapishtim's ship would have been a cube, bobbing up and down in the water, while Noah's ark had the lines and proportions of modern ships, and so would have been a more realistic creation.
On the other hand, Noah was required to gather and care for actual animals, while with the Mahabharata version of Matsya and Manu, Manu-ji stores in his ship the seeds of all things — presumably of animals, as well as plants, which makes me think of modern DNA storage.
Many people worldwide laugh off the tale of a great flood and an ark-based rescue as simply a myth, but that seems like a hasty judgment. For all their differences, these tales have much in common. It seems unlikely that such similar stories would be preserved in places as diverse as the Middle East, India, and China if they had no basis in reality. And there is geological evidence to suggest at least the possibility of either large-scale flooding in the Black Sea area, or even a 600-foot high tsunami set in motion by a comet hitting the earth.
So while it's difficult to know with certainty which version came first, and easy to debate the details, it seems reasonable that some sort of great flood / ark event took place, as in this tale of Matsya and Manu.