An Atlantic cod

By Sharon St Joan

Sometime back in the sixties, a friend of mine, of Indian background, explained to me that the Vedas, the Mahabharata, and many other ancient books contained scientific knowledge known for thousands of years in India before being “discovered” by the west.

Back then, I thought he was suffering from a rather vivid imagination.

Having come across this idea many times since then, I’ve grown used to it

and have realized that it is true.

The concept that there is to be found in the sacred scriptures of India advanced scientific knowledge that was discovered by the west only in recent centuries never seems to strike people in India as in any way remarkable. To them, it is just a matter of course.

It still does strike me as remarkable, even now, to realize that people in ancient India knew, not just profound spiritual truths, but also that they had advanced knowledge of science, mathematics, medicine, metallurgy, and so many other fields.

One of the clearest, easiest ways to observe this is with the theory of evolution.  We all “know” of course, that the theory of evolution was developed by Charles Darwin after his expeditions to the Galapagos Islands, then published in his work “On the Origin of Species” in 1859.

Vishnu (blue) on the left / Shiva (white) on the right

In the Mahabharata and some of the Puranas (ancient books), the ten avatars of Vishnu are enumerated, in chronological order.  First, Vishnu descended to earth as a fish.  His next incarnation was as a turtle, then as a land animal, the boar.  After that he came back as a dwarf; then as a half-man, half-lion; then as a stone age man, then as a hero; then a philosopher; then as the enlightened one, the Buddha.  The final incarnation will be as the being who brings the end of the world.

To most of us looking at this, this looks a lot like the theory of evolution.  Life evolved first in the sea, then animals developed the ability to live on land, transitioning like the turtle from sea to dry land.  Then an animal like the boar came along who was totally land-based. There was a transition then to humanity, and after small hominids like Lucy, the dwarf-like Australopithecus, appeared, there were the Paleolithic ages, and the various progressions of the human race.

How did the ancient sages of India know all this?  Well, that’s another question, but the fact is that they did.  They knew a great deal about a great many things long before the advent of the “scientific age”?

Red Sea Bannerfish and Masked Butterfly fish

They recorded this knowledge in the form of enchanting stories, told down through the ages.  For example, there is the story of Matsya, the fish who was the first incarnation of Vishnu. Dr. Nanditha Krishna, in her book, “Sacred Animals of India” retells the story of Matsya beautifully:

“The story of the fish that saved the world first appears in the Mahabharata.  One day, when Manu, the primeval man, was carrying out his rituals on the riverbank, a little fish swam up to him and said that if Manu were to take care of him, the fish would protect Manu from the forthcoming deluge (pralaya).  On receiving Manu’s consent, the fish instructed him to keep him in a jar and protect him from other fish.  After a while the fish outgrew the jar and told Manu to put him into a tank.  When he outgrew the tank, the fish wanted to be taken to the river Ganga, and when the river was no longer large enough, to be taken to the sea.  There, the fish instructed Manu to build a ship and protect himself from the deluge.  When the deluge began, Manu tied the ship to the fish, who took him away from the floods and toward the Himalayas.  When Manu stepped out of the boat, he found himself all alone in a lost and lonely world, for every other creature had been wiped out by the flood.  The fish identified himself as Brahma and gave Manu the power to create and repopulate the world.”

This is such a charming story, with clear parallels to the story of Noah, and in another version, also retold by Dr. Krishna in her book, Manu has also brought along every species of animal – and also the seeds of plants – an important element left out of the Noah story in the Bible.

In Indian sacred myths, the animals are never just there incidentally. They don’t exist to be used by humans or to serve an economic purpose. Instead they are sacred, magical beings.

Matsya talks; though he is little and is really a child fish, he speaks to Manu on an equal footing – more than just equal because he is giving Manu instructions, and in the end Matsya saves Manu and saves the world.  He is Lord Vishnu, descended to earth to accomplish this.  Matsya is the first incarnation of Lord Vishnu.

In this lies a key to understanding the tradition of India’s relationship to animals.  The animal is not an objective thing – to be utilized, produced, and harvested for the well-being of humans.  Instead the animal is a spiritual being, who is sacred, with a link to deep knowledge, wisdom, and magical power.  The animal is an integral part of the cosmos, as the human is, and respect and protection for animals is inherent in this worldview.

Not that this reverence for animals is always adhered to in modern India.  Sadly, it is not, but the very old tradition is always there, even today, and the respect for animals is alive, on all levels of society, and is never so far from consciousness that it cannot be reawakened.

Top photo: “Photo: Hans-Petter Fjeld (CC-BY-SA)”

Second photo: / Public domain

Third photo: © Mark Doherty | Dreamstime.jpg

4 thoughts on “Matsya

    1. I’m not sure myths are “history”. I think they are the dreams and visions of great poets and artists. Or as Joseph Campbell once said, Myths are public dreams, and dreams are private myths. And your listing of the dashavatharam (ten avatars) brings back memories of reading Amar Chithra Katha comics back home as a kid in India in the late 70s/early 80s.

  1. As usual, Sharon’s writing is magical. Ancient Indians were very “scientific” in their understanding of the world. Unfortunately, the West calls this “myth”. But let us not forget that “mythology” is the history of ancient people.

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