Varaha and the rising seas

Climate change is one thing when it is an abstract discussion about how high the sea will rise in around a hundred years when we are no longer here – or when we feel sad watching the poor polar bears in distress, but the polar bears do live quite a long way away – climate change is quite a different, much more menacing threat when it effects New York City, filling part of the subway system, used every day by five million people, with saltwater that poured in from the sea for the first time in 108 years.  During the huge storm, Sandy, much of the hardest-hit state, New Jersey, was underwater.  Storm-caused fires destroyed 110 homes on Long Island. Suddenly, climate change is no longer some sort of ghost lurking on the edges of reality, it has appeared, and is a real presence, with a concrete form.


There is little that is more frightening than the threat of a basic change in the earth’s climate. Terrorism, economic hardship, and political instability can come and go, but the climate is something much more fundamental, and we can only survive on a planet that remains conducive to life.


TV footage of the many feet of water flooding the tracks, the deserted platforms, and the tunnels of the New York subway has a macabre feeling, like some long-dead civilization, rediscovered by a perplexed explorer of the future.


As humans, we have destroyed so much of the earth that now, it is not only the forests, the wild animals, and the oceans that are suffering – but our destructiveness has come back to haunt us, and it is we ourselves who now endure the consequences of the harm we have caused.


There have been great upheavals in the past – and even more in the far distant past – the past that is revealed to us only in mythology, a past so distant that it lies beyond what we call the beginning of history. A past so far back that it can readily be disregarded by anyone who wishes not to see it.  Yet, it is intriguing, for example, that legends of the Great Flood exist in so many different cultures on earth.  There is geological evidence too that supports the occurrence of this flood.


There have been ages that have come and gone, long, long before this present age.  Only in our moments of greatest blindness do we assume that what we call “history” is the only history that has existed.  There were worlds before ours, and there will be worlds to come.


These past worlds leave memories in the traditions and mythologies of the world, none more vivid or more evocative than in the traditions of India.

Dr. Nanditha Krishna, in her book, Sacred Animals of India, tells one of the stories of Varaha, the boar, who was the third incarnation of Vishnu.  Originally, the universe was entirely water, and the earth, who was the wife of Varaha, was very tiny, just the size of a human hand, lost in the water.  Brahma, God the Creator, became a black boar named Emusha, who had one hundred arms. Then Emusha rescued his wife, the earth, by lifting her with his tusks out of the water.


Ultimately, Vishnu and Brahma are both aspects of God, so it needn’t be confusing that they seem interchangeable, and that the earth is the wife of both.


In another version of the story, Hiranyaksha, a demon, wanted to control the earth, so he rolled her up in a mat and threw her into the ocean.  When she was thrown into the water, she let out such a loud cry, that it was heard all the way up in heaven, where Vishnu lives.  Hearing her cry, Vishnu became the giant boar, Varaha, in order to rescue the earth.  A battle ensued that lasted a thousand years, and finally, the victorious Varaha lifted the earth on his tusks from down in the depths of the sea, and placed her gently on top of the water, where she rests today.

To imagine the earth drowning in the water is not so entirely different from the story of the great flood, although there is also in India a more specific story of the Great Flood, the legend of Manu and Matsya.


Worlds tend to end in fire or floods, and for the earth to be cast into the water and then to be saved by Varaha, the incarnation of Vishnu, may be seen as portraying the end of one age and the beginning of another.  As the waters close over the earth, she is not completely abandoned though, because her divine husband arrives to save her, and life begins anew.


Whatever the future may bring and however long our current age may last, the point of considering a more cosmic perspective is not in any way to diminish the reality of human-caused climate change (or to look at it one way, perhaps it is we who sometimes act like the demon, Hiranyaksha, carelessly casting the earth into the rising seas).  Anyway, a look at a very ancient view, told in the mythical stories of India, may give one a more detached overview – a glimpse that transcends the level of our human predicament.


Top image: Artist: Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) / Color woodblock print / Wikimedia commons / Public Domain / The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

Second image: “Varaha, avtar of Vishnu, killing a demon to protect the Earth, and the earth goddess, Bhu or Bhu devi, which he lifts on his tusks above the black ocean. c1740. gouache on paper. probably Chamba, Pahari region, north India. Date c 1740. Source British Museum” / Wikimedia Commons / In the public domain in India

Third image: Sharon St Joan / Rescued pigs at Blue Cross of India



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