It is said in the Mahabharata, Book Three, Section 270, that after 4,000 yugas (ages), “the earth became flooded with water,” extending everywhere as one immense sea. Not only were the Sun and the Moon darkened, but even the winds had been destroyed. With no wind and no living creatures, there was utter silence everywhere. In the Cosmos, all the planets and the stars were gone too. There was nothing. The Supreme Being whose name is Narayana, who has a thousand heads, with many eyes and thousands of legs, who cannot be perceived by human senses or the human mind, who lies entirely beyond our perception, began to grow tired and looked for a place to rest.
Narayana lay down, using for his bed the coils of the great serpent Sesha. Sesha, with a thousand hoods, shone brilliantly as 10,000 suns. He was as white as the jasmine flower, as white as the rays of the moon glimmering on the dark waters of the sea, as white as milk or as the white lotus flower. All the brilliance of the lights of Sesha did not keep Naranyana from falling asleep though, because he was so very tired. From eon to eon, Sesha floated on the cosmic waters, as he shone through the blackness in which nothing else existed – only the sleeping Narayana.
Eventually – there is no way to tell how long, maybe a trillion years, or maybe just a little while – there is no way to know because without the planets and the stars, one cannot measure the passing of time – Narayana woke up and opened his eyes; he looked around at the dense gloom surrounding him, and began to plan a new creation. At just that moment, a lotus flower grew out of his navel, and in the center of it sat the four-faced God, Brahma, who set about the task of creating the universe. Brahma willed into being the great rishis.
Rishis are seers and inspired poets – female as well as male, who wrote the Vedas, the oldest books on earth. Divine beings, with a form similar to humans, rishis were without the limitations and mortality of human beings. They, in turn, created all of creation – the yakshas, rakshas, pisachas, all the animals, the humans, and the plants too.
A yaksha is a nature-spirit, usually benevolent; these are the gods who live in the forests and the trees, in a lake or a mountain, or in a flower or a river.
A raksha is a demon, or evil spirit; they may disrupt rituals or ceremonies, harass priests, or possess people, and they are practitioners of black magic.
Pisachas are very low-level demons, rather like an ogre or a troll.
While the creation was very young and just beginning, and the universe was still dark and all covered in water, Vishnu, who is a form of Narayana, was looking for a way to set the creation off on a good start, to enable the beings to grow and thrive in a world suited to life. Like a fire-fly, Vishnu flitted here and there in the darkness, seeking a way to establish the creation on a firm footing.
From a distance, as he watched the earth drowning in water, entirely submerged, and unable to help herself, he felt a great wish to come to her aid. There came into his head the image of a giant boar playing in a stream, splashing the water with his tusks. Surely a boar would be able to overcome the destructive waters that plagued the earth.
At once Vishnu became the giant boar; he was big, maybe 50 miles long, with huge pointed tusks; his fur was black like storm clouds rolling across the sky, and his roar was the sound of thunder overhead. As large as a mountain, he hurled himself into the depths of the sea. Far, far down he went bravely into the deep waters, until he spotted the round earth, looking tiny and lost. On his tusks, he brought the earth up out of the sea, setting her gently on dry land, so that she could begin to dry off. All the newly created beings emerged, shaking the water out of their hair, their fur, or their feathers, relieved to see the sunlight.
Then they began to lead their lives on the dry land of the earth. It was a beautiful earth, filled with lakes, forests, birds, flowers, and animals.
Ever after, whenever urgent help is needed by the creation which may be lost or in peril, Vishnu returns in whatever form is suitable to set things right again.
Top image: Author: Anonymous / circa 1870 / Wikimedia Commons / “This work is in the public domain in India because its term of copyright has expired.” / Vishnu and Lakshmi on Shesha Nāga.
Second image: Author: PHGCOM / Wikimedia Commons / “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.” / Four Armed Vishnu, Pandya Dynasty, 8-9th Century.
Third image: Sharon St Joan / One of the rescued pigs at Blue Cross of India
To order the Mahabharata, book 3, click here. (You might like to order books 1 and 2, at the same time. There are 18 books in all so starting with the first three might be a good idea.)
To learn more about Vishnu, you might like to read The Book of Vishnu, by Dr. Nanditha Krishna.