Markandeya, one of the ancient sages, or rishis, was walking across vast expanses of the earth. Everywhere there was water, nothing but water, gray currents rushing over what had once been dry land. The sky was gray too, and there was no sun or moon, only the unending gray.
This was after mahaprayala, the great destruction, the time in between the time when the world was destroyed and the time when the new world would be created. Markandeya walked and walked and encountered nothing.
Then, he spotted a speck in the distance which he walked towards. The branch of a nagrodha tree was floating on the water. The nagrodha is the sacred banyan or fig tree, whose aerial roots grow downwards from the branches into the ground. On the floating tree branch, sitting on top of a curled up serpent was a child, a boy. Amazed, Markandeya asked the child, “Who are you?” The boy replied, “The waters have always been my home. I have called the waters “nara,” and my name is Narayana. I am the one who creates, preserves, and destroys the universe.”
In the very fascinating book, The Book of Vishnu, Dr. Nanditha Krishna retells this story, connecting it to other myths in other cultures.
In ancient Egypt, Horus was worshipped as the morning sun, Ra as the noonday sun, and Atum as the setting sun. With each new dawn, Horus-Ra was reborn from the waters and appeared seated on the petals of the lotus. With the close of the day, the lotus petals closed, enfolding the god Atum.
The lotus is also central to the story of Narayanan. Seated on top of the lotus that grows from the navel of Narayanan is the God Brahma, who creates the world.
In the Babylonian story of creation, Enki, who is the god of the waters, lies sound asleep at the bottom of the ocean. The gods call to him, complaining about the lack of food on the earth, but he does not respond. Then his mother, Nammu, mother of all the gods, wakes him up and sends him off to begin the work of creation. Enki’s head is a snake and his tail is a fish.
The snake is also the couch on which the child Narayana lies, on top of the fig tree branch floating on the waters. The snake has seven, or maybe a thousand, heads and is worshipped by Hindus as the god Adi Shesha, meaning the one who remains. It is he who remains after the cosmos is destroyed.
The tail of the fish recalls the fish, Matsya, who was the first incarnation of Vishnu, and Vishnu is the same God as Narayana – Narayana being an aspect of Vishnu. Or, looked at from another perspective, it is Narayana who is Brahman, the supreme being – the one ultimate reality who is both beyond and within all the gods, all the ages, and the entire cosmos.
These stories, like poems or metaphors, reveal visions of mystical reality. It is not that one story is true, and another is not. It can be helpful to regard the truths of all faiths and spiritual traditions as expressing views of reality. All are true in that they give insight through various windows to the truth that lies beyond.
In another, earlier, book, The Art and Iconography of Vishnu-Narayana, Dr. Nanditha Krishna examines extensively the derivation of the name Narayana and the possible history of this legend.
In the Tamil language, spoken in Tamil Nadu, the word tannir, which is tan (cool) plus nir (water) means cool water. In other Dravidian languages, spoken in south India, the word for water is nira, niru, or nir. But in Sanskrit, the language in which the early scriptures, the Vedas, were written, the words for water are apa or jala, which are completely different. Consequently, one might look to a Dravidian source for the origins of the story of Narayana on the waters.
Also in Tamil, the word ay means to lie down or to go to sleep, and the syllable an is a grammatical masculine ending; this gives the meaning for Narayana as “he lies down or sleeps on the waters.”
It would seem to make sense that the south of India, bordered on all sides by the ocean, might be the source of this evocative story of Narayana, who rises from the waters to re-create the world, after the mahapralaya, or great destruction.
To find these two of Dr. Nanditha’s books, along with several others of her books, click here.
For The Book of Vishnu, click here.
For The Art and Iconography of Vishnu-Narayana, click here.
Top photo: “This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. This applies to Australia, the European Union and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 70 years.” / Wikimedia Commons / Collection of the Kalabhavan Banares Hindu University. / Eighteenth century Vaishnava painting decipting Vishnu, on the serpent Anant Shesha with consort Lakshmi, sage Markandeya paying his respects to Vishnu, while Brahma emerges in a lotus.
Second photo: “Scanned from The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt by Richard H. Wilkinson, p. 117; artwork from the Book of the Dead of Anhai” / Wikimedia Commons / “This work is in the public domain in the United States, and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less.” / “Nun, god of the waters of chaos, lifts the barque of the sun god Ra (represented by both the scarab and the sun disk) into the sky at the beginning of time.”
Third photo: Ramanarayanadatta astri / “This work is in the public domain in India because its term of copyright has expired.” / http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_fish_avatara_of_Vishnu_saves_Manu_during_the_great_deluge.jpg / “Matsya pulls a boat carrying Manu and Saptarishi [the seven rishis] during Pralaya.”
© 2014, Sharon St Joan