Review: The Book of Vishnu, by Dr. Nanditha Krishna


Vishnu 450px-Bronze_sculpt_NMND-5

A review by Sharon St Joan


Recently, I reread this beautiful book, and when I had finished it, I was so captivated by it, that I started rereading it all over again for the third time.


The Book of Vishnu by Dr. Nanditha Krishna illuminates a major aspect of the Hindu faith – the God Vishnu, who he is and how his following has grown and evolved over thousands of years.


“When Ishwara creates the universe, he is called Brahma; when he protects, he is called Vishnu, and when he destroys evil, he is called Shiva.” On the first page, in a clear and elegant explanation, Dr. Nanditha Krishna, writes about the place of Lord Vishnu as one of the three primary Gods of Hinduism, the world’s oldest religion. These Gods, however, as Dr. Krishna states, in reality are not three at all, but on the highest level, as Hindu sages have understood throughout the ages, they are three different expressions of one God. And yet (since Hinduism is filled with paradoxes), they are also three.


Dr. Krishna traces the evolution of the worship of Vishnu throughout history. He is mentioned, often along with Indra, in the Rig Veda, the oldest book in the world. Over time, other gods were incorporated into the persona of Vishnu, as his popularity grew, spreading throughout India. For example Narayana, one of the main aspects of Vishnu, must originally have been a non-Vedic deity. Dr. Krishna traces the linguistic roots of the name Narayana, to show that the name has its origins in Tamil, not Sanskrit. Narayana is the God who floats on the sea before the beginning of creation, reclining on the serpent Adi Shesha, who serves as his couch. He is an ideal representation of peace and detachment. One might say that the many stories of Vishnu, with so many names, from varying sources, are the ways that peoples of the different regions of India saw the same God, and when over the centuries these varying views were amalgamated, a fuller understanding and a truer picture of Vishnu, viewed from many perspectives, emerged.


In the book there are countless insights into the long history and myths of India, along with fascinating comparisons with other ancient faiths, including intriguing similarities with the Osiris tradition of Egypt and with the Sumerian god Enki.




Mentions of many fascinating Vishnu temples are included; for example, there is a temple in Tamil Nadu where the form of Vishnu is the boar, Varaha (who saves the earth). It is a place of worship and many miracles for both Hindus and Moslems. In the spring both communities together transport the statue of Varaha to the coast for a bath in the sea, to commemorate Varaha’s feat of rescuing the earth from being drowned in the sea waters.




It is a delightful book to read, reflecting the charming nature of Indian stories that are told from generation to generation, such as the myth of Manu and the fish during the Great Flood. Manu (a Noah figure) rescues a tiny fish to save him from being eaten by larger fish. He grows up, is cared for by Manu, and eventually saves Manu and his boat carrying all the animals and the seeds of all the plants on earth. As it turns out, the little rescued fish, named Matsya, is in reality an avatar of Lord Vishnu.





Kindness to animals is implicit within the psyche of India because there is no arbitrary line drawn between the human and the animal – or the plant and even the rocks, the mountains, and the rivers for that matter. All of nature is seen as interconnected. A perfect illustration of this are the avatars of Vishnu. Vishnu, the loving God, who incarnates whenever the world is overcome by evil to set things right again, has taken up an earthly form at least ten different times – first as a fish, then a turtle, then a boar, next as a man-lion – and the six following incarnations are in human or human-like forms. Interestingly, this follows the theory of evolution, which the ancient Hindu sages clearly must have known about.


Animals are present also as the vahanas, or vehicles of the Gods, who are also divine. The vehicle of Vishnu is Garuda, the eagle.


The poetic and beautiful simplicity with which this book is written is a remarkable achievement, especially since Hinduism is amazingly complex, having arisen over at least five thousand years and maybe much, much longer, with millions of intricacies, countless philosophies, thousands of sacred texts, and hundreds of thousands of gods, goddesses, and other beings, all intertwined within the multiplicity of the rich cultural traditions of India, a land of many peoples, who even today according to a recent survey by the Bhasha Research & Publication Centre, speak over 780 languages. So, achieving clarity and lucidity in the midst of this overwhelming multiplicity is truly remarkable.


Like a garden of many flowering plants, The Book of Vishnu is filled with enchanting details and little-known connections between the myths and stories of various Indian traditions.



Top photo: Daderot / Wikimedia Commons /”I, the copyright holder of this work, release this work into the public domain. This applies worldwide.” / Bronze sculpture in National Museum, New Delhi, India.

Second and third photos: Sharon St Joan / From a collection of paintings in the Ramalinga Vilasam Palace – Ramanathapuram, built in the 17th century, in Tamil Nadu. The second photo is Varaha and the third is Matsya.

Fourth photo: KRS / Wikimedia Commons / GFDL-WITH-DISCLAIMERS; Released under the GNU Free Documentation License. / A statue of Narasimha at Hampi in Karnataka.

The photos are not in the book.

To see The Book of Vishnu on Amazon, click here.





Narayana – Beginning the cosmos



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.” / / “Matsya pulls a boat carrying Manu and Saptarishi [the seven rishis] during Pralaya.”


© 2014, Sharon St Joan

Matsya, Manu, and the Great Flood, Part Three


To read Part One, click here.

To read Part Two, click here.


Hearing the words of the dove, Manu’s first thought was that a freshwater fish would never be able to survive in the saltwater of the sea, but then Manu reminded himself that Matsya was not just an ordinary fish, but a very magical one.  And a magical fish like Matsya could live happily in either the rivers or the oceans.  He would be fine, even in the salty water of the sea.


Manu put away his gardening tools, and set off to the north again.  There, on the banks of the Ganges, he looked into the water and was astonished to see how big Matsya had grown.  He was the biggest fish anyone had ever seen!  Manu picked him up in his hands, and Manu grew enormous too—as tall as a mountain.  His head was up in the clouds, and the birds flew around him.  He even spotted the lovely dove who had brought him the message, flying along with her mate.


Manu took Matsya to the sea, and put him into the great expanse of water.  The sea was so huge that no one could see across to the other side, and Manu knew that Matsya would have lots and lots of room to swim in.


Before Matsya swam off, he turned and looked at Manu, “You are a good man.  You have been so kind to me for so very many years.  You have given me everything and taken care of me.  You don’t know who I really am, but I have a message for you.  There will be a very great storm, and then a very great flood. It will be dangerous, and the whole world will be swallowed up by the flood, but I will save you.  When it starts to rain, you must build a big, very sturdy boat.  In it you can put all the seeds from your garden and seeds from many other gardens so that you and other people will be able to grow vegetables to eat in the future.  You will need to do that because the flood will last a long time and will cover the earth, so you must be prepared. Start as soon as the rain begins.  Don’t wait!


“When you have the boat and the seeds inside it, then come back to me in the sea.  Bring the seven rishis with you too. (Rishis are very wise and magical, ancient beings.) You will be able to see me easily because I will have horns on my head.  Come back to me, and I will save you and guide you through the flood.”


As soon as Manu went south and reached his home again, it began to rain.  He followed Matsya’s instructions exactly because he knew it was important.  He built a very good, sturdy boat, and gathered seeds of many varieties to take along with him.


Then, with the rain pouring all around him, he took the boat down to the sea, put it into the water, and set sail, heading north.  After three days, with the waves growing stronger and the wind picking up, he found himself near the mouth of the Ganges, where he had put Matsya into the sea.  He hoped he would be able to find Matsya easily.  There he was!  He could see two golden horns sticking up out of the water, and it was really Matsya!  Matsya swam along by the side of the boat; he told Manu exactly what he should do, and Manu leaned over and put a strong rope around Matsya’s horns.  With the boat securely fastened to his horns, Matsya took off into open water, pulling the boat behind him.


The waves grew higher and higher, nearly as high as the sky, and the wind was terrible.  It made a roaring sound.  But Manu was not afraid because he knew that Matsya was pulling the boat and had promised to carry them to a beautiful mountain.


In the daytime, the sea spray washed over the boat, shining white in the sunlight, and at night sometimes the moon shone bright like a gold lantern in the sky, but sometimes, the moon was hidden behind the clouds, and could not be seen.  It was very black then, with no stars.  Matsya swam and swam, pulling the strong boat through the waters, and Manu felt a sense of peace, feeling a divine presence and knowing that things were as they were meant to be.


After a long time of sailing, they came aground on a mountain top far, far north in the Himalayas.  Manu got out and stretched his legs, and Matsya rested for a while in shallow water. There was a rainbow overhead, from one side of the mountain top to the other.  Doves and ravens began to light in the trees. There were deer and rabbits watching them curiously.  Manu and Matsya smiled at each other, and knew they had come to a safe land at last – and in the foothills, when the water receded a little, there would be a very good place to start a garden. The seven rishis smiled. The sun smiled too in the blue sky.


Matsya, the little fish who became a big fish, was really Lord Vishnu, who had come to earth and had saved Manu, the seeds, the boat, and the seven rishis.  He told them who he really was, and then instantly, he vanished, to return to heaven where he lived.


Later on, as more and more land reappeared after the great flood, Manu, with Lord Vishnu’s blessing, created animals, people, and plants to populate the earth.


Matsya did not leave completely though.  He still swims today in the seas, the lakes and the rivers.  Every fish is Matsya.  Every fish is sacred, and their water must be kept blue and sparkling, so that they will always live happily — free, and safe from harm.


Illustration: Franco Bosetti /


Matsya, Manu, and the Great Flood, Part Two

To read Part One, click here.


Manu was sad that Matsya would no longer be living in his house with him, but he knew that Matsya was big now and needed to be free and wild in a pool, so he carried Matsya to a beautiful pool and let him go. Matsya swam off in the clear blue water. There were graceful trees hanging over the pool, and lovely ducks and swans were swimming there.  There were lots of fish too, who would be Matsya’s friends, and he was big now and not afraid anymore.


The pool was in India where Matsya was from, so he could live there happily.  By now, Manu understood a great deal about fish, and he knew that any fish that had come from a different country should not be released into just any pool or stream, because fish can only survive in the pools and streams in their own country.  But it was okay to release Matsya there because he was from a nearby river, where he had been born.


Everyday, Manu went to visit Matsya, to say hello, and to watch him swimming and playing with his friends.  Matsya was very happy and he grew and grew and grew.


One day, after a couple of years, Matsya said to Manu, “This pool is too small for me now.  Please take me to a river.”


Manu picked him up, though Matsya was very big now and heavy, but Manu, who was not an ordinary person, but a very extraordinary person, grew bigger himself, by magic, when he picked up Matsya, and so was able to carry him easily.


He took Matsya right back to the river where he was born, and Matsya swam among the rocks in the swift river current.  Though he was big, he never ate any of the little fish because he remembered very clearly what it had been like when he was a baby, to be so scared by the great big fish in the river, and he never wanted to hurt the fish that were littler than he was.  He ate water lilies and grasses, which were delicious, and he grew bigger and stronger.


Manu continued to visit him every day, and soon he said to Manu, “Manu, this river is much too small for me.  You must take me now to the great river Ganges.”


The river Ganges was a sacred river, very, very wide, and very far away. It was far in the north of India, where it still is today.  Matsya was an enormous fish by now, and when Manu picked him up in his hands, Manu himself grew bigger than the trees; he grew as big as a tall hill, and he carried Matsya all the way to the Ganges.  It took them several days of travel, and Manu was getting tired.  He put Matsya into the peaceful currents of the Ganges, and watched him drift along happily.  Soon Matsya was making new friends.


Manu knew he wouldn’t be able to visit Matsya every day now, but he promised him that if Matsya ever needed him, he could tell his message to a bird.  The bird would deliver the message faithfully to Manu, and then Manu would come back to Matsya.


One day a few years later, as Manu was tending his garden by his house – he liked to grow vegetables – he looked up, and there in a tree was a beautiful gray dove.  The dove said to Manu. “ I have brought a message from Matsya.  He says the Ganges is much too small, and could you please take him to the sea now?”


To be continued…


Illustration: © Silversky2212 /




Matsya, Manu, and the great flood

Part One


A retelling, for children, of the story, first told in the Mahabharata


A very, very long time ago, longer than anyone could imagine, a man stood on a riverbank, deep in a forest.  He wasn’t just any man, but was a very special man; he was a holy man named Manu.  He was saying his prayers, and in order to focus his attention, he stood on one leg.  For ten thousand years, he had remained standing this way.


In the river nearby, fish were swimming, little fish and big fish, though Manu was intent on his prayers and was not watching them.  One of the very tiny fish was hiding behind a rock.  The big tail of one of the big fish splashed, making huge waves under the water and sending the little fish out from behind the rock into the main stream of water.  There the little fish could be seen by so many big fish – great huge fish; some were blue with stripes; some were gold with big fins, and some had gigantic mouths.  They swam nearer and nearer to the little fish, and he was really scared!


Suddenly making a decision, the little fish broke the surface of the water, and began to shout, “Help! Help!”  Seeing Manu standing by the riverbank on one leg, he cried out to him, “Kind sir, save me!  My name is Matsya!  I’m just a tiny fish, and the big fish are about to eat me! You must help me!”


Manu’s eyes sprang open when he heard the voice of the little fish, and hearing the terror in his voice, he immediately wanted to help him.  He ran toward the river, and without hesitating he bent down, and scooped up the tiny fish in both his hands, being careful to hold water in his palms, so the little fish would have some water.


“Oh, thank you, kind sir, thank you!” piped Matsya.


But Manu had a problem.  Where was he going to keep Matsya, who couldn’t just stay in his hands?  He needed something that would hold water.  And he needed it really quickly or all the water would drain from his hands, and then Matsya wouldn’t be able to breathe, since a fish can only breathe in water.


He remembered a hut he had seen many years ago, just a little way further along on the river bank, and as fast as he could go, he ran toward it. Maybe there were kind people who lived there who would help him. Manu’s knees hurt a little; he wasn’t used to running since he’d just spent ten thousand years standing still on one leg, but he ran as fast as he could.


Outside the door of the hut, he shouted, “Hello!  Hello! Is anybody home?”


The door flew open, and there was an elderly woman.  Her hair was gray, and going in all directions.  On the floor beside her was a little dog and two hens, all looking very surprised and slightly alarmed.  “What do you want?” she said rather abruptly.


“Oh, kind lady, I’ve saved this little baby fish, and I need something that will hold water to keep him in.  Can you please help?”


“Oh, of course, why didn’t you say so?”  She went back inside, and Manu could hear pots and pans banging about.  The dog and the hens looked even more alarmed and hid under a table by the door.  Finally, she reappeared, with an earthen jar.  She brushed past Manu, and went down to the river, and was back in an instant with the jar filled with water. “Here,” she said, extending the jar, “Put him in this.  He’ll be safe.”


Manu slipped Matsya into the jar, which was the perfect size, just big enough so he had room to swim and splash about.  “Thank you so much.  You’ve been so very helpful!” said Manu.  The woman smiled, and was already busy feeding the dog and the hens.


Manu walked along the riverbank back to the house he used to live in such a very long time ago.  There his house was, just as before.  He placed Matsya’s jar very gently on a table, where he would be completely safe.  Matsya was looking sleepy, he’d had such a long and stressful day already, and he was only a baby.


What was he going to feed Matsya?  He would be hungry when he woke up.  Back down by the river, Manu found some water lilies that looked just like the right food for Matsya.  They had green leaves and pink flowers. Matsya lived happily in the jar in Manu’s house for many, many months.  Manu fed him various plants and grasses that grew in the river, and because Manu was very inventive, he created a special machine that could pump air into the jar, making lots of bubbles, so that Manu would have enough oxygen to breathe.


He learned exactly how to take care of the little fish, and raised him very successfully.


In fact, he raised him so successfully that Matsya got bigger and bigger and bigger.


Finally, one day, Matsya said to Manu, “This jar is too little for me now.  I have to have something bigger to swim in.  I can hardly turn around.  Please, may I go to a pool?”


To be continued…


Illustration: Avohitatevs /


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