Narasimha and the war against injustice

Narasimha ShDSC00350


By Sharon St Joan


On this planet, as we all know, life began in the sea, with the fish and other sea creatures; then came reptiles like the turtles, as animals began to adapt to life on land. Great sea turtles still swim in the sea, but they lay their eggs on the shore. Then the land animals, like the boar, appeared. And of course, much, much later humanoid beings appeared, including the several species of early humans.


In Hindu tradition, one of the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu is Narasimha, who is half-man, half-lion. Preceding Narasimha are three Vishnu incarnations that have an animal form: Matsya, the fish, Kurma, the turtle, and Varaha, the boar. The incarnations that follow Narasimha are all human in form: Vamana, Parashurama, Rama, Krishna, Ballarama (or in some sources, Buddha) and Kalki.


Interestingly, this progression throughout time corresponds to the theory of evolution: first a fish; then a reptile; then a mammal; then a half-mammal half-human, followed by the human forms.


An eighteenth century painting This work is in the public domain in India because its term of copyright has expired.808px-Narasimha_oil_colour


How did ancient Hindu seers know about the theory of evolution—which was only “discovered” by Charles Darwin in the nineteenth century? Well, they seem to have known quite a lot of things. Ancient Sanskrit writings are filled with scientific treatises on mathematical and scientific topics, especially astronomical knowledge, a lot of which was only “discovered” many centuries later by Europeans, yet this knowledge was there all along, and was written down in very early Sanskrit texts.


We are so used to thinking that only modern humans, within the past few centuries, have possessed any real knowledge about the world, that we remain ignorant of all the thousands of years of human history in which there is evidence that humans knew far more than we give them credit for.


In any case, Narasimha stands on the threshold between the animal and the human forms of Vishnu. He is an intriguing figure.


Author Adityamadhav Narasimha at Simhachalam Temple in Visakhapatnam


Many stories in Hinduism and in legends all over the world, portray the great battle that takes place between the self-absorbed forces of darkness and the beings of light who defend the innocent from wrongdoing. Narasimha is a defender against injustice.


Once upon a time, so one of these stories goes, there was a demon named Hiranyakasipu who didn’t like Vishnu very much because in a previous incarnation Vishnu had killed his younger brother. This had happened because one day the brother, Hiranyaksha, had brutally attacked and then tried to drown Mother Earth at the bottom of the sea. In his role as protector of the innocent, Vishnu had saved Mother Earth from the sea, and killed the demon brother.


The demon Hiranyakasipu, who was perhaps afraid because his brother had been killed as a consequence of his evil deeds, feared death and wanted to live forever.


So one day, he approached Brahma to ask for the gift of immortality. Brahma replied that that gift was not within his power to bestow, but, at Hiranyakasipu’s insistence, he agreed to do the next best thing. Brahma granted him a boon – that he would not die either inside or outside, neither during the day nor the night; also that he would not be killed by any weapon, or by any human being or any animal. Hiranyakasipu was quite happy with all this and felt pretty certain that he would now live forever.


A few years passed, and Hiranyakasipu had a son named Prahalada. Unfortunately for Hiranyakasipu, his son became an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu. This upset Hiranyakasipu no end because he saw Vishnu as his mortal enemy. One day just as the sun was setting, Hiranyakasipu came upon his son Prahalada, who despite all his father’s objections, was still praying to Vishnu. He even said to his father that Vishnu is all-powerful and is present everywhere. Thoroughly exasperated, his father shouted at him, “Look at that pillar; is your God Vishnu inside that pillar?”


Prahalada replied, “Vishnu is inside every pillar and even every twig.” Losing his temper completely, Hiranyakasipu picked up his heavy mace and smashed the pillar into pieces. Out jumped Narasimha. By this time Hiranyakasipu was swinging his mace wildly, and his son’s life was in danger. To save the boy Prahalada, from the wrath of his father, Narasimha lifted the demon Hiranyakasipu up off his feet and killed him with his bare hands.


As it turned out, Hiranyakasipu was after all subject to death, despite the boon granted by Brahma, because he was killed at twilight – neither in the day or in the night; by Narasimha’s powerful hands, not by any weapon; in the doorway, and therefore neither inside nor out, and he was killed not by any animal or any human, but by Narasimha, who was part man, part lion. Perhaps the lesson is also that no matter what kind of deal one tries to strike with fate or with the Gods, one cannot evade one’s karma.


As an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, Narasimha is a fierce and powerful, magical being who protects those who call on him from harm and danger.


The twenty feet high, beautifully carved statue of Narasimha at Hampi, however, was not immune to the violence done by the invading army which destroyed the city in 1565. His legs and hands were cut off, and they lay nearby on the ground for several hundred years until significant restoration work was done in the 1980’s by the Archeological Survey of India. Now he looks down, once again an imposing presence, ready to spring into action to bring about justice and rid the earth of evil.


© Sharon St Joan, 2017.


Top photo: Sharon St Joan. Narasimha at Hampi.


Second photo: An eighteenth century painting of Narasimha. Wikipedia: “This work is in the public domain in India because its term of copyright has expired.”


Third photo: Author: Adityamadhav83 / CC BY-SA 3.0, Narasimha at the Simhachalam Temple in Visakhapatnam.


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

The Sun



To the Japanese who followed, and for those who still follow, the Shinto religion, the Goddess of the sun is Amaterasu, who is also Goddess of the universe.  Her name means “shining in heaven.”  The Emperor of Japan was believed to be a direct descendant of Amaterasu.


Amaterasu was the sister of Susanoo, the God of oceans and storms, and of the moon God Tsukuyomi. She shared the reign of the heavens with Tuskuyomi.


After a quarrel with her brother Susanoo, during which he destroyed her rice fields, she hid for a while inside a rock cave, and during this time the sun did not shine. Eventually she was persuaded to come out of the cave and the sun shone again.


In Honshu, Japan, at the Ise Shrine, a ceremony is held every twenty years to honor Amaterasu.  At this time the buildings of the shrine are torn down and built anew at a nearby location.


The hidden sun is a common theme in mythology. In ancient Egypt, the sun God Ra traveled through the underworld every night, where he did battle with Apep, the dragon of chaos.  When he had defeated Apep, the sun rose and began a new day.


For the Norsemen, the enemy of the sun was the wolf Skoll who chased the horses which pulled the chariot of the sun Goddess Sol through the sky every day.


For the Chinese, an eclipse was caused when the magical dog of heaven bit off a piece of the sun.  This is said to have happened around 2,160BCE.


Ancient Egypt had many sun Gods and Goddesses over the centuries. The God Amun rose to a place of national significance and became identified with the God Ra, the earlier sun God of the Old Kingdom.


In Hinduism, in the time of the Vedas, the solar deities were the Adityas. The Rig Veda describes the Adityas as bright and as pure as streams of water, free from all deceit and falsehood. They protect the world of spirits and the earth.


Vishnu is mentioned in the Rig Veda as one of the Adityas, who created the solar year.  When Vishnu’s head was cut off, due to a trick, his head became the sun.


The sacred prayer, the Gayatri Mantra, recited daily by millions of Hindus, invokes the sun God by the name Savitar.


In the Ramayana, Rama, the avatar of Vishnu, belongs to a dynasty of kings descended from Surya, the sun God. Surya is traditionally worshipped at dawn. Surya is also known as Mitra, which means friend, and by a great many other names.


Vishnu, the God of light, is identified with the sun as the source of life, blessings, nourishment, sustenance, and all good things.


It made sense to ancient people, and still does to millions of people today, to worship the sun.


The sun gives light and life to the earth and to all the plants and animals who thrive on the earth. To each of us the sun rising in the morning brings a sense of joy, peace, and positivity – a sense of renewal and optimism.


We as humans are conscious beings and does it not make sense that the spirit of consciousness and intelligence which manifests in us, must also pervade the entire universe – the oceans, the wind, the trees, the animals, the planets, the stars, and especially the sun, who gives us life?


Photo: Wikimedia Commons / “This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired….You must also include a United States public domain tag to indicate why this work is in the public domain in the United States.” / “Surya receives worship from the multitudes; Tanjore School miniature painting, 1800’s “A Painting of Surya. India, Tanjore School, 19th Century.”





Arunachala arises from the plain of Tamil Nadu, in southern India, a commanding presence over the landscape.

It is the king of mountains; dotted here and there are many other rocks rising up out of the flat plain – rounded, extremely ancient, a remnant of some distant geological event, none is in any way a rival to Arunachala.

The story told about the origin of Arunachala is that one day the Gods Brahma and Vishnu were having a discussion about who was more important than the other.  Overhearing this argument, Shiva thought they were both being rather silly, and he manifested as a tremendous towering column of fire, stretching as far up as the eye could see, and reaching far down into the center of the earth.  Brahma and Vishnu were amazed at this display of power.  Brahma became a swan; the swan is Brahma’s vahana or vehicle, and he flew far, far up into the heavens searching for the top of the column of fire.  He was never able to reach the top; it seemed limitless, extending up forever into infinity.

Meanwhile Vishnu took the form of a  boar; the boar Varaha is one of the avatars or manifestations of Vishnu, and boars are very good at digging in the earth.  Vishnu as the boar dug and dug, with all the energy he possessed, but he was never able to get to the bottom of the column of fire that was Shiva.

Both Brahma and Vishnu conceded that the extent and magnificence of Shiva’s power was far greater than either of theirs. (Of course, not everyone agrees with this story, since it is told from a Shaivite perspective.)


Overtime, Shiva, the beautiful column of fire, congealed into rock and became the great mountain of rock, Arunachala, worshipped for thousands of years as the holy presence of Shiva himself.

Modern day scientists know that fire, or molten rock, does indeed congeal into rock; it is known as igneous rock and is one of the primary ways that the mantle of rock on the earth is formed. The English word “igneous” comes from an ancient Indo-European word, from which comes also the Sanskrit name, “Agni,” who is the Hindu God of Fire, first worshipped many thousands of years ago by the authors of the Vedas.

While modern science has a very detailed grasp of the geological processes that form the rocks of the earth, there seems to be less acknowledgement and less awareness of the presence of a divine spirit — of the Gods, who are the origin and the essence of these processes.  It is considered more acceptable these days to acknowledge only the physical and not the spiritual. Yet perhaps this is a mistake, and perhaps the ancient seers were more accurate than we are today in their perceptions. Perhaps the myth is more truly the reality.

Arunachala is now, as always, one of the most sacred sites in India. The five elements, which are earth, air, water, fire, and ether or space are represented in the geography of India as five sacred sites of the God Shiva, each having a temple at a particular location. Arunachala is the site of the element fire.

Sri Ramana Maharshi, the early twentieth century saint who lived at Arunachala, said that Mount Kailash, in the Himalayas, is the abode of Shiva, but Arunachala is even more holy and is Shiva himself.

Photos: © Sharon St Joan / Arunachala

In the beginning…


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.




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

God of the sea

The coast of the Bay of Bengal at Mahabalipuram

It was in 1980, thirty years ago, that Dr. Nanditha Krishna’s book, “The Art and Iconography of Vishnu-Narayana” was published.

It opens a window on to the multi-layered world of the spiritual perceptions of India throughout history.

For many thousands of years Vishnu has been worshipped as one of the main Gods of the Hindu pantheon, so a study of the ways in which Vishnu has been portrayed in art and imagery can hardly go out of date.  Still it’s worth noting that there have been new archaeological discoveries along the way and changes in archaeological perspectives, which may throw a different light on certain aspects of the history of the worship of Vishnu. The myth of the Aryan invasion, for example, has in recent years fallen out of favor among scholars, and it is understood now that Hindu spiritual traditions were home-grown, not brought into India from outside.

One of the many goats at Mahabalipuram

This is not to say that there aren’t some extraordinarily fascinating parallels with the gods and spiritual traditions of other cultures, especially those in the Middle East, which is one of the most intriguing aspects of this book, which I’ll write about another time.

This is a timeless and intensely fascinating book, so to touch a little on the origins of the name and the early legends about Narayana–

The name Narayana is composed of “Nara” plus “Ayana.”  Nara is a word that normally means man in Sanskrit—or first man, primordial man.

In the epic poem the Mahabharata though, it is said that “Nara” means waters, and that “Ayana” means abode, so Narayana is the one who lives on the waters.

Some of the shrines at Mahabalipuram

It seems that, a long time ago, following the great flood, the sage Markandeya was wandering about the earth when he came upon a boy who was resting on the branch of a nyagrodha tree (a banyan tree, always a sacred tree).  When asked who he was, the boy replied that he was Narayana, and the boy then went on to talk about the creation and destruction of the universe, and the part he plays in these cosmic events.

The motif of the divine child resting on a leaf is still popular in folk art today in Tamil Nadu.

The word “nira” in Dravidian languages, spoken in the south of India, means water, and this is the most likely source of the word “Nara.”  Apparently there are a number of words that have passed from Tamil (spoken in the south, in Tamil Nadu) to Sanskrit.

“Ay” means to lie down or sleep and “an” is a male grammatical ending.

So “Narayana” can be understood to mean one who lies or sleeps on the water.

Vishnu-Narayana has been depicted thoughout the centuries as lying down or sleeping on a great snake who is resting on the ocean.  The world does not yet exist, so this is the eternal, cosmic ocean that precedes and follows the creation and destruction of the earth.  There is an amazing sculpture of Narayana lying asleep on his bed, the great snake, at Mahabalipuram, in a niche in the Shore Temple by the sea.

Narayana at Mahabalipuram

Narayana, as he lies sleeping, is unaware of the bustle and disenchanting realities of today’s world, but is aware instead of a supernal reality, the level of eternal peace beyond time and space.

Dr. Nanditha Krishna first recognized that this statue of Narayana was created before all the rest of Mahabalipuram, which was constructed in the seventh century by the Pallava king, Narasimhavarman.  There are ruins, perhaps much older, that still lie farther out off the coast in the Bay of Bengal—tantalizing glimpses of them appeared above the surface of the water during the changes in the sea level following the tsunami in 2004.

A parting view of Mahabalipuram with the sea in the distance

It is certain that Mahabalipuram is an amazingly ancient place, used as a seaport by the early Pallava kings as they established trade routes in southeastern Asia, and possibly in use as a port for countless centuries before that time.

The ancient Dravidian people who lived on and near the coast were known to have been a sea-faring people, and Narayana was the God of the sea.

Apsaras, a kind of divine being, also have an association with the sea.  In Sanskrit, “apa” means water and “sara” means a divinity of the water.  The child on the leaf has a link to the apsaras and, through them, to people connected with the sea.

In another legend, a child tied to a creeping plant, who is lost at sea, then found again, becomes the ancestor of the Tirayans, who are the ancient people who lived in Kanchipuram (the former capital city located an hour or so away from Mahabalipuram).

In the year AD 50, Ilyan Tirayan was the king of Kanchipuram (then called Tondaimandalam); it is said that his dynasty was established by the waves themselves (the “tirai”), and that the king was descended from Narayana.

If you are left wondering why all this is completely fascinating—well, what can one say? Some of us are fascinated by some things, and some by other things.

The book “The Art and Iconography of Vishnu-Narayana” by Dr. Nanditha Krishna is available from time to time at

Photos: Sharon St Joan /  Of  Mahabalipuram, one of the most ancient sites on the sea coast of Tamil Nadu