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Matsya (Sanskrit word which literally translates to “Fish”) is the first of the ten primary avatars of the Hindu god Vishnu in the form of a fish, preceding Kurma. Matsya is described to have rescued the first man, Manu, from a great deluge. Matsya may be depicted as a giant fish, or anthropomorphically with a human torso connected to the rear half of a fish.
Often related to the story of flood and Noah’s Ark, the central characters are the fish (Matsya) and Vaivasvata Manu or Satyavrata who becomes the progenitor of mankind. His greatest desire was to see Lord Vishnu with his own eyes. For this he performed severe penances for thousands of years.
While Brahma was sleeping, fatigued by the creation of the universe the danava (demon) called Hayagriva (which literally translates Horse-faced in Sanskrit) came out of Brahma’s mouth, (“horse-faced”) and steals the sacred Veda texts. Meanwhile, Manu, the king of Dravida country (South India), was performing severe asceticism, sustaining only on water. Once when he was offering water oblation in the Kritamala River, a tiny shaphari fish was caught in his folded hands. As the king was about to return the fish back to the river, the fish, afraid of larger fishes, asked to be not thrown in the water. The king promised the fish safety and put it in a small jar and took it with him. But the fish grew day by day and requested for more space, the king moved it in a small pond, but the fish soon outgrew it too. Soon nothing could contain the fish. But the fish requested King Manu that it was afraid of the dangerous predators of the ocean. Bewildered by these words, the king asked the fish to reveal his true identity, but soon gathered that this supernatural fish was certainly Vishnu and surrendered to him.
Matsya declared that a great flood would come seven days from then and submerge everything. He ordered Manu to bring the seven great sages together and with their counsel, gather all seeds, herbs and living beings to load them on a ship that would be sent by Vishnu on the fateful day. He instructed that Vasuki, the serpent should be used as a rope to tie the ship to his fish-horn. Matsya disappeared after his disclosure and reappeared as a horned fish on the day of the Flood, when heavy rains drenched the earth. The King followed Matsaya’s instructions and fastened the ship to the horned fish (Matsya). As Matsya, he spoke with the king and revealed to him knowledge of the Vedas, Puranas, Samhitas as well as the Supreme Truth.
As the flood ended, Matsya slew Hayagriva, rescued the Vedas, and handed them over to Brahma.
It is said that whoever listens to this tale is pardoned of any sin and remembering Matsya daily grants success to the devotee.