Manu and Matsya

In Hindu mythology, Manu is the name given to the progenitor of humankind, who – given the cyclical view of existence – appears after every “pralaya” (dissolution/universal destruction) to begin a new “kalpa” (aeon). The name is related to the Indo-European “man” and is etymologically connected to the Sanskrit verb “man” (to think).

The current Manu – Vaivasvata or Shraddhadeva – is the legendary author of an important Sanskrit law code, the Manu-smriti. He and his wife Shraddha are the parents of ten children, among them a son Ikshvaku and a daughter Ila, founders of the Solar and Lunar dynasties respectively, to whom the Hindu rulers of ancient India traced their genealogy.

In the Puranic scriptures of Hinduism, Vaivasvata Manu appears in the story of the great flood which seems like a curious blend of the Biblical stories of Adam, Noah and Jonah. The central characters here are Manu and a fish called Matsya (who is an avatar of the god Vishnu; in the earliest appearance of the myth, the Shatapatha Brahmana though, the fish is identified with the god Brahma).

Accordingly to the narrative, Manu ends up with a small fish in his hands during his ablutions, which appeals to him to save it from bigger fish and in return, promises to protect him from an impending catastrophic deluge. The fish asks Manu to transfer it to a jar and thereafter, to a pit. Then finally, back into the ocean where it can grow large and strong. When the flood is near, it asks Manu to build a boat. When the waters rise, the fish rescues Manu by leading his boat by its horn to mountains of the north (the Himalayas).

In art, Matsya appears both zoomorphically (wholly fish) and anthropomorphically (with a human torso and the rear half of a fish). In certain versions of the tale, Matsya escorts both Manu and the Saptarishi (seven sages). In others, Matsya also has to slay the demon Hayagriva (“horse-faced”) who has stolen the sacred Veda texts when they were coming out of the mouth of the god Brahma.

What’s particularly interesting about the tale is the tiny fish’s request. It is telling that the “progenitor of humankind” is asked to save a weak fish from the stronger ones. The story seems to convey the message that human society can only begin and flourish if the cruel and violent “law of the fishes” is transcended (which is similar to “the law of the jungle”, “survival of the fittest”, “dog eat dog”, “kill or be killed”, “eat or be eaten”). For civilisation to be instituted, the human leader must especially make provisions for the frail and vulnerable.


Matsya (here, human and fish) fighting the demon and saving Manu and the Seven Sages, Wikipedia [Public Domain]

Image Credit:

Featured: Matysa pulling Manu’s boat (the seven sages are seated before Manu), Wikipedia [Public Domain]



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