In the forest that is known as Naimisharanya, Shounaka and the other rishis (sages) were performing a yajna (sacrifice) dedicated to the Lord Vishnu. Suta had also come there, on his way to a pilgrimage.
The sages told Suta, “We have welcomed you. Now describe to us that which makes men all-knowing. Describe to us that which is the most sacred in the whole world”.
Suta replied, “Vishnu is the essence of everything. I went to a hermitage named Badrika with Shuka, Paila and other sages and met Vyadeva there. Vyasadeva described to me that which he had learnt from the great sage Vashishtha, Vashishtha having learnt it from the god Agni himself. The Agni Purana is sacred because it tells us about the essence of the Brahman (the divine essence). I learnt all this from Vyasadeva and I will now tell you all that I have learnt.”
Do you know what an avatara is? An avatara is an incarnation and means that a god adopts a human form to be born on earth. Why do gods do this. The purpose is to destroy evil on earth and establish righteousness. Vishnu is regarded as the preserver of the universe and it is therefore Vishnu’s incarnations that one encounters most often. Vishnu has already had nine such incarnations and the tenth and final incarnation is due in the future. These ten incarnations of Vishnu are as follows.
(1) Matsya avatara- fish incarnation (2) Kurma avatara- turtle incarnation (3) Varaha avatara- boar incarnation (4) Narasimha avatara- half-man lion incarnation (5) Vamana avatara- dwarf incarnation (6) Parashurama (7) Rama (8) Krishna (9) Buddha (10) Kalki-this is the incarnation that is yet to come.
The Agni Purana now describes these ten incarnations.
Agni told Vashishtha the story of the fish incarnation.
Many years ago, the whole world was destroyed. The destruction in fact extended to all the three lokas (worlds) of bhuloka, bhuvarloka and svarloka. Bhuloka is the earth, svarloka or svarga is heaven and bhuvarloka is a region between the earth and heaven. All there worlds were flooded with water.
Vaivasvata Manu was the son of the sun-god. He had spent ten thousand years in prayers and tapasya (meditation) in the hermitage Badrika. This hermitage was on the banks of the river Kritamala.
Once Manu came to the river to perform his ablutions. He immersed his hands in the water to get some water for his ablutions. When he raised them, he found that there was a small fish swimming in the water in the cup of his hands.
Manu was about to throw the fish back into the water when the fish said, “Don’t throw me back. I am scared of alligators and crocodiles and big fishes. Save me.”
Manu found an earthen pot in which he could keep the fish. But soon the fish became too big for the pot and Manu had to find a larger vessel in which the fish might be kept. But the fish became too big for this vessel as well and Manu had to transfer the fish to a take. But the fish grew and grew and became too large for the lake. So Manu transferred the fish to the ocean. In the ocean, the fish grew until it became gigantic.
By now, Manu’s wonder knew no bounds. He said, “Who are you? You must be the Lord Vishnu, I bow down before you. Tell me, why are you tantalising me in the form of a fish?”
The fish replied, “I have to punish the evil and protect the good. Seven days from now, the ocean will flood the entire world and all beings will be destroyed. But since you have saved me, I will save you. When the world is flooded, a boat will arrive here. Take the saptarshis (seven sages)
with that boat. Don’t forget to take the seeds of foodgrains with you. I will arrive and you will then fasten the boat to my horn with a huge snake.”
Saying this, the fish disappeared.
Everything happened as the fish had promised it would. The ocean became turbulent and Manu climbed into the boat. He tied the boat to the huge horn that the fish had. He prayed to the fish and the fish related the Matsya Purana to him. Eventually, when the water receded, the boat was anchored to the topmost peak of the Himalayas. And living beings were created once again.
A danava (demon) named Hayagriva had stolen the sacred texts of the Vedas and the knowledge of the brahman. In his form of a fish, Vishnu also killed Hayagriva and recovered the Vedas.
Many years ago there was a war between the devas (gods) and the daityas (demons) and the gods lost this war. They prayed to Vishnu to rescue them from the oppression of the demons. Vishnu told Brahma and the other gods that they should have a temporary truce with the demons. The two sides should get together to churn the ocean. Vishnu would ensure that the devas benefited more from this churning of the ocean than the daityas did.
The truce was agreed upon and the two sides got ready to churn the ocean. The mountain Mandara was used as a churning rod and great sake Vasuki as the rope for churning. The devas grasped Vasuki’s tail and the daityas grasped Vasuki’s head. But as the churning began, the mountain Mandara which had no base, started to get immersed in the ocean. What was to be done? Lord Vishnu came to the rescue. He adopted the form of a turtle and the peak was balanced on the turtle’s back.
As the churning continued, terrible poison named kalkuta emerged from the depths of the ocean and was swallowed by Shiva. Shiva’s throat became blue from this poison and he is therefore known as Nilakantha, blue of throat. The goddess Varunai, the goddess of wine (sura), came out next. The gods readily accepted her and thus they came to be known as suras. But the demons rejected Varunai and were therefore known as asuras. She was followed by the Parijata tree, a beautiful tree that came to occupy the pride of place in Indra’s garden. A jewel named koustubha emerged and was accepted by Vishnu as his adornment. Three wonderful animals came out next – the cow Kapila, the horse Ucchaishrava and the elephant Airavata. They were followed by the apsaras, beautiful women who became the dancers of heaven. They were known as apsaras because they emerged from ap (water). The goddess Lakshmi or Sri came out next and was united with Vishnu.