THE IMMORTAL PAURANIC STORY of the Manu-Nauka (Manu’s Ship) became immortal for primal reason. Few stories in the world’s repository of epic and classical literature can match its grandeur, symbolism, philosophy and artistic possibilities. Like most acclaimed and enduring Pauranic stories, the Manu-Nauka story too, operates on the Adhibhautika, Adhidaivika and Adhyatmika planes.
One of our contemporary national treasures, Shatavadhani Dr. Ganesh evocatively describes the durable aura of this story:
"The Ship of Manu is a truly brilliant symbol. We see it everywhere starting with the Bible. It is present in the Greek, Finnish and Roman literary annals. However, the question arises: can the events narrated in this story occur in the physical world exactly as they are described herein? The answer is a clear “no.” However, it is an extraordinary symbol and this is what it symbolises: if the human has to survive, he must also preserve the whole world. He must preserve at least one pair of each species. The nuanced import of this symbolism is that if or when the world stands on the edge of dissolution, this is the minimum that the human should preserve as the seed of Creation.
"The Biblical story of Noah’s Ark is an imitation of this Vedic story of Manu’s Ship. However, while Noah’s story mentions the pairs of all animals and birds and plant seeds, it completely omits the Saptarshis (Seven Great Sages) and the help that Mahaa-Matsya (The Cosmic Fish) provides to Manu’s Ship. This is also a brilliant symbol of preserving Knowledge (Jnana) and Knowledge-Keepers (Jnanis). A profound suggestion (Dhvani) is implied as well: mere biological seeds are not enough for Creation; above all, it requires intellectual, emotional and spiritual seeds.
"Delivering such profound and magnificent symbolism and metaphors is the preeminence of our Puranas. There is an almost infinite scope for expanding their interpretative possibilities."
It must emphasised that these possibilities must be fully attuned to the spirit of the original Manu-Nauka Story that first appears in the Shatapatha Brahmana. Its irresistible charm and appeal naturally captivated the writers of the Puranas who expanded and embellished it with truly delicious ingredients. In fact, the whole of Matsya Purana — as its name implies — is a discourse that the Cosmic Fish delivers to (Vaivasvata) Manu. There is no Maanava or Manushya without Manu.
The central theme of Creation in the Manu-Nauka story is set in the backdrop of Pralaya (the Great Deluge), in itself a profound circumstance. Guidance and an assurance of protection are sorely needed in dire circumstances, and there can be no more dire circumstance than the prospect of inevitable death. Which is why Arjuna sought a similar guidance from Sri Krishna. Thus, from the first avatara (Matsya) to the eighth (Sri Krishna), the brilliant tapestry and a sort of internal consistency among our Puranas is unparalleled.
In fact, from one perspective, the fabled verse in the amarakośa defining the five essential traits of a Purana, basically shows the various aspects and the Grand Play of Creation:
sargaśca pratisargaśca vaṃśo manvantarāṇi ca |
vaṃśānucaritaṃ cāpi purāṇam pañcalakṣaṇam ||
Purāṇa is one which describes Sarga (the world’s First Creation or Cosmogony), Pratisarga (Dissolution), Vaṃśa (lineage of the Devatas and the pitṛ-s), Manvantara (history of the fourteen Manus beginning with the Manu named svayaṃbhu) and Vaṃśānucarita (history of the Solar and Lunar lineages).
Including Sarga and Pratisarga, the rest of the elements dealing with various lineages are also aspects of Creation.
THE REASON MANU CHAKRAVARTI IS CHOSEN by the Maha-Matsya to protect all species in the world is ennobling. Manu had renounced his kingdom and was engaged in a severe penance for ten lakh years. As the Matsya Purana informs us, he was endowed with valour and universal compassion, and regarded pleasure and pain with equanimity. And when a pleased Brahma appeared before him and told him that he would grant him a boon, Manu said, “give me the strength to protect all the species — sentient and insentient — when the hour of Dissolution approaches. That is the only boon I seek.”
Brahma readily granted it.
Manu was a true Rajarshi (Sagely King).
Casting Manu as the primordial Kshatriya who safeguarded all species also reveals the brilliant vision of our Puranas. The primary duty of a Kshatriya is protection and preservation, and here was a reclusive king who sought strength from Brahma himself so he could protect all of Creation. Compassion was the fount that motivated him to undertake this Cosmic endeavour.
The singular element that is conspicuously absent in our political democracies throughout the world is… compassion. Instead, the attempt — over the last century — has been to foist “systems” and “policies” and “processes” as substitutes for this innate human virtue.
Manu’s universal compassion is a realisation born from Tapas. It does not operate merely on a sentimental plane. This is why his compassion has a decisive quality that culminated in generative action.
The symbolism and aptness of Maha Vishnu taking the form of the Cosmic Fish is consistent with his role as the Sthiti-Karta — preserver of Order. The Great Deluge symbolising Dissolution can only be tided over by the Cosmic Fish which carries Manu’s Ship to safety on its snout. Maha Vishnu’s mount Adi-Sesha transforms himself into the rope that Manu ties to the snout of the Maha-Matsya.
And so, Manu not only gets guidance and protection, but responsible leadership. The Maha-Matsya assigns him the onerous task of renewing Creation for one more Cycle. It is Manu’s responsibility to ensure that each species — that he has carried on his ship — propagates itself in the next Manvantara. And this Manu is our Manu — Vaivasvata Manu, the seventh among the fourteen Manus.
To contextualise this more properly, we can cite another superb insight that Shatavadhani Dr. Ganesh has given:
"Puranas have provided us with an immense benefit. Thanks to their innate flexibility, we can encapsulate a voluminous amount of history in a fistful of symbolism. Likewise, we can dilate any symbol or metaphor to cosmic proportions… if we literalise a suggestion (Dhvani), its interpretative prospects die and the field of expression becomes barren…
"In delineating the traits of our culture, in understanding the vastness and complexity of our literature, and in trying to grasp the nuances of our philosophy, it is impossible to apply Darwin’s theory of evolution in the literal sense. It is inadvisable, inappropriate and tasteless."
However, for nearly two centuries, Western Indologists have done precisely what Dr. Ganesh has cautioned against. They have committed a flagrant violation of all norms and methods of inquiry, analysis and scholarship prescribed by our Sastras. In other words, they have inflicted Sastra-Sankara across the board— this is akin to an automobile engineer not only diagnosing a heart problem but winning a PhD for it.
To be continued
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