Matsya-avatara is the first of the ten avataras. Srila Krsnadäsa Kaviraja Goswami has discussed infinite avataras in his abridged general review of the Prime Original Supreme Personality of Godhead, Sri Krsna, in Sri Caitanya-caritamrta, Madhya-lila, Chapter 20. There, he writes that the lila-avatara (pastime avatara) is one of the six distinct kinds of principal descents of Sri Krsna. Among lila-avataras, the first is Matsya-avatara. There are countless numbers of lila-avataras mentioned in Sri Caitanya-caritamrta. In his commentary on Madhya-lila (20.245), Srila Bhakti Siddhänta Sarasvaté has discussed twenty-five principal lila-avataras. Chapter 3 of the First Canto of Srimad-Bhägavatam also describes various descents of the Lord and Their characteristics.
sankarsäna, matsyadika,-dui bheda tanra
sankarsana -purusavatara, lilavatara ara
(Caitanya-caritamrta, Madhya 20.244)
“The first personal expansion is Sankarsana and the others are avataras like the fish avatara. Sankarsana is an expansion of the Purusa, or Visnu. The expansions such as Matsya appear in different yugas for specific pastimes.”
lilavatara krsnera na yaya ganana
pradhana kariya kahi dig-daraçana
matsya, kurma, raghunatha, nrsimha, vamana
varahadi lekha yantra na yaya ganana
(Caitanya-caritamrta, Madhya 20.297- 298)
“No one can count the innumerable pastime avataras of Lord Krsna, but I shall describe the principal ones. Some of the pastime avataras are Matsya, Kürma, Lord Ramacandra, Lord Nrsimha, Lord Vamana and Lord Varaha. There is no end to Them.”
Among the eighteen Puranas, the Matsya Purana describes the pastimes of Matsya-avatara. When Saunaka and other resident sages of Naimisaranya expressed their desire to hear the pastimes of Matsya-avatara from Sri Ugrasrava (Suta Goswami), the son of Sri Lomaharsana Suta, he spoke as follows:
“In ancient times, King Manu, the son of the sun-god, entrusted the kingdom to his son and performed severe austerities for ten thousand years. When Brahma became pleased by his austerities and wished to confer a boon upon him, the king prayed to grandfather Brahma and said, ‘Please give me the boon that I may save the living beings of this world and the world itself during the time of annihilation.’ Brahma said, ‘So be it!’ He then disappeared, while the devas (demigods) showered flowers from heaven. Thereafter, one day when Manu was offering oblations to the ancestors while sitting in his asrama, a saphari (a kind of tiny fish-a minnow) jumped into his hands. Out of compassion, and for the safety of the small fish, he placed it in his water pot. Overnight the fish became as large as a finger, and finding it difficult to stay in the small water pot, it prayed to the king, ‘Please save me! Please save me!’ Feeling compassion for the fish, Manu transferred it to a clay vessel. The fish again expanded, but this time to the length of three hands, within one night. It expressed its difficulty by saying to the king, ‘I have surrendered to you. Please save me! Please save me!’ Then Manu put the fish in a well, but once again, due to a shortage of space, he put it in a lake, and then in the Ganges where it continued expanding greatly until he had no choice but to transfer it to the ocean. What had originally been a tiny fish now occupied an entire ocean. Manu became afraid upon seeing the whole ocean occupied, and began to think that this must surely be the Supreme Lord, Vasudeva, otherwise how could His body have expanded to the size of 200,000 yojanas? Understanding the Lord to have appeared as a fish, Manu offered his obeisances to Him. After accepting his obeisances, Matsya spoke to the king, making him aware of His real nature, ‘O King, the earth will soon be flooded with water. I have a boat made by the demigods that is intended to save all the living entities. You should put the sweat-born or insects, the earth-born or those born from shoots and sprouts, the womb-born and all other helpless living beings on the boat to save them from the imminent deluge. When a strong storm approaches, you should tie the boat to my horn. You will become the prajapati (progenitor) after the universal dissolution of the whole world. In this way, at the beginning of Satya-yuga you will become the omniscient king of the next manvantara (the duration of a reign of Manu).’
“After that, when Manu asked when the annihilation would happen and how the living beings would be saved, Lord Matsya informed him of the coming of drought, famine and fire burning the earth, culminating in the submersion of the three worlds due to excessive rain. Everything would be reduced to one ocean (ekarnava). As per the Lord’s words, at the time of annihilation Lord Janardana appeared in the form of a fish with a horn protruding from His head. The great serpent Vasuki came to Manu to act as a rope. Pious Manu, the knower of dharma, gathered together all the living beings by his yogic spiritual power and put them safely onto the boat. He tied the snake to the horn of the Divine Fish. Lord Matsya, Brahma, Soma, Surya, the four worlds, the pious river Narmadä, Markandeya, Rsi, Lord Bhava (Mahadeva), the Vedas, Puranas and all kinds of knowledge were manifested in Manu. Lord Matsya also told Manu that at the end of the Caksusa-manvantara, when the world would become ekarnava after dissolution, He would once again appear to rescue and re-establish the Vedas.”
The story of Matsya-avatara has also been described in Chapter 24 of the Eighth Canto of Srimad-Bhagavatam. Pariksit Maharaja desired to hear about the pastimes of Matsya-avatara, the earliest or first of the ten avataras, and spoke to Sri Sukadeva Gosvami as follows:
bhagavaï chrotum icchami harer adbhuta-karmanah
avatara-katham ädyäm maya-matsya-vidambanam
“Maharaja Pariksit said, ‘The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Hari, is eternally situated in His transcendental position, yet He descends to this material world and manifests Himself in various forms. His first descent was that of a great fish. O most powerful Sukadeva Gosvami, I wish to hear from you the pastimes of that manifestation of the Lord as a fish.'”
One day of Brahma is called a kalpa. Brahma’s one day is beyond human calculation. The durations of the four ages or yugas have been described as follows: the duration of Kali-yuga is 432,000 solar years, double this is the duration of Dvapara-yuga, triple is that of Treta-yuga and quadruple is the duration of Satya-yuga. The four yugas combined are called one divya-yuga or catur-yuga. The reign of one Manu is comprised of 71 such divya- or catur-yugas. The span of life of fourteen Manus is the duration of one day of the life of Brahma. Similar also is the duration of one night of Brahma. At the end of one day of Brahma or at the end of a kalpa, partial annihilation takes place.
At the end of his day, Brahma was feeling drowsy and desired to sleep. At that time, an asura (demon) named Hayagriva stole the Vedas from the mouth of Brahma and entered into the waters of annihilation. Brahma then wondered how, at the beginning of his day, he was going to perform the task of creating the world in the absence of the Vedas. Thinking like this, Brahma took shelter of Lord Visnu. At the beginning of the Svayambhuva-manvantara, Lord Visnu, in His appearance as a fish, killed the demon Hayagriva and rescued the Vedas. He then delivered the Vedas to Brahma:
atita-pralayapaya utthitaya sa vedhase
hatvasuram hayagrivam vedan pratyaharad dharih
“At the end of the last inundation (during the reign of Svayambhuva Manu) the Supreme Personality of Godhead killed the demon Hayagriva and delivered all the Vedic literatures to Lord Brahma when he awoke from sleeping.”
Lord Matsya appeared twice in this kalpa. First, during the Svayambhuva-manvantara, he killed the demon Hayagriva and rescued the Vedic literature. Later, at the end of the Cäksusa-manvantara, He appeared and bestowed His mercy on King Satyavrata.
In the commentary on Srimad-Bhägavatam, Eighth Canto, Chapter 24, Verse 37 published by Sri Caitanya Matha, the explanation of a statement from Laghu- bhagavatamrta is as follows:
Agastya Muni cursed Svayambhuva Manu, which caused an annihilation to occur in the middle of the manvantara. This annihilation has been described in the Matsya Purana. During the Caksusa-manvantara, the annihilation began suddenly by the will of the Lord. In the Visnu-dharmottara, this story was narrated to Vajra by Markandeya Rsi. Generally, annihilation does not take place at the end of a manvantara. At the end of the Caksusa-manvantara, by His maya potency, the Supreme Lord displayed the annihilation to Satyavrata as in a dream. Speaking in this way, Sripada Sridhar Swami (the original commentator on Srimad-Bhagavatam) has not accepted the annihilation at the end of a manvantara.
There is nothing that the Supreme Lord will not do for the pleasure of His devotee. In reality, it is only the devotee who is the root cause of the appearance of the Supreme Lord. To accept the service of His devotee, the Supreme Lord performs the pastime of being incapable. It was to accept the service of His devotee, Satyavrata, that the Lord first performed the pastime of being incapable.
During the Cäksusa-manvantara, a devotee of Lord Narayana named King Satyavrata performed severe austerities by drinking only water. One day, Satyavrata was offering oblations in the Krtamala River when he saw a tiny fish in the water cupped in his palms. Satyavrata, the king of Dravida, threw the fish into the water. The small fish then said in great distress, “O merciful king! I am a small fish; big fish will eat Me. Knowing this, why did you throw Me into the river? I am very scared. Please protect Me.” Hearing the distressful words of the fish, the king placed the fish in his water pot and went back to his asrama. Within one night, the small fish grew so much that it was difficult for it to remain in the water-pot. The fish again offered prayers expressing that it did not want to remain in that difficult condition. It wanted to be kept in a bigger pot where it could move about freely; so the sage put the fish into the water of a big wok. But in that place, within one muhurta (forty-eight minutes), it again expanded to the length of three hands. Upon the repeated prayers of the fish, it was placed in a pond, then a large freshwater lake, and finally the ocean. While entering into the ocean, the fish spoke to King Satyavrata in a humorous way, “There are many large crocodiles and other creatures in the ocean; they will eat Me. It is not proper to leave Me here.” Hearing the sweet words of the fish, the king understood that it was not an ordinary fish. This wonderful entity was the Supreme Lord Himself in the form of a fish. The king replied, “You are making fun of me in Your form as a fish. Who are You actually? Within one day You have occupied the entire area of this huge freshwater lake, 800 miles long. I have never seen or heard of such an amazing and powerful aquatic. You must surely be the Supreme Lord Hari. You have taken the form of an aquatic to favor all the living beings. I am taking shelter of You. Please grace me. Although all Your lila-avataras are for the eternal welfare of living beings, what is the purpose of Your appearance as a fish? Please tell me.”
In reply, the Supreme Lord Hari in the form of a fish said, “On the seventh day from today, the three worlds will be inundated by the waters of annihilation. I will send you a big boat at that time. You should put all kinds of herbs (medicinal plants) and seeds on the boat. Surrounded by the seven great sages, you should ride on that great boat with all the living entities and float freely on the ocean of annihilation. When your boat trembles due to the force of a strong wind, you should tie the boat to My horn using the great serpent Vasuki. I will pull the boat with you and the sages until the night of Brahma ends. At that time you will come to know of My glories.” Having said that, Sri Hari disappeared. After His disappearance, King Satyavrata was waiting for the time foretold by Sri Hari. He sat down on kusa grass facing the northeastern direction and meditated on the lotus feet of Lord Matsya. At that time, he saw that terrible rainfall was swelling the ocean to cover the land on the shore and was gradually covering the whole earth. Being very much afraid, the king began to look for shelter. Suddenly he saw that a great boat had come to him. Taking herbs, seeds and so on with him, the king boarded the boat along with the best of the brahmanas. The brahmanas asked the king to meditate on Lord Kesava for protection from this danger. Upon meditating steadily, the king saw that Lord Matsya had appeared. His body was one million miles (400,000 krosas) long, glowing like gold, and He had a horn on His head. As instructed, the king used Vasuki as a rope and tied him to the horn of the giant fish. He then offered prayers to Lord Matsya. Being satisfied by his prayers, the Supreme Lord enlightened the king with knowledge of the Supreme Truth. By the mercy of Lord Visnu in the form of a fish, the king became fully enlightened and took birth as Vaivasvata Manu (in the form of Sraddhadeva) in the present kalpa.
pralaya-payodhi-jale dhrtavan asi vedaà
kesava dhrta-mina sarira jaya jagadisa hare
(Sri Jayadeva’s Dasavatara-stotra, 1st Verse)
“O Kesava! O Lord of the universe! O Lord Hari, who have assumed the form of a fish! All glories unto You! You easily acted as a boat in the form of a giant fish just to give protection to the Vedas, which had become immersed in the turbulent sea of devastation.”