Published in Sunday Midday on 10 August, 2008.
The phrase Matsya Nyaya in Sanskrit texts literally means the law of the fishes and it refers to jungle law – where the strong dominate the weak, where one has to survive using strength or cunning and where might is right.
The difference between a jungle and a society is that in society, the law of the jungle is rejected. Here the weak are (or are supposed to be) helped by the strong. The greater the concern of the strong for the weak, the greater is the level of civilization.
So it comes as no surprise that the first story of Vishnu deals with Mastya Nyaya. Vishnu is the god who establishes and maintains social order through the code of conduct known as dharma. Dharma is the opposite of Matsya Nyaya – while the law of the jungle is acceptable for animals it is adharma or unrighteous for humans who have the capability to choose affection over domination.
One day, Manu found a small fish in the river who said, Save me from the big fish. Manu, in his kindness, removed the fish from its natural habitat and put him in his pot. This act created civilization, a space where nature’s ruthless law is subverted by human nobility.
The fish was safe in Manu’s pot. And it thrived there. A few days later, Manu noticed that the fish had grown larger than the pot. So he moved the fish to a pond. A few days later, the fish had become larger than the pond. So the fish was put in a lake. Then it became too big for the lake so was put in a river. Finally even the river became too narrow for the fish and so it was put in the ocean.
Shortly thereafter it began to rain, so much rain that it flooded the whole earth and Manu was trapped alone surrounded by the waters that had destroyed all life. This was Pralaya or destruction. It was the end of the world.
Why did it rain so heavily? To fill the ocean which eventually proved too small for the fish cast in by Manu? What is the story telling us? Two things: firstly, creation of society happens when `we save the small fish’ i.e. kindness and secondly, destruction of society happens when `we grow bigger than the pot that contains us’ i.e. greed.
When the fish had grown in size, ideally Manu should have let it go back to the sea for it was strong enough to manage on its own. But Manu’s kindness went to such an extreme that he made the fish totally dependent on him. The dependent fish kept growing and kept asking for more and more water until even the heavens had to open up and release so much rain that all earth was covered with water. Thus excessive kindness destroys natural harmony and eventually destroys the world. This is not explicitly stated in the story but is implied.
Finally the fish appears before Manu – now a gigantic creature that has sprouted a horn. Manu realizes the fish is Vishnu himself teaching him a lesson on society – why it is created and how it can be destroyed. The giant fish then helps Manu on a boat in which is placed the books of wisdom, the Veda, as well as the seven sages, the Sapta-Rishis, who are guardians of the Veda. The fish tows the ship to a safe place atop the tallest mountain. From here, the enlightened Manu establishes a new society when the flood waters recede – a society where there is kindness but not excess of it. Thus by saving the fish, Manu saves mankind. This is a cyclical story, where the once helpless becomes the helpful.
This story of Vishnu’s first incarnation informs us that our society exists because Manu saved a fish and the fish saved Manu. It is up to us to decide if we are content in the pot given to us or will we `grow larger than the pot’. Will our greed for wealth destroy natural resources and herald Pralaya, the end of civilization? This can happen if we disregard rules of balance and harmony. We must know when to stop. An environmental warning from the ancient scriptures!