Storytime! Everyone loves a good story, and yoga stories are some of the most fun stories I know. Learning about the stories of Yogic deities is an invaluable way of deepening our practice. Not only do we learn about the worldview of the culture from which our tradition came, but we also learn about ourselves. The deities represent archetypes. An archetype is a recurring symbol that expresses a greater universal truth. All of the archetypes exist in each of us. We each express them in different ways. Some of us may express one archetype more than another. Others find that some archetypes remain completely unexpressed- or even repressed! We are each a unique combination of archetypes. Stories teach us to do our best to consciously express the archetypes. They also teach us the consequences of unconsciously expressing archetypes without us having to suffer them ourselves!
The story of Matsyavatar.
Our story begins with an unfortunate impromptu nap. Lord Brahma, the Creator, fell asleep. After all that creating, who could blame him? He was tired! Nevertheless, while Brahma was sleeping, the world kinda-sorta in some really major ways went to Naraka in a handbasket.
Things got so bad that Lord Vishnu, the Sustainer, had to step in. “WHAT is going on?” he exclaimed as he surveyed the chaos. Human beings had all but lost their minds. They were doing wicked deeds and utterly destroying the world Brahma had created. Lord Vishnu had to make a big decision. What would he do about this mess?
Throughout time and history, when humans really screw up, Lord Vishnu leaves the heavens and becomes an avatar, or embodied being, on Earth. This time he came to Earth, not as a mighty warrior, not as a powerful king, but as a tiny, seemingly helpless fish named Matsyavatar.
Even though much of humankind was lost in darkness, there were still good people to be found in the world. King Satyavrat was just such a person. While he was bathing in the river, he heard someone crying. It was a very small fish being pursued by a much larger fish. “Please help me, your Highness!” The king looked with pity on the little fish. It was so very small, and the larger fish so very big. Surely one missed meal would not hurt the predator all that much! He scooped up the little fish and placed it in his washing bowl and took him home.
The king was very kind to the little fish. He made sure the fish had plenty of nice fishy-food to eat and clean water to swim in. The little fish grew and grew until one day it was not such a little fish anymore. It was a very large fish! It was a fish so big that it was taller and wider than the king himself! The king began to suspect that this was no ordinary fish.
Finally, Lord Vishnu revealed himself to the king. “Because you have been so kind to me, even though you thought I was just a tiny fish, you will be blessed. But first, I have one last favor to ask of you, my friend.”
“Anything, my Lord!” King Satyavrat said in awe.
Vishnu put up his hand in a gesture of caution. “Well, now, wait… You might want to hear what said favor is before you agree to it. A best practice, you see.”
King Satyavrat nodded. “Yes, my Lord?”
“I’m sure you’ve noticed that things down here have gotten, to put it nicely, a wee bit out of hand, don’t you think?”
The King slowly nodded. “I have, my Lord.”
“All the war machines and environmental degradation… clearly these humans cannot handle the responsibility. So, I’ve decided to call in Shiva. You know… the Destroyer,” Vishnu said. The king’s eyes bulged as if they were going to pop out of his head.
“Now, now, don’t be too distressed. We’re not going to destroy everything, prese, just almost everything,” Vishnu continued. “And that is quite a significant difference, wouldn’t you say?”
“Well… I… uh…” the shocked king stammered.
Vishnu went on. “Since this world is such a hopeless case, I’ve decided the only way to get things back on track is to start from scratch. Plus, I don’t care for the coloring. Not sure what Brahma was thinking when he went with this pink and orange theme, but whatevs. This time I’m putting in for something a little more subtle. I don’t know. Blue and green. Greenblue. Bluegreen. Even a nice cerulian. What do you think?”
“Well… I… uh…”
“Yes. Bluegreen would do nicely,” Vishnu went on without waiting for King Satyavrat to respond. “If Brahma wants pink, maybe he could add it in for just part of the day. Like, the beginning? Or the very end? But what do I know? He being the big Creator. I’m just the Sustainer, and all…”
“Um… My Lord?” King Satyavrat began.
“Oh, but YOU! Yes! This is where you come in,” Vishnu explained. “Yes, what I would like you to do is completely original. Never been done before. I would like you to build a really big boat! Yes, and make sure that you, your family, and a male and female representative from each species are on that boat. That is very important. There must be two of each species. Male and female. One of each. One male and one female, that is. But two of every species!”
“Two, my Lord?” King Satyavrat tentatively prompted.
“Why, yes, two!” Vishnu laughed. “How else do you suppose the world will be repopulated?”
King Satyavrat swallowed hard.
But that is exactly what good King Satyavrat did. He and his family and a male and female representative from each species boarded the very large boat Vishnu and instructed him to build. The rains came. The floods came. Everyone on board was beginning to lose hope they would every see dry land again. Then, as suddenly as the torrential rain had started, it stopped. The sun returned. And Vishnu indeed got his wish as Brahma created a beautiful blue sky and luscious, very well hydrated, green grass.
Vishnu took the name Matsyavatar in his fish-form. The pose Matsyasana is named after this incarnation of Vishnu. To practice this pose:
- Begin lying on your mat in a supine position, as if you were in mountain pose.
- Roll your arms under your body, palms down.
- Bend your elbows, arch your back, and lower the crown of your head so it is lightly resting on the floor.
- To come out of the pose, relax your chin toward your chest and lower your back to the mat.