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Matsya Jayanti

Illustration of Matsya from the very talented and sage Nina Paley
Matsya Jayanti remembers the first time that Vishnu was manifested - a kind of "birth" day. Vishnu manifested in the form of a fish. As usual, this is symbolic of many things. One connotation which should be considered today, especially, is that there is a saying, similar to the English phrase "law of the jungle" which this connotes: "law of the ocean" or "law of the fishes." (matsya nyaya = fish law) The concept of this phrase is a natural law which is brutal: a small fish must seek the protection of a large fish; might makes right; only the fittest survive. And in periods of chaos, when there is no ruler, no law, the strong devour even the weak who sought their protection - just as in periods of drought big fish eat little fish.

Vishnu's manifestation taught that a greater strength, a greater might, a greater protection is found through friendship, justice and duty. Fish Law is indeed brutal, but it is unnecessary: such periods of chaos are the result of our own negligence to duty and law, rather than a natural phenomenon. And in nature, there are many examples of social creatures which, like humans, can be utterly selfless - even in extreme crisis. Like these other highly social animals, human nature is not brutal, nor savage.

This does not mean we are inherently non-violent. Non-violence is a learned behavior, whether by the cruel tutelage of experience, or by the kind instruction of a teacher or parent. Without understanding better, we torture and enslave numerous other species for our benefit. But we have the capacity of reason and logic, which permits us to express other behaviors. It is possible for us to develop different relationships with other creatures, to tame rather than enslave, and even to tame ourselves, as well.

To what purpose do we enslave other beings? What purpose does it serve the grain remain in our fields, the cattle in our barns, the human beings who we compel by various means to work without pay or without adequate pay remain under our control? To what purpose would a person tame themselves for the performance of their duty, the obligations of friendship, or the demands of Justice? Time, Vishnu, will tell: in this first manifestation, there is introduced only the beginning of understanding. In subsequent manifestations, both major and minor, the practice permits greater understanding and perfection of practice: just as one Asana, well practiced, permits the accomplishment of many others, so too does the horizon of human understanding expand through the fundamental premise of rational and logical behavior.

Progressing from no ritual, to the horrifying rituals of sacrificing people, to the absurdity of sacrificing animals, to the sacrifice of plants, we come to understand that the true sacrifice is of ourselves - body, mind and heart. And then we come to understand the true purpose of the practice. At each moment when the horizon of understanding is reached, a subtler Dharma is discovered as Vishnu manifests again. We catch glimpses of Vishnu, swimming and playing in the ocean of Dharma.

But until we can transform our nature, no matter how long we can hold our breath or how much air we bring with us, we cannot remain under the waves like a fish forever. And there are depths to the water where no light reaches - and monsters, like horse-faced Danava, hide having stolen the Vedas. There is a barrier to human knowledge, to human understanding which even rationality and logicality cannot breach.

But thankfully, like Vishnu, by tried and true methods we may not only change our nature for a better one - to explore and play in every time and space, in every world - but manifest ourselves in ways that permit us to interact with other beings to play and learn and explore with them, too.