Mahabharata: The Fisherman God

God is The Fisherman... whose Net is cast...

Maitri Upanishad compares a Yogi with Fisherman, Om with net, and the breath with fishes (26)’

Buddhi and Prajna are the Fisherman at Self-level. Yudhishthira praises Krishna’s Prajna and compares him with Fisherman, at the time of Jarasamdha killing mission. Gandhari tells Duryodhana that Prajnana’s Net can deprive Kama and Krodha of their strength (5.127.30).

In RgVeda, Indra, the arrestor of Matsyanyaya is compared to both hunter (RV-8.45.38) and Fisherman (RV-1.125.2; 9.83.4) being armed with Net. [i] Vyasa compares Ideal King with hunter in his Janaka-Ashma narrative (12.8.9). In RgVeda, both warriors and Kavi are compared to hunters (RV-1.190.4; 4.20.3; 10.40.4).

Bhishma narrates a tale of a wise king of cranes (bakarajo mahaprajnah) whose name was nadijangha (12.163.18). This “Fisherman”-Crane also known as Rajadharma (19a) – is a clear indication that Vyasa has the “Fisherman”-Imagery central to his discourse on “Matsyanyaya.”

Kala-Time is Fisherman as Swallower of all (12.225.12-16), devourer of all (12.230.19), and ‘cook’ of all entities (kalah pacati bhutani, 12.231.25).

Chandogya Upanishad assorts the role of the highest Fisherman to Death (1.4.3), to whom even the Gods are Fishes, thus, bringing the Gods on the same existential plane with man.

In Mahabharata, Shiva is the ultimate Fisherman arming heroes of both sides in Kuru-Pandava war, thus standing outside the Kuru-Pandava Matsyanyaya.

Shiva appears as Kirata Vyadha before Arjuna and gives him the ultimate weapon – Pashupata. Shiva’s role as Fisherman is also evident in Folk Culture.

In Madurai myth of Shiva-Minakshi marriage, when on Shiva’s curse Minakshi (whose name suggests ‘she with Fisheyes’) takes birth as Fisherman's daughter, Shiva has to assume the guise of Fisherman to remarry her (Hiltebeitel, 1991). In an Alternative Narrative of Keralan Folklore, it is Parvati instead of Minakshi. [ii] In another variation in Valavisu Purana, Parvati takes birth as Tiryser Madente, daughter of Triamballa, king of Parawas, and her son becomes a Fish of immense size. Rest of the story is similar. [iii]

Shiva is Fisherman as Kalpantadhivara. [iv] His Third Eye is in fact the Fisherman-eye. [v]

In Vana Parvan, Yama appears as a crane – a Fisherman bird – to test Yudhishthira’s Dharma.

In Varaha Purana, Vishnu teaches Somasharma the nature of Maya by transforming him into a daughter of a Nishada. [vi]

Nishada (hunter or fisherman – both same) characters appear in Ramayana and Mahabharata in all ‘Avataras’, as the lowest Varna of Vyadha (Hunter) or Fisherman, as Dharmika and Adharmika characters, Sage and Dasyu, and as metaphor of Gods, Kala-Time, or human in social roles or situational roles of Power.

Nishada’s mythical originator is Vishnu (12.59). Vyasa, the composer of Mahabharata is hailed as both Fish and Nishada (Fisherman). He imagines Kala-Time as Nishada and narrates that a Nishada-Vyadha kills Krishna.

Interestingly, in Ramayana a Nishada-Vyadha inspires Valmiki to compose the Mahakavya on Rama and Sita’s life.

God is the Child who plays with his creation …

God appears to Draupadi like a child playing with toys who can create and destroy at will (3.31.36).

We find the imagery of child-like God playing with toy in Shakespeare [vii] and Vivekananda.

In the painting, I have tried to represent these two imageries of Vedas and Mahabharata...

It is an imagery of Samkhya Darshana and elaborated in the Mahabharata.

The three GunasSattva-Rajah-Tamah - are the Fishes …

Vyasa compares Kama and Krodha with aquatic beings (12.242.12-14). Even more explicitly, Vidura (5.34.63) [viii] and Gandhari (5.127.30) [ix] compare Kama and Krodha with Big-Fishes.

Krishna says, Rajah Guna prompts Karma - rajah karmani (Gita- 14.9), and Bhishma, comparing life to an Ocean – ‘the Ocean of life’ – compares Rajah Guna and the deeds inspired by Rajas as its fishes - rajominam (12.290.62).

In the painting...

The Black Fish (right bottom) is Tama Guna entangled in the Net and submits to the situation meekly

The Red Fish (left bottom) is Raja Guna entangled in the Net. It struggles.. gets angry... and entangles itself more…

The White Fish (mid right) is Sattva Guna that jumps out of water in attempt to be free but ultimately cannot. Other dangers lurk.

The stripped Fish (mid left)... White Red Black... represents the Balance of Gunas and can break free off the Net.

It is... Samatvam Yoga...

In the Gita, Krishna says:

yoga-sthah kuru karmani sangam tyaktva dhananjaya
siddhy-asiddhyoh samo bhutva samatvam yoga uchyate
The Fish at the Fisherman's feet is free from the Net...

The Trivial Fish that stays near the Fisherman is also beyond the Net...

The Sun is represented as a Ball... to evoke the imagery of Child playing

The Fisherman is symbolized by the Ashtami Moon and the Eagle... Garura...

In Matsyanyaya Imagery, the one with Power is imagined as the Big-Fish that eats up the Small-Fish. The Small-Fish survives by evasion, devising strategies (Upaya), and sometimes even by upturning the power dynamics by chance or by assessing the limitations of the Big-Fish. In this System, there is also the Trivial-Fish, who is spared by the Big-Fish, and often survives by siding with the Big-Fish. Its enemy is the Small-Fish, who is the Big-Fish relative to the Trivial-Fish. The Outsider to the System is the Fisherman, yet Fisherman is Insider too because he thrives on the System depending on his need, knowledge, skill and understanding of the System. Though Matsyanyaya Imagery concerns with Fish only, I would include the Fisherman as essential part of the Matsyanyaya-System because the Big-Fish and Small-Fish are relative positions of power. To clarify, the Big-Fish that devours the Small-Fish is also the Fisherman relative to the Small-Fish. Similarly, though the Fisherman, who is non-fish, is Outsider to the Matsyanyaya-System of Big-Fish and Small-Fish, he plays the role of the Big-Fish too relative to the Fish he catches; and the Big-Fish is relatively rendered Small-Fish to the Fisherman.

There is the Nishada Dharma-Vyadha pronouncing the highest Dharma of Mbh. – Ahimsa (3.198.69) and Anrshamsyam - (3.203.41) in his teachings. As if to intensify the significance, the Dharma-Vyadha also speaks of Matsyanyaya: “Dost thou not mark that fish preys upon fish (matsya grasante matsyamsh, 23c), and that various species of animals prey upon other species, and there are species the members of which prey upon each other?” (3.199.23-24)

“Fish” and “Fisherman” are transcultural symbols and metaphors. In Greek mythology, Poseidon is a Fisherman God. (Burkert 1987, 132) Homer compares his two greatest heroes – Achilles (Iliad.21) [x] and Ulysses (Odysseus.22) – with Fisherman to denote their superior prowess as wise warrior. Perseus, son of Zeus and Danaë and the legendary founder of Mycenae and of the Perseid dynasty of Danaans, was brought up by a Fisherman. Quintus Smyrnaeus in his Posthomerica compares Achilles to Lion (1.524-527), Wild Beast (1.539), Hawk (1.572), and ‘Hunter’ (1.543-544) – all "Fisherman,” and likens Achilles’ son Neoptolemus – even directly – with Fisherman (7.569-575). (Baumbach 2007, 289)

In pre-Christian Egyptian mythology, Moses’ successor Joshua, the Saviour, (Bible: Joshua 1:1-6) is a “Fish” because ‘Nun’, the name of the father of Joshua, is the Semitic word for fish. Fish is a symbol of Christ. In one prayer - 'Iesous Christos Theou Huios Soter (Jesus Christ, Son of God the Saviour)’, the first letters of each word spell out ICTHS - the Greek word for fish. Christ is also the fisher, and the fishnet symbolizes the Christian sermon. Christ promised his followers: "I shall make ye fishers of men" (Matth. IV.19, Mark I.17, Luke V.10). [xi]

Indra and Yama are Fisherman-Gods, a message bearing the significance that the Ideal King must be the Fisherman-King.

On the eve of Kurukshetra War, Arjuna’s urge to be at the middle of the two armies (Gita- 1.21) to see those about to engage in battle (22-23), and Krishna’s subsequent placing the chariot between the armies (senayor ubhayor madhye sthapayitva rathottamam), is in fact, preparing Arjuna to take the role of “Benign-Spiritual Fisherman” through Actual Transformation. When Krishna marks Arjuna’s problem as - kshudram hrdayadaurbalyam (2.3), it is Arjuna’s lack of Bala he is pointing at, which is owing to Kama and Krodha born of Raja Guna (kama esha krodha esha rajogunasamudbhavah, 3.37). What Krishna suggests Arjuna next is the Upaya to go beyond Internal-Matsyanyaya to properly face External-Matsyanyaya. Gita is thus central doctrine in Mbh. that suggests Actual Transformation through Upaya. Arjuna has to do his Kshatriya duty and kill opponents; however, he has to be Nishkama, he has to be Objective Fisherman to Kama; like Benign Fisherman killing the Big-Fish only out of necessity, Arjuna has to participate in Matsyanyaya being Anrshamsyam. This difficult Paradox is achievable through Upaya of Actual Transformation.


[i] Often learned scholars miss the significance of Net in RgVeda. For example, Edward Delavan Perry prefers to take Indra’s Net literally: ‘According to 9.83.4 Indra was armed with a net doubtless for the purpose of en-tangling his opponents, as was done by the Roman retiarii.’ [Edward Delavan Perry. Indra in the Rig-Veda. Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 11 (1882 - 1885), American Oriental Society, pp. 117-208]
[ii] (Shiva: the wild God of power and ecstasy By Wolf-Dieter Storl, Inner Traditions / Bear & Co, 2004, pg-112)
[iii] While Sewing Sandals: Tales of a Telugu Pariah Tribe By Emma Rauschenbusch Clough, Asian Educational Services, 2000, pg-84
[iv] (Satarudriya: Vibhuti Or Shiva's Iconography By C. Sivaramamurti, Abhinav Publications, 2004, pg-62)
[v] (Keys to Hid. Power, Kabbalah By Elizabeth Clare Prophet, Summit University Press, pg-403)
[vi] Varaha Purana By B.K. Chaturvedi, Diamond Pocket Books (P) Ltd., 2004, pg-91
[vii] “As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods./ They kill us for their sport” (Gloucester’s speech in Shakespeare’s King Lear, Act-4 Scene-1)
[viii] kshudraksheneva jalena jhashav apihitav ubhau / kamash ca rajan krodhash ca tau prajnanam vilumpatah (5.34.63)

[ix] kshudraksheneva jalena jhashav apihitav ubhau / kamakrodhau shar?rasthau prajnanam tau vilumpatah (5.127.30)
[x] Achilles’ mother Thetis is a sea-goddess or Fish-goddess. Once she transforms into Fish to evade Achilles’ father Peleus’s advances. In the Spartan Thetis-cult, she is a mermaid.

[xi] “Fish” is a staple in the biblical times diet and often mentioned in the Gospels. For example, Christ multiplied the two fish and five loaves of bread in Matthew 14:17.


More by :  Indrajit Bandyopadhyay

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