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Nearly all great civilizations have a flood story. It is almost always the precursor to a new age or a new civilization. Nearly all big civilizations talk about their advent after a flood. Some of these are stories about floods in rivers. Their cataclysmic effects are not anywhere close to those of global floods. There are at least two examples of global floods found in the Vedic texts. A similar type of story exists in the Abrahamic faiths which sometimes prompts a loose comparison between the two. The things that go unnoticed in these comparisons are the crucial differences between the Vedic and Abrahamic stories. In this post, I will discuss the differences and similarities between them.

Timelines of the Two Stories of Deluge

There are two primary stories of a great deluge and the Matsya Avatar found in Vedic texts. The first pertains to the beginning of a Kalpa in the reign of Svāyambhuva Manu and the second to the earthly king named Satyavrata under the reign of Cākṣuṣa Manu. Satyavrata later became Vaivasvata Manu. To understand how far these two stories are in time, we have to know a few additional details:

  • A Kalpa is one day of Brahma
    • It comprises 1000 Chaturyuga
    • Each Chaturyuga is 4,320,000 years
    • Kalpa is 4,320,000,000 years
  • Within this Kalpa, there are 14 Manus
    • Svāyambhuva Manu is the 1st Manu
    • Cākṣuṣa Manu is the 6th Manu
    • Vaivasvata Manu is the 7th Manu
  • The time separation between two stories
    • Manu is 71.8 Chaturyuga or 308,571,428 years
    • Satyavrata appears at the very end of the 6th Manu
    • 8 billion years from Svāyambhuva Manu
  • Timeline of Vaivasvata Manu
    • 7th Manu, son of Vivasvān, also called Śraddhādeva
    • Vivasvān taught Śraddhādeva Bhagavad-Gita
    • 27 Chaturyuga, over 116 million years, have passed
  • Timeline of Ikṣvāku Dynasty
    • Son of Vaivasvata Manu in the 27th Chaturyuga
    • Vaivasvata Manu taught Ikṣvāku Bhagavad-Gita
    • Surya- and Chandra-dynasties came from him

Places of the Two Stories of Deluge

The second deluge story (separated by 1.8 billion years from the first) occurred in the Ramyaka-varṣa of Jambudvīpa, which is not what we call the earth. What we call the earth is described as the Bhārata-varṣa portion of Jambudvīpa. Bhārata-varṣa is not India. It represents the earth. The Indian peninsula within this is called Bharata-khanda. In all Vedic sacrifices in India, the performer of the sacrifices identifies a person on behalf of whom he is doing the sacrifice using three successive terms—Jambudvīpa, Bhārata-varṣa, and Bharata-khanda. This is further noted in Bhāgavata-Purāna verses 5.18.24 and 5.18.25.

Śukadeva Gosvāmī continued: In Ramyaka-varṣa, where Vaivasvata Manu rules, the Supreme Personality of Godhead appeared as Lord Matsya at the end of the last era [the Cākṣuṣa-manvantara]. Vaivasvata Manu now worships Lord Matsya in pure devotional service and chants the following mantra. I offer my respectful obeisances unto the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who is pure transcendence. He is the origin of all life, bodily strength, mental power and sensory ability. Known as Matsyāvatāra, the gigantic fish incarnation, He appears first among all the incarnations. Again, I offer my obeisances unto Him.

Therefore, we arrive at the following conclusions: (a) the first deluge story is over 1.9 billion years old, (b) the second deluge story is about 120 million years old, and (c) the second story did not occur on Earth.

The Daśāvatāra Description of Incarnations

In all Daśāvatāra descriptions, Matysa is called the first incarnation of Lord Viṣṇu. This pertains to the appearance of Matsya during the reign of Svāyambhuva Manu, over 1.9 billion years ago. The Daśāvatāra description pertains to four forms in Satya, three forms in Treta, one form in Dvapara, and two in Kali.

  • Satya-Yuga – Matsya, Kūrma, Varāha, and Narasimha
  • Treta-Yuga – Vāmana, Paraśurāma, and Rāmachandra
  • Dvapara-Yuga – Balarama
  • Kali-Yuga – Buddha and Kalki

However, this description can be misleading because each of these forms do not appear in every Satya, Treta, Dvapara, and Kali. Kṛṣṇa and Balarāma appear only once in a Kalpa. Other forms, such as Kalki, appear in each Kali-Yuga of each Chaturyuga of each Manvantara of each Kalpa. Similarly, Vyāsa Deva appears in each Dvāpara-Yuga of each Chaturyuga of each Manvantara of each Kalpa. Yet other forms may appear in one or more Yuga of one or more Manvantara, within each Kalpa. It appears that the Matsya form appears multiple times in Satya-Yuga although in different Manvantara, and not always.

Description of Twenty-Five Incarnations

There is a broader description of 25 incarnations of Lord Viṣṇu presented in the Bhagavata-Purāṇa 1.3. The description begins by noting three Puruṣa incarnations, namely, Kāraṇodakaśāyī, Garbhodakaśāyi, and Kṣīrodakaśāyī Viṣṇu. The subsequent 22 incarnations manifest from Kṣīrodakaśāyī Viṣṇu.

Name Manu Yuga Daśāvatāra Avatar Type
1 Four Kumaras Satya Jñāna
2 Varāha Svāyambhuva Satya Third Lila
3 Nārada Satya
4 Nara and Nārāyaṇa Satya
5 Kapila Satya Jñāna
6 Dattātreya Satya Jñāna
7 Yajña Satya
8 Ṛṣabhadeva Satya
9 Pṛthu Satya
10 Matsya Cākṣuṣa Satya First Lila
11 Kūrma Satya Second Lila
12 Dhanvantari Satya
13 Mohini Satya
14 Nṛsiṁha Satya Fourth Lila
15 Vāmana Treta Fifth Lila
16 Paraśurāma Treta Sixth
17 Vyāsa Deva All Dvāpara Jñāna
18 Rāmachandra Treta Seventh Lila
19 Kṛṣṇa Vaivasvata Dvāpara Yuga
20 Balarāma Vaivasvata Dvāpara Eighth Yuga
21 Buddha Kali Ninth Yuga
22 Kalki All Kali Tenth Yuga

Matsya is counted as the first incarnation in Daśāvatāra because He appears in Svāyambhuva Manu reign. But He is counted as the tenth incarnation in Bhāgavata-Purāṇa because He appears in the reign of Cākṣuṣa Manu. The Lila incarnations appear whenever there are demons to be killed, which is not fixed. The Yuga incarnations either appear in each Yuga or always in a fixed Yuga. The Jñāna incarnations appear whenever there is a need to spread the philosophical knowledge of the divine. Even as Kṛṣṇa is described as the complete form of God in the Bhagavata-Purāṇa, He is not included in Daśāvatāra.

General Points On History and Theology

The Vedic tradition is the only one at present that makes explicit connections between history and theology because numerous forms of God appear at different times, for different reasons, are grouped in different ways, and sequenced in different ways. All these forms of God are described in different Vedic texts, but not always in the same way, because (a) all pastimes are not included in all texts, and (b) they sometimes appear in different yuga and their pastimes are different in these appearances.

While the universe exists for 100 years of Brahma’s life, temporal history is at most spoken of in terms of one day of Brahma, or a Kalpa. There are 1000 Chaturyuga in one Kalpa which is 4,320,000,000 years. Except for descriptions of cosmic creation, which are applicable for the entire 100 years of Brahma’s life, all other histories discussed in Purāṇa are speaking only of one Kalpa. The historical narrations of Itihāsa are largely chronological occurrences while those of the Purāṇa are almost always non-chronological. This distinction is important because the Purāṇas talk about the key events over a Kalpa duration while Itihāsa talks about the key events over a Yuga duration. There is at least a factor of 1000 in the timespan they are involved with.

Thus, there are three tiers of historical narrations—(a) cosmic creation history, (b) Kalpa history, and (c) Yuga history. The first is the description of things that happen once in creation, such as the activities of Kāraṇodakaśāyī, Garbhodakaśāyi, and Kṣīrodakaśāyī Viṣṇu and the activities of Brahma and Rudra. The second is the pastimes of incarnations that repeat in every Kalpa but not exactly in the same way, not always at the same time as in the previous Kalpa, and not always in the same order in each Kalpa. The third is the history of a Yuga that includes the pastimes of incarnations, but also of other key individuals.

There are many naïve students of these histories who disconnect these narratives from the cosmic time cycles. Their understanding is limited to—This book says this and that book says that, so they are called inconsistent although not completely different. It is a mammoth project to combine all these narrations into a single timeline segmented into the stories of cosmic creation, Kalpa history, and Yuga history. But many people need to work on it collectively for a considerable period of time to construct this history.

Abrahamic vs. Vedic Accounts of Creation

The highest notion of God in Abrahamic religions is what the followers of Vedic tradition call Brahma. He creates the 14 planetary systems. Out of these, the 7 lower and the 4 highest planetary systems are invisible to earthly inhabitants. Of the middle three planetary systems—called Bhū, Bhuvar, and Svarga—Bhuvar and Svarga are merged into “heaven” in Abrahamic religions. There are many demigods in Svarga which Abrahamic religions consider the members of God’s court. There are beautiful dancers, musicians, and poets in Bhuvar, which Abrahamic religions call angels. The highest god of Svarga is Indra, whom Judaism and Christianity call Yahweh. Brahma who created heaven and earth was called El in Levant polytheistic religions. However, he was dropped from that pantheon in favor of Yahweh—the storm god of war, floods, and thunder—in later ritual consolidations. This article discusses some of these details.

All monotheistic religions have stories about floods. One such story is that of a global flood involving Noah. He has many similarities to Satyavrata, with one major discrepancy, namely, that the timelines of these two stories are too far apart. The timeline for Noah’s flood is about 1300-1000 BCE while that for Satyavrata is about 120 million years old. Since creation begins after a flood, hence, if the flood timeline is near, then the creation is also very near. Accordingly, if we take Noah’s flood literally, then life on earth would not be older than 3300 years. That seems way too short to most historians and scholars. From all current estimates, this is the time at which the Harappan Civilization ended. Therefore, we can draw a few conclusions: (a) the story of Noah’s flood is related to similar stories in the Vedic texts, (b) the timeline of Noah’s flood is most likely untrue, (c) it was added to the religious scriptures because it was part of folklore in pagan religions, and (d) the timelines of that story were adjusted in these scriptures.