The doomsday fisherman

One of my goals for this summer was to post more frequently, and to get rid of the thirty-some incomplete posts I have lying around in my drafts folder. With only a week left before I go back to college… I guess that was more of a long-term goal. Anyway, in this post I just want to share an eerie and fascinating Sanskrit poem I came across a few weeks ago.

This poem belongs to a genre of Sanskrit poetry called subhashita. In Sanskrit, the prefix su means “good” and bhāshita means “spoken”, so subhashita literally means “well-spoken”. Subhashitas are typically short poems of just two or four lines following a specific meter. Subhashitas have been composed on a wide variety of subjects, but what distinguishes all of them is their brevity, wittiness and creativity.

Before getting to the poem, though, we need a little context. This subhashita makes reference to a number of Hindu religious figures, mainly the dashavataras: ten avatars (incarnations) of Vishnu. In Hindu mythology, the god Vishnu incarnates when evil is on the rise in the universe and dharma is in danger. It’s believed that so far, he’s incarnated nine times, with the tenth avatar to come near the end of this world.

Without getting too much into the details, here are Vishnu’s ten incarnations:

  1. Matsya, a fish
  2. Kurma. a turtle
  3. Varaha, a boar
  4. Narasimha, half-man, half-lion
  5. Vamana (also called Trivikrama), a Brahmin dwarf
  6. Parshurama, a pretty violent Brahmin
  7. Rama, the hero of the Ramayana epic
  8. Krishna, one of the most popular Hindu deities
  9. Buddha, the founder of Buddhism
  10. Kalki, the doomsday savior-to-come

It’s also common to see the Buddha replaced in this list by Balarama (brother of Krishna), especially in south India.

Painting of the dashavataras in the traditional Kalamkari style from Andhra Pradesh. Top row (left to right): Matsya, Kurma, Varaha, Narasimha, Vamana. Bottom row: Parshurama, Rama, Balarama, Krishna, Kalki.

We also need to make note of one more character (the main character of the poem, actually). Bhairava is the scariest form through which the god Shiva is worshiped. The name literally means “terrible, frightful” in Sanskrit (he’s also called Kalabhairava, “frightful time”). I’ve written previously about an 8th-century Sanskrit poem on Bhairava, so take a look if you’re interested. Bhairava is often depicted as a black-skinned beggar surrounded by dogs (which sadly don’t get much love in Hinduism). Also, his begging bowl is the skull of the creator god, Brahma. Cheery, right?

Finally, I don’t want to get too into the intricacies of Hindu cosmology, but I’ll just say that Hindu mythology looks at time on a very, very large scale. According to the Puranas (composed mostly during the first millennium AD), the universe goes through cycles of creation, dissolution, and rebirth, existing during the day of Brahma (whose day lasts 4.32 billion human years), and in dissolution during Brahma’s night (also 4.32 billion years long). After a hundred years of Brahma (over 300 trillion years!), Shiva steps in and destroys everything, including Brahma. After another hundred years of Brahma, Brahma is reborn and the process repeats infinitely. So, if you’re still with me, this poem is set at the end of a kalpa: one day of Brahma.

Finally, the poem! This subhashita comes from page 21 of an online copy of the Subhashita Ratna Bhandagara (meaning “Treasury of Subhashita-Gems”) a collection of over ten thousand subhashitas that was published in 1952. The author and date of composition aren’t given; however, if anyone is interested and finds out, please let me know. Here it is:


kalpānte śamita-trivikrama-mahā-kaṇkāla-baddha-sphura-ccheṣasyūta-nṛsiṃha-pāṇi-nakhara-protādi-kolāmiṣaḥ |
viśvaikārṇa-vatāvi-śeṣa-mudi-to tau matsya-kūrmā-vubhau karṣan-dhīvaratā gataḥ syatu satā moha mahā-bhairava || 64

Unfortunately, I don’t know enough Sanskrit to give a direct translation, but I’ll give a description of the image this subhashita invokes.

The setting of the poem is kalpānte: the end (anta) of a kalpa (day of Brahma), after the dissolution of the universe, when everything has been destroyed in preparation for rebirth. In Hindu thought, this state of dissolution is depicted as an endless primordial ocean, and this poem depicts Bhairava as a fisherman in this cosmic ocean.

In this poem, Bhairava’s fishing rod is made of Vamana’s backbone; its string is Shesha, the serpent on which Vishnu reclines; the hook is one of Narasimha’s claws; and the bait on the hook is a piece of Varaha’s flesh. Alone in this endless ocean, Bhairava is fishing for Matsya and Kurma.

There’s no resolution or major event that happens in these few lines. The poet just evokes this image in the reader’s mind and lets it rest there. So, reread it a couple more times; let it sink in for a bit.

This poem’s uniquely eerie subject is what makes it so compelling; it’s just so refreshingly different from the countless poems that merely praise a deity in a million ways (with way too many comparison involving lotuses). One interpretation, from the perspective of a Shiva devotee, is that this poem suggests “the totality of the deluge, where even the nearly immortal life of all the celestials comes to an end with the survival of only one Almighty Shiva” (Sivaramamurti 8). I’ll leave it at that, but I’d love to hear your thoughts!


Image source: Dashavatara painting


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