A ray of hope in this period of Covid has revealed man’s amazing aptitude to overcome the unpleasant aspects of life ; and his capacity to endure, create and transform to become greater than his suffering. Man has known the importance of transmitting the value of living righteously as well as his ability of survival with the help of an inner urge to create something.
Paintings have ‘incorporated’ various such realisations, and mind spots a vivid allegory of floodwaters we find ourselves in today, hoping for survival and new beginning in the eternal story of Global Flood, where a certain human/s lead the rest to the higher grounds to live a more level-headed life . The story is an account of a great deluge which was believed to be a Great Flood sent by God /the Gods to destroy civilization as an act of divine retribution. However, goodness of a righteous individual, who is thus chosen by divine forces, is made instrumental in redemption of the drowning and dwindling earth.
It is a story of the codified truths and beliefs depicted through fantasy and imagination- one that has travelled down the timeline through myths and mythologies in forms of fables and allegories in various and diverse cultures and civilizations , recognizing universality of human mind, thought and emotion running across the seamless frameworks of space and time.
As narrated in Matsya Purana (one of the eighteen major Puranas- the Sanskrit sacred writings on Hindu mythology and folklore of varying date and origin, the most ancient of which dates from the 4th century AD), Manu, the original/first man, is approached by a small fish requesting protection. Manu rears the fish which he finally discovers is ‘Matsya’, an avatar of Vishnu. Matsya had appeared with intent to save Earth through Manu. Vishnu, as Matsya, warns Manu of the end of the world as a divine retribution by an impending flood, instructing him to build a boat. After the Earth is flooded, Manu is instructed to put the Vedas, his family, a few seeds and the seven sages (seven rishis/ Saptarshis) on the boat. Matsya gets the boat tied with a rope to its horn and pulls it swiftly to safety up a ‘yonder northern mountain’.
Manu (etymology: Sanskrit “ man”- “to think”) noted his ‘reflections’ during his journey on the boat, the text which became known as ‘Manu-smriti’ and got recognised as a legal text, the Sanskrit law code (‘Laws/code of Manu’ officially known as Manava-dharma-shastra , among the many Dharmaśāstras which propagated values and rules to better living to keep the earth secure for future).
The scene depicted in the miniature painting from the 19th century is similarly seen in ancient Sumerian tablets, in Greek mythology and miniature paintings, in stories and depictions of Ojibwa tribe of North America and in European depictions of classical antiquity (Greek) to name but just a few.
However, this account (one of the oldest ones depicted in Hindu art, literature and mythology through various techniques of expression, including paintings like above) is strikingly similar to the Biblical Account of Noah. The similarity was discovered by an amateur Assyriologist, George Smith, in 1872 from a tablet found in an ancient Mesopotamian city (Nineveh). The tablet contained an engraved illustration with text of an ancient Mesopotamian myth that paralleled the story of Noah’s Ark from the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament: ‘God is saddened by seeing all the evil which has entered man’s heart, and decides to destroy all living things on earth (Genesis 6:5-8). Noah, similar to Manu, the “righteous one in his generation”, is instructed to build an ark to cross the floods. The ark comes to rest on the mountain of Ararat and Noah is able to preserve a few creatures- just like Manu who survived along with some “seeds of life” to re-establish life on earth.
The story is repeated with variations in the Quran too, where the ark appears as Safina Nūḥ (Arabic:”Noah’s boat”). Nuh ibn Lumik ibn utushalkh (Arabic word Romanised as Nūḥ), also known as Noah, is recognized in Islam as a prophet and apostle of God to save the mankind by carrying species of birds, animals, plants and prophets across the flood in a boat which ‘be built in shape of a bird’s belly and fashioned of teak wood’…. The message is the same: to extract out from the earth those plunged in depravity and sin in an endeavour to bring the native purity on the earth again.
Art has been a means to connect the present to past while anticipating the future – not merely in its creation by the artist, but also in the process of involving the audience by inflicting on them thoughts or emotions – time and again instigating them to react as well. The story of Manu/Noah and Manu’s/Noah’s mission was to warn the people, who were at nature’s mercy and forgiveness: Nature promised them to provide if they led righteous lives, protecting and caring Mother Nature. The story (and numerous depictions over the world, despite contrasting cultures) has been the reminder to follow the codes of conduct in human society. The Covid period, thus, has perhaps been another version of the Great Deluge and a reminder of the necessity of tuning one’s interests with those of nature for universal survival and wellbeing….

Simret Singh

About Simret Singh