That in which, for the sake of promulgating the Vedas, Viṣṇu, in the beginning of a Kalpa, related to Manu the story of Narasinha and the events of seven Kalpas, that, O sages, know to be the Mātsya Purāṇa, containing twenty thousand stanzas.
We might, it is to be supposed, admit the description which the Matsya gives of itself to be correct, and yet as regards the number of verses there seems to be a mistatement. Three very good copies, one in my possession, one in the Company’s library, and one in the Radcliffe library, coñcur in all respects, and in containing no more than between fourteen and fifteen thousand stanzas: in this case the Bhāgavata is nearer the truth, when it assigns to it fourteen thousand. We may conclude, therefore, that the reading of the passage is in this respect erroneous. It is correctly said that the subjects of the Purāṇa were communicated by Viṣṇu, in the form of a fish, to Manu.
The Purāṇa, after the usual prologue of Súta and the Ṛṣis, opens with the account of the Matsya or ‘fish’ Avatāra of Viṣṇu, in which he preserves a king named Manu, with the seeds of all things, in an ark, from the waters of that inundation which in the season of a Pralaya overspreads the world. This story is told in the Mahābhārata, with reference to the Matsya as its authority; from which it might be inferred that the Purāṇa was prior to the poem. This of course is consistent with the tradition that the Purāṇas were first composed by Vyāsa; but there can be no doubt that the greater part of the Mahābhārata is much older than any extant Purāṇa. The present instance is itself a proof; for the primitive simplicity with which the story of the fish Avatāra is told in the Mahābhārata is of a much more antique complexion than the mysticism and extravagance of the actual Matsya Purāṇa. In the former, Manu collects the seeds of existing things in the ark, it is not said how: in the latter, he brings them all together by the power of Yoga. In the latter, the great serpents come to the king, to serve as cords wherewith to fasten the ark to the horn of the fish: in the former, a cable made of ropes is more intelligibly employed for the purpose.
Whilst the ark floats, fastened to the fish, Manu enters into conversation with him; and his questions, and the replies of Viṣṇu, form the main substance of the compilation. The first subject is the creation, which is that of Brahmā and the patriarchs. Some of the details are the usual ones; others are peculiar, especially those relating to the Pitris, or progenitors. The regal dynasties are next described; and then follow chapters on the duties of the different orders. It is in relating those of the householder, in which the duty of making gifts to Brahmans is comprehended, that we have the specification of the extent and subjects of the Purāṇas. It is meritorious to have copies made of them, and to give these away on particular occasions. Thus it is said of the Matsya; “Whoever gives it away at either equinox, along with a golden fish and a milch cow, gives away the whole earth;” that is, he reaps a like reward in his next migration. Special duties of the householder—Vratas, or occasional acts of piety—are then described at considerable length, with legendary illustrations. The account of the universe is given in the usual strain. Śaiva legends ensue; as, the destruction of Tripurāsura; the war of the gods with Tāraka and the Daityas, and the consequent birth of Kārtikeya, with the various circumstances of Umā’s birth and marriage, the burning of Kāmadeva, and other events involved in that narrative; the destruction of the Asuras Maya and Andhaka; the origin of the Mātris, and the like; interspersed with the Vaiṣṇava legends of the Avatāras. Some Māhātmyas are also introduced; one of which, the Narmada Māhātmya, contains some interesting particulars. There are various chapters on law and morals; and one which furnishes directions for building houses, and making images. We then have an account of the kings of future periods; and the Purāṇa concludes with a chapter on gifts.
The Matsya Purāṇa, it will be seen even from this brief sketch of its contents, is a miscellaneous compilation, but including in its contents the elements of a genuine Purāṇa. At the same time it is of too mixed a character to be considered as a genuine work of the Paurāṇik class; and upon examining it carefully, it may be suspected that it is indebted to various works, not only for its matter, but for its words. The genealogical and historical chapters are much the same as those of the Viṣṇu; and many chapters, as those on the Pitris and Srāddhas, are precisely the same as those of the Sṛṣṭi Khaṇḍa of the Padma Purāṇa. It has drawn largely also from the Mahābhārata: amongst other instances, it is sufficient to quote the story of Sāvitrī, the devoted wife of Satyavat, which is given in the Matsya in the same manner, but considerably abridged.