The Celestial Dolphin, an Upaniṣadic Puzzle, and the First Incarnation of Viṣṇu (TT 16)

Location: OCHS Library
Speaker: Professor Diwakar Acharya
Date: May 12, 2016
Time: 4:00 PM – 5:00 PM

Early in the Indian tradition the dolphin is deified and elevated to heaven as a constellation that housed the old polestar Thuban in its tail. It is venerated in different ages as bráhman, Brahmā Prajāpati, and Viṣṇu. But in later times the same is generalized as a fish, or sometimes in other contexts as a crocodile. The Jaiminīya Brāhmaṇa preserves the story of the deification of the dolphin. The Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa narrates a story of the rescue of Vaivasvata Manu from a devastating flood by a dolphin (jhaṣá), described there as an extraordinary fish. This fish is identified in the Mahābhārata as Brahmā Prajāpati in disguise, but in Purāṇic and other similar sources it is depicted as the foremost incarnation of Viṣṇu. In this lecture a number of Vedic and Puranic passages related to these issues will be discussed. An enigmatic passage from the Bṛhad Āraṇyaka Upaniṣad (BĀU), too, will be read showing how this passage enigmatically equates the celestial dolphin with the central vital function in the human body. To understand the saga of the dolphin, iconography and realia will also be discussed.

Diwakar Acharya is the new Spalding Professorship of Eastern Religions and Ethics and a fellow of All Souls College. His research covers a wide range of topics in Indian religious and philosophical traditions, Sanskrit literature, and epigraphy.