Once Manu, the father of present day humanity was making his daily ablutions in the river. Vishnu assuming the form of a very small fish glided into the hands of Manu. Manu, about to release the little fish, was addressed and asked by it not to expose it to the danger that might arise to it from the larger fish in the river, but to place it in his water-jar. The saint complied with its wish; but in one night the fish grew so large, that at its request he had to transfer it to a pond. Yet soon the pond also became insufficient to contain the fish, Manu had to chose a larger pond for its abode; and after successive other changes, he took it to the ocean. Manu now understood that the fish was no other than Narayana or Vishnu, and after he had paid adoration to the god, the later revealed to him the imminence of an impending deluge which would destroy the world. He was also told that a large vessel would appear to him, in which he was to embark together with the seven Rishis, taking with him all the plants and all the seeds of created things. Manu obeyed the behest of the god; and when the water covered the surface of the earth, the fish, which was of then of a prodigious size and a single horn, then swam to Manu, who fastened the vessel to the fish's horn, using the great serpent Remainder (Shesha-naga) as a rope; and he was conducted to safety when the waters had subsided. The Bhagvata Purana further relates that the fish fought in the ocean the demon Hayagriva who had stolen the Vedas from the sleeping Brahma. It was this theft of the Vedas that had brought about the deluge in the first place. By restoring the Vedas back to Manu, symbolic of all humanity, Vishnu thus restored order in life. He also gave Manu the principles of knowledge which would guide the human race during the four yugas.
The image here shows the four-armed Matsya Avatara holding the symbolic attributes of Vishnu in each of the four hands.
The upper-right arm holds the mace. The mace of Vishnu is known as Kaumodaki, which literally means "that which inebriates the mind." The mace thus represents the power of knowledge, because knowledge dazzles and intoxicates the mind. Also all physical and mental powers are derived from the power of knowledge. Nothing else can conquer time and itself become the power of time. As such the mace is identified with the goddess Kali, who is the power of time. According to the Krishna Upanishad "The mace is Kali, the power of time. It destroys all that opposes it."
The second right arm holds the lotus. The lotus represents detachment, for though this beautiful flower grows in muddy waters, neither water nor dirt are ever seen sticking to its petals. Like the lotus, Vishnu is the partaker of life's pleasures who never gets ensnared by the charms of the world.
The upper-left hand holds the discus. The discus of Vishnu is known as Sudarshana, which literally means beauteous-sight. It symbolizes a sharp instrument which severs obstacles in the attainment of enlightenment.
The other left hand holds the conch. The conch is the symbol of the origin of existence. It has the form of a multiple spiral evolving from one point into ever-increasing spheres. It is thus associated with the elemental waters. When blown, it produces a sound associated with the primeval sound from which creation developed.
Below the central figure can be seen the yantra of the Matsya Avatara.
This description by Nitin Kumar, Executive Editor, Exotic India.
Danielou, Alain. The Myths and Gods of India: Vermont, Inner Traditions International, 1991.
Garrett, John. A Classical Dictionary of India: Delhi, Low Price Publications, 1996.
Pattanaik, Devdutt. Vishnu - An Introduction: Mumbai, Vakils, Feffer and Simons Ltd., 1999.
Santiago, J.R. Sacred Symbols of Hinduism: Delhi, Book Faith India, 1999.