Floodlighting the Deluge: Traditions in Comparison

(Abstract from: Paolo Magnone, “Floodlighting the Deluge: Traditions in Comparison”, in On the Understanding of Other Cultures. Proceedings of the International Conference on Sanskrit and Related Studies to Commemorate the Birth of Stanislaw Schayer (1899-1941). Warsaw University, Poland, October 7-10 1999. Studia Indologiczne 7, 2000, p. 233-244)

The deluge myth, while enjoying a wide diffusion all over the Eurasian continent, has found its most important literary developments in the Near-eastern, Classical and Indian worlds. Apropos of these traditions, the question has often been raised of their mutual relationship. As regards the Indian tradition in particular, contrasting views have been held — whether of its dependance or of its originality vis-à-vis the Sumero-semitic tradition — which however lack an adequate foundation insofar as the structure of the Indian myth, whose careful recognition should indeed constitute the requisite basis for any further insight into the problem of its connections, has not yet been subjected to thorough investigation.
In my paper I purpose first of all a brief survey of the extant sources by presenting, besides the well-known versions of the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa, Mahābhārata, Matsya and Bhāgavata Purāṇa, to which the analysis had mostly been confined so far, some other less known versions, like those of the Viṣṇudharmottara and Kālikā Purāṇa, which add highly significant traits to the overall picture. Secondly, on the basis of that material, I intend to show that the Indian myth as a whole exhibits its own peculiar structure, quite different from the structure of the myths of the two other great traditions, except for a couple of very generic features, which are, I should think, almost unavoidable in any deluge myth by the very reason of its internal structure, and are as such best explained by independent origination. It had already been remarked, in this connection, that in the Indian myth the deluge does not wear that charachter of punishment which is so prominent in the Near East, being part of the ongoing cosmogonic process, hence grounded in the sheer nature of things; or that the final sacrifice has an utterly different meaning in the Indian and Sumero-semitic myth. However, scholars had hitherto failed to notice, as I believe, the specifically Indian import of the symbolism of the ship — typically preexistent, and not fashioned by the appointed survivor, the peculiarity of the symbolic plexus of the ship and fish, later enriched by the rope as third element, and its solidarity with other mythical representations, with which a deep-rooted homology unexpectedly comes to light in spite of the seeming heterogeneity prima facie. In conclusion, the Indian deluge myth shows unmistakably original traits in its indissoluble connection with such typically Indian themes such as (to mention but a few) the multilevel cyclical cosmic structure, the notion of residue, the avatāra, the divine monoceros and the earth foundering under the burden of the living.