Devi – the universal truth resides deep in the ocean

The Devi Upanishad is one of 19 sanskrit texts that lay out the philosophical concept of Hinduism. Written somtime before 1400 CE, the text describes the goddess Devi as the highest principle, and the ultimate truth in the universe. According to this text the “highest principle” was born in the oceans and whoever wants to follow the “truth”, needs to “know the water”. These are the first seven verses of the text:

All the gods stood around Devi and asked: "Who  art  thou,  0  great  goddess?" to  which she  replied, "I  resemble  in  form  Brahman,  from  me  emanates the  world  which  has  the  Spirit  of  Prakrti  and  Purusa,  I  am empty  and  not  empty,  I  am  delight  and  non-delight,  I  am knowledge  and  ignorance,  I  am  Brahman  and  not  Brahman, I  am  the  five  perishable  and  imperishable  elements,  I  am the  whole  world,  I  am  the  Veda  and  not  the  Veda,  I  am knowledge  and  ignorance,  I  am  not  born  and  am  born,  I  am below,  above,  and  horizontal,  I  walk  about  with  the  Rudras and  Vasus,  and  the  Adityas  and  Visvadevas.  I  carry  both Mitra  and  Varuna,  Indra  and  Agni,  both  the  Asvins,  I  hold Soma,  Tvastr,  Pusan  and  Bhaga,  I  hold  the  broad-stepping Visnu,  Brahman,  and  Prajapati,  I  give  the  money  for  a  good  purpose  to  the  sacrificer  who  offers  oblations  and  pours out  soma-juice,  I  am  living  in  every  country,  I  confer wealth,  I  produce  at  first  the  father  of  this  world,  my  birth- place is  in  the  water  inside  the  sea,  who  knows  the water  obtains the  abode  of  Devi."

(Quotes from Gustav Oppert: The Original Inhabitants of Bharatavasa or India, 1893) 

Alexander’s submarine dive

The Alexander Romance is an account of the life and exploits of Alexander the Great. Although constructed around a historical core, the romance is largely fictional. It was widely copied and translated, accruing various legends and fantastical elements at different stages. The original version was composed in Ancient Greek some time before 338 CE, when a Latin translation was made, although the exact date is unknown. (from Wikipedia)

One of those tales is about a deep sea dive Alexander undertook:
” In the Problemata, a text contentiously credited to Aristotle, the philosopher tells how his student Alexander the Great descends to the depths of the sea in “a very fine barrel made entirely of white glass”, as a later poet would put it. The reasons for this descent differ across time. For some, it was to scout submarine defenses surrounding the city of Tyre during its siege. Others depict the Macedonian king met with a cruel vision of the great chain of being, stating, upon resurfacing, that “the world is damned and lost. The large and powerful fish devour the small fry”. 

In one particularly elaborate version, Alexander submerges with companions — a dog, cat, and cock — entrusting his life to a mistress who holds the cord used to retrieve the bathysphere. However, during his dive, she is seduced by a lover and persuaded to elope, dropping the chains that anchor Alexander and his animal companions to their boat. Through a gruesome utility, the pets help him survive: the cock keeps track of time in the lightless fathoms, the cat serves as a rebreather to purify the vessel’s atmosphere, and the poor hound’s body becomes a kind of airbag, propelling Alexander back to the sea’s surface.” (from Public Domain Review)

Miniature from a manuscript of Rudolf von Ems’ Weltchronik in Versen (World Chronicle in Verse), ca. 1370

When the story was told to me by Tobias Bulang, he explained that to medieval believe, the ocean does not keep dead bodies inside. Thus Alexander’s diving bell would rise back to the surface because the ocean emited the animal’s corpse. The fact that drowned corpses tend to float on the surface of the water instead of sinking to the ground gives plausible cause for this believe. Still I would be interested to understand, what people then believed to be the cause for this.

The image of Alexandre the Great below the sea became quite popular in the visual arts of the 14. and the following centuries. You can see many more creative and vivid illustrations here.

Thanks to Tobias Bulang for the lead.