According to Hindu mythology, Prithu is a sovereign, named in the Vedic scriptures and considered an Avatar (incarnation) of the preserver god—Vishnu. He is also called Pruthu, Prithi and Prithu Vainya, literally, Prithu — the son of Vena. Prithu is “celebrated as the first consecrated king, from whom the earth received her name Prithvi. ” He is mainly associated with the legend of his chasing the earth goddess, Prithvi, who fled in the form of a cow and eventually agreed to yield her milk as the world’s grain and vegetation. The epic Mahabharata and text Vishnu Purana describes him as a part Avatar (incarnation) of Vishnu.

he Bhagavata Purana and Vishnu Purana tells the story of Prithu: King Vena, from the lineage of the pious Dhruva, was an evil king, who neglected Vedic rituals. Thus the rishis (sages) killed him, leaving the kingdom without an heir and in famine due to the anarchy of Vena. So, the sages churned Vena’s body, out of which first appeared a dark dwarf hunter, a symbol of Vena’s evil. Since the sins of Vena had gone away as the dwarf, the body was now pure. On further churning, Prithu emerged from right arm of the corpse. To end the famine by slaying the earth and getting her fruits, Prithu chased the earth (Prithvi) who fled as a cow. Finally, cornered by Prithu, the earth states that killing her would mean the end of his subjects too. So Prithu lowered his weapons and reasoned with the earth and promised her to be her guardian. Finally, Prithu milked her using Manu as a calf, and received all vegetation and grain as her milk, in his hands for welfare of humanity. Before Prithu’s reign, there was “no cultivation, no pasture, no agriculture, no highway for merchants”, all civilization emerged in Prithu’s rule. By granting life to the earth and being her protector, Prithu became the Earth’s father and she accepted the patronymic name “Prithvi”. However, the Manu Smriti considers Prithvi as Prithu’s wife and not his daughter, and thus suggests the name “Prithvi” is named after her husband, Prithu.

The Vayu Purana records that when born, Prithu stood with a bow, arrows and an armour, ready to destroy the earth, which was devoid of Vedic rituals. Terrified, the earth fled in form of a cow and finally submitted to Prithu’s demands, earning him the title chakravartin (sovereign). Prithu is the first king, recorded to earn the title. The creator-god Brahma is described to have recognized Prithu as an avatar of Vishnu, as one of Prithu’s birthmark was Vishnu’s chakram (discus) on his hand and thus Prithu was “numbered amongst the human gods”. According to Oldham, the title Chakravarti may be derived from this birthmark, and may not be indicative of universal dominion. Prithu was worshipped as an incarnation of Vishnu in his lifetime and now is considered a Nāga demi-god. Shatapatha Brahmana (Verse 3.5.4.) calls him the first anointed king and Vayu Purana calls him adiraja (“first king”).

The epic Mahabharata states that Vishnu crowned Prithu as the sovereign and entered the latter’s body so that everyone bows to the king as to god Vishnu. Now, the king was “endowed with Vishnu’s greatness on earth”. Further, Dharma (righteousness), Shri (goddess of wealth, beauty and good fortune) and Artha (purpose, material prosperity) established themselves in Prithu.

The Atharvaveda credits him of the invention of ploughing and thus, agriculture. He is also described as one who flattened the Earth’s rocky surface, thus encouraging agriculture, cattle-breeding, commerence and development of new cities on earth. In a hymn in Rigveda, Prithu is described as a rishi (seer). D. R. Patil suggests that the Rigvedic Prithu was a vegetarian deity, associated with Greek god Dionysus and another Vedic god Soma.

Bhagavata Purana further states that Prithu performed ninety-nine ashwamedha yagnas (horse-sacrifices), but Indra, kings of the demi-gods, disturbed Prithu’s hundredth one. The yagya was abandoned, Vishnu gave Prithu his blessings and Prithu forgave Indra for the latter’s theft of the ritual-horse. It also states that the Sanatkumaras, the four sage-incarnations of Vishnu, preached Prithu about devotion to Vishnu. After governing his kingdom for a long time, Prithu left with his wife Archi, to perform penance in the forest in his last days. He died in the forest, and Archi went Sati on his funeral pyre.

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