The man-lion avatara of Lord Vishnu
Lord Vishnu is said to have taken ten avataras or incarnations in order to destroy adharma (unrighteousness) from the earth. It is also said that these ten avataras which start from the fish, the tortoise and the boar are actually a picture of the evolution of the species. His fourth avatara is the man-lion, known as Narasimha.
The Narasimha avatara is said to have taken place on the fourteenth (Chaturdashi) day of the bright fortnight (shukla paksha) in the month of Vaishakha – April/May. This year, 2022, it falls on Sunday, 15th May even though Chaturdashi starts in the afternoon of the 14th. So, some people celebrate on 14th.
The story actually starts from the very first yuga (eon) known as Satya Yuga. The sage Kashyapa and his wife Diti had two sons called Hiranyaksha and Hiranyakashipu. Both were demons of the first order and caused destruction to humans and gods alike. At last, the gods approached Lord Vishnu and begged him to come to their help.
Lord Vishnu took on the form of a gigantic boar (Varaha) in order to kill Hiranyaksha. This was Lord Vishnu’s third avatara. Hiranyaksha carried off the earth into the nether regions. Varaha chased Hiranyaksha and had a tremendous fight in which Varaha finally defeated the asura and carried the earth on his tusk and placed her in her rightful position and restored the balance of the universe.
The devas or gods were relieved of one burden but their happiness was short-lived since his brother Hiranyakashipu swore revenge on Lord Vishnu for killing his brother and rapidly followed his brother’s footsteps and created destruction and devastation everywhere.
The devas defended themselves creditably but Hiranyakashipu realised that they were being helped by Lord Vishnu or Narayana and he swore revenge on Vishnu for a double reason. He decided to get divine powers in order to avenge himself on Vishnu and went to the forest to do severe tapas for many years.
Meanwhile Indra, king of the gods, realised that Hiranyakashipu was missing from the scene so he thought this was a perfect opportunity to attack the asura stronghold. He went all out and managed to retrieve all that they had lost.
In the process he destroyed Hiranyakashipu’s capital city and marched to his palace. He found his wife Kayadhu and decided to take her as his prisoner in order to hold her as hostage when Hiranyakashipu returned.
As he was taking her, the great sage Narada arrived on the scene and stopped him from taking her and asked him to give her over to him. Indra agreed, albeit reluctantly. Narada asked Kayadhu where she wanted to go and she disclosed to him that she was pregnant and begged him to give her refuge in his ashrama.
All through her pregnancy Narada used to tell her wonderful stories about the glory of Lord Vishnu. All these stories penetrated into the heart of the baby that was growing in her womb who formed a strong love and devotion to the Lord. In course of time, he became one of the biggest devotees of Narayana.
Meanwhile, the heat generated from Hiranyakashipu’s penance was so intense and powerful that both devas and humans could not bear it any more. Finally the devas went to Brahma and requested him to heed to the prayers of Hiranyakashipu.
Brahma is famous for giving boons to unworthy people so he appeared before Hiranyakashipu and told him to choose whatever boon he wanted. The asura immediately asked for immortality. Brahma told him that this was impossible as it would distort the balance of life on earth. After considering the matter carefully the asura came up with a plan which he thought was fool-proof.
His wish was that he would never be killed by humans, gods or animals. He could not be killed during the day or night nor could he be killed in heaven or earth. He should not be killed with any weapon. He should not be killed either inside or outside the house!
Brahma knew he was asking for trouble but since the asura had done such intense tapas to him he was forced to comply with his atrocious demands. Overjoyed at his victory the demon returned to his kingdom. He was horrified to see the state of his once prosperous country. He marched to heaven and defeated Indra and the other gods and became the ruler of the three worlds. He proclaimed that from now on no one should worship any of the gods. Instead of repeating the mantra “Aum Namo Naraayanaya!” they would have to say “Aum Hiranyakhshaaya Namaha!” There was no other god except the king. Anyone found to be flouting this law was to be punished with death!
As soon as he returned he brought back his wife and son called Prahlada, who he was very proud of. He sent the boy to school and told the teachers to teach him that his father was the only god and he should worship only his father!
After some time he called his son to him and asked him fondly what was the best thing that he had learnt in school. Prahlada immediately said, “The greatest thing I have learnt is to worship Lord Vishnu who alone is the Lord and God of all the three worlds!”
Hiranyakashipu couldn’t believe his ears. He called the teachers and reprimanded them severely. He told them that they would be tortured and dismissed if they did not succeed in changing the boy’s attitude.
After some days the king brought his son back and asked him the same question and received the same reply. Hiranyakashipu was furious and decided that a poisonous thorn had been born in his clan which would eventually destroy the whole clan so it would have to be removed instantly.
He ordered the guards to kill him with their swords but the swords crumbled to pieces with the very first blow and Prahlada remained unharmed.
He then threw him into a snake pit but the cobras refused to bite the child. He loosened an elephant in heat to charge at him but the elephant tossed him away. He even asked his wife to give him a cup of poison which she did with great pain but the child did not turn a hair and drank the poison to the last drop and remained calm.
Now Hiranyakashipu had a sister called Holika who had a boon that fire could not burn her. He made Prahlada sit on her lap and burnt her. But the boy came out unscathed and Holika was burnt to ashes!! This is a yearly event in Bharat which we celebrate on Holi day and is known as Holika Dahan.
Hiranyakashipu now seemed to have run out of ideas to kill his son and told the guards to tie him to a huge pillar and let him starve to death. Prahlada was not put out by this but started loudly chanting the mantra of Vishnu, “Aum Namo Naraayanaya.” He encouraged his classmates to repeat the mantra after him. The children told him not to anger his father unnecessarily.
“Why not obey your father now? One day you will become the king and then you can do what you like!”
Prahlada’s reply is a classic example of piety and truth.
“How do you know that I will live to be king? How do you know that you will become old? Death can overtake us at any time. Therefore, it would be foolish indeed to postpone our spiritual practices to a time when we are old. The time to start is here and now. Therefore, let us all chant the mantra of the Lord.”
So saying all the children started chanting loudly. The sound reached the ears of the infuriated king who took up his sword and ran to the school with sword upraised to kill his son himself.
He came to the pillar and raised his sword and Prahlada looked up fearlessly at him. The king was amazed at the boy’s lack of fear and asked in a thunderous voice, “What is the power that is supporting you that makes you defy me, the emperor of the whole universe?”
The child looked up courageously at him and said, “The same power that is allowing you to flaunt your sword to kill me, is the power that gives me strength to defy you!”
“Where is that power?” Shouted the maddened king.
“He is everywhere,” replied the boy without any fear.
“Is he in this pillar?” shouted the king.
By this time Prahlada was in a state of god consciousness in which he saw only Vishnu everywhere. He could see nothing else. Intoxicated with his devotion, he answered, “Which pillar? I see nothing but Vishnu!”
With a snarl of rage the asura jumped forward and cut the pillar into two. The pillar fell with a horrendous sound and out of it jumped the fearful form of the Lord as Narasimha – half lion, half man.
There followed a tremendous fight between the asura and Narasimha, who was apparently waiting for the time called “sandhya” or twilight which is neither day nor night. This had been one of the boons asked for by the demon that he could not be killed either by day or night!
The deafening roar of the lion gripped all the three worlds in fear. At the precise time he held aloft the struggling asura and took him to the threshold which was neither inside nor outside the house. He placed him on his lap which was neither sky nor earth and killed him by clawing him with his huge, sharp nails! Thus, he had not used any weapon so all the boons that he had asked for had been complied with.
The form of the Lord in this incarnation was so horrific that none of the gods had the courage to approach him. His roars made the worlds tremble and agitated the waves in the oceans. At last the gods asked Prahlada to go and calm him down. The boy was totally unafraid for it is said that he looked only at Narasimha’s feet which still remained the twin lotus petal feet of Lord Vishnu. He stood before the fearful figure with folded palms and extolled him with all devotion until at last, the figure calmed down and bent forward and blessed his devotee for whose sake he had taken this fearful form. There is nothing that the Lord will not do to protect his beloved devotees!
Thus, Prahlada became king and once again dharma ruled the land called Bharat.
On this day of his Jayanti let us invoke Lord Narasimha to come and help us to destroy the evil that is threatening to wipe out our ancient culture.
Aum Nrim Nrim Nrim Narasimhaya Namaha!
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