|Lakshmi Narasimha monolothic statue at Hampi|
Good and evil are two sides of the same coin – they are brothers, who look opposite ways. Such were the Devas and Asuras too. Kashyapa was a great sage – he was one among the Saptarishis (the seven greatest rishis or sages of all time). He had two wives – Aditi and Diti, both daughters of Daksha Prajapati. Through Aditi, he begot the Devas – the Gods, and through Diti, he was father of the Asuras – the demons. This is the story of one of his sons – Hiranyakashipu.
Hiranyaksha and Hiranyakashipu were both sons of Kashyapa, strong and valiant. They grew to be powerful, and as their power grew, so did their ego. Hiranyaksha’s ego and thirst for power led to a fight with Lord Vishnu, and he was finally killed by the Lord in his incarnation as Varaha – the boar.
The death of Hiranyaksha was a huge blow to Hiranyakashipu, but it did not subdue his desires or his thirst for power. He decided to avenge the death of his brother by growing even more powerful than Lord Vishnu himself. He was most afraid of death, and did not want to be killed by Vishnu, so he started meditating on Lord Brahma, the creator of the Universe. He knew that if he managed to please him with his devotion, the Lord would grant him his desire. Accordingly, when Brahma appeared before him, he asked for immortality. The creator shook his head sadly, and replied that if one was born as a mortal, he was doomed to die, and that even He couldn’t grant immortality to anyone. Hiranyakashipu then thought of the means by which he could evade death, and asked for death under conditions which he thought impossible to achieve!
He said, “If I should die, it should be at the hands of one who is neither man nor God, demon nor animal. I should die at a time when it is neither night nor day. The place where I die should neither be inside nor outside, not on earth or the sky. I should be killed by no weapons.” Further, he asked that he should rule over the whole world, and have dominance even over the Gods! Lord Brahma shook his head sadly at all these conditions, but he had been invoked by the power of Hiranyakashipu’s penance, and had no choice but to accede. He blessed the demon, and disappeared.
Believing himself to be immortal and all-powerful with his boons, Hiranyakashipu now turned his sight towards becoming more powerful than Lord Vishnu. He ordered that no one in his kingdom should even utter the name of the Gods. He declared that he himself was the only God – the Lord of the Universe - and that everyone should pray to him alone. He unleashed a reign of terror, wherein anyone who disagreed with him was immediately imprisoned, or worse, put to death.
Meanwhile, Indra, the king of the gods, was worried. He foresaw a time when the demon king would rule the gods, and tried to prevent it. While Hiranyakashipu was still deep in meditation, he kidnapped his queen, who was pregnant with her first child! The divine sage Narada, however, intervened, and reminding Indra that his conduct was not appropriate, took the queen to the safety of his ashram. She lived there till Hiranyakashipu returned, spending the time in the sanctity of the ashram, listening to the discourses and discussions of the learned sages. While she was a simple soul, who simply heard the discussions without really absorbing anything, the unborn child in her womb lapped up every word, growing not just bigger, but wiser with every month that passed. By the time Hiranyakashipu returned and took his wife back, his unborn son was already as great a devotee of Lord Vishnu as his father was His antagonist!
While Hiranyakashipu quelled the masses and prohibited even thought of the gods amongst his people, he did not even notice that his own son uttered no name but that of the Lord! Meanwhile, the child, within the confines of the palace, grew to be a young boy, with the name ‘Prahalada’, and was soon sent to the Gurukul for furthering his studies.
Hiranyakashipu first learnt about his son’s devotion to Vishnu from the teachers at the gurukul, who reported this to their king, shaking with fear! Of course, Hiranyakashipu’s first instinct was to blame the teachers, and he lost no time in changing them, but finally came to realize that his son, and not the teachers were at fault. He summoned his son to the court, and urged him to forget the name of Vishnu, and instead recite his, the king’s name, which Prahalada refused with a smile, saying “There is no name more sacred than that of Lord Vishnu!”
When neither gentle urgings, nor threats worked, Hiranyakashipu’s anger came to the fore, and he ordered the little boy confined to a dungeon without food or water. Prahalada retired to the dungeon with a smile on his innocent face, and simply chanted the name of the Lord, who appeared to feed his youngest devotee with love and affection. When the dungeon was opened after a week, with wailing women expecting to see his corpse, they were stunned to see the little boy happily playing by himself, appearing to be well fed and at ease in the cold and clammy dungeon!
It was now a matter of pride for the King to punish his errant son, and he ordered him to be crushed under the feet of the royal elephant. The elephant, which had been riled and angry, came forward to crush the child tied down to the earth, but surprised the throng by bowing before the boy and refusing to move another step! When ordered thrown from the highest peak in the kingdom, the child emerged without a scratch, and when seated in fire with his aunt, who was immune to fire, it was she who was burnt to ashes, while he came out unscathed!
Such events only succeeded in an unprecedented interest among the people, who were curious about what their cruel king would do next. Hiranyakashipu was lost for ideas, and angry beyond compare, and in a final attempt to settle the issue once and for all, had the child brought to court, where, in the presence of not just his court, but almost the entire kingdom, challenged him to prove that Lord Vishnu was indeed stronger and more powerful than him!
Prahalada, even at that young age, was more learned than the wise men at the court, and answered every question in a calm and precise manner, goading his father to losing what little control he had left. At last, the king roared, “Where then, does this Lord of yours reside?” Prahalada answered, “He is everywhere, in every single thing – animate and inanimate.” Hiranyakashipu sneered, “Oh, he is everywhere, is he? Is he, then, present in this pillar?” “Yes, he is” replied Prahalada, as calm as ever. “Let’s see, shall we?” said Hiranyakashipu, as he struck the pillar, breaking it into two.
The silence in the hall was eerie, as for a moment, nothing seemed to happen. Then, from the wreck of the pillar emerged a creature such as none had seen before – it had the head of a lion, which was roaring in anger, and the body of the human, but was built as no common human was built. While the arms were human, the claws were not, and they glinted as the creature lifted the huge Hiranyakashipu as easily as if he had been a sack of potatoes!
Not one in the court could utter a word, but they all looked on, fascinated and terrified, as the creature hefted Hiranyakashipu and carried him to the doorstep. Sitting on the doorstep, which was neither inside nor outside, the creature placed the demon on his lap (which was neither the earth nor the sky) and with his claws, (which were no weapons), easily tore the demon open, putting an end to his life forever!
Thus did the Lord put an end to the asura, taking a form such as none had seen before, to comply with the terms the demon himself had laid for his death. But his form was still so threatening, so fearful, that no one even dared to approach him, even after Hiranyakashipu had been killed. It was left to Prahalada – the greatest of His devotees – who had called out to him, to calm the Lord down, which he did, singing his praises in his sweet, childish voice. It was then that the Lord calmed down and smiled, and Lakshmi came down to take her place by the side of the Lord as he anointed Prahalada as the future king, and blessed him to live a happy and fruitful life.
And that is the story of the fourth avatar or incarnation of Lord Vishnu – Narasimha – the man-lion.