“Daityas, as truly as Vishnu is present in your weapons and in my body, so truly shall those weapons fail to harm me.” (Prahlada Maharaja speaking to Hiranyakashipu’s attendants, Vishnu Purana)
Holi is one of the most famous Hindu festivals celebrated each year. Known for its festive atmosphere, the playful throwing of colors on friends and family members, and singing and dancing, the holiday has its origin in religion and faith in God. Holi is named after the demon and sister of Hiranyakashipu, Holika. The annual occasion of Holi celebrates the thwarting of Holika’s attempt at killing Hiranyakashipu’s son, Prahlada.
Hiranyakashipu was a Daitya, or demon or asura, who ruled the earth millions of years ago. The Vedas provide a detailed lineage of man starting at the beginning of creation. There were two famous sisters, Diti and Aditi. The sons of Aditi became known as the Adityas, and they were all pious and devoted souls. The sons of Diti became known as the Daityas, and they were all demons by nature. Hiranyakashipu was a Daitya, and a committed atheist. Similar to the Rakshasa demon, Ravana, Hiranyakashipu performed great austerities for pleasing the demigods. They granted him several power augmenting boons and immunity from all sorts of enemies. Hiranyakashipu used these boons to terrorize the innocent, including the demigods. The demigods were so afraid of him that they would assume the guise of human beings and other species and then roam the earth incognito in hopes of avoiding Hiranyakashipu’s wrath.
The Vedas tell us that there is only one God, Lord Krishna, ishvara parama krishna. The demigods, or devatas, are highly elevated living entities who manage various departments of the material creation. Essentially, the demigods are very powerful and one is advised to approach them if they are in need of any material benediction. Just seeing that the demigods were running around in fear is indication enough of just how powerful Hiranyakashipu was. The demon was ruling over his kingdom when he had a son, whom he named Prahlada. The boy was the son of a Daitya, so Hiranyakashipu assumed that the child would worship him as his foremost deity. The Vedas tell us that the parents are the initial objects of worship for human beings, for the parents provide support and guidance during the early years of our life. Prahlada was certainly devoted to his father, but more so towards Lord Vishnu. Lord Krishna is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and His primary expansion is that of Lord Vishnu. Krishna has two hands and Vishnu has four hands, but other than that, there aren’t really any differences between the two forms. When discussing matters of devotion to God and the origin of man, the names of Krishna and Vishnu are interchangeable.
“Narada Muni delivered his instructions both to me, who was within the womb, and to my mother, who was engaged in rendering him service. Because he is naturally extremely kind to the fallen souls, being in a transcendental position, he gave instructions on religion and transcendental knowledge. These instructions were free from all material contamination.” (Prahlada Maharaja speaking to his classmates, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 7.7.15)
Prahlada was born a devotee due to the grace of Narada Muni. When Hiranyakashipu’s wife was pregnant, Narada came and taught her about devotion to Krishna. The child in the womb, Prahlada, heard all this information and remembered it upon taking birth. This one fact alone teaches us so much. For expecting mothers, the best way to take care of the child in the womb is to listen to Krishna-katha, or talks or discourses about God. This will ensure that the child will grow up to be a devotee. If one is completely devoted to Krishna in this life, they will never have to suffer through birth and death again. In this way the mother can be an instrument of liberation. One of Lord Krishna’s names is Mukunda, meaning one who grants mukti, or liberation. The Vedas tell us that the soul is eternal, but that the body is not. Once the soul departs the body, it must continue to take repeated births for as long as it has material desires. Lord Krishna is the giver of mukti because only by thinking of Him at the time of death can we free ourselves from having to take birth again. By imbibing Krishna consciousness to the child while in the womb, the mother can jumpstart this liberation process.
As a child of only five years of age, Prahlada attended the gurukula, or school run by the spiritual master. When Prahlada would come home after school, Hiranyakashipu would ask his son what he learned. “Oh father, I learned that the supreme controller of all is Lord Vishnu. He is the greatest person of all, for everything in this world, both matter and spirit, emanate from him.” Hiranyakashipu became outraged after hearing this. He was a demon after all, so he didn’t believe in a God. He thought that through fruitive activity and the performance of austerities that he himself had become the most powerful person in the world. He demanded that his son worship him instead of this Vishnu person. Prahlada kindly replied, “Oh father, there is no need to be angry. Lord Vishnu is inside of everyone, meaning He is inside of you as well. He is the benefactor of all creatures, so there is no reason to hold a grudge against Him.”
“My dear friends, if you can place your faith in my words, simply by that faith you can also understand transcendental knowledge, just like me, although you are small children. Similarly, a woman can also understand transcendental knowledge and know what is spirit and what is matter.” (Prahlada Maharaja, SB 7.7.17)
Hiranyakashipu couldn’t stand to hear this so he chewed out Prahlada’s guru. The guru answered, “Oh demon, this boy hasn’t learned these things from me. I haven’t taught him anything relating to Vishnu, just those things necessary for running a kingdom.” Prahlada went back to school but refused to change his ways. During recess, he lectured his classmates on the fleeting nature of material happiness, and how one can find true eternal bliss. “Lord Vishnu is the creator. Pleasing the senses only serves as temporary happiness, thus it is essentially useless. If we please the cause of all causes, we can gain liberation, meaning we will never have to suffer through this miserable existence in the material world.” Again Hiranyakashipu questioned Prahlada as to what he had learned and again the boy replied, “Oh best of the asuras, know that Lord Vishnu is the greatest and that we should all be devoted to Him if we want to make our lives perfect.” Prahlada was very keen, for he underhandedly insulted his father by calling him the best of the asuras. Demons loved to be praised, so Hiranyakashipu didn’t understand that Prahlada was insulting him by calling him an asura, which is a demon or non-devotee. Not only that, but Prahlada referred to him as the greatest demon.
Hiranyakashipu decided to kill his son instead of hearing him praise Lord Vishnu. The best of the asuras was also worried that Prahlada would soon convince others to take up devotional service. This is the real reason the demons take to harassing the devotees. They simply don’t like the fact that people worship God instead of them. All the oppressive governments of the world, past and present, operated on this principle. Hiranyakashipu tried every which way to kill his son, but none of them worked. He instructed his agents to attack his son with weapons, but as Prahlada mentions in the above referenced quote, none of those weapons could hurt him. Hiranyakashipu didn’t give up, however. Prahlada was thrown off the cliff of a mountain, bitten by serpents, and thrown to the bottom of the river. Yet the boy survived all these attempts simply by focusing his mind on Lord Vishnu. While lying on the floor of the ocean, Prahlada was bound up and covered by rocks, yet simply by thinking of Lord Vishnu residing within the heart, Prahlada became one with God, in a sense. This is the power of devotion. Devotees understand that God is both one with and separate from the living entity. God is one with all of us in that He resides within our heart, right next to our soul. Perfection in life can be achieved by connecting with this feature of God, known as the Paramatma, or Supersoul. At the same time, Bhagavan is the source of the Supersoul, thus the living entities always remain subordinate. After connecting with the Supersoul, Prahlada felt liberated while remaining in his own body. He was easily able to break free of his shackles and rise to the surface of the water. In these ways, Prahlada always survived simply through the grace of God.
Holi celebrates one particular miracle relating to Prahlada’s life. Hiranyakashipu had a sister named Holika, who had a special power that granted her immunity from the effects of fire. Hiranyakashipu thought this presented a great opportunity to finally be able to kill Prahlada. He decided to send Holika into a blazing fire while holding Prahlada in her lap. The result would be predictable enough: Holika would survive and Prahlada would die. Of course just the opposite happened. Prahlada kept his mind fixed on the lotus feet of Lord Vishnu, and instead it was Holika who was burned to ashes. This event has been celebrated ever since as Holi.
Prahlada Maharaja was a great devotee who authored a number of insightful prayers to Lord Vishnu, who appeared in front of him in His half-man/half-lion form of Narasimha Deva. We can learn a lot from this young child. He continues to be an object of worship to this day and a great authority on bhakti-yoga, or devotional service to Lord Krishna. The lesson is that we should remember God at all times, from our childhood all the way up until the time of death. God exists within us as the Supersoul and without as the spiritual master. These two things, working together, can deliver us perfection in life. Anyone who remembers Prahlada Maharaja and his teachings will surely attain eternal devotion to Lord Krishna.