“Lord Shiva said: The end of the millennium is the time for Your anger. Now that this insignificant demon Hiranyakashipu has been killed, O my Lord, who are naturally affectionate to Your devotee, kindly protect his son Prahlada Maharaja, who is standing nearby as Your fully surrendered devotee.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 7.8.41)
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There is one cause which is responsible for all causes. Each of us has a vital force inside us, but there is one vital force that is the source of all energy. This single dominating force is known as ishvara parama, or the Supreme Controller, and everything rests upon Him. Just as the laws of gravity operate on all objects without any prejudice, this dominating force applies to every living entity. Though most of us refer to this supreme divine entity as God, the Vedas give us much more descriptive names for the Supreme Absolute Truth. This Supreme Lord, who possesses innumerable transcendental qualities, kindly appears in front of our eyes from time to time in various shapes. One such famous appearance occurred many millions of years ago. Narasimha-chaturdashi marks the anniversary of when God came to earth in the form of a half-man/half-lion to kill the demon Hiranyakashipu. Since God’s form was a mixture of a lion (simha) and a man (nara), this specific avatara is known as Narasimhadeva, and He holds a special place in the hearts of devotees around the world.
When the Lord comes to earth to enact pastimes, it is a significant occasion. This is because God doesn’t choose to personally appear before us all the time. Most of the good and bad results of our actions are distributed by the demigods, elevated living entities who are given extraordinary powers by God Himself. Karma relates to fruitive activity, or any action taken which further develops the material body, or the outer covering of the soul. In this regard, nothing can really be good or bad as it relates to karma. We may take something to be beneficial to us, but to someone else, the same result can be deemed harmful. Thus the Supreme Lord doesn’t take a personal interest in karma-phalam, or the results of fruitive activity.
Most of us can understand how karma works. You perform a good deed and you will be duly rewarded. You perform a sinful act and you will be punished in the future. It’s interesting to see just how these results manifest. For example, the severity of the negative consequences that come about is commensurate with the severity of the crime committed. Though most followers of the Vedic tradition are vegetarians, there are still some who engage in meat eating. For such people, who are in the mode of ignorance, the Vedas provide a system whereby meat eating is sanctioned with the hopes of allowing the ignorant to further progress in spiritual understanding. When an animal is killed in one of these sanctioned sacrifices, the mantra recited within the ear of the animal goes something like this, “I’m killing you now so that I can eat your meat. You now have sanction to kill me in the same manner in a future life.” Hence, we see the concept of an eye for an eye. What goes around comes around.
For extraordinary cases, God Himself intervenes. These cases don’t involve karma, for as we already mentioned, the demigods take care of distributing the results of fruitive activity. What other type of work is there? Since karma relates to actions which lead to the development of the material body, there is another higher discipline which leads to the development of the spiritual body. The soul is pure, unchangeable, and unbreakable, thus it can never really develop. It can evolve, however, in the sense of where it chooses to reside. We are currently in a conditioned state, meaning our soul is covered by a material dress. This dress is composed of matter, an inferior energy, and thus it constantly goes through changes. We can get a spiritual body, though, if we choose to. In order to develop a permanent spiritual body, we must take up a discipline which is above karma.
Bhakti yoga, or the linking of the soul with God through works of love and devotion, is commonly referred to as devotional service. How does this activity differ from karma? On the surface, the specific actions may not look all that different, but the mindset of the performer is where the discrepancy lies. For example, we may walk around all day singing our favorite songs in our head, but the purpose of this activity is to provide pleasure to our mind and senses. Another person can be singing, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, and have a completely different mindset. Krishna is the original name for God, the same God that all of us worship. Rama is also one of His names, and Hare refers to His energy in the form of His pleasure potency expansions. Thus chanting Hare Krishna is our way of asking God to always allow us to serve Him in an uninterrupted and unmotivated manner. Hence we see there is a gulf of difference between ordinary singing and singing God’s names.
Devotional service actually consists of nine distinct processes, which have been outlined by the great devotee Prahlada Maharaja. Many many moons ago, there was a devotee born in a family of demons. The Vedas give us the lineage of the first few generations of mankind and also of other important species. There was a race of demons known as Daityas, so named because they were born from a woman named Diti. The Daityas inherited demonic qualities at the time of birth, and thus they were enemies of the devotees. Prahlada Maharaja, though taking birth as the son of a Daitya, had the qualities of a devotee. At the time, a great demon by the name of Hiranyakashipu, the eldest son of Diti, was terrorizing the world. He was well acquainted with the principles of dharma, artha, and kama. Yet he was still a demon, meaning he only wanted religiosity, economic development, and sense gratification for his own pleasure. This shows that there are varying degrees of dharma, or religiosity, and that not all dharmas are the same.
Prahlada, though a son of Hiranyakashipu, was a devotee of Lord Krishna from the time of his birth. This is because while he was still in the womb of his mother, Prahlada heard spiritual topics relating to Lord Krishna from the venerable Narada Muni. Thus the boy, though genetically predisposed to demoniac qualities, was born a devotee. As any good father would do, Hiranyakashipu sent his son Prahlada to school to get a good education. Hiranyakashipu was a king, so naturally he wanted Prahlada to succeed him on the throne one day. In order to be a good king, one must be well educated on matters pertaining to politics, religion, diplomacy, war, and economics. Prahlada, however, had no interest in these topics. He listened attentively to his teachers, but the boy still kept his mind always fixed on the lotus feet of the Supreme Lord.
One day when Prahlada came home from school, Hiranyakashipu affectionately took him on his lap and asked his beloved son what he had learned. To his surprise, Hiranyakashipu heard all about the greatness of Lord Vishnu from Prahlada. Hiranyakashipu viewed Lord Vishnu, who is the same as Lord Krishna, as his devout enemy. Hiranyakashipu wanted to rule the world after all, so he viewed anyone more powerful than himself as an impediment to reaching that goal. Now, to hear his son extolling the virtues of his enemy was too much for the demon to bear. Immediately Hiranyakashipu chastised Prahlada’s teachers and asked them who had taught his son these things.
The teachers were taken aback, for they hadn’t taught Prahlada anything about Lord Vishnu. This one fact illustrates the difference between a brahmana and a Vaishnava. A brahmana is a priest who is supposed to know Brahman, or the all-pervading impersonal effulgence which contains all things matter and spirit. But just because someone knows Brahman, it doesn’t mean that they know Krishna. Though technically there is no difference between Brahman and God, one who remains stuck on the Brahman platform has an inferior angle of vision compared to someone who knows and loves Krishna. That is because Krishna is God’s original form as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the cause of all causes, including Brahman.
Though repeatedly urged by his father to give up this devotion, Prahlada wouldn’t budge. Thus Hiranyakashipu decided to have his son killed. He ordered his ministers to kill Prahlada, but the boy seemed to be indestructible. The demon’s attendants tried all sorts of different ways to get rid of the young child. The boy was thrown in a pit of fire, hurled off the top of a mountain, thrown in the water, etc. So many different torture methods were tried by the demons, but Prahlada was saved every time just by thinking of Krishna. Finally relenting, Hiranyakashipu allowed Prahlada to go back to school. “If he stays in school, maybe these teachers can finally get through to him.” During recess, Prahlada would instruct his fellow classmates on the glories of Lord Vishnu. As a five year old boy, Prahlada was acting as an exemplary spiritual master, giving his classmates the education they were missing out on. Since Prahlada was a Vaishnava, or devotee of Vishnu, he automatically acquired all the knowledge and qualities possessed by a brahmana.
Finally Hiranyakashipu had enough. According to the demon’s estimation, no one was able to kill his son, nor was he getting the proper education. Hiranyakashipu decided it was time to personally kill his son. Before going through with the act, Hiranyakashipu threatened Prahlada. Seeing that his son wasn’t afraid in the least bit, Hiranyakashipu wanted to know what the source of Prahlada’s strength was. After all, Hiranyakashipu’s powers came as a result of performing great austerities and receiving benedictions from the demigods. He knew that Prahlada had not gone through such trials and tribulations and thus his power remained a mystery to the demon. Prahlada responded by telling his father that the source of every person’s strength is the same: God. The Supreme Lord gives each of us the power to act; He is the original purusha responsible for each person’s controlling power.
Hiranyakashipu was getting sick of hearing about Vishnu. He jokingly asked his son that if this Vishnu person was everywhere, was he in the column that was next to them? Hiranyakashipu then punched the column with his hand out of anger. To the surprise of the demon, a huge sound resulted. A terrific form, never before seen, immediately came out of the column. This being resembled a man and a lion, and its arms were spread in all directions. This form, which was Lord Krishna’s Narasimhadeva avatara, went on the rampage, killing Hiranyakashipu’s associates. Then Narasimhadeva snatched Hiranyakashipu and started punishing the demon. After Hiranyakashipu wailed and moaned, Narasimhadeva let him go. The demigods, who were watching from above, then became afraid since the demon was able to get away. If Narasimhadeva couldn’t kill the demon, then who could? Not to worry though, as Krishna was just toying with Hiranyakashipu. Finally, Narasimhadeva took the demon on His lap and bifurcated him with His claws. Hiranyakashipu was dead, and Prahlada was now safe.
“As a snake captures a mouse or Garuda captures a very venomous snake, Lord Narasimhadeva captured Hiranyakashipu, who could not be pierced even by the thunderbolt of King Indra. As Hiranyakashipu moved his limbs here, there and all around, very much afflicted at being captured, Lord Narasimhadeva placed the demon on His lap, supporting him with His thighs, and in the doorway of the assembly hall the Lord very easily tore the demon to pieces with the nails of His hand.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 7.8.29)
The lessons we can take away from this incident are too many to count. That is the greatness of God, for we can discuss His activities from now until the end of time and still never run out of points of interest to ponder over. From the descriptions of this incident found in the Shrimad Bhagavatam, one can’t help but notice the gruesome manner in which Hiranyakashipu was killed. There are several animated movies that have been made about Prahlada’s life. These movies are obviously intended for all audiences, thus the violence is kept to a minimum. But if we were to accurately portray Hiranyakashipu’s killing in cinema, the movie would be too gruesome for even an R rating. This shows just how merciless the Supreme Lord can be if He gets angry.
God is actually quite nice. Though He is neutral towards all living entities, He takes a special interest in the lives of the devotees. In a nutshell, He takes care of His friends. At the same time, those who do harm to His friends will be punished in the worst possible way. Hiranyakashipu tried to kill his son in so many awful ways, so the Lord returned the favor by showing him just how painful death could be. The circumstances of Hiranyakashipu’s death were no accident either. Many years prior, the demon had pleased Lord Brahma by performing great austerities. Of course the primary concern for any demon is immortality, so that was the first thing Hiranyakashipu asked from Lord Brahma. Brahma could not grant this wish. Not even Brahma is immortal so how could he grant such a benediction to someone else? Not being satisfied with this, Hiranyakashipu asked for other benedictions that would make him immune from so many different forms of attack. He couldn’t be killed at night or in the day, neither in the sky nor on land, nor by any weapon, etc. Being granted so many boons by Brahma, Hiranyakashipu thought he had tricked the great-father into granting him immortality anyway. Hiranyakashipu thought he had all his bases covered, and that there was no way anyone could kill him.
God, however, is smarter than everyone else. The Supreme Lord never likes to make Brahma look like a liar, so He made sure to keep all of Hiranyakashipu’s boons intact. Thus the Lord appeared as a half man/half-lion, killing Hiranyakashipu on his lap, using his nails. Thus no human being or entity (living or nonliving) caused his death, nor did the demon die on sea or on land, nor by any weapon. After this incident, Prahlada Maharaja offered some wonderful prayers to pacify the Supreme Lord. The great devotee was then handed the reins of the kingdom.
This incident has been celebrated ever since that time by the devotees of Lord Vishnu. Krishna’s most recent incarnation to appear on earth, Lord Chaitanya, was especially fond of the Narasimha avatara. When He would visit the temple of Lord Jagannatha, Lord Chaitanya would pass the deity of Lord Narasimhadeva while climbing up the steps toward the temple. Lord Chaitanya would offer obeissances to Lord Narasimhadeva by reciting specific prayers found in the Narasimha Purana. These prayers are now sung daily in Vaishnava temples around the world.
“Lord Narasimhadeva is here, and He is also there on the opposite side. Wherever I go, there I see Lord Narasimhadeva. He is outside and within My heart. Therefore I take shelter of Lord Narasimhadeva, the original Supreme Personality of Godhead.” (Narasimha Purana)
Narasimhadeva holds a special place in the hearts of devotees due to His causeless mercy and His ability to provide unflinching protection against the attacks of enemies. There is another famous set of prayers, known as the Narasimha-kavacha-stotram, found in the Brahmanda Purana, which was spoken by Prahlada Maharaja. Those who pray to Lord Narasimhadeva regularly, reciting these prayers with great faith and devotion, will be protected from all the demoniac elements of this world. May Lord Narasimhadeva always protect us and may we always follow in the footsteps of the great Bhakta Prahlada.