“Hiranyakashipu thought: I have used many ill names in chastising this boy Prahlada and have devised many means of killing him, but despite all my endeavors, he could not be killed. Indeed, he saved himself by his own powers, without being affected in the least by these treacherous and abominable actions.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 7.5.45)
eṣa me bahv-asādhūkto
vadhopāyāś ca nirmitāḥ
tais tair drohair asad-dharmair
muktaḥ svenaiva tejasā
Was he like a Houdini of ancient times? Did he have some secret magical powers that no one knew about? Had he inoculated himself beforehand? Did he know something everyone else didn’t? Might have he been older than he looked? A boy who had been in the world for a mere five years, from the beginning it looked like he didn’t stand a chance. Taken into a pit of fire by the witch-like sister of the king, Prahlada should have perished easily. Instead, it was the sister who burned to ashes. Those ashes of various colors, symbolizing Prahlada’s victory, have since been thrown about in joy annually on the occasion of Holi.
The father was named Hiranyakashipu. This compound Sanskrit word consists of terms that mean “soft cushion” and “gold.” Both are highly coveted in a material existence. Gold stands the test of time. It always has some value. You may have amassed a large amount of paper currency in the bank, but overnight the value of that currency can drop by a large value. On the other hand, someone will always want your gold.
A soft cushion is similarly valuable. The animalistic activities are eating, mating and defending. The fourth is sleeping. After you have eaten nicely and enjoyed with the opposite sex, you still have to defend what you have going forward. If everything is taken care of, you need to rest nicely in order to repeat the enjoyment the following day, and so on.
Hiranyakashipu had these four things in good quality. He thought he gained everything through his own effort. It’s not that he went to the gym every day and worked to create a genius military strategy for defense. Rather, he worshiped the higher powers nicely, who were obliged to grant him most of the things that he wanted.
There was one problem, though. It should have been a minor nuisance, but it actually went against the very essence of the king. Hiranyakashipu had a son named Prahlada, and the boy did not want to follow in the father’s footsteps. He did not want to enjoy like an animal throughout life. Rather, at five years of age he already had a genuine spirit of renunciation. He was so wise that he would discourse on the highest philosophical subjects to his classmates.
In Hiranyakashipu’s mind, Prahlada had to be killed. The issue was that the boy was apparently invincible. The king employed so many unspeakable methods to end the life of his innocent son, yet none of them worked. One incident involved taking Prahlada into a pit of fire. Holika was the sister of the king, and she had some mystic ability that allowed her to be immune from fire. Prahlada seemed to counteract that ability. Holika perished in the fire instead of Prahlada.
Hiranyakashipu saw Prahlada surviving with his own eyes, and yet he couldn’t understand it. He thought Prahlada had some special potency, tejasa, that was allowing him to survive. The king saw the colored ashes of his sister right before him. He saw Prahlada continuing to live. Yet visual evidence was not everything, as he failed to properly recognize what was going on.
That tejasa was not the exclusive property of Prahlada. The same tejasa is inside of everyone, and it comes from the Divine Himself. The reason Holika was not saved by the same potency is that she did not explicitly seek the favor of the Divine. God is neutral in His position as the Supersoul within the heart. The Supersoul broke from neutrality for Prahlada since the boy was a devotee. Prahlada did not even directly ask for help. He simply engaged in vishno-smaranam, or remembrance of God the person.
On the occasion of Holi we remember how the tejasa of the Supreme Lord allowed for the apparent miracles with Prahlada. The boy could see the Divine everywhere, as he had the spiritual vision. He saw God even in his father, who was a staunch atheist. When the Supreme Lord later appeared in the flesh as Narasimhadeva, Prahlada was not afraid of the ferocious form, offering it a flower garland out of kindness. Hiranyakashipu, on the other hand, saw God in the only way he would understand: death personified.
By Prahlada with garland glorified,
For Hiranyakashipu death personified.
After the boy by Holika into fire taken,
Ordered by father of all decency forsaken.
But Prahlada remaining alive the one,
A pure devotee, having personal desires none.
Though king witnessing directly firsthand,
Still power of the Divine not to understand.