“O my lord, O best of the givers of benediction, if you will kindly grant me the benediction I desire, please let me not meet death from any of the living entities created by you.” (Hiranyakashipu praying to Lord Brahma, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 7.3.35)
You are in a building which has many floors. You want to get to the top. There is some business to take care of. There are two options. One is to take the stairs. It’s rather straightforward. Climb to the top, step by step. The other is the elevator. This requires practically no effort; just press a few buttons and you’re on your way. The situation can be analogous to spiritual life, especially as it relates to things already available in the material world. The occasion of Holi reminds us how two people, related by blood, chose two very different paths in getting similar abilities.
The first person in this story is Hiranyakashipu. A compound Sanskrit word, the name means “soft cushion and gold.” Hiranyakashipu is both a historical personality and the perfect symbol of the materialistic atheist. He reached such heights that a faithless person wouldn’t believe, but even from the flawed fictional angle the story is worth studying. After all, the place to which he went is still possible in theory. It is the goal of so many who lack an understanding of the spiritual science.
Hiranyakashipu became king of the world. He was the most feared. Even the residents of the heavenly region were afraid to take him on. The battle between good and evil, suras and asuras, has been ongoing since before anyone can remember. Sometimes the good rise to the top, and sometimes, as in the case of Hiranyakashipu, the bad wield a broader influence.
Hiranyakashipu was feared for a reason. He had immunity from death in so many different situations. Naturally, he wanted immortality itself. But that wasn’t possible, so he opted for ninety-nine percent immortality. The wise realize the flaw right away. Just one percent vulnerability is enough for all-devouring time, in the form of death, to strike successfully.
Hiranyakashipu didn’t reach his coveted position by himself. He needed the help of the great benefactor, Lord Brahma. Brahma is the equivalent of the origin of all species. He is the first living entity. Since he doesn’t have a typical mother and father, he is also known as the self-create, Svayambhu. Brahma uses the three modes of material nature as ingredients and then gets to work on creating a variety of body types. The combination of these body types and the injection of individual spirit results in up to 8,400,000 different species.
Hiranyakashipu asked Brahma for immortality. Since Brahma himself must die one day, the benediction wasn’t available. So the king asked for great power. He asked for safety from different kinds of weapons, creatures, and physical situations. Pleased with Hiranyakashipu’s great austerities, Brahma obliged.
The other person in this tale is quite small in comparison to Hiranyakashipu. Ironically, he is the king’s son. Named Prahlada, he didn’t ask for world domination. He wasn’t even interested in following in the father’s footsteps. The boy had a spontaneous and loving attachment to God the person. Prahlada was devoted to Vishnu. If you could put a name on his mindset and practice, it would be bhakti. This is love and devotion, and combined with the term “yoga” it becomes devotional service.
Here you had Hiranyakashipu, with his ninety-nine percent immunity. The protection was from against other people wanting to take over his post. You also had this innocent five-year old boy, not bothering anyone. Who would have predicted that the father would turn into a violent aggressor against the son?
But that is precisely what happened. Hiranyakashipu couldn’t tolerate worship of Vishnu in his home. Vishnu is the person from whom Brahma emerged. Vishnu is the equivalent of God the person. The Supreme Lord is so disengaged from material affairs that he deputes Brahma to take care of creating. Vishnu expands Himself to effortlessly maintain, and then Lord Shiva does the destroying at the appropriate time. The three phases continue in cycles, corresponding with the infinite nature of time.
Hiranyakashipu worked hard to get full safety. Prahlada didn’t. So when the king decided to have the boy killed, one would think the outcome was assured. Oh, but frustration there would be. Prahlada apparently couldn’t be killed. Hiranyakashipu had to resort to a variety of measures precisely because each one failed.
The occasion of Holi commemorates one of those attempts. Hiranyakashipu had his sister Holika take the young Prahlada with her into a fire. Holika had this mystic power that enabled her to withstand fire. What the perpetrators failed to appreciate was the power of the Divine, and especially His mercy to the devotees.
The outcome was that Prahlada survived and Holika did not. The father had worked so hard to get immunity from different kinds of weapons. He had performed great austerities and then specifically asked for the benedictions from Brahma. Prahlada had done no such things. And yet the boy was able to survive fire, snakes, stampeding elephants, and even a fall off a cliff.
“But those who worship Me with devotion, meditating on My transcendental form – to them I carry what they lack and preserve what they have.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 9.22)
Bhakti-yoga is the supreme occupation for mankind. It is something like taking the elevator to the top. The staircase method of performing this ritual and that not only takes longer, but also carries risk of descent at any point along the way. Hiranyakashipu never bothered to think about his benefactor’s benefactor. He didn’t consider that his immunity wouldn’t last forever. He didn’t dig deeper into how his son was able to be just as powerful without even desiring it. This is the magic of God the person. He provides to the devotees what they lack, and preserves what they have.
After austerities a difficult task,
From Brahma benedictions to ask.
Immortality to king not coming,
But sought world’s leader becoming.
Hiranyakashipu surprised to find,
Son strong just from steady mind.
But Prahlada not directly striving,
Through Vishnu deadly fire surviving.