One of th e most aweinspiring of Lord Krishna’s forms is Sri Nrsimhadeva, His half-man, half-lion incarnation. Lord Nrsimha descended to protect His devotee Sri Prahlada Maharaja from the atheistic king Hiranyakasipu, Prahlada’s father.
The Boy Saint Prahlada
Sri Prahlada Maharaja was a devotee of Lord Krishna from birth, having acquired knowledge of devotional service in the womb. Once, during the absence of Hiranyakasipu, his enemies the demigods, servants of the Supreme Lord responsible for universal management, kidnapped his wife to kill her embryo. They feared that the embryo might later develop into another terrible enemy. Srila Narada Muni rescued the mother and child after convincing the demigods that the boy to be born was an exalted devotee of Lord Krishna. [See sidebar “Why Prahlada Became Hiranyakasipu’s Son.”]
While still in the womb during his mother’s stay at Narada Muni’s ashram, Prahlada overheard Narada’s transcendental discussions on the glories of the Lord and became fearless, fully surrendered to the infallible shelter of Lord Krishna. Later, though only a child of five years, he had firm faith in the Lord’s protection and invoked this same pure devotion to the Lord in the hearts of his schoolmates at the atheistic school of Sukracarya, the guru of the daityas, or atheistic descendents of Diti. Enraged at his son’s undeviating devotion to his worst enemyLord Visnu, the four-handed form of Lord Krishna Hiranyakasipu sentenced Prahlada to death. Hiranyakasipu’s henchmen tried everything to kill Prahlada. He was starved, poisoned, cursed by spells, beaten by fiends, stomped by elephants, encaged among virulent pythons, hurled from mountain peaks, and attacked with stones, fires, and blizzards. Despite all Hiranyakasipu’s attempts, Prahlada remained untouched, and the evil king’s anger grew.
Hiranyakasipu’s Plans to Become God
Hiranyakasipu’s enmity toward Lord Visnu had begun when the Lord in His form as a giant boar had slain Hiranyakasipu’s twin brother, Hiranyaksa, who had upset the earth’s equilibrium by greedily mining for gold. Upon the death of his brother, Hiranyakasipu had charged Lord Visnu with partiality toward the demigods: “The Supreme Personality of Godhead has given up His natural tendency of equality toward the demons and demigods. Although He is the Supreme Person, now, influenced by maya [illusion], He has assumed the form of a boar to please His devotees, the demigods, just as a restless child leans toward someone.”
Factually the Lord is never partial to anyone: samo ’ham sarvabhütesu na me dvesyo ’sti na priya? (Bhagavad-gita 9.29). He simply reciprocates with every living entity in accordance with the living entities’ desires. Lord Sri Krishna instructs in the Bhagavad-gita (4.11):
ye yatha mam prapadyante
tams tathaiva bhajamy aham
manusyam partha sarvasa
tams tathaiva bhajamy aham
manusyam partha sarvasa
“As all surrender unto Me, I reward them accordingly. Everyone follows My path in all respects, O son of Prtha.” Thus the Lord appears as death for the atheist and as the loving savior for His devotee. And He Himself is beyond any material affinity.
To take revenge for his brother’s death, the mighty daitya Hiranyakasipu vowed to satisfy his brother’s soul with Visnu’s blood. In his quest for immortality and the power to defeat Visnu, he performed humanly impossible penances through which he acquired boons from Lord Brahma, the creator of the universe. Hiranyakasipu thought he could become God by his own austerity and penance. He foolishly concluded that since Lord Visnu was favoring the demigods, He must also be an ordinary conditioned living entity (influenced by partiality and hatred) who became God by austerities. This mentality is characteristic of Mayavadi philosophers, who maintain that every soul is God deluded by maya and that once the illusion is dispelled, the soul once again realizes its identity with God. This theory, however, is unacceptable when we consider the Supreme Personality of Godhead Lord Krishna’s supremacy, as He states in the Bhagavad-gita (9.10):
“This material nature, which is one of My energies, is working under My direction, O son of Kunti, producing all moving and nonmoving beings. Under its rule this manifestation is created and annihilated again and again.” The material energy, maya, is one of the many potencies of the Supreme Lord. Since maya is completely submissive to the Lord, there is no possibility of the Supreme Absolute Lord being overpowered by its influence. The living entities, however, being minute parts of the Lord, can be deluded. The Mayavada theory that after liberation the soul merges with God is refuted in the Bhagavad-gita (15.7, 2.12), where Krishna declares all jiva souls to be His parts eternally, remaining always distinct individuals.
The Mayavadis also assert that the highest conception of God is of the transcendental, impersonal, and all-pervading nirguna-brahma (Absolute Truth devoid of quality, attribute, or form), which assumes a material conditioned body like ours whenever it descends to this world. Thus for the Mayavadis, Lord Visnu or Lord Krishna are saguna-brahma, Brahman with attributes and form, which to them means material illusory entanglement, for they just cannot imagine transcendence with qualities and form.
Frustrated with the suffering caused by the material body, the impersonalist philosophers conceive of transcendence and liberation as free from qualities and attributes. The Lord, however, clearly defies this notion:
avyaktam vyaktim apannam
manyante mam abuddhaya
param bhavam ajananto
manyante mam abuddhaya
param bhavam ajananto
“Unintelligent men, who do not know Me perfectly, think that I, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna, was impersonal before and have now assumed this personality. Due to their small knowledge, they do not know My higher nature, which is imperishable and supreme.” (Bhagavad-gita 7.24) Thus from the Bhagavad-gita we learn that Lord Krishna never worked to achieve Godhood. He is eternally the Supreme Absolute Truth, and the individual souls are eternally His parts.
Nrsimhadeva Kills Hiranyakasipu Just as the Mayavadis maintain the false theory that by enough penance a soul can become God,Hiranyakasipu considered that he could achieve immortal dominance over all and vanquish Lord Visnu with his own prowess. But Prahlada challenged his power.
The arrogant Hiranyakasipu cursed him and inquired, “Where do you obtain the power to defy my supremacy?”
“The source of my strength is Lord Visnu,” replied the fearless Prahlada. “He is the source of everyone’s strength, including yours,”
To hear that his strength was the grace of Visnu, his worst enemy, was the greatest insult for Hiranyakasipu, who challenged Prahlada, “O most unfortunate Prahlada, you have always described an all-pervading supreme controller beyond me. If He is everywhere, then why is He not present before me in this pillar? If he does not appear from this pillar, then today your head will be severed with my sword.”
With these words, Hiranyakasipu struck his fist at the pillar, from which emanated a sound that seemed to crack the covering of the universe. [See sidebar “How Prahlada Knew that Lord Nrsimha Would Protect Him.”]
To prove true the statement of His devotee Prahlada, the Supreme Lord appeared from the pillar in a form never seen before, a form neither man nor lion, the form of Sri Nrsimhadeva.
Though Hiranyakasipu looked like a moth entering a fire when he attacked Lord Nrsimha, he ridiculously thought he would be able to defeat the Lord just as he had conquered all his other enemies. Long before, when his brother had been slain, this same Hiranyakasipu had angrily rushed to the Lord’s residence with a trident. The Lord had then disappeared and entered Hiranyakasipu’s nostril. Unable to find Him, Hiranyakasipu had considered that God was dead.
Now Hiranyakasipu confronted the Lord, who played with him as a cat plays with a mouse. When the sun began to set, Lord Nrsimha lifted Hiranyakasipu onto His lap and dug His nails into Hiranyakasipu’s torso.
The daitya cried out, “Alas, my chest, which is being ripped open by Nrsimhadeva at this moment, is the same chest that broke the tusks of Airavata, Indra’s elephant. It is the same chest that stayed free of scars despite being struck by Lord Siva’s ax.” (Nrsimha Purana 44.30)
Nrsimhadeva ripped open the stonelike chest of Hiranyakasipu with His diamondlike nails. The Lord wore the intestines of the king as His victory garland, and to convince the demigods of Hiranyakasipu’s death, the Lord tore out the daitya’s heart. As another aspect of His divine play, the Lord was suddenly surprised to see that Hiranyakasipu’s body had disappeared. When He shook His hands, however, the torn pieces of Hiranyakasipu’s body fell out of His nails onto the ground. (Nrsimha Purana 44.32–35) From this we understand that Hiranyakasipu was an insignificant insect compared to the transcendental lion Lord Nrsimha. As Jayadeva Gosvami confirms:
tava kara-kamala-vare nakham
kesava dhrta-narahari-rüpa jaya
kesava dhrta-narahari-rüpa jaya
“O Kesava! O Lord of the universe! O Lord Hari, who have assumed the form of half man, half lion! All glories to You! Just as one can easily crush a wasp between one’s fingernails, so in the same way the body of the wasplike demon Hiranyakasipu has been ripped apart by the wonderful pointed nails on Your beautiful lotus hands.”
Lord Nrsimha destroyed Hiranyakasipu without violating the boons granted by Lord Brahma, who had blessed Hiranyakasipu to not be killed:
• inside or outside any residence (the Lord killed him in the doorway)
• during the day or night (the Lord killed him at twilight)
• on the ground or in the sky (the Lord killed him on His own lap)
• by any human being or animal (Lord Nrsimha is half man, half lion)
• by any demigod, demon, or great snake (the Lord is beyond any of these categories)
• by any weapon or any entity, living or nonliving (Lord Nrsimha pierced the daitya with his nails, which are not considered weapons and are neither living nor dead)
Finally, Hiranyakasipu was not to be killed by any living being created by Brahma or not created by Brahma. Hiranyakasipu was cautious to ensure that he would also not be killed by Lord Brahma, Lord Siva, and Lord Visnu, the three presiding deities of the universe (the only three living entities within the universe not created by Brahma). Lord Nrsimha is a lila-avatara, or pastime incarnation of Lord Krishna, and is not of the category of Brahma, Siva, or Visnu, who are the three guna-avataras, or deities in charge of the three modes of material nature.
Hiranyakasipu, the universal tyrant, wished to reverse the system of piety. He wanted the impious to be rewarded and the pious to be punished. Thus upon the death of Hiranyakasipu, all the demigods and inhabitants of various planets offered their prayers to Lord Nrsimha, expressing their gratitude for the Lord’s slaying the daitya, who had usurped all their riches, wives, and shares of sacrificial offerings. Only Prahlada Maharaja, however, could pacify with loving prayers the transcendental wrath of Lord Nrsimha, who is prepared to even appear as half-man, half-lion for the sake of His pure devotees.
Lord Nrsimha was overjoyed upon beholding the firm faith of Prahlada, and He repeatedly requested him to ask for a boon. But the utmost compassionate Prahlada, who was more concerned for the welfare of others, only requested the Lord to liberate his demoniac father. The Supreme Lord guaranteed the liberation of twenty-one generations of Prahlada’s dynasty.
Why Prahlada Became Hiranyakasipu’s Son
Once, th e pow erful Hiranyakasipu ascended the peak of Mount Kailasa, the residence of Lord Siva, and began performing severe austerities. Lord Brahma, administrator of the entire universe, began to think how to stop the daitya, knowing well that Hiranyakasipu would terrify the universe with the power gained from his austerities. Sage Narada assured his worried father, Brahma, that he would distract Hiranyakasipu from his ascetic trance.
Narada and his friend Parvata Muni assumed the form of birds and flew to the place where Hiranyakasipu was rapt in meditation. There they recited the mantra om namo narayanaya three times. On hearing the name of his enemy Narayana, or Visnu, Hiranyakasipu shot an arrow to kill the birds, but the sages flew away.
Distracted from his penance, Hiranyakasipu retired to his palace, where he enjoyed the night with his queen Kayadhu. Kayadhu asked her husband why he had abandoned his resolution to perform austerity for ten thousand years. He informed her of the birds who had disturbed him with the loud chanting of the names of Narayana. As the mighty daitya was intimately enjoying the company of his wife, his semen discharged into her just when he told her of the mantra om namo narayanaya. Thus the holy names of the Lord were recited at the time of Sri Prahlada Maharaja’s conception.From Nrsimha Purana 41.7–34
How Prahlada Knew That Lord Nrsimha Would Protect Him
As on e of th e last efforts to kill Prahlada, Hiranyakasipu ordered his soldiers to tie Prahlada with nagapasa (snake cords) in the dead of night, throw him into the sea, and hurl gigantic boulders to crush him at the sea bottom. When Prahlada was tossed into the ocean, the waves carried him onto the shore, where Lord Visnu’s personal carrier, the mighty eagle Garuda, descended and freed Prahlada from the life-sucking snakes. Then Varuna, lord of the sea, awoke Prahlada with offerings of respect.
Upon regaining consciousness, Prahlada prayed to Varuna, “O Lord of the ocean, you are fortunate to always behold Lord Visnu, who lies on a serpent bed upon your waters. Please instruct me how I may behold Him before my very eyes.”
Varuna replied, “Dear Prahlada, O best of yogis, simply pray to Him in deepest meditation, and the Lord, who is the benefactor of His devotees, will certainly appear before you.”
Then Varuna vanished into the water.
Considering himself ineligible to access the Supreme Lord Visnu, Prahlada sobbed as his heart sank in sorrow, and he fell unconscious. Then Lord Visnu appeared there and lifted Prahlada onto His lap. Awakened by the loving hands of the Lord, Prahlada was filled with fear, surprise, and pleasure upon beholding the Lord, and he fainted in ecstasy. The Lord embraced Prahlada, and when Prahlada regained consciousness, he prostrated himself before the Lord but was unable to offer any prayers.
The Lord lifted him up and said, “O son, give up your fear of My majesty, for no one is more beloved to Me than you. Please ask from Me whatever is dearest to you.”
Prahlada replied, “My Lord, I wish only to sip the nectar of Your divine form, which is rarely seen even by the greatest demigods.”
When the Lord again requested Prahlada to ask a boon, the great saint asked only for exclusive, undeviating devotion to Him.
After blessing Prahlada to acquire anything he desired and enjoy all pleasures, the Lord said, “Do not grieve upon My disappearance, for I will never be separated from your heart. Very soon you will behold me again when, to kill Hiranyakasipu, I appear in the form of Nrsimha, loving to the saints and deadly to the atheists.”From Nrsimha Purana 43.28–85
Nrsimha’s Divine Appearance Day
A chapter in the Padma Purana, Uttara Khanda, describes the glories of Sri Nrsimha Caturdasi, the divine appearance day of Lord Nrsimha. There Lord Siva narrates the following history to his wife, Parvati:
After Lord Nrsimha had slain Hiranyakasipu, Prahlada offered prayers of heartfelt devotion and then inquired from the Lord, “How was I able to achieve this rarest position of pure devotional service unto You?”
Lord Nrsimha replied, “Prahlada, in your past life you were an unworthy son of a brahmana. Disregarding the Vedic scriptures, you were addicted to sinful activities. Simply by observing a complete fast from any food or water on My auspicious appearance day, Sri Nrsimha Caturdasi, you attained pure devotional service unto Me. To anyone who observes this fast, I grant eternal bliss, enjoyment, and liberation.”
Lord Nrsimha is an eternal form of the Lord who appears in different universes at different times to enact His divine pastimes. His Nrsimha Caturdasi, the fourteenth lunar day of the waxing moon of the Madhusüdana month, is thus an eternally divine day on which His devotees abstain from any food or water till dusk to honor the transcendental appearance of the Lord.