In the Cycle of Incarnations of Vishnu ascending, as he does, from the lowest and
less complicated forms of life to the amphibians to wild animals and then higher
mammals till he finally reaches the stage of Man, one of the interesting pit stops
is the Narasimha Avatar, neither man nor lion but a curious amalgamation of both,
with all the virtues and almost none of the drawbacks of each species. It is interesting
also because Narasimha was the first avatar form that began to be seriously worshipped
and indeed continues to be worshipped even today, especially in the state
of Andhra Pradesh. The cult seems to be enjoying a resurgence of sorts, just three
hundred meters from where I stay in Pune city there is a temple of Vishnu come up
in the last year where the man lion is one of the primary deities. Narasimha is
fundamentally a God of Strength and Energy that is being prayed to - a militant
combative form of Vishnu, quite in contradistinction to his usually benign and serene
The Narasimha Avatar is a direct consequence of the Varaha Avatar slaying the demon
Hiranyaksha. (For details see our article on the
Varaha Avatar.) His brother Hiranyakashipu was filled with bitterness
and a smoldering desire for revenge. Not willing to make his brother's mistake and
challenge Vishnu head on, he realized that Power is a consequence of storing up
merit acquired by practicing austerities, Tapasya. This is the standard belief of
Indian myth. The corollary to this belief is the fact that Power is, therefore,
available to anybody who is willing to pay the price to gain it. Hiranyakashipu,
therefore, set out on a course of tapasya that had never been attempted before by
any living being in all the worlds of creation. One of the advantages of
being an asura/demon is that you have willpower and endurance and an ability to
see a task through. His accumulated Power began to strain the interstices of creation,
so gigantic had it become. There was no go for the gods and as usual they sent Brahma
the Creator to buy them some time.
When Brahma offered the asura boons so that he would forsake his austerities, he
set a high price upon compliance. At first he wanted immortality, but it was refused
on the grounds that all created beings have to come to an end. Then he demanded
that he not die or be defeated unless certain impossible conditions were fulfilled.
He was not to be slain by day or night, by weapons or missiles, neither indoor not
outdoors, not on the earth or in the sky, by man nor beast. Since the possibility
of all these were remote, he was justified in considering that he had managed to
gain a good deal. He also had the Power that accrues to all those who practice tapasya.
Fortified with this new strength he launched into a universe conquering campaign
and drove the gods out of heaven, and proclaimed he was the New Lord of the Universe.
All worship of the old gods was to cease immediately.
Most people complied with this new order, the gods were in hiding or taken into
slavery, and Hiranyakashipu was always watching, always suspicious. His son however,
only eight years old, Prahalada by name, proved to be an unexpected surprise. Prahalada
blandly declared that what his father was doing was wrong and anyway, Vishnu was
Keshava, Lord of the Universe, not his father. Sheer shock seems to have
paralyzed the demon king for a while, the situation was unprecedented and unthinkable,
a demon devotee of Vishnu. He finally was goaded into action, because the joke was
too delightful to stay within palace walls and the universe was laughing maliciously
at this turn of events. His sister Holika was immune to fire, so she tried to burn
the young boy up. Unfortunately for her, the conflagration consumed her while the
power of Vishnu's name protected Prahalada.
The desperate demon king tried every method of dispatching this impossible boy.
He sent snakes, wild elephants, assassins, poisons, enchanters and necromancers,
judicious shoves off cliffs, cast into the sea with rocks tied on, becoming wilder
and wilder as the boy's survival mocked him. Finally, in despair he asked the young
lad what the secret of his power was. Prahalada answered that it was the indwelling
Vishnu who saved him each time, Vishnu, 'He-who-pervades', and is in every pore
of creation. This panegyric was too much for the king to bear, and he threatened
to kill the boy himself with his Power. This was a serious threat indeed. The maddened
asura demanded to see proof that Vishnu did indeed pervade everything; if he did
not find him inside the pillar next to them, he would kill the boy. He had finally
overreached himself in his hubris and the pillar burst open to reveal a weird creature
advancing upon him. It was a bright mass of light with the head and paws of a lion
and the body of a man, and his roars shook all creation. At that moment, Hiranyakashipu
knew that the Trickster god had outsmarted him.
For this form was neither man nor beast; and it was also the twilight hour, when
it was not day but not night either. Seizing the bewildered king, the angry Narasimha
dragged him to the threshold of the house, so he was neither indoors nor outdoors.
Then he spread-eagled him upon his lap so that he was neither in the air nor the
sky and then, keeping to the letter of imperviousness to weapons, but finding the
escape clause anyway, the great Trickster tore him apart with his claws. When he
calmed down after this bloody episode, he appointed Prahalada the New King of the
Demons, and got the gods back the heaven they had lost. Illustrative of the many
ways in which myth impacts the real life of people even today is an odd social custom
- consequent to this myth - that has persisted for thousand of years down to the
present day. No orthodox Hindu will cut their nails at twilight in respectful memory
of the great action of Narasimha.
It is noteworthy that this is the most popular version of the story, but by no means
the only version. In the famous ninth century Shiva temple at Ambarnath, there is
a panel carving depicting this episode, and Narasimha is clearly using a large dagger
to tear apart the demon king. So it would seem that the legalistic immunity he acquired
was a later addition to the tales, perhaps he just got some boon of overwhelming
power which was broken by Vishnu. Also it is strange to note that in the very oldest
texts, Prahalada is actually a famous enemy of Vishnu, or of Indra. The story that
we have told in the Vamana Avatar was once applied to Prahalada, not to his grandson
Mahabali. It is instructive that the texts state Prahalada was brought down because
"he was too wise and generous, excess in anything is not good". This is
amazingly similar to the Greek point of view - moderation in all things - Oedipus
being punished precisely because he has an excess of wisdom, enough to overcome
even the supernatural power of the Sphinx. As India became more sentimental and
devotional, such a harsh lesson, no matter how psychologically true, was no longer
acceptable, and Prahalada was transformed into the greatest devotee of Vishnu.