Narasimha Jayanti

Narasimha and Laxmi
On Narasimha Jayanti, we remember the birth of Narasimha, a manifestation of Vishnu. It is a time for reflecting on the nature of Vishnu, which is beyond time, beyond space, beyond existence - but also for understanding the nature of understanding.  Sometimes, it takes no special learning to understand truth - only some willingness to reason things out.

Can you tell a friend from an enemy?  Can you understand how to make peace?  What justice requires?  How to help and defending those in need?  Do you know what is good to eat - and good for you?  Understanding what sustains us (what we "eat" - not just our plate, but our livelihood), and whether what we "eat" is *disagreeing* with us, can be difficult - but is possible by taking some time to think things through.

Narasimha is a protector (not a defender), and we consider whether we can better protect ourselves from harm - so that we need not defend ourselves later. Though we would be a good friend to ourselves, or at least not an enemy, we sometimes are the greatest cause of our own distress. And we sometimes hurt those we love and care about, with hard words - or worse. Such unintentional (or intentional) harm can and must stop through a practice of Ahimsa. How do you control your anger?

Narasimha lives in the gates of the Temple, neither in nor out - waiting, stalking us, hiding in every wall and unseen interior surface. Within us, too - waiting to come out and set things right. Are there things which you see that are wrong, and you are doing nothing about - even though you might easily, or should?

There are a lot of reflections and meditations that can be made on the rich imagery of Narasimha - but it is important to know the story. Stories are tools for reflection and meditation, the means for understanding complex and abstract concepts - but the wisest will reflect on their reflection in the story. What does this story remind you of, and lead to you think - and why?

The story of Narasimha

In the Vishnu Purana 1.11 - 1.14, and elsewhere, the story is told of Hiranyakashipu, who received a gift from Brahma after devoted yogic study, practice and service. The gift he requested was eternal life, but Brahma said that because even Brahma would not live forever, this could not be given. So, instead, Hiranyakashipu asked that he will not be killed either by a man or a beast nor any kind of being at all, neither will he be killed indoors or outdoors and nor during day or night, not in his home or away from his home, not by any weapon, not on the ground nor in the ocean, and not in any way that his dead body (or even a drop of his blood) would fall to the ground. This Brahma willingly gave.

What Hiranyakashipu then did was go to war against his enemies, the gods. Because of Brahma's gift, none of the gods could stop him - he conquered the devaloka, and enslaved the gods: even Surya, Vayu, Agni, Varun, Chandrama, Kuber - even Yama was overcome. With the gods overthrown, Hiranyakashipu quickly conquered every other world. But what he did not understand, despite his studies, was that Vishnu was not a god and he thought that Vishnu was a god, and his enemy. He commanded that Vishnu no longer be worshiped.

But his eldest son, Prahlad, though only a child did understand better. He tried to explain to his father that Vishnu was not his enemy. He said to his father this, and his father summoned all the child's teachers - demanding who had disobeyed him to teach Prahlad Vishnu was not his enemy. All the teachers denied teaching him this, and the boy vouched for them - he explained that he had figured out for himself that Vishnu was not his enemy.

The boy said, Vishnu is beyond form, beyond existence, and is therefore in every heart. Even within his own, and his father's. This greatly upset Hiranyakashipu. But his son continued to insist, Vishnu was everywhere, and at all times. His father grew angry, and asked if Vishnu was the king of every world? The boy explained, that since his father was the king of every world, so was Vishnu. His father was utterly confused, "you're babbling!" he told his son.

But Prahlad continued to insist that Vishnu was everywhere, and at all times. His father commanded him to stop saying this. "But it's true!" complained the child. Hiranyakashipu commanded that anyone who said this would be put to death, and told the boy's teachers to make sure that when the boy returned before him again that he knew better. Months passed. But the boy refused to accept what his teachers told him, for he understood that Vishnu was not his enemy, and was everywhere and at all times. At last, Hiranyakashipu called his son before him again, and asked him what he knew about Vishnu. The boy said, "though whoever says so will be put to death, it is nevertheless true that Vishnu is not our enemy, and is everywhere at all times."

"I shall prove to you that Vishnu is not everywhere and at all times, and is not your friend," said Hiranyakashipu. He ordered his bodyguards to attack the child. But the child merely said, "Vishnu is in me, and in your swords, and in you. I will not be hurt by Vishnu because Vishnu is not my enemy." The child expertly dodged every blow aimed at him. Eventually, the bodyguards had to give up. Hiranyakashipu praised the martial skill of his boy, "you have learned your lessons well, and ably dodge weapons! I would pardon your life, if you will only stop praising my enemy." But the boy remained determined, "I am not praising your enemy: Vishnu is not your enemy. And in understanding Vishnu is everywhere and at all times, I have no fear of death."

Hiranyakashipu then had his son thrown into a pit of poisonous snakes. But as he was brought to the edge, the boy said, "Vishnu is in me and in the snakes, I will not be hurt by Vishnu because Vishnu is not my enemy." And, laying still among the snakes, utterly without fear, he was not bit. Hiranyakashipu had his son taken out of the pit. "You are very courageous! I would pardon your life, if you will only stop praising my enemy." Again, the boy defied his father. But now, there were whispers heard that the boy was superior to his father in courage and martial skill - would his father have conquered every world if it had not been for the gift of Brahma?

Now Hiranyakashipu feared his son as a threat to his throne. To demonstrate his dominance, he caused elephants to stampede toward the boy - but the boy remained still, and was not harmed - for he understood Vishnu was in the elephants, and Vishnu was not his enemy. "You may have the gift of Brahma, but I have knowledge of Vishnu," he told his father. "Vishnu is not your enemy. And neither am I." Now, the boy's teachers begged Hiranyakashipu to stop trying to kill his son, to give them one more chance to re-educate the child. This mercy was granted, and the boy was saved - until the next time he was called before his father, the King.

But at the school, Prahlad began to teach his teachers. " Every living being is born, suffers during life, and dies. Yet every being easily mistakes hunger, thirst, cold, and heat for pleasure and pain. The more luxury one collects, the more one's sorrow increases. Attachment and desire are the cause for sorrow. And even after all this sorrow, after the agony of life and death, there is no end to the distress - like an ocean which one cannot drown by, but sinks deeper and deeper into. But sure as all that is born must die, all that ends must begin again."

Prahlad said to his fellow students at the school, "Do not be confused by my youth. I may have the form of a boy, but I have eternally existed. There is no time, no place, no growth, no becoming, no ending for Me. Yet in taking such form, there is a lot of misconceptions - a boy would rather play than be contemplative. In youth, lust and carnal pleasure attract his mind. Spiritual matters are postponed until old age - but then, the mind and body are already weak - and gained nothing by his play and pleasure. The wise person realizes that this form is transitory, and understand what he has to do now. Understand right now that Vishnu is everywhere, and at all times - and you may understand your duty also exists beyond time and space." The children were convinced, and soon taught their teachers, too.

News of this came to Hiranyakashipu, who ordered his cook to poison Prahlad. But Prahlad, for some reason or another, did not die. This frightened the cook, who then became a student of Prahlad.

The teachers were then ordered to kill Prahlad. But they decided to try to save Prahlad one more time. "It is not good to be disobedient to your father, or to violate the law." But when Prahlad explained that Vishnu was not his father's enemy, it was neither crime nor disobedient to praise Vishnu. And a child has a duty to protect his father from making an enemy unnecessarily, to insist upon the truth - this truth had been proven many times now. Some of the teachers fled, rather than kill the boy, disappearing beyond the worlds. Those who remained saw his father's command through: they ordered the executioner, Kritya, to kill the boy. She struck the boy with her trident, but it shattered, and the fragments killed those teachers who had ordered the execution.

Prahlad was very sad at having none of his teachers. Speaking to Vishnu, he asked that they all be brought back to him from death, from beyond the worlds. Vishnu restored all of Prahlad's teachers, and encouraged them to instead direct their efforts at re-educating Hiranyakashipu.

Hiranyakashipu began to suspect his son had developed magical powers - and refused to believe his proofs that Vishnu was not his enemy. He had his son thrown from a roof, he had his magician try to kill Prahlad - only to see the Sudarshan Chakra, the weapon of Vishnu, defend Prahlad. In desperation, Hiranyakashipu ordered the gods to try to kill Prahlad. But none of the gods could - even Vayu (wind) could not dry him. Once more, the teachers prevailed upon Hiranyakashipu to forgive his son, if only temporarily - maybe after he finished his education, he would understand things better?

Years passed. Prahlad did finish his education, and was called before his father. "Son, tell me what you learned about diplomacy." Prahlad said, "My teachers have taught me in many different subjects, including diplomacy - I have learned them all with heart. I learned that diplomatic policies should be applied to train friendship. But, excuse me, father, but as I see no difference between friend or enemy, it is my opinion these lessons were irrelevant. What is the use, when Vishnu is everywhere, and at all times? In you, in me, and all beings. Instead of seeking personal gain out of diplomacy, one should instead seek the benefit of all. It is by making our environment and those we share it with stronger that we are strengthened. Everyone longs for a throne and a big kingdom - but such power can only be retained through justice. There is no defense for the unjust, for those who do not perform their duty, and make an enemy of Vishnu."

Hiranyakashipu then kicked Prahlad and ordered him tied and thrown into the ocean from the devaloka. But when Prahlad was thrown into the sea from the devaloka, he displaced so much water with his impact that his binds broke and he stood on dry land, and was able to rush to the mountains to escape the returning water. Hiranyakashipu ordered things thrown in the path of Prahlad, to try to trip him, so he couldn't escape. But, of course, these piled up and Prahlad climbed on top of them to escape the returning water.

Vishnu appeared at the top, and said "Prahlad! I am so pleased with you, and your devotion. Ask any gift." Prahlad did not have to think twice, "May I always be a servant to your duty, may I always be so devoted to you, may I always remember you in my heart." Vishnu said he could not give this, because Prahlad already would always be his servant, and always devoted to him, and always remember him. "Ask anything else." Prahlad thought, and said, "may my father learn better wisdom." Vishnu said, "Prahlad, you already know he will learn better, in Time. Ask something else." Prahlad then thought harder. "But I don't want anything else!" said Prahlad. "I'd have to ask you now to suggest what I should ask for!"

In time, Hiranyakashipu decided to kill Prahlad himself. At dusk, he tied Prahlad to a pillar at the gate of his palace, and shouted abusively for Vishnu to prove Prahlad right. Where was Vishnu? His sword would strike Prahlad, not Vishnu - but he wished it would strike Vishnu! He swung his sword at Prahlad's head, but Prahlad ducked - and the sword struck the pillar. The pillar cracked and broke with the force - and began to appear like Vishnu - it became Vishnu, in the Narasima manifestation! Half human, half lion!

Narasimha grabbed hold of Hiranyakashipu's sword. Then Narasimha grabbed hold of Hiranyakashipu. Right then, at dusk (not day or night), at the gates of his home (not inside or out, not at home or away), Narasimha (not man nor beast nor any kind of being at all) lifted Hiranyakashipu off the ground (not on the ground nor in the ocean), and squatting, laying him across his knees, tore him with his sharp claws (not a weapon) and devoured him (not even one drop of blood fell to the ground). Vishnu, being everywhere at all times, in every form, cannot be stopped.

Prahlad ascended to the throne, and ruled justly.

But Narasimha, having eaten someone so hateful and fearful, became fearful and hateful himself. You could say, his meal had *disagreed* with him. He began to rage and threatened to destroy all the worlds. No one could calm him down - or even get near to him! Laxmi said to Shiva, if she could only get near him, she might calm him down. Shiva then assumed the form of a half-lion half-bird, and carried Narasimha high into the sky. Then he dropped Narasima - not to kill him (nothing could), but the fall did scare Narasimha so much that he passed out. Laxmi rushed to Narasimha, and when Narasimha woke, he recognized his love, his wife. She sang gently to Vishnu, and kept him calm while Shiva tore off the lion's skin, and the form of Narasimha, freeing Vishnu from the fear and hate. In gratitude, Vishnu gave to Shiva the skin, which Shiva now uses as a blanket to sit on - or for some warmth against the cold.