A fundamental belief in Hinduism is that God descends to earth to take birth as human or other forms whenever the good and piety suffer and the evil ones have an upper hand. God protects the good, destroys the evil and restores Dharma (righteousness). Such a person is known as an Avatar.
In Hinduism, Lord Vishnu is the “God who protects”. He is attributed with taking 10 such avatars. They are Matsya, Varaha, Koorma, Vamana, Narasimha, Rama, Parasurama, Krishna, Balarama and Kalki.
Narasimha is one ferocious avatar of Vishnu, who came out of a pillar at the behest of his earnest devotee, Prahlada, in the form of human (“nara”) with the head of a lion (“Singa”) to destroy the demon king Hiranya.
The mythological story associated with Narasimha Avatar is one of the favorite bed-time stories (originating from Srimad Bhagavata, a holy mythlogical book) told to Hindu children by grand mothers and parents from time immemorial. It is a highly captivating story containing lots of morals: How unbridled power corrupts human beings, how even wicked men can at times get the grace of God by their sheer power of penance, how egotism and indiscriminate usage of power can lead to destruction, how a child should develop love (“Bhakti”) for God, how unflinching faith in the benevolent power of God can come to the rescue of a devotee at times of distress, how God destroys evil and re-establishes righteousness at the appropriate time and so on.
Here is the brief story of Narasimha Avatar:
Hiranya Kachipu is a demon (“Asura”) king, who hated lord Vishnu. He did a severe penance to seek divine powers from Lord Brahma (The lord of creation). When Brahma appeared before him, having been pleased with his penance, Hiranya asked for a boon that he should never face death. God said that such a boon is impossible to give since anything subject to creation is subject to death; Hiranya was however given the option of choosing the ways by which he could not die.
Hiranya thought about it well and then finally requested for the boon by which he shall not be killed by an animal or a human being, not by any weapons or poison, not on account of aging, not in day time or nighttime, not inside a house or outside of it, neither on earth nor on skies. He also wanted powers to be the sole lordship over all the living entities and celestial gods, and give him all the glories obtained by that position. Brahma granted the boon and vanished.
During the time Hiranya was away undergoing penance, his detractors (Devas – celestial beings) attacked his palace; Saint Narada saved his wife (who was pregnant at that time) and gave shelter to her in his hut. Saint Narada used to preach the glories of Lord Vishnu to the pregnant lady. The foetus in her womb grew up hearing all the glories of lord Vishnu and right from the birth, the baby boy, named Prahlada became an ardent devotee of Vishnu.
Returning successfully after his penance, Hiranya took charge of his wife and child from Narada and returned to his Palace. Now Hiranya, by virtue of the boons he had obtained, began to terrorize all the three worlds (the heaven, the earth and the lower world) and brought all the rulers under his subjugation. He declared himself to be the sole God of the universe and dictated that no hymns of praise should ever be sung on lord Vishnu and not even the name of Narayana (Vishnu’s other popular name) be ever uttered. Many saints and sages who worshiped Vishnu were put to death. Hiranya’s rule over the universe was atrocious marked by terror, unlawfulness and arrogance. People in all the three worlds lived in constant fear and suffered unendingly under his rule.
In the meanwhile, Prahlada grew up to a young boy, ready for being sent to school. At the school, as per the dictum of Hiranya, the teachers instructed Prahlada to worship Hiranya, his father as the supreme lord. Prahlada flatly refused stating that Lord Narayana was indeed the sole lord of the universe and none other than Him is fit for worship as God. Prahlada, by his magnetic charm, even influenced the fellow students to sing the glories of Lord Narayana. The teachers, highly got inconvenienced by Prahlada, had to bring to the notice of Hiranya about the adamant stance of the boy.
Prahlada singing the glory of Sriman Narayana (Film” Bhakta Prahlad”)
Hiranya got highly infuriated by his own son’s defiance against him; he tried to reason with his son that Narayana was a hapless and non-existent God and that Hiranya himself was the unconquerable lord of the universe. Having failed miserably in his endeavors, the highly agitated Hiranya ordered death sentence to his own son. His ministers took one step after another to kill Prahlada – by not feeding him with food, by throwing him from the high hills, by making him drink poison, by drowning him at the sea and by throwing him over fire. But the totally unruffled Prahlada would pray Lord Narayana earnestly to save him and each time he came out unscathed from the jaws of death.
Crest fallen and baffled by their unsuccessful efforts, the ministers brought Prahlada back to the king. Appalled by the turn of events, Hiranya challenged his son to show him Lord Vishnu. “Where is that treacherous Hari?” he demanded to know. Prahlada said coolly that Hari (Lord Vishnu) was everywhere – he was residing in the pillar as well as in the smallest twig.
Pointing a pillar in the palace, Hiranya asked: “Is your Hari inside this?”.
“Why not?” replied Prahlada.
Hiranya took his massive mace and hit the pillar powerfully. The pillar split into two and out of it came Narasimha – Lord Vishnu with the face of a lion and human body. The massive and ferocious look of the lord startled Hiranya.
It was evening – the sun was about to set (neither day nor night). Narasimha (neither an animal nor a man) grabbed and lifted Hiranya, carried him to the entrance of the place and sat right at the entrance (neither inside nor outside). He placed Hiranya on his lap (neither on earth nor on skies) and using his sharp finger nails (not by any weapon), Narasima pierced and tore the body of Hiranya and killed him instantly.
Thus came the end of the atrocious rule of Hiranya. All the three worlds were freed of subjugation by the demon king. All celestial gods assembled there and showered praise on the Lord Narasimha. Prahlada was made the King and his unparalleled devotion and faith in Lord Vishnu became the hallmark of Bhakti for all the future generations to come.
Lord Narasimha is worshiped in several temples and shrines all over India. Narasima is hailed as the protector of the meek and punisher of the evil.
Ahobilam, a hilly holy place in Andhra pradesh state (in south India) is considered to be the place where the avatar of Narasimha is said to have taken place. There exists a massive pillar rock high at the hills, which is said to be the pillar from which Lord Narasimha came out. Several holy shrines of Narasima are spotted across the lengths and breadths of Ahobilam in difficult-to-access hilly terrain. Ardent devotees visit these holy shrines by trekking and offer their worship in these multiple shrines.
Narasimha emanating from pillar to slain Hiranya. (Film: Bhakta Prahlada)