The Story of Holī

Living Sanskrit Mythology

Once upon a time, there was a demon-king named Hiraṇyakaśipu. After many years of spiritual practice, Lord Brahmā granted him one wish – anything he wanted. The demon-king wanted immortality, but since that was not possible, he made a clever request. He asked that he not be killed neither in the day nor in the night; neither inside nor outside; not on the ground nor in the sky; not by any weapon; nor by any human being, animal, celestial being, demigod, demon, snake-being, or any other creature in the realms.

Satisfied that this covered all the bases, he returned to his kingdom. Since no one could kill him, he quickly established himself as ruler of all beings. He terrorized the realms and proclaimed himself the greatest being in the world. Some time later, he had a son named Prahlāda, who turned out to be nothing like him.

Prahlāda was a very pure-hearted and sweet child who had tremendous love and devotion for the great lord Viṣṇu, who is the embodiment of dharma and the supreme presence, and the one being his father truly hated. Bhagavān Viṣṇu was the only one truly beyond Hiraṇyakaśipu’s domain – a fact the demon-king was unable to tolerate. He hated that there was anyone else who could make him look small. He could not get past it, was consumed by it.

Bhagavān Viṣṇu, however, was untouched by the demon’s fury. He remained immersed in his usual state of deep joy and freedom.

Lord Viṣṇu

What made matters worse was that no matter how hard Hiraṇyakaśipu tried, Prahlāda refused to accept that he was greater and more powerful than the Lord. Out of anger, he tried starving him, shouting at him, and eventually, torturing him – but the boy would not break.

Fed up with the boy’s disrespect, he decided to murder Prahlāda. Somehow, the child proved immune to every attempt. Prahlāda’s devotion miraculously protected him even when his father sent trained war elephants to trample him, or had his soldiers toss him off a huge cliff.

Finally, the king’s demon-sister Holikā reminded him of a magical power she had, a siddhi, that she had gained through years of austerity and yogic practice. She could not be burned by fire, and so she suggested that she hold young Prahlāda on her lap, and a huge bonfire be lit, and she would squeeze him hard so he would not be able to escape. On the full moon day, they built a huge bonfire, and both the child and his aunt sat down on it. The next morning, they saw Prahlāda scamper out of the ashes without a single mark, and discovered that Holikā had burned instead.

The demon-king, enraged, asked Prahlāda one final time if he still believed that Viṣṇu was the supreme being, and greater and more powerful than him. The boy answered truthfully, “Yes, I do”. Snarling with rage at this response, Hiraṇyakaśipu took his mace and smashed a pillar shouting, “If Viṣṇu is so omnipotent and so omnipresent, is he in this pillar too?!” Prahlāda again said, “Yes, He is everywhere”.

There was a huge sound, and at that moment, out of the pillar emerged an enormous, roaring half-human, half-lion creature – Bhagavān Narasiḿha [nara – man; siṁha – lion].

With a single move, Lord Narasiṁha leapt towards the throne and grabbed Hiraṇyakaśipu. Dragging him to the threshold (neither inside nor outside), he lifted him up to his thighs (neither on earth nor in the sky), and ripped him apart with his bare claws (using no weapons), just as it became twilight (neither day nor night).

Afterwards, Narasiṁha-bhagavān gently blessed Prahlāda, and to everyone’s joy and great relief, had him crowned as the new king. Prahlāda went on to become a dharmic and just leader, and ruled peacefully for many years.


Reflections

Please take a moment now to reflect on this story, and also what stands out for you.

Remember that each of these characters represent aspects of our own inner and outer worlds. Inside of us, the demon-king is our own tyrannical pride and insecurity. His demon-sister is our spiritual pride and delusion – thinking that ordinary rules don’t apply to us because because we are spiritual. Prahlāda is our authentic child-like self – sincere, kind, trusting, and devoted. And Lord Narasiṃha is the fierce grace that will emerge however it has to in order to protect us and liberate us.

There is so much to learn from this story! Holī is the day that Holikā was burned in the fire of her own pride and darkness. On this day, we remember that if we use power or insight we’ve gained from sacred practice in order to violate dharma, it’s only going to backfire back on us. There needs to be purity and alignment in our intentions and actions.

Another teaching from this story is that you cannot use your intellect to try to “outsmart” and manipulate the divine. Both Hiraṇyakaśipu and Holikā tried to get away with violating natural law (taking over all the realms, hurting a child, and trying to cheat death). Instead, the divine took a profoundly unnatural form and destroyed them.

Narasiṁha is an iconic representation of the supreme protector and of divine wrath. There’s no limit to his ferociousness. We can take comfort in knowing that the divine will do whatever it takes to protect us, even if it means bending natural laws. The sacred is not a passive power in this tradition, and it regularly intervenes however it needs to in order to restore balance and consciousness. If we are humble, kind, and aligned with truth, the divine can be experienced as pure love and a refuge. Otherwise, the sacred power can be more terrifying than even a demon!

Happy Holī!