Lesson 2: The Story of Prahlāda

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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 very clever request.

He asked that he 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 completely consumed by it.

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

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, physically 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.  So she made a clever plan.  She would invite young Prahlāda to come sit affectionately on her lap, and once he did, she would squeeze him tightly so he could not escape.  At that moment, the guards could light a huge bonfire, and the boy would finally die.  

On the night of the full moon, everything went according to plan.  Prahlāda innocently climbed up to snuggle with his aunt, and immediately the guards lit a huge bonfire.  It was so big that it blazed through the night.  

The next morning, to their great surprise, Prahlāda scampered out of the ashes without a single mark, and they discovered that Holikā had burned instead.

The demon-king, now fully 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 absolutely enormous, roaring half-human, half-lion creature – Bhagavān Narasiṁha [nara – man; siṁha – lion].

He was not man nor beast – he was like no creature which had ever existed in all the realms.

In a single movement, 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).

All the beings in all the realms rejoiced that they were finally free. But the Lord’s entire attention was directed to one little boy who had suffered tremendously. His loving gaze enveloped Prahlada, who kneeled in front of the Lord with sweetness and humility.

Narasiṁha-bhagavān embraced the boy with incredible tenderness, 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.

Reflection Practice:

Exercise 1: Please take a moment now to reflect on this story, and note what stands out for you or any insights you have received.  You may want to write about it or discuss with a friend.

Exercise 2: Remember that in mythology, each of these characters represent aspects of our own inner and outer worlds.  All of these characters exist within us and also in collective human consciousness.  

For example, you might see the demon-king as our 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 and magical grace that will emerge however it has to in order to protect us and liberate us.

Accordingly, consider that each character is actually an aspect of you and their actions are your actions. Here are some questions you can ask yourself: 

  • What part of me is humble and trusting? 
  • What part of me is greedy and prideful, and seeking to win no matter the cost? 
  • What part of me is willing to use my spiritual power or wisdom to hurt others? 
  • What form has divine wrath taken in my life, and within me?  
  • What part of me is threatened by my love for the divine?
  • Where am I resisting aligning my personal will with divine will?  
  • Where am I trying to outsmart the laws of nature?
  • How has my goodness and sincere trust protected me? 

Additional Reflections and Insights:

There is so much to learn from this story! As discussed in Lesson 1, 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!

What else has this story taught you?  And what new choices does it inspire you to make as a result?  We invite you to share in the comments below!

Teacher: Shivani Hawkins

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