Hindu Mythology, Vedic and Puranic, by W.J. Wilkins, , at sacred-texts.com
In the account of the preceding incarnation, it was stated that Vishnu, ere he raised the earth on his tusk, slew a demon named Hiranyāksha. This daitya had a
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THE NRISINGHA AVATĀRA.
brother named Hiranyakasipu, who, the "Vāyu Purāna" says, had obtained a boon from Brahmā, that he should not be slain by any created being; the "Kūrma Purāna" adds, excepting Vishnu. When therefore his pride,
fostered by his supposed immunity from danger, had led him to great excesses, so that his death was desired both by gods and men, Vishnu descended in the form of a living being, half-man and half-lion, and so neither man nor animal, and slew him. By the assumption of this form the letter of Brahmā's promise was kept. The story of the demon's hatred of the deity, because in a former incarnation he had slain his brother, is a most interesting one. And as it teaches the wonderful efficacy of Vishnu's worship, it is given at some length. It is taken mostly from the "Vishnu Purāna." *
"Hiranyakasipu, the son of Diti, had formerly brought the three worlds under his authority, confiding in a boon bestowed upon him by Brahmā,. He had usurped the sovereignty of Indra, and exercised himself the functions of the sun, of air, of the lord of waters, of fire, and of the moon. He himself was the god of riches; he was the judge of the dead; and he appropriated to himself without reserve all that was offered in sacrifice to the gods. The deities, therefore, flying from their seats in heaven, wandered, through fear of the daitya, upon the earth, disguised in mortal shapes. Having conquered the three worlds, he was inflated with pride, and, eulogized by the Gandharvas, enjoyed whatever he desired."
This demon had a son named Prahlāda, who was a very devout worshipper of Vishnu, whom his father hated most intensely. "On one occasion Prahlāda came, accompanied by his teacher, to the court of his father, and bowed himself before his feet as he was drinking. Hiranyakasipu desired his prostrate son to rise, and said to him, 'Repeat in substance and agreeably what during the period of your studies you have acquired.' Prahlāda said, 'I have learned to admire him who is without
beginning, middle, or end, increase or diminution; the imperishable lord of the world, the universal cause of causes.' On hearing these words, the sovereign of the daityas, his eyes red with wrath and his lips swollen with indignation, turned to the preceptor of his son, and said, 'Vile Brāhman! what is this preposterous commendation of my foe that, in disrespect to me, you have taught this boy to utter?' 'Phe preceptor denies the charge, and Prahlāda himself replies, 'Vishnu is the instructor of the whole world; what else should any one learn or teach, save him, the supreme spirit? ' 'Blockhead!' exclaimed the king, 'who is this Vishnu, whose name you thus reiterate so impertinently before me, who am the sovereign of the three worlds?' 'The glory of Vishnu,' replied Prahlāda, 'is to be meditated upon by the devout; it cannot be described; he is the supreme lord, who is all things, and from whom all things proceed.' The king threatens death; but the son says, 'Vishnu is the creator and protector not of me alone, but of all human beings, and even, father, of you.' The father can bear this no longer, so orders his son to return to his preceptor's house.
"Prahlāda is taken away, but after a time is sent for again. When requested to recite some poetry, he commenced to sing the praises of Vishnu, which so exasperated the king, that he cried out, 'Kill the wretch! He is not fit to live who is a traitor to his friends, a burning brand to his own race.' Upon this the attendants rushed upon Prahlāda with their weapons, and, though hundreds struck him, none could injure him. His father then entreated him to desist from praising Vishnu; but this the son would not do, as he said he bad no fear, as long as his immortal guardian against all dangers was present in his mind.'
"Hiranyakasipu, highly exasperated, commanded the serpents to fall upon his disobedient and insane son, and bite him to death. The serpents did their worst, but Prahlāda felt them not. The snakes cried out to the king, 'Our fangs are broken; our jewelled crests are burst; there is fever in our hoods, and fear in our hearts; but the skin of the youth is still unscathed. Have recourse, O king of the daityas? to some other expedient.'
"The young prince" (by his father's orders) "was then assailed by the elephants of the skies, as vast as mountain peaks; cast down upon the earth, and trampled on and gored by their tusks; but he continued to meditate on Govinda, and the tusks of the elephants were blunted against his breast.
"Failing in this, the king said, 'Let fire consume him; and do thou, deity of the winds, blow up the fire, that this wicked wretch may be consumed.' And the dānavas piled a mighty heap of wood around the prince, and kindled a fire to burn him, as their master had commanded. But Prahlāda cried, 'Father, this fire, though blown by the winds, burneth me not; and all around I behold the face of the skies, cool and fragrant with beds of lotus flowers.'
"The Brāhmans now interceded with the king on the prince's behalf, promising either to teach him to recant his errors, or to find some means of accomplishing his death; but instead of profiting by their instructions, he spends his time in speaking to all about him of the glory of Vishnu and the happiness of his worshippers. They informed the king of their failure to bring the prince to a right state of mind; whereupon the cooks are ordered to mix poison with his food. But this expedient was futile, as the others had been. The
[paragraph continues] Brāhmans now reason with him, and try to show him that it is the chief duty of a son to honour his father; but their sophistry is unsuccessful. They remind him that they had promised to use incantations to accomplish his death. This menace he meets with these words: 'What living creature slays or is slain? What living creature preserves or is preserved? Each is his own destroyer or preserver as he follows evil or good.' Enraged by this reply, they now produce a magical female figure, enwreathed in a flame of fire, whose tread parched the earth, and who struck Prahlāda upon the breast. Her blow fell harmless upon him; but turning towards the Brāhmans, she slew them all, and disappeared. In answer to the prince's prayer, they were, however, restored to life, and, having blessed Prahlāda, departed and told the king all that had happened.
"Having sent for his son, Hiranyakasipu inquired again, by what magical art he was able thus to protect himself. Prahlāda said that it was not by magic at all, but simply by the indwelling of Vishnu that he was able to ward off evil; and further that the same power was within the reach of all who would trust him. The king, enraged at this avowal, commanded his attendants to cast his son from the summit of the palace where he was sitting, and which was many yojans in height, upon the tops of the mountains, where his body would be dashed to pieces against the rocks. Accordingly the daityas hurled the boy down, but as he fell cherishing Hari in his heart, Earth, the nurse of all creatures, received him gently in her lap, thus entirely devoted to Kesava, the protector of the world."
Hiranyakasipu, seeing that this fall had not injured his son in any way, asks Samvara, the mightiest of enchanters, to try his hand; but though he puts forth
all his skill, the boy remains unhurt. After this, the prince goes again to his preceptor's house, where he is instructed in politics. When his education in this science was completed, he is taken to the king for examination; but on being questioned as to his mode of government, he admits that though he has been instructed in these subjects, he does not approve of what his teachers had said, and again sings the praises of Vishnu. His father, "burning with rage, exclaimed, Bind him with strong bands and cast him into the ocean. Death is the just retribution of the disobedient.' The daityas bound the prince with strong bands, as their lord had commanded, and threw him into the sea. As he floated on the waters, the ocean was convulsed throughout its whole extent, and rose in mighty indulations, threatening to submerge the earth. When Hiranyakasipu observed this, he commanded the daityas to hurl rocks into the sea, and pile them closely on one another, burying beneath their incumbent mass him whom fire could not burn. . . . 'Here, since he cannot die, let him live for thousands of years at the bottom of the ocean, overwhelmed by mountains.' This was done. But Prahlāda was uninjured. His mind was filled with thoughts of Hari, and he came to recognize his real identity with Vishnu. As soon as Prahlāda, through the force of contemplation, had become one with Vishnu, the bands with which he was bound burst instantly asunder. Prahlāda, after hymning the praises of Vishnu, again returns to his father, who no sooner saw him, than he kissed him on the forehead, embraced him, and shed tears, and said, 'Dost thou live, my son?'"
For a time there was complete reconciliation between them. And only in a very cursory manner does the
[paragraph continues] "Vishnu Purāna" allude to the death of Hiranyakasipu. After speaking of the reconciliation between the father and son, without any intimation of further dispute, it goes on to say: "After his father had been put to death by Vishnu in the form of the man-lion, Prahlāda became the sovereign of the daityas." In the Bhāgavat we are told that Prahlāda had said that Vishnu was in him, in his father; in fact, was everywhere. "Hiranyakasipu says, 'Why, if Vishnu is everywhere, is he not visible in this pillar?' Being told that Vishnu, though unseen, was really present there, he struck the pillar, saying, Then I will kill him.' Immediately Vishnu, in the form of a being half-man and half-lion, came forth from the pillar, laid hold of Hiranyakasipu by the thighs with his teeth, and tore him up the middle. Brahmā's boon to this daitya king, as a reward of his religious observances, was that no common animal should destroy him, that he should die neither in the day nor night, in earth or in heaven, by fire, by water, or by the sword. This promise was kept in the letter, for it was evening when Vishnu slew him; this is neither day nor night. It was done under the droppings of the thatch, and this, according to a Hindu proverb, is out of the earth, and he was not killed by a man or an ordinary animal." *
150:* Page 126 ff.