Every year I look forward to the month of May – when the most awe-inspiring, breath-taking Avatar of Lord Krishna appeared: Lord Nrisimhadeva. He is known for protecting devotees, and countless stories, both recent and from bygone ages, bear testament to His extraordinary reciprocations. Of course, He protects us physically from all kinds of danger, but He also protects us spiritually. I remember being struck by a devotee who said that he prays to Lord Nrisimhadeva before doing anything, “Lord, please tear asunder my demon-like pride with Your sharp nails.” He’s there to protect us on our spiritual paths, from fear itself, from illusion, from all our inner demons such as anger, hatred, envy and pride. Who hasn’t struggled with their inner demons? We could certainly do with a little help.
It is no wonder He is prayed to for protection, for the only reason He appeared was to save the devoted five-year-old, Prahlad, from the hands of his cruel father, the Demon King Hiranyakasipu. There is something so endearing when the gigantic, terrifying Nrisimhadeva completely melts and comes under the control of a tiny child!
Because God is purnam, or complete, He is not just the All-Powerful, the Wrathful God the Bible speaks of, but also the sweetest, kindest, most gentle and compassionate person – to one who loves Him. Both the Bible and the Bhagavad-Gita speak of this:
“So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” 1 John 4:16
“I envy no one, nor am I partial to anyone. I am equal to all. But whoever renders service unto Me in devotion is a friend, is in Me, and I am also a friend to him.” BG 9.29
Prahlad, gentle, innocent, and pure, always talked about the mercy of God and was loved by all – except by his father, that is. I guess you could say he was the ultimate abusive dad – he tried to poison Prahlad, to have him thrown under an enraged elephant, pierced by weapons, boiled in oil, left in a pit full of venomous snakes, cursed by spells, and hurled off a cliff, among other imaginative murder scenarios. Why? Because the boy wouldn’t stop talking about Vishnu (the majestic form of Krishna), the sworn enemy of Hiranyakasipu (fun fact: the name translates to “gold and soft bed” in Sanskrit). Having conquered the whole universe due to a boon he received from Brahma, the engineer of the universe, he thought he was now entitled to be God, instead of Vishnu. He actually wanted to be immortal, but since Brahma himself isn’t deathless, he gave something close enough: he would not die by any living being created by Brahma, neither in nor out of a residence, neither by day nor by night, neither on the ground nor in the sky, neither by weapons nor by any creature other than those created by Brahma, neither by a beast nor by a human being, neither by a demon nor a demigod, and neither by a living nor a non-living thing. Sounds pretty fool proof right? Seeing his own son’s devotion for the Enemy drove Hiranyakasipu to his wit’s end. (Vishnu had previously killed his brother Hiranyaksa, a charming fellow who decided to destroy the planet Earth by drowning it – but that’s a story for another time).
When he first asked Prahlad what he had learned in school (like any good father), it wasn’t what he was expecting. “Hearing and chanting the transcendental names of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vishnu, serving Him with love, surrendering everything unto Him…”
“What?! Who has polluted this poor child?!! What have you done to him, you fools - you useless excuses for Brahmanas!” (Again, like most dads would do – blame the teachers.)
After an episode of intense brainwashing by his teachers, Sanda and Amarka, (which backfired dreadfully, by the way - his classmates started happily dancing and chanting the names of God with him), he was presented once again to his father, who was given the same answer. That’s when Hiranyakasipu really lost it and ordered him to be killed. But that backfired too, as Prahlad came out unscathed, undisturbed, and, most of all: more devoted to God than ever. What was it with this boy?
“Where does your power come from, wretched child?!”
“From the same source as your own strength, Father. From the All-Powerful.”
“Oh, your God is it! So, where is He, now that I ready myself to sever your head? Will He protect you?” he yelled maniacally. “If He’s all-pervading, is He in this pillar?!”
Grabbing his sword, he violently struck his fist into the nearest marble column which promptly exploded. The sound is described in Vedic literature as comparable to ‘the cracking of the covering of the universe itself’. And from it emerged the most wondrous creature the world had ever witnessed. Neither man nor lion, His molten-gold eyes blazed with anger, His deadly teeth and nails shone fearfully, His razor-sharp tongue moved like a duelling sword, and His resplendent mane increased the expanse of His awesome face. The hair on His body was the colour of moon beams, and He was decorated with dazzling ornaments. The entire universe shuddered in astonishment and fear of him. Hiranyakasipu was a little taken aback - to say the least - but as a good warrior who had conquered the universe, he proceeded to fight the creature. Lord Nrisimha (literally, Man Lion in Sanskrit) grabbed the King of the Demons like an eagle captures a snake and tore Him apart with His nails. Ouch! After that, scores of demon lords came to avenge their king, and they were all killed in an instance.
Nrisimhadeva was still seething with rage. No one dared approach Him to pacify Him, not even the Devas, the Angels, the great sages, nor even Lakshmi Devi, the Goddess of Fortune. But Brahma had a bright idea (well, he does have four heads, after all) and nudged Prahlad forward to appease the Lord. Seeing the tiny child offering obeisance at His lotus feet, Lord Nrisimhadeva’s anger vanished, and He placed a merciful hand upon his head. As Prahlad offered heartfelt prayers, Lord Nrisimhadeva sat him on his lap and patted him affectionately – He even licked his face! Just as the lioness is very fierce with other animals, but extremely gentle with her cubs, here was Lord Nrisimha, tamed by Prahlad. “My dear Prahlad, you have pleased Me so much by your pure devotion and unwavering love for Me. Please, ask of Me any benediction.” Prahlad did not wish for anything but to be the servant of the Lord. After a bit of coaxing, he only asked that the soul of his now deceased father be purified and liberated. “Unaware of Your beautiful power and mercy, my dear Lord, my father acted in ignorance,” he said. Here we gain a glimpse of Prahlad’s compassion, for let us remember his father had done nothing but torture him. Interestingly, when Prahlad came again to participate in the earthly pastimes of a later incarnation of Krishna’s, Caitanya Mahaprabhu, he prayed:
“My Lord, my heart breaks to see the sufferings of all the conditioned souls; therefore, I request You to transfer the karma of their sinful lives upon my head. My dear Lord, let me suffer perpetually in a hellish condition, accepting all the sinful reactions of all living entities. Please finish their diseased material life.” (Caitanya Caritamrita, Madhya-lila verses 15.162-3) Srila Prabhupada describes that this is the natural feeling of saintly devotees. When one possesses pure love of God, that love manifests itself as compassion toward all other living beings.
Back to our story. The Lord assured Prahlad that a devotee automatically liberates 21 generations of his family, past and future, so Hiranyakasipu would be all right. He also encouraged Prahlad, saying that even within this material world one could be happy - he had simply to chant the Holy Names and he would have nothing to fear from the illusory potency of this material world. A powerful lesson on how to live life in a dangerous world.
Oh, and are you wondering about the boon? Lord Nrisimha indeed abided by it: He killed Hiranyakasipu neither in nor out but at the threshold of the palace, neither by day nor by night but at twilight, neither on the ground nor in the sky but on His lap, not by weapons but by nails, which are neither living nor dead but at the junction between the two. He was half-man half-lion, and He was, of course, not a creature created by Brahma or anyone else, being the Eternal Lord, Creator of All.
Lord Nrisimhadeva’s pastimes did not stop there; in fact, they continue to this day.
Of course, there is the famous story of how He came in a dream to the Muslim Kazi in Lord Caitanya’s time, 500 years ago, warning him not to disturb the congregational chanting of Hare Krishna in the streets of Nadia, as his guards had broken mridanga drums and harassed the devotees the day before. The impression of the Lord’s nails remained on the Kazi’s shoulders after the dream, so he begged forgiveness from Lord Caitanya and assured him that he and his descendants would always protect the Harinam. Today the Kazi’s tomb still exists and is visited as a holy place.
There are countless stories to tell, but one of my favourite is about a five-year-old girl in South Africa. It even appeared in the local newspapers, and several people became devotees of Lord Nrisimhadeva as a result. Shyama-Gopal Prabhu recounts:
She was the daughter of a simple family of devotees, and a great ‘fan’ of Nrisimhadeva, whom she found attractive and amusing as He was half-man and half-lion. She would often tell her classmates about Him.
One day, as she was playing with her friends, the ball rolled to the middle of the street, so she ran to get it. It was a country road which was usually quiet, but this time a huge truck came speeding down and she did not see it. Her father, who was watching from the first floor, shouted to her but she didn’t hear him, so he jumped down and broke both his legs. He watched helplessly as his baby girl was hit by the truck and thrown into the air, 20 meters away. All the children and neighbours felt their blood freeze at the sight. The father later said his only desire when he saw this was to die.
From the other direction came a police car that also witnessed the accident. The policeman managed to stop the truck by parking in front of it and found the driver to be very drunk. He immediately called the ambulance and ran over to the motionless girl lying in the grass. The closest hospital was a small private clinic. The ambulance came, but refused to take the girl, being afraid they wouldn’t have the necessary devices and machines to treat the
injuries she must have had, such as a broken spine. Instead, they advised him to call the main hospital, as only they could help her. He was in despair, not even knowing where the girl’s father was, or if she was even still alive, as he didn’t dare to touch her, not knowing how injured she was.
Finally, she was brought to the right hospital and her father and the policeman were present as well. The doctor quickly had x-rays taken. Everyone was shocked to hear the horrific accident that had happened. But when the nurse brought the x-ray pictures to the doctor, he became very upset and started yelling that she should for-God’s-sake bring the right pictures, this was about life and death! He threatened to fire her, as it was unacceptable to make such mistakes. The nurse was scared and didn’t understand what was happening. Those were the pictures of the five-year-old girl. The doctor said that this could not be, as the x-ray did not show a single broken bone. “Impossible!” he muttered over and over again.
Then suddenly the girl awoke from her faint and told a story in full consciousness.
In the moment she picked up the ball from the street, she saw the truck coming up to her. The only thing she could do was to yell out for help. She didn’t call for mum or dad, but for her Nrisimhadeva. In the instant the truck should have hit her, she suddenly saw Nrisimhadeva pick her up from the ground, smile at her, and say, “Don’t be afraid, nothing will happen to you.” He then put her on the other side of the street into the grass. But when putting her down, He accidentally scratched her waist, which still hurt her a bit.
She spoke about how beautiful Nrisimhadeva was, His hair, His eyes, and so on. But His claws were very sharp, “He should cut His nails!” she said. He wore a golden cloth, etc... The doctor didn’t understand anything and told the policeman she still was in shock and hallucinated, which is normal.
She was thoroughly checked, but the only injury they found on her body were those scratches and the doctor said this must be from a wild animal like a lion, as he had cases like this before. So, he was disturbed and asked if they had brought the right girl to hospital, as this one was injured by a wild animal, not a truck. Nobody was clear about what had happened. The same doctor and the nurse who took care of her later became devotees, as they later learned from the parents who “that lion” was.
As we can see miracles still happen today. Not only in the Mahabharata, Puranas or shastras that are more than thousands of years old. The little girl was very attracted to this form of God, and in her despair, she called Him for help. Lord Nrsimhadeva did not look if she was initiated and had the right to call His name. He protects His devotees that sincerely worship Him in their hearts.