Selfless and Seamless Devotion: Lessons from the Life and Character of Prahlada

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Devotional service rendered to God with a materially unmotivated heart and with unwavering regularity completely satisfies the self.

Achieving anything in life requires focus and determination. If our efforts and attitudes are consistent, we can achieve our intended goals easily and quickly. But if our motives are impure and our endeavors distracted, our success is hampered. In spiritual life, pure intentions and consistent focus on the prescribed practices are of vital importance. The timeless scripture Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.2.6) emphasizes this principle:

sa vai pumsam paro dharmo
yato bhaktir adhokshaje
ahaituky apratihata
yayatma suprasidati

“The supreme occupation [dharma] for all humanity is that by which men can attain to loving devotional service unto the transcendent Lord. Such devotional service must be unmotivated and uninterrupted to completely satisfy the self.”

Bhakti, or pure devotional service unto the Supreme Lord Krishna or Vishnu, is described to be ahaituki and apratihata. Ahaituki means not to have any selfish agendas behind one’s spiritual practice. Apratihata means not to have any interruptions or irregularities in the practice. Advancement and satisfaction in bhakti depend on the purity of our intent and consistency of our attempt.

In this world, our devotion to God is often obstructed by obstacles of various types. When reversals come, spiritual seekers strive to remain focused in their devotion by deriving inspiration from exemplary devotees. A wonderful example of such causeless and ceaseless devotion to God is seen in the life of a young devotee named Prahlada, whose story is told in Srimad-Bhagavatam.

Transmission That Transcends All Barriers

Prahlada was the son of a great demoniac king named Hiranyakashipu. When Prahlada was in the womb of his mother, Kayadhu, Hiranyakashipu went to perform austerities to get boons from Lord Brahma, the creator of the universe. In his absence, the demigods attacked the demons and arrested Kayadhu to kill her child after his birth. But Narada Muni stopped the demigods and sheltered pregnant Kayadhu in his own hermitage.

Narada Muni then taught Kayadhu the principles of spiritual life and the glories of devotional service unto the Supreme Lord Vishnu. But Kayadhu could not hear those teachings attentively, as she was anxious about her husband’s return and her child’s well-being. However, Prahlada, who was still within Kayadhu’s womb, heard those divine instructions very eagerly, and that hearing resulted in his unflinching devotion to Lord Vishnu.

In a communication system, when the transmitter of a signal is potent and the receiver is perfectly tuned to the signal, the transmission of data takes place very effectively. Similarly, in spiritual communication, when the guru is an advanced devotee of Krishna and the disciple is eager to receive knowledge and inspiration from the guru, the transmission of bhakti takes place effectively. Because of Prahlada’s spiritual eagerness, being in his mother’s womb with undeveloped senses was no barrier for him to receive the knowledge of bhakti from Narada Muni.

Age, Caste, and Company Are No Bar

Hiranyakashipu’s austerities were so extreme that Lord Brahma descended from his planet and told Hiranyakashipu to ask for a boon. Hiranyakashipu asked Lord Brahma to grant him immortality.

When Brahma replied that he didn’t have the power to do so, Hiranyakashipu asked him to grant him the boons of not meeting death from any living entity created by Brahma, inside or outside a house, during the day or night, on the ground or in the sky, by any weapon, human, animal, demigod, snake, and so on. Obliged, Brahma granted those rare boons. Confident that he had attained immortality by these boons, Hiranyakashipu became very proud. Out of his hatred for Vishnu and falsely thinking himself to be the supreme controller, he stopped the worship of Vishnu in his kingdom and tormented Vishnu’s devotees in various ways.

Although Prahlada was the son of this envious demon, Prahlada himself had no demoniac tendencies or attachment to his father’s extensive property and influence. His heart was filled with love for Lord Vishnu, and as a result, the so-called privileges and pleasures of this mortal world seemed trivial to him.

Little Prahlada, hardly five years old, was sent to the school where the children of demons studied politics and diplomacy under the materialistic teachers Sanda and Amarka. Prahlada never liked those teachings and was steadfast in the teachings of bhakti-yoga given by Narada Muni.

Prahlada’s birth in a demoniac family, his tender age, and the company of those who hated Lord Vishnu didn’t affect his devotion to Vishnu. When our internal consciousness is focused on our beloved objective, external obstacles cannot hamper our success. Though the external atmosphere is surcharged with nondevotional vibrations, a determined devotee’s inner atmosphere is saturated with love for God.

Generally, we are influenced by the people around us. But if we are determined and prayerful, we can transcend the influence of negative association and achieve our higher goals. Prahlada, through his constant absorption in Lord Vishnu, effortlessly overcame every crisis.

Fearlessness in Facing Confrontations

Hiranyakashipu once tested Prahlada’s knowledge by asking him to repeat what he had learned from his teachers. Ignoring the topics taught by his materialistic teachers, Prahlada fearlessly repeated the essence of the teachings of Narada Muni, his real teacher. He instructed his powerful father that worshiping Lord Vishnu is in the best interest of every human being.

shri-prahrada uvacha
shravanam kirtanam vishnoh
smaranam pada-sevanam
archanam vandanam dasyam
sakhyam atma-nivedanam

iti pumsarpita vishnau
bhaktish chen nava-lakshana
kriyeta bhagavaty addha
tan manye ‘dhitam uttamam

“Hearing and chanting about the transcendental holy name, form, qualities, paraphernalia and pastimes of Lord Vishnu, remembering them, serving the lotus feet of the Lord, offering the Lord respectful worship with sixteen types of paraphernalia, offering prayers to the Lord, becoming His servant, considering the Lord one’s best friend, and surrendering everything unto Him (in other words, serving Him with the body, mind and words) – these nine processes are accepted as pure devotional service. One who has dedicated his life to the service of Krishna through these nine methods should be understood to be the most learned person, for he has acquired complete knowledge.” (Bhagavatam 7.5.23–24) Prahlada fearlessly explained to his father that the materialistic way of life entangles one in this world but service to the devotees of Krishna or Vishnu frees one from material contamination and elevates one to the spiritual platform.

Even when his teachers, Sanda and Amarka, chastised Prahlada, he didn’t budge from his determination in bhakti. He fearlessly spoke the truth, which was against their philosophy of discriminating between people as friends and enemies. He said that every living being is a part of God and is His servant, and thus we are all one in quality.

Facing a fierce demon and boldly confronting his conceptions is not possible for an ordinary person. A tender child generally fears chastisement and punishment by a strict elder, but Prahlada boldly opposed the demoniac philosophy of his teachers and Hiranyakashipu, while simultaneously being humble and respectful to them. Fearlessness and humility are natural symptoms of surrender to God.

Even Deadly Dangers Do Not Matter

Enraged at Prahlada’s staunch devotion to Lord Vishnu, hardhearted Hiranyakashipu tried to kill Prahlada. But Hiranyakashipu couldn’t kill him by throwing him under the feet of big elephants, throwing him among poisonous snakes, employing destructive spells, hurling him from the top of a hill, conjuring up illusory tricks, imprisoning him, poisoning him, starving him, exposing him to severe cold, wind, fire, and water, and throwing heavy stones to crush him.

Throughout these extreme abuses and mistreatments, Prahlada’s faith in Lord Vishnu and His protection didn’t diminish even slightly. Further, he absolutely had no bitter feelings towards Hiranyakashipu, who tormented him in many ways. A devotee is ajata-shatru: he is never hateful of anyone, even those who hate him.

Developing faith in God’s protection is very rare. Even after attaining some faith, we are tested by the inevitable calamities of this world and may become disturbed. Ordinary people lose faith in God’s protection or blame God for their difficulties. Srila Prabhupada writes, “In case of benefit, no one will deny that it is God-sent, but in case of loss or reverses one becomes doubtful about how the Lord could be so unkind to His devotee as to put him in great difficulty.” (Bhagavatam 1.17.22, Purport)

Advanced devotees like Prahlada accept even reversals as God’s blessings. Srila Prabhupada writes, “A devotee’s conclusion is that no one is directly responsible for being a benefactor or mischief-monger without the sanction of the Lord; therefore, he does not consider anyone to be directly responsible for such action. But in both the cases, he takes it for granted that either benefit or loss is God-sent, and thus it is His grace.” (Bhagavatam 1.17.22, Purport)

Divine Teachings in the Demons’ Arena

The attempts to kill Prahlada having failed, he was sent to school again. When his classmates called him to play in the absence of their teachers, Prahlada spoke to them in sweet words about the futility of material life.

Prahlada told them that we shouldn’t waste the rare and valuable human life for sense gratification and get entangled in materialistic family affairs. Human beings should perfect their lives by worshiping the infallible Supreme Lord with bhakti right from childhood. Nothing is unobtainable when Lord Vishnu is satisfied. The pure spirit soul gets entangled due to material intelligence. Bhakti, or devotion to Lord Vishnu, is the best path to disentangle the soul from material existence. Thus Prahlada urged his classmates to take to vishnu-bhakti.

Prahlada’s gentle demeanor attracted all his schoolmates, who were not very much contaminated by their materialistic surroundings. They loved Prahlada’s teachings and rejected the instructions of Sanda and Amarka. Just as Narada Muni’s pure teachings had inspired Prahlada although he was within his mother’s womb, Prahlada’s pure teachings inspired his schoolmates although they were mere children and the sons of demons. Inspiration in bhakti flows effectively when the hearts of both the proponent and the recipient are pure.

After All, It’s the Power of God

Sanda and Amarka reported to Hiranyakashipu about Prahlada’s activities in school, and Hiranyakashipu became furious. Perplexed about how his five-year-old boy could be so fearless, Hiranyakashipu asked Prahlada, “My son Prahlada, you rascal, you know that when I am angry all the planets of the three worlds tremble, along with their chief rulers. By whose power has a rascal like you become so impudent that you appear fearless and overstep my power to rule you?” (Bhagavatam 7.8.6)

Prahlada replied that the source of his strength was also the source of Hiranyakashipu’s. That source – Lord Vishnu – is the original source of all kinds of strength for every single being.

An advanced devotee is convinced that every living being is ultimately dependent on the Supreme Lord’s power. Without the Lord’s sanction, not a blade of grass moves.

When we love someone, we feel that person’s presence always and everywhere. A devotee who is in love with the omniscient Godhead sees Him everywhere at all times. On the other hand, an atheistic person devoid of love of God cannot see Him anywhere and doesn’t believe in His existence. Although having no qualification to see God, such a person challenges the devotees to show God.

Hiranyakshipu threatened to kill Prahlada and challengingly asked him if his God was present in a pillar in the assembly hall. Knowing the all-pervading nature of the all-powerful Supreme Lord, Prahlada firmly said, “Yes!” Hiranyakashipu struck the pillar in rage. To prove true the declaration of His devotee Prahlada that God is all-pervading, the Supreme Lord Vishnu appeared from the pillar in an unprecedented form as Nrisimhadeva, half man and half lion.

After enjoying fighting for some time, Lord Nrisimhadeva placed Hiranyakashipu on His lap and killed him at sunset, in the doorway, merely with His nails. Although He is not obliged to do so, the Supreme Lord Nrisimhadeva respected the benedictions that Brahma had given to Hiranyakashipu. The demigods celebrated the Lord’s victory and arrived on the scene to offer prayers to Lord Nrisimhadeva.

Accomplished but Not Arrogant

None of the demigods’ prayers could pacify the angry Lord Nrisimhadeva, however, and even Lakshmi Devi, the Lord’s eternal consort, was afraid to approach Him. Then Lord Brahma requested Prahlada to pacify Nrisimhadeva.

Although Prahlada was chosen to pacify the Lord when all the great demigods and sages had failed to do so, he didn’t feel superior to them. A humble Vaishnava who is fully qualified to serve the Lord still thinks himself extremely low. He is never falsely proud of his qualifications. Prahlada prepared himself to offer prayers to the best of his ability, for his own purification.

In his heartfelt prayers, Prahlada showed his deep humility, devotion, eagerness for shelter, fear of conditioned life, compassion for the fallen souls, knowledge of the Godhead’s unlimited opulence, and gratitude towards his guru, Narada Muni, who had taught him bhakti. In his prayers, Prahlada indirectly indicated and directly declared that bhakti is the ultimate refuge and that material opulences are futile.

manye dhanabhijana-rupa-tapah-shrutaujas-
tejah-prabhava-bala-paurusha-buddhi-yogah
naradhanaya hi bhavanti parasya pumso
bhaktya tutosha bhagavan gaja-yutha-paya

Prahlada Maharaja said: “One may possess wealth, an aristocratic family, beauty, austerity, education, sensory expertise, luster, influence, physical strength, diligence, intelligence, and mystic yogic power, but I think that even by all these qualifications one cannot satisfy the Supreme Personality of Godhead. However, one can satisfy the Lord simply by devotional service. Gajendra did this, and thus the Lord was satisfied with him.” (Bhagavatam 7.9.9)

It’s Not a Business Transaction

Lord Nrisimhadeva was very pleased with Prahlada’s prayers and told him to ask for any benediction he wanted. Considering material benedictions to be impediments in bhakti-yoga, Prahlada asked Nrisimhadeva not to tempt him with boons. He told Him that he wasn’t a selfish merchant, trading his devotional service for some material benefit.

Prahlada said, “A servant who desires material profits from his master is certainly not a qualified servant or pure devotee. Similarly, a master who bestows benedictions upon his servant because of a desire to maintain a prestigious position as master is also not a pure master. O my Lord, I am Your unmotivated servant, and You are my eternal master. There is no need of our being anything other than master and servant. You are naturally my master, and I am naturally Your servant. We have no other relationship. O my Lord, best of the givers of benediction, if You at all want to bestow a desirable benediction upon me, then I pray from Your Lordship that within the core of my heart there be no material desires.” (Bhagavatam 7.10.5–7)

Prahlada then requested the Lord to excuse his father, and the Lord said that Hiranyakashipu had been purified along with twenty-one generations of his ancestors.

Thus Prahlada serves as an unparalleled ideal example of selfless and seamless devotion unto Lord Vishnu. By the mercy of Narada Muni, Prahlada received the seed of bhakti, and by performing bhakti without motivations and interruptions, he became exalted, experiencing the bliss of bhakti within himself at every moment.

Progress in bhakti depends on the intent and intensity of one’s practice. One who performs bhakti with selfish motivations and undue interruptions cannot experience the intended pleasure of the heart. Both a candle and a 2000-watt bulb can light a dark room. But the dim candle flame illuminates a corner of the room, while the bulb illuminates the entire room. Similarly, if one’s practice of bhakti is weak and wavering like the dim flame of a candle, one cannot derive the full pleasure that bhakti can offer. On the other hand, if one’s performance of bhakti is as powerful as a 2000-watt bulb, one experiences the full bliss of bhakti. Therefore, seeking inspiration from the character of little Prahlada, let us take our baby steps to intensify our absorption in the practice of devotional service.

About the Author: 

Gauranga Darshana Dasa

Gauranga Darshana Dasa, a disciple of His Holiness Radhanath Swami, is dean of the Bhaktivedanta Vidyapitha at ISKCON Govardhan Eco Village (GEV), outside Mumbai. He has written study guides, including, Bhagavata Subodhini, and Chaitanya Subodhini, and teaches Bhagavatam courses at several places in India. He also oversees the deity worship at GEV.